Reflective Essay on Readings of Marx’s Early Writings

Professor Peter Rachleff
January 29th, 2003
Yong Ho Kim

While at Mac, I got to hear of current humanities theories during my Intro HCST class. Under professor Kordela’s guidance, I was introduced to Zizek and his approach to Lacan, and followed a survey of western thought from ancient Greece to Debord and Derrida, and came back to Lacan and film theory. Throughout the course, and after I had finished it and kept reviewing books from Saussure and Burke, I felt I needed a more firm grounding that would fill in the gaps among these thinkers. Could I get a foundation for contemporary theory without going all the way back to Renaissance? That’s where I think Marx fits in.

I might be right.

Under professor Rachleff’s guidance I have read The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844-45, The Poverty of Philosophy, the very brief Theses on Feuerbach and the German Ideology, all of them from the Anthology Writings of the young Marx on Philosophy and Society (ed. By Loyd Easton and Kurt Guddat)

The Manuscripts is a dense writing. In it Marx points out to the alienation of the laborer as a process taking place because of what is given as granted in the dialectics of political economy. Such premises include the well known concepts of wage, labor, division of labor, competition, and such. Each single concept of political economy is linked to another in such a way that assuming one of them as true will affirm the long chain of concepts depending on each other as true, thus making the system a tautology. Hence to talk about division of labor, the fact that labor exists as a subordinated force that can be divided to match the needs of the capitalist is a given. Or to talk about wages implies that the laborer is supposed to be paid by the employer, and that only negotiation exists as for how much should the laborer be paid, and not whether or not he should be paid at all, or that the fact that he receives money from the employer is a bilateral contract. A good example Marx mentions in the beginning is that when the relation of wages to profits is determined, ultimately “profit” is meant to signify the capitalist’s profit, and not otherwise (288). Once profit is defined as the capitalist’s profit, the whole machinery of political economy’s explanation for every phenomena in the labor world is activated.

After noticing this logical trap, Marx argues the necessity to dissect these concepts further, and not just take them as a matter of fact. Marx argues that property must not be looked upon as merely a stop point between buyer and seller (and their respective transactions), but as a medium through which the laborer is alienated against himself. The property is always some sort of product, and a product must have a producer. The problem begins when to this adds up the extension of the laborer into each of his products. The laborer is continuously transforming his time, energy and skills into his products. In doing so, the laborer owns the product at the very moment he finishes it. This ownership of the product usually shows in that in the past, the producer sold his product directly to the consumer, or rather, he was the consumer himself. By being forced to sell his products to a stranger, the laborer is effectively giving away a part of himself.

It would seem thus that this process of separation between laborer and product of labor – Marx calls it alienation of labor – is a direct consequence of the existence of private property. But Marx says that the relationship is misrecognized: it is the alienated labor which gives brings private property about, not vice versa, even though the opposite relationship becomes clear “Only at the final culmination of the development of private property” (298), by which I think he meant the industrialization process.

Once Marx begins discussing Hegel’s Phenomenology, the manuscript gets more and more impenetrable.

The title of Poverty of Philosophy is a satire to Proudhon’s Philosophy of Poverty. In its content, it was a response to each observation made by Proudhon on the defense of political economy. Style wise, Marx takes on a lighter tone, partially because of the satiric nature of his argument and partially, it seems, because now his (Marx’s) argument was a well developed one, that needed less elaboration and more persuasion.

As I was finishing the Poverty of Philosophy and reviewing the manuscripts, I met interesting reactions of people when I told I was reading Marx during the January term. A visiting high school student commented that she had read an article on him from The Economist’s New Year Special Edition, in which many economists summarized his work and they all agreed in that he was a great man. According to her, the emphasis of the article was that Marx had fundamentally been an economist, and most importantly – he considered himself to be an economist -, but other social scientists and humanists just abstracted from his writings the sections that they most liked, and claimed Marx to be the founder of this or that discipline. Two things disturbed me on the observation. First, that The Economist, of which I didn’t know much but which I regarded as a leading media on the right wing – I still view politics in terms of left and right – had publicized a positive article on Marx, from whom all the left wing branches came.

The second tickle was the attribute of “a man” on him. An awesome man. A great man. In fact, that was again what the coordinator of the Annual Fund, at which I volunteered, said about him. Why does the difference feel so big when I say that he was an influential man? I believe that the societal achievements of Marx have been purposefully diminished to the scale of an individual, so that we can talk about the “Awesome work of Marx” just as we would talk of “a talented pianist”. This trick, which I learned to be aware of in sociology, allows for a problem or particular phenomenon in society to be foregone just by treating the individual cases separately. Back to the The Economist article, which I haven’t read, such trick would effectively be a renewal of what Marx criticized against political economy, which is now being used against his arguments.

So, what is in Marx that made him an influential man? I don’t know yet. I am looking forward to read more from him.