Friday, July 31, 2009

Questions/Comments on the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

Following Josh's procedure, I posted some thoughts on the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts in the "Comments" section of this post. I am looking forward to your comments.


Joao Paulo said...

Hey Guys. These are a few notes on the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (henceforth EPM). Of course, it is impossible for me to do justice to such a complex piece (for many reasons!) What I tried to do here is to discuss the EPM as a foundation for a contemporary leftist agenda. Even with this limited goal in mind, my review is obviously very partial. I make use of some positions which have been developed by others (especially Ruy Fausto), but I do not guarantee the accuracy of my "representations" (or cite any references). I tried to be provocative, but I am not sure about my views on many of this issues either.

I'm looking forward to your comments (here or at the URPE conference).

By contrast to Capital (the book), the centerpiece of the EPM's discourse is not concept of capital, but that of estranged labor. In the topics below, I try to explain in more detail what I mean by this and what I think the consequences of the stance adopted in the EPM are.


In Capital, Marx refuses to engage in a “founding anthropology”, that is, to make statements about human nature, about “what man is”. Instead of being a discourse about man, Capital's explicit discourse is one about capital. Marx believed that capitalism operates a negation of men as “real” subjects and that the discourse had to apprehend this. In this fashion, any foundational statement about men within capitalism would congeal men's situation as bearers of specific social relationships (workers and capitalists, for example) and turn them into essences of men. Instead, a rigorous discourse would allow for the suppression (aufhebung) of men as subjects (which is not to say that men are absent from the discourse, as some anti-humanist commentators have believed) and to given free flow at the theoretical level to the practical negation that capital (the true “automatic subject” that is posited within capitalism) imposes on man.


By contrast, the EPM features no such concept of capital. It rather engages in a “founding anthropology”, but in a negative one. Instead of stating “what man is”, the notion of estranged labor states what “man is not”. Indeed, when searching for a definition of estranged labor, we read that it is “a loss of reality for the worker” (p. 324), “a mortification of the flesh and a ruining of the mind” (p. 326), “the estrangement of man from his species” (p. 338), among other similar statements.


Partly as a consequence of this negative anthropology, his concept of emancipation (the “third version” of communism, discussed on pp.348-358) becomes, in my opinion, an inadequate foundation for a contemporary leftist agenda. Why? Since estranged labor is the negation of man (the status of this negation is surely controversial, I'd risk to say, without any secure backing, that it is stronger than that present in Capital), emancipation becomes the re-position of man, that is, the negation of the negation, as Marx himself claims on p. 358.


And what does this re-position entail? Well, it entails the “ restoration of man as a human being”, the genuine resolution of the conflicts between “man and man”, “freedom and necessity”, “individual and species”, “man and nature” (p.348). Now man's activity (labor) and its products become humanized; he realizes himself in them, instead of losing himself. It is the “positive supersession of all estrangement”, including those reflected in religion, the state, and the family (since the supersession of economic estrangement entails all aspects) (p. 349). The “pre-history” of men as negated subjects would end, and the “true history” of men as fully posited subjects would begin (p. 358).

Joao Paulo said...



What is Marx envisioning as a communist society? From what we see, he envisions a completely transparent society, where there is no (real) abstraction, no complex social processes on which people do not realize, understand and recognize themselves as species-beings. Moreover, it looks like a society where the realm of need has been superseded, where laboring ceases to be a burden. He even hints at abolishing the division of labor (although in the EPM he does not go very far along this route, unlike in the German Ideology), which is seen as an estranged expression of the social nature of labor (p.369).


Well, for me this scheme can be very misleading. Given the complexity of human society today, and the multifaceted needs and motivations of people, it is romantic and naïve to believe that the curtailment of the capital relation would lead to such a transparent society of fully emancipated people. As a foundation for leftist politics, it can be misleading for the following reasons:

(a) The idea of human labor as no longer belonging to the sphere of need deviates our focus. Even in the best of worlds, most work will still be a burden, something done for social necessity, not for self-realization. It is more progressive to struggle for the reduction of the TIME labor takes from us (i.e. the reduction of work hours) than to wait for the day when we will be fishermen at dawn, carpenters in the afternoon, etc., and be fully realized. The idea of labor as belonging to the realm of need is indeed present in Vol III of Capital (see the chapter on the trinity formula) and represents a HUGE advance relative to the early writings.

(b) Real abstractions, opaque processes, and some generic form of alienation will exist in any complex society inhabited by complex human beings. The idea of full transparency may motivate voluntarisms like complete economic planning which, given the accumulated historical experience, we know to be neither efficient nor transparent! The issue is not to impede any type of real abstraction, but to curtail the development (or the existence) of the capital relation, whose concept is absent in the EPM.

(c) The idea of the abolition of the state and of conflict in society (even if one advocates the existence of “institutions” without a state, as some do) downplays the importance of politics and democracy in a socialist society. Moreover, it may downplay the importance of politics and democracy in the transition from a capitalist to a socialist society. In general, I think some Marxists are often too ready to identify formal democracy with “bourgeois democracy”, a position which can be problematic. In general, I think the left should try to avoid the “reform vs. revolution” or “regulation vs. revolution” stances that such dichotomy may entail, and recognize that a socialist society (i) is conflictive, and will need to be “reformed” and “regulated” and (ii) will need a great deal of “bourgeois” democratic institutions, including multi-party elections, etc.; finally, (iii) the transition to socialism should occur through the democratic path and through the deepening of democracy. Our history shows that too many a socialist revolution has given rise to the most abject forms of totalitarianism. This is a valuable experience of the 20th century that we now have and that Marx did not.

(d) At the risk of invading the territory of the “On the Jewish Question”, the idea that religion would no longer be necessary after the “emancipation” of men (which is also present in the EPM) is also naive. A more useful agenda for the left (well-accomplished in many Western nations, but still a challenge in other places) would reflect Bauer's position rather than Marx's: a secular state (even if a socialist one) with freedom of religion guaranteed for individuals in their private lives. Of course, the idea of an abolition of the “political vs. civil society” dichotomy would maybe need to be revised if this is to be pursued.

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