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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The third interpretation of Marxism may be called
for purposes of identification, “the existentialist view”
according to which Marxism is not primarily a system
of sociology or economics, but a philosophy of human
liberation. It seeks to overcome human alienation, to
emancipate man from repressive social institutions,
especially economic institutions that frustrate his true
nature, and to bring him into harmony with himself,
his fellow men, and the world around him so that he
can both overcome his estrangements and express his
true essence through creative freedom. This view
developed as a result of two things; first, the publica-
tion in 1932 of Marx's manuscripts written in 1844
before Marx had become a Marxist (on the other two
views), which the editors entitled Economic and Philo-
sophic Manuscripts,
and second, the revolt against
Stalinism in Eastern Europe at the end of World War
II among some communists who opposed the theory
and practice of Marxist-Leninism. Aware that they
could only get a hearing or exercise influence if they
spoke in the name of Marxism, they seized upon several
formulations in these manuscripts of Marx in which


he glorifies the nature of man as a freedom-loving
creature—a nature that has been distorted, cramped,
and twisted by the capitalist mode of production. They
were then able to protest in the name of Marxist
humanism against the stifling dictatorship of Stalin and
his lieutenants in their own countries, and even against
the apotheosis of Lenin.

Independently of this political motivation in the
reinterpretation of Marx, some socialist and nonsocial-
ist scholars in the West have maintained that the con-
ception of man and alienation in the early writings
of Marx is the main theme of Marx's view of socialism,
the aim of which is “the spiritual emancipation of
man.” For example, Eric Fromm writes that “it is
impossible to understand Marx's concept of socialism
and his criticism of capitalism as developed except on
the basis of his concept of man which he developed
in his early writings” (Marx's Concept of Man [1961],
p. 79). This entails that Marx's thought was understood
by no one before 1932 when the manuscripts were
published, unless they had independently developed
the theory of alienation. Robert Tucker's influential
book, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge,
1961), asserts that the significant ideas of Marx are to
be found in what he calls Marx's “original Marxism”
which turns out to be ethical, existentialist, anticipa-
tory of Buber and Tillich, and profoundly different
from the Marxism of Marx's immediate disciples. How
far the new interpretation is prepared to go in discard-
ing traditional Marxism, with its emphasis on scientific
sociology and economics as superfluous theoretical
baggage alien to the true Marx, is apparent in this
typical passage from Tucker:

Capital, the product of twenty years of hard labor to which,
as he [Marx] said, he sacrificed his health, his happiness
in life and his family, is an intellectual museum piece for
us now, whereas the sixteen page manuscript of 1844 on
the future of aesthetics, which he probably wrote in a day
and never even saw fit to publish, contains much that is
still significant

(p. 235).

Another source of the growth of this new version
of Marxism flows from the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre
and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, especially the former's
Critique de la raison dialectique (Vol. I, 1960) in which
despite his rejection of materialism and his exaggerated
voluntarism, Sartre seeks to present his existentialist
idealism as ancillary to Marxism, which he hails as “the
unsurpassable philosophy of our time” (p. 9).

For various reasons, detailed elsewhere, this third
version of Marxism is making great headway among
radical and revolutionary youth that have disparaged
or repudiated specific political programs as inhibiting
action. Among those who wish to bring Marx in line
with newer developments in psychology, and especially
among socialists and communists who have based their
critiques of the existing social order on ethical princi-
ples, the existentialist version of Marx has a strong

The theoretical difficulties this interpretation of
Marxism must face are very formidable. They are
external, derived from certain methodological princi-
ples of interpretation and from textual difficulties; and
internal, derived from the flat incompatibility of the
key notions of existential Marxism with other published
doctrines of Marx, for which Marx took public respon-
sibility. Of the many external difficulties with the in-
terpretation of Marxism as a philosophy of alienation,
three may be mentioned.

1. The theory of alienation according to which man
is a victim of the products of his own creation in an
industrial society he does not consciously control, is
a view that was common coin among the “true” social-
ists like Moses Hess, Karl Grün, and others. It was not
a distinctively Marxist view. Even Ralph Waldo
Emerson and Thomas Carlyle expressed similar senti-
ments when they complained that things were in the
saddle and riding man to an end foreign to his nature
and intention.

2. In the Communist Manifesto Marx explicitly dis-
avows the theory of alienation as “metaphysical rub-
bish,” as a linguistic Germanic mystification of social
phenomena described by French social critics. Thus
as an example of “metaphysical rubbish,” Marx says,
“Underneath the French critique of money and its
functions, they wrote, 'alienation of the essence of
mankind,' and underneath the French critique of the
bourgeois State they wrote 'overthrow of the suprem-
acy of the abstract universal' and so on” (Riazanov
edition; English trans. London [1930], p. 59).

3. If Marxism is a theory of human alienation under
all forms and expressions of capitalism, it becomes
unintelligible why, having proclaimed the fact of
human alienation at the outset of his studies, Marx
should have devoted himself for almost twenty years
to the systematic analysis of the mechanics of capitalist
production. The existence of alienation was already
established on the basis of phenomena observable
whenever the free market system was introduced.
Nothing in Capital throws any further light on the
phenomenon. The section on the “Fetishism of Com-
modities” (Capital, Vol. I, Ch. I, Sec. 4) is a sociological
analysis of commodities where private ownership of
the social means of production exists, and dispenses
completely with all reference to the true essence of
man and his alienations of that essence. What Marx
calls “the enigmatic character” of the product of labor
when it assumes the form of a commodity is the result


of the fact that social relationships among men are
experienced directly by the unreflective consciousness
as a natural property of things. The economic “value”
of products that are exchanged is assumed to be of
the same existential order as “the weight” of the

This results in the fetishism of commodities which
is compared to the fetishism of objects in primitive
religion in which men fail to see that the divinity
attributed to the objects is their own creation. Or to
use another analogy, just as what makes an object
“food” ultimately depends upon the biological rela-
tionships of the digestive system, and not merely upon
the physical-chemical properties of the object, so what
makes a thing a “commodity” depends upon social
relationships between men, and not merely on the
physical characteristics of what objects are bought and
sold. Marx's analysis here is designed to further his
contention that men can control their economic and
social life and should not resign themselves to be ruled
by economic processes as if they were like natural
forces beyond the possibility of human control. The
Marxist analysis is used here to argue for the feasibility
of a shorter working day and better conditions of work.

The “internal” difficulties that confront the existen-
tialist interpretation of Marx are grave enough to be
considered fatal in the absence of a politically inspired
will to believe.

1. The doctrine of “alienation” runs counter to
Marx's scientific materialism. Its religious origins are
obvious in the idealistic tradition from Plotinus to
Hegel. It is inherently dualistic since it distinguishes
an original “nature” of man separate from its alienated
manifestations to which men will someday return.

2. It even more obviously violates the entire histori-
cal approach of Marxism which denies that man has
a natural or real or true self from which he can be
alienated. Marx maintained that by acting upon the
external world, nature, and society, man continually
modifies his own nature (Capital, Eng. trans., I, 198),
that history may be regarded as “the progressive modi-
fication” of human nature, and that to argue that so-
cialism and its institutional reforms are against human
nature—one of the oldest and strongest objections to
the Marxist program—is to overlook the extent to
which the individual with his psychological nature is
a social and therefore historical creature. Many of the
difficulties of the view that Marxism is a theory of
alienation and a social program liberating man from
his alienation are apparent as soon as we ask: From
what self or nature is man alienated?, and then com-
pare the implications and presuppositions of the re-
sponse with other explicitly avowed doctrines of Marx.
The attempt by Tucker to distinguish in Marx between
a constant human nature—productive, free, and self-
fulfilling—and a variable human nature—alienated in
class societies—attempting to save the doctrine of
alienation, fails to explain how it is possible that man's
constant nature should come into existence, according
to Marx, only at the end of prehistory, only when the
classless society emerges. In addition, Marx like Hegel
repudiates the dualism between a constant and variable
human nature to the point of denying that even man's
biological nature is constant.

3. In Marx's published writing, where psychological
phenomena are mentioned that have been cited as
evidence of Marx's belief in the importance of the
doctrine of alienation, despite his refusal to use the
early language of alienation, Marx explains these
phenomena as a consequence of private property in
the instruments of production. But in his early Eco-
nomic-Philosophical Manuscripts
(written before 1847),
he asserts that alienation is the cause of private prop-
erty. This would make a psychological phenomenon
responsible for the distinctive social processes of capi-
talism whose developments the mature Marx regarded
as having causal priority in explaining social psycho-
logical change.

4. The concept of man as alienated in the early
manuscripts implies that alienated man is unhappy,
maladjusted, truncated, psychologically if not physi-
cally unhealthy. It does not explain the phenomenon
of alienation which is active and voluntary rather than
passive and coerced. Marx himself was alienated from
his society but hardly from his “true” self, for he
undoubtedly found fulfillment in his role as critic and
social prophet. From this point of view to be alienated
from a society may be a condition for the achievement
of the serenity, interest, and creative effort and fulfill-
ment that are the defining characteristics of the psy-
chologically unalienated man. Marx's early theory of
alienation could hardly do justice, aside from its in-
herent incoherences, to Marx's mature behavior as an
integrated person alienated from his own society.

5. The existentialist interpretation of Marxism makes
it primarily an ethical philosophy of life and society,
very much akin to the ethical philosophies of social
life that Marx and Engels scorned during most of their
political career. Nonetheless this ethical dimension of
social judgment and criticism constitutes a perennial
source of the appeal of Marxism to generations of the
young, all the more so because of the tendencies both
in the Social-Democratic and, especially, in the Bol-
shevik-Leninist versions of Marxism to play down, if
not to suppress, the ethical moment of socialism. In
the canonic writings of these interpretations of Marx-
ism, socialism is pictured as the irreversible and in-
escapable fulfillment of an historical development and


moral judgments are explained, where they are recog-
nized, as reflections of class interest, devoid of universal
and objective validity. The doctrinal writings of both
Marx and Engels lend color to this view—despite the
fact that everything else they wrote, and even the
works purportedly of a technical and analytical char-
acter, like Capital itself, are pervaded by a passionate
moral concern and a denunciation of social injustices
in tones that sound like echoes of the Hebrew social
prophets. The very word Ausbeutung, or “exploita-
tion,” which is central to Marx's economic analysis,
is implicitly ethical although Marx seeks to disavow
its ethical connotations. Even critics of Marx's eco-
nomic theories and historicism, like Karl Popper, who
reject his contentions, recognize the ethical motivation
of Marx's thought. Capitalism is condemned not only
because it is unstable and generates suffering, but be-
cause uncontrolled power over the social instruments
of production gives arbitrary power over the lives of
those who must live by their use.

Nonetheless, despite its ethical reinterpretation of
Marxism, existentialist Marxism fails to make ends meet
theoretically. Either it ends up with a pale sort of
humanism, a conception of the good and the good
society derived from the essential nature of man and
his basic needs—a lapse into the Feuerbachianisms
rejected by Marx—or it denies the possibility of a
universally valid norm of conduct for man or society,
stresses the uniqueness of the individual moral act,
makes every situation in which two or more individuals
are involved an antinomic one in which right conflicts
with right and self with self. If the first version gener-
ates a universalism of love or duty and brotherhood
of man which Marx (and Hegel) reject as unhistorical,
the second points to a Hobbesianism in which “the
other” far from being “a brother” is potentially an
enemy. Marx conceals from himself the necessity of
developing an explicit positive ethics over and above
his condemnations of unnecessary human cruelty and
injustice. The closest he comes to such an ethic is in
his utopian conception of a classless society whose
institutions will be such that the freedom of each per-
son will find in the freedom of every other person “not
its limitation but its fulfillment.” Many critics find this
expectation an astonishingly naive conception of man
and society, which does not even hold for traditional
versions of the Kingdom of Heaven. But even this
utopian construction can hardly absolve Marxists from
the necessity of making and justifying specific ethical
judgments for the City of Man.

The periodical revivals of Marxism in our age reflect
moral and political interests in search of a respectable
revolutionary tradition. The discovery of the social
problem by phenomenologists, Neo-Thomists, positiv-
ists, and even linguistic analysts usually results in an
attempted synthesis between Marx and some out-
standing philosophical figure who has very little in
common with him (Hook, in Drachkovitch, 1966).

From the point of view of sociological and economic
theories claiming objective truth, Marxism has con-
tributed many insights that have been absorbed and
developed by scholars who either do not share or are
hostile to the perspective of social reform or revolution.
Scientifically there is no more warrant for speaking
of Marxism today in sociology than there is for speak-
ing of Newtonianism in physics or Darwinism in biol-
ogy. The fact that Marxism has become the state doc-
trine of industrially underdeveloped countries in Asia
and Africa is testimony to the fact that his system of
thought proved to be inapplicable to the Western
world whose development it sought to explain. There
is also a certain irony in the fact that the contemporary
movements of sensualism, immediatism, anarchism, and
romantic violence among the young in Western Europe
and America which invoke Marx's name are, allowing
only for slight changes in idiom, the very movements
he criticized and rejected during the forties of the
nineteenth century—the period in which Marx was
developing his distinctive ideas. Some modes of con-
sciousness and modes of being that are the concern
of New Left thought and activity today Marx scornfully
rejected as characteristic of the Lumpenproletariat.

At this stage in the development of Marxism it may
seem as fruitless a task to determine which, if any,
version of Marxism comes closest to Marx's own doc-
trinal intent as to ask which conception of Christianity,
if any, is closest to the vision and teachings of its
founder. Nonetheless, although difficult, it is not im-
possible in principle to reach reliable conclusions if
the inquiry is undertaken in a scientific spirit. Even
if he was in some respects self-deceived, Marx after
all did conceive himself as a scientific economist and
sociologist. Allowing for the ambiguities and impreci-
sion of Marx's published writings, there is greater war-
rant for believing that those who seek to provide
scientific grounds for his conclusions are closer to his
own intent and belief than are those who, whether on
the basis of Marx's unpublished juvenilia or Sartre's
metaphysical fantasies, would convert him to existen-
tialism. The scientific versions of Marxism have an
additional advantage: they permit of the possibility of
empirical refutation, and so facilitate the winning of
new and more reliable scientific truths which Marx as
a scientist presumably would have been willing to
accept. Existentialist versions of Marxism, where they
are not purely historical, are willful and arbitrary
interpretations of social and political phenomena.


“Marxism,” declares Sartre, “is the unsurpassable phi-
losophy of our time,” but only because he interprets
it in such a way as to make it immune to empirical
test. Holding to it, today, therefore, is not a test of
one's fidelity to truth in the service of a liberal and
humane civilization, but only a measure of tenacity
of one's faith.