Paul Mattick, “Review of Marx Before Marxism” (1971)

Marx Be­fore Marx­ism, by Dav­id McLel­lan
New York: Harp­er & Row (1970). 233 pgs.

Here is an­oth­er ad­di­tion to the vast lit­er­at­ure de­voted to the young Marx and his re­la­tion­ship to the ma­ture Marx of Cap­it­al — a sub­ject which has agit­ated aca­dem­ic Marx­ism dur­ing the last dec­ade. McLel­lan of­fers as jus­ti­fic­a­tion for his book the claim that pre­vi­ous in­ter­pret­a­tions of Marx’s early writ­ings suffered from one or an­oth­er bi­as, where­as his own ex­pos­i­tion is presen­ted “as neut­rally as pos­sible.” He presents these writ­ings “in their his­tor­ic­al con­text,” which has of course been ex­tens­ively dealt with by oth­er au­thors as well and which does not re­lease him from an­swer­ing the ques­tion of wheth­er there is a de­cis­ive dif­fer­ence between the young and the old Marx. He con­cludes in the end that there is no dif­fer­ence be­cause Marx re­mained a Hegel­i­an throughout his life, as demon­strated by his Grund­ris­se der Kri­tik der Po­li­ti­schen Öko­no­mie.

McLel­lan of­fers us, once more, the so­cial and cul­tur­al con­di­tions un­der which Marx grew up, his fam­ily re­la­tions and his early in­tel­lec­tu­al pur­suits, par­tic­u­larly his con­ver­sion to Hegel­ian­ism. From this con­ver­sion, and with the aid of Feuerbach, Marx soon turned in­to a crit­ic of Hegel­i­an philo­sophy, a pro­cess which began with the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts of 1844, the con­tri­bu­tions to the Deutsch-Fran­zö­si­sche Jahr­bü­cher, and The Ger­man Ideo­logy. After the last-named work. Marx shif­ted his in­terests from philo­sophy to polit­ic­al eco­nomy, as dic­tated by his his­tor­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism, which had grown out of his cri­ti­cism of both Feuerbach and Hegel, and out of his own ob­ser­va­tions of so­cial real­ity.

This shift from philo­sophy to the cri­tique of polit­ic­al eco­nomy has strangely been in­ter­preted as a sac­ri­fice of the hu­man­ism that char­ac­ter­ized Marx’s early writ­ings in which he con­cerned him­self with the nature of man as such, with man’s self-ali­en­a­tion and the re­quire­ments for re­cov­er­ing his hu­man es­sence. This con­cern soon made room for the con­sid­er­a­tion of his­tor­ic­al, class-de­term­ined men, the ex­ploit­a­tion of labor by cap­it­al, and the pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion. His philo­soph­ic­al hu­man­ism be­came prac­tic­al hu­man­ism, to be real­ized in a class­less, non-ex­ploit­at­ive so­ci­ety. In this sense, there is, of course, con­tinu­ity between the young and the old Marx in that the lat­ter was able to ex­press clearly and con­cretely what the young Marx had set forth vaguely and ab­stractly. The choice between the young and the old Marx is thus an im­possible one, even though Marx’s later writ­ings are clearly prefer­able to his early ones.

In re­cent years the em­phas­is has non­ethe­less been on Marx’s early writ­ings, not on his sci­entif­ic ana­lys­is of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety. McLel­lan as­sumes that this is due to the fact that some of Marx’s eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al pre­dic­tions had lost their valid­ity through the “pro­gress­ive in­teg­ra­tion of the work­ing class in­to the so­cial or­der.” Still, people re­mained un­happy and at­tempts to ex­plain their dis­sat­is­fac­tions led to a re­turn to the un­solved prob­lem of man’s ali­en­a­tion. The gap between ideo­logy and real­ity in East­ern Europe, too, showed that the hu­man­ist side of Marx­ism had been neg­lected and that a re­turn to Marx’s early con­cerns might be a way to im­prove con­di­tions in the so­cial­ist states. What ap­pears as es­sen­tial in this ex­plan­a­tion is a change in the at­ti­tudes of men as a pre­con­di­tion to a bet­ter­ment of their so­cial con­di­tions. And the new con­cern with man’s ali­en­a­tion in ex­ist­ing so­ci­et­al forms thus re­flects the present in­ab­il­ity or un­will­ing­ness to al­ter these forms. It is a re­turn to an ideal­ist po­s­i­tion, pre­cisely to the po­s­i­tion of the early Marx still en­gaged in the pro­cess of free­ing him­self from Hegel­ian­ism. But the an­swer to this trend must be de­rived from the Marx­ism of Marx, not from the Marx be­fore Marx­ism.

This leads to the ques­tion of the re­la­tion between Marx and Hegel and here, ac­cord­ing to McLel­lan, “Marx al­ways re­mained in some sense a Hegel­i­an.” The ques­tion is only in what sense? McLel­lan points to Len­in’s re­mark that “It is im­possible to fully grasp Marx’s Cap­it­al, and es­pe­cially the first chapter, if you have not stud­ied or un­der­stood the whole of Hegel’s Lo­gic”; he also cites Hegel­i­an ter­min­o­logy em­ployed by Marx in the Grund­ris­se der Kri­tik der Po­li­ti­schen Öko­no­mie. In a re­cent art­icle in the magazine En­counter, McLel­lan de­scribes the Grund­ris­se as the newly dis­covered “miss­ing link” which re­stored con­tinu­ity and in­ner har­mony between the writ­ings of the early and the late Marx. In this con­nec­tion, he finds it par­tic­u­larly “note­worthy that… throughout the Grund­ris­se, the agent of trans­form­a­tion — the re­volu­tion­ary activ­ity of the pro­let­ari­at — is nev­er al­luded to.”

The Grund­ris­se are ex­actly what their name im­plies, a first at­tempt [Roh­ent­wurf] in pre­par­a­tion for the con­tem­plated Cap­it­al. They were not con­sidered ready for pub­lic­a­tion, but were the product of fif­teen years of study and self-cla­ri­fic­a­tion and, there­fore, did not need to con­tain the ob­vi­ous, such as al­lud­ing to the pro­let­ari­at as the agent of so­cial change which had already been es­tab­lished ten years earli­er in the Com­mun­ist Mani­festo. For McLel­lan, however, the Grund­ris­se is Marx’s “ba­sic work” — of which the Cri­tique of Polit­ic­al Eco­nomy and Cap­it­al are “only par­tial elab­or­a­tions” — be­cause in the Grund­ris­se “the Hegel­i­an cat­egor­ies in which Marx forms his thought are ob­vi­ous,” and be­cause “ques­tions that were prom­in­ent in Marx’s 1844 writ­ings — such as the nature of labor and the res­ol­u­tion of the con­flict between the in­di­vidu­al and the com­munity — are taken up again and filled out with a wealth of de­tail.” Marx­ism does not, however, con­cern it­self so much with the true nature of labor and re­la­tions between the in­di­vidu­al and the com­munity, as, quite spe­cific­ally, with the nature of wage-labor and the re­la­tions between labor and cap­it­al.

Al­though Hegel’s philo­sophy formed Marx’s start­ing point, he soon real­ized that the ideal­ist­ic dia­lectic was a mys­ti­fic­a­tion of the ac­tu­al dia­lect­ic­al pro­cess of so­cial de­vel­op­ment. It was not Hegel’s philo­sophy which led Marx to an un­der­stand­ing of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety but the re­l­at­ively in­de­pend­ent un­der­stand­ing of the lat­ter which made him re­cog­nize the “ra­tion­al ker­nel” con­tained in the mys­tic­al shell of Hegel­i­an philo­sophy. In this lim­ited sense, he re­mained a Hegel­i­an, that is, he un­der­stood that Hegel ex­pressed in an ideo­lo­gic­al-philo­soph­ic­al form an ac­tu­ally-oc­cur­ring pro­cess, which found its con­crete ex­pres­sion in the polit­ic­al eco­nomy of cap­it­al­ism. Marx’s dia­lectic is thus to be found in Cap­it­al, not in the philo­soph­ic­al writ­ings, even though he could use Hegel­i­an cat­egor­ies in­ter­change­ably with those of polit­ic­al eco­nomy, as was the case in the Grund­ris­se.

McLel­lan him­self points out that Hegel’s philo­sophy emerged out of the ideas of the French Re­volu­tion, the writ­ings of the Eng­lish eco­nom­ists, the growth of in­dustry, and the eco­nom­ic war of all against all. Yet it turned an ac­tu­al his­tor­ic­al de­vel­op­ment in­to an ab­so­lute philo­soph­ic­al sys­tem, in which the former lost its prac­tic­al mean­ing and there­fore its re­volu­tion­ary nature. If it is true, as McLel­lan says, that Marx’s “early writ­ings con­tain all the sub­sequent themes of Marx’s thought and show them in the mak­ing,” it is also true that the pro­gress made by Marx from his early philo­soph­ic­al writ­ings, via the Grund­ris­se to Cap­it­al, com­mits present-day Marx­ism, as it com­mit­ted Marx, to stress not his philo­soph­ic­al start­ing-point but the un­der­ly­ing cap­it­al­ist pro­duc­tion re­la­tions in their cap­it­al­ist ap­pear­ance as eco­nom­ic cat­egor­ies.