The link for the Spanish translation of this post can be found here.
The Communist Theory of Marx
The history of communist organization cannot be separated from the history of marxism as a critique of its own history. Since the crisis of the revolutionary left is, in part, a crisis of revolutionary theory we must, to some extent, begin again by returning to Marx. The history of revolutionary theory itself is marked by such returns in which revolutionaries attempted to understand their society in the light of past ideas and struggles. This has been a critical and necessary part of communist practice historically.
Since today we again face an impasse defined by a lack of categorical knowledge and analysis we must struggle again to find ground upon which to stand. Only with clarity can we arrive at a more solid foundation for revolutionary work.
The understanding of revolutionary organization must be rooted in a categorical approach and it is for this reason that we attempt to synthesize some of the fundamental premises of Marx’s thought. The aim here is somewhat limited. We have neither the space nor the time at the moment to cover the sum of Marx’s thought. This involves his critique of capitalist society as a whole, including the critical volumes two and three of Capital. Instead, we hope to concentrate on the bare outline of his view of humanity and its relations in capitalist society.
What follows is a somewhat abstract presentation. It is meant to function as a foundation for the further development of theory, investigation, strategy and tactics. The achievement of categorical knowledge and methodology is absolutely necessary to avoid the empirical, pragmatic and economistic perspectives that haunt the American Left – symptoms of its own decay. What follows is meant to provide the basis for the concrete investigation of the actual, real, and moving society. Without clear categories and methodology, strategy and tactics become increasingly delinked from anything concrete, and thereby reified in their abstraction.
Labor and Self-Activity
Since human beings are at the center of Marx’s work we must begin there. From one standpoint Marx views humanity in its essence, or, to put it another way, what is common to humanity across time and place. From another standpoint Marx considers human beings in their actual existence in particular historical moments.
Marx distinguishes human essence in terms of labor. “Labour,” he writes in Capital, “is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself” (133). Labor is key to his understanding of human beings. However, what Marx means by labor is not self-evident given the conditions of labor in capitalist society. Therefore Marx’s concept needs some interpretation.
What is Labor?
The idea that labor “mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself” is put forward by Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. In the essay, “Estranged Labor,” Marx writes that humanity is “part of nature” and can only be understood as in “continuous intercourse” with it (76). At the same time, Marx argues, human beings are separated from the physical world, or nature. As he puts it, humanity is not “immediately identical with its life-activity” in the physical world, but, instead “has conscious life activity” within this world (76). Marx uses the concept of metabolism to understand human essence as the dialectical relationship between its bodily continuum with, and consciousness of the physical world. In using the concept of metabolism, Marx suggests the dynamism involved in the maintenance or reproduction of life. For Marx in its essence human life is characterized by an energetic process of creation. It is a synthesis of substance and therefore the alchemic transformation of the physical world into new substance.
The process of creation, transformation and synthesis Marx calls labor. How labor mediates the metabolism between human beings and the physical world gives further insight into his concept. In “Estranged Labor,” Marx writes:
For in the first place labor, life-activity, productive life itself, appears to man merely as a means to satisfying a need — the need to maintain the physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species — its species character — is contained in the character of its life activity; and free conscious activity is man’s species character. Life itself appears only as a means to life. (76)
Human existence is dependent upon the satisfaction of needs on a daily basis. In class society human needs are reduced to bare survival which labor must satisfy. However, Marx argues, in essence labor is more than it “appears” and, from the standpoint of essence, it instead must be seen as “free conscious activity.”
For Marx labor must be more broadly defined as “activity.” The activity of producing the means to satisfy needs is labor, but labor is not only what people do at a job. It is the entire range of needs and “life activity”–everything that makes up a human being–and the satisfaction of needs through activity is an ongoing interaction between labor and the physical world. Activity is a process of satisfying needs–both physical and as objects of the imagination and desire. Marx therefore has something more in mind than mere “labor” as it exists in capitalist society.
Key to Marx’s understanding of labor is that it is “free conscious activity.” By this idea he does not mean that the physical world is simply an object that labor acts upon. Implicit in Marx’s understanding is that humanity is dialectically constituted by material reality and its own subjectivity that arises from and alters this reality. So the physical world is the means of life for labor in that labor only manifests itself by acting upon that world. As he puts it in “Estranged Labor,” the world “appears as his work and his reality” (76). Marx stresses, therefore, the self-reflexive character of labor, or its self-activity. Later we will discuss how this self-activity appears historically as specific forms of society.
For now it is important to focus on the completely new ground that Marx discovers with his concept of labor. He writes, “The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created” (“Estranged Labor”, 77). If the physical world is the means by which labor is realized and it is within this world that humanity contemplates and acts, then the physical world is an object for human labor through which it materializes, or “objectifies” itself in the world. In other words, the substance or content of human needs is produced and reproduced as particular forms of those needs.
It is not correct to say that for Marx the world is simply subject to change. Instead the world is an extension of human activity and, in a sense, becomes its “body.” The physical world, as an object, becomes an internalized part of human activity whose content as needs becomes externalized as forms of existence. As self-activity, labor is human activity acting upon itself “in a world that he has created.” In their metabolic relationship with nature human beings objectify themselves, creating a second world of social relations. Through this constant process humanity creates and transforms itself as “life engendering life.”
For Marx, then, humanity is an object for itself and, critically, an end in itself. Since self-activity is self-determined, in its essence human labor is universal. It is universal in two interrelated ways. First, the whole of the physical world can be an object for labor and internalized as part of human activity. Second, humanity produces beyond the needs of a bare physical subsistence and, with the ability to control the form of its activity, reproduces itself in an unlimited number of forms. Thus, taken as a totality, this universal production, or self-activity, gives rise to potentially infinite forms of labor. Human beings are not finite creatures, realizing only a limited number of needs in a limited number of forms. Humanity cannot be considered a given substance in a given determination. In the end, its content can only be understood as the quality of self-creation, rather than a finite quantity of unchanging attributes. As Marx says in “Estranged Labor,” humanity “treats himself as the actual, living species; because he treats himself as a universal and therefore a free being.”
For Marx freedom is the uninterrupted process of objectification in which there are no obstacles between conscious intention and its results. Human creation is free when its content – its needs – realizes itself in the forms of its own choosing as an end in itself. In Marx’s view, to put it more abstractly, freedom is the process of self-activity in immediate unity with itself. Self-activity in its ideal state, unrestrained by any forms that do not correspond to its essence, is the state of freedom. The criteria of freedom for humanity must be, Marx concludes in “Estranged Labor,” that “Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity…his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity” (76). Only then does essence correspond to existence.
A Radical Break
Marx’s radical philosophical break is summarized in the “Theses on Feuerbach.” There he identified materialism and idealism as two broad trends in Western philosophy. The problem with materialist traditions, Marx argues, “is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.” In particular Marx had in mind here the materialist thinkers of the European Enlightenment. These philosophers saw the world as external, something only to be observed and analyzed. Nevertheless, they did open the way for the notion that society was a development of history and therefore subject to change. They thought human society was determined by natural laws, rather than divine order, and that in understanding these laws society could be altered.
The other broad tradition Marx identified was idealism, in the tradition of Kant, which centered on the way the mind shapes the world, rather than the other way around. The most important figure Marx had in mind here was Hegel. Hegel focused on a self-transcending subject in which thought existed and determined itself over and against the objective world. By doing so, he reaffirmed a duality in the history of idealism between human beings and nature, subject and object. While Hegel reaffirmed the concept of the self-determining subject, Marx argued that this “active side was developed abstractly,” independent of its objective conditions, and therefore could “not know real, sensuous activity as such” (Theses).
For Marx the problem of both existing materialism and idealism was that they were speculative in nature. Whether objective reality determines subjectivity as in materialism or, as in idealism, subjectivity determines reality, Marx argued that both approaches ended up in the same place: a one-sided view of human beings. Countering these approaches, Marx put forward the idea that object and subject are not separated, but rather form a unity. His approach is summarized in an extended critique of Feuerbach in the German Ideology:
Certainly Feuerbach has a great advantage over the “pure” materialists in that he realises how man too is an “object of the senses.” But apart from the fact that he only conceives him as an “object of the senses, not as sensuous activity,” because he still remains in the realm of theory and conceives of men not in their given social connection, not under their existing conditions of life, which have made them what they are, he never arrives at the really existing active men, but stops at the abstraction “man,”….he never manages to conceive the sensuous world as the total living sensuous activity of the individuals composing it.
Humanity, according to Marx, is both “object of the senses” and “sensuous activity.” Here we again encounter the dialectic of self-activity in which human beings are both the object and subject. Consequently, as Marx puts it elsewhere, “sensuous objects” are not “really distinct from the thought objects.” Instead it is necessary to “conceive human activity itself as objective activity” (“Theses”). Human beings create the objective world and, in turn, are determined by that world. Where Marx posited a unity of conscious intention and material reality, both materialism and idealism separated the two. As a result, humanity had to ultimately accommodate itself to a predetermined and given world external to itself.
The alternative proposed by Marx has important methodological implications. Since existing philosophy conceived of the world as external to humanity, as something which confronted it as a pre-existing reality, humanity could only exist as an idea unconnected to the world. By establishing an inner relationship between the idea of humanity and “really existing active” human beings, Marx emphasizes a dialectic of essence and existence, the abstract and concrete, content and form. In the “Theses,” Marx argues, “human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual.” He contrasts this idea to that of all previous philosophy, in which “Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as “genus”, as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals.” Human beings create themselves and their world, they are not given.
As we saw in “Estranged Labor” the character of the product of labor – the objects human beings produce – expresses the essence of labor’s relation to itself – human beings relating to themselves. The product of labor is the materialized form of this essence. What activity produces is an expression of the form of that activity, and what activity produces also makes of itself. The character of the product of labor corresponds to the form of the labor that produced it. As we will see, in capitalist society the relation of the capitalist to the worker and the separation of labor from the means of labor are the form of the relation of labor to itself.
For now what is important is Marx’s methodological point about the subject-object relation. The objectivity of living labor means that activity creates its forms of existence. Activity then mediates itself in the world. From this standpoint it not possible to conceive of form external to the subject. Essence immediately comes into being as existence and therefore the content of activity is only actual in its form. Labor thus relates to itself in an immanent way. Its forms are inherent and intrinsic to its content. In contrast, the dualistic approach leads one to consider the two sides in simple opposition, with only an external relation to each other.
Marx subsumed the materialist and idealist critique into a new synthesis. In this synthesis subject and object are no longer posed against one another, but form an inner relation in which each is constitutive of the other. By doing so, Marx preserved the idealist notion of an infinitely and universally self-determining subject, as well as the materialist notion that subjectivity is objectively determined, subsuming both into a new unity. For Marx, thought and reality are no longer separated, but exist as a unity of activity and thought, which Marx calls “‘practical-critical’, activity” (Theses).
Marx therefore achieves a decisive epistemological break with all previous philosophy. Knowledge, he contends, does not emerge independently from reality, either as observation of external objects or from the mind alone. Rather, as he writes in the “Theses,” knowledge “is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice.” As the concept “practical-critical activity” affirms, thinking cannot be “isolated” from sensuous activity, or practice. The categories of thought arise from the objective movement of activity. Theory can be only be realized “in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.”
Marx disputed the idea that there was a natural separation or duality between thought and the world. Such a division only appeared to arise from nature itself as all previous philosophy had stipulated. Instead, he argued, this separation arose as a historical condition, as a consequence of class society. How Marx came to this conclusion we turn to next.