Erich Fromm, “The continuity in Marx’s thought” (1961)

My present­a­tion of Marx’s concept of hu­man nature, ali­en­a­tion, activ­ity, etc., would be quite one-sided and, in fact, mis­lead­ing if they were right who claim that the ideas of the “young Marx” con­tained in the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts were aban­doned by the older and ma­ture Marx as rem­nants of an ideal­ist­ic past con­nec­ted with Hegel’s teach­ing. If those who make this claim were right, one might still prefer the young to the old Marx, and wish to con­nect so­cial­ism with the former rather than with the lat­ter. However, there is for­tu­nately no such need to split Marx in­to two. The fact is that the ba­sic ideas on man, as Marx ex­pressed them in the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts, and the ideas of the older Marx as ex­pressed in Cap­it­al, did not un­der­go a ba­sic change; that Marx did not re­nounce his earli­er views, as the spokes­men of the above-men­tioned thes­is claim.

First of all, who are those who claim that the “young Marx” and the “old Marx” have con­tra­dict­ory views on man? This view is presen­ted mainly by the Rus­si­an Com­mun­ists; they can hardly do any­thing else, since their think­ing, as well as their so­cial and polit­ic­al sys­tem, is in every way a con­tra­dic­tion of Marx’s hu­man­ism. In their sys­tem, man is the ser­vant of the state and of pro­duc­tion, rather than be­ing the su­preme aim of all so­cial ar­range­ments. Marx’s aim, the de­vel­op­ment of the in­di­vidu­al­ity of the hu­man per­son­al­ity, is neg­ated in the So­viet sys­tem to an even great­er ex­tent than in con­tem­por­ary cap­it­al­ism. The ma­ter­i­al­ism of the Com­mun­ists is much closer to the mech­an­ist­ic ma­ter­i­al­ism of the nine­teenth-cen­tury bour­geois­ie that Marx fought against, than to Marx’s his­tor­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

The Com­mun­ist party of the So­viet Uni­on ex­pressed this view by for­cing Georg Lukács, who was the first one to re­vive Marx’s hu­man­ism, to a “con­fes­sion” of his er­rors when Lukács was in Rus­sia in 1934, after be­ing forced to es­cape from the Nazis. Sim­il­arly, Ernst Bloch, who presents the same em­phas­is on Marx’s hu­man­ism in his bril­liant book Das Prin­zip Hoffnung [The Prin­ciple Hope],1 suffered severe at­tacks from Com­mun­ist party writers, des­pite the fact that his book con­tains a num­ber of ad­mir­ing re­marks about So­viet Com­mun­ism. Aside from the Com­mun­ist writers, Daniel Bell has re­cently taken the same po­s­i­tion by claim­ing that the view of Marx’s hu­man­ism based on the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts “is not the his­tor­ic­al Marx.” “While one may be sym­path­et­ic to such an ap­proach,” says Bell, “it is only fur­ther myth-mak­ing to read this concept back as a cent­ral theme of Marx.”2

It is in­deed true that the clas­sic in­ter­pret­ers of Marx, wheth­er they were re­form­ists like Eduard Bern­stein, or or­tho­dox Marx­ists like Karl Kaut­sky, Geor­gii Plekhan­ov, Vladi­mir Len­in, or Nikolai Bukhar­in, did not in­ter­pret Marx as be­ing centered around his hu­man­ist ex­ist­en­tial­ism. Two facts mainly ex­plain this phe­nomen­on. First, the fact that the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts were not pub­lished be­fore 1932, and were un­known un­til then even in manuscript form; and the fact that Ger­man Ideo­logy was nev­er pub­lished in full un­til 1932, and for the first time in part only in 1926.3 Nat­ur­ally, these facts con­trib­uted a great deal to the dis­tor­ted and one-sided in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx’s ideas by the above-men­tioned writers. But the fact that these writ­ings of Marx were more or less un­known un­til the early twen­ties and the thirties, re­spect­ively, is by no means a suf­fi­cient ex­plan­a­tion for the neg­lect of Marx­ist hu­man­ism in the “clas­sic” in­ter­pret­a­tion, since Cap­it­al and oth­er pub­lished writ­ings of Marx, such as the Cri­tique of Hegel’s Philo­sophy of Right (pub­lished in 1844) could have giv­en a suf­fi­cient basis to visu­al­ize Marx’s hu­man­ism. The more rel­ev­ant ex­plan­a­tion lies in the fact that the philo­soph­ic­al think­ing of the time from the death of Marx to the 1920s was dom­in­ated by pos­it­iv­ist­ic-mech­an­ist­ic ideas which in­flu­enced thinkers like Len­in and Bukhar­in. It must also not be for­got­ten that, like Marx him­self, the clas­sic Marx­ists were al­ler­gic to terms which smacked of ideal­ism and re­li­gion, since they were well aware that these terms were to a large ex­tent, used to hide ba­sic eco­nom­ic and so­cial real­it­ies.

For Marx this al­lergy to ideal­ist­ic ter­min­o­logy was all the more un­der­stand­able, since he was deeply rooted in the spir­itu­al, though non­the­ist­ic tra­di­tion, which stretches not only from Spinoza and Goethe to Hegel, but which also goes back to proph­et­ic mes­si­an­ism. These lat­ter ideas were quite con­sciously alive in so­cial­ists like Saint-Si­mon and Moses Hess, and cer­tainly formed a great part of the so­cial­ist think­ing of the nine­teenth-cen­tury and even of the think­ing of lead­ing so­cial­ists up to the First World War (such as Jean Jaurès).

The spir­itu­al-hu­man­ist­ic tra­di­tion, in which Marx still lived and which was al­most drowned by the mech­an­ist­ic-ma­ter­i­al­ist­ic spir­it of suc­cess­ful in­dus­tri­al­ism, ex­per­i­enced a re­viv­al, al­though only on a small scale in in­di­vidu­al thinkers, at the end of the First World War, and on a lar­ger scale dur­ing and after the Second World War. The de­hu­man­iz­a­tion of man as evid­enced in the cruel­ties of the Sta­lin­ist and Hitler re­gimes, in the bru­tal­ity of in­dis­crim­in­ate killing dur­ing the war, and also the in­creas­ing de­hu­man­iz­a­tion brought about by the new gad­get-minded con­sumer and or­gan­iz­a­tion man, led to this new ex­pres­sion of hu­man­ist­ic ideas. In oth­er words, the protest against ali­en­a­tion ex­pressed by Marx, Kierkegaard, and Ni­et­z­sche, then muted by the ap­par­ent suc­cess of cap­it­al­ist in­dus­tri­al­ism, raised its voice again after the hu­man fail­ure of the dom­in­ant sys­tem, and led to a re­in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx, based on the whole Marx and his hu­man­ist philo­sophy. I have men­tioned already the Com­mun­ist writers who are out­stand­ing in this hu­man­ist re­vi­sion­ism. I should add here the Yugoslav Com­mun­ists who, al­though they have not as far as I know raised the philo­soph­ic­al point of ali­en­a­tion, have em­phas­ized as their main ob­jec­tion to Rus­si­an Com­mun­ism their con­cern for the in­di­vidu­al as against the ma­chinery of the state, and have de­veloped a sys­tem of de­cent­ral­iz­a­tion and in­di­vidu­al ini­ti­at­ive which is in rad­ic­al con­trast to the Rus­si­an ideal of cent­ral­iz­a­tion and of com­plete bur­eau­crat­iz­a­tion.

In Po­land, East Ger­many, and Hun­gary the polit­ic­al op­pos­i­tion to the Rus­si­ans was closely al­lied to the rep­res­ent­at­ives of hu­man­ist so­cial­ism. In France, Ger­many and to a smal­ler ex­tent in Eng­land, there is lively dis­cus­sion go­ing on re­gard­ing Marx which is based on a thor­ough know­ledge and un­der­stand­ing of his ideas. Of lit­er­at­ure in Ger­man, I men­tion only the pa­pers con­tained in the Marx­is­musstud­i­en,4 writ­ten largely by Prot­est­ant theo­lo­gians; French lit­er­at­ure is even lar­ger, and writ­ten by Cath­ol­ics5 as well as by Marx­ists and non-Marx­ist philo­soph­ers.6

The re­viv­al of Marx­ist hu­man­ism in Eng­lish-speak­ing coun­tries has suffered from the fact that the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts had nev­er been trans­lated in­to Eng­lish un­til re­cently. Nev­er­the­less, men like T.B. Bot­to­more and oth­ers share the ideas on Marx­ist hu­man­ism rep­res­en­ted by the afore­men­tioned writers. In the United States, the most im­port­ant work which has opened up an un­der­stand­ing of Marx’s hu­man­ism is Her­bert Mar­cuse’s Reas­on and Re­volu­tion;7 Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marx­ism and Free­dom, with a pre­face by Her­bert Mar­cuse,8 is also a sig­ni­fic­ant ad­di­tion to Marx­ist-hu­man­ist thought.

Point­ing to the fact that the Rus­si­an Com­mun­ists were forced to pos­tu­late the split between the young and the old Marx, and adding the names of a num­ber of pro­found and ser­i­ous writers who neg­ate this Rus­si­an po­s­i­tion does not, however, con­sti­tute a proof that the Rus­si­ans (and Daniel Bell) are wrong. While it would tran­scend the lim­its of this volume to at­tempt as full a re­fut­a­tion of the Rus­si­an po­s­i­tion as is de­sir­able, I shall try, nev­er­the­less, to demon­strate to the read­er why the Rus­si­an po­s­i­tion is un­ten­able.

There are some facts which, su­per­fi­cially ap­praised, might seem to sup­port the Com­mun­ist po­s­i­tion. In Ger­man Ideo­logy, Marx and En­gels no longer used the terms “spe­cies”[Gat­tung] and “hu­man es­sence” [mensch­liches Wesen], which are used in the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts. Fur­ther­more, Marx said later (in the pre­face to The Cri­tique of Polit­ic­al Eco­nomy, 1859) that in Ger­man Ideo­logy he and En­gels “re­solved to work out in com­mon the op­pos­i­tion of our view to the ideo­lo­gic­al view of Ger­man philo­sophy, in fact, to settle ac­counts with our erstwhile philo­soph­ic­al con­science.”9 It has been claimed that this “set­tling of ac­counts” with their erstwhile philo­soph­ic­al con­science meant that Marx and En­gels had aban­doned the ba­sic ideas ex­pressed in the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts. But even a su­per­fi­cial study of Ger­man Ideo­logy re­veals that this is not true. While Ger­man Ideo­logy does not use cer­tain terms such as “hu­man es­sence,” etc., it nev­er­the­less con­tin­ues the main trend of thought of the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts, es­pe­cially the concept of ali­en­a­tion.

Ali­en­a­tion, in Ger­man Ideo­logy, is ex­plained as the res­ult of the di­vi­sion of labor which “im­plies the con­tra­dic­tion between the in­terest of the sep­ar­ate in­di­vidu­al or the in­di­vidu­al fam­ily and the com­mun­al in­terest of all in­di­vidu­als who have in­ter­course with one an­oth­er.”10 In the same para­graph the concept of ali­en­a­tion is defined, as in the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts, in these words: “man’s own deed be­comes an ali­en power op­posed to him, which en­slaves him in­stead of be­ing con­trolled by him.”11 Here, too, we find the defin­i­tion of ali­en­a­tion with ref­er­ence to cir­cum­stances already quoted above: “This crys­tal­liz­a­tion of so­cial activ­ity, this con­sol­id­a­tion of what we ourselves pro­duce in­to an ob­ject­ive power above us, grow­ing out of our con­trol, thwart­ing our ex­pect­a­tions, bring­ing to naught our cal­cu­la­tions, is one of the chief factors in his­tor­ic­al de­vel­op­ment up till now.”12, 13

Four­teen years later, in his po­lem­ic with Adam Smith (in 1857-1858), Marx used the same al­legedly “ideal­ist­ic” ar­gu­ments which he used in the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts, ar­guing that the need to work does not con­sti­tute in it­self a re­stric­tion of free­dom (provided it is not ali­en­ated work). Marx speaks of the “self-real­iz­a­tion” of the per­son, “hence [of] true free­dom.”14 Even­tu­ally, the same idea that the aim of hu­man evol­u­tion is the un­fold­ing of man, the cre­ation of the “wealthy” man who has over­come the con­tra­dic­tion between him­self and nature and achieved true free­dom, is ex­pressed in many pas­sages of Cap­it­al, writ­ten by the ma­ture and old Marx. As quoted earli­er, Marx wrote in the third volume of Cap­it­al: “Bey­ond it [the realm of ne­ces­sity] be­gins that de­vel­op­ment of hu­man power, which is its own end; the true realm of free­dom, which, however, can flour­ish only upon that realm of ne­ces­sity as its basis. The short­en­ing of the work­ing day is its fun­da­ment­al premise.”15

In oth­er parts of Cap­it­al, he speaks of the im­port­ance of pro­du­cing “fully de­veloped hu­man be­ings,”16 the “full de­vel­op­ment of the hu­man race,”17 and “man’s ne­ces­sity to de­vel­op him­self, “18 and of the “frag­ment of a man” as the res­ult of the pro­cess of ali­en­a­tion.19

Since Daniel Bell is one of the few Amer­ic­an writers in­ter­ested in Marx’s concept of ali­en­a­tion, I want to demon­strate why his po­s­i­tion, which is in ef­fect the same as that taken by the Rus­si­an Com­mun­ists, for ex­actly the op­pos­ite motives, is also un­ten­able. Bell’s main claim is that to in­ter­pret Marx from the stand­point of the hu­man­ist writers quoted above is fur­ther myth-mak­ing. He claims that “Marx had re­pu­di­ated the idea of ali­en­a­tion, di­vorced from the eco­nom­ic sys­tem, and, by so do­ing, closed off a road which would have giv­en us a broad­er, more use­ful ana­lys­is of so­ci­ety and per­son­al­ity than the Marxi­an dog­mat­ics which have pre­vailed.”

This state­ment is both am­bigu­ous and er­ro­neous. It sounds as if Marx, in his late writ­ings, had re­pu­di­ated the idea of ali­en­a­tion in its hu­man mean­ing, and trans­formed it in­to a “purely eco­nom­ic cat­egory,” as Bell says later on. Marx nev­er re­pu­di­ated the idea of ali­en­a­tion in its hu­man sense, but he claimed that it can­not be di­vorced from the con­crete and real life pro­cess of the ali­en­ated in­di­vidu­al. This is something quite dif­fer­ent from put­ting up the straw man of the “old Marx” who re­pu­di­ates the “young Marx’s” concept of hu­man ali­en­a­tion. Bell must make this er­ror be­cause he ac­cepts the whole cliché of the con­ven­tion­al in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx. “For Marx the only so­cial real­ity is not Man, nor the in­di­vidu­al, but eco­nom­ic classes of men. In­di­vidu­als and their motives count for naught. The only form of con­scious­ness which can be trans­lated in­to ac­tion — and which can ex­plain his­tory, past, present and fu­ture — is class con­scious­ness.”

In try­ing to show that Marx was not in­ter­ested in the in­di­vidu­al, but only in the mass, just as he was al­legedly no longer in­ter­ested in hu­man, but only in eco­nom­ic factors, Bell does not see — or does not men­tion — that Marx cri­ti­cized cap­it­al­ism pre­cisely be­cause it des­troys in­di­vidu­al per­son­al­ity (as he cri­ti­cized “crude com­mun­ism” for the same reas­on), and that the state­ment that his­tory can be ex­plained only by class con­scious­ness is a state­ment of fact, as far as pre­vi­ous his­tory is con­cerned, not an ex­pres­sion of Marx’s dis­reg­ard of the in­di­vidu­al.

Un­for­tu­nately Bell mis­quotes a Marx text which is of de­cis­ive im­port­ance in or­der to prove his thes­is. He says of Marx: “But in say­ing there is no hu­man nature ‘in­her­ent in each sep­ar­ate in­di­vidu­al’ (as Marx does in the sixth thes­is on Feuerbach) but only classes, one in­tro­duces a new per­son, a new ab­strac­tion.”

What does Marx say in the sixth thes­is on Feuerbach?

Feuerbach re­solves the es­sence of re­li­gion in­to the es­sence of man. But the es­sence of man is no ab­strac­tion in­her­ent in each sep­ar­ate in­di­vidu­al. In its real­ity it is the en­semble (ag­greg­ate) of so­cial re­la­tions. Feuerbach, who does not enter more deeply in­to the cri­ti­cism of this real es­sence, is there­fore forced:

  1. to ab­stract from the pro­cess of his­tory and to es­tab­lish re­li­gious tem­pera­ment as something in­de­pend­ent and to pos­tu­late an ab­stract — isol­ated — hu­man in­di­vidu­al.
  2. The es­sence of man can there­fore be un­der­stood only as “genus,” the in­ward, dumb gen­er­al­ity which nat­ur­ally unites the many in­di­vidu­als.20

Marx does not say, as Bell quotes, that “there is no hu­man nature in­her­ent in each sep­ar­ate in­di­vidu­al” but something quite dif­fer­ent, namely, that “the es­sence of man is no ab­strac­tion in­her­ent in each in­di­vidu­al.” It is the es­sen­tial point of Marx’s “ma­ter­i­al­ism” against Hegel’s ideal­ism. Marx nev­er gave up his concept of man’s “nature” (as we have shown by quot­ing the state­ment from Cap­it­al) but this nature is not a purely bio­lo­gic­al one, and not an ab­strac­tion; it is one which can be un­der­stood only his­tor­ic­ally, be­cause it un­folds in his­tory. The nature (es­sence) of man can be in­ferred from its many mani­fest­a­tions (and dis­tor­tions) in his­tory; it can­not be seen as such, as a stat­ist­ic­ally ex­ist­ing en­tity “be­hind” or “above” each sep­ar­ate man, but as that in man which ex­ists as a po­ten­ti­al­ity and un­folds and changes in the his­tor­ic­al pro­cess.

In ad­di­tion to all this Bell has not prop­erly un­der­stood the concept of ali­en­a­tion. He defines it as “the rad­ic­al dis­so­ci­ation in­to a sub­ject that strives to con­trol his own fate and an ob­ject which is ma­nip­u­lated by oth­ers.” As fol­lows from my own dis­cus­sion, as well as that of most ser­i­ous stu­dents of the concept of ali­en­a­tion, this is a com­pletely in­ad­equate and mis­lead­ing defin­i­tion. In fact, it is just as in­ad­equate as Bell’s as­ser­tion that Zen Buddhism (like oth­er “mod­ern tri­bal and com­mun­al philo­sophies” of “re­in­teg­ra­tion”) aims “at los­ing one’s sense of self” and thus is ul­ti­mately an­ti­hu­man be­cause they [the philo­soph­ers of re­in­teg­ra­tion, in­clud­ing Zen] are anti-in­di­vidu­al. There is no space to re­fute this cliché, ex­cept to sug­gest a more care­ful and less biased read­ing of Marx and of Zen Buddhist texts.

To sum up this point of the al­leged dif­fer­ence between the young and the ma­ture Marx: it is true that Marx (like En­gels), in the course of a life­time, changed some of his ideas and con­cepts. He be­came more averse to the use of terms too close to Hegel­i­an ideal­ism; his lan­guage be­came less en­thu­si­ast­ic and eschat­o­lo­gic­al; prob­ably he was also more dis­cour­aged in the later years of his life than he was in 1844. But in spite of cer­tain changes in con­cepts, in mood, in lan­guage, the core of the philo­sophy de­veloped by the young Marx was nev­er changed, and it is im­possible to un­der­stand his concept of so­cial­ism, and his cri­ti­cism of cap­it­al­ism as de­veloped in his later years, ex­cept on the basis of the concept of man which he de­veloped in his early writ­ings.


1 Ernst Bloch, Das Prin­zip Hoffnung, Suhrkamp Ver­lag, Frank­furt am Main, 1959, 2 volumes.
2 This and all fol­low­ing quo­ta­tions from Daniel Bell are from his pa­per “The Mean­ing of Ali­en­a­tion in Thought,” 1959.
3 In Marx-En­gels Archiv I, ed­ited by Dav­id Riazan­ov.
4 J.C.B. Mohr, Tübingen, vol. I and II, 1954, 1957 .
5 The main work on this theme is by a Je­suit priest, Jean-Yves Calvez, La Pensée de Karl Marx. Edi­tions du Seuil, Par­is, 1956.
6 I will men­tion only the works of Henri Le­fe­b­vre, Pierre Naville, Lu­cien Gold­mann, and of Al­ex­an­dre Kojève, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Mer­leau-Ponty. Cf. the ex­cel­lent pa­per “Der Marx­is­mus im Spiegel der Französischen Philo­soph­ie” by Ir­ing Fetscher, in Marx­is­musstud­i­en, i.e. vol. I, pg. 173 ff.
7 Ox­ford Uni­versity Press, New York, 1941 .
8 Book­man As­so­ciates, New York, 1958.
9 When out­side cir­cum­stances made the pub­lic­a­tion of this work [The Ger­man Ideo­logy] im­possible, “we aban­doned the manuscript to the gnaw­ing cri­ti­cism of the mice all the more will­ingly as we had achieved our main pur­pose — self-cla­ri­fic­a­tion.”
10 Ger­man Ideo­logy, i.e. pg. 22.
11 Ibid., i.e. pg. 22.
12 Ibid., i.e. pgs. 22-23.
13 It is sig­ni­fic­ant that Marx cor­rec­ted En­gels’ ex­pres­sion “self-activ­ity” in­to “activ­ity” when En­gels used it with ref­er­ence to pre­vi­ous his­tory. It shows how im­port­ant it was for Marx to keep the term “self-activ­ity” for a non-ali­en­ated so­ci­ety. See MEGA I, Vol. V, p. 61 .
14 Cf. the bril­liant art­icle by Th. Ramm, “Die Künftige Gesell­schaft­sord­nung nach der The­or­ie von Marx und En­gels,” Marx­is­musstud­i­en II, i.e. pg. 77 ff.
15 Cf. Cap­it­al III, i.e. pgs. 945-946 [My it­al­ics — E.F.]
16 Cf. Cap­it­al I, i.e. pgs. 529-530.
17 Ibid., pgs. 554-555.
18 Ibid., pg. 563.
19 Ibid., i.e. pg. 708.
20 Marx and En­gels, Ger­man Ideo­logy, i.e. pgs. 198-199 [partly my it­al­ics — E .F.]