Dialectics of Labour: Introduction

by C. J. Arthur
first published, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986


In V.I. Lenin’s little article ‘The three sources and three component parts of Marxism’ the said sources are identified as ‘German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism’.[1] There is widespread agreement that this is indeed the case.[2] But what is the thread that links these disparate intellectual sources together? The answer is that Karl Marx effected this synthesis once he grasped the importance of human labour in the history of society. The idealist dialectic of the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, presented in his Phenomenology of Spirit as the self-movement and self-estrangement of spirit, Marx re-read in terms of human practice – centrally in terms of the alienation of labour; English political economy (Adam Smith, David Ricardo), he discovered, based itself on the labour theory of value; French socialism protested against the exploitation of the labourer and counterposed to the division of labour the principle of ‘association’.

It was in Paris in the year 1844 that the young Marx first drew these threads together and put material labour at the centre of his research programme. In his manuscripts of that year we can see this new synthesis taking shape. [3] They begin as a simple set of notes on his reading of economic texts; then he breaks off to write the section (now justly celebrated) on estranged labour; he goes on to reflect on the meaning of communist doctrines in this light; along the way he conducts a running debate with the shade of Hegel, especially around the central question of our time – that of alienation. It should be noted that most works on Marx’s theory of alienation are defective because they do not recognize that all the sections of the manuscripts are equally essential and inform each other.

For Marx, from 1844, the problem of alienation in modern society is understood to gravitate around the estrangement of labour. All other spheres of estrangement are to be related to this. [4]

What we find, then, in the 1844 Manuscripts is the emergence of a new theory of extraordinary scope and fertility.[5] As such it is one of the most exciting texts in the history of modern philosophy. At the same time, it is one of the most difficult, partly because of its fragmentary character; even more, because of the complexity and originality of Marx’s new ideas. Indeed the vast scope of the project sketched out in these manuscripts defeated Marx himself. Only a part of the programme he outlined for himself was undertaken, namely the researching and writing of Capital – and even that project remained incomplete at his death. The critique of Hegel, by contrast, was never taken up; although Marx continually promised himself that he would write some sheets on what is rational in Hegel’s dialectic.

This book sets out an interpretation of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts. It will attempt to clarify what is obscure and to complete thoughts Marx left incomplete. A special effort is made to assess Marx’s relationship to Hegel, which is one of extraordinary complexity; the influence of Hegel on Marx is enormous, yet Marx’s embrace of materialism sets him poles apart from Hegel. Not surprisingly, the matter is a controversial one. The evidence offered by the 1844 Manuscripts of Marx’s own understanding of his relation to Hegel has been insufficiently studied (except by Georg Lukács in his masterly work The Young Hegel), and never properly explicated. The question is not without its importance; for the central role played by labour in Marx’s thought, and its character as ‘the activity of alienation, the alienation of activity’, is much illuminated by tracing Marx’s route out of Hegel. Above all, this book aims to bring out fully the dialectical aspects of Marx’s thought at this important turning point. The book ends by indicating the continuing importance of the themes of 1844 in Marx’s later work.

Although an enormous literature exists on Marx’s theory of alienation, and although certain remarks of his about Hegel’s philosophy are frequently quoted, there has been no thorough study of the 1844 Manuscripts themselves, and certainly no detailed exegesis of Marx’s critique of Hegel’s dialectic therein. That is why it is worthwhile to devote a whole book to the study of this important turning point in the birth of Marxism.

1 VI. Lenin, ‘The three sources and component parts of Marxism’ (1913), in Selected Works, London, 1969, P. 20. This idea is not original to Lenin. Indeed, a tripartite division of this sort was elaborated as early as 1840 by M. Hess. In Die europäische Triarchie he said England would produce a revolutionary combination of German theory and French practice. Engels, in an article of 1846, puts in the mouths of the so-called ‘true socialists’ the following: ‘Did we not assign to the Germans the sphere of theory, to the French that of politics, and to the English that of civil society?’ C.W.6, 3.

2 Pierre Naville rightly points out that the matter is somewhat complex because the sources are already ‘mixed’ (De L’Aliénation à la Jouissance, Paris, 1957, p. 11); just one example: Marx could read political economy in Hegel through Hegel’s own appropriation of it.

3 David McLellan in Marx Before Marxism, London, 1970, says these elements appear in the Paris manuscripts ‘together, if not yet united’ (p. 206). I hope to show that there is more unity than is apparent.

4 1844 Mss: C.W.3, 297; Werke Eb., 537.

5 ‘A synthesis in statu nascendi‘ says István Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation, London, 1970, p. 15.