Gajo Petrović 1960

The 'Young' and the 'Old' Marx

First published: Politika, January, 1, 2, 3, 1960.
First published in English: Gajo Petrović, Marx in the Mid-Twentieth Century: A Yugoslav Philosopher Reconsiders Karl Marx's Writings (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1967).
Source: The Charnel-House.
Transcribed: Zdravko Saveski, 2022.


If the question about the "real" Marx is to have any sense, it can be neither merely factual and historical nor merely subjective and evaluative. The "real" Marx can be neither a heap of historical "facts" nor a free creation of somebody's imagination. He can be neither an entirely "objective" Marx, which once upon a time existed "in itself," nor a purely "subjective" Marx who somebody finds likeable or useful. It is impossible to expound the first, and the second is more than one man. The "real" Marx is the Marx to whom history owes a debt, and the "real" Marx's philosophy is Marx's contribution to the development of philosophical thought.


Stalinists and those who practice Stalinist criticism, while rejecting it in word, oppose the "old" Marx to the "young," maintaining that the "real" Marx is the "old." They find the "young" Marx interesting merely as an historical document, a testimony to Marx's original immaturity and his gradual emancipation from Hegelian and Feuerbachian errors. By their outcry against the "young" Marx they hope to conceal the fact that they have departed equally far from the "old" Marx. Marxism is a philosophy of freedom, and Stalinism a "philosophical" justification of unfreedom.


The thesis that the "real" Marx is the "young" one represents the first, ill-considered reaction of awakened Marxist thought against Stalinism. It is a negation of Stalinism that makes concessions to Stalinism. Its supporters accept the opposition between the "young" and the "old" Marx and at the same time magnanimously surrender the "old" Marx to the Stalinists.


The theory of alienation is not only the central theme of Marx's "early" writings; it is also the guiding idea of all his "later" works. The theory of man as a being of praxis is not a discovery of the "old" Marx; we already find it in a developed form in the "young" one. The "young" and the "old" Marx are essentially one and the same: Marx the fighter against self-alienation, dehumanization and exploitation; Marx the combatant for the full humanization of man, for a many-sided development of man's human possibilities, for the abolition of class society and for the realization of an association in which the "free development of each is a condition of free development for all."


The unity of Marx's essential thought does not preclude its development. Marx's work is an unremitting self-criticism, a continuous revision of his own views. The division into the "young" and the "old" Marx only very incompletely describes this complex process. It is usually held that the "mature" Marx begins with the Poverty of Philosophy and the Manifesto of the Communist Party. The Marx of the doctoral thesis, the Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and the Marx of the German Ideology are supposed to be one and the same "young" Marx; the Marx of the Manifesto and the Marx of Capital, one and the same "old" Marx. In fact Marx in German Ideology is considered as quite different from Marx in Poverty of Philosophy or the Manifesto. But not only is the opposition between the "young" and the "old" Marx untenable; even the twofold division of Marx's development, which this opposition assumes, is dubious.


The fundamental coherence of Marx's thought does not mean that it is an all-embracing and finished system. The essential truthfulness of Marx's thought does not mean that it is an eternal truth for all time. Marx's work is full of open problems; it contains questions without answers, searches without final results. Some people find definitive solutions in Marx precisely where he himself saw difficulties. But what was merely a question for Marx cannot be a ready answer for us; what Marx himself regarded as a solution may become a problem for us. Great thinkers cast light far into the future, but every generation has to work out for itself a concrete solution to its own problems.


Some people still think that the "old" Marx definitively parted company with philosophy and philosophical "phraseology." But what kind of "phraseology" is it when Marx in the first volume of Capital indicts bourgeois society because in it "a general or a banker plays a great part, but mere man [man as man], on the other hand, a very shabby part"? Or when in the third volume he writes about the conditions of production that are most adequate to the "human nature" of the producers. Marx's thought has a philosophical meaning when he, as in German Ideology, directly renounces philosophy and also when he, as in Capital, maintains that he is only flirting with it.


Nevertheless, in many respects Marx merely indicated his philosophy. Engels' and Lenin's philosophical works - Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature, Materialism and Empiriocriticism and Philosophical Notebooks - are regarded by some as a worthy supplement to Marx, and by others as a complete failure, inadequate to the basic sense of Marxism. In fact, Engels, Plekhanov, and Lenin were right in feeling the need to develop more explicitly and fully the ontological foundations of Marx's philosophy. It is not their fault if they were unable to do it on the level on which it could have been done by Marx himself. Undoubtedly the development of the ontologico-epistemological foundations of Marx's philosophy still needs to be done. It is illusory to think that a "pure" anthropology or an "ontology of man" free from general ontological assumptions is possible. It is a dubious idea also that questions of general ontology are merely a part of an ontology of man.


It is the task of followers of Marx to develop his thought in all directions. One of the aspects of this task is a critical analysis and evaluation of new philosophical trends and phenomena. To be sure, there are some "Marxists" who do not see the difference between a Marxist criticism of non-Marxist philosophy and an inconsistent yielding to it. The only consistent Marxist for them is Comrade Ostrich, who in burying his head in the sand clearly draws the boundaries between himself and "the seemingly new philosophical schools and little schools" (and the external world in general). In his attempt to evade an independent analysis of new phenomena the dogmatist simply labels them old. Creative Marxism has no reason to follow his example.