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Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society
By Bertell Ollman
'Marxism' is essentially Marx's interpretation of capitalism, the unfinished results of his study into how our society works, how it developed, and where it is tending. Men in their relations with each other, their products and activities are the primary subject matter of this study. It is men who fight on both sides of the class struggle, men who sell their labor-power, men who buy it, and so on. Though Marx generally organizes his findings around such non-human factors as the mode of production, class and value, his theory of alienation places the acting and acted upon individual in the center of this account. In this theory, man himself is offered as the vantage point from which to view his own relations, actual and potential, to society and nature; his conditions become an extension of who he is and what he does, rather than the reverse. To expound the analysis of capitalism made from this vantage point, an analysis that remains little known despite the current preoccupation with the term 'alienation,' is the task of this book.
Marx's individual, however, is himself a product of theory. Marx has a conception of how men appear, what they feel and think, what motives influence them and how much, andon another planewhat they are capable of, both in existing and in new conditions. Without these qualities, they could not or would not respond to events in the manner Marx posits. For even if we accept that material conditions are as he describes them, there is no need for people to react as Marx says they do and will unless they bring to their situation such qualities as make other action impossible or extremely unlikely. Consequently, any account of alienation as an explanatory social theory focusing on the individual must begin by clarifying what is distinctive in Marx's conception of human nature.
Marx seems to have been aware of the significance of other writers' views on man and, to some extent, of man's status in their broader theories, but he was only partially and intermittently aware of his own. He notes, for example, that 'our philosophic consciousness is so arranged that only the image of man that it conceives appears to it as the real man,' but this barb of wisdom is never pointed inward.1 The 'True Socialists' are condemned because they take the 'German petty philistine' as the typical man, and see his qualities in everybody.2 Bentham is accused of doing the same thing with his ideal, the English shopkeeper.3
However, Marx's chief objection to these writers' views is that they are unhistorical, that they fail to take account of the transformations in human character that follow changes in social conditions. Taking the individual simply for what he appears, as something given, of the same order as the earth and the sky rather than as a product of his time, is declared by Marx to be an illusion characteristic of each epoch in history.4 For him, variations in human nature are also produced by the diverse conditions of life found inside the same society. For example, the contrasting qualities of capitalists and workers are said to be due to differences in the circumstances in which each class lives. Obviously, a conception of human nature which does not take these factors into account is faulty at its inception, but to take them into account, as Marx does, is not the same as being without a conception of human nature. It merely complicates this conception with the addition of these new factors.
Marx's own conception of human nature was most fully, if not carefully, worked out in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and in The German Ideology (1846). Yet, the form of presentation makes coming to grips with this conception an involved and cumbersome task. Relevant material on the subject of man can also be found throughout Marx's writings, but it is not nearly so concentrated as in these early works, neither of which was published. Two questions arise: why did Marx not present his conception of human nature in a more ordered fashion? And why did he not publish the 1844 Manuscripts and The German Ideology? The latter question, which is also asked by critics who would like to dismiss these works as 'immature,' must be taken first.
To begin with, Marx did try to publish The German Ideology, and only failed because conditions in Germany did not allow it. He tells us in the aftermath that he did not mind abandoning this work 'to the gnawing criticism of the mice' because it had achieved its main purposeself-clarification.5 Marx always wrote to obtain specific ends, and, once the philosophies he attacked as pernicious in The German Ideology began to decline, the purposeother than self-clarificationfor which he wrote this early work became obsolete. Furthermore, Marx was constantly revising his exposition, and he must have soon realized that the form in which he first presented his positive views was unfathomable to the working class people he most wanted to understand them.6
Like The German Ideology, but even more so, the 1844 Manuscripts is an exercise in self-clarification. In much less space it manages to cover much more ground. While The German Ideology is essentially an historical and philosophical work, one cannot classify the 1844 Manuscripts, despite the label that has been attached to it, in the same way. History, philosophy, economics, psychology, anthropology, ethics, religion and sociology crisscross each other in an amazingly complex pattern as Marx's intellect ranges across the whole terrain of what he knows. In this work, Marx provided himself with the brave outlines of a new system, but he was surely aware that this first statement of his views would convince no one and that few would even comprehend what he was saying.
In explaining why Marx did not publish The German Ideology, I have also accounted in part for why Marx did not present his conception of human nature in a more ordered fashion. Human nature was an important topic when he wanted to put his own house in order, but he hesitated to give it the same prominence when his purpose was to explain his views and to convince others. Proletarian class consciousness could be better affected by emphasizing environmental factors which are open to direct kinds of evidence and which can be developed in discussion. Whereas talk about human nature, as Marx recognized, is too often a means of putting an end to discussion.
Moreover, and this is probably as important, in the years immediately following 1844 Marx was engaged in a series of political and ideological disputes with a number of petty bourgeois and socialist thinkers whose favorite expressions were 'human nature,' 'humanity' and 'man in general.' In combating the 'True Socialists,' Stirner, Feuerbach, Krieg and others, Marx was driven to distinguish his own theories by the relative absence of terms which were their main stock in trade and to formulate the thoughts they contained in another manner.
Yet, despite the fact that anthropology and psychology cease to be major subjects, man continues, of necessity, to occupy a central position in Marx's theories. And the men who act and interact in Marx's later writings are no different from those who appear in his early works. The conception of human nature with which he began was hardly altered. Thus, while the framework and categories used in Alienation are barrowed for the most part from the 1844 Manuscripts and The German Ideology, their content, as my quotations will amply show, is not so limited.
Before trying to reconstruct Marx's conception of human nature, there are problems concerning his broader philosophy that make an author's peace with Marx's unusual terminology, a preliminary task which is too often shirked, to insure that no more or other is made of his expressions than he intends them to convey. The path from Marx's use of language leads directly to the view of reality which underlies it, and from here to the methods of inquiry and exposition that he felt this view required. These matters are dealt with in the opening Part. I would not devote much space to Marx's general philosophy in a work on alienation if this subject were treated adequately elsewhere. Unfortunately, I do not believe this is the case.
The organization of this book, therefore, is as follows: Part I deals with the philosophical foundations of Marxism, primarily with how Marx views all of reality; Part II deals with Marx's conception of human nature, or the ties Marx sees between man and nature, viewed in the above manner; and Part III with the theory of alienation, or what happens to these ties in capitalism, again viewed in the above manner. In erecting this pyramid of concerns, I have tried to keep necessary repetition, the presentation of familiar relations in new and more complex guises, to a minimum.
My treatment of Marxism also differs from that of most other writers in this field in being 'unhistorical' in three different senses: little attention is given to the development of Marx's ideas; not much time is spent on their genesis; and no attempt is made to set Marxism in the perspective of other ideas before and since. As for the first, I do not emphasize alterations in Marx's thinking because I do not see many there, especially when compared to the essential unity in Marxism from 1844 on. Consequently, to gain an understanding of these views, it is far more important to treat all Marx's writings as expressions of a single theoretical scheme than to give an undeserved emphasis to the relatively few and minor changes that occur. The latter approach only enhances the difficulty of grasping the interrelations present.
Even the concession which is always made regarding the new terminology Marx adopted after 1844 is overdone. The 'Hegelian' and 'Feuerbachian' language of 1844 Manuscripts is only partly replaced by another one better suited to presenting Marx's ideas and getting them accepted. As for the rest, Marx's specialization in the field of politics, history and economics did not require a terminology which had been used primarily in discussions of philosophy and anthropology. Even in his later works, however, whenever connections across disciplines had to be made, he frequently resorted to these 'older' terms; though, as we shall see, their meanings may have altered somewhat through the change of context.
The view which holds that Marx's ideas must be partitioned according to the period in which they appear, each period taken as a radical departure from what came before, requires evidence of a kind that has nowhere been offered. First, one must show that Marx was aware of such a break, that he actually and clearly refers to his earlier views as incorrect. Second, one must show that what Marx either approves or disapproves of in his first works is treated in a contrary manner later on. And third, one must show that a significant number of early concepts do not enter into later works at all.
Though we find numerous allusions to developments and minor changes in theories and ways of presenting them, neither Marx nor Engels ever points to a change of mind that qualifies for the term 'break.' On the contrary, it was Marx's habit to return to his earlier notebooks in drafting his later works. Engels informs us, for example, that in writing Capital Marx used his notebooks of 1843-5.7 The Grundrisse (1858), which served as Marx's first draft for Capital, contains many pages which could have been lifted bodily from the 1844 Manuscripts.8 Even in the published version of Capital, there is much more of Marx's 'earlier' ideas and concepts than is generally recognized. The chapters on Marx's economic theories in the middle of Part III are my attempt to document this thesis.
But if Marx's theories cannot conveniently be separated into periods, how can the many small changes and developments which did occur be accounted for? Clearly, I do not wish to say that Marx's views were always the same, or that 'true' Marxism is only what appears in the 1844 Manuscripts, or in The Communist Manifesto, or in Capital. Instead, my position is that there is an evolution in Marx's thinking which is already present in the logic of his earliest commitments and knowledge, and that from the moment he began writing seriously about man and society, his views progressed in a direction from which he never turned aside. As we shall see, the new areas he came to study, together with the results of his research are responsible for most of this theoretical development. The writings of 1842, 1844, 1846, and 1848 show the most significant alterations, but the essential unity of all the main ideas advanced must not be lost. In the following pages I treat the developments and changes in Marx's theories and expressions whenever they are relevant to the subject under discussion.
Relatively little time is devoted to the origins of Marx's ideas (hence, too, to their originality), not because this point is unimportant, but because I believe the prior task is to establish what these ideas are. The origins of any theoretical system can only be studied after one grasps it well enough to know what does and does not count as origins. The grasp is not achieved by seeking bits and pieces of Marxism in the works of other thinkers, but only by fitting together the relations of Marxism itself. Only after we know Marx's major theories, which includes their mutual relations as parts of a system, can we know what we are looking for. Otherwise, superficial similarities may be taken for influences, with the result that Marx's ideas are often made more difficult to understand by the very preparations made to understand them.
Finally, I do not set Marxism alongside other theories that have been expounded before and since, first, because until we know what Marxism is it makes little sense to provide it a niche in the history of ideas; and, second, because I admit to having a prejudice against accounts of Marxism which rely on analogies with other theories.
It is the intellectual's diseasea disease from which I am not wholly immuneto treat one thing by discussing everything which bears the slightest resemblance to it. When applied to Marxist exegesis, this means that Aristotle, Locke, Hegel, Feuerbach, Rousseau, the Roman Catholic Church and many more people, ideas and things are used in extended analogies to highlight Marx's meaning. But all analogies have a tendency to be misleading both for the writer and his readers. The writer is tempted to substitute his understanding of the analogy for an understanding of his subject, and to trim the edges of the latter whenever necessary to facilitate comparison. The reader is tempted and often urged to do the same. To assert that Marx, like Aristotle, had a teleology, or that, like Rousseau, he believed man a social animal, or that, like Locke, he wanted man to be free is to mislead people into thinking that the similarity is more than that of a lowest common denominator. Marxism, understood as Marx's interpretation of capitalism, did not exist before Marx, nor in its pure form does it exist anywhere outside his writings. What Marx said is the raw material to be used in explaining Marxism.
What, then, of Engels? As Marx's intimate collaborator for almost forty years of his life and his literary executor after death, Engels is usually taken as a co-equal spokesman with Marx for the theories of Marxism. For most purposes, this procedure is perfectly justifiable. Certain small differences, however, do exist on the subject of man and alienation so that to deal fully with both men would require many exacting distinctions. Consequently, I have restricted my evidence for Marx's conception of human nature and the theory of alienation to Marx's own words. Yet, the marginal possibility of error in using Engels is not enough for me to ask readers to do the same. Occasionally (the section on philosophical foundations is replete with such instances), the forthrightness of Engel's speech on points where there is complete agreement with Marx supplants all other considerations, and he finds his way into the text as a totally reliable witness. A more detailed defense of Marx's and Engels' unity of views is offered in the forthcoming discussion of the dialectic, which has been the center of most of the controversy surrounding this unity.
Criticism, no matter how penetrating, if it comes at the wrong time is also out of place, and can be as effective a barrier to understanding as the most rigid stupidity. The threads of any argument, especially one so intricate as Marxism, should not be submitted to any definite pronouncements until a substantial piece of the cloth has been woven. Otherwise, one cannot be sure that what is under attack is 'what Marx really meant.' I am only too conscious of the fact that, generally, what is being disputed in the avalanche of exegetic material on Marxism is not what this socialist thinker saidthe evidence of his writings particularly today is readily availablebut what he was 'trying to say.' Therefore, Marx must be allowed sufficient time unimpeded by constant interruptions to establish his views. For this reason I have delayed my own more important critical comments until the end.
Throughout Alienation I have tried not to make Marxism more consistent than it really is, while at the same time stressing its essential unity. Marx is always the architect, this writer but the archaeologist of his ideas.
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