Marx and the Dialectics of Historical Change

The emergence of Marx’s thought is upon mid-nineteenth-century development of modern-industrial world. He advances a theory of capitalism via a critique of nineteenth-century political economy. He expressed in the notion of alienation, and using the method was the historical materialist analysis of change. Marx’s work is an emphatic celebration of the project of modernity. His work is extensively used by development theorists.

            The key of the ethic of Marx is in the idea that humankind has become alienated from its true nature but might now overcome this condition. A system of alienated labour degrades human labour into mere work. Marx analyses bourgeois capitalism in line with this ethic and method and looks to uncover the dynamic of the system. According to Marx, division of labour makes labours more alienated. Three broad areas of influence in the work of Marx: the tradition of German idealist philosophy (exemplified by Hegel); the tradition of English political-economy (particularly the work of Adam Smith and David Ricardo); and French socialism.

The concept of alienation

            There are two ways in which the idea of the notion of alienation can be approached in Marx’s work: a. via critical reworking of the idealist philosophy of Hegel; b. via a critical review of the assumptions of the English political-economists. Hegel’s idea is “It is the state which orders society and it is the state which identifies the general interest”. In Hegel’s scheme the state is understood to be prior to society and acts to order society. For Marx, the modern state is an alienated form of political activity. In the political sphere radical democratization represents the overcoming of alienation. Later, Marx argued that alienation in the productive sphere is the key to all forms of alienation and so democratization will have to begin in the productive sphere. Marx rejects Hegelian idealism, and affirming the dialectical strategy of enquiry.

            Marx wrote a series of texts which established the basis for all his subsequent work in the period 1843-1846. The chief are, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (also called The Paris Manuscripts), and with Frederich Engels, The German Ideology (1846). It is in the The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts that Marx discusses the notion of alienation, in the context of a critique of political-economy. Marx’s criticism of the work of the political-economists rest on the charge that they take for granted the characteristics of the economic, social and political system – crucially, the existence of private property. The work rests in part upon their treating human beings as essentially egoistical. Marx use the notion of alienation to analyze the way in which modern industrial capitalism acts to distort this basic human characteristic via the degradation of creative human labour into mere work. In The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts alienation presents itself in four ways. In the first place, the worker is alienated from the product of his labour because in industrial capitalist society work is specialized, routinized and controlled by others. The worker’s products exist apart from him and it confronts him as the wealth of the capitalist, or abstractly as capital. Second, the worker is alienated from the act of production because routinization, specialization and submission to external control effectively destroy the typically human creativity of labour. Labour is not voluntary in capitalist society, rather it is coerced. Third, human beings are alienated from their ‘species being’ as capitalistic social relations degrade the collective human creation of self and society by reducing the social world to a vehicle for the satisfaction of private wants. Fourth, human beings are alienated from their fellows as capitalistic social relations are typically fragmentary. The fundamental contradiction of capitalist society is the private control of social production. In The German Ideology Marx and Engels look forward to the effective overcoming of the present division of labour so that human beings would not be restricted to a particular sphere of activity.

The strategy of historical materialism

            In Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), there is the following summary formulation of the ‘materialist conception of history’: production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rise a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. … It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

Overall, Marx is arguing that human beings make their own patterns of life and themselves in creative and cooperative human labour.


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