Theories of the young Marx


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:

  1. Erich Fromm, “The Con­tinu­ity in Marx’s Thought” (1961)
  2. Gajo Petrović, “The ‘Young’ and the ‘Old’ Marx” (1964)
  3. Louis Althusser, “On The Young Marx (1960) and “The Evol­u­tion of the ‘Young’ Marx” (1974)
  4. Ir­ing Fetscher, “The Young and the Old Marx” (1970)
  5. István Mészáros, “The Con­tro­versy about Marx” (1970)
  6. Paul Mat­tick, “Re­view of Marx Be­fore Marx­ism (1971)
  7. Lu­cio Col­letti, In­tro­duc­tion to The Early Writ­ings of Karl Marx (1973)
  8. 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:

  1. Pierre Macherey, “Althusser and the Young Marx” (2002)
  2. Roberto Finelli, A Failed Par­ri­cide: Hegel and the Young Marx (2004)
  3. Dav­id Leo­pold, The Young Karl Marx: Ger­man Philo­sophy, Mod­ern Polit­ics, and Hu­man Flour­ish­ing (2007)
  4. Tom Rock­more, “Marx’s Early Writ­ings” (2008)
  5. Daniel Lopez, “Ali­en­a­tion Marx’s Early Writ­ing” (2013)
  6. Go­pal Bal­akrish­nan, “The Ab­ol­i­tion­ist, Part 1” and “The Ab­ol­i­tion­ist, Part 2” (2014)
  7. Mar­cello Musto, “The ‘Young Marx’ Myth in In­ter­pret­a­tions of the Eco­nom­ic-Philo­soph­ic Manuscripts of 1844 (2015)
  8. 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.”

2 thoughts on “Theories of the young Marx

  1. Jindřich Zelený, “The Logic of Marx,” Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1980, part II (p184-6)
    “In our analysis of the stages of Marx’s relation to Hegel we find in the German Ideology and the Poverty of Philosophy, as well as in Marx’s methodological observations during 1857-8, a common philosophical and theoretical standpoint. The differeence consists in that the manuscripts from the secend half of the 1850s – the philosophical standpoint reached by Marx in the fourth stage of his critique of Hegel – reflect new problems, above all the method of analysis and the critique of the capitalist economy. Hence Marx comes to a positive valuation of certain Hegelian forms of thought (ascent from the abstract to the concrete, the concrete totality, etc.), which are not explicitly dealt with in The German Ideology and the Poverty of Philosophy. Hence there is no question of any alteration in principle on the Hegelian dialectic.
    In France and Italy Althusser’s interpretation of Marx has recently attracted attention. As opposed to a mass of superficial literature– unscientiically grounded and lacking textual analysis – which is trying to surmount a dogmatic Marxism by reinterpreting Marx in the spirit of a Feuerbachian, existentialist anthropology, Althusser emphasises the text and the intellectual development of the young Marx. When he insists that we have before us in the Theses on Feuerbach and the German Ideology a new stage of Marx’s theoretical and philosophical development which transforms his preceding views, in particular the standpoint of the Paris manuscripts of 1844, we find that our results agree. But they are distinguished from Althusseron such questionsas the content of those stages. Althusser characterises the transitionfrom the Economic and philosophic Manuscrips to The German Ideology as a break or cleavage (‘rupture; coupure epistemologique’) which corresponds to a transition from humanism to anti-humanism; in that sense Marx utterly rejects his old problems and concepts and apporiates radically new ones and a radically new method.
    Our analysis is the foundation for the view that the theoretical, philosophical standpoint of the These on Feuerbach and the German Ideology represnts a newform of humanism. In the Paris manuscripts and in the German Ideology Marx deals above all with ‘real’ men. In both cases he takes on the task of explaining social and historical reality solely from the life process of ‘real’ men. If from the standpoint of the German Ideology, from that conception of ‘real’ men and history as introduced in the Paris Manuscripts, Marx appears ‘ideological’, then we are dealing in The German Ideology– following our preceding analysis – with the radicalisation of humanism, the creation of a new form of humanism.
    Althussers’s error in connection with humanism can be illustrated in his citation of one of Marx’s comments on his method in Capital: “[Wagner] who has not once noticed that my analytic method, which does not start out fromman, but from the economically-given social period, has nothing in common with the academic German method of connecting concepts …”
    The concept ‘economically-given social period’ was not understood by Marx as objective, divorced from the activity of human individuals. This Marxian observation does not prove his anti-humanism, but rather refutes the ideological concept ‘men in general’ (‘Man’) and advances a theory based on’real’ men in the sense of practical materialism. He wants to say only what he had already said about the starting point for economic theory in the Introduction of 1857: ‘Individuals producing in society – hence the starting point is naturally the social determined production [carried on] by individuals.’ (E&OE™)

  2. In my opinion Dunayevskaya is also very good on this point – as the earliest translator of both Paris 1844 MSS and Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks into english her recognition and championing of the Hegelian dimensions of Marx’s thought were an important corrective … [even though I strongly distance myself from her misconceived advocacy of a revisionist state-capitalist thesis and her inability to confront the problematic of zionism]

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