Wer die Jugend hat, hat die Zukunft.
— Karl Liebknecht
In a civilization that’s grown old, ours is a culture that prizes youth. No longer as presage to a radiant future, but part of a permanent present. Philosophy paints its gray on gray onto the pages of Teen Vogue, the Arab Spring followed by an Islamist Winter. From Young Thug to la jeune-fille — to the familiar refrain of “I like their early stuff better” — all beauty is fleeting, as the proverb goes. A season or so later, it loses its luster. Efforts at reinvention or renovation more often than not end up a laughing stock. Worse yet: ignored. Modernity thrives off the ephemeral, Baudelaire noticed long ago, to the point that an entire style took youth as its theme. “Jugendstil is a declaration of permanent puberty,” observed Adorno, “a utopia that barters off its own unrealizability… Hatred of the new originates in a concealed tenet of bourgeois ontology: that the transient should be transient, that death should have the last word.”
Raoul Peck’s film Der junge Karl Marx premiered last month in Berlin. It’s his second major release already this year, the first being I am Not Your Negro, a documentary based on the life of the African-American writer James Baldwin. Though it was nominated for an academy award, the Haitian filmmaker’s effort ultimately lost out to the five-part ESPN epic OJ Simpson: Made in America. Most of the Marx biopic was shot in Belgium back in 2015. While I’m always wary of silver screen portrayals of great historical figures, I personally can’t wait to see it. As a way of celebrating its debut, then, I’m posting several major articles and essays on the theme of the “young” Marx. Usually, the younger Marx is contrasted with or counterposed to the older Marx, although the dates assigned to each phase is a matter of some controversy among scholars. If you don’t believe me, just glance at the following pieces to get a sense of the wide range of opinions:
- Erich Fromm, “The Continuity in Marx’s Thought” (1961)
- Gajo Petrović, “The ‘Young’ and the ‘Old’ Marx” (1964)
- Louis Althusser, “On The Young Marx” (1960) and “The Evolution of the ‘Young’ Marx” (1974)
- Iring Fetscher, “The Young and the Old Marx” (1970)
- István Mészáros, “The Controversy about Marx” (1970)
- Paul Mattick, “Review of Marx Before Marxism” (1971)
- Lucio Colletti, Introduction to The Early Writings of Karl Marx (1973)
- Michel Henry, “The Humanism of the Young Marx” (1976)
Fromm was of course an early standout of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, although he later drifted away from its auspices. He and Herbert Marcuse were both influenced by the 1932 discovery and publication of Marx’s so-called “Paris manuscripts,” written in 1844. (Marcuse and Fromm would also eventually become estranged). Petrović was part of the Yugoslavian Praxis school of Marxist humanism, and developed his reading of these early works in close correspondence with Fromm. Along with his countrymen Danilo Pejović and Mihailo Marković, Petrović contributed to a blockbuster 1964 volume on socialist humanism under Fromm’s editorship. Incidentally, it was the invitation sent out to Althusser urging him to take part in this international symposium that triggered the “humanist controversy.”
The French philosopher later recalled:
The “humanist controversy” began as peacefully as could be imagined. One summer day in 1963, at a friend’s house, I happened to meet Adam Schaff, a leading member of one of our Communist parties. (Charged by the leadership of the Polish Communist Party with responsibility for the “intellectuals,” Schaff is both a philosopher known for his books on semantics and the problem of man in Marxism, I and a high-ranking party leader esteemed for his cultivation and open-mindedness. He was on his way back from the United States, where he had given talks on Marx to large, enthusiastic academic audiences). Schaff told me about a project under the direction of Erich Fromm, whom he knew well and had recently met in the USA. Before the war, in the 1930s, Fromm had been connected with a German Marxist group with ultra-left tendencies that aired its views in an ephemeral journal. the Zeitschrift für Soziaiforschung. It was in this journal that [Theodor] Adorno, [Max] Horkheimer, [Franz] Borkenau, and others first made a name for themselves. Nazism drove Fromm into exile, as it did many others. He has since become famous for his essays on modern “consumer” society, which he analyses with the help of concepts derived from a certain confrontation between Marxism and Freudianism. Fromm had just released, in the United States, a translation of selections from texts by the young Marx [Marx’s Concept of Man, 1961]; eager to gain a wider audience for Marxism, he now had plans to publish a substantial collective work on “socialist humanism,” and was soliciting contributions from Marxist philosophers from countries in the West and the East. Schaff insisted that I participate in this project. I had, moreover, received a letter from Fromm a few days earlier. Why had Fromm, whom I did not know, written to me? It was Schaff who had brought my existence to his attention.
I wrote my article immediately. Just in case, and with an eye to the public that would be reading it, a public I did not know, I made it very short and too clear, and even took the precaution of subjecting it to a “rewrite,” that is, of making it even shorter and clearer. In two lines I settled the question of the early Marx’s intellectual development with no ifs, ands, and buts, and in ten wrapped up the history of philosophy, political economy, and ethics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; I went right to the point, with tolerably unrefined arguments and concepts (a sledgehammer opposition of science and ideology) that would, if they did not quite manage to convince, at least hit home. I went so far as to indulge in a bit of theoretical mischief — flattering myself that it would fall into the category of Anglo-Saxon humor and be perceived as such — by putting forward, in all seriousness, the preposterous concept of a “class” humanism. I had my article translated into English by a competent friend who, I knew, would be all the more meticulous because his ideas were as far from mine as they could possibly be; and I posted this short ad hoc text without delay. Time was of the essence: deadlines. I waited. Time passed. I kept on waiting. It was several months before I received an answer from Fromm. He was terribly, terribly sorry. My text was extremely interesting; he didn’t question its intrinsic value; but, decidedly, it had no place in the project… Professions of gratitude, excuses. My law of the displacement of the dominant had failed to come into play. The same went for the humanist-therefore-liberal syllogism: all a matter of the conjuncture. One more reason for thinking that between humanism and liberalism on the one hand, and the conjuncture on the other, there existed something like — as, moreover, my article said, in black and white — a non-accidental relation.
Like the Italian theoretician and Marxologist Lucio Colletti, Althusser was a staunch anti-Hegelian, though the two agreed on little else. Colletti was a follower of Galvano della Volpe when they first crossed paths, recalling the encounter years later in conversation with Perry Anderson: “When we first met in Italy, Althusser showed me some of the articles he later collected in For Marx. My initial impression on reading them was that there was a considerable convergence of positions between him and ourselves, my main reservation about this was that he didn’t appear to have mastered the canons of philosophical tradition adequately.” Despite this prima facie affinity, there was a great deal of divergence that played out in subsequent texts. For Colletti, the 1844 manuscripts and theory of alienation developed therein still fall within the purview of Marxian science.
Plus, avowed anti-Hegelianism aside, Colletti was at least honest enough to recognize that “the themes of alienation and fetishism are present not only in Capital, but throughout the whole of the later Marx — not just the Grundrisse, but the Theories of Surplus Value as well, for hundreds of pages on end. Althusser’s admission of their presence in Capital in fact undermines his whole previous formulation of a ‘break’ between the young and the old Marx.” Colletti’s reconstruction of Marx’s intellectual development, while impressive, is undercut by his general aversion to Hegelian dialectics and his sudden shift toward a model based upon the natural sciences. Kevin Anderson raises a number of critical objections to the conclusions reached by Colletti.
Iring Fetscher and István Mészáros both belonged to the Hegelian Marxist tradition, rather than the structural Marxism of Althusser or scientific (“hypothetico-deductive”) Marxism of Colletti. Fetscher was a student of Theodor Adorno, and thus part of the second generation of the so-called Frankfurt School. Mészáros was a student of Georg Lukács, by contrast, and thus part of the so-called Budapest School. Each is a more reliable interpreter of Marx than either Althusser or Colletti. Neither is as preoccupied with the “humanist” aspect of Marx’s thought as Fromm or Petrović. The question of “humanism” is one of the more tedious and misleading Marxological debates out there, something I’ve maintained in the past. Both Fetscher and Mészáros are good at relating rival theoretical interpretations of Marx to practical divergences within Marxism, and the latter in particular destroys Althusser.
Rounding out this selection of texts are the German-American council communist Paul Mattick and the French phenomenologist Michel Henry. Without a doubt, they’re nearly total opposites: Mattick prefers the sober and systematic critique of political economy conducted by the Marx of Capital to the youthful intuitions of 1844, though he maintains continuity from one period to the next. Henry’s highly idiosyncratic interpretation stresses “the incompatibility of Marx’s philosophical thought with Marxism,” a distinction Mattick would not have granted, despite his clear preference for Marx over the official state ideologies set up by authoritarian regimes in his name. Mattick took issue with the image of the young Marx as some sort of proto-existentialist, which was embraced by philosophers and theologians alike.
Writing as these authors were in the roughly two-decade span between 1956 and 1976, they dealt primarily with 1) the broader dissemination of hitherto unknown texts by Marx and 2) the mostly verbal repudiation of Stalinism by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956. Although discovered and published some time earlier — “A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” and Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts both in 1927, The German Ideology in 1932, then finally the Grundrisse in 1939 — their importance was downplayed in the stifling atmosphere of Soviet discourse. Only after Stalin’s death in 1953 were they given a fair hearing. Concurrent political debates played themselves out in discussions regarding the significance of these earlier, unpublished texts.
More recently, another wave of scholarship has appeared trying to settle the question of the “young” Marx’s relationship to the “old.” Today the political stakes of the question are far lower, to be sure, with the collapse of “actually-existing socialism” in Yugoslavia, the Warsaw Pact, and USSR, which might be seen as an advantage over previous inquiries: answers are less politicized, less beholden to official state ideologies, and more a purely academic affair. Rival schools of Marxology still exist, though, so it’s not as if the field is a neutral one. All the same, archeological reconstruction of Marx’s corpus is more complete than ever. Here are a few representative titles:
- Pierre Macherey, “Althusser and the Young Marx” (2002)
- Roberto Finelli, A Failed Parricide: Hegel and the Young Marx (2004)
- David Leopold, The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics, and Human Flourishing (2007)
- Tom Rockmore, “Marx’s Early Writings” (2008)
- Daniel Lopez, “Alienation Marx’s Early Writing” (2013)
- Gopal Balakrishnan, “The Abolitionist, Part 1” and “The Abolitionist, Part 2” (2014)
- Marcello Musto, “The ‘Young Marx’ Myth in Interpretations of the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” (2015)
- McKenzie Wark, “Althusserians Anonymous” (2016)
But the matter of Marx’s intellectual development has always been controversial, since the inauguration of Marxism itself. This will thus form our point of departure in exploring the politics behind the questions: How many Marxes were there? And what should be the weight accorded to each? Over the next couple weeks or so I intend to sketch the discovery and dissemination of Marx’s early writings, followed by an overview of the various ways the “young” Marx was counterposed to the “old.”