Marx and Engels in the 1840s

Marx and Engels in the 1840s

The 1840s was a revolutionary decade for both Marx and Engels in terms of the elaboration of their whole conception. An incredibly rich and contradictory period for them which gave impulse and vitality to their developing outlook. It was a period of conflict and turmoil for both Marx and Engels in terms of their theoretical and political development. We can see this from a survey of the transition from the Doctoral Dissertation on Democritus and Epicurus to the Manifesto. Their conception did not emerge ready-made and fully-formed from their heads in 1841. Marx and Engels had to constantly grapple with all manner of conflicts within their conception in this decade before arriving at the more ‘mature’ conception found in the Manifesto. Their struggles in this decade moved them on to their conception articulated in the Manifesto.

For the rest of his life, Marx was constantly reviewing and re-assessing his own work. Leaving this behind. Taking that onboard. Overthrowing here. Returning to this there, etc. Marx’s conceptions were also subject to the dialectic. He moved on. For example, Marx was still referring to the “value of labour” in 1846-47 (Poverty of Philosophy) but post-Manifesto it had gone, to be replaced by the scientifically correct “value of labour-power”. Marx had moved on, arriving at the conception that “living labour” itself is the creator of value but “living labour” itself (like land) has no value. Labour-power has both value and price. But living labour and land both have price but no value. The price of land is equivalent to the capitalised rent.

In my opinion, the pivotal work in Marx’s approach in Capital is to be found in the Grundrisse. The notebooks for Capital. Everything he had done previous to this was once again re-assessed and put through a critical fire in order to re-forge it in the pages of Capital. Even the 1859 Contribution was subjected to the same revolutionary criticism. Marx wrote that revolutions constantly subject themselves to a critique as they unfold (and this becomes an intrinsic part of their dynamic). Marx did the same with all his work. The Grundrisse was that critique, a critique of political economy which included all his own previous work.

Of course, there are limits in drawing contrasts between the earlier Marx of the 1844 Paris Manuscripts and the later Marx of Capital. However, it would be absurd to deny the tremendous and determinate developments and leaps which took place between the two and to imply that, in terms of overall conception, there was not a far richer and more concrete and more comprehensive conception in the later period. The development of the totality of Marx’s thinking was an entirely sublative process.

Engels wrote that The German Ideology was written for “purposes of self-clarification” submitted for publication but was in fact left unpublished to “the gnawing criticism of the mice” [1859 Preface] and not published in full until 1932. The work was an indispensable part of both Marx’s and particularly Engels’ development (mostly written in Engels’ handwriting) in the 1840s. It would be misguided, in my opinion, to approach any of their work divorced from the historical conditions under which they were thinking and writing.

This does not mean that they do not ‘carry forward and over’ today but we must also read them within context in order not to fall into the trap which the dogmatist and doctrinaire sets for us. I think we need to study the Doctoral Dissertation within this context of the historical development of Marx’s conception which was not immune to the alterations and shifts which the dialectic inevitably asserts. We do not, of course, subscribe to a “disorienting historical relativism”. However, we do not lift Marx out of determining historical conditions and simply quote him without any necessary, specific qualification which may or may not be required depending on the stage at which he had reached in his unfolding and progressively ‘concentrating’ conception.

Soon after Marx’s Doctoral Dissertation, Feuerbach published his Essence of Christianity (1841) and Principles of the Philosophy of the Future (1843). On reading Feuerbach, Engels wrote later that..

we were all momentarily Feuerbachians. How enthusiastically Marx greeted the new interpretation, and how greatly – despite all critical reservations – he was influenced by it, we can read in The Holy Family (Ludwig Feuerbach, Dietz, 1946, p. 14).

We can also see the influence of Feuerbach in the Paris Manuscripts of 1844 [Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844] which is not to assert that a critique of both Hegel and Feuerbach had not already begun. [for example, in the critiques of Hegel’s doctrine of the state and of the Rechtsphilosophie., 1843-44]. However, personally, I think to quote Marx’s doctoral dissertation now is more than idiosyncratic unless, of course, it is part of a study of the early development of Marx’s thinking.

In relation to the development of Marx’s approach to his work, I think that the Theses on Feuerbach were highly important. They are an incredibly rich, concrete and ‘concentrated’ result of Marx’s studies in the 1840s. If we evaluate the “methods” of various “Marxists” in the light of these theses, we start to gain real insight into the character, and especially the deficiencies and shortfalls, of these “Marxist methods”.

Shaun May

September 2014


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