The Seed of Historical Materialism in the 1844 Manuscripts
What is the 1844 Manuscripts? This is a question I’ve clearly been struggling with! If you’ve been reading along with this series, thanks for your patience, and if you’re just starting, you’ve tuned in at the right time.
(experimental street lighting in Paris, 1844)
The 1844 Manuscripts initiates the critique of political economy. Marx does pose the problem in them of political economy as a scientific discourse. In my first post, I developed Marx’s suggestion that political economy had to fail as a scientific discourse of private property in order to succeed as a moral discourse evangelizing about the civilizing effects of capitalist property relations. From another angle, this is just what Marx means when he says political economy needed to treat the capitalist system of private property as a historical given. Producing what Marx called “legends,” political economy ‘explained’ capitalist social relations, like that between capitalist and worker, by assuming them, as if there was a contract signed by the capitalist and the worker before any one capitalist required a laborer to sign away their time and life for wages. (The example Marx gives in the opening of “Alienated Labor” is the relation political economy assumes between the social division of labor and commerce, as if there were never societies that organized a social division of labor without depending on commerce with other societies to survive.) When Marx refers to the ‘essence’ of private property, he means just such a relation—one that was implicit in feudal landownership and made explicit with the rise of industrial capital. (This is the argument of “Rent of Land.”)
Of course, once capitalist social relations or property relations are assumed in this way, they appear fully formed as if created ex nihilo. Because these social relations are assumed to be pre-accomplished, their failure or contestation in class struggle can be externalized as an accident relative to the laws that govern private property. The ‘private property’ of political economy is, consequently, not only a bad abstraction, but an abstraction treated as a self-moving reality—more real, even, than class struggle. And this is supposed to be the ‘scientific’ content of political economy! For Marx, it is precisely this failure of political economy on scientific grounds that allows it to continue its moral mission. To advance the science of political economy, one would have to pose the problem of the genesis of private property itself. What Marx argues is that political economy could only advance its scientific analysis of private property at the cost of superseding itself. It would have to drop its moral pretense. More damning, it would also have to scrap its ‘scientific’ theory of private property entirely, as it conceived of private property in non- or trans-historical terms. This is because, Marx continues, private property can only be grasped in the process of its formation through an analysis of the labor process. To analyze the capitalist labor process, however, political economy would have to confront the alienation of labor at its core. In this labor process, ‘alienation’ designates the necessary unity of the formation (and reproduction) of the capitalist system of private property and the immiseration of the proletariat. So much for the ‘civilizing effects’ of capitalist social and property relations! (As Marx himself recalls later, political economy reaches its apotheosis in Ricardo’s abstract recognition of the necessary role of immiseration and class struggle in the constitution of the capitalist system of private property. After this point, political economy could only survive through its ideological function producing apologies for bourgeois society.)
In my second post, I tried to extend this argument by re-reading the first section of the first manuscript, “Wages of Labor,” where Marx first derives the concept of alienated labor from political economy itself. Briefly: alienated labor—viz., the devaluation of the human world that increases in direct relation to the valorization of the world of things (or, if you like, the immiseration of the worker proportionate to their productivity)—appears to be just one more consequence of the capitalist system of private property, but is in fact the real process through which capitalist property relations are produced and reproduced. For Marx, unlike the political economists who treat private property as a historical given, or as an abstract generality with its own laws of movement—private property cannot explain itself. It did not fall ready-made from heaven. Private property—in its pre-capitalist and capitalist forms—is the product of determinate historical transformations of the labor process. These transformations are in each case separations of the worker from their product, from their work, from their species-being, and from others (whether other workers or the lords of labor).
In “Wages of Labor,” however, Marx only derives the concept of alienated labor from a criticism of Smith by Smith. He does not yet begin the critique of political economy proper, which is the concern of “Alienated Labor.” All we have in the first three sections—“Wages of Labor,” “Profit of Capital,” “Rent of Land”—are indications that something has gone terribly wrong in political economy. Its leading practitioners do understand at some level the necessary unity of the capitalist system of private property and the immiseration of the proletariat. They cannot, however, avow this unity. To the extent that political economy has a moral mission, it cannot do so without admitting its own hypocrisy. This hypocrisy is constitutive of political economy as a discourse, even of its scientific contributions. As we’ve already seen, when capitalist social and property relations are assumed instead of explained, political economy is able to insulate these relations from criticism made on the basis of immiseration or class struggle.
Here is the shape of the problem: are political economists good scientists, who, because of the (perhaps historically necessary) limitations of their discipline, inadvertently insulate capitalist social and property relations from criticism? Or are political economists just moralists, who, because of the need to produce justifications for the ruling class, willingly compromise their scientific integrity? This is why Marx takes on the task not only of explaining the formation of the capitalist system of private property but also the formation of the discourse of political economy. If Marx breaks with political economy in the 1844 Manuscripts, it is because his commitment to the scientific analysis of private property compels him to ask the question of the genesis of private property. Specifically, Marx asks about the genesis of the capitalist system of private property, or the development of the private property relation implicit in feudal landownership into industrial capital. As he asks in the beginning of “Alienated Labor”: what is the relation, the real connection, between the system of alienation (read: system of private property) and the system of money?1 Money, and the mediation of all social life by money, is only dealt with, however, very briefly in the penultimate section of the third manuscript, and only in relation to the disappearance of individuality in capitalist society and its possible re-emergence in an expanded form in future, communist society. The manuscripts are, after all, only the search for a systematic critique.
Looking back on these first two posts, we can summarize our findings as follows:
The failure of political economy as a scientific discourse is the success of political economy as a moral discourse; the success of political economy as a moral discourse is the failure of political economy as a scientific discourse.
A scientific analysis of private property requires posing the question of the historical genesis of private property. That is, there is no difference between a scientific analysis of private property and a critique of political economy.
Once the question of the historical genesis of private property has been developed, the solution presents itself as an analysis of the alienated labor process that exhibits the necessary unity of capitalist social and property relations (grasped in their formation) and the immiseration of the proletariat. That is, there is no difference between a scientific analysis of private property and a critique of private property.
Marx’s critique of political economy begins between the legends produced by political economy and the social fact of mass immiseration it recognizes, however obscurely, as a real consequence of the property relations it studies. (This vacillation of the political economist on the role labor plays in the theory of private property and what workers receive in reality is best displayed by Marx in “Wages of Labor,” which I cover in my last post.) This confrontation between legend and fact on the terms of political economy compels Marx to pose the question of the connection between capitalist social and property relations and immiseration, which is the genetic question. He has, after all, witnessed the staggering of the political economist who takes capitalist social and property relations for granted and fails to ask this question. By the section “Alienated Labor,” Marx reveals that (1) the fact of immiseration, (2) the real unity of immiseration and capitalist social and property relations, and even (3) the legends produced by political economy about capitalist social and property relations all have one source: determinate historical transformations in the labor process or process of production.
Thus, in the 1844 Manuscripts Marx will even pose the problem of how “labor” as such becomes thinkable for political economists only at a certain stage of the historical development of private property relations (with the rise of industrial capital). (He will, of course, not arrive at a solution until he develops the theory of real abstraction later, which is given its fullest expression in Capital.) A history of society must be both one of the labor/production process through which social life is reproduced and one of the sciences a society develops to understand itself, since the content of these sciences is itself a ramification of the historical development of the process of production. But this is just the seed of the critical method of historical materialism itself: on the ‘objective’ side, explaining contemporary property and social relations by reference to the process of production (the dialectic of the forces and relations of production); on the ‘subjective’ side, explaining contemporary theories and sciences of society by reference to contemporary configurations of the production process.
Marx: “Thus we have now to grasp the real connection between this whole system of alienation—private property, acquisitiveness, the separation of labor, capital, and land, exchange and competition, value and the devaluation of man, monopoly and competition—and the system of money.” (121)