Eric Rahim, in his work titled A Promethean Vision: The Formation of Karl Marx’s Worldview, has, in tracing the trajectory of Marx’s thought, made an admirable intellectual contribution to the history of ideas.
This review will make Rahim’s analysis a point of departure to develop further his point about Marx’s concept of human consciousness — a concept that is central to both the ‘early’ Marx as well as the ‘mature’ Marx. In clarifying the idea of human consciousness, it would be necessary to at least indicate the complexity of the relationship between the individual and history that Marx faces.
In both the ‘early’ Marx and the ‘mature’ Marx, there is the idea that awareness of the human potential, as well as its actualisation, are both constituted in human engagement with the world. Early on, Marx poignantly points out the dialectic of capitalism. It opens up historically unprecedented possibilities of the development of productive forces which could liberate humans from scarcity and, thereby, enable the full realisation of the human potential.
Yet, capitalist relations of production pit humans against each other and lock them into a form of alienated consciousness, within which what are relationships between people, appear to them as relationships between commodities.
Marx articulates the first element of this dialectic by indicating the grandeur of the human potential in his ‘Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations’ (1857): “...when the narrow bourgeois form has been peeled away, it holds the possibility of ... the full development of human control over the forces of nature — those of his own nature, as well as those of so-called nature ... [what is this] ... if not the absolute elaboration of his creative dispositions ... what is this, if not a situation where man does not seek to remain something formed by the past, but is in the absolute movement of becoming.”
The second part of the dialectic of capitalism is brought out by Marx in Volume 1 of Capital [Das Kapital] in the very first chapter, ‘Commodities’, in the section on fetishism of commodities. Here he states that different commodities produced by different workers separated in time and space, when exchanged in the market, create a peculiar inversion in perception: “there it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”
A new book by a veteran scholar connects political economist Karl Marx’s thoughts from his early years to his later writings
There is thus a linkage between the idea of the great human possibilities discussed in the ‘early’ Marx and the inhibition of these possibilities by the social relations of production prevailing in capitalism, clarified with such rigour in Volume 1 of Capital.
Indeed, I would argue that the very idea of the labour theory of value and the production of surplus value in Volume 1 originate in the value inherent in human functioning as they engage in labour. The splendour of human beings expressing their creativity — that Marx celebrates in his early work — simultaneously implies the inherent value of human activity and the equality of all individuals, whatever the specific forms of their labour.
That is why Marx devises the bridging concept of “abstract labour” that is central to his argument in Volume 1, that the value of a commodity lies in the fact that a certain quantum of human labour is embodied in it.
It is interesting that most scholars of Marx have ignored the relationship between the concept of value in Marx and that presented by Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics (4th century BC). In his treatise on value, Aristotle suggests that goods cannot be of value because they are merely useful. What is of value is human functioning.
The idea of “abstract labour” — necessary to show that two quite different things can have equal value on the basis of the quantity of labour embodied in them — requires not only the proposition that human labour is inherently valuable, but also the view that all human beings are equal. In fact, Aristotle poses the question of how two different things can be equal because, for them to be equal, there has to be something common to both.
Marx observes that the brilliance of Aristotle lay in the fact that he raised this question which was beyond his time. But it could only be answered in another epoch, where the “equality of labour had acquired the status of a popular prejudice.”
In the above argument, I have shown that the ‘early’ and the ‘mature’ Marx — despite their differences in analytical categories — are integrally connected. Therefore, I would humbly suggest that French philosopher Louis Althusser’s idea of the “epistemological rupture” between the ‘early’ and ‘mature’ Marx is essentially flawed.
Althusser suggests that, while the ‘early’ Marx focuses on the human being, in the ‘mature’ Marx the explanation of socio-economic phenomena is located in the structure of the system. This argument is questionable, because beyond epistemology, the argument in the ‘early’ and ‘mature’ Marx is fundamentally linked by Marx’s abiding concern with human beings.
Coming back to Rahim’s excellent work, he brings out the importance of human agency in the conceptual framework of Marx. In this context, Rahim explores both the commonality as well as the sharp differences between Georg Hegel and Marx. As he argues, for Hegel, actuality is not objective, but develops with the movement of the “spirit.” But Marx, while retaining the active element in Hegel’s formulation, substitutes “active man” for Hegel’s “active spirit.” This is a valuable insight.
Marx criticises German philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach’s materialist doctrine, for assuming that there is a deux ex machina in history, whereby historical change is determined by material circumstances. In his third thesis on Feuerbach, Marx postulates: “The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that therefore changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances.”
Herein lies the open-ended nature of the dialectic between the individual and history. Transformative change requires a consciousness to be developed for grasping the nature of capitalism and uniting the oppressed classes in a joint struggle to actualise human possibilities.
Only then can human consciousness become a material force in history. Only then can the transformation that lies dormant in the womb of history, light up a new day.
The reviewer is an economist, author and social activist. He is currently Distinguished Professor and Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Information Technology University in Lahore
A Promethean Vision: The Formation of
Karl Marx’s Worldview
By Eric Rahim
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 7th, 2021