Reflections of a Young Marxist-Humanist

Lautaro Tapia

Summary: Discusses young Marx, alternatives to capitalism, and the need to develop Marx’s Marxism for today — Editors

In an era when many on the Left — whether anarchist or postmodernist — continue to dismiss Marxism as Eurocentric, class reductionist, or authoritarian – it becomes imperative to fully grasp the essence of Marx’s Marxism.[1] As Raya Dunayevskaya stated: “Each generation of Marxist must restate Marxism for itself, and the proof of its Marxism lies not so much in its originality as in its actuality, that is, whether it meets the challenge of its time”. Thus if we wish to genuinely understand what Marxism means for our times that requires understanding the totality of Marx’s Marxism, as developed from 1841-1883, especially The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which contain the philosophical foundations of Marxism.

The 1844 Manuscripts remained unpublished in English until 1958, and have profoundly affected recent scholarship on Marxism, in particular the relationship between Marxism and Hegelian Idealism, the epistemological debate, and the importance of alienation. The majority of post-Marx Marxists of the early twentieth century never gained access to the 1844 Manuscripts, which resulted in a fundamental deviation from the humanist philosophical foundations of Marxism.

Humanist philosophy constitutes the integral unity of Marxist theory, or what Marx described as a “thoroughgoing Naturalism or Humanism”, which cannot be reduced to economics, class struggle, politics, much less Leninism or Maoism. Far from being a vulgar materialist, Marx described his philosophical position as distinct from both materialism and idealism yet the unifying truth of both. Humanism wasn’t merely an early stage Marx passed through on his voyage of revolutionary discovery, but the ultimate goal of human development.

A great deal of Marx’s criticism of both capitalism and philosophy focused on the notion of the inversion of subject and predicate, wherein the products, as well as the activity of people, take on the form of an autonomous power that constrains the will of the subjects that engender them (Hudis: 2012). In capitalism, Marx shows that alienated laborer not only estranges nature from subject, but also estranges subject from itself, from its vital activity, because of this, it also estranges subject from its very “species being”.[2]

At the same time, Marx shows how the classical political economists remained prisoners of the fetishism of commodities even though they discovered “labor as the source of all value”. In other words, the classical political economist failed to differentiate between what Marx called concrete labor and abstract labor. For Marx, concrete labor basically constitutes a trans-historical creative expression of humanity’s social existence or ‘species being’, in which labor takes the form of utility. While, for Marx, abstract labor is the basis of social relations under capitalism in which direct producers are divorced from their product and labor power becomes a commodity producing value.

By introducing the laborer into political economy, Marx transformed it from a science that deals with things, such as commodities, money, wages into one that examines social relations at the point of production.[3] Classical political economy, Marx argued, begins with labor as the real soul of production yet never actually analyzes the basis of social relations in capitalism, i.e., the alienated labor common to all commodities.

To Marx, the worker is not simply alienated from the product of labor but from the very activity of producing. Human subjective activity becomes reified, thing-like, and this objectified form becomes the basis of social relations in capitalism. To Marx, reification refers to the process by which living labor is transformed into a thing governed by socially necessary labor-time. For Marx, capitalism exists wherever the principle of social organization is the reduction of human labor to abstract forms of value creating labor. Whereas, in pre-capitalist societies, people dominate people, in capitalism things oppress people. What was the domination of person over person is now product over producer.

In pre-capitalist societies, products were exchanged on the basis material utility, not on the basis of abstract exchange value. Marx’s main concern was not the source of value, but the way social relations take the form of value. For Marx, Value is never immediately visible and it first appears as exchange value: the quantitative relationship between things.  However, the exchange of things is not merely a quantitative relationship, since there must be a commonality to the things that can enable them to be exchanged. And the common element of relations of exchange is abstract labor. Thus to understand exchange value we must track down the human value relation in it, which Marx demonstrated as quantity into quality.

The problem with traditional Marxism, according to Peter Hudis, is that it reduced the concept of socialism to altering relations of exchange as opposed to uprooting abstract value production. Although exchange value is inseparable from value its abolition cannot by itself eliminate the defining principle of capitalism: abstract labor, production for the sake of value. On the other hand, traditional Marxism becomes so enamored of the power of labor in transforming the conditions of existence that it adopts a celebratory attitude towards Marx’s very critique of capitalism; this is important because Marx never defined socialism as simply overcoming relations of exchange. What Marx envisioned was the development a new human society on the basis of freely associated human relations that negates the law of value.

Reinterpreting the philosophy of Hegel, Marx deployed the dialectic to understand what’s needed to transcend capital. Clearly, Marx retained an optimistic appraisal of history: not that change would come through some Kantian act of will, but through the dialectical negation of subjective thought and objective actuality, i.e., negation of the negation. Marx held that freedom was an ontological characteristic of human beings. For Marx, if we strip away Hegel’s dehumanization of the idea by replacing “actual corporeal man” as the subject of the dialectic, the dialectic takes on a new level of importance.

A Marxist Humanist philosophy, then, is founded upon the overcoming of the division between subject and object; here, the development of new human relations constitutes the true realm of freedom. We live in an “upside-down world” shaped by political life as merely a means for the satisfaction of private selfish interests.[4] Although political emancipation is a major step forward from the despotic world of feudal absolutism, it produces what Marx identified as a civil society that alienates humanity from its communal essence. Human emancipation, in contrast, transcends the bifurcation between civil society and the state. In this not yet realized realm individuals treat themselves and their fellow humans as ends in themselves, never as means.

An organization of revolutionary Marxists is meaningless unless it works out what Marx’s Marxism means for today. This does not mean repeating the truths of an earlier age- anymore than it means ignoring the truths gained from an earlier age. Each generation of Marxists must examine their conditions of existence anew, and discover the revolutionary social forces at play that may create a new beginning. It is these new social forces that offer a revolutionary impulse and real alternatives that bring alive the dialectics of liberation.

Today a new generation of activists has emerged all around the world challenging the logic of capital- from Hong Kong to Athens and from Madrid to Santiago. In light of such realities, the foundations of Marx’s Marxism can give direction to today’s freedom struggles in order to develop a viable alternative capitalism.


[1] “Theoretical and Practical Perspectives for Overcoming Capitalism.” The International Marxist-Humanist, 27 March 2016

[2] Marx, K (2007) The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. (Dover Books in Western Philosophy) New York, United States. Dover Publications

[3] Dunayevskaya, Raya. Marxism and Freedom; from 1976 until Today. Bookman Associates, 1958. Print.

[4] Hudis, Peter. Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism. Leiden. Brill. 2012. Print


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