Chapter 2: The Continuity of Marx’s Thought

Encounter in Humanization: Insights for Christian-Marxist Dialogue and Cooperation
by Paulose Mar Paulose

Chapter 2: The Continuity of Marx’s Thought

The question of continuity and discontinuity of Marx’s thought has been a major issue of debate in the study of Marxism. This question is particularly important not only because numerous conflicting answers have been given to it, but also because the different theoretical answers have been connected with divergent practical aims and actions. Unless we resolve this problem the study of any aspect of Marxism, particularly that of Marx’s critique of religion, will not be fruitful.

There are those who maintain that fundamental differences exist between the ‘young’ or ‘immature’ Marx, represented by his writings up to 1844, and the ‘old’ or ‘mature Marx, represented by his later works. They hold the view that alienation, a concept that was central to Marx’s early thought, was abandoned later by Marx. Sidney Hook, for example, writes: "It is easy to show that the notion of human alienation -- except for the sociological meaning it has in Capital is actually foreign to Marx’s conception of Man."1

Another writer has stated that whereas:

In the young Marx there was a double vision of the nature of alienation, ... Marxist thought developed along one narrow road of economic conceptions of property and exploitation, while the other road, which might have led to new, humanistic concepts of work and labor, was left unexplored.2

In a major study of Hegel and Post-Hegelian movements, Herbert Marence gives an extensive summary of early Marxism and concludes: ‘Under all aspects, however, Marx’s early writings are mere preliminary stages to his mature theory, stages that should not be overemphasized."3

Those who distinguish between the ‘young’ and ‘old’ Marx claim that the ideas of the young Marx contained in The Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 18444 were abandoned by the older and mature Marx as remnants of an idealistic past connected with Hegel’s teaching.

Since Marx has not worked out his thoughts on alienation systematically in later writings, the impression is given that they do not have much to do with the self. Their manifest content is not the self but society. This is epitomized in Marx’s statement: "Capital is... not a personal, it is a social power".5 As presented in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, the Marxian theory of history runs exclusively in abstract social and economic categories. The realities with which it purports to deal are socio-economic realities, such as the economic base of society and the ideological superstructures, the antagonistic classes into which society is said to be split, the property system by means of which the capitalist class exploits the proletarian class, and so forth. Here everything is impersonal, strictly societal. The very idea of the human being has seemingly gone out of sight along with the idea of self-alienation. Thus those who postulate the split between the young’ and old’ Marx seem to be confronted with two distinct Marxisms -- the most striking difference being that of the disappearance of the "self-alienated man" in the later writings of Marx.

On the other hand, there is a significant group of philosophical scholars, existentialists, religious thinkers and Marxist dissenters who take the opposite position. For them the original ‘humanistic’ Marxism is the most valuable and significant contribution of Marx, and the depersonalized mature system appears to be a distortion of humanistic concerns. Those whose primary field of interest is religion find serious religious significance in the earlier writings of Marx. Existentialists who regard modern man’s alienation as their central problem consider the early Marx as one in their fold. Within the Communist movement itself, particularly in various European sections of it, the early writings of Marx have been of great influence. A number of so-called ‘revisionists’, disillusioned by the Stalinist outcome of Russian Communism, have turned to Marx’s Manuscripts in search of a morally meaningful Marxism.

We hold the view that the ‘young’ and the ‘old’ Marx are essentially one and the same, and that there is a continuity of thought in Marx’s writings. The basic ideas on the human being, as Marx expressed them in the Manuscripts, and the ideas of the older Marx as expressed in Capital, are not contradictory. Marx did not renounce his earlier views completely. Evidently Marxist ideas of both earlier and later periods are significant for us. Therefore, our approach to the problem should be that of considering it in a purely factual way by inquiring into the relation between them.

Marx and Engels themselves are our only authoritative sources to shed light on the issue of continuity of thought in Marx. If we make a thorough study of their writings, we will discover that they did not admit the existence of two Marxisms. On the contrary, many of their statements implied a belief in the essential unity of Marxism from the Manuscripts to the Capital. If Marx and Engels had supposed that there was a break between the Marxism of the Manuscripts and that of the Capital, they would never have spoken as they did about the relation of the latter to Hegelianism. Though Marx and Engels later avoided the philosophical language of their early years, and in the Manifesto of the Communist Party laughed at the German literati who "beneath the French criticism of the economic functions of money... wrote ‘Alienation of Humanity,’6 they always recognized that "The German Working class movement is the heir of German classical philosophy."7 It is obvious that the problem of the continuity of Marx’s thought is bound up with his continuing interest in Hegel. His contemporaries may have been incapable of understanding Hegel, but Marx never lost his interest in him. Lenin himself lent some support to this view by writing in 1914:

It is impossible fully to grasp Marx’s Capital, and especially the first chapter, if you have not studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, none of the Marxists for the past half century has understood Marx.8

Engels, too, shared this view of Hegel’s importance.

In later life Marx cherished the thought of writing a short treatise on the Hegelian dialectic and his relation to it. However the famous passage in the 1873 preface to Capital was his only further word on the matter. There he said:

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.9

In the same context Marx reminds us: "The mystifying side of Hegelian dialectic I criticized nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion."10 Here the reference is to the year 1844 and to the Manuscripts. This obscure reference to his unpublished Manuscripts is entirely understandable for us when we recall that he did indeed develop in them a systematic criticism of Hegel.11 Marx turned Hegelianism "right side up again", by reading Hegel in materialistic economic terms. This inversion of Hegel’s dialectic of history was the constitutive act of original Marxism. And now, in 1873, Marx describes it as the constitutive act of the mature Marxian dialectic. The implication is that he considered the Manuscripts as the birth place of mature Marxism, the founding documents of scientific socialism.

When Marx made the statement of the inversion of Hegelian dialectic in the 1873 preface to Capital, the Manuscripts had not been published, and their very existence remained unknown to the public. Naturally, his followers, or at least many of them, failed in making any sense out of his remarks about the genesis of scientific socialism out of German philosophy. The followers could only speculate in vain as to what he meant by the mysterious version of Hegel. Thus the false legend gradually arose that Marx’s early philosophical period was pre-Marxist, and that Marxism itself came into being only in the aftermath of his apparent break with German philosophy in the middle of 1840’s. Accordingly, his intellectual career was divided into a pre-Marxist early philosophical period and a later post-philosophical period.

If there was one theme running through the whole of Marx’s writings, the most obvious would be ‘alienation’, a concept that he developed through confrontation with Hegel. Whereas for Hegel alienation is a state of consciousness subject to elimination by another state of consciousness12 for Marx alienation is related to real, existing objects subject to elimination only in the real sphere of object-related activity.13 Marx’s critique of Hegel, in this connection, is that the abolition of alienation on the level of mere consciousness recognizes the immanent impossibility of abolishing real alienation. Hegel’s consciousness only approves a reality that it cannot change. Such a merely spiritual emancipation forces man to legitimize his chains. But Marx sees alienation as residing in a concrete relationship between man and his products, and hence his discussion on alienation is in materialistic terms. And yet, in spite of the materialistic tone, Marx’s writings are related to issues of general philosophical significance, and his later writings on economy and society are meaningful only within this wider context. Marx’s critique of the way in which Hegel handled the question of alienation restates Marx’s general critique of philosophical idealism, and the Marxian version of materialism emerges from this discussion of alienation. Marx’s views on alienation and his materialism are thus inseparable.

The continuity of Marx’s thought has been demonstrated beyond doubt by the publication of some of Marx’s notes, written in the six months from October 1857 to March 1858, under the title Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy.14 The time and place of their publication prevented their attracting attention and it was not until 1953 that there was an accessible edition. Questions that were important in Marx’s Manuscripts -- such as the true nature of labor and the resolution of the conflict between individual and community -- are taken up again in the Foundations and explained in detail.15 In the foundations Marx used the same argument which he used in the Manuscripts, arguing that the need to work does not constitute in itself a restriction of freedom, provided it is not alienated work. He also speaks of the ‘self-realization’ of the person, hence of true freedom. The Foundations then, is as Hegelian as the Manuscripts and in the light of that it is impossible to maintain that only Marx’s early writings are of philosophical interest and that he lost the humanist vision in the later writings.

The idea that the aim of human evolution is the unfolding of the human being, the creation of ‘wealthy’ human being who has overcome the contradiction between self and nature and achieved true freedom, is expressed in many passages of Capital, written by the mature and old Marx. He wrote in the third volume of the Capital:

Beyond it (the realm of necessity) begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working day is its basic prerequisite.16

The concept of alienation is expressed in the Capital in these words:

...the character of independence and estrangement which the capitalist mode of production as a whole gives to the instruments of labor and to the product, as against the workman, is developed by means of machinery into a thorough antagonism.17

Thus the content of Capital is a continuation of Marx’s early thoughts. The main theme of the first volume of Capital, surplus value, rests on the equation of work and value that goes back to the conception of man as being who creates himself and the conditions of his life -- a conception outlined in the Manuscripts.18 It is man’s nature -- according to the Manuscripts -- to be constantly developing himself and the world around him in cooperation with other men. What Marx in Capital is describing is how this fundamental nature of human being -- to be the initiator and controller of historical process -- has been transferred or alienated and how it belongs to the inhuman power of capital. The counterpart of alienated man, the unalienated or ‘total man of the Manuscripts, also appears in Capital. In the chapter of "Machinery and Modern Industry" in Capital, Marx makes the same contrast between the effects of alienated and unalienated modes of production on the development of human personality. In other parts of Capital, Marx speaks of the importance of producing "fully developed human beings,"19 "the full development of human race",20 man’s "necessity to develop himself",21 and of the "fragment of a man" as the result of the process of alienation.22

The section of Capital that most recalls the early writings is the final section of the first chapter of volume I, entitled ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’. The Whole section is reminiscent of the section on alienated labor in the Manuscripts.23

Marx writes:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of man’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labor. This is the reason why the products of labor become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses.24

Marx, then, draws a parallel between alienated labor and religion:

In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor, as soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.25

From this point of view, Capital is a detailed study of the economic aspects of the process outlined by Marx in his Manuscripts. What was philosophically postulated in 1844 is now verified and vindicated by an analysis of capitalist economic activity undertaken with the tools of classical political economy.

Marx never repudiated the idea of alienation in its human sense rather he claimed that it cannot be divorced from the concrete and real life process of the alienated individual. Marx criticized capitalism precisely because it destroyed individual personality, just as he criticized "crude communism" for the same reason. As Erich Fromm has pointed out,

the statement (of Marx) 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.26

It should be remembered that Capital is only an unfinished fragment of the task that Marx set himself. In the preface to the Manuscripts he had outlined the program of his life’s work:

I shall therefore publish the critique of law, ethics, politics, etc., in a series of distinct independent pamphlets, and afterwards showing the inter relationship of the separate parts, together with a critique of the speculative elaboration of that material. For this reason it will be found that the interconnection between political economy and the state, law, ethics, civil life, etc., is touched upon in the present work only to the extent to which political economy itself ex professo (expressly) touches upon these subjects.27

But Marx never got beyond his first ‘pamphlet’ on political economy. Had he finished the whole work he intended to do, we could have received much more insights into the humanistic vision of the mature Marx.

Marx never gave up his concept of the essence of the human being. This point will be understood better when we examine the Manuscripts where Marx decided that human self-alienation could and should be grasped as a social relation between human beings. ‘Only man himself can be this alien power over man, he said, but this relation of man to himself takes practical shape as a relation between the alienated worker and another man outside him, i.e., the capitalist.’ In this way the inner conflict of the alienated human being became, in Marx’s mind, a social conflict between "labor" and "capital," and the alienated species-self became the class divided society. Thus, self-alienation was projected as a social phenomenon.

One of the passages of The Holy Family, written in the so-called transitional period (1845), illustrates this point quite vividly:

The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-alienation. But the former class finds in the self-alienation its confirmation and its good, its own power: it has in it a semblance of human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation: it sees in its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence.28

Society is here envisaged as a self-system whose inner dynamics are those of alienation. The antagonistic classes are collective expressions of the conflicting forces of the self-system. The proletariat and the capitalist class, or labor and capital, are opposite sides of "the same human self-alienation".

Marx sees in society a self-system in conflict. To put it differently, that which he sees presents itself to him from now on simply as ‘society’. Thus in his short work Wage Labour and Capital (1847) he asserts:

To say that the interests of capital and those of the workers are one and the same is only to say that capital and wage labor are two sides of one and the same relation. The one conditions the other, just as usurer and squanderer condition each other.29

"The same human self-alienation" has now become simply "the same relation". Marx also describes labor power as a commodity that its possessor, the worker, surrenders to capital, and declares:

the exercise of labor power, labor, is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. And this life-activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of subsistence. Thus his life-activity is for him only a means to enable him to exist. He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labor as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.30

Here is the picture of the alienated labor given in the Manuscripts, the only difference being that Marx no longer calls it alienated labor, but simply wage labor. He now apprehends the alienated self-relation as a social relation of labor and capital, and on this basis he can say that "Capital is... not a personal, it is a social power".31

This makes it clear why Marx proceeded in the Manifesto of the Communist Party to formulate Marxism without explicit reference to the concepts of man and his self-alienation, and why he here scornfully dismissed the whole notion of "man in general" as unreal. For him there was no longer any generic man, and hence no longer any use for the idea of man’s self-alienation. The alienated self-relation had transformed itself into an alienated social relation, and ‘man’ was just the ‘ensemble’ of such relations. Man had been split into two. There were left only the dissociated antagonistic parts, the ‘worker’ and capitalist’, neither of them wholly human. Society itself was splitting down the center into two hostile camps of workers and capitalists. It appeared that the realities were the warring classes themselves, and so it had always been: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles".32 It was absurd of the German literati to espouse the misty cause of mankind.33 The only real and pressing issue was that of which side to take, labor’s or capital’s, in the ongoing class struggle. Thus the Marxism of the Manifesto evolves directly out of the Marxism of the Manuscripts. What he sees is still the process of self-alienation, but he sees it as a social process. Alienation remains his central theme, but it has gone underground in his image of society.

In spite of certain changes in mood and language, the Core of the philosophy developed by the young Marx was never changed. It is impossible to understand his concept of socialism, and his criticism of capitalism as developed in his later writings except on the basis of the concept of the human being which he developed in his early writings. The ‘young’ and the ‘old’ Marx are essentially one and the same -- Marx the fighter against self-alienation dehumanization and exploitation, Marx the combatant for the full humanization of man, for the many sided development of man’s human possibilities, for the abolition of class society and for the realization of an association in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all".34

This does not mean, however, that Marx’s views never changed, but rather that there are not two fundamentally different and mutually unconnected Marx. Marx’s thought was constantly changing (in the sense that it was developing), but there were not such turns in this process as would represent a complete break with former ideas and the passage to entirely different or even opposite conceptions. The young Marx is not an abstract philosopher, nor is the old Marx a stem scientist. Marx’s thought from beginning to end is a revolutionary humanism, and only when it is considered as a whole can it serve as an adequate theoretical basis of the revolutionary struggle for a democratic, humanistic socialism. It is in the light of this fundamental coherence of his thought that we should examine Marx’s critique of religion.



1. From Hegel to Marx (Michigan: University Press, 1971), p. 6.

2. Daniel Bell, "The Debate on Alienation", Revisionism: Essays on the History of Marxist Ideas, ed. by Leopold Labedz (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1962), p. 210.

3. Reason and Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), p.295.

4. Ed. by Dirk J. Struik, trans. by Martin Milligan (New York: International Publishers, 1971), hereafter cited as Manuscripts.

5. "Manifesto of the Communist Party," Marx & En gels: Selected Works, op. cit. p. 47.

6. "Manifesto of the Communist Party", Marx & Engels: Selected Work, op. cit., p. 57.

7. F. Engels, "Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy," On Religion, op. cit., p. 268

8. Cited by Raya Dunayevskaya, "Marx’s Humanism Today", Socialist Humanism ed. by Erich Fromm (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1965), p. 66-67.

9. Karl Marx, Capital (3 vols.; New York: International Publishers, 1972-73), Vol. I, p. 19, 20.

10. Capital, Vol. I, op. cit., p. 19.

11. Manuscripts, op. cit., p. 170ff.

12. Cf. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, op. cit., p. 509ff.

13. Cf. Manuscripts, op. cit., p. 178 ff.

14. Trans. by Martin Nicolaus (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1973). It should be noted that this title is not Marx’s, but stems from the first editors of these notes. It was published for the first time in Moscow in 1939. It is generally known as the Grundrisse, obviously, from the first word of the German title. These notes amount to almost one thousand pages which actually served Marx as a basis both for his Critique of Political Economy (1859) and Capital (1867)

15. See, for example Ibid., p.163ff, 831ff.

16. Capital, Vol. III, op. cit., p 820.

17. Capital, Vol. I, op. cit., p. 432.

18. Cf. Manuscripts, op. cit., p. 78ff.

19. Capital Vol.I op.cit., p. 483f.

20. Ibid., p. 505f.

21. Ibid., p. 513.

22. Ibid., p. 645.

23. Cf. Manuscripts, op. cit., p. 106ff.

24. Capital, Vol. I, op. cit., p. 72.

25. Ibid.

26. Erich Fromm, op. cit., p. 77f.

27. Manuscripts, p. 63.

28. Marx & Engels, The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Critique, trans. by R. Dixon (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956), p. 51.

29. Marx Engels, Selected works, op.cit, p. 84.

30. Ibid., p. 75.

31. "Manifesto of the Communist Party", Marx & Engels: Selected works, op.cit., p. 47

32. Ibid., p. 35.

33. Cf. Ibid., p. 56f

34. "Manifesto of the Communist Party", Marx & Engels:Selected works,op.cit., p. 29