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Marx: A Very Short Introduction

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Peter Singer identifies the central vision that unifies Marx's thought, enabling us to grasp Marx's views as a whole. He sees him as a philosopher primarily concerned with human freedom, rather than as an economist or a social scientist. In plain English, he explains alienation, historical materialism, the economic theory of Capital, and Marx's ideas of communism, and concludes with an assessment of Marx's legacy.
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Marx: A Very Short Introduction

Very Short Introductions are for anyone wanting a stimulating
and accessible way in to a new subject. They are written by experts, and have
been published in 13 languages worldwide.

Very Short Introductions available from Oxford Paperbacks:
Julia Annas
John Blair
ARISTOTLE Jonathan Barnes
THE BIBLE John Riches
BUDDHISM Damien Keown
CLASSICS Mary Beard and
John Henderson
BRITAIN Paul Langford
HEIDEGGER Michael Inwood
HISTORY John H. Arnold
HUME A. J. Ayer
ISLAM Malise Ruthven
JUDAISM Norman Solomon
THE KORAN Michael Cook
Jonathan Culler
LOGIC Graham Priest
MACHIAVELLI Quentin Skinner

MARX Peter Singer
John Gillingham and
Ralph A. Griffiths
MUSIC Nicholas Cook
NIETZSCHE Michael Tanner
BRITAIN Christopher Harvie and
H. C. G. Matthew
POLITICS Kenneth Minogue
Psychology Gillian Butler and
Freda McManus
John Monaghan and Peter Just
Socrates C. C. W. Taylor
THEOLOGY David F. Ford
BRITAIN Kenneth O. Morgan

Forthcoming Very Short Introductions:
ART THEORY Cynthia Freeland
CHAOS Leonard Smith
Simon Critchley
ECONOMICS Partha Dasgupta
EMOTION Dylan Evans
ETHICS Simon Blackburn
John Pinder

Oliver Curry
Michael Howard
FREE WILL Thomas Pink
Sue Hamilton
MATHEMATICS Timothy Gowers
OPERA Roger Parker
Jack Copeland and Diane Proudfoot

Peter Singer

A Very Short Introduction



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© Peter Singer 1980
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Typeset by RefineCatch Ltd, Bungay, Suffolk
Printed in Spain by Book Print S. L.


Preface vii
Abbreviations ix
List of Illustrations



A Life and its Impact 1
The Young Hegelian


From God to Money 23
Enter the Proletariat 28
The First Marxism


Alienation as a Theory of History 39
The Goal of History 47
Economics 59


An Assessment 86
Note on Sources


Further Reading 103



There are many books on Marx, but a good brief introduction to his
thought is still hard to find. Marx wrote at such enormous length, on so
many different subjects, that it is not easy to see his ideas as a whole. I
believe that there is a central idea, a vision of the world, which unifies all
of Marx’s thought and explains what would otherwise be puzzling
features of it. In this book I try to say, in terms comprehensible to those
with little or no previous knowledge of Marx’s writings, what this
central vision is. If I have succeeded, I need no further excuse for having
added yet another book to the already abundant literature on Marx and
For biographical details of Marx’s life, I am especially indebted to David
McLellan’s fine work, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (Macmillan,
London, 1973). My view of Marx’s conception of history was affected by
G.A. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (Oxford University
Press, Oxford, 1979), although I do not accept all the conclusions of that
challenging study. Gerald Cohen sent me detailed comments on the
draft of this book, enabling me to correct several errors. Robert
Heilbroner, Renata Singer, and Marilyn Weltz also made helpful
comments on the draft, for which I am grateful.
In the interest of clear prose I have occasionally made minor
amendments to the translations of Marx’s works from which I have

Finally, were it not for an invitation to take part in this series from Keith
Thomas, the general editor of the series, and Henry Hardy, of Oxford
University Press, I would never have attempted to write this book; and
were it not for a period of leave granted me by Monash University,
I would never have written it.
Peter Singer
Washington, DC, June 1979


References in the text to Marx’s writings are generally given by an
abbreviation of the title, followed by a page reference. Unless otherwise
indicated below, these page references are to David McLellan (ed.), Karl
Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977).

‘On Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy’


Capital, Volume I (Foreign Languages Publishing House,
Moscow, 1961)


Capital, Volume III


Communist Manifesto


Doctoral thesis


The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte


Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844


Grundrisse (translated M. Nicolaus, Penguin, Harmondsworth,


The German Ideology


‘Critique of the Gotha Program’


‘Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction’



‘On the Jewish Question’


‘On James Mill’ (notebook)


Letters and miscellaneous writings cited in David McLellan,
Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (Macmillan, London, 1973)


Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy


The Poverty of Philosophy


Correspondence with Ruge of 1843


‘Theses on Feuerbach’


Wage Labour and Capital


‘Wages, Price and Profit’ (in K. Marx, F. Engels, Selected Works,
Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1951)

List of Illustrations



Marx in 1836, aged 18.


Karl Marx (1818–83)


Lithograph showing the

on p. 4

young Marx (1836) at a

Courtesy of the International

drinking club of Trier

Institute of Social History,

Detail from the lithograph

students at the University



of Bonn


Courtesy of the International

Ludwig Feuerbach

Institute of Social History,



Courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture




The exterior of 41 Maitland
Park Road, Haverstock Hill,


London, where Marx spent

Friedrich Engels


the last fifteen years of his



English factories in the
mid-nineteenth century:

Courtesy of Hulton Getty

men and women at work in


Marx with his eldest

the Patent Renewable

daughter, Jenny, in 1870 14

Stocking Factory at

Courtesy of Hulton Getty

Tewkesbury in 1860

G. W. F. Hegel


Courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture




David Ricardo
(1772– 1823)


Cemetery in London

Courtesy of Hulton Getty


Marx’s grave at Highgate

The round reading room of


Joseph Stalin

the old British Library, opened


in 1842, where Marx worked

Courtesy of Hulton Getty

on Das Kapital


Courtesy of Hulton Getty



Courtesy of Hulton Getty

Military tanks passing a
mural of key communist


Cover of the first German

figures in a 1974 parade in

edition of Das Kapital,
vol. 1
Courtesy of AKG London

Havana, Cuba, marking the

anniversary of the


Courtesy of Miroslav Zaji/Corbis

The publisher and the author apologize for any errors or omissions in
the above list. If contacted they will be pleased to rectify these at the
earliest opportunity.

Chapter 1
A Life and its Impact

Marx’s impact can only be compared with that of religious figures
like Jesus or Muhammad. For much of the second half of the
twentieth century, nearly four of of every ten people on earth
lived under governments that considered themselves Marxist and
claimed – however implausibly – to use Marxist principles to decide
how the nation should be run. In these countries Marx was a kind
of secular Jesus; his writings were the ultimate source of truth and
authority; his image was everywhere reverently displayed. The
lives of hundreds of millions of people have been deeply affected
by Marx’s legacy.
Nor has Marx’s influence been limited to communist societies.
Conservative governments have ushered in social reforms to cut the
ground from under revolutionary Marxist opposition movements.
Conservatives have also reacted in less benign ways: Mussolini and
Hitler were helped to power by conservatives who saw their rabid
nationalism as the answer to the Marxist threat. And even when there
was no threat of an internal revolution, the existence of a foreign
Marxist enemy served to justify governments in increasing arms
spending and restricting individual rights in the name of national


1. Karl Marx (1818–83)

On the level of thought rather than practical politics, Marx’s
contribution is equally evident. Can anyone now think about society
without reference to Marx’s insights into the links between economic
and intellectual life? Marx’s ideas brought about modern sociology,
transformed the study of history, and profoundly affected philosophy,
literature, and the arts. In this sense of the term – admittedly a very
loose sense – we are all Marxists now.
What were the ideas that had such far-reaching effects? That is the
subject of this book. But first, a little about the man who had these
Karl Marx was born in Trier, in the German Rhineland, in 1818. His
parents, Heinrich and Henrietta, were of Jewish origin but became
nominally Protestant in order to make life easier for Heinrich to
wealthy; they held liberal, but not radical, views on religion and
Marx’s intellectual career began badly when, at the age of seventeen,
he went to study law at the University of Bonn. Within a year he had
been imprisoned for drunkenness and slightly wounded in a duel. He
also wrote love poems to his childhood sweetheart, Jenny von
Westphalen. His father had soon had enough of this ‘wild rampaging’
as he called it, and decided that Karl should transfer to the more
serious University of Berlin.
In Berlin Marx’s interests became more intellectual, and his studies
turned from law to philosophy. This did not impress his father:
‘degeneration in a learned dressing-gown with uncombed hair has
replaced degeneration with a beer glass’ he wrote in a reproving letter
(MC 33). It was, however, the death rather than the reproaches of his
father that forced Marx to think seriously about a career – for without
his father’s income the family could not afford to support him

A Life and its Impact

practise law. The family was comfortably off without being really

2. Lithograph showing the young Marx (1836) at a drinking club of Trier
students at the University of Bonn

indefinitely. Marx therefore began work on a doctoral thesis with a
view to getting a university lectureship. The thesis itself was on a
remote and scholarly topic – some contrasts in the philosophies of
Democritus and Epicurus – but Marx saw a parallel between these
ancient disputes and the debate about the interpretation of the
philosophy of Hegel which was at that time the meeting ground of
divergent political views in German thought.
The thesis was submitted and accepted in 1841, but no university
lectureship was offered. Instead Marx became interested in journalism.
He wrote on social, political, and philosophical issues for a newly
founded liberal newspaper, the Rhenish Gazette (Rheinische Zeitung).
His articles were appreciated and his contacts with the newspaper
increased to such an extent that when the editor resigned late in
1842, Marx was the obvious replacement.

in the newspaper increased, so did the attentions of the Prussian
government censor. A series of articles by Marx on the poverty of
wine-growers in the Moselle valley may have been considered
especially inflammatory; in any case, the government decided to
suppress the paper.
Marx was not sorry that the authorities had, as he put it in a letter to a
friend, ‘given me back my liberty’ (MC 66). Freed from editorial duties,
he began work on a critical study of Hegel’s political philosophy. He
also had a more pressing concern: to marry Jenny, to whom he had
now been engaged for seven years. And he wanted to leave Germany,
where he could not express himself freely. The problem was that he
needed money to get married, and now he was again unemployed. But
his reputation as a promising young writer stood him in good stead; he
was invited to become co-editor of a new publication, the German–
French Annals (Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher). This provided him
with enough income to marry and also settled the question of where

A Life and its Impact

Through no fault of his own, Marx’s editorship was brief. As interest

to go – for, as its name implies, the new publication was supposed to
draw French as well as German writers and readers.
Karl and Jenny Marx arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1843 and soon
began mixing with the radicals and socialists who congregated in this
centre of progressive thought. Marx wrote two articles for the Annals.
The publication was, however, even more short-lived than the
newspaper had been. The first issue failed to attract any French
contributors and so was scarcely noticed in Paris; while copies sent to
Prussia were confiscated by the authorities. The financial backers of the
venture withdrew. Meanwhile, in view of the communist and
revolutionary ideas expressed in the confiscated first issue, the Prussian
government issued a warrant for the arrest of the editors. Now Marx
could not return to Germany; he was a political refugee. Luckily he
received a sizeable amount of money from the former shareholders of


the Rhenish Gazette, so he had no need of a job.
Throughout 1844 Marx worked at articulating his philosophical
position. This was philosophy in a very broad sense, including politics,
economics, and a conception of the historical processes at work in the
world. By now Marx was prepared to call himself a communist – which
was nothing very unusual in those days in Paris, for socialists and
communists of all sorts could be found there then.
In the same year the friendship between Marx and Engels began.
Friedrich Engels was the son of a German industrialist who also owned
a cotton factory in Manchester; but Engels had become, through
contacts with the same German intellectual circles that Marx moved in,
a revolutionary socialist. He contributed an article to the Annals which
deeply affected Marx’s own thinking about economics. So it was not
surprising that when Engels visited Paris he and Marx should meet.
Very soon they began to collaborate on a pamphlet – or rather Engels
thought it was going to be a pamphlet. He left his contribution, about
fifteen pages long, with Marx when he departed from Paris. The

‘pamphlet’ appeared under the title The Holy Family in 1845. Almost
300 pages long, it was Marx’s first published book.
Meanwhile the Prussian government was putting pressure on the
French to do something about the German communists living in Paris.
An expulsion order was issued and the Marx family, which now
included their first child, named Jenny like her mother, moved to
To obtain permission to stay in Brussels, Marx had to promise not to
take part in politics. He soon breached this undertaking by organizing
a Communist Correspondence Committee which was intended to keep
communists in different countries in touch with each other.
Nevertheless Marx was able to stay in Brussels for three years. He
signed a contract with a publisher to produce a book consisting of a
book to be ready by the summer of 1845. It was the first of many
deadlines missed by the book that was to become Capital. The
publisher had, no doubt to his lasting regret, undertaken to pay
royalties in advance of receiving the manuscript. (The contract was
eventually cancelled, and the unfortunate man was still trying to get
his money back in 1871.) Engels also now began to help Marx
financially, so the family had enough to live on.
Marx and Engels saw a good deal of each other. Engels came to
Brussels, and then the two of them travelled to England for six weeks
to study economics in Manchester, the heart of the new industrial age.
(Meanwhile Jenny was bearing Marx their second daughter, Laura.) On
his return Marx decided to postpone his book on economics. Before
setting forth his own positive theory, he wanted to demolish
alternative ideas then fashionable in German philosophical and socialist
circles. The outcome was The German Ideology, a long and often turgid
volume which was turned down by at least seven publishers and finally
abandoned, as Marx later wrote, ‘to the gnawing criticism of the mice’.

A Life and its Impact

critical analysis of economics and politics. The contract called for the

In addition to writing The German Ideology, Marx spent a good deal of
these years attacking those who might have been his allies. He wrote
another polemical work attacking the leading French socialist,
Proudhon. Though theoretically opposed to what he called ‘a
superstitious attitude to authority’ (MC 172), Marx was so convinced of
the importance of his own ideas that he could not tolerate opinions
different from his own. This led to frequent rows in the Communist
Correspondence Committee and in the Communist League which
followed it.
Marx had an opportunity to make his own ideas the basis of
communist activities when he went to London, to attend a Congress of
the newly formed Communist League in December 1847. In lengthy
debates he defended his view of how communism would come about;
and in the end he and Engels were commissioned with the task of
putting down the doctrines of the League in simple language. The

result was The Communist Manifesto, published in February 1848, which
was to become the classic outline of Marx’s theory.
The Manifesto was not, however, an immediate success. Before it could
be published the situation in Europe had been transformed by the
French revolution of 1848, which triggered off revolutionary
movements all over Europe. The new French government revoked
Marx’s expulsion order, just as the nervous Belgian government gave
him twenty-four hours to get out of the country. The Marxes went first
to Paris and then, following news of revolution in Berlin, returned to
Germany. In Cologne Marx raised money to start a radical newspaper,
the New Rhenish Gazette (Neue Rheinische Zeitung). The paper supported
the broad democratic movements that had made the revolution. It
flourished for a time, but as the revolution fizzled out the Prussian
monarchy reasserted itself and Marx was compelled to set out on his
travels again. He tried Paris, only to be expelled once more; so on 24
August 1849 he sailed for England to wait until a more thoroughgoing
revolution would allow him to return to Germany.

Marx lived in London for the rest of his life. The family was at first
quite poor. They lived in two rooms in Soho. Jenny was pregnant
with their fourth child (a son, Edgar, had been born in Brussels).
Nevertheless Marx was active politically with the Communist League.
He wrote on the revolution in France and its aftermath, and attempted
to organize support for members of the Cologne Committee of the
League, who had been put on trial by the Prussian authorities. When
the Cologne group were convicted, notwithstanding Marx’s clear
demonstration that the police evidence was forged, Marx decided that
the League’s existence was ‘no longer opportune’ and the League
dissolved itself.
For a while Marx lived an isolated existence, unconnected with any
organized political group. He spent his time reading omnivorously and
engaging in doctrinal squabbles with other left-wing German refugees.
but bread and potatoes and little enough of those. He even applied for
a job as a railway clerk, but was turned down because his handwriting
was illegible. He was a regular client of the pawnshops. Yet Marx’s
friends, especially Engels, were generous in their gifts, and it may be
that Marx’s poverty was due to poor management rather than
insufficient income. Jenny’s maid, Helene Demuth, still lived with the
family, as she was to do until Marx’s death. (She was also the mother
of Marx’s illegitimate son, Frederick, who was born in 1851; to avoid
scandal, the boy was raised by foster parents.)
These were years of personal tragedy for the family: their fourth child
had died in infancy; Jenny became pregnant again, and this child died
within a year. The worst blow was the death of their son Edgar,
apparently of consumption, at the age of eight.
From 1852 Marx received a steadier income. The editor of the New York
Tribune, whom he had met in Cologne, asked him to write for the
newspaper. Marx agreed, and over the next ten years the Tribune

A Life and its Impact

His correspondence is full of complaints of being able to afford nothing

published an article by Marx almost every week (although some were
secretly written by Engels). In 1856 the financial situation improved still
further when Jenny received two inheritances. Now the family could
move from the cramped Soho rooms to an eight-room house near
Hampstead Heath, the scene of regular Sunday picnics for all the
family. In this year Marx’s third daughter, Eleanor – nicknamed Tussy –
was born. Although Jenny was to become pregnant one more time, the
child was stillborn. From this time on, therefore, the family consisted of
three children: Jenny, Laura, and Eleanor. Marx was a warm and loving
father to them.
All this time Marx was expecting a revolution to break out in the near
future. His most productive period, in 1857–8, resulted from his
mistaking an economic depression for the onset of the final crisis of
capitalism. Worried that his ideas would be overtaken by events,
Marx began, as he wrote to Engels, ‘working madly through the

nights’ in order to have the outlines of his work clear ‘before the
deluge’ (MC 290). In six months he wrote more than 800 pages of a
draft of Capital – indeed the draft covers much more ground than
Capital as it finally appeared. In 1859 Marx published a small portion
of his work on economics under the title Critique of Political Economy.
The book did not contain much of Marx’s original ideas (except for a
now famous summary of his intellectual development in the preface)
and its appearance was greeted with silence.
Instead of getting the remaining, more original sections of his
manuscript ready for publication, Marx was distracted by a
characteristic feud with a left-wing politician and editor, Karl Vogt.
Marx claimed that Vogt was in the pay of the French government.
Lawsuits resulted, Vogt called Marx a forger and blackmailer, and Marx
replied with a 200-page book of satirical anti-Vogt polemic. Years later,
Marx was shown to have been right; but the affair cost him a good deal
of money and for eighteen months prevented him writing anything of
lasting value.

There was also a more serious reason for Marx’s tardiness in
completing his work on economics. The International Workingmen’s
Association – later known as the First International – was founded at a
public meeting in London in 1864. Marx accepted an invitation to the
meeting; his election to the General Council ended his isolation from
political activities. Marx’s forceful intellect and strength of personality
soon made him a dominant figure in the association. He wrote its
inaugural address and drew up its statutes. He had, of course,
considerable differences with the trade unionists who formed the
basis of the English section of the International, but he showed rare
diplomacy in accommodating these differences while trying constantly
to draw the working-class members of the association closer to his
own long-term perspective.
In 1867 Marx finally completed the first volume of Capital. Again, the
did what they could to get the book reviewed. Engels alone wrote
seven different – but always favourable – reviews for seven German
newspapers. But wider recognition came slowly. In fact Marx became a
well-known figure not because of Capital, but through the publication,
in 1871, of The Civil War in France. Marx wrote this as an address to the
International on the Paris Commune, the workers’ uprising which, after
the defeat of France at the hands of Prussia, took over and ruled the
city of Paris for two months. The International had had virtually
nothing to do with this, but it was linked with the Commune in the
popular mind. Marx’s address reinforced these early suspicions of an
international communist conspiracy, and Marx himself immediately
gained a notoriety which, as he wrote to a friend, ‘really does me good
after the tedious twenty-year idyll in my den’ (MC 402).
The ruthless suppression of the Commune weakened the International.
Disagreements that had simmered beneath the surface now rose to
the top. At the Congress of 1872, Marx found that he had lost control. A
motion restricting the powers of the General Council was carried over

A Life and its Impact

initial reaction was disappointing. Marx’s friends were enthusiastic and

his strong opposition. Rather than see the organization fall into the
hands of his enemies, Marx proposed that the General Council should
henceforth be based in New York. The motion was passed by a narrow
margin. It meant, as Marx must have known it would, the end of the
First International; for with communications as they then were, it was
utterly impractical to run the largely European organization from
across the Atlantic.
By this time Marx was fifty-four years old and in poor health. The
remaining ten years of his life were less eventful. Further inheritances
had by now ended any threat of poverty. In many respects the Marxes’
life now was like that of any comfortably-off bourgeois family: they
moved to a larger house, spent a good deal on furnishing it, sent their
children to a ladies’ seminary, and travelled to fashionable Continental
spas. Marx even claimed to have made money on the stock exchange –
which did not stop him asking for, and receiving, further gifts of money

from Engels.
Marx’s ideas were spreading at last. By 1871 a second edition of Capital
was needed. A Russian translation appeared in 1872 – Marx was very
popular among Russian revolutionaries – and a French translation soon
followed. Though Capital was not translated into English during Marx’s
lifetime (like his other books, it was written in German) Marx’s growing
reputation, even among the untheoretical English, was indicated by his
inclusion in a series of pamphlets on ‘Leaders in Modern Thought’.
Marx and Engels kept up a correspondence with revolutionaries
throughout Europe who shared their views. Otherwise Marx worked
desultorily on the second and third volumes of Capital, but never got
them ready for publication. This task was left to Engels after Marx’s
death. The last important work Marx wrote arose from a congress held
in Gotha, in Germany, in 1875. The purpose of the congress was to
unite rival German socialist parties, and to do this a common platform
was drawn up. Neither Marx nor Engels was consulted about this
platform – known as ‘the Gotha Program’ – and Marx was angry at the

many deviations it contained from what he considered to be scientific
socialism. He wrote a set of critical comments on the Program, and
attempted to circulate it among German socialist leaders. After Marx’s
death this Critique of the Gotha Program was published and recognized
as one of Marx’s rare statements on the organization of a future
communist society. At the time, however, Marx’s critique had no
influence, and the planned unification went ahead.
In his last years the satisfaction Marx might have gained from his
growing reputation was overshadowed by personal sorrows. Marx’s
elder daughters, Jenny and Laura, married and had children, but none

A Life and its Impact

3. The exterior of 41 Maitland Park Road, Haverstock Hill, London, where
Marx spent the last fifteen years of his life

4. Marx with his eldest daughter, Jenny, in 1870

of Laura’s three children lived beyond the age of three. Jenny’s
firstborn also died in infancy, although she then had five more, all but
one of whom survived to maturity. But in 1881 the older Jenny, Marx’s
dearly beloved wife, died after a long illness. Marx was now ill and
lonely. In 1882 his daughter Jenny became seriously ill; she died in
January 1883. Marx never got over this loss. He developed bronchitis
and died on 14 March 1883.

A Life and its Impact


Chapter 2
The Young Hegelian

Little more than a year after his arrival as a student in Berlin, Marx wrote
to his father that he was now attaching himself ‘ever more closely to
the current philosophy’. This ‘current philosophy’ was the philosophy
of G.W.F. Hegel, who had taught at the University of Berlin from 1818
until his death in 1831. Years later, Friedrich Engels described Hegel’s
influence in the period when he and Marx began to form their ideas:
The Hegelian system covered an incomparably greater domain than any
earlier system and developed in this domain a wealth of thought which
is astounding even today . . .

One can imagine what a tremendous effect this Hegelian system
must have produced in the philosophy-tinged atmosphere of Germany.
It was a triumphal procession which lasted for decades and which by no
means came to a standstill on the death of Hegel. On the contrary, it
was precisely from 1830 to 1840 that ‘Hegelianism’ reigned most
exclusively, and to a greater or lesser extent infected even its

The close attachment to this philosophy Marx formed in 1837 was to
affect his thought for the rest of his life. Writing about Hegel in 1844,
Marx referred to The Phenomenology of Mind as ‘the true birthplace and
secret of his philosophy’ (EPM 98). This long and obscure work is
therefore the place to begin our understanding of Marx.

The German word for ‘Mind’ is sometimes translated as ‘Spirit’. Hegel
uses it to refer to the spiritual side of the universe, which appears in his
writings as a kind of universal mind. My mind, your mind, and the
minds of every other conscious being are particular, limited
manifestations of this universal mind. There has been a good deal of
debate about whether this universal mind is intended to be God or
whether Hegel was, in pantheistic fashion, identifying God with the
world as a whole. There is no definite answer to this question; but it
seems appropriate and convenient to distinguish this universal mind
from our own particular minds by writing the universal variety with a
capital, as Mind.
The Phenomenology of Mind traces the development of Mind from its
first appearance as individual minds, conscious but neither selfprocess is neither purely historical, nor purely logical, but a strange
combination of the two. One might say that Hegel is trying to show
that history is the progress of Mind along a logically necessary path, a
path along which it must travel in order to reach its final goal.
The development of Mind is dialectical – a term that has come to be
associated with Marx because his own philosophy has been referred to
as ‘dialectical materialism’. The dialectical elements of Marx’s theory
were taken over from Hegel, so this is a good place to see what
‘dialectic’ is.
Perhaps the most celebrated passage in the Phenomenology concerns
the relationship of a master to a slave. It well illustrates what Hegel
means by dialectic, and it introduces an idea echoed in Marx’s view of
the relationship between capitalist and worker.
Suppose we have two independent people, aware of their own
independence, but not of their common nature as aspects of one

The Young Hegelian

conscious nor free, to Mind as a free and fully self-conscious unity. The

universal Mind. Each sees the other as a rival, a limit to his own power
over everything else. This situation is therefore unstable. A struggle
ensues, in which one conquers and enslaves the other. The master/
slave relationship, however, is not stable either. Although it seems at
first that the master is everything and the slave nothing, it is the slave
who works and by his work changes the natural world. In this assertion
of his own nature and consciousness over the natural world, the slave
achieves satisfaction and develops his own self-consciousness, while
the master becomes dependent on his slave. The ultimate outcome
must therefore be the liberation of the slave, and the overcoming of
the initial conflict between the two independent beings.
This is only one short section of the Phenomenology, the whole of
which traces the development of Mind as it overcomes contradiction or
opposition. Mind is inherently universal, but in its limited form, as the
minds of particular people, it is not aware of its universal nature – that

is, particular people do not see themselves as all part of the one
universal Mind. Hegel describes this as a situation in which Mind is
‘alienated’ from itself – that is, people (who are manifestations of
Mind) take other people (who are also manifestations of Mind) as
something foreign, hostile, and external to themselves, whereas they
are in fact all part of the same great whole.
Mind cannot be free in an alienated state, for in such a state it appears
to encounter opposition and barriers to its own complete
development. Since Mind is really infinite and all-encompassing,
opposition and barriers are only appearances, the result of Mind not
recognizing itself for what it is, but taking what is really a part of itself
as something alien and hostile to itself. These apparently alien forces
limit the freedom of Mind, for if Mind does not know its own infinite
powers it cannot exercise these powers to organize the world in
accordance with its plans.
The progress of the dialectical development of Mind in Hegel’s

5. G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), whose philosophy provided the framework
for Marx’s ideas

philosophy is always progress towards freedom. ‘The History of the
World is none other than the progress of the consciousness of
freedom,’ he wrote. The Phenomenology is thus an immense
philosophical epic, tracing the history of Mind from its first blind
gropings in a hostile world to the moment when, in recognizing itself
as master of the universe, it finally achieves self-knowledge and
Hegel’s philosophy has an odd consequence which would have been
embarrassing to a more modest author. If all history is the story of
Mind working towards the goal of understanding its own nature, this
goal is actually reached with the completion of the Phenomenology
itself. When Mind, manifested in the mind of Hegel, grasps its own
nature, the last stage of history has been reached.
To us this is preposterous. Hegel’s speculative mixture of philosophy

and history has been unfashionable for a long time. It was, however,
taken seriously when Marx was young. Moreover we can make sense of
much of the Phenomenology even if we reject the notion of a universal
Mind as the ultimate reality of all things. We can treat ‘Universal Mind’
as a collective term for all human minds. We can then rewrite the
Phenomenology in terms of the path to human liberation. The saga of
Mind then becomes the saga of the human spirit.
This is what a group of philosophers known as Young Hegelians
attempted in the decade following Hegel’s death. The orthodox
interpretation of Hegel was that since human society is the
manifestation of Mind in the world, everything is right and rational as
it is. There are plenty of passages in Hegel’s works which can be
quoted in support of this view. At times he seems to regard the
Prussian state as the supreme incarnation of Mind. Since the Prussian
state paid his salary as a professor of philosophy in Berlin, it is not
surprising that the more radical Young Hegelians took the view that in
these passages Hegel had betrayed his own philosophy. Among these

was Marx, who wrote in his doctoral thesis: ‘if a philosopher really has
compromised, it is the job of his followers to use the inner core of his
thought to illuminate his own superficial expressions of it’ (D 13).
For the Young Hegelians the ‘superficial expression’ of Hegel’s
philosophy was his acceptance of the state of politics, religion, and
society in early nineteenth-century Prussia: the ‘inner core’ was his
account of Mind overcoming alienation, reinterpreted as an account of
human self-consciousness freeing itself from the illusions that prevent
it achieving self-understanding and freedom.
During his student days in Berlin and for a year or two afterwards Marx
was close to Bruno Bauer, a lecturer in theology and a leading Young
Hegelian. Under Bauer’s influence Marx seized on orthodox religion as
the chief illusion standing in the way of human self-understanding. The
doctoral thesis, Marx wrote:
Philosophy makes no secret of it. The proclamation of Prometheus – in
a word, I detest all the gods – is her own profession, her own slogan
against all the gods of heaven and earth who do not recognize man’s
self-consciousness as the highest divinity. There shall be no other
beside it.
(D 12–13)

In accordance with the general method of the Young Hegelians, Bauer
and Marx used Hegel’s own critique of religion to reach more radical
conclusions. In the Phenomenology Hegel referred to the Christian
religion at a certain stage of its development as a form of alienation,
for while God reigns in heaven, human beings inhabit an inferior and
comparatively worthless ‘vale of tears’. Human nature is divided
between its essential nature, which is immortal and heavenly, and its
non-essential nature, which is mortal and earthly. Thus individuals see
their own essential nature as having its home in another realm; they

The Young Hegelian

chief weapon against this illusion was philosophy. In the Preface to his

are alienated from their mortal existence and the world in which they
actually live.
Hegel, treating this as a passing phase in the self-alienation of Mind,
drew no practical conclusions from it. Bauer reinterpreted it more
broadly as indicating the self-alienation of human beings. It was
humans, he maintained, who had created this God which now seemed
to have an independent existence, an existence which made it
impossible for humans to regard themselves as ‘the highest divinity’.
This philosophical conclusion pointed to a practical task: to criticize
religion and show human beings that God is their own creation, thus
ending the subordination of humanity to God and the alienation of
human beings from their own true nature.
So the Young Hegelians thought Hegel’s philosophy both mystifyingly
presented and incomplete. When rewritten in terms of the real world

instead of the mysterious world of Mind, it made sense. ‘Mind’ was
read as ‘human self-consciousness’. The goal of history became the
liberation of humanity; but this could not be achieved until the
religious illusion had been overcome.


Chapter 3
From God to Money

The transformation of Hegel’s method into a weapon against religion
was carried through most thoroughly by another radical Hegelian,
Ludwig Feuerbach.
Friedrich Engels later wrote of the impact of the work that made
Feuerbach famous: ‘Then came Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity . . .
One must himself have experienced the liberating effect of this book to
get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once
Feuerbachians.’ Like Bauer, Feuerbach in The Essence of Christianity
characterized religion as a form of alienation. God, he wrote, is to be
understood as the essence of the human species, externalized and
projected into an alien reality. Wisdom, love, benevolence – these are
really attributes of the human species, but we attribute them, in a
purified form, to God. The more we enrich our concept of God in this
way, however, the more we impoverish ourselves. The solution is to
realize that theology is a kind of misdescribed anthropology. What we
believe of God is really true of ourselves. Thus humanity can regain its
essence, which in religion it has lost.
When The Essence of Christianity appeared, in 1841, the first meeting
between Marx and Engels still lay two years ahead. The book may not
have made as much of an impression on Marx as it did on Engels, for
Marx had already been exposed to similar ideas through Bauer; but

Feuerbach’s later works, particularly his Preliminary Theses for the
Reform of Philosophy, did have a decisive impact on Marx, triggering off
the next important stage in the development of his thought.
Feuerbach’s later works went beyond the criticism of religion to the
criticism of Hegelian philosophy itself. Yet it was a curious form of
criticism of Hegel, for Feuerbach continued to work by transforming
Hegel, using Hegel’s method against all philosophy in the Hegelian
mode. Hegel had taken Mind as the moving force in history, and
humans as manifestations of Mind. This, according to Feuerbach,
locates the essence of humanity outside human beings and thus, like
religion, serves to alienate humanity from itself.
More generally, Hegel and other German philosophers of the idealist
school began from such conceptions as Spirit, Mind, God, the Absolute,
the Infinite, and so on, treating these as ultimately real, and regarding

ordinary humans and animals, tables, sticks and stones, and the rest of
the finite, material world as a limited, imperfect expression of the
spiritual world. Feuerbach again reversed this, insisting that philosophy
must begin with the finite, material world. Thought does not precede
existence, existence precedes thought.
So Feuerbach put at the centre of his philosophy neither God nor
thought, but man. Hegel’s tale of the progress of Mind, overcoming
alienation in order to achieve freedom, was for Feuerbach a mystifying
expression of the progress of human beings overcoming the alienation
of both religion and philosophy itself.
Marx seized on this idea of bringing Hegel down to earth by using
Hegel’s methods to attack the present condition of human beings. In
his brief spell as editor of the Rhenish Gazette, Marx had descended
from the rarefied air of Hegelian philosophy to more practical issues
like censorship, divorce, a Prussian law prohibiting the gathering of
dead timber from forests, and the economic distress of Moselle wine24

growers. When the paper was suppressed Marx went back to
philosophy, applying Feuerbach’s technique of transformation to
Hegel’s political philosophy.
Marx’s ideas at this stage (1843) are liberal rather than socialist, and he
still thinks that a change in consciousness is all that is needed. In a
letter to Arnold Ruge, a fellow Young Hegelian with whom he worked
on the short-lived German–French Annals, Marx wrote: ‘Freedom, the
feeling of man’s dignity, will have to be awakened again in these men.
Only this feeling . . . can again transform society into a community of
men to achieve their highest purposes, a democratic state.’ And in a
later letter to Ruge about their joint venture:
we can express the aim of our periodical in one phrase: A selfunderstanding (equals critical philosophy) of the age concerning its

declare them for what they are.
(R 38)

Up to this point Marx had followed Feuerbach in reinterpreting Hegel
as a philosopher of man rather than Mind. His view of human beings,
however, focused on their mental aspect, their thoughts, and their
consciousness. The first signs of a shift to his later emphasis on the
material and economic conditions of human life came in an essay
written in 1843 entitled ‘On the Jewish Question’. The essay reviews
two publications by Bruno Bauer on the issue of civil and political
rights for Jews.
Marx rejects his friend’s treatment of the issue as a question of
religion. It is not the sabbath Jew we should consider, Marx says, but
the everyday Jew. Accepting the common stereotype of Jews as
obsessed with money and bargaining, Marx describes the Jew as merely
a special manifestation of what he calls ‘civil society’s Judaism’ – that
is, the dominance in society of bargaining and financial interests

From God to Money

struggles and wishes . . . To have its sins forgiven, mankind has only to

6. Marx in 1836, aged 18. Detail from the lithograph on p. 4

generally. Marx therefore suggests that the way to abolish the
‘problem’ of Judaism is to reorganize society so as to abolish
The importance of this essay is that it sees economic life, not religion,
as the chief form of human alienation. Another German writer, Moses
Hess, had already developed Feuerbach’s ideas in this direction, being
the first, as Engels put it, to reach communism by ‘the philosophic
path’. (There had, of course, been many earlier communists who were
more or less philosophical – what Engels meant was the path of
Hegelian philosophy.) Now Marx was heading down the same route.
The following quotation from ‘On the Jewish Question’ reads exactly
like Bauer, Feuerbach, or Marx himself, a year or two earlier,
denouncing religion – except that where they would have written ‘God’
Marx now substitutes ‘money’:

robbed the whole world, the human world as well as nature, of its
proper value. Money is the alienated essence of man’s labour and life,
and this alien essence dominates him as he worships it.
(J 60)

The final sentence points the way forward. First the Young Hegelians,
including Bauer and Feuerbach, see religion as the alienated human
essence, and seek to end this alienation by their critical studies of
Christianity. Then Feuerbach goes beyond religion, arguing that any
philosophy which concentrates on the mental rather than the material
side of human nature is a form of alienation. Now Marx insists that it is
neither religion nor philosophy, but money that is the barrier to human
freedom. The obvious next step is a critical study of economics. This
Marx now begins.
Before we follow this development, however, we must pause to note
the emergence of another key element in Marx’s work which, like
economics, was to remain central to his thought and activity.

From God to Money

Money is the universal, self-constituted value of all things. Hence it has

Chapter 4
Enter the Proletariat

We saw that when the Prussian government suppressed the newspaper
he had been editing, Marx started work on a critique of Hegel’s
political philosophy. In 1844 he published, in the German–French Annals,
an article entitled ‘Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:
Introduction’. The critique which this article was to introduce remained
unfinished, but the ‘Introduction’ stands alongside ‘On the Jewish
Question’ as a milestone on the road to Marxism. For it is in this article
that Marx first allocates to the working class a decisive role in the
coming redemption of humanity.
The ‘Introduction’ starts by summarizing the attack on religion made
by Bauer and Feuerbach. This passage is notable for its epigrams,
including the frequently quoted description of religion as ‘the opium of
the people’, but it says nothing new. Now that human self-alienation
has been unmasked in its holy form, Marx continues, it is the task of
philosophy to unmask it in its unholy forms, such as law and politics.
He calls for more criticism of German conditions, to allow the German
people ‘not even a moment of self-deception’. But for the first time –
and in contrast to Bauer and Feuerbach – Marx suggests that criticism
by itself is not enough:
The weapon of criticism obviously cannot replace the criticism of
weapons. Material force must be overthrown by material force. But
theory also becomes a material force once it has gripped the masses.
(I 69)

In his initial recognition of the role of the masses, Marx treats this role
as a special feature of the German situation, not applicable to France.
Whereas in France ‘every class of the nation is politically idealistic and
experiences itself first of all not as a particular class but as representing
the general needs of society’, in Germany practical life is ‘mindless’ and
no class can be free until it is forced to be by its immediate condition,
by material necessity, by its very chains’. Where then, Marx asks, is the
positive possibility of German freedom to be found? And he answers:
In the formation of a class with radical chains . . . a sphere of society
having a universal character because of its universal suffering . . . a
sphere, in short, that is the complete loss of humanity and can only
redeem itself through the total redemption of humanity. This dissolution
of society as a particular class is the proletariat.
(I 72–3)

transformed Hegelian philosophy:
As philosophy finds its material weapons in the proletariat, the
proletariat finds its intellectual weapons in philosophy.

More explicitly:
Philosophy cannot be actualized without the superseding of the
proletariat, the proletariat cannot be superseded without the
actualization of philosophy.
(I 73)

Here is the germ of a new solution to the problem of human
alienation. Criticism and philosophical theory alone will not end it.
A more practical force is needed, and that force is provided by the
artificially impoverished working class. This lowest class of society will
bring about ‘the actualization of philosophy’ – by which Marx means

Enter the Proletariat

Marx concludes by placing the proletariat within the framework of a

the culmination of the philosophical and historical saga described, in a
mystified form, by Hegel. The proletariat, following the lead of the new
radical philosophy, will complete the dialectical process in which
humans have emerged, grown estranged from themselves, and
become enslaved by their own alienated essence. Whereas the
property-owning middle class could win freedom for themselves on
the basis of rights to property – thus excluding others from the
freedom they gain – the property-less working class possess nothing
but their title as human beings. Thus they can liberate themselves only
by liberating all humanity.
Before 1844, to judge from his writings, Marx scarcely noticed the
existence of the proletariat; certainly he never suggested they had a
part to play in overcoming alienation. Now, like a film director calling
on the errand-boy to play Hamlet, Marx introduces the proletariat as
the material force that will bring about the liberation of humanity.

Marx did not arrive at his view of the proletariat as the result of
detailed economic studies, for his economic studies were just
beginning. He had read a great deal of history, but he does not
buttress his position by quoting from historical sources, as he was later
to do. His reasons for placing importance on the proletariat are
philosophical rather than historical or economic. Since human
alienation is not a problem of a particular class, but a universal
problem, whatever is to solve it must have a universal character – and
the proletariat, Marx claims, has this universal character in virtue of its
total deprivation. It represents not a particular class of society, but all
That a situation should contain within itself the seed of its own
dissolution, and that the greatest of all triumphs should come from the
depths of despair – these are familiar themes in the dialectic of Hegel
and his followers. (They echo, some have said, the redemption of

humanity by the crucifixion of Jesus.) The proletariat fits neatly into
this dialectical scenario, and one cannot help suspecting that Marx
seized upon it precisely because it served his philosophical purposes so
To say this is not to say that when he wrote the ‘Introduction’ Marx
knew nothing about the proletariat. He had just moved to Paris, where
socialist ideas were much more advanced than in Germany. He mixed
with socialist leaders of the time, living in the same house as one of the
leaders of the League of the Just, a radical workers’ group. His writings
reflect his admiration of the French socialist workers: ‘The nobility of
man’, he writes, ‘shines forth from their toil-worn bodies’ (MC 87). In
giving so important a role to the proletariat, therefore, the
‘Introduction’ reflects a two-way process: Marx tailors his conception
of the proletariat to suit his philosophy, and tailors his philosophy in
its revolutionary ideas.


Enter the Proletariat

accordance with his new-found enthusiasm for the working class and

Chapter 5
The First Marxism

Marx had now developed two important new insights: that economics
is the chief form of human alienation, and that the material force
needed to liberate humanity from its domination by economics is to be
found in the working class. Up to this stage, however, he had only
made these points briefly, in essays ostensibly on other topics. The
next step was to use these insights as the basis of a new and
systematic world-view, one which would transform and supplant the
Hegelian system and all prior transformations of it.
Marx began his critical study of economics in 1844. It was to culminate
in Marx’s greatest work, Capital, the first volume of which was
published in 1867, later volumes appearing after Marx’s death. So the
work Marx produced in Paris, known as the Economic and Philosophic
Manuscripts of 1844, was the first version of a project that was to
occupy him, in one form or another, for the rest of his life.
The 1844 version of Marxism was not published until 1932. The
manuscript consists of a number of disconnected sections, some
obviously incomplete. Nevertheless we can see what Marx was trying
to do. He begins with a Preface which praises Feuerbach as the author
of ‘the only writings since Hegel’s Phenomenology and Logic containing
a real theoretical revolution’. There are then sections on the economics
of wages, profits, and rent, in which Marx quotes liberally from the

founding fathers of classical economics like J.-B. Say and Adam Smith.
The point of this, as Marx explains, is to show that according to
classical economics the worker becomes a commodity, the production
of which is subject to the ordinary laws of supply and demand. If the
supply of workers exceeds the demand for labour, wages fall and some
workers starve. Wages therefore tend to the lowest possible level
compatible with keeping an adequate supply of workers alive.
Marx draws another important point from the classical economists.
Those who employ the workers – the capitalists – build up their wealth
through the labour of their workers. They become wealthy by keeping
for themselves a certain amount of the value their workers produce.
Capital is nothing else but accumulated labour. The worker’s labour
increases the employer’s capital. This increased capital is used to
build bigger factories and buy more machines. This increases the
business. They must then sell their labour on the market. This
intensifies the competition among workers trying to get work,
and lowers wages.
All this Marx presents as deductions from the presuppositions of
orthodox economics. Marx himself is not writing as an economist. He
wants to rise above the level of the science of economics, which, he
says, simply takes for granted such things as private property, greed,
competition, and so on, saying nothing about the extent to which
apparently accidental circumstances are really the expression of a
necessary course of development. Marx wants to ask larger questions,
ignored by economists, such as ‘What in the evolution of mankind is
the meaning of this reduction of the greater part of mankind to
abstract labour?’ (By ‘abstract labour’ Marx means work done simply in
order to earn a wage, rather than for the worker’s own specific
purposes. Thus making a pair of shoes because one wants a pair of
shoes is not abstract labour; making a pair of shoes because that
happens to be a way of getting money is.) Marx, in other words, wants

The First Marxism

division of labour. This puts more self-employed workers out of

to give a deeper explanation of the meaning and significance of the
laws of economics.
What type of explanation does Marx have in mind? The answer is
apparent from the section of the manuscripts entitled ‘Alienated
Labour’. Here Marx explains the implications of economics in terms
closely parallel to Feuerbach’s critique of religion:
The more the worker exerts himself, the more powerful becomes the
alien objective world which he fashions against himself, the poorer he
and his inner world become, the less there is that belongs to him. It is
the same in religion. The more man attributes to God, the less he
retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; then it no
longer belongs to him but to the object . . . The externalization of the
worker in his product means not only that his work becomes an object,
an external existence, but also that it exists outside him, independently,

alien, an autonomous power, opposed to him. The life he has given to
the object confronts him as hostile and alien.
(EPM 78–9)

The central point is more pithily stated in a sentence preserved in the
notebooks Marx used when studying the classical economists, in
preparation for the writing of the 1844 manuscripts:
It is evident that economics establishes an alienated form of social
intercourse as the essential, original and natural form.
(M 116)

This is the gist of Marx’s objection to classical economics. Marx does
not challenge the classical economists within the presuppositions of
their science. Instead he takes a viewpoint outside those
presuppositions and argues that private property, competition, greed,
and so on are to be found only in a particular condition of human
existence, a condition of alienation. In contrast to Hegel, whom Marx

praises for grasping the self-development of man as a process, the
classical economists take the present alienated condition of human
society as its ‘essential, original and definitive form’. They fail to see
that it is a necessary but temporary stage in the evolution of mankind.
Marx then discusses the present alienated state of humanity. One of his
premises is that ‘man is a species-being’. The idea is taken directly
from Feuerbach who in turn derived it from Hegel. Hegel, as we saw,
told the story of human development in terms of the progress of a
single Mind, of which individual human minds are particular
manifestations. Feuerbach scrubbed out the super-Mind, and rewrote
Hegel in less mysterious human terms; but he retained the idea that
human beings are in some sense a unity. For Feuerbach the basis of
this unity, and the essential difference between humans and animals, is
the ability of humans to be conscious of their species. It is because
can see themselves as individuals (that is, as one among others), and it
is because humans see themselves as a species that human reason and
human powers are unlimited. Human beings partake in perfection –
which, according to Feuerbach, they mistakenly attribute to God
instead of themselves – because they are part of a species.
Marx transforms Feuerbach, making the conception of man as a
species-being still more concrete. For Marx ‘Productive life . . . is
species-life.’ It is in activity, in production, that humans show
themselves to be species-beings. The somewhat unconvincing reason
Marx offers for this is that while animals produce only to satisfy their
immediate needs, human beings can produce according to universal
standards, free of any immediate need – for instance, in accordance
with standards of beauty (EPM 82).
On this view, labour in the sense of free productive activity is the
essence of human life. Whatever is produced in this way – a statue, a
house, or a piece of cloth – is therefore the essence of human life made

The First Marxism

they are conscious of their existence as a species that human beings

into a physical object. Marx calls this ‘the objectification of man’s
species-life’. Ideally the objects workers have freely created would be
theirs to keep or dispose of as they wish. When, under conditions of
alienated labour, workers must produce objects over which they have
no control (because the objects belong to the employers) and which
are used against those who produced them (by increasing the wealth
and power of the employers) the workers are alienated from their
essential humanity.
A consequence of this alienation of humans from their own nature is
that they are also alienated from each other. Productive activity
becomes ‘activity under the domination, coercion and yoke of another
man’. This other man becomes an alien, hostile being. Instead of
humans relating to each other co-operatively, they relate
competitively. Love and trust are replaced by bargaining and exchange.
Human beings cease to recognize in each other their common human

nature; they see others as instruments for furthering their own egoistic
That, in brief, is Marx’s first critique of economics. Since in his view it is
economic life rather than Mind or consciousness that is ultimately real,
this critique is his account of what is really wrong with the present
condition of humanity. The next question is: What can be done
about it?
Marx rejects the idea that anything would be achieved by an enforced
wage rise. Labour for wages is not free productive activity. It is merely
a means to an end. Higher wages Marx describes as ‘nothing but a
better slave-salary’. It would not restore significance or dignity to
workers or their labour. Even equal wages, as proposed by the French
socialist Proudhon, would only replace individual capitalists with one
overall capitalist, society itself (EPM 85).
The solution is the abolition of wages, alienated labour, and private

property in one blow. In a word, communism. Marx introduces
communism in terms befitting the closing chapter of a Hegelian epic:
Communism . . . is the genuine resolution of the antagonism between
man and nature and between man and man; it is the true resolution of
the conflict between existence and essence, objectification and selfaffirmation, freedom and necessity, individual and species. It is the
riddle of history solved and knows itself as this solution.
(EPM 89)

One might expect that Marx would go on to explain in some detail
what communism would be like. He does not – in fact nowhere in his
writings does he give more than sketchy suggestions on this subject.
He does, however, gesture at the enormous difference communism
would make. All human senses, he claims, are degraded by private
handles, not their beauty. In the alienated condition caused by private
property we cannot appreciate anything except by possessing it, or
using it as a means. The abolition of private property will liberate our
senses from this alienated condition, and enable us to appreciate the
world in a truly human way just as the musical ear perceives a wealth
of meaning and beauty where the unmusical ear can find none, so will
the senses of social human beings differ from those of the unsocial.
These are the essential points of ‘the first Marxism’. It is manifestly not
a scientific enterprise in the sense in which we understand science
today. Its theories are not derived from detailed factual studies, or
subjected to controlled tests or observations.
The first Marxism is more down to earth than Hegel’s philosophy of
history, but it is a speculative philosophy of history rather than a
scientific study. The aim of world history is human freedom. Human
beings are not now free, for they are unable to organize the world so as
to satisfy their needs and develop their human capacities. Private

The First Marxism

property. The dealer in minerals sees the market value of the jewels he

property, though a human creation, dominates and enslaves human
beings. Ultimate liberation, however, is not in doubt; it is
philosophically necessary. The immediate task of revolutionary theory
is to understand in what way the present situation is a stage in the
dialectical progress to liberation. Then it will be possible to encourage
the movements that will end the present stage, ushering in the new
age of freedom.
Marx’s writings after 1844 – including all the works which made him
famous – are reworkings, modifications, developments, and extensions
of the themes of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. The number
and bulk of these writings make it impossible to discuss each work
adequately. (Their repetitiveness would make it tedious, anyway.) So
from here on I shall depart slightly from a strict chronological account.
I shall begin by tracing the development of the materialist conception
of history, which Marx himself described as the ‘guiding thread for my

studies’ (P 389), and Engels, in his funeral oration by Marx’s grave,
hailed as Marx’s chief discovery, comparable with Darwin’s discovery of
the theory of evolution. This will occupy the next two chapters. I shall
then consider Marx’s economic works, principally, of course, Capital.
Since Capital was written only after Marx had arrived at the materialist
conception of history, the departure from chronological order in this
section will be slight. It will be greater in the next and last of these
expository sections, which will assemble from passages of varying
vintage Marx’s thoughts on communism and on the ethical principles
underlying his preference for a communist rather than a capitalist form
of society.


Chapter 6
Alienation as a Theory
of History

Marx’s first published book – and, incidentally, the first work in
which Engels participated – attacked articles published in the General
Literary Gazette (Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung), a journal edited by
Marx’s former friend and teacher, Bruno Bauer. Since Bauer’s brother
was a co-editor, the book was mockingly entitled The Holy Family.
The best comment on it was made by Engels: ‘the sovereign derision
that we accord to the General Literary Gazette is in stark contrast to
the considerable number of pages that we devote to its criticism’.
Nevertheless some passages of The Holy Family are interesting
because they show Marx in transition between the Economic and
Philosophic Manuscripts and later statements of the materialist
conception of history.
One section is a defence of the French socialist Proudhon and his
objections to private property. Marx is still thinking in terms of
The propertied class and the class of the proletariat represent the same
human self-alienation. But the former feels comfortable and confirmed
in this self-alienation, knowing that this alienation is its own power and
possessing in it the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels
itself ruined in this alienation and sees in it its impotence and the
actuality of an inhuman existence.

Then comes a passage in which the outlines of an embryonic materialist
theory of history are clearly visible:
In its economic movement, private property is driven towards its own
dissolution but only through a development which does not depend on
it, of which it is unconscious, which takes place against its will, and
which is brought about by the very nature of things – thereby creating
the proletariat as proletariat, that spiritual and physical misery
conscious of its misery, that dehumanization conscious of its
dehumanization and thus transcending itself . . .
It is not a question of what this or that proletarian or even the whole
proletarian movement momentarily imagines to be the aim. It is a
question of what the proletariat is and what it consequently is
historically compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is prescribed,
irrevocably and obviously, in its own situation in life as well as in the
entire organization of contemporary civil society.

(HF 134–5)

The structure of this and surrounding passages is Hegelian. Private
property and the proletariat are described as ‘antitheses’ – the two
sides of a Hegelian contradiction. It is a necessary contradiction,
one which could not have been otherwise, for to maintain its own
existence private property must also maintain the existence of the
property-less working class needed to run the factories. The
proletariat, on the other hand, is compelled to abolish itself on
account of its miserable condition. This will require the abolition of
private property. The end result will be that both private property
and the proletariat ‘disappear’ in a new synthesis that resolves the

Here we have an early version of the materialist theory of history. The
basis of the dialectical movement Marx describes is the economic
imperatives that flow from the existence of private property. The

movement does not depend on the hopes and plans of people. The
proletariat becomes conscious of its misery, and therefore seeks to
overthrow capitalist society, but this consciousness arises only because
of the situation of the proletariat in society. This is the point Marx and
Engels were to make more explicitly in a famous passage of The
German Ideology: ‘Consciousness does not determine life, but life
determines consciousness’ (GI 164).
According to Engels’ later account of the relationship between German
philosophy and the materialist conception of history, ‘the first
document in which is deposited the brilliant germ of the new world
outlook’ is not The Holy Family but the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ which
Marx jotted down in the spring of 1845. These ‘Theses’ consist of
eleven brief remarks in which Marx distinguishes his own form of
form they have become among the most quoted of Marx’s writings.
Because Engels published them in 1888, long before any of Marx’s
other early unpublished writings appeared, they are also among the
most misunderstood.
Despite Engels’ accolade, the ‘Theses’ largely recapitulate points Marx
had made before. They attack Feuerbach and earlier materialists for
taking a passive view of objects and our perception of them. Idealists
like Hegel and Fichte emphasized that our activities shape the way we
see the world. They were thinking of mental activity. A child sees a red
ball, rather than a flat red circle, only when it has mentally grasped the
idea of three-dimensional space. Marx wants to combine the active,
dialectical side of idealist thought with the materialism of Feuerbach:
hence ‘dialectical materialism’ as later Marxists called it (though Marx
himself never used this phrase).
By the active side of materialism Marx meant practical human activity.
Marx thought that practical activity was needed to solve theoretical
problems. We have seen examples of this. In ‘On the Jewish Question’

Alienation as a Theory of History

materialism from that of Feuerbach. Because of their epigrammatic

7. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72), who showed how Hegel’s ideas could be
transformed into a materialist philosophy and used to provide a radical
critique of human alienation

Marx wrote that the problem of the status of Jews, which Bauer had
seen as a problem in religious consciousness, would be abolished by
reorganizing society so as to abolish bargaining. In ‘Towards a Critique
of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction’, Marx argued that
philosophy cannot be ‘actualized’ without the material weapon of the
proletariat. And in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts Marx had
referred to communism as ‘the riddle of history solved’. This ‘riddle of
history’ is, of course, a theoretical problem, a philosophical riddle. In
Marx’s transformation the contradictions of Hegelian philosophy
become contradictions in the human condition. They are resolved by
The ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ are the principal source of the celebrated
Marxist doctrine of ‘the unity of theory and practice’. This unity some
barricades. Others take it as meaning that one should live in
accordance with one’s theoretical principles – socialists sharing their
wealth, for instance. The intellectual background of the ‘Theses’ makes
it clear that Marx had neither of these ideas in mind. For Marx the unity
of theory and practice meant the resolution of theoretical problems by
practical activity. It is an idea which makes little sense outside the
context of a materialist transformation of Hegel’s philosophy of world
The eleventh thesis on Feuerbach is engraved on Marx’s tombstone in
Highgate Cemetery. It reads: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted
the world in various ways; the point is, to change it’ (T 158). This is
generally read as a statement to the effect that philosophy is
unimportant; revolutionary activity is what matters. It means nothing
of the sort. What Marx is saying is that the problems of philosophy
cannot be solved by passive interpretation of the world as it is, but only
by remoulding the world to resolve the philosophical contradictions
inherent in it. It is to solve philosophical problems that we must
change the world.

Alienation as a Theory of History

think of as scribbling Marxist philosophy during quiet moments on the

The materialist conception of history is a theory of world history in
which practical human activity, rather than thought, plays the crucial
role. The most detailed statement of the theory is to be found in Marx
and Engels’ next major work, The German Ideology (1846). Like The Holy
Family this was a polemic of inordinate length against rival thinkers.
Marx later wrote that the book was written ‘to settle our accounts with
our former philosophic conscience’ (P 390).
This time Feuerbach is included in the criticism, although treated more
respectfully than the others. It is in the section on Feuerbach that Marx
and Engels take the opportunity to state their new view of world
The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of
living human individuals . . . Men can be distinguished from animals by
consciousness, by religion, or by anything else you like. They

themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as
they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is
conditioned by their physical organization. By producing means of
subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life . . .

In direct contrast to German philosophy, which descends from
heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say,
we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men
as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men
in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their
real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological
reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the
human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material lifeprocess, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises.
Morality, religion, metaphysics and all the rest of ideology and their
corresponding forms of consciousness no longer seem to be
independent. They have no history or development. Rather, men who
develop their material production and their material relationships alter

their thinking and the products of their thinking along with their real
existence. Consciousness does not determine life, but life determines
(GI 160, 164)

This is as clear a statement of the broad outline of his theory as Marx
was ever to achieve. Thirteen years later, summing up the ‘guiding
thread’ of his studies, he used similar language: ‘It is not the
consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the
contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness’. With
The German Ideology we have arrived at Marx’s mature formulation of

Alienation as a Theory of History

8. Friedrich Engels (1820–95), Marx’s co-author, friend, benefactor, and
the first Marxist

the outline of historical materialism (though not the detailed account
of the process of change).
In view of this, and Marx’s later description of the work as settling
accounts with his ‘former philosophic conscience’, it might be thought
that his early interest in alienation has now been replaced by a more
scientific approach. It has not. Henceforth Marx makes more use of
historical data and less use of abstract philosophical reasoning about
the way the world must be; but his interest in alienation persists. The
German Ideology still describes the social power as something which is
really nothing other than the productive force of individuals, and yet
appears to these individuals as ‘alien and outside them’ because they
do not understand its origin and cannot control it. Instead of them
directing it, it directs them. The abolition of private property and the
regulation of production under communism would abolish this
‘alienation between men and their products’ and enable men to

‘regain control of exchange, production and the mode of their mutual
relationships’ (GI 170).
It is not the use of the word ‘alienation’ that is important here. The
same point can be made in other words. What is important is that
Marx’s theory of history is a vision of human beings in a state of
alienation. Human beings cannot be free if they are subject to forces
that determine their thoughts, their ideas, their very nature as human
beings. The materialist conception of history tells us that human beings
are totally subject to forces they do not understand and cannot
control. Moreover the materialist conception of history tells us that
these forces are not supernatural tyrants, for ever above and beyond
human control, but the productive powers of human beings
themselves. Human productive powers, instead of serving human
beings, appear to them as alien and hostile forces. The description of
this state of alienation is the materialist conception of history.


Chapter 7
The Goal of History

We have traced the development of the materialist conception of
history from Marx’s earlier concern with human freedom and
alienation, but we have not examined the details of this theory of
history. Is it really, as Engels claimed, a scientific discovery of ‘the law
of development of human history’, comparable to Darwin’s discovery
of the law of development of organic nature?
The classic formulation of the materialist conception of history is that
of the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,
written in 1859. We have already seen a little of this summary by Marx
of his own ideas, but it merits a lengthier quotation:
In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite
relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these
relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development
of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations
of production constitutes the economic structure of society – the real
foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to
which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of
production of material life conditions the general character of the
social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness
of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their
social existence determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of

their development the material forces of production in society come
into conflict with the existing relations of production or – what is but a
legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within
which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the
forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then comes
the epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic
foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly
transformed. In considering such transformations the distinction
should always be made between the material transformation of the
economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the
precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic,
or philosophic – in short, ideological – forms in which men become
conscious of this conflict and fight it out.
(P 389–90)

It is commonly said that Marx divided society into two elements, the

‘economic base’ and the ‘superstructure’, and maintained that the
base governs the superstructure. A closer reading of the passage just
quoted reveals a threefold, rather than a twofold, distinction. The
opening sentence refers to relations of production, corresponding to a
definite stage of the material powers of production. Thus we start with
powers of production, or ‘productive forces’, as Marx usually calls
them. The productive forces give rise to relations of production, and it
is these relations – not the forces themselves – which constitute the
economic structure of society. This economic structure, in turn, is the
foundation on which the superstructure rises.
Marx’s view may be clearer if made more specific. Productive forces are
things used to produce. They include labour-power, raw materials, and
the machines available to process them. If a miller uses a handmill to
grind wheat into flour, the handmill is a productive force.
Relations of production are relations between people, or between
people and things. The miller may own his mill, or may hire it from its

owner. Owning and hiring are relations of production. Relations
between people, such as ‘Smith employs Jones’ or ‘Ramsbottom is
the serf of the Earl of Warwick’, are also relations of production.
So we start with productive forces. Marx says that relations of
production correspond to the stage of development of productive
forces. In one place he puts this very bluntly:
The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill,
society with the industrial capitalist.
(PP 202)

In other words, when the productive forces are developed to the stage
of manual power, the typical relation of production is that of lord and
serf. This and similar relations make up the economic structure of
superstructure of feudal times, with the religion and morality that
goes with it: an authoritarian religion, and a morality based on
concepts of loyalty, obedience, and fulfilling the duties of one’s
station in life.
Feudal relations of production came about because they fostered the
development of the productive forces of feudal times – the handmill
for example. These productive forces continue to develop. The steam
mill is invented. Feudal relations of production restrict the use of the
steam mill. The most efficient use of steam power is in large factories
which require a concentration of free labourers rather than serfs tied
to their land. So the relation of lord and serf breaks down, to be
replaced by the relation of capitalist and employee. These new
relations of production constitute the economic structure of society,
on which a capitalist legal and political superstructure rises, with its
own religion and morality: freedom of religious conscience, freedom
of contract, a right to disposable property, egoism, and

The Goal of History

society, which in turn is the foundation of the political and legal

So we have a three-stage process: productive forces determine
relations of production, which in turn determine the superstructure.
The productive forces are fundamental. Their growth provides the
momentum for the whole process of history.
But isn’t all this much too crude? Should we take seriously the
statement about the handmill giving us feudal lords, and the steam
mill capitalists? Surely Marx must have realized that the invention of
steam power itself depends on human ideas, and those ideas, as much
as the steam mill itself, have produced capitalism. Isn’t Marx making a
deliberately exaggerated statement of his own position in order to
display its novelty?
This is a vexed question. There are several other places where Marx
says flatly that productive forces determine everything else. There are
other statements which acknowledge the effect of factors belonging to

the superstructure. Particularly when writing history himself, in The
Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, for instance, Marx traces the
effects of ideas and personalities, and makes less deterministic general
statements, for example:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they
please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves,
but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted
from the past.
(EB 300)

And what of the opening declaration of The Communist Manifesto: ‘The
history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’?
If the forces of production control everything, class struggles can be no
more than the superficial form in which these forces are cloaked. Like
the images on a cinema screen they would be powerless to affect the
underlying reality they reflect. So why describe history as the history of
class struggles? And if neither thought nor politics has any real causal

significance, what is the meaning of Marx’s dedication, intellectually
and politically, to the cause of the working class?
After Marx died, Engels denied that Marx had said that ‘the economic
element is the only determining one’. He and Marx, he conceded, were
partly to blame for this misinterpretation, for they had emphasized the
economic side in opposition to those who rejected it altogether. Marx
and he had not, Engels wrote, overlooked the existence of interaction
between the economic structure and the rest of the superstructure.
They had affirmed only that ‘the economic movement finally asserts
itself as necessary’. According to Engels, Marx grew so irritated at
misinterpretations of his doctrine that towards the end of his life, he
declared: ‘All I know is that I am not a Marxist.’
Was Engels right? Some have accused him of watering down the
really meant than his lifelong friend and collaborator. Moreover the
relatively recent publication of Marx’s Grundrisse – a rough preliminary
version of Capital and other projects Marx never completed – reveals
that Marx did, like Engels, use such phrases as ‘in the last analysis’
to describe the predominance of the forces of production in the
interacting whole that constitutes human existence (G 495). Right or
wrong, one cannot help sympathizing with Engels’ position after
Marx died. As the authoritative interpreter of Marx’s ideas he had to
present them in a plausible form, a form not refuted by common-sense
observations about the effect of politics, religion, or law on the
productive forces.
But once ‘interaction’ between the superstructure and the productive
forces is admitted, is it still possible to maintain that production
determines the superstructure, rather than the other way round? It is
the old chicken-and-egg problem all over again. The productive forces
determine the relations of production to which correspond the ideas of
the society. These ideas lead to the further development of productive

The Goal of History

true doctrine; yet no one was in a better position to know what Marx

forces, which lead to new relations of production, to which correspond
new ideas. In this cyclical movement it makes no more sense to say
that productive forces play the determining role than to say that the
egg ensures the continued existence of chickens rather than the other
way round.
Talk of the productive forces ‘finally’ or ‘in the last analysis’
determining the other interacting factors does not provide a way out
of the dilemma. For what can this mean? Does it mean that in the end
the superstructure is totally governed by the development of the
forces of production? In that case ‘finally’ merely stretches the causal
chain; it is still a chain and so we are back with the hard-line
determinist version of the theory.
On the other hand, if ‘finally’ not merely stretches, but actually
breaks, the chain of economic determinism, it is difficult to see that

asserting the primacy of the productive forces can mean anything
significant at all. It might mean, as the passage from The German
Ideology quoted in the previous chapter appears to suggest, that the
process of human history only gets going when humans ‘begin to
produce their means of subsistence’; or as Engels put it in his
graveside speech: ‘mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter
and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.’
But if politics, science, art, and religion, once they come into
existence, have as much effect on the productive forces as the
productive forces have on them, the fact that mankind must eat first
and can only pursue politics afterwards is of historical interest only; it
has no continuing causal importance.
Alternatively, describing the economic side as ‘finally’ asserting itself
could be an attempt to say that although both economic and noneconomic factors interact, a larger proportion of the causal impetus
comes from the productive forces. But on what basis could one say
this? How could one divide the interacting processes and say which

9. English factories in the mid-nineteenth century: men and women
at work in the Patent Renewable Stocking Factory at Tewkesbury
in 1860

by saying that while the existence of the species is not due to the egg
alone, the egg has more to do with it than the chicken.
In the absence of more plausible ways of making sense of the
softening phrases used by Engels and – more rarely – Marx, the
interpretation of the materialist conception of history seems to
resolve itself into a choice between hard-line economic determinism,
which would indeed be a momentous discovery if it were true, but
does not seem to be true; or the much more pliable conception to be
found in the Grundrisse, where Marx describes society as a ‘totality’,
an ‘organic whole’ in which everything is interconnected (G 99–100).
The view of society as a totality is no doubt illuminating when set
against the view that ideas, politics, law, religion, and so on have a life
and history of their own, independently of mundane economic
matters. Nevertheless it does not amount to ‘the law of development
of human history’, or to a scientific discovery comparable to Darwin’s

The Goal of History

played the larger role? We cannot solve the chicken-and-egg problem

theory of evolution. To qualify as a contribution to science, a
proposed law must be precise enough to enable us to deduce from it
certain consequences rather than others. That is how we test
proposed scientific laws – by seeing if the consequences they predict
actually occur. The conception of society as an interconnected totality
is about as precise an instrument of historical analysis as a bowl of
porridge. Anything at all can be deduced from it. No observation
could ever refute it.
It still needs to be explained how Marx, though obviously aware of the
effect of the superstructure on the productive forces, could so
confidently assert that the productive forces determine the relations of
production and hence the social superstructure. Why did he not see
the difficulty posed by the existence of interaction?
The explanation may be that belief in the primacy of the productive

forces was not, for Marx, an ordinary belief about a matter of fact but a
legacy of the origin of his theory in Hegelian philosophy.
One way to see this is to ask why, if Marx’s view is inverted
Hegelianism, the existence of interaction between ideas and material
life does not pose exactly the same problem for Hegel’s view (that the
progress of Mind determines material life) as it poses for Marx’s
inversion of this view. Hegel’s writings contain as many descriptions of
material life influencing consciousness as Marx’s contain of
consciousness influencing material life. So the problem of establishing
the primary causal role of one set of factors over the other should be
as great for Hegel as for Marx.
Yet Hegel’s reason for believing in the primacy of consciousness is
clear: he regards Mind as ultimately real, and the material world as a
manifestation of it; accordingly he sees the purpose or goal of history
as the liberation of Mind from all illusions and fetters. Hegel’s belief
that consciousness determines material life therefore rests on his view

of ultimate reality and the meaning of history. History is not a chain of
meaningless and often accidental occurrences, but a necessary process
heading towards a discoverable goal. Whatever happens on the stage
of world history happens in order to enable Mind to reach its goal. It is
in this sense that what happens on the level of Mind, or consciousness,
is the real cause of everything else.
Like Hegel, Marx has a view about what is ultimately real. His
materialism is the reverse of Hegel’s idealism. The materialist
conception of history is usually regarded as a theory about the causes
of historical change, rather than a theory about the nature of ultimate
reality. In fact it is both – as Hegel’s idealist conception of history was
both. We have already seen passages from The German Ideology which
indicate that Marx took material processes as real in a way that ideas
are not. There Marx and Engels contrast the ‘real life-process’ of ‘real,
process’. They distinguish the ‘phantoms formed in the human brain’
from the ‘material life-process, which is empirically verifiable’. The
frequent reiteration of ‘real’ or ‘actual’ in describing the material or
productive life of human beings, and the use of words like ‘reflex’,
‘echo’, ‘phantom’ and so on for aspects of consciousness, suggest a
philosophical distinction between what is real and what is merely a
manifestation or appearance.
Nor is this terminology restricted to Marx’s early works. The
contrast between appearance and reality is repeated in Capital,
where the religious world is said to be ‘but the reflex of the real
world’ (C I 79).
Also like Hegel, Marx thought that history is a necessary process
heading towards a discoverable goal. We have seen evidence of this in
the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, where Marx criticized
classical economists for saying nothing about the meaning of
economic phenomena ‘in the evolution of mankind’ or about the

The Goal of History

active men’ with ‘the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-

extent to which ‘apparently accidental circumstances’ are nothing but
‘the expression of a necessary course of development’. That this too is
not a view limited to Marx’s youthful period seems clear from, for
instance, the following paragraph from an article of his on British rule
in India, written in 1853:
England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan, was
actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of
enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can
mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social
state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England,
she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that

The references to ‘mankind’s destiny’ and to England as ‘the
unconscious tool of history’ imply that history moves in a purposive

way towards some goal. (The whole paragraph is reminiscent of
Hegel’s account of how ‘the cunning of reason’ uses unsuspecting
individuals to work its purposes in history.)
Marx’s idea of the goal of world history was, of course, different
from Hegel’s. He replaced the liberation of Mind by the liberation
of real human beings. The development of Mind through various
forms of consciousness to final self-knowledge was replaced by the
development of human productive forces, by which human beings
free themselves from the tyranny of nature and fashion the world
after their own plans. But for Marx the progress of human
productive forces is no less necessary, and no less progress towards
a goal, than the progress of Mind towards self-knowledge is for
We can now explain the primary role of the productive forces in Marx’s
theory of history in the same manner as we explained Hegel’s opposite
conviction: for Marx the productive life of human beings, rather than

their ideas and consciousness, is ultimately real. The development of
these productive forces, and the liberation of human capacities that
this development will bring, is the goal of history.
Marx’s suggestion about England’s role in advancing mankind
towards its destiny illustrates the nature of the primacy of material
life. Since England’s colonial policy involves a series of political acts,
the causing of a social revolution in Asia by this policy is an instance
of the superstructure affecting the economic base. This happens,
though, in order to develop the productive forces to the state
necessary for the fulfilment of human destiny. The superstructure
acts only as the ‘unconscious tool’ of history. England’s colonial
policy is no more the ultimate cause of the social revolution in Asia
than my spade is the ultimate cause of the growth of my

ordinary causal theory. Few historians – or philosophers for that
matter – now see any purpose or goal in history. They do not explain
history as the necessary path to anywhere. They explain it by showing
how one set of events brought about another. Marx, in contrast, saw
history as the progress of the real nature of human beings, that is,
human beings satisfying their wants and exerting their control over
nature by their productive activities. The materialist conception of
history was not conceived as a modern scientific account of how
economic changes lead to changes in other areas of society. It was
conceived as an explanation of history which points to the real forces
operating in it, and the goal to which these forces are heading.
That is why, while recognizing the effect of politics, law, and ideas on
the productive forces, Marx was in no doubt that the development of
the productive forces determines everything else. This also makes
sense of Marx’s dedication to the cause of the working class. Marx was
acting as the tool – a fully conscious tool – of history. The productive

The Goal of History

If this interpretation is correct the materialist theory of history is no

forces always finally assert themselves, but they do so through the
actions of individual humans who may or may not be conscious of the


role they are playing in history.


Chapter 8

Although Marx described the materialist conception of history as the
leading thread of his studies, he was in no doubt that his masterpiece
was Capital. In this book he presented his economic theories to the
public in their most finished form. ‘Most finished’, not ‘finished’; Marx
saw only the first volume of Capital through to publication. The
second and third volumes were published by Engels, and a fourth
volume, entitled Theories of Surplus Value, by the German socialist
As with the materialist conception of history, so with the economics:
the mature form is easier to appreciate in the light of earlier writings.
So let us return to Marx’s ideas in 1844, the point at which we ceased
to follow their general development and went off in pursuit of the
materialist conception of history.
By 1844 Marx had come to hold that the capitalist economic system,
regarded by the classical economists as natural and inevitable, was an
alienated form of human life. Under capitalism workers are forced to
sell their labour – which Marx regards as the essence of human
existence – to the capitalists, who use this labour to accumulate more
capital, which further increases the power of the capitalists over the
workers. Capitalists become rich, while wages are driven down to the
bare minimum needed to keep the workers alive. Yet in reducing so

large a class of people to this degraded condition, capitalism creates
the material force that will overthrow it. For Marx, the importance of
economics lay in the insight it provided into the workings of this
alienation and the manner in which it could be overcome.
In the years immediately after 1844 Marx’s major literary efforts went
into polemical works: The Holy Family, The German Ideology, and The
Poverty of Philosophy. In the course of castigating his opponents Marx
developed the materialist conception of history, but did not greatly
advance his economic theories. His first attempt to work out these
theories in any detail came in 1847, when he gave a series of lectures
on economics to the Workingmen’s Club in Brussels. The lectures were
revised and published as newspaper articles in 1849, and later reprinted
under the title Wage Labour and Capital.
Wage Labour and Capital is a lucidly written work, containing many

echoes of the 1844 manuscripts, but without their Hegelian
terminology. It is worth examining in some detail, because its clarity
makes the more difficult Capital easier to grasp.
Marx starts with labour. Labour is described as ‘the worker’s own
life-activity, the manifestation of his own life’. Yet it becomes, under
capitalism, a commodity the worker must sell in order to live.
Therefore his life-activity is reduced to a means to