Musings of an Irregular Marxist


Great ideas transcend the confines of time and space. Even though socialism has ‘failed’ and global capitalism has ‘triumphed’, Karl Marx’s profound reflections on the moral/spiritual critique of capitalism—its ‘estranged’ labour, its ‘alienation’ and its practice of money that transforms everything into its opposite—continue to retain their magical appeal. Is it possible for a pedagogue to remain indifferent to the kind of questions that young Marx raised in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844? A sociologist inspires us to converse with Marx.

Nabanipa Bhattacharjee teaches at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi, New Delhi.

Coming Alive in Paris

Let me start this essay by telling you, dear readers, that I am an irregular Marxist. And indeed, I must hasten to add that the choice of this expression, usually reserved for the underground/guerrilla variety, of self-description is due to the want of a more suitable one. Simply put, I am, due to reasons more than one, no longer an active party worker, but remain as fascinated (this is not hyperbole, of course) by Marx(ism) as I used to be. So, I am not a “proper” Marx lover anymore, but a lover all the same, and for all times to come, or so I would like to believe. Now, I have no intention to bore you with all and every bit which constitutes my love for Marx(ism).  What I propose to do is this: narrate the story of my engagement with Marx’s ideas, especially those voiced in the timeless tome elegantly entitled Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (hereafter Manuscripts); I will try not to turn this into a hagiography and Marx the ultimate pontiff, but have to, at the same time, admit that he is, as John Carey says of Samuel Beckett, ‘unusually hagiographable’ (2014:289).

Though not exactly ignored, the Manuscripts is certainly not counted amongst the top favourites – as, for instance, The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1969) (hereafter Manifesto) – of the Marxists, the Communist Party rank and file in particular. As a text penned by the youthful, exuberant Marx, it is often treated, by the latter in particular and also philosophers like Louis Althusser (2005), as no more than a stepping stone for the more mature, less “mystical” (read philosophical/spiritual), and “serious action” centric works which followed (see, for Marx’s complete list of works).  Needless to say, neither do I subscribe to the non-discursive deployment of the young-mature binary, nor relegate the Manuscripts to the status of a mere primer. It is, as many competent and well-regarded Marx scholars suggest, one of the most profound and ‘radical’ texts of the Marxist oeuvre; David McLellan, for example, writes that the Manuscripts ‘represent a radical critique of capitalism based partly on the anti-industrial ideas of such German romantics as Schiller and partly on Feuerbach’s humanism … [it is] hailed by some as Marx’s most important single piece of work’ (1975:33). And above all, it remains one of best classics to draw upon for making sense of our historical-ontological condition (see, for example, Fromm 1961; Lukacs 1972)

Written in Paris, where Marx lived from 1843 to 1845 co-editing with friend Arnold Ruge the radical leftist Parisian newspaper Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher (hereafter Jahrbücher), in the summer (April-August) of 1844, the Manuscripts were discovered in the archives of the Moscow based Marx-Engels Institute in 1927. Published eventually, in full form, in 1932 (my copy was published by Progress Publishers, Moscow in 1977), the book is a product of Marx’s growing distance with the German Young Hegelians – he was one of them during his Berlin days – on the one hand, and proximity with the Paris socialists on the other. Setting aside the interest in the critique of religion, which was one of the prime philosophical concerns of the Young Hegelians including Bruno Bauer and himself, Marx, thanks to the intense engagement with socialist ideas and interaction with independent French and German artisan turned wage workers, settles for a scathing critique of the political economy in the Manuscripts.

In Defence of the Philosophical

In two articles including the famous “On the Jewish Question” (1844a) published in the Jahrbücher prior to the Manuscripts Marx, in fact, hints why the critique (abolition) of religion alone is inadequate for the realization of the larger goal of human emancipation.  The prerequisite for human emancipation is the restoration of man’s species-being, his human essence. Restoration is possible, argues Marx, only if all the existing circumstances of man’s enslavement – which are of his own making – are resolutely fought and overthrown. Thus, an enslaved proletariat – a ‘class with radical chains’ – in order to ensure ‘the complete redemption of humanity’ or ‘complete re-winning of man’ eventually turns into the vehicle of revolution (Marx 1844b:8; McLellan 1975:32).

Having outlined the universal, historic role of the proletariat, Marx moves, drawing substantially from Frederick Engels (1844), to the elaboration of the circumstance(s) which rob men of their love, life and freedom. In the pages of the Manuscripts this is precisely what he takes up: a magisterial philosophical (dialectical-material) investigation of the (capitalist) political economy and its dark and dehumanizing effects. Lest the reader thinks this is all that is there to the Manuscripts, let me say that Marx, the (melancholic) optimist that he is, also points to a way out of the crippling condition. It is, if you like, the spiritual promise of the Manuscripts which adds to its extraordinary human and everlasting quality. Indeed, it is hard to find another book which is as intense in the understanding of human suffering as in the possibility of liberation from it. And interestingly, it is the second component which makes philosophers like Georg Lukacs, for instance, read the Manuscripts as an exercise in Hegel influenced non-theological, meaning secular, revolutionary, eschatology; in fact, Hegelian and Young Hegelian influences on the book are widely debated with some scholars suggesting that it speaks a ‘Young Hegelian language filtered through the work of Ludwig Feuerbach’ (Zabel n.d.:3).

Before my readers begin to suspect that I about to offer a descriptive and dull review of one of the most reviewed books, let me clarify that there is no such plan. However, in order to reach its heart, which I will do shortly, it is important to have a quick introduction to its main contents. The book has three sections entitled first, second and third manuscript respectively. The first manuscript, by offering a rather lengthy critical account of the works of classical economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, draws attention to the complex relationship of capital and labour and the damaging dimensions of private property which, eventually, results in the polarization of classes. In other words, Marx convincingly demonstrates the philosophical incompleteness in the understanding of the economists regarding the workings of the capitalist political economy. The economists, he notes, not only fail to provide a historical explanation of capitalism but also grasp, most importantly, the multi-faceted (that is, the creative, human/social) character of labour.

In a tone most haunting Marx observes how in the ‘[classical] political economy labour occurs only in the form of activity as a source of livelihood …. [Thus] political economy knows the worker only as a working animal – as a beast reduced to strictly bodily needs, [as a mechanical cog in the giant economic wheel]…. Political economy considers labour in the abstract as a thing; labour is a commodity … with the ‘most unfortunate attributes’ (1977:29-34, emphasis original). The crude commodification of labour in the capitalist system and its fatal consequences for the worker and humanity at large concerns Marx in the end of the first as well the brief second manuscript. Drawing attention to the ‘indifferent, external and accidental [and antagonistic] relationship’ of capital and labour he notes how it leads to the complete loss of man to himself (Ibid.:81). He writes: ‘The worker is the subjective manifestation of the fact that capital is man wholly lost to himself, just as capital is the objective manifestation of the fact that labour is man to himself …. As soon … as it occurs to capital no longer to be for the worker, he is no longer for himself: … he has no existence as a human being … he can go and bury himself, starve to death … (Ibid., emphasis original).   This long prose of loss is the theme of the next section of the essay, but for now I must, at least, tell you that it is on (the capital-labour contradiction produced) estranged, poverty-stricken labour that Marx is at his philosophical, penetrating, and indeed, poignant best.  The third manuscript contains discussions on the power of money, Hegelian dialectic and philosophy, and most significantly, communism. In just a couple of pages on communism Marx, yet again, turns into a brilliant philosopher or as some say, the greatest of mystics (mystical poets, I would say). The element of poignancy, however, makes way for another (alphabet P starting) quality – promise – in this tract. I will return to this fine, subtle, although short, poetry of recovery in the last section.

Poignancy of Labour

It is best to begin by posing this question: What is it about labour that compels Marx to engage with it till the end of his working life? There are many reasons but two are significant: first, the fantastic potential of labour to create and transform the world, and second, the steady erosion, and eventual loss of that potential in modern capitalist condition. Marx addresses the first by directing attention to the production – creation pursued in the praxis – of the objective, external world which, he suggests, is the most fundamental of all historical (f)acts (see, for example, Lefebvre 1982).

Marx’s deep and lasting interest in production (productivity) comes, as Erich Fromm (1961) notes, from the works of philosophers and litterateurs like Schiller, Fichte, Spinoza, Hegel and Goethe. Quite like them – particularly Goethe – Marx too takes production, both economic and otherwise, to be no less than a sensuous, creative act of merging existence with essence, being with becoming, and finally, nature with culture. This is where labour comes in, for it lies at the heart of the production of a self-conscious, meaningful, material world. In other words, so long as labour is able to make full use of its creative potential, it keeps itself and the humanity alive and vibrant. But what if it fails perform? Well, the world inevitably turns into an empty, dead one. It becomes, as Marx memorably says in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, a world of ‘passions without truth, truths without passion; heroes without heroic deeds, history without events’ (1937:20).

Sadly, labour, as the Manuscripts describe, does fail to nurture its dynamic quality in modern times. Launched into an unequal struggle against capital, labour is forced to negate its productive power and turn away from itself and all else. This negation of productivity, writes Fromm (1961), degrades labour and renders it ineffective. The growth of capital including private property, therefore, stands in an inverse relation to the health of labour. Undeniably, the economic progress of modern man (the bourgeoisie) comes, opines Marx, with a tremendous human cost: the loss of man’s (the proletariat/working class) creative urge and ability. In the famous extract on estranged or alienated labour he scripts this unsettling prose of loss. The conceptual history of alienation goes back to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and more recently Hegel who coined the term. Marx attends to alienation, in the Manuscripts as well as other works (say, Capital) as Henri Lefevbre (1982) maintains, by starting with the process of commodification of labour – labour as private property – in capitalism.

As labour power transforms into a commodity, so does the worker who becomes, as Marx says, the ‘most wretched of [objectified] commodities’ (1977:66). The result is a deeply estranged labour which experiences the world and itself ‘passively [sans agency and sensuality], receptively, as the subject separated from the object’ (Fromm 1961:pp. unavailable, accessed on , 25 September, 2016). Put differently, the worker is estranged on four inseparable fronts: first, from the product of his labour which becomes an alien, independent object standing over and above him (‘estrangement of the thing’) second, from himself in the very act of production (‘self-estrangement’), third, from the process of production (‘active species-life’), his social essence (human ‘species-being’), and fourth, from his fellow men (‘estrangement of man from man’) (Marx 1977:68-75, emphasis original; also see, Feuerbach 1841; Zabel n.d.).

Marx’s grim tale of estrangement, however, is not limited to the worker, for he identifies other kinds of alienation which are produced by alienated labour outside the labour process: for example, alienation from nature, domestic life, relationships, senses, ethics, and so forth. What he suggests, therefore, is that ‘every significant social phenomenon in a society based on alienated [labour] represents another sphere of alienation. The implication is especially strong in Marx’s reflections on the money system’ (Zabel n.d.:26). Quoting at length from Shakespeare (Timon of Athens) and Goethe (Faust), Marx vividly narrates the Mephistophelean, and of course, chameleonic character of money as it manifests in all (but otherwise distinctive) forms of alienation. Money, he perceptively declares, is the ‘bond of all bonds but also the ‘universal agent of separation’ …. Money is the alienated ability of mankind …. [It is a] distorting power both against the individual and … bonds of society …. It transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue … it is the fraternisation of impossibilities. It makes contradictions embrace (1977:130-132, emphasis original; also see, Erikson 2010).

Promise of Liberation

Now, since money corrupts, confounds, alienates, man must strive to free himself from it, or more generally, man should attempt to liberate himself from all kinds of alienation. But then, ‘emancipation in any … [sphere], or with respect to any other form of alienation, is impossible as long as [labour] remains subordinated to the wage and the self-expansion of capital’ (Zabel n.d.:31). Freedom of labour, thus, is the precondition for the liberation of mankind. At this point I must turn to my own favourite section in the Manuscripts which sees Marx ruminating on the possibility of freedom from alienation through the practice of communism. Regular Marxists, regrettably, are rarely impressed by the short tract where Marx, interrogating the idea of irretrievable loss, composes one of the most inspiring, delicate poetries of recovery. This is understandable, for communism is viewed, from first to last, as the dismantling of private property (including the state) and common ownership of productive resources. However, according to Marx, this is crude communism because in the name of abolition what takes place is the universalization of private property. Clearly, this form of (disguised) communism, its importance notwithstanding, is limited in scope, and hence incapable of setting labour free.

Freedom becomes a possibility, almost a certainty, in a finer, advanced variety of communism where man is able to grasp, in addition to the concept, the essence of private property, and finally transcend it. In a most insightful, mystical passage Marx describes ‘Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being – a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution’ (1977:96-97, emphasis original). In an extended note on James Mill, unfortunately not included in my 1977 edition, he, yet again, offers a ‘sort of positive counterpart to the description of alienated labour’ (McLellan 1975:34).

True, the solution to the problem of alienated labour lies in advanced communism, but Marx, very interestingly, also hints ‘that a society that has transcended alienation lies beyond communism entirely’ (Zabel n.d:32; also see, Marx 1977:98, 108, 117). The significance of such hints is tremendous, but, for now, let me take you back to communism, a historical phenomenon which foregrounds the positive transcendence of private property for the emancipation of man. Positive transcendence means, above everything else, the return of man to himself. In fact, it is the recovery and restoration of the self which is the defining and most enduring feature of communism. But what exactly is the recovery of the self?

To Marx, it is man’s return to his social (as well as individual and natural) being. In other words, it is the recovery of the human/social (species) essence which man loses in the alienating experience of capitalism. With the human, sensual essence restored, the communist man becomes an emancipated, all-sided being capable of deploying his social (human) faculties/sensibilities towards the meaningful appropriation of reality. Indeed, in communism labour turns profoundly human, and so does the entire society. It is in this context that Marx, drawing heavily from Feuerbach, writes about communism as humanism. Of all the components of this humanism, I find two especially striking: first, the sensual, and second, the non-egotistical. In communistic humanism man exists in the ‘entire richness of his being’, and as a ‘rich man profoundly endowed with all the senses’ he is naturally inclined and able to expunge his ego (Marx 1977:103, emphasis original). At the heart of Marxian humanism stands the complete human man who affirms himself through others just as the others affirm themselves through him, he is confirmed in their thought and love as they are in his (also see, McLellan 1975:34). This humanism is about the aesthetics of merger, about the beauty and splendour of sociality, about human love and trust, about a Utopian dream coming true, about the fantastic liberty to be.

The immense promise which Marx endows this humanism with makes it worth recalling in contemporary times. The world today is no different from the anguished, disoriented meaningless world which, say, existentialists like Sartre and Beauvoir, litterateurs like Zola, Camus, Kafka, Celan, Ionesco and Beckett, and filmmakers like Chaplin and Bergman encountered and reflected upon. In fact, I should say, it is worse. My world, marked by unprecedented economic progress, is more violent and ruthless than ever before. It’s ‘now hidden, now open’, to borrow Marx’s unforgettable expression from the Manifesto, ugliness creates a sense of foreboding, and it is then that I pick up the Manuscripts once again. Marx reassures me, and I take him to my students. I tell them that we, together, can move beyond the atmosphere of disquiet by restoring the creative connect between the economic and the philosophical, the material and the spiritual. I urge them to empathise with suffering and find ways of freeing the world from it. I declare, softly but convincingly, that communism is neither out of fashion nor dead. At the end, I gently remind them that love and life is all about being intensely human and naturally free.



  1. The article is quite engaging. Even though I have not studied Marx’s works thoroughly, I have learned a couple of important lessons from it. Marx, as I feel after reading the piece, was a great humanist. No revolution is possible without love. The author has made me understand the meaning of ‘alienation’. It was Marx’s greatness that he could see it as a major problem of our civilization. Even today most of us in our occupations are alienated. Creative
    satisfaction is rare. We work because we have to survive. For most of us, there is no joy in work. That is why; money has become the sole criterion to judge everything. This is sad. I congratulate the author because she has aroused my interest in Marx.

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