Dialectics of Labour: Chapter 3 – Communism

Dialectics of Labour: Marx and his Relation to Hegel
by C. J. Arthur
first published, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986
PART ONE: Marx’s Theory of Alienation

Chapter 3 – Communism


We have seen that Marx puts productive activity at the centre of his ontology. Man produces himself in and through this mediator; he develops new powers and new needs in the dialectic of this practice. Under the rule of private property this whole development takes place under the guise of estrangement. So, far from gaining confidence in himself and enjoying himself in his object and his activity, the producer cannot identify himself in the world he has made, his labour is the activity of alienation. It is in this light that Marx reinterprets communism. For him it is no narrowly political and juridical adjustment of existing powers and privileges. It has fundamental ontological significance as the gateway to the reappropriation by the community of the human essence, the recovery of a human meaning to production, consumption and society. This chapter is concerned with exploring Marx’s concept of communism, as it is outlined at the beginning of the third manuscript.

Marx begins with the objective power of private property over the immediate producer. His investigation discloses that this alien power is the product of labour itself in its alienation. Abolition of estrangement requires the abolition of private property. But it is important to understand that Marx does not adopt a purely negative attitude to property and that he attributes a positive meaning to his call for the supersession of the private property system. A mere ‘abstract negation’ of private property would mean, he says, the negation ‘of culture and civilization, the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor, crude man without needs, who has not only failed to go beyond private property, but has not even reached it’. [1]

Marx believes that there are good reasons why the private property system was a historically necessary stage in the development of wealth. It took the pressure of capital to awaken the slumbering powers of humanity and promote ‘general industriousness’. Although this means that human productive power has taken the shape of estrangement, Marx clearly distinguishes the ontological necessity of objectification from the historical fact that it presently constitutes a world of estrangement founded on alienated labour. Overcoming estrangement through communism means the reappropriation of the ‘ontological essence’ of humanity which has constituted itself ‘through developed industry, that is, through the mediation of private property’, objectively as an external alien power. [2] This means that there is something positive in property, disguised by its alien form as the power of capital, namely the wealth of human self-development. Marx says: ‘The meaning of private property, freed from its estrangement, is the existence of essential objects for man, both as objects of enjoyment and of activity’. [3] Previous communist doctrine, he claims, had not ‘grasped the positive essence of private property’. [4] It is not a question for Marx of annulling private property and all its works, then, but of taking possession of the immensely powerful modern productive forces by society for the satisfaction on this basis of rich human needs.

Stages of Communism

When Marx considers the communist movement thrown up in opposition to the rule of the propertied classes, he distinguishes various stages in its development. The only two he treats at any length are (a) crude egalitarian communism and (b) ‘communism as the positive supersession of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the actual appropriation of the human essence . . . ‘. [5]

The first stage, ‘raw communism’ (‘der rohe Kommunismus‘) is based on ‘envy’ of the propertied rather than any critical understanding of the essence of the property relationship. Its programme involves a levelling down and an attempt to impose equality through the negation of individual differences of any kind: [6] ‘the category of worker is not done away with but extended to all men; the relationship of private property persists as the relationship of the community to the world of things.’ [7] Equal wages are to be paid out by the community as a kind of ‘abstract capitalist’. [8] Property is therefore not so much transcended as universalized. An expression of the ‘vileness of private property trying to set itself up as the positive community system’ [9] is the counterposing to marriage (‘certainly a form of exclusive private property’) of ‘the community of women, where the woman becomes a piece of communal and common property’. [10] This leads Marx to the following reflections: ‘The relation of man to woman reveals the extent to which need has become human need; the extent to which, therefore, the other, as human, has become a need, the extent to which in his individual existence he is at the same time a communal being.’ It follows that ‘from this relationship one can therefore judge the whole level of development of mankind’. [11] This statement of Marx’s is often cited nowadays, but it is by no means original to him. Fourier argued strongly that ‘the progress women make towards freedom . . . is the general principle of all social progress’. [12] In fact, Marx was reading Fourier at the time and cites a similar passage from the latter’s work:

The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by women’s progress towards freedom, because, here, in the relationship of woman to man, of the weak to the strong, the victory of human nature over brutality is most evident. The degree of emancipation of women is the natural measure of general emancipation. [13]

Communism in its true form may be contrasted with crude equalitarianism by its attitude to private property. The ‘abstract negation’ of private property, mentioned above, treats it as ‘the enemy’, a malevolent power disrupting human fraternity and setting men at odds with each other. Grasped as the contradiction of alienated labour with itself, private property requires a determinate negation which preserves in some form the human wealth created in its history. This ‘negation of the negation’ takes us forwards not backwards. As Marx puts it, very generally:

Communism is the positive supersession of private property as human self-estrangement, and hence the true appropriation of the human essence through and for man; it is the complete restoration of man to himself . . . which takes place within the entire wealth of previous periods of development. [14]

It is obvious, Marx points out, that communism understood in a historical light does not amount to a revulsion from the achievements of the epoch of private property, ‘an impoverished regression to primitive simplicity’, as he puts it, [15] but the reappropriation of mankind’s historically developed essential powers through the destruction of the estranged character of this reified world in which they are embodied. In contrast to this picture of communism as a result immanent in history, crude communist ideology seeks an empirical proof for itself in isolated examples of cooperation torn from their historical context. As Marx observes, ‘all it succeeds in showing is that by far the greater part of this development contradicts its assertions and that if it (communism) did once exist then the very fact that it existed in the past refutes its claim to essential being {Wesen}’. [16] Marx is confident that communist revolution is the outcome of the movement of private property itself; it is ‘the riddle of history solved’, [17] he says. However, this does not mean it has the status of an ‘Absolute’ in his philosophy. At the end of this section he equates ‘the position’ of communism with ‘the negation of the negation’; in so far as private property – the negation of human freedom – must itself be negated, this is a ‘real phase’, necessary to the liberation and recovery of mankind. But this is not the whole story. Note Marx’s conclusion: ‘Communism is the necessary shape and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism itself is not as such the goal of human development – the shape of human society.’ [18]

Complete failure to understand this dialectic is exhibited in the identification by certain commentators of ‘communism as such’ with equalitarian communisms discussed earlier in Marx’s chapter. [19] But those are ideological stages in the development of communist ideas, whereas here we are speaking of a ‘real phase’. [20] By ‘communism as such’ Marx clearly understands ‘communism as the opposite of private property’. The communist movement develops in opposition to private property. Thus, in some sense it is even the creation of the movement of private property. But in a higher phase of development socialism stands on its own feet so to speak and ‘no longer needs such mediation’. [21]

Marx illustrates the point with the example of atheism. This is a peculiar kind of humanism because it depends for its sense on first of all positing what it denies. It asserts the autonomy of man, only through the negation of god. First man is negated through being reduced to a creature of god; but then the negation of the negation reasserts the essentiality of man. This humanism is thoroughly infected by the opposite through which it developed its position. This is very clear in the Sartrean man who says to himself: ‘God is dead; I am abandoned; I am alone; there is no commandment; I must take complete responsibility for my destiny.’ This kind of consciousness is that of the man who first believed in god and then lost his faith. It is quite different from a humanism that never knew god in the first plate and hence could never feel lost without him!

In the same way socialism as ‘positive humanism’ stands on the ground of the essential relations of man to himself and to nature. It does not require to be perpetually mediated through its understanding of itself as the opposite of private property, although this is a historically necessary stage. Marx says that ‘atheism is humanism mediated with itself through the supersession of religion, whilst communism is humanism mediated with itself through the supersession of private property’. He continues: ‘only through the supersession of this mediation – which itself, however, is a necessary premise – does positive humanism come into being’. [22]

If ‘communism as such’ is not the goal, what then is the aim of human development? Erich Fromm has the merit of addressing this question: ‘Quite clearly the aim of socialism is man’, he says, ‘it is to creates a form of production and an organization of society . . . in which he can return to himself and grasp the world with his own powers, thus becoming one with the world.’ [23] Fromm’s answer is not far off the mark, as the following passage from Marx’s Grundrisse (1857-78) shows:

The old view, where man, in spite of his various limitations . . ., still appears as the aim of production, seems very superior to the modern world where production appears as the aim of man and wealth as the aim of production. In fact, however, when the narrow bourgeois form has been cast off, what is wealth other than the universality of needs, capacities and enjoyments, productive forces, etc. of individuals . . .? The full development of human mastery over natural forces, those of his own nature as well as those of socalled ‘Nature’? The absolute working out of his creative dispositions, without any presupposition other than previous historical development . . .? Where he does not produce himself in any determined form, but produces his totality? Seeks not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming? [24]

Marx’s Standpoint

Let us try to identify the various levels of discussion of the problem of alienation as we have clarified them. Then we can explain Marx’s standpoint with regard to the possibility of overcoming alienation.

If private property appears as the immediate cause of estrangement, two qualifications are necessary: (a) ontologically, productive activity is basic; private property is a second-order mediation socially relating activity, especially by specifying labourers and non-labourers; (b) in the movement of private property itself it comes to posit its essence as labour, the conditioned becomes the condition, and its reproduction depends on its other. Correspondingly, we can distinguish two levels of alienation; (a) the state of estrangement signified by the imposition on activity, and its object, of the determinations of private property, namely labour and capital; (b) the process of alienation whereby this labour reproduces private property, that is, its object as capital and itself as alienated labour. Finally, there are two levels of necessity for the overthrow of private property: (a) abstractly, there is the need to restore man to himself subsequent to the supersession of the system of estrangement; (b) concretely, there is the process whereby capital in its own development leaves the proletariat with no other option than to take the struggle against alienation to its conclusion through identifying the problem as capital, itself the product, expression and mediation of alienated labour.

The demonstration in Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts of the necessary relationship of proletarian politics to the dialectics of alienation is sufficient to refute those interpretations which see in this work only a general human predicament and project, to be contrasted with Marx’s later stress on class war. At the same time, it must be emphasized that this does not mean that only the liberation of the proletariat is at stake, nor that only they are victims of estrangement. [25]

I have said little so far about the capitalist because I wanted to stress the impersonal character of ‘the movement of private property’, but of course Marx knows that the alienation of labour ‘creates the relation to it of the capitalist, or whatever one chooses to call the lord of labour’. [26] With regard to the latter, Marx makes the interesting observation that ‘everything which appears in the worker as an activity of alienation, of estrangement, appears in the non-worker as a state of alienation, of estrangement’. [27] Unfortunately, the first manuscript breaks off at this point. The idea later turns up in Marx’s first draft of Capital Volume One. The capitalist is defined as the personification of capital, his rule over the worker ‘is the rule of things over man, of dead labour over the living, of the product over the producer’. This ‘inversion of subject and object’ is ‘the alienation {Entfremdung} of man from his own labour’. The capitalist finds his satisfaction in this alienation, it seems, because he accomplishes his purpose of appropriating surplus value. But Marx characterizes this as ‘a highly impoverished and abstract content’ of his activity ‘which makes it plain that the capitalist is just as enslaved by the relationships of capitalism as is his opposite pole, the worker, albeit in quite a different manner’. [28]

To return to the 1844 Manuscripts: others before Marx had observed social antagonisms and pointed to the problem of alienation; what marks his solution is the new standpoint adopted with regard to the supersession of these problems. As Mészáros says: ‘If there is an ultimately “irreducible” element in a philosophical discourse, it is the philosopher’s “prise de position” to the supersession of the contradictions he perceives’. [29]

As is obvious by now, the touchstone is ‘labour‘ – but in what sense? In spite of his praise of Hess, Marx has already gone (as he will more decisively go in the German Ideology) beyond the standpoint of ‘true socialism’, the standpoint of ‘Man’ rather than the proletarian struggle. (Hess, in the review mentioned earlier, objected vigorously to Stein’s identification of socialism with the proletariat.) Instead of opposing capitalist estrangement, including ‘labour’, in the name of an ideal human society, Marx grasps socialism as a result immanent in the present contradiction between labour and capital. He takes the standpoint of labour, but not in the sense that classical political economy does when it makes labour its positive principle, identifying it with productive activity as such; nor in the sense that Proudhon and other egalitarians take the standpoint of labour as against capital when they demand such things as equal wages, in effect thereby staying within the determinations of private property; [30] Marx works from a critically adopted standpoint of labour. [31] This grasps the contradictions of private property as alienated labour’s contradiction with itself, grasps the significance of alienating objectification and thus the meaning of ‘the positive supersession of private property’, and grasps labour as ‘the negative’, ‘dissolved and self-dissolving private property’, hence superseding itself towards ‘the abolition of labour’.

Only Marx’s position, taking man and his labour as the basis, can envisage as a practical task the overcoming of alienation. Some communists conceive of the transition to socialism as an externally structured ‘final crisis’ of an economic character where the working-class and its struggle is put in a secondary place. With others, as the obverse face of this, transition is the result of ‘intervention’ by individuals or self-proclaimed vanguards, who are mysteriously exempt from the one-dimensionality of capitalism’s social consciousness. Marx himself grasps the dialectical process of self-alienation and reappropriation in the movement of living labour as the basis for a self-transcending historical practice.


The ‘positive essence of private property’ is its embodiment of the objectification of human productive activity. Communism is hence given the significance of a ‘positive supersession of private property’, that is, the reappropriation of the human essence presently estranged in it.

Hence communism is ‘the riddle of history solved’, but it is not as such ‘the goal’ because its position is that of ‘the negation of the negation‘, still determined by its opposite.

Marx’s investigation of the private property system discloses that the estrangement of the worker from the object and the product of his activity is the presupposition and the result of alienated labour. Hence Marx takes the critically adopted standpoint of labour in conceptualizing the supersession of estrangement.

1 Werke Eb., 535; C.W.3, 295; E.W., 346.

2 Werke Eb., 563; C.W.3, 322; E.W., 375.

3 Ibid. Kostas Axelos, in Alienation, Praxis and Techné in the Thought of Karl Marx (1961), London, 1976, objects that Marx’s project does not ‘get beyond the horizon of appropriation’ to ‘play’ (p. 278)

4 Werke Eb., 536; C.W.3, 296; E.W., 348.

5 Ibid.

6 Lloyd Easton and Kurt Guddat in the introduction to their translation of the 1844 Mss (Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, Garden City, NY, 1967) are quite wrong to give Proudhon and Fourier as Man’s examples (p. 18). These names occur is his discussion under a distinctly different heading. It is a particularly gross libel on Fourier to associate him with ‘crude communism’, as Marx would have known. To what is the reference then? The editors of C.W.3 (p. 602) draw our attention to Engels’ remarks on the French secret societies in his 1843 article ‘Progress of social reform on the Continent’ (see C.W.3, 396-7). Robert C. Tucker, in Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx, Cambridge, 1961, suggests (pp. 154-5) that the source for Marx’s characterization was Lorenz von Stein who coined the phrase ‘raw commnnism’ in his treatise Der Sozialismus uod Kommunismus des heutigen Frankreichs (Leipzig, 1842).

7 Werke Eb., 534; C.W.3, 294, E.W., 346.

8 Werke Eb., 521, 534; C.W.3, 280, 294; E.W., 333, 347.

9 Werke Eb., 536; C.W.3, 296; E.W., 347.

10 Werke Eb., 534; C.W.3, 294; E.W., 346.

11 Werke Eb., 535; C.W.3, 296; E.W., 347.

12 Fourier (1808) Oeuvres Complètes, Paris, 1966-8, Tome 1, pp. 130-3.

13 Marx mentions Fourier on the same page as he discusses ‘community of women’; but this (unreferenced) quotation from Fourier on women is used by Marx in The Holy Family, written later in the year 1844 in collaboration with Engels and published in 1845 (see C.W.4, 196).

14 Werke Eb., 536; C.W.3, 296; E.W., 348.

15 Werke Eb., 583; C.W.3, 342; E.W., 395.

16 Werke Eb., 536; C.W.3, 297; E.W., 348.

17 Ibid.

18 Werke Eb., 546; C.W.3, 306; E.W., 358.

19 For example: T.I. Oizerman. The Making of Marxist Philosophy (1977), Moscow, 1981, p. 246.

20 A solemn attempt to read ‘crude communism’ as a ‘real phase’, with truly bizarre results, is to be found in Tucker, Philosophy and Myth, pp. 154-6. Shlomo Avineri in The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Cambridge, 1968. pp. 223ff, also takes ‘crude communism’ an a stage of future society and equates it with ‘the first phase of communist society’ of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) (in M.E.S.W.).

21 Werke Eb., 544-6; C.W.3, 304-6; E.W., 356-7.

22 Werke Eb., 583; C.W.3, 341-2.

23 Erich Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man, New York, 1971, pp. 58-9.

24 New MEGA, 11, 1.2, 392; Grundrisse, trans. M. Nicolaus, Harmondsworth, 1973, p. 488.

25 Werke Eb., 521; C.W.3, 280.

26 Werke Eb., 520; C.W.3, 279.

27 Werke Eb., 522; C.W.3, 282.

28 ‘Results of the immediate process of production’, Ms. 466-7; C.1 (Penguin), Appendix, p. 990.

29 Istvan Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation, London, 1970, p. 17.

30 When Proudhon demands ‘equal possessions’ he fails to transcend the estranged character of the object; he ‘abolishes economic estrangement within economic estrangement’, says Marx in The Holy Family, (C.W.4, 43).

31 As Mészáros observes, p. 64. His Marx’s Theory of Alienation is the best on the subject.