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The philosophical dimensions and interest of Karl Marx’s work were largely underestimated for a variety of reasons. First, the general disrepute of “speculative” as opposed to “empirical” thought in the later nineteenth century led Friedrich Engels and his collaborators to stress the hardheaded empiricism, scientism, and even positivism of Marx’s work when they undertook to turn it into the ideology of a mass movement during the 1880’s. Marx himself was probably involved in this effort. In any case, its success was ensured by consolidation of power in Russia by a group of Marxists schooled exclusively in this view. Second, the manuscripts of Marx that could shed a different light on the origins and foundations of Marx’s thinking were not widely available until the twentieth century. This fact is obviously not unconnected with the first. Here Marx’s complicity derives from his habit of keeping his philosophical way of thinking out of view in the works he prepared or authorized for publication, largely in order to preclude any intimation of idealism, which he felt would undermine the urgency of his message to the working class.

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However, four of Marx’s works have thrown much light on his deeper philosophical roots, commitments, and habits. These works are Marx’s “Zur Kritik der hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie” (1844; Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1970); Ökonomische und philosophische Manuskripte (1844; Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 1947); Die deutsche Ideologie (1845-1846; The German Ideology, 1938); and Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (1857-1858; Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, 1973), a rich but unwieldy group of notebooks sometimes called the “rough draft of capital.” It is on these works that the following sketch is based.

Precursors: Hegel and Feuerbach

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Like his Young Hegelian companions, Marx as a graduate student began to suspect that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s idealism leads to the unwarranted positing of transcendent entities—notably, Absolute Spirit. The point is not that Hegel takes this line; it is that he is unable, whatever his intentions, to escape it. By 1843, Marx had become especially intrigued by philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s causal explanation of the positing of transcendent objects.

For Feuerbach, they are projections, roughly, of an “ideal self” displaced into another world because of factual restrictions placed on self-recognition and self-validation in this world. These restrictions come about generally from the domination of nature over humanity, but more particularly they arise whenever some people systematically dominate others. Given such an artificial division within the species “man” (as if differences between classes or races or other social groupings were like, or took the place of, differences between whole species), individual human beings are prevented from seeing in themselves what is characteristic of all people and seeing in all people what is characteristic of themselves. Full recognition and expression of one’s “species being,” then, is blocked. (An assumption of this argument is that rational persons basically experience themselves and other beings in terms of categories like natural kinds.) This blockage is expressed by the ascription of ideal human characteristics to divine beings.

For Feuerbach, the degree of progress in history, then, is marked by stages in which people take back into self-characterizations predicates that had been projected onto fantastic beings. This process culminates in the refusal to countenance, however bloodlessly and undescriptively, any divinity at all. In such ideal circumstances, there will be, by definition, no religion. Further, the only entities that will be ontologically certified are those that have their roots exclusively in sensory experience and that can be referred back to sensory particulars as their subjects. Hegel’s philosophy, since it fails to pass this ontological test, is not nearly as far beyond religious thinking as its author hopes. Meanwhile, however, Feuerbach’s own theory remains deeply ambiguous about the relation it posits between empiricism and the demand that our experience is categorized in essentialistic terms such as “species being.” The basic problem is that one may talk about kinds in ontological terms (roughly essentialism) without thoroughgoing empiricism, and vice versa. Feuerbach seems never to have faced this tension squarely, or even to have recognized it fully. The ambiguity is passed on to Marx. Feuerbach’s theory does, however, propose a test for its own verification. It will be verified if there comes to exist a social reality that is jointly characterized by (a) a thoroughgoing empiricism, (b) the disappearance of religion, and (c) sufficiently democratic political institutions to express social equality.

What is crucial is that Marx deeply accepted this complex hypothesis. Some of his first works are an attempt to further Feuerbach’s analysis by showing why merely formal democracy is not sufficient to bring about conditions (a) and (b). Marx became convinced, on the basis of contemporary sociological information, especially about America and France, that formal democracy not only can coexist with religion but also can bring about an intensification and interiorization of religious belief. These apparent countercases to Feuerbach’s theory never led Marx to suspect the general thesis itself, but they did propel him to find some additional factor (d), which is alleged to be preventing the joint coexistence of (a), (b), and the “real or true democracy” needed for (c). Under the increasing influence of socialist literature, Marx came to find this additional factor in pure private property.

Thus, already in his crucial interpretation of Hegel’s political philosophy, Marx shows that Hegel’s countenancing of transcendent objects and his contempt for empiricism—indeed his whole “upside-down” ontology and epistemology, which makes particular space-time substances dependent on abstract universals rather than the opposite—is of a piece with his justification of antidemocratic politics and private property. The one supports the other. Within the political theory itself, moreover, where Hegel promises a solidarity between rulers and ruled, Marx finds marked “alienation” and “division.” Deceptive idealist rhetoric to the contrary, there is no common mind in the state portrayed by Hegel, only the domination of some by others and naked self-interest by all. This estrangement at the political level, Marx concludes, is integrally connected to the justification of private property that Hegel built into his state-construct. It is at this point that Marx commits himself to the thesis that political community (in a Rousseauean sense) is possible if and only if private property is dismantled. Although he speaks of this as a fulfillment of democracy (as had the extreme left wing of the popular party during the great French Revolution), it is unclear whether Marx at this time was speaking of a fulfillment of a democratic state or had already come to believe what he later clearly proclaimed—that such a “democracy” requires the disappearance and delegitimation of the state itself. The state, in this latter view, comes by definition to refer to an institution functioning to restrict property to a particular class or set of classes. Its disappearance, therefore, in genuinely equal social conditions is analytically guaranteed.

Democracy and Property

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However one analyzes Marx’s views on “true democracy,” it is certainly the case that by the time of his essay “On the Jewish Question” (which appeared in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844), Marx held that formal democracy as a political institution exists merely to preserve bourgeois property rights. As these lead to human separation, competition, and the privatization of experience, they result in the religious-displacement illusions postulated by Feuerbach and in a political life which is something apart from, and dominating, the activities of the individual.

In other essays in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx deepened this analysis by showing why private property in its developed bourgeois form (where entitlement to property rests on no qualification beyond formal personhood) leads to this sociopolitical and religious alienation. He first situates this kind of private property in its larger context: that production and distribution system we call laissez-faire capitalism. He does this by way of an analysis of the writings of the political economists. He then more generally lays down what he thinks has since the beginning distinguished the human species from other animal species: a productive capability that is characterized by (1) the intervention of intelligence and foresight into the productive process and (2) a thoroughgoing social organization of production. (Marx couples these two characteristics in such a way that without the one, the other will not continually change and develop.)

These conjoint capacities express themselves in the creation of a “humanized nature” in which people cooperate to transform the found materials of their environment into objects that are media for self-expression and that thus permit mutual human recognition in a public sphere. In creativity conceived along artistic lines, then, Marx locates the sine qua non of the full mutual recognition that, in different ways, Hegel and Feuerbach were concerned to make possible. Marx’s insistence on “social praxis” centers on this view of “transformative activity” as the locus of human expression, development, and recognition. This is humanity’s “species being.” Indeed, in a productive system that appears most distinctively human, self-expression and mutual recognition provide the motive for production, and the securing of more basic needs appears as a concomitant and by-product of the achievement of these recognition-needs. Conversely, where human production is centered on the preservation of “mere existence,” human life appears less distinguishable from that of other species, and human production approximates the narrowness of animal production.

Capitalism vs. Socialism

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Marx goes on to show that this latter pole is most closely approached in capitalism. Because of the complete dominance of pure private property under capitalism, workers are alienated (1) from the product of their work, since they do not own it, and it cannot therefore express them; (2) from the process of their work, since they sell their own labor capacity, which is their most basic human (“inalienable”) attribute; and (3) from other people, since although capitalist production is de facto enormously cooperative and thus socialized, (1) and (2) prevent it from being experienced as the work of consciously cooperating human beings and as a product of their joint activity. Indeed, on the contrary, the economic system appears as something to which people subject themselves as to a fact of nature. It therefore becomes a fetish to them.

Socialism, Marx concludes, by removing private property, allows the basic defining dispositions of human beings to operate freely. This is a program whose time has come, because the skills, tools, and productive capacity of capitalism itself provide the necessary conditions for this fulfillment of human aspiration. Marx found such a call in contemporary communist propaganda literature, which, although frequently written by intellectuals, he took to be a genuine and spontaneous expression of the experience and intelligence of the working class itself. He was also delighted to find in this literature a concomitant rejection of religion and of formal democracy, and thus a confirmation not only of Feuerbach’s thesis but also of his (Marx’s) own interpretation of it. Marx’s enormous and lasting confidence in the working class—which has presented great problems for Marxists—derives, one is tempted to conclude, from his astonishment that the working class had independently arrived at Feuerbach’s and his own insights.

Two Marxes?

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Orthodox Marxism had long committed itself and Marx to a rather deterministic theory of the kind worked out by Engels in Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft (1878; Anti-Dühring, 1907) and Dialektik der Natur (1925; Dialectics of Nature, 1941) and had thus allowed Marx’s insistence on free human activity to escape from view. The problem of self-referencing was also bypassed by simply asserting that Marxism is a “science” that grounds its judgments in the way that natural science does. The publication of the early manuscripts may well have scandalized proponents of these views, but it was always possible to take the tack of calling these manuscripts juvenilia. For several decades the central issue in Marx scholarship, then, centered on where precisely to draw the line between the young Marx and his mature scientific-deterministic successor, who presented in Das Kapital (1867, 1885, 1894; Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1886, 1907, 1909; better known as Das Kapital) the laws by which capitalism inevitably gives way to socialism.

The publication of Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, however, demonstrated that the habits of mind frequently associated with the younger Marx were still operating in Marx’s thinking while he was writing Das Kapital, if somewhat behind the scenes. Those who still wished to speak of two Marxes were then driven to think of them as two alternating sides of a single Marx that vied with each other until the end. More challenging approaches, however, have tried to demonstrate that the understanding of Das Kapital that the study of Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy makes possible shows a coherence of the later view with the earlier one at the expense of Marx’s alleged scientism. The main point is to challenge the quasi-deterministic interpretation of Das Kapital itself. The correct disposition of these issues, however, is still far from accomplished.


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Additional Reading

Arnold, N. Scott. Marx’s Radical Critique of Capitalist Society: A Reconstruction and Critical Evaluation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Arnold provides a careful and detailed account of Marx’s analysis of capitalism.

Avineri, Shlomo. The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Emphasizes the ways in which Marx’s thought develops from his critique of Hegel.

Berlin, Isaiah. Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A prominent twentieth century interpreter offers a helpful study of Marx.

Bottomore, Tom, ed. Interpretations of Marx. New York: Blackwell, 1988. A worthwhile collection of essays by prominent scholars on various aspects of Marx’s thought.

Carver, Terrell, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Marx. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Essays explain and criticize a wide variety of themes, problems, and methodological issues in Marx’s philosophy.

Curtis, Michael, ed. Marxism: The Inner Dialogues. 2d ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1997. Significant essays explore various interpretations of Marx’s contributions to political, economic, and philosophical life.

Eagleton, Terry. Marx. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Fischer, Ernst. How to Read Karl Marx. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1996. Updates ways in which Marx may be interpreted and understood.

McLellan, David. Karl Marx: His Life and Thought. New York: Harper and Row, 1973. A reliable critical biography of Marx by a prominent scholar.

Rader, Melvin. Marx’s Interpretation of History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Evaluates the varied and at times competing interpretations of history that can be found in Marxist scholarship as well as in the philosophy of Marx itself.

Rosenthal, John. The Myth of Dialectics: Reinterpreting the Marx-Hegel Relation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. An effort to reappraise the important relationship between Hegel and Marx.

Singer, Peter. Marx. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. A brief but informative introduction to Marx’s life and major ideas.

Smith, Cyril. Marx at the Millennium. Chicago: Pluto Press, 1996. Takes stock of the contributions and implications of Marx’s philosophy as the twentieth century draws to a close.

Suchting, W. A. Marx: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press, 1983. A good critical biography of Marx presented chronologically and by topic.

Wheen, Francis. Karl Marx: A Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. A biography of the German political thinker and founder of modern communism that provides a view of the personal life of this influential, controversial individual.

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