Charles Van Gelderen   |   ETOL Main Page

C. van Gelderen

Book Reviews

Karl Marx: Early Texts

(January 1971)

From International, Vol. 1 No. 3, January–February 1971, pp. 53–53.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Karl Marx: Early Texts
translated and edited by David McLellan
Basil Blackwell. 25/- (p&p 3/-) from Red Books

In the 1930s, “Marxism” became fashionable among a large section of the intellectuals in Europe and America. It largely took the form of fellow-travelling with the Slalinised Third International. Even the trials of the 1930s failed to shake the loyalty of all but a few of these fellow-travellers. Here and there a protesting voice was heard. Some, like Koestler, turned from Marxism to unbridled anti-communism. A few others, unwilling to throw the baby out with the bathwater, claimed to discover in the younger Marx of the early 1840s a “more critical and undogmatic humanism” than in the later Marx and, of course, in Bolshevism, which they wore now beginning to equate with Stalinism. The destruction of German Social-Democracy by Hitler also led to a lot of “new thinking” about the future of socialism, and its exponents also turned to the earlier writings of Marx for inspiration.

But the cult of the “Young Marx” received its greatest impulse after Krushchev’s 20th Congress speech, exposing the crimes of Stalin. Although everything he said had long been known – especially through the writings of Leon Trotsky – even the most devoted fellow-traveller could no longer shut his eyes to the nature of the regime in the Soviet Union. To denounce Marxism, however, would be to denounce their own past and especially their theoretical integrity. So they sought refuge in the “Young Marx”. This tendency received a fresh impetus after the events in Poland and Hungary in 1956/7.

This neo-Marxism even became respectable. Courses in Marxism were instituted at universities which had never before even included it in their curriculums. The whole intellectual world seemed suddenly to be debating Marx’s theory of “alienation”. While ignoring his writings on economics and dismissing dialectical materialism as so much “metaphysical hot air”, there was increasing, interest in Marx as a “humanist” and respect for his profound understanding of history and human nature.

To these people It appeared that there were “two Marxes” and an irreconcilable clash between the early writings and the mature system of Marx’s later years The “Young Marx”, according to these newly fashionable thinkers, was first and foremost a philosopher rather than an economist.

Marx: Early Texts

This collection of Marx’s earlier works should convince any honest reader that the “two Marx’s”, which the neo-Marxists claim to have discovered, simply show how little they really understand Marxism, despite their intellectual pretensions What is true, of course, it that his thinking developed and matured over the years. Marx was no ivory-tower philosopher shut up In the reading room of the British Museum, as so many assume. He, with Engels, was passionately involved tn the class struggles of their day. They learned from actual events and applied their analytical method dialectical materialism – to these events. Their aim was to help to change the world and not merely to explain it. A study of these writings leaves no doubt about the unity of Marx’s thought after he had broken with the idealistic conceptions of Hegel.

As David McLellan points out in his valuable introduction. there is no justification for those who claim that alienation aa a concept was central to Marx’s early thought but abandons by him later. Daniel Bell, for example, has said that “whereas in the young Marx there was a double vision of the nature of alienation Marx’s thoughts developed along one narrow road of economic conceptions of poverty and exploitation while the other road which might have led to new, humanistic concepts of work and labour, was left unexplored.” McLellan replies that “not only the concept but also the term itself occurs on several occasions in Capital”. In Vol. I (p.432 Moscow Edition). Marx writes “the character of independence and estrangement which the capitalist mode of production as a whole gives to the instruments of labour and to the products , as against the workman, is developed by the means of machinery into a thorough antagonism” McLellan goes on to say that “ it is not only a question of terminology, the contents too of Capital is a continuation of Marx’s early thoughts. The main theme of Volume I of Capital, surplus-value, tests on the equation of work and value that goes buck to the concept of man as a being who creates and the conditions of his life – a conception outlined in the Paris Manuscripts.” (1844) Marx the philosopher, Marx the economist, Marx the revolutionary socialist, was one, the unifying thread being dialectical materialism.

Any doubt which may still have existed about the continuity of Marx’s thought was finally bid to rest by the publication of Grundrisse der Kritik de Politischen Oekonomie (Elements of a Critique of Political Economy). Written in 1857, mainly for the purpose of clarifying his own thinking, this 1,000-page draft served as a basis for Critique of Political Economy (1859) and of Capital (1867’). Marx himself wrote to Lassalle that the Grundrisse represented “the result of 15 years’ research, that is to say the best years of my life.”

Early Texts is essential reading for all who want to thoroughly understand Marxism and the development of Marx’s thought It is an excellent collection and lucidly translated.

Charles Van Gelderen Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 9 December 2020