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, E N GE



, AN D M


Marx, Engels, and Marxisms

Series Editors
Marcello Musto
York University
Toronto, ON, Canada

Terrell Carver
University of Bristol
Bristol, UK
The volumes of this series challenge the ‘Marxist’ intellectual traditions
to date by making use of scholarly discoveries of the Marx-Engels
Gesamtausgabe since the 1990s, taking on board interdisciplinary and
other new critical perspectives, and incorporating ‘reception studies’.
Authors and editors in the series resist oversimplification of ideas and
reinscription of traditions. Moreover, their very diversity in terms of
language, local context, political engagement and scholarly practice mark
the series out from any other in the field. Involving scholars from different
fields and cultural backgrounds, the series editors ensure tolerance for
differences within and between provocative monographs and edited
volumes. Running contrary to 20th century practices of simplification, the
books in this innovative series revitalize Marxist intellectual traditions.

More information about this series at

George C. Comninel

Alienation and
Emancipation in the
Work of Karl Marx
George C. Comninel
Department of Politics
York University
Toronto, Canada

Marx, Engels, and Marxisms

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electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now
known or hereafter developed.
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publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are
exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use.
The publisher, the authors and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information
in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the
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Praise for Alienation and Emancipation
in the Work of Karl Marx

“With this comprehensive book, George Comninel builds on the best of Marx’s
major writings and political initiatives, while identifying mistaken and problematic
aspects of his theoretical and political legacy. Comninel’s long-­standing commit-
ment to improving and developing historical materialism has thus yielded an enor-
mous contribution to social theory, historical sociology and political economy, while
providing crucial guidelines for class formation and socialist strategy in our time.”
—Leo Panitch, Professor Emeritus, York University, Canada,
and Co-editor, Socialist Register

“This work is a penetrating analysis of the fate of Marxism in the 20th and 21st
Centuries. George Comninel both describes the distortion of Marxism in Stalinist
Russia and the post-Soviet rebirth of Marxism in the 21st Century led predomi-
nantly by the recognition of the Hegelian influence on Marx. All those interested
in the contemporary revival of Marxism are required to read this book.”
—Norman Levine, Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland
Baltimore County, USA

“By locating Marx’s works in the historical context, George Comninel has pro-
vided in this book an insightful interpretation of the development of Marx’s ideas
of alienation and emancipation through the critique of political economy as well as
a persuasive articulation of the tension between the liberal ideas retained in Marx’s
works and Marx’s own historical materialist approach to history.”
—Zhang Shuangli, Professor, Fudan University, China

This book is dedicated to the memory of Ellen Meiksins Wood,
a great friend, inspiring mentor, and true comrade.
Series Foreword

The Marx Revival

The Marx renaissance is underway on a global scale. Whether the puzzle is
the economic boom in China or the economic bust in “the West”, there is
no doubt that Marx appears regularly in the media nowadays as a guru, and
not a threat, as he used to be. The literature dealing with Marxism, which
all but dried up 25 years ago, is reviving in the global context. Academic
and popular journals and even newspapers and online journalism are
increasingly open to contributions on Marxism, just as there are now many
international conferences, university courses, and seminars on related
themes. In all parts of the world, leading daily and weekly papers are featur-
ing the contemporary relevance of Marx’s thought. From Latin America to
Europe, and wherever the critique to capitalism is remerging, there is an
intellectual and political demand for a new critical encounter with Marxism.

Types of Publications
This series brings together reflections on Marx, Engels, and Marxisms from
perspectives that are varied in terms of political outlook, geographical base,
academic methodologies, and subject matter, thus challenging many pre-
conceptions as to what “Marxist” thought can be like, as opposed to what
it has been. The series will appeal internationally to intellectual communities
that are increasingly interested in rediscovering the most powerful critical
analysis of capitalism: Marxism. The series editors will ensure that authors
and editors in the series are producing overall an eclectic and stimulating yet


synoptic and informative vision that will draw a very wide and diverse audi-
ence. This series will embrace a much wider range of scholarly interests and
academic approaches than any previous “family” of books in the area.
This innovative series will present monographs, edited volumes, and
critical editions, including translations, to Anglophone readers. The books
in this series will work through three main categories:

Studies on Marx and Engels

The series will include titles focusing on the oeuvre of Marx and Engels
which utilize the scholarly achievements of the ongoing Marx-Engels
Gesamtausgabe, a project that has strongly revivified the research on these
two authors in the past decade.

Critical Studies on Marxisms

Volumes will awaken readers to the overarching issues and world-­changing
encounters that shelter within the broad categorization “Marxist”.
Particular attention will be given to authors such as Gramsci and Benjamin,
who are very popular and widely translated nowadays all over the world,
but also to authors who are less known in the English-speaking countries,
such as Mariátegui.

Reception Studies and Marxist National Traditions

Political projects have necessarily required oversimplifications in the twen-
tieth century, and Marx and Engels have found themselves “made over”
numerous times and in quite contradictory ways. Taking a national per-
spective on “reception” will be a global revelation and the volumes of this
series will enable the worldwide Anglophone community to understand
the variety of intellectual and political traditions through which Marx and
Engels have been received in local contexts.

Titles Published
1. Terrell Carver and Daniel Blank, A Political History of the Editions of
Marx and Engels’s “German Ideology” Manuscripts, 2014.
2. Terrell Carver and Daniel Blank, Marx and Engels’s “German

Ideology” Manuscripts, 2014.

. Alfonso Maurizio Iacono, The History and Theory of Fetishism, 2015.

4. Paresh Chattopadhyay, Marx’s Associated Mode of Production, 2016.
5. Domenico Losurdo, Class Struggle: A Political and Philosophical
History, 2016.
6. Frederick Harry Pitts, Critiquing Capitalism Today: New Ways to
Read Marx, 2017.
7. Ranabir Samaddar, Karl Marx and the Postcolonial Age, 2017.

Titles Forthcoming
Robert Ware, Marx on Emancipation and the Socialist Transition
Jean-Numa Ducange and Razmig Keucheyan (Eds.), The End of the
Democratic State: Nicos Poulantzas, a Marxism for the 21st Century
Vladimir Puzone and Luis Felipe Miguel (Eds.), The Brazilian Left in the
21st Century: Conflict and Conciliation in Peripheral Capitalism
John Gregson, Marxism, Ethics, and Politics: The Work of Alasdair
Xavier LaFrance and Charles Post (Eds.), Case Studies in the Origins of

The book that follows pulls together ideas and writings about Karl Marx
that have developed over many years. My original work, with which I am
still engaged, broadly addressed class struggles and historical political
development, with a particular focus on the French Revolution. Like many
others, I was initially attracted by the epochal character of the Revolution,
and widespread acceptance that it constituted a “class revolution”. Aside
from the broadly recognized account of its leadership embodying the
interests of the French bourgeoisie as a class rising to ascendancy, there
seemed much to learn from research focussed on the radical popular
movement in the Revolution, with leading contributions by such Marxist
historians as George Rudé and Albert Soboul.1
From the start, however, I found myself compelled to address the rela-
tively recent but increasingly influential “revisionist” conception of the
Revolution. During the 1970s, a growing wave of French revisionist his-
torians followed the lead of the deeply anti-Marxist British historian Alfred
Cobban. Their challenge to the classic account of a bourgeois class revolu-
tion became more and more emphatically ideological, embracing Cobban’s
characterization of the conception as a distortion of historical evidence
driven by Marxist theory.2 Notwithstanding this ideological intent, how-
ever, there did indeed appear to be a deeply problematic disjuncture
between the terms of the classic account of “bourgeois revolution”—not
only prominent in Marx’s own writings, and a touchstone of Marxist his-
toriography, but long accepted by mainstream historians—and a growing
body of evidence that in fact no capitalist class had been involved.


In a process worthy of a major study in the sociology of knowledge, or

the social history of political theory, as the revisionist history took hold in
France during the decade following 1968, Marxist ideas that had enjoyed
a preeminent status in major areas of French intellectual life were all but
totally driven from the academy. The historiography of the French
Revolution was hardly alone in this onslaught, but the revisionist histori-
ans played a major role in undermining the credibility of Marxist theories
and concepts. Thrown on the defensive, some French Marxist historians
attempted to salvage the idea of bourgeois revolution while coming to
terms with the strong evidence that neither a class of capitalists nor devel-
oping capitalism was involved in the confrontations of the time.
Unfortunately, they found themselves denounced by immovable defend-
ers of the purest orthodoxy.3 That orthodox Marxist position—which
sadly continues to persist among a new generation of mostly English his-
torians unwilling or unable to face the historical evidence—was simply to
trumpet the fundamental “truth” behind Marxist theory; to argue that
evidence of capitalist development was being missed or ignored; and to
impugn the political motivation of anyone who attempted to reconcile
class analysis with the new evidence.4
Historians were compelled to address in some way issues of what had
long been accepted as Marxist theory. The historiographical mainstream,
not only in French but subsequently also in English-speaking academia,
increasingly came to embrace post-structuralist and postmodern perspec-
tives, generally decrying any effort to “impose” a single historical truth.
Those of us who continued to believe in the centrality of class struggle in
history became voices in the wilderness as we sought to reconcile evidence
and theory. Among the now much-depleted numbers of Marxists, there
were those who simply held fast to the orthodoxy that formerly prevailed.
As a result of “the new history” embracing the cultural turn in social sci-
ence, there was relatively little attention being paid to the social and eco-
nomic issues that long had loomed large in historiography. In recent
decades, therefore, few historians have even bothered to address the
“orthodox” Marxist true believers for whom evidence could never over-
master ideas drawn from theory, although nothing of consequence has yet
been brought forward as evidence to support the discredited conception
of bourgeois revolution.
My own approach focussed on the fact that the idea of bourgeois revo-
lution was not original to Marx, but had in fact been an expression of
liberal ideology from its origin during the French Revolution. It not only

predated Marx’s birth by decades but never actually was consistent with
the idea of class struggle between oppressor and oppressed, which was at
the heart of Marx’s truly original conception of historical development.
Since there can be no doubt that Marx accepted the widespread idea of
bourgeois revolution and integrated it within his work, my approach nec-
essarily entailed coming to terms with what was essential and unique in his
own ideas; how his theoretical perspective developed; how his genuinely
original contributions were consistent and remained unchallenged by any
evidence; and how, unfortunately, liberal ideology not only was incorpo-
rated into his work but subsequently was even taken by others to define it.

This Book
For these reasons, I have frequently returned to take up the issues of
Marx’s theory, particularly his conceptions of precapitalist versus capitalist
forms of class society, and, more generally, the issues of historical class
analysis. My approach to understanding Marx’s ideas is in many ways
inspired by the work of the late social historians of political theory, Neal
Wood and Ellen Meiksins Wood, with whom I studied (for more on my
approach, see Chap. 1). Ellen Wood, of course, was also known for her
significant contributions as a Marxist theorist, but in her final two books
she set out how she conceived the social history of political theory.5 The
“social history of political theory” particularly emphasizes the ways in
which the social, political, and economic context of an author—and not
merely the contemporary context of ideas—not only powerfully shaped
the author’s thought but generally constituted the terrain of its engage-
ment. One purpose of this book is to bring that approach to bear with
respect to the ideas of Marx. The crucial starting point for this must be the
French Revolution, the opponents of which carried their opposition
almost without distinction from 1792 (the first war of the Revolutionary
era), into and through the Napoleonic Wars, ending just three years before
Marx’s birth. Indeed, as will be argued throughout much of what follows,
the French Revolution was the single greatest determinant of politics,
social change, and culture during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Its historical impact—and impact on the idea of history—can hardly be
overstated. I particularly take up these latter ideas in the Introduction,
which also attempts to provide an overview of the book’s essential argu-
ment instead of just posing the questions to be addressed.

My engagement with the issues of history and theory has not been
limited to the confines of directly historical analysis. When I published
my book on the French Revolution, I was a member of the Sociology
Department at the University of Western Ontario, teaching social the-
ory. Since 1990, I have been a member of the Political Science
Department at York University, where I teach the history of political
theory. In both of these contexts, I have taught Marxist theory to both
undergraduate and graduate students. I have also benefited from more
than 25 years of teaching “The Theory and Practice of the State in
Historical Perspective”, the full-year graduate seminar created by Neal
and Ellen Wood. I was a student in that course when they first taught it,
and it was in and through the course that Neal and Ellen, and I—as well
as other students over time—became involved with the practice of what
has come to be called “Political Marxism”. Through this teaching, I
found myself addressing, and writing about, key questions with respect
to understanding Marx’s work, in addition to the issues of historical
analysis with which my career began. This book grows from confronting
those theoretical questions.
It is always a challenge to write about any significant aspect of Marx’s
work. Widely recognized as one of the greatest social thinkers, there are
many points of entry into his ideas—political, philosophical, historical,
economic, sociological, and so on. His ideas encompass the whole of
human history and the future of humanity, yet he also wrote in concrete
detail about the politics of Second Empire France, and the American Civil
War. No one work, or even an entire career, can hope to adequately cover
the whole of what Marx had to say in a serious and critical way (in keeping
with his own injunction, expressed to Arnold Ruge in 1843, to carry out
“ruthless criticism of all that exists”). This book is indelibly marked by its
origin in confronting issues of history, but equally by its focus on the twin
issues of alienation and emancipation, with which Marx began his serious
theoretical work in 1843, and which remained central to his efforts for the
rest of his life.
It is this thread of Marx’s thought that has always gripped me: what
makes a revolution necessary, and what must be achieved through it? As
what follows will maintain, this thread initially runs from Marx’s early
“philosophical” manuscripts (never so much philosophical in themselves
as critical of mere philosophy) [see Chaps. 2, 3, and 4], through The
Communist Manifesto [Chaps. 6 and 7], with particular attention to the
early political writings of the 1840s [Chaps. 4 and 5]. While Marx had

much to say during and in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848—with

his observations on French politics revealing a great deal about his ideas
on the nature of the state—this thread is once again, as in 1844, taken up
most clearly in his pursuit of the critique of political economy, primarily in
the Grundrisse and Capital [Chaps. 8, 9, 10 and 11]. It is in this context
that he particularly confronts the forms of class society that precede capi-
talist production, and their essential differences from capitalism, the his-
torical character of so-called primitive accumulation, and the nature and
methods of historical materialism. At the same time, it was precisely dur-
ing the period of his getting the first volume of Capital into publication
that he was engaged in the longest and most complicated concrete politi-
cal project of his life in the International Working Men’s Association
[Chap. 12]. It really is only in considering the whole of this thread in his
life’s work that one is in a position to take account of Marx’s epochal con-
tribution to historical social theory, comprising the nature, and meaning
for humanity, of alienation and emancipation [Chap. 13].

A Note on “Political Marxism” and “Capitalism”

As noted above, my work joins with that of Ellen Meiksins Wood, Robert
Brenner, and a rising generation of scholars in practising “Political
Marxism”. As is so often the case with controversial stances, the name first
was applied by an opponent, Guy Bois.6 It was intended to convey a per-
ceived defect—that in the place of economically conceived categories and
processes, this sort of Marxism was informed by political categories and
processes. Although this is a misrepresentation of the actual analysis, one
crucial aspect of our approach is, in fact, to emphasize that in precapitalist
forms of class society the supposed separation of political and economic
spheres of social existence does not exist even in superficial appearance (as
it does in capitalism). In precapitalist class societies, social surplus is
extracted from the direct producers (largely peasants) through relation-
ships of extra-economic coercion, not through a seemingly purely eco-
nomic relationship such as that of wage labour in capitalism. As a result,
social property relations in precapitalist societies may be particularly char-
acterized by what Brenner has called “politically constituted property”,
such as the privately owned venal offices of the absolutist state in ancien
régime France. For this reason, after some original reluctance, those of us
who take this approach have reconciled ourselves to the use of this once
pejorative term.
xviii   PREFACE

One irony is that some recent critics of this approach have asserted that,
rather than not being “economic” enough, the problem is that we are too
economically determinist. This might even seem comical to those who
have read Ellen Wood, Brenner, or me on the subject, but once again,
there is a reason for the allegation, even if it is wrong. At the root of this
claim is that we (and I am often singled out for particular criticism due to
my work challenging the idea of “bourgeois revolution”) take too extreme
a view of what constitutes capitalism. This has everything to do with the
delineation of capitalist and non-capitalist forms of society, in which I
carefully follow Marx’s terms of analysis in Capital and the Grundrisse. As
Brenner, Wood, and I have maintained, there is, in fact, a sharp distinction
between capitalist and non-capitalist social relations, despite frequent
points of similarity and continuity. Neglecting this crucial difference can
only lead to confusion, and so the importance of insisting on it.
It is not, of course, as if Political Marxists have a monopoly on the con-
ception of capitalist society, and that others are not permitted to conceive
it differently if they choose. There is, however, something very specific
about the conception with which we work, and it is directly derived from
Marx’s critique of political economy. Unfortunately for our Marxist oppo-
nents, one cannot reject this conception without rejecting the core of
Marx’s work.
One could easily write an entire book just on the differences between
capitalist and precapitalist social relations, but the key issue is fairly easily
summarized, as I have tried to do in my work, and Ellen Wood did in hers.
The capitalist extraction of social surplus occurs through the formally eco-
nomic relations of wage labour, by which the worker is paid for the time at
work, and all that is produced during that time belongs entirely to the
capitalist employer. In Marx’s value analysis, the worker is compensated
for the value of the capacity to work over that period—for her labour-
power—not for the value of what is produced through that labour. The
value of labour-power is essentially the socially normal cost of living for
the worker, which is usually not at the level of bare survival, and may well
include items of relative luxury. If the cost of living of workers, on average,
was greater than or equal to what they produced during their employ-
ment, there could be no capitalism. In fact, however, it is just as character-
istic of capitalist society as precapitalist7 societies for those engaged in
labour to produce a surplus beyond their own needs in the normal course
of production. The major difference is that in precapitalist societies what
is primarily produced are the immediate requirements for subsistence,

whereas in capitalist society the full range of social needs is only acquired
through extensive market relations. It is immediately obvious when half of
what a sharecropper produces is taken away by the owner of the land, just
as it is obvious that the sharecropping family subsists primarily on what is
left. It is this naked exploitation of producers that necessitates extra-
economic coercion, without which landlords would be unable to compel
tenants to surrender so large a part of their annual labour.
Yet, while there is no such obvious exploitation in the capitalist wage
relation—which is why political economic analysis is required to under-
stand not only the mystery of economic equilibrium but even the source
of profit—and no manifest extra-economic coercion, it is not the case that
no coercion is involved. In the terms that Ellen Wood used in her work,
the operation of the market does not only present opportunity—as econo-
mists are fond of maintaining; the market is also a source of compulsion,
from which it is all but impossible for workers to escape. Behind this com-
pulsion is the historic separation of the labouring majority from the land
on which they once directly secured their subsistence and produced a sur-
plus. This fundamental separation of labourers from the historically con-
stituted form of the means of production is the real story of so-called
primitive accumulation, as Marx argued in Capital. As a result, there is no
practical alternative for the great majority but to seek employment for
The real secret of capitalist social relations, however, lies in a second
form of compulsion that is experienced by the capitalists themselves.
Through his account of relative surplus value, Marx described the advan-
tage an individual capitalist can realize in the market through increasing
productivity—paying the same in wages while achieving a greater output,
and so being able to sell at a lower price while still making a profit. In
consequence, other capitalists in the same type of production are com-
pelled to match or exceed that increase in productivity. Any capitalist
enterprise that cannot maintain the prevailing rate of surplus value over
time is doomed to failure as other capitalists win customers away through
a price advantage.
A great deal of Capital is devoted to the analysis of this dynamic and its
implications for the system of capitalist production as a whole. The idea of
relative surplus value is indeed at the heart of Marx’s account of capitalist
society. Yet, while those of us raised in capitalist society and wholly inured
to its normal practices may take for granted that the owners of the means
of production can make changes in production processes that will yield

productivity improvements, for most of history this was not possible at all.
In medieval guilds, for example, guild members were subject to its rules
and regulation of production, and employers—whether outsiders or, more
usually, masters within the guild—could do nothing that contravened
these norms. As the work of E. P. Thompson revealed in impressive detail,
the struggles by which British owners of capital acquired real and effective
control over the processes of production played out over centuries. Not
before the middle of the nineteenth century did what Marxists call the
“real subsumption of labour to capital” become anything like characteris-
tic of wage employment. In pre-revolutionary France, large factories
existed—some using the most sophisticated technology of the day—but
not the management of wage workers within them.8 Further, in nineteenth-­
century France—directly as a result of the Revolution!—labour law had
literally come to prohibit employers from interfering in the processes of
production as immediately organized by the workers themselves [see
Chaps. 2 and 12]. At the time Marx wrote Capital, the real subsumption
of labour to capital had only begun to be normal in Britain, was legally
prohibited in France, and stood in stark contrast to the forms of artisanal
production that continued to be dominant in most of Europe. Marx had
a clear, and still unsurpassed, understanding of the nature of capitalist
social relations; but at that time the economic reality of European societies
lagged far behind England, despite awareness of its advantage.
It is for this reason that one must be “extreme” in judging whether or
not capitalism exists. There were factories and wage labour in ancient
Greece and Rome. In eighteenth-century France, commercial relations
were enormously significant, and growing technical expertise in manufac-
turing ultimately led to the Jacquard loom. Yet in neither the ancient
world nor the ancien régime did what Marx understood as capitalism actu-
ally exist. Even in England, where enclosures brought about so-called
primitive accumulation starting at the end of the fifteenth century, and
where agrarian capitalist social relations were well established by the mid-­
sixteenth century, there was a long epoch of class struggles before indus-
trial capitalist production began to become dominant in the nineteenth
century.9 If the role of relative surplus value and the real subsumption of
labour to capital is not taken seriously in understanding whether capital-
ism exists, or not, the whole history of European society can be reduced
to stages of capitalist development, perhaps interrupted by a feudal hiatus.
There are, of course, some social thinkers who have preferred to conceive
history in this way, such as Max Weber. The conception of capitalism that

Weber put across, as also his concept of class, was intended to be a refuta-
tion of Marx. Instead of following Marx’s theoretical analysis—or even
merely respecting the evidence of history, it simply is not acceptable to
take a superficial and haphazard approach to conceiving the nature of capi-
talist society.

Toronto, Canada George C. Comninel

1. George Rudé, The Crowd in the French Revolution (London: Oxford
University Press, 1967); Albert Soboul, The Sans-Culottes: The Popular
Movement and Revolutionary Government, 1793–1794 (Garden City, N.Y:
Anchor Books).
2. Alfred Cobban, The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (London:
Cambridge University Press, 1968). See my Rethinking the French Revolution
(London: Verso, 1987).
3. See my discussion of Régine Robin in Rethinking the French Revolution.
4. This was most readily apparent in the reaction of the great historian Albert
Soboul, as discussed in Rethinking the French Revolution.
5. See particularly the first chapters of both Ellen M. Wood, Citizens to Lords:
A Social History of Political Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages
(London: Verso, 2008), and Wood, Liberty and Property: A Social History of
Western Political Thought from Renaissance to Enlightenment (London:
Verso, 2012). Perhaps her most notable works of Marxist theory were
Democracy against Capitalism (London: Verso, 1995), and The Retreat
from Class (London: Verso, 1986), in addition to a number of works of
historical analysis of class societies.
6. Guy Bois, “Against the Neo-Malthusian Orthodoxy”, in The Brenner Debate:
Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-­ Industrial
Europe, ed. T.  H. Aston and C.  H. E.  Philpin (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1985), 115.
7. Although much of my work deals with the analysis of precapitalist societies,
this book does not deal directly with that subject. It will, however, be the
subject of a forthcoming book.
8. Michael Zmolek, Rethinking the Industrial Revolution (Leiden: Brill, 2013),
284–5. With work organized in “guild-like” ways, these really operated as
manufactories notwithstanding the use of advanced machinery.
9. Zmolek’s Rethinking the Industrial Revolution provides a detailed history of
these struggles.

I am deeply indebted to the comments and criticisms of many graduate

students who have studied with me over the years—too many to name
individually—as well as various scholars and students who have responded
to these ideas at conferences. I want to thank Terrell Carver for his gener-
ous and extensive comments on what I wrote about The German Ideology,
though of course any errors that remain are solely my responsibility. I also
would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Babak Amini as
I worked to bring together a range of unwieldy texts. Finally, I want to
offer a somewhat unusual, and perhaps unexpected, acknowledgment to
my now retired colleague and former Dean, Robert Drummond. Some
time ago, Bob transferred to me one of his own teaching credits, making
it possible for me to become Department Chair without derailing the
book on which I was working. As it happens, that was a different book,
and it is still in progress, but I did not want to miss this opportunity to
thank him for his selfless generosity.


1 Introduction   1

2 Approaching Marx’s Theory  33

3 Emancipation in Marx’s Early Work  65

4 The Developing Conception of Historical Materialism  89

5 Problems of The German Ideology 111

The German Ideology versus Historical Materialism 123

7 The Puzzle of the Manifesto of the Communist Party 151

8 Debating Marx’s Conception of Class in History 187

9 Historical Materialism and the Specificity of Capitalism 203

10 Capital as a Social Relation 219

xxvi   Contents

11 Capital and Historical Materialism 235

12 Marx and the Politics of the First International 255

13 Marx and Social Theory 281

Bibliography 323

Index 335


Karl Marx was never an academic. After abandoning the career in law that
his father wanted for him, and completing a doctoral degree in philosophy
in 1841, he became a radical journalist and political activist. Throughout
his life, during which his family suffered from real poverty, he remained on
this basis an agitator for human freedom. The greatest part of his writ-
ings—both published and unpublished—were devoted to the critique of
political economy, and it was through this medium that he particularly
confronted the dominant ideas of his time, especially historical social the-
ory or the philosophy of history. On these grounds, he certainly qualifies
as a great philosopher, yet his purpose was never merely philosophical. His
main objective, from even before he encountered political economy, was
always the realization of human emancipation, which from the start he
understood to be more than simply a political goal.
Already inclined to pursue a radical project of revolutionary transfor-
mation going beyond the achievements of the French Revolution, Marx
had at university overcome his initial dislike of G. W. F. Hegel’s apparently
conservative philosophy to work with the Left Hegelians.1 Together with
Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, Max Stirner, Arnold Ruge, Moses Hess,
and others, Marx embraced a view that the social and intellectual develop-
ment of humanity that had been realized over the course of history—the
fundamental subject of Hegel’s philosophy—had not, in fact, reached its
pinnacle in the Prussian monarchy of his day. It was through this Left

© The Author(s) 2019 1

G. C. Comninel, Alienation and Emancipation in the Work
of Karl Marx, Marx, Engels, and Marxisms,

Hegelian perspective that Marx first came to appreciate both the nature of
alienation in society and the extent to which human emancipation had at
its core overcoming alienation in its various forms. From the beginning,
but especially after his first encounter with political economy in 1844,
Marx understood the issues of alienation and emancipation to lie at the
heart of historical social development.
In 1843, having been forced from his career as newspaper editor due to
the suppression of its issues by reactionary Prussian censors, Marx under-
took to analyse seriously the forms of alienation obstructing human free-
dom. He began with a close critique of part of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.2
Where the Left Hegelians, particularly following Ludwig Feuerbach, had
already criticized religion as a form of human alienation—their central
philosophical challenge to Hegel himself—Marx went beyond this to find
alienation also in the form of the state.3 Moses Hess had recently pub-
lished a book chapter that criticized money also to be a form of alien-
ation.4 Shortly after—in the article “On The Jewish Question”, written for
the Deutsch-Franzöische Jahrbücher that Marx co-edited, and challenging
Bauer’s preoccupation with religion—Marx reproduced this insight, but
extended it to include more generally wealth in the form of property.5
Through these works of 1843, but especially as a result of encountering
the ideas of Frederick Engels—writing for the same journal—Marx was
brought to confront the ideas that political economists had advanced
about capitalist society. As a result of this, he was led to consider how the
human condition in his day should be understood in relation to social
development in history and to a future realization of humanity’s real
In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx advanced
the idea that alienation of labour constituted the essential form of exploi-
tation, and was, in fact, the source of private property, not its consequence.
Though he was still a long way from the critique of political economy
achieved in Capital, already he recognized that the antagonistic social
relations between workers and capitalists had a profound significance in
human history. Indeed, he asked, “What in the evolution of mankind is
the meaning of this reduction of the greater part of mankind to abstract
labour?”6 He conceived “the entire movement of history” in a broad
sweep from early social forms (“ancient Rome, Turkey, etc.”)—where the
“antithesis between lack of property and property” remained as yet unde-
veloped—to labour and capital, which, in their opposition, “constitute

private property as its developed state of contradiction”.7 He then con-

ceived this contradiction-laden historical process to result in “Communism
as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrange-
ment, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and
for man.”8 The reduction of the mass of humanity to exploited labour first
led to expanded productive capacities, then—through communism—to
greater human freedom. The classic articulation of this analysis, of course,
is later contained in The Communist Manifesto.
Like Hegel and many others, Marx understood history in terms of
developmental processes shaping human society. The philosophical cast of
his early thought—human capacities realized through sequential historical
forms, expressing successively higher levels of social experience—is unmis-
takable. This was, however, equally central to most varieties of social the-
ory emerging over the last three centuries, informing historiography,
sociology, and political science. Yet, while Marx began with such ideas, his
approach to history did not end there.
On the one hand, engaging with the capitalist system of production
compelled him to address how it differed from previous forms of society,
and how it came to be. On the other hand, in later life, he began to con-
sider seriously the sociopolitical situation and potential for emancipation
in societies outside the framework of Western philosophy and social the-
ory, like India and Russia. This brought him to consider other historical
trajectories, both in actual development and as alternative possibilities.
It is essential to confront historical social theory in appropriating
Marx’s ideas today. His critique of political economy is widely recognized
as relevant today, even by mainstream economists, but what of his project
of concluding the long history of human exploitation and unfreedom?
Despite the widespread presumption that his historical theory is funda-
mentally based on a sequence of modes of production, there is no account
of such that stands as definitive.9 Indeed, many grounds exist for chal-
lenging unilinear and universal conceptions of historical development (as
Marx himself came to do in his later years). Moreover, Marx relied upon
existing historical ideas since proved wrong, leaving several concepts to be
squared with evidence. Faced with such doubts and challenges, we must
take heart from Marx’s willingness to stray beyond the framework with
which he began, and learn from his ongoing efforts to advance historical

The Importance of the French Revolution

to Marx’s Ideas

Born in Trier—a formerly free city that reactionary Prussia acquired in

defeating France—Marx was from his youth preoccupied with the politics
of the French Revolution and their limits. Indeed, the French Revolution
dominated the world of Marx’s youth and had a profound impact on his
personal and intellectual development. The Revolution’s issues and con-
troversies, politics and ideology, achievements and failures—together with
the profound reshaping of societies for which it was responsible—contin-
ued to be primary determinants of the European social context until at
least the revolutions of 1848.10 For more than two decades, near constant
warfare had embroiled Europe, with corollaries stretching from North
Africa to the Caribbean, to North America. The impact of the Revolution
on the nineteenth century was in many ways comparable to the impact
that the First and Second World Wars had on the twentieth century.
The Revolution both loomed as an obvious and crucial historical turn-
ing point in Marx’s ideas, and had enormous influence on his early work.
This was not due to any role it may be supposed to have played in the
transition from feudal class relations to those characteristic of capitalist
society, but fundamentally because the Revolution trumpeted the cause of
freedom: liberté, égalité, fraternité. The class interests generally identified
with the bourgeoisie in the Revolution—even by Marx—were all immedi-
ately political: republicanism, liberal rights, modestly representative
democracy, and nation building. Together, these goals defined the core
mission of Jacobin politics. Above all, such objectives were recognized to
be antithetical to aristocratic privilege and absolute monarchy, and it was
in this sense specifically that the Revolution was understood to have
marked a break with feudalism.
The final defeat of the Revolution in 1815—when the vestiges of
Jacobin politics, and any scant hope for a return to democracy notwith-
standing the imperial ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte, were crushed by
the vindictive and reactionary Holy Alliance—cast dark shadows across
Europe. In much of Europe, the Revolution had shone as a beacon of
freedom, and growing numbers of liberals and radicals had looked to
France with hope even under Napoleon’s leadership.11 Though Britain
had played a major role in his defeat—and took possession of the man
himself—Continental Europe now was completely dominated by the
Russian Tsar, Austrian Emperor, and Prussian King, with their respective
structures of privileged aristocracy, official religion, and unbridled power.

Both the Revolution and its defeat had an especially dramatic impact on
Marx’s family and his birthplace of Trier. The oldest city north of the Alps,
Trier had been a cosmopolitan residence of Roman emperors and, during
the fourth century, the administrative capital of the Western Roman
Empire. As a major city, there would have been Jewish residents during its
Roman heyday. By 1096, there was a significant Jewish community that,
despite initial efforts by its ruling Archbishop to shield them, was sub-
jected to forced conversion during the First Crusade.12 One of seven
Electors of the Holy Roman Emperor, the Archbishop, held considerable
power and influence, and, no doubt, partly for this reason, Trier remained
thoroughly Catholic during and after the Reformation. Close to France,
and often under its influence, the Revolution saw Trier fully incorporated
as the capital city of a French Départment. At Marx’s birth, there were
perhaps 100 Jews in the city proper (but more in its countryside) and a
total of perhaps 300 Protestants (mostly the result of its acquisition by
Prussia), in a population of more than 11,000.13
Marx’s family not only was Jewish but, on his grandmother’s side, had
long provided Trier with chief rabbis. His paternal grandfather and uncle
then held that position, in turn; his mother also came from a (Dutch) rab-
binical family. His father, Herschel, however, had benefited from the
French Republic’s granting of citizenship to Jews (notwithstanding its
later revocation by Bonaparte) and studied law. He was on the verge of
being admitted to the bar when Trier was handed over to Prussia by the
Congress of Vienna. Though his colleagues pressed the Prussian justice
minister to make an exception for him, this was denied. As a result,
Herschel Marx—one of only three Rhineland Jews in a legal profession—
did as most of the leading Jews in Trier (and many Jews across Prussia) did
in the early nineteenth century, and converted to Christianity.14 He did
not, however, convert to the Catholic faith of more than 96% of his neigh-
bours, nor even to one of the conventional churches of Lutheranism or
Calvinism. Instead, he was baptized in the new church that King Friedrich
Wilhelm III brought into being as part of a forcible (though ultimately
unsuccessful) effort to merge the dominant Protestant sects. Clearly an
intelligent and ambitious man, Herschel Marx’s legal practice prospered.
Soon, indeed, he purchased a home on the leading residential street in
Trier, next door to the Baron von Westphalen, newly appointed to oversee
the city on behalf of Prussia. Now known as Heinrich, Herr Marx and the
Baron became close friends, as did their children.

Prosperous and successful as Heinrich Marx was, however, he remained

deeply committed to the progressive ideas of the Enlightenment and—like
Trier as a whole—he increasingly came to lament the defeated ideals of the
French Revolution, notwithstanding his (and their) embrace of Prussian
identity.15 Indeed, in 1834, Heinrich came to the attention of Prussian
authorities for a stirring toast with obvious liberal inclinations. Shortly
after, he took part in a celebration at the Casino Club (involving much
wine) in the course of which a number of French revolutionary songs were
sung.16 All of the participants were prosperous burghers of Trier, which
had become one of the most liberal communities in all of Prussia. For
15-year-old Karl, both his father’s active enthusiasm—he already had been
well steeped in Enlightenment ideas—and the repressive response of the
government—which put an end to the Casino Club, and put Trier under
watch—would have made strong impressions. If then, Karl proved pre-
scient in early 1848, declaring that a revolutionary spectre was haunting
Europe mere weeks before revolutions broke out, it should perhaps not be
surprising that at that time his hometown proved to be a leading centre for
radicalism and democracy, as Germany began to work its way through—if
still very incompletely—issues that gripped France after 1789.17
Throughout his youth, Marx was confronted both intellectually and
intimately with the politics, legacies, and possibilities raised by the French
Revolution. It remained the touchstone for progressive politics of any
sort, since in most of Europe any effort to realize basic rights, civil equal-
ity, and/or political engagement by the people was not only deeply sub-
versive but inherently revolutionary. The issues of the Revolution remained
alive. There existed growing desire for liberal rights and representative
government even among the well-to-do; aspirations to realize the Jacobin
republican project among professionals and functionaries; and the still
unrealized possibility of radical direct democracy that might confront “the
social question”, which stirred increasing numbers of workers. It was in
this historical context that Marx grew to maturity, undertook his academic
studies, and began work as a journalist.

History and Social Theory

The Revolution’s social, political, and cultural impacts were widely recog-
nized to be historically significant on a world scale. Its magnitude, the
profound issues that it raised, and the extent to which its achievements
were as yet unrealized in so many different national contexts contributed

to the understanding that it was truly unprecedented and epoch defining.

Indeed, the Revolution was broadly conceived to have been not just
historic but historically transformative.
Among liberals and radicals everywhere, the Revolution was under-
stood in terms of a historic class struggle—the result of a fundamentally
necessary struggle by the bourgeoisie18 against the aristocracy and abso-
lute monarchy. These efforts by the bourgeoisie were seen not only to
have been a means of advancing their particular interests but to have
inherently embodied the advancement of historical progress.19 Far from
being limited to Hegelian philosophers, the idea that history was inher-
ently an unfolding of progress in human society was a key thread running
through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberal thought, from politi-
cal economy to mainstream historiography, to the emerging ideas of
This sense of a progressive substance to history has been hugely influ-
ential, yet deeply problematic. The very idea of history is subject to debate,
freighted with meanings and implications tied to barely acknowledged
presuppositions. The term itself derives from the Greek word for “inquiry”,
knowledge acquired for analysis.20 The narrative form that it takes in relat-
ing past events, however, was so compelling that it subsequently provided
the word for “story” in most European languages.
From ancient Greece through the Renaissance, the narratives of history
invariably conveyed a particular point of view: tales of notable, exemplary
or ill-fated persons and events, retold as illustrations for guidance and
moral instruction. Even Niccolo Machiavelli, whose works were infused
with history, discerned in it only recurring patterns: origin, maturation,
prowess, decay, and ruin, variously repeated through Fortune’s great
wheel. To his mind, the lessons of history were valuable because Fortune
dictates only half of human affairs, the rest determined by the efforts of
men. Like the best ancient historians, Machiavelli highlighted object les-
sons in statecraft, the successes and failures to be discerned in the histories
of states. No more than the ancients, however, did he see history as some-
thing having meaning or substance of its own.
In the course of the modern age, however—which self-consciously sep-
arated itself from antiquity by conceiving the existence of a “middle” age
(or ages)—a different sense of history emerged. In respect of the epochal
transformations experienced across “the West” (the former Western
Roman Empire, with lands assimilated to it), history came eventually to be
conceived in terms of ongoing developments of social change. Even more,

the idea grew that in the development of social forms over time there was
a narrative arc that gave meaning and shape to history as a whole. No
longer just instructive tales, history increasingly became a thing and
acquired substance and direction.
This view was premised on shared European experiences from the end
of Roman antiquity: Germanic successor kingdoms; the spread of feudal-
ism; its crisis and collapse; the dawn of the modern age.21 Relative to this,
the essentially philosophical approach to history retrospectively framed
advances in economy, technology, politics, and culture into a compelling
narrative of progress. The long medieval hiatus in the “middle” of this
narrative—attributed to the arbitrary imposition of aristocratic power,
privileges, and monopolies—only contributed to the ideological substance
of the narrative.
Viewed in philosophical terms, history as progress has become under-
stood in relation to the realization of human potential, constituting a telos
of human social evolution. Where for an ancient philosopher like Aristotle
the telos of humanity was essentially timeless, the idea of inherent historical
development provided instead a fundamentally temporal dimension. This
arrow of historical progress was famously captured in John Locke’s asser-
tion that “in the beginning, all the world was America”.22
This view of history as progress did not emerge immediately with
modernity, nor across all European contexts at once. In the sixteenth-­
century France, Protestant constitutional theorists advocated the con-
straint of royal power and “revival of liberty” almost entirely in terms of
the restoration of (feudal) rights from bygone ages.23 Even in the eigh-
teenth century, Charles, Baron de Montesquieu, differed little from
Machiavelli in his conception of history.24 In early modern England, how-
ever, a conception of history as the ongoing and inherent progress of
humanity first emerged in close association with political and economic
This “Whig” conception of history as progress infused Locke’s philoso-
phy and became ascendant in Hanoverian England and the Scottish
Enlightenment.26 Such notable members of the French-speaking
Enlightenment as Jean-Jacques Rousseau27 and Voltaire (Candide)
rejected this inherently progressivist liberal world-view, but it spread across
Continental Europe with the emergent discourses of liberalism, before
and especially during the French Revolution. Virtually all social theory
and historiography since the eighteenth century have to some extent been

informed by this “Whig” perspective.28 Most historians, of course, focus

on a fairly narrow period, generally in relation to a larger epoch. Yet,
though they may resist generalizing about history as a whole, they can
hardly avoid the many conceptions—whether or not acknowledged in
relation to some theoretical approach—derived from historically informed
social theory.
Indeed, with rare and marginal exceptions, social theorists for more
than two centuries have been inclined to see the course of history—at
least over long periods, and perhaps not without periods of exception—
as shaped by inherent and progressive forces of development. These
underlying historical forces generally are conceived in relation to growth,
or growing complexity, in population, family structures, division of
labour, rationality, technology, forms of production, trade, and/or
urbanism. It is significant that such conceptions of history as inherent
progressive social development emerged only in the self-described
“West”, although Asian societies in the early modern era had comparable
or even greater population density, complexity, bureaucracy, technology,
and even commerce.29
The West arrogated a historical narrative of social progress to itself,
and the terms of this narrative are telling. Early on, the classically liberal
Whig conception of history was specifically cast in terms of a sequence of
social forms grounded in characteristic “modes of subsistence”—in order,
hunting, pastoralism, agriculture, and ultimately commerce. This emi-
nently materialist stages theory of history was—strikingly—independently
articulated in the nascent liberal conceptions of Adam Smith in Britain
and A. R. J. Turgot in France around 1750, and widely accepted before
the French Revolution.30 Linked to political economy from its origins
with those two profoundly influential thinkers, this historical conception
of progress was premised upon the growth over time of social complexity,
division of labour, and individual autonomy. It built on Locke’s liberal
ideology of improvement, combining the development of personal liberty
with freedom of property and trade.31 Appealing from the start to liberals
who were inclined to argue for a combination of responsible government
with an open economy, this conception of progress became notorious
when it p­ rovided political moderates and radical Jacobins alike with the
historical justification of “necessity” for the violence incurred during the

The Riddle of History

Among those not actively defending the old regime, the idea of the French
Revolution as the historically necessary task of an inherently progressive
bourgeois class—overthrowing aristocratic class privilege to usher in mod-
ern, liberal commercial society—was broadly accepted long before Marx
entered university. Although it was François Guizot—the Sorbonne histo-
rian of “bourgeois civilization” turned Foreign Minister—who expelled
Marx from France in 1845, Marx always credited him, along with other
liberal historians, for identifying the role of class in history. Regrettably,
although Marx created a truly original and critical conception of history as
the history of struggle in class societies, he never really confronted the dif-
ferences between the liberal ideas and his own. It is therefore necessary
when reading Marx to distinguish between statements derived through his
own critical analysis, and those merely expressing conventional liberal
History necessarily figured in Marx’s critical engagement with Hegel’s
philosophy. Hegel had absorbed, re-interpreted, and integrated ideas from
across the range of liberal thought into an idealist variant of liberal histori-
cal progress, uniting philosophy of history and history of philosophy. His
so-called master-slave dialectic32 and entire conception of civil society are
informed by liberal views of European history since the Middle Ages as
propelled by the rising bourgeoisie, first asserted during the Revolution
and maintained by Guizot and other liberals thereafter. Hegel, however,
formally stood the materialism inherent in prevailing liberal accounts on
its head, ostensibly framing history in idealist philosophical terms that
resonated nicely with the religiosity of the Prussian monarchy.
In Hegel’s conception, the historical development of social forms cor-
responded to the realization of philosophical truth. Where Aristotle
understood the social forms of classical Greece as timelessly conducive to
the good life—the natural and eternal end of humanity—Hegel accepted
the liberal idea of human existence developing through stages having cor-
responding social forms. At each stage, the ensemble of social forms con-
stitutes a whole, realizing the best social life possible at the time, while
continuing to develop, individually and together, in conjunction with
human consciousness and activity: “The life of the ever-present Spirit is a
circle of progressive embodiments.”33 The fullest dialectical development
of human society through history corresponds to the ultimate develop-
ment of ethical life in the state, the realization of universal Spirit, and
humanity’s true telos. In this way, Absolute Spirit, easily read as God,

comes to realize self-consciousness in the world. Reactionary theocracy

and conservative liberalism joined in applause for Hegel.34
The Left Hegelians to whom Marx was drawn attempted to re-invert
this idealist conception. Against Hegel, they articulated a materialist cri-
tique of religion as human alienation but remained primarily preoccupied
with religion.35 For Marx, already more than a radical democrat, and
deeply concerned with “the social question” and forms of freedom and
equality that transcended the merely political, the key issues were instead
the failure of the French Revolution in its historic mission, and the limita-
tions inherent in that mission. His ideas and associates precluded an aca-
demic career, but, driven from journalism by censorship, he proposed to
undertake a history of the radical phase of the Revolution.36
With such a work in mind, he sought to clarify his ideas through a cri-
tique of Hegel’s political thought. In his profoundly original manuscript,
“Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”,37 Marx
applied to the state the concept of “abstraction”—alienation from human
social reality—that Left Hegelians advanced against religion: “Just as it is
not religion which creates man, but man who creates religion, so it is not
the constitution which creates the people but the people which creates the
constitution”.38 Rejecting Hegel’s idealism, but retaining his conception
of history as development, Marx asserted:

It is obvious that the political constitution as such is brought into being only
where the private spheres have won an independent existence. Where trade
and landed property are not free and have not yet become independent, the
political constitution too does not yet exist. The Middle Ages were the
democracy of unfreedom.
The abstraction of the state as such belongs only to modern times,
because the abstraction of private life belongs only to modern times.39

Marx had as yet no familiarity with political economy beyond what was
in Hegel.40 This first articulation of the modern separation of state from
civil society emerged, then, from the political side. He conceived the polit-
ical form of the state to embody alienation inherently: “democracy is the
essence of all state constitutions  – socialised man as a particular state
­constitution”,41 which, however, is to say the state is our collective human
capacity projected into a form exercising power over us. He argued it
never could realize the universal in society as Hegel had claimed; in con-
crete terms, not least because state personnel have strong “particular”
interests in the state itself as a form of private property.42

The conflict between universal human interests and the interests of

property owners came to the fore in his articles for the German-French
Yearbook [Deutsch-Franzöische Jahrbücher]. In “On The Jewish Question”,
Marx challenged Bruno Bauer’s preoccupation with ending official reli-
gion to create a constitutional state. Merely political emancipation frees
citizens from neither religion nor the dominance of property and trade,
protected as private matters in the political state. Then, in its second sec-
tion, he extended the concept of alienation to economic relations:

Just as man, as long as he is in the grip of religion, is able to objectify his

essential nature only by turning it into something alien, something fantastic,
so under the domination of egoistic need he can be active practically, and
produce objects in practice, only by putting his products, and his activity,
under the domination of an alien being, and bestowing the significance of
an alien entity – money – on them.43

It was not theology that needed supersession, but alienated economic

life, recasting the end of historical progress as social emancipation.
In “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.
Introduction”, he went further, identifying for the first time the property-
less proletariat as a revolutionary agent of world-historical significance.
Social emancipation requires “a class with radical chains”, claiming no
“particular right because no particular wrong but wrong generally is per-
petrated against it”: “This dissolution of society as a particular class is the
proletariat”.44 After completing this article, Marx turned his attention to
the major political economists cited by Frederick Engels in “Outlines of a
Critique of Political Economy”, written for the Yearbook, producing his
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.
After these manuscripts, the critique of political economy became the
primary medium for Marx’s development and practice of historical mate-
rialism. Contrary to the claim that he had a subsequent “epistemological
break”, it was here, in 1844, that he established the frame for his life’s
work. In only the first few manuscript pages, under the heading “Wages of
Labour”, Marx first conceived specifically capitalist social relations of
­production—systemically comprehensible only as an abstract whole, still
incompletely formulated by political economy—to be the basis of modern
exploitive class society.
With his very first words—“Wages are determined by the antagonistic
struggle between capitalist and worker”45—Marx entered a new terrain of
class conflict. As capitalist production transforms the world through

modern industry, its system of wage labour more and more reduces the
worker to insecurity and misery: “like a horse, he must receive enough to
enable him to work”, though only as a worker; when not working, the
worker does not exist for the capitalist economy. Regardless of the eco-
nomic cycle, whether growing, declining, or static, workers suffer.
At the end of this first section, proposing “to rise above the level of
political economy”, Marx brought his critique to bear upon historical
development, posing two monumental questions. The first, noted above,
queried the role of abstract labour in the historical development of human-
ity. The second, illuminating his previously declared objective of social
emancipation, queried the errors of “piecemeal reformers” who sought
only better wages for workers.46
These questions established a framework for conceiving working-class
social revolution to end the capitalist system of wage labour and realize
true human emancipation. Through this approach, Marx articulated a
profoundly different overview of the social evolution of humanity than
previously expressed in liberal historical social theory or philosophical his-
tory. While retaining a Hegel-like recognition of history as social develop-
ment conceived in its entirety, in these manuscripts Marx brought critical
analysis of this development beyond the idea of alienation in the form of
the state, beyond even alienation in monetary exchange, to conceive alien-
ation of labour as underpinning historical development. In admittedly dif-
ficult passages, Marx asserts that the alienation of labour is the key to “the
movement of history”: given the “reduction of the greater part of man-
kind to abstract labour”, revolutionary self-emancipation by the proletar-
iat not only ends their exploitation as a class but realizes “the goal of
human development”.47 Marx’s conception does not merely stand Hegel’s
idealism “right side up” to conform to conventional liberal materialism.
Instead, his historical materialism conceived antagonistic class relations to
be at the core of history just as much as they were at the core of the mod-
ern economy.
Marx rejected any fictitious primordial account of the origin of prop-
erty, the linchpin of political economy and starting point for explanations
of “the social problem”. He proposed “to start out from a present-day
economic fact” rather than an imaginary primordial condition: the labour
of the worker producing commodities for wages creates wealth for the
capitalist, but is realized for the worker as loss, its “appropriation as
estrangement, as alienation”.48

If the product of labour does not belong to the worker, and if it confronts
him as an alien power, this is only possible because it belongs to a man other
than the worker.49
Thus through estranged, alienated labour, the worker creates the rela-
tionship of another man, who is alien to labour and stands outside it, to that
labour. The relation of the worker to labour creates the relation of the capi-
talist… to that labour. Private property is therefore the product, result and
necessary consequence of alienated labour, of the external relation of the
worker to nature and to himself.50

However, property does not exist only in its fully realized modern form.
The historical development of forms of property is, therefore, the develop-
ment of alienation of labour. Capital and labour, as such, are the forms of
“private property in its developed relation of contradiction”.51 It is the
alienation of labour in the various forms of its development—the appro-
priation of surplus product in a concrete relationship that gives real form
to wealth and its owner, as also to the immediate producer, and to produc-
tion itself—that constituted real property relations throughout history.
Finally, in the developed capitalist form of “abstract labour”, the antago-
nism is starkly exposed, no longer hidden as mere inequality of property.
The emancipation of society from private property necessarily takes “the
political form of the emancipation of the workers”, but it constitutes the
basis for universal human emancipation.52 More than just a workers’ politi-
cal movement, communism “is the positive supersession of private property
as human self-estrangement”: “It is the solution to the riddle of history and
knows itself to be the solution”.53 It is this conclusion—at once political
and historical-theoretical, answering both questions from “Wages of
Labour”—that first expressed the basis for the rest of Marx’s work.

The History of Class Struggles

It is the antagonism central to this historical perspective—translated from
philosophical language to that of practical politics—with which The
Communist Manifesto opens:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master
and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant
opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now
open fight…54

This fundamental premise, informed by critical engagement with Hegel

and the Left Hegelians but specifically derived from and developed
through the critique of political economy, remained central to Marx’s
thought. It is, indeed, history in this sense—humanity developing through
the historical antagonisms and contradictions of class exploitation, eventu-
ally achieving civilization truly united with freedom—that makes it mean-
ingful to speak of his social theory as “historical materialism”.
It is crucial that this conception of history identifies the broad arc of
social change upon which historical philosophy and social theory have
been premised as driven by polar opposition between those who produce
and appropriators of the product of their labour. As first identified in
1844, stated so clearly in the Manifesto, and underpinning of all Marx’s
subsequent work, fundamental class relations involve exploitation of one
class by another, maintained through oppression. In Marx’s thought,
classes are not ranks in society, nor conceived in isolation as economic
categories. It is the fundamental antagonism between the class of people
producing society’s surplus, and the class of those possessing the power to
appropriate it for themselves, that drives history—not some unfolding of
natural capacities, nor the rise of one class without reference to another.
The fundamental classes are paired—“oppressor and oppressed”—by
the alienation of labour. However, after noting (in the problematic manu-
scripts of “The German Ideology”) that Entfremdung (alienation or
estrangement) was “a term which will be comprehensible to the philoso-
phers”,55 Marx largely abandoned its use in this sense. While no single
term took the place of “alienation of labour”, the idea itself remained
central to his work. In the Manifesto and Class Struggles in France, he
referred to “exploitation”, but also the “antagonism” of classes.
In the Grundrisse, Marx did use “alienation” on several occasions. In
analysing the development of individual economic autonomy in relation
to social interdependence through exchange, he observed that the univer-
sality of “production on the basis of exchange values” in turn produces
“the alienation of the individual from himself and from others”.56 He also
used the term in relation to the “appropriation of alien labour without
exchange, without equivalent”, described as the “alienation of labour”,
predicated on propertylessness.57 In general, however, in pursuing the cri-
tique of political economy he came to express the alienation of labour
simply in terms of “appropriation”, sometimes explicitly of “surplus”.
Most importantly, in a major theoretical advance beyond his 1844 cri-
tique, beginning with the Grundrisse he came to conceive the form of

surplus appropriation in the capitalist mode of production specifically as

surplus value. In Capital, he consistently focused on the appropriation of
surplus in this form.
Capital famously eschews a historical approach in order to analyse syn-
chronically the system of social relations of production based upon gener-
alized commodity exchange, but there are points where Marx was
compelled to set aside such ahistorical analysis. While the global system of
social relations must be conceived in terms of an abstract and idealized
whole, Marx differed from the classical political economists (and later
economists) by historicizing it. His critique of political economy recog-
nized that capitalism did not embody timeless principles of production,
but was based on historically specific—and unique—conditions and social
relationships. This historical conception of capitalist social relations, in
contrast to the “timeless” concepts of the political economists, is particu-
larly clearly stated in the “Introduction” to the Grundrisse.
Again rejecting an imaginary primordial starting point—the “individual
and isolated hunter and fisherman” of Smith and Ricardo—Marx stressed
that production is necessarily and profoundly social:

when we speak of production, we always have in mind production at a defi-

nite stage of social development, production by social individuals. It might
therefore seem that, in order to speak of production at all, we must either
trace the historical process of development in its various phases, or else
declare at the very beginning that we are dealing with one particular histori-
cal epoch, for instance with modern bourgeois production, which is indeed
our real subject-matter.58

Marx devoted a whole section of these manuscripts to “Forms Preceding

Capitalist Production”,59 which was published in English before the rest of
the Grundrisse. In his introduction, historian Eric Hobsbawm addressed
the many problems Marxists had making sense of world history using only
a few “orthodox” historical modes of production, as well as the limitations
of the several short accounts of them in Marx’s work. He observed

The general theory of historical materialism requires only that there should
be a succession of modes of production, though not necessarily any particu-
lar modes, and perhaps not in any particular predetermined order.60

The history of class struggles, therefore, largely remained (and still

remains) to be written.

History was not Marx’s primary purpose, however, and after comment-
ing on the relationship between the anatomy of humans and the anatomy
of the ape, he decided it was “wrong” to follow a historical method of

The point at issue is not the place the economic relations took relative to
each other in the succession of various forms of society in the course of his-
tory… but their position within modern bourgeois society.61

For this reason, Capital begins with the abstract form of the commod-
ity, not with history. This was neither abandonment nor repudiation of
historical materialism, however. The generalized capitalist system of com-
modity production depends on there being workers lacking rights to the
means of production and obliged to work for wages in order to survive.
Not only does this condition differ from the almost unmediated engage-
ment with nature of early human bands, before production of agrarian
surpluses made “civilization” possible; it also differs from the immediate
possession of land by peasant families in precapitalist agrarian societies,
whatever their formal property relations.
As Ellen Wood has argued, through the critique of political economy,
Marx increasingly came to conceive historical development in terms of
processes that produced the social forms—property, law, and other social
relations—that are preconditions for the specific relations of capitalist pro-
duction.62 This first appeared in the Grundrisse’s long section on precapi-
talist forms, but as Wood notes, “the remnants of the older view [based on
Smith’s stages] are still visible”.63 In Capital, however, Marx historicized
capitalism not only without relying on, but in opposition to, the progres-
sivism of liberal political economy. And so, after his lengthy analysis of
how capitalist social relations operate, Marx briefly turned to consider
how they came into existence.

Precapitalist Societies
Marx rejected yet another imaginary starting point of political economy—
that “primitive accumulation” was savings made by a “frugal elite” of
future capitalists while others squandered everything—asserting that “so-­
called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical
process of divorcing the producer from the means of production”.64 It is
here that Marx most clearly addressed the transition from feudalism to

capitalism, conceived in concrete historical terms, not as universal history.

Of particular significance is his observation that “In England alone, which
we take as our example, has it the classic form”.65
Whereas in all prior forms of class society the greatest part of social
surplus was produced by peasants directly occupying the land, enclosures
created a class of workers with no access to means of production, and who
therefore depended on wages. During the transitional era of specifically
agrarian capitalism corresponding to the period of enclosures (sixteenth
to early nineteenth centuries), English peasants were transformed into a
minority of capitalist farmers, on one hand, and a majority of wage labour-
ers, on the other, creating the conditions for generalized industrial capital-
ism. These processes of enclosure were unique to England, and it is
specifically to these processes that capitalist social relations of production
can be traced.66
Marx offered even more profound insight into historical-social analysis
in Volume III of Capital, when considering the nature and origin of
ground rent. Theoretical analysis of ground rent is very complex but, with
industry only recently contributing more to total output than agriculture
in the very home of the Industrial Revolution, it remained important.
Ricardo’s advances in analysing differential ground-rent clarified how and
why better land received higher rents, but not how or why rent is due on
even the worst land.
From the start, historical issues were inescapable in dealing with

The form of landed property which we shall consider here is a specifically

historical one, a form transformed through the influence of capital and of
the capitalist mode of production, either of feudal landownership, or of
small-peasant agriculture…67

Through lengthy analysis, Marx explored not one, but two forms of
differential rent (each distinct from normal profit, monopoly profit, and
interest), and their relationship to rent on the worst land.68 Ultimately,
this analysis of capitalist ground rent requires recognizing yet another
form of rent—absolute rent—which is not determined by capitalist rela-
tions of production and exchange but imposed upon them.69 It is specifi-
cally this capitalist phenomenon that led Marx to begin analysing the
“Genesis of Capitalist Ground Rent” with precapitalist forms of rent: not
deductions from surplus value (which did not then exist) but the charac-
teristic historical form of appropriating “unpaid surplus labour”.

Focusing on the crucial difference between capitalist wageworkers who

are free but divorced from means of production, and peasant producers
occupying the land, he observed that “surplus-labour for the nominal
owner of the land can only be extorted from them by other than economic
pressure, whatever the form assumed might be”.70 The continuity with his
earlier historical conception of opposition between “oppressor and
oppressed” is clear, and underscored by the even more general observa-
tion that follows:

The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out
of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it
grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a deter-
mining element… It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the
conditions of production to the direct producers… which reveals the inner-
most secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it the
political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the
corresponding specific form of the state.71

Although, as Hobsbawm noted, there is no canonical statement of his-

torical modes of production in Marx’s work, this insight into the social
structure of all class societies—articulated in one of his most theoretically
developed manuscripts—provides crucial insight into how they should be
analysed in historical materialist terms.
It is important that Marx’s analysis of precapitalist societies based on
production by independent peasant households, immediately introducing
the above statement, includes two distinct forms. The first is European
feudalism, with serfs producing rent for their feudal lords. In the second,
however—identified as Asian—there are no private landowners, and rent
is appropriated by a state that is both sovereign and landlord. In these
pages Marx specifically used the term “mode of production” to distin-
guish between different, specific, forms of appropriation (and their associ-
ated property relationships), thus drawing a clear distinction between the
feudal and “Asiatic” modes of production.
The latter concept has been the subject of great debate. This has largely
concerned the nature of Asian societies in Marx’s day and since, and much
use of the concept, by Marxists and critics alike, has been deeply problem-
atic. There is, however, no doubt that a number of ancient societies—
Egyptian, Mycenaean, Andean, Meso-American, and others, including
early China—were characterized by an absence of private property in land

and appropriation of peasant surpluses by a state hierarchy.72 It does seem,

therefore, that in historical terms Marx’s use of this concept has a solid
More to the point, Marx identified “economically” similar independent
households of serfs and Asian peasants as equally requiring extra-economic
coercion, immediately underpinning his observation on the specific eco-
nomic forms of the appropriation of surplus. Regardless of the historical
realities, this distinction speaks to Marx’s theoretical perspective. Since the
peasant households in these two cases are said to be involved in the same
form of material production, differing only with respect to the relationship
between producers and appropriators, it cannot be that for Marx only one
mode of production existed for each productive form or technology.
Given his analysis, there is no reason why there could not be several modes
of production based on peasant household production, distinguished by
different sets of social relations of property and forms of coercion by which
“unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of direct producers”. This goes a
long way towards justifying Perry Anderson’s little-noticed assertion that
a “scrupulous and exact taxonomy of these legal and political configura-
tions is thus a pre-condition of establishing any comprehensive typology
of precapitalist modes of production”.73

Beyond Initial Premises

Marx also took up history in fundamentally political works besides the
Manifesto, particularly when addressing developments in France after
1848. There are, indeed, strikingly original insights in these works reflect-
ing Marx’s grasp of history, and its importance, even where his observa-
tions might seem to stand at odds with the broad historical frame he had
articulated. Reviewing Guizot’s work on the success of the English
Revolution relative to that of France, Marx chided him for forgetting the
history he once had known in his blinkered defence of the late Orleanist
regime.74 What is striking is that the historical analysis in this review is
every bit as nuanced as Guizot’s best work, and still rings true. In arguing
that the English success in forging an enduring constitutional monarchy
was no matter of national “character”, but a reflection of a historical social
context different from France in 1789—not least that the landed property
of English landlords was already fundamentally “bourgeois”—Marx’s
analysis seems to undercut the broadly accepted view that England and
France had comparable class revolutions, with the French case if anything
reflecting more complete development.

Similarly, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is far too astute

in its evaluation of historical dynamics—from the 1789 Revolution to the
1852 debacle of Second Republic yielding to Second Empire—simply to
conform to the ostensible account offered in The Manifesto. Marx’s own
analysis of developments since the Revolution, and of the politically active
classes of mid-nineteenth-century France, do not easily square with his
acceptance of the liberal idea that 1789 had already been a “bourgeois
revolution” made by a capitalist class challenging a decrepit landed aristoc-
racy.75 Still, while proving he was too good an analyst to force facts to “fit”
theory, it was not his purpose to develop novel historical ideas in these
works, notwithstanding their grounding in history. His observations are
valuable for entering into the processes of class politics, but he was above
all addressing issues of his day, not history.
Later in life, however, Marx devoted much study to questions of his-
tory outside the frame of conventional Eurocentric social theory. While his
historical conception of history as the history of class struggles differed
profoundly from that of milquetoast liberals, during the decades he
devoted to the critique of political economy—but also to socialist politics,
especially the International Workingmen’s Association—he had little time
to enter into historical study proper. During his last decade, however, after
disputes within the International led to its removal to New York, he con-
tinued working on revisions to Capital, and engaged in much correspon-
dence over contemporary politics, but he also undertook new studies
driven by the question of whether societies that had not experienced
European history were condemned to repeat it.76
Conventional liberal social theory broadly conceived two possibilities
for non-European societies: either they were too different in climate, cul-
ture or “racial” temperament to follow the example of Europe; or they
were able if only they would “Westernize”. Some theorists thought one or
the other; some thought one or the other applied in individual cases. Marx,
as argued above, originally began with ideas informed by such theoretical
views, but—distinctively—he did not presume European history to be the
embodiment of inherent human progress or realization of universal Spirit.
What mattered to Marx about the history of class struggles was bring-
ing them to an end through the general emancipation of humanity. It was
this commitment, from which he never faltered, that led him in a differ-
ent theoretical direction. Societies outside Europe where the appropria-
tion of surplus already existed had endured their own bloody histories. If it
were possible to avoid the convulsion and suffering inherent in transition

to the capitalist mode of production while at the same time realizing

human freedom, so much the better. Where people had yet to be sub-
jected to any form of the alienation of labour, the possibility of securing
the benefits of civilization without entering that form of oppression
clearly was desirable.
Among the immediate social examples, two were particularly salient.
India had experienced a history of great civilization based on different
social relations of peasant production than Europe and then been reduced
to colonial status by Britain. It had been subjected to market forces by the
chief capitalist society, yet much of the effect of this had been to under-
mine its indigenous industries. Throughout most of its vast extent, peas-
ant production endured, and was even reinforced, yet had been subjected
to formally capitalist laws and governance.
Russia, by contrast, had voluntarily adopted Western culture at the level
of its elites. Not only had peasant village society remained largely undis-
turbed, but there had been comparatively little introduction of capitalist
social relations in any form in Russia, and serfdom had only recently been
abolished. Among its intellectuals, however, Western political ideas were
influential, not least radical and revolutionary ideas.
Marx was familiar with a variety of views on Indian society, which con-
tributed to his observations (rightly or wrongly) on the “Asiatic” mode of
production. British relations with India were of course also a regular fea-
ture of business news. His friend Maxim Kovalevsky introduced him to the
work of Lewis Morgan, and having previously taught himself to read
Russian, he read and annotated Kovalesvsky’s own work.77 He also under-
took a detailed study of Indian history,78 and conducted other ethno-
graphic research.79 Little, however, from his ethnographic/historical
studies of this period found their way into print until a century after his
death. His unfulfilled intention to write on Morgan’s pioneering studies of
early social forms did, however, lead Engels to produce (drawing on
Marx’s notes) The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.
In this period, Marx received an inquiry from the Russian Vera Zasulich,
raising questions about his views on capitalist development. She particu-
larly wanted his ideas on “the theory of the historical inevitability for all
countries of the world to pass through all the phases of capitalist produc-
tion”,80 and that “the rural commune is an archaic form which history,
scientific socialism—in a word all that is the most indisputable—condemns
to death”,81 as maintained by Russian “Marxists”. In response, Marx
wrote three extensive drafts,82 before sending a very short letter.

Throughout, Marx stressed that his analysis in Capital referred to the

inevitable transformation of private property in Western Europe and that
the historical absence of private property in Russian peasant villages created
a fundamentally different context, making the preservation of communal
property potentially a “fulcrum of social regeneration in Russia”.83

Implications for Today
Little can be confidently asserted about the direction of Marx’s thought at
this late point in his life, but it certainly seems he was prepared to question
the inevitability of the Western European path of historical development.
In understanding the implications of this development, however, it is
essential to appreciate that Marx was never primarily a social theorist
abstractly interested in history. Even before his early critical engagement
with the ideas of Hegel, Marx was preoccupied with the problem of human
unfreedom—that, as Rousseau began The Social Contract, “Man is born
free, and everywhere he is in chains”.84 This preoccupation led Marx to
overcome his initial distaste for Hegel, to follow the Left Hegelians in
extending the analysis of alienation. After his profound and original
­recognition that the state was in itself, necessarily, a form of alienation—
giving Marx theoretical priority among those for whom the political form
of the state is fundamentally incompatible with true freedom85—it was a
confrontation with actually existing exploitation, the capitalist alienation
of labour, that brought him to an appreciation of the historical dimension
of unfreedom.
In his first thoughts on the subject in 1844, development of the
alienation of labour was merely development of the social form of private
property, from the ancient world to the modern form that was described
by political economy. Soon, however, he integrated this concept of devel-
opment with the accepted view that history progressed through specific
stages—modes of subsistence—but instead framed these stages in terms of
exploitation: the history of class struggles. He never advanced any single
definitive sequence of such historical forms of exploitation or “modes of
production”, nor was such a sequence necessary.
Marx recognized capitalist social relations of production to constitute
the fullest possible development of private property, the ultimate manifes-
tation of the alienation of labour. Whereas all precapitalist forms of prop-
erty necessarily depend upon the extortion of surplus through overt
extra-economic coercion, the alienation of labour in capitalism uniquely

appears to be purely economic in form. This follows from the prior

separation of direct producers from access to essential means of produc-
tion, and a formal and apparent separation of political and economic
spheres of social relations.
As Ellen Wood suggested, one can conceive the existence of a continuum
in social relations of exploitation from one extreme, in which there is no
separation at all between the state and property—the so-called “Asiatic”
mode of production as described by Marx in Volume III of Capital—to
the other extreme, embodied in the specific and unique formal separation
of the political and economic that is characteristic of capitalist social rela-
tions.86 All other forms of precapitalist class society are located between
these extremes, combining private relations of property with the form of
the state, and with extra-economic coercion having a direct role in the
appropriation of surplus. This continuum, however, does not constitute a
sequence of stages of social development, beyond the original form of
systematic social exploitation, upon which early “civilizations” appear to
have been based, having lacked property in land (other than through the
state). Only retrospectively, after the unique form of capitalist production
of surplus value through formally free economic r­ elations was established,
could the multiple varieties of precapitalist appropriation of surplus prop-
erly be comprehended in their collective difference from capitalism. No
historical sequence is implied in their variety. No “progress” is manifested
in their differences. Nothing leads necessarily or teleologically towards the
capitalist form of social property relations. This is, of course, what
Hobsbawm’s observation implied.
Philosophical history is fundamentally and profoundly wrong, and con-
ventional Marxist accounts of history grounded upon it are at odds with
both fact and Marx’s truly original ideas. There is no arrow of necessary
historical progress other than that which might (wrongly) be imposed
after the fact, taking the world we know today as the starting point for a
story of development projected onto the past. Capitalism was neither nec-
essary nor inevitable, and only its unlikely development through historical
processes unique to England made it even seem plausible as a form of
society (if, at the same time, so difficult to comprehend as a whole as to
require a new, dismal, form of science).87 After becoming established and
spreading across the globe, however, capitalism has so transformed the
daily social relations we take for granted that the absurd and ahistorical
claims of economists that it is “natural” generally go unchallenged.

No more than there was a teleology of development in the past is there

one at work today. Through Marx’s critical analysis, however, we can
understand how it is that the capitalist mode of production, while never
the inevitable “end of history”, does, in fact, constitute the final form of
class society. As the logically complete development of the exploitive
potential of private property relations, it has removed extra-economic
coercion from the alienation of labour, leaving only the abstract economic
relations of seemingly free market exchange. This is not to say that it
would be impossible to reconstitute at least temporarily some form of class
society again founded on coercion, but it is hard to see how it could be
sustained for long (provided we do not bomb or pollute ourselves back to
a Stone Age).
If, therefore, capitalist social relations are not going to remain with
humanity forever—not merely centuries or millennia, but as long as we
exist—we will have to forge a new way forward. This possibility and need
are what Marx saw in communism in 1844. There is no philosophical
guarantee of a future free from alienation and exploitation, but there is
every reason to believe we can, and must, create one.
Not only does Marx’s work help to locate the present form of society in
relation to the history of humanity, it offers insight into how we can move
forward. The central point of his work is that misery and oppression are
products of the forms of society we construct for ourselves, the majority
compelled to resist the exploitation that benefits the power-bearing minor-
ity. History does not occur through a rigid frame of categories, but neither
is it contingent happenstance, open to myriad subjective narratives. Social
relations of exploitation—appropriation of surplus backed by oppression—
have throughout history provided both internal contradictions and limita-
tions, and impulses towards change, operating within each of the societal
forms through which they have been constituted. It is characteristic of the
capitalist mode of production that it inclines towards formal equality and
liberty, yet operates to frustrate substantive equality and real freedom.
Almost all of the world is now subjected to capitalist social relations,
but nowhere are we left without choice as to our future. We are not bound
by the dead weight of the past, though we face legacies from each of the
societies we constructed over time. Marx gave us insight into how this
world, in all its complexity, came to be, but also pointed towards the
capacity for coming together in a struggle against alienation in all its
forms. As in his day, but with a still greater development of inherent social
contradictions, we face the future with only our chains to lose.

1. These philosophers are often referred to as the “Young Hegelians”.
Whatever their failings, they were variously recognized to be radicals in the
context of the day, and the primary distinction was always political, not a
question of age.
2. G.  W. F.  Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1967).
3. Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law.
Introduction”, MECW, vol. 3, 29–33, 49; Karl Marx, “On The Jewish
Question”, MECW, vol. 3, 154.
4. Moses Hess, Einundzwanzig Bogen Aus Der Schweiz (Zurich: Verlag Das
Literarisches, 1843). The same volume contained the chapter by Bruno
Bauer that Marx addresses in the second part of “On The Jewish Question”.
5. Marx, “On The Jewish Question”, 172–4.
6. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, MECW,
vol. 3, 241.
7. Ibid., 293–4.
8. Ibid., 296.
9. Eric Hobsbawm, “Introduction”, in Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations
(New York: International Publishers, 1965).
10. As will be argued later in this book, until after 1848, capitalism in any
form, and its industrial revolution, were almost entirely absent from the
European continent, and only just becoming truly dominant in England.
11. Beethoven famously had originally dedicated his Third—“Heroic”—
Symphony to Napoleon, only retracting the dedication after hearing that
Bonaparte had crowned himself Emperor. Many less discerning, or more
desperate, residents of oppressive monarchies continued to look to the
Emperor in hopes of liberation.
12. Robert Chazan, God, Humanity, and History: The Hebrew First Crusade
Narratives (Berkeley: University of California, 2000), 86–93.
13. Boris Nicolaievsky, and Otto Maenchen-Helfen, Karl Marx: Man and
Fighter (London: Methuen, 1936), 7; Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A
Nineteenth Century Life (New York: Norton, 2013), 6. Such numbers are
more indicative than definitive.
14. Sperber, Karl Marx, 17.
15. Nicolaievsky and Maenchen-Helfen, Karl Marx, 8.
16. Nicolaievsky and Maenchen-Helfen, Karl Marx, 9–10; Sperber, Karl
Marx, 28–9.
17. Jonathan Sperber, Rhineland Radicals: The Democratic Movement and
the Revolution of 1848–1849 (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1991), 181.

18. The term bourgeoisie in old regime France referred to townspeople able to
live without performing demeaning labour, but lacking noble status. Only
Marx’s loose use of it as a synonym for the class of capitalists—informed by
pervasive liberal ideas about the causes of the French Revolution—gave to
it that particular sense. In fact, most bourgeois had been lawyers and owners
of state offices, and no more than 10% engaged in commerce or industry
of any sort. While these bourgeois generally were the wealthiest, they nor-
mally purchased ennobling offices in the state as soon as possible, leaving
behind both their bourgeois status and commercial business, which was
incompatible with nobility. François Guizot—renown liberal historian and
politician, but a politically conservative liberal—gave lectures at the
Sorbonne in the early 1820s (François Guizot, General History of
Civilization in Europe (New York: Appleton, 1896)) that, while more con-
ciliatory than the work of other, more radical liberal historians, still empha-
sized the rise of the bourgeoisie and their struggle for progress as central
to European history. See George C.  Comninel, Rethinking the French
Revolution (London: Verso, 1987).
19. This is the core idea of the concept of bourgeois revolution, and it is per-
fectly captured in the first section, “Bourgeois and Proletarians”, of The
Communist Manifesto (Karl Marx, and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the
Communist Party, MECW, vol. 6). While Guizot expressed largely moder-
ate views on the historical role of the bourgeoisie, the significance of their
revolutionary role was emphasized by other liberal historians. In 1817,
Augustin Thierry wrote “Vue des révolutions d’Angleterre”, a history of
the heroic liberalism of the English Civil War that really was a thinly veiled
account of the Revolution in France (in vol. 6 of Oeuvres Complètes, Paris,
1851). In 1824, François Mignet published the first liberal history of the
Revolution in terms of a class revolution of the bourgeoisie (History of the
French Revolution from 1789 to 1814 (London: David Bogue, 1846)), the
account with which The Manifesto most strongly resonates. As I noted in
Rethinking the French Revolution (72–3), the very first account cast in
terms of bourgeois class revolution actually was written by the leading
revolutionary Antoine Barnave in 1792, but it was not published until
20. Oxford English Dictionary: “ancient Greek ιστορία inquiry, knowledge
obtained by inquiry, account of such inquiries, narrative”, OED Online,
September 2012, Oxford University Press, December 4, 2012.
21. Feudalism is widely misunderstood to correspond to the manorialism of the
early Middle Ages, when in fact it emerged through a sudden social trans-
formation around the year 1000 that had profound impact on subsequent
European history. See George C. Comninel, “English Feudalism and the
Origins of Capitalism”, Journal of Peasant Studies 27, no. 4 (2000): 1–53;

George C.  Comninel, “Feudalism”, in The Elgar Companion to Marxist

Economics, ed. Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad Filho (Cheltenham: Edward
Elgar, 2012), 131–7.
22. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1988), 301.
23. Ellen M. Wood, Liberty and Property (London: Verso, 2012), 153–61.
24. Ibid., 175–6.
25. Ibid., 257, 308–10; Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution, 67–8;
George C. Comninel, “Marx’s Context”, History of Political Thought XXI
(2000): 474.
26. For the classic critical account, see Herbert Butterfield, The Whig
Interpretation of History (London: Bell, 1931).
27. Wood, Liberty and Property, 193.
28. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution.
29. They did not, however, have comparable private social property relations
in the primary means of production, as will be discussed below.
30. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution, 64–74.
31. For more on the nature and influence of Locke’s ideas, see Neal Wood’s
books The Politics of Locke’s Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1983) and John Locke and Agrarian Capitalism (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1984).
32. “Master and slave” is a poor translation of Herrschaft und Knectschaft,
which really means lordship and servitude. Discussion of this concept
rarely recognizes that the idea of class struggle between bourgeoisie and
aristocracy was in circulation before Hegel completed his Habilitation, and
was commonplace before the defeat of Napoleon. It is impossible to under-
stand Hegel without recognizing the view—widespread among reactionar-
ies and conservative liberals—that the aristocracy of the old regime
descended from Germanic conquerors; whereas the Third Estate descended
from those reduced to servitude. The other side to that coin was the liberal
emphasis on the long historical rise of the bourgeoisie relative to the lords
following the Germanic conquests, eventually displacing them as the basis
for the modern nation—ideas central to Guizot’s work. Hegel’s dialectic in
this regard, as so often in his work, slyly brought together the reactionary
and the liberal, ceding the future to the latter without repudiating the
33. G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of History (New York: Colonial Press, 1899), 79.
34. The subtlety of Hegel’s thought is such that it is not impossible to see in
his ideas a more materialist unfolding of the universe, the comprehension
of which, by the human mind, constitutes the basis for the Idea. The
human mind, after all, can be understood to be the only form of conscious-
ness that exists. Thus, the material historical development of human con-

sciousness can be equated with that of consciousness itself, turning the

history of philosophy into the development of Mind, as such. Marx clearly
did not credit Hegel with the possibility of such a slyly materialist concep-
tion, and Hegel certainly did not force such a view on his readers. Whatever
Hegel’s own conception, he certainly never sought to promote liberal—let
alone radical—ideas in any obvious way.
35. Marx, “On The Jewish Question”.
36. Karl Marx, “From the Mémoires de R.  Levasseur (De La Sarthe). Paris,
1829”, MECW, vol. 3, n177, 606.
37. The title in the MECW refers to “Hegel’s Philosophy of Law”, though the
standard translation of the German original is Philosophy of Right.
38. Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law”,
MECW, vol. 3, 29.
39. Ibid., 31–2.
40. Other than the protectionist ideas of List’s “national economy”.
41. Ibid., 30.
42. Ibid. 47. State office as a form of “politically constituted property” was
central to the politics of France from the Revolution through the whole of
the nineteenth century, and figured importantly in Prussia.
43. Marx, “On The Jewish Question”, 174.
44. Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law.
Introduction”, 186.
45. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 235. As revealed in
the detailed notes of the MECW, these manuscripts are not, and never have
been, published in the order in which they were written.
46. Ibid., 241.
47. Ibid., 358.
48. Ibid., 323.
49. Ibid., 330.
50. Ibid., 331–2.
51. Ibid., 345.
52. Ibid., 333.
53. Ibid., 348.
54. Marx and Engels, Manifesto, 482.
55. Karl Marx, and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, MECW, vol. 5, 48.
For an extensive discussion of the many problems of the manuscripts pub-
lished as “The German Ideology”, see Chaps. 5 and 6, this volume.
56. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (New York: Vintage, 1973), 162. For a variety of
reasons, this is my preferred edition. In the MECW, the Grundrisse appears
as Economic Manuscripts of 1857–58, (First Version Of Capital), in vol. 28
(New York: International Publishers, 1986), and the cited passage is on
p. 99, in a different translation using the word “estrangement” instead of

57. Marx, Grundrisse, 515. In the MECW edition, this passage appears on
p. 438, with the cited words identically translated.
58. Marx, Grundrisse, 17–23.
59. Ibid., 399–439.
60. Hobsbawm, “Introduction”, 19.
61. Marx, Grundrisse, 28–44.
62. Ellen M.  Wood, “Historical Materialism in ‘Forms Which Precede
Capitalist Production’”, Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of Political
Economy 150 Years Later, ed. Marcello Musto (London; New  York:
Routledge, 2008), 70–92.
63. Ibid., 87.
64. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, MECW, vol. 35, 705–6.
65. Ibid., 707.
66. George C. Comninel, “English Feudalism and the Origins of Capitalism”,
Journal of Peasant Studies 27, no. 4 (2000): 1–53; Ellen M. Wood, The
Origin of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2002).
67. Marx, Capital, Volume I, 609.
68. While actual rent on the worst land affects the whole structure of rents, it
has no effect on differential rent, which can therefore be calculated as if the
worst land has no rent.
69. Ibid., 749–51.
70. Ibid., 777.
71. Ibid., 777–8.
72. Ellen M.  Wood, Capitalism against Democracy: Renewing Historical
Materialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 34–7.
Wood, “Historical Materialism in Forms Which Precede Capitalist
Production”, 80–2.
73. Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: NLB, 1974).
Regrettably, Anderson recognized the possibility of new modes of produc-
tion only in the histories of non-European societies.
74. Karl Marx, and Frederick Engels, “Guizot, Pourquoi La Révolution
d’Angleterre a-T-Elle Réussi? Discours Sur L’histoire de La Révolution
d’Angleterre, Paris, 1850”, MECW, vol. 10, 251–6.
75. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution, 202–3.
76. Kevin B. Anderson, “Not Just Capital and Class: Marx on Non-Western
Societies, Nationalism and Ethnicity”, Socialism and Democracy 24, no. 3
(2010): 7–22.
77. Karl Marx, “Excerpts from M.  M. Kovalevskij (Kovalelvsky)”, in The
Asiatic Mode of Production: Sources, Development and Critique in the
Writings of Karl Marx, ed. Lawrence Krader (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1975),

78. Karl Marx, Notes on Indian History: (664–1858) (New York: International
Publishers, 1960).
79. Karl Marx, Ethnological Notebooks, ed. Lawrence Krader, 2nd ed. (Assen:
Van Gorcum, 1974).
80. Karl Marx, “Drafts of the Letter to Vera Zasulich”, MECW, vol. 24,
n398, 640.
81. Ibid., n400, 641.
82. Ibid., n397 and n398, 640.
83. Karl Marx, “Letter to Vera Zasulich” MECW, vol. 24, 371; Anderson,
“Not Just Capital and Class”, 11–2.
84. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract (Indianapolis: Hackett,
1987), 17.
85. Setting aside early modern radicals who couched their beliefs in religious
86. Wood, Democracy against Capitalism, 34–6.
87. As Karl Polanyi argued in The Great Transformation: The Political and
Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon, 1957), capitalism is
unique as a system for the social organization of production and distribu-
tion because these essential human functions are not embedded in broader
structures of normative social relationships—such as kinship, custom, and
law—but stand apart in what is construed to be an autonomous economic
sphere. It is because the “disembedded” capitalist economy is determined
as a whole by the fundamentally unplanned consequences of myriad indi-
vidual economic relationships that it must be approached by means of
abstract analysis and the deduction of “laws”. On the historical connection
between political economy and agrarian capitalism (and, subsequently,
industrial capitalism), see David McNally, Political Economy and the Rise of
Capitalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

Approaching Marx’s Theory

The Significance of Context for Theory

There are approaches to the study of political theory (and, to a lesser
extent, social theory more broadly) that conceive it to be fundamentally a
form of philosophy that embodies timeless truths. Alternatively, however,
as the work of Neal Wood and Ellen Meiksins Wood amply demonstrated,
when considering historical works of political theory, there is much to be
gained from situating them in relation to the specific social and political
contexts in which, and for which, they were written.1 Despite certain phil-
osophical stances that might flatly reject such a point of view, this seems at
least for most to be an uncontroversial claim. Still, much hinges on what is
meant by “context”. Many scholars of the history of political thought lav-
ish attention on the “discursive context” of an author’s work, situating the
text in the bodies of literature that provided, or helped to shape, particular
themes or arguments. This approach can certainly be very helpful in com-
prehending a text as it was intended to be understood when written and
was so understood by contemporaries. It sheds, however, little light on the
social and political concerns that inspired and underpinned the particular
arguments advanced in historical works of social and political theory.
For example, while it is evident that Jean Bodin’s Six Books of the
Commonwealth in the sixteenth century owes much to a variety of discur-
sive sources—ranging from Aristotle, to the Renaissance humanists, to
debates both within, and against, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic

© The Author(s) 2019 33

G. C. Comninel, Alienation and Emancipation in the Work
of Karl Marx, Marx, Engels, and Marxisms,

Church—Bodin’s careful arguments on behalf of absolute sovereignty

against the Huguenot theorists of resistance cannot be understood ade-
quately by exclusive reference to such discursive antecedents. It is also
necessary for scholars of his work to take account of Bodin’s specifically
political purposes in articulating the position of the politiques in support of
absolute monarchy during the horrific violence of the Wars of Religion.
Taking account of this social-historical context also tellingly reveals pro-
found differences between French and English societies in the develop-
ment of their respective forms of state, and characteristic social property
relations, during the early modern period.2 These differences in social-­
historical context can indeed tell us more than we might learn simply from
considering the fundamentally similar discursive contexts in France and
England at the time.
There is nothing exceptional about this case in the history of political
thought. On the one hand, the historically significant works of political
theory have almost invariably emerged from contexts of dramatic political
confrontation. From Plato and Aristotle’s principled opposition to the
policies and practices of democratic Athens; to Machiavelli’s consideration
of what was possible, and to be preferred, as the Medicis brought the era
of the Florentine republic to an end; to the raging debates engendered by
(very different) revolutions in seventeenth-century England and
eighteenth-­century France, the history of political thought has been dom-
inated by purposive interventions issued in different and distinctive con-
texts of political conflict.
On the other hand, it is necessary to recognize that such political con-
frontations themselves must be considered in relation to the ongoing
development of distinctive and historically specific social forms. In the first
place, it is important to be aware of the different patterns of development
that occurred within the various western European national societies
(despite a broad inclination to attribute to them a common history in
parallel with the extent of their shared literature). Above all, this means
that when studying early modern and modern political thought, it is
important to attend to the distinctive character of, and profound differ-
ences between, precapitalist3 and capitalist forms of society, particularly
with respect to the relation between the economic and political spheres. It
is especially important not to presume the existence of capitalist social rela-
tions, or even signs of their early development, on the basis of superficial
evidence. It is, in fact, precisely in these terms that the profound ­differences
between the early modern societies of France and England must be

The Specific Social Context of Capitalist Society

A full appreciation of this point requires careful clarification of the mean-
ing of “capitalism”. The term may, like any other, be arbitrarily endowed
with different meanings by various authors, and it is pointless to insist that
one definition is what it really means. What is essential is to be clear and
consistent in one’s use of the term, and to ensure that it conveys the mean-
ing one has in mind. In this way, if someone will insist that capitalism really
means one thing, one may be prepared to assert, if necessary, that some
other term can be substituted to refer instead to a conception that is alto-
gether different. Famously, Max Weber and Karl Marx had very different
conceptions of what “capitalism” means. Rather than arguing that one or
the other is correct, one must be clear as to the differences, and the rea-
sons for using one conception as opposed to the other.
The most common understanding of “capitalism” (one roughly corre-
sponding to Max Weber’s widely recognized definition)4 is simply that of
systematic buying and selling in the market for profit. For Weber, capital-
ists had played a role in ancient Greece and Rome but were marginalized
at the fall of the Roman Empire. They subsequently figured centrally in
the emergence of the modern world: first through the snowballing of trad-
ing activity that began in the later Middle Ages, and then most dramati-
cally through the Industrial Revolution and the growing social impact of
applied technology.
From our point of view, however, this conception of capitalism conflates
simple profit-making in the market, which has occurred throughout Western
history,5 with a very specific set of production relations centred on the mar-
ket, but differing markedly from those found in earlier forms of production
for the market. Indeed, Weber himself had recognized the distinction
between mere profit making in trade (though he took this to constitute
“capitalism”) and the crucial modern development of what he termed the
“capitalist organisation of labour”.6 In our usage, however—consistent with
Marx’s conception developed through the critique of political economy—
capitalism is an integrated system of production. This distinction of capitalist
production from mere commerce—which most importantly further signi-
fies more than just the fact of production for the market—is fundamental.
Specifically, by this conception, capitalism is the intrinsically market-
dependent and market-regulated production of goods for exchange—the
production of commodities regulated by relations between commodities—
based on social relations in which all of what economists describe as the
“factors of production” have been thoroughly commodified.

Such commodified means of production include not only land, raw

material, and equipment, but the money form of capital itself, and—above
all—the very labouring capacity of workers purchased through wages.
Only those owning sufficient capital can get market access to the material
means of production, which must then be carefully organized and system-
atically improved in competition with other owners of capital supplying
similar goods to the same market. Failure to be competitive in production,
a standard constantly driven higher through the application of ingenuity
and capital resources to create new technology—a distinctive capitalist
dynamic of productivity—ultimately means failure in the market.
One crucial element is that the commodified labouring capacity of
workers must further be subject to regulation by the market, which in
Marx’s terms is described as the real subsumption of labour to capital. Not
only does capital in principle purchase the labouring capacity of workers to
use in production, but the use of this “factor of production” is itself regu-
lated by capitalist competition, the labour process being transformed to
better serve the interests of capital regardless of the consequences of this
transformation upon the workers themselves. Where workers are able to
resist the demands of capital in relation to the labour process, and so are
able to continue to control production themselves, this stands in funda-
mental opposition to the very existence of capitalist social relations. It may
well be possible to make a profit by selling commodities produced by
artisans who control their own labour, but such profit making does not
constitute capitalism in the terms intended here.7
The key point for our purposes is to establish precisely a conception
that sharply distinguishes between societies in which systematic market
exchanges and commercial profit making may have existed, and those spe-
cifically capitalist societies in which fundamental forms of social production
are inherently subjected to the characteristic relations of market depen-
dency and market regulation. It is these attributes of capitalist production
that are central to the conception of capitalism that Marx developed, and
on which basis he recognized it to be a unique form of social organization.
It is essential, for this reason, to insist upon a precise differentiation of
specifically capitalist social relations of production from other social
­relations of production and circulation in which market exchange, wage
labour, and/or systematic profit-making may exist, but without having
determining impact on production itself. Insisting upon such clear con-
ceptual differentiation is rigorously historical and theoretical, identifying a
distinctive form of societal organization that has unique social characteristics

and historical implications, in contrast with other historical forms that are
at most superficially similar.
In the terms that Marx would later develop and articulate in Capital,
the social relations of production in capitalist society are driven by com-
petition among different owners of capital. While acknowledging, and
even analysing at length, the possibility for monopolies to exist, Marx
asserted that the uniquely dynamic character of the industrial capitalist
economy followed from the competition between producing enterprises
to gain an advantage in the market. Innovations in production machinery,
processes or output, or achieving “efficiencies” through tighter manage-
ment of employed labour, lead to gains in productivity. The innovating
enterprise gains an advantage in the market by being able to sell for less
while making the same or higher profit—until competitors find ways to
match that advantage.
This relentless ratcheting up of “relative surplus value”8 leads to com-
modities becoming cheaper, as enterprises also attempt to gain in the mar-
ket by producing new or improved goods. In a growing capitalist economy,
the reduced demand for labour in enterprises achieving productivity gains
is more than offset by the demand for labour in new lines of production
and/or new enterprises. Obviously, workers are not entirely without influ-
ence in this system, though they are largely limited to pressing for better
wages, hours or working conditions through the threat of withholding
their labour.
As Ellen Wood emphasized, in this system of production the market
does not merely provide an “opportunity”—it imposes imperatives.
Workers have no realistic alternative to selling their capacity to labour to
capitalist enterprises for their subsistence, and they are obliged to accept
(if not without setting some limits through struggle) the control of man-
agement over their work. At the same time, producing enterprises that do
not keep up with productivity gains will eventually fail, as each capital
essentially tries to beggar the others. Where this systematic structuring of
the forms and processes of production through market imperatives does
not exist, there is no capitalism—even if commodities are produced and
exchanged, and workers are paid wages. There were factories in the ancient
world with wage labour, producing large numbers of commodities such as
amphora for the transport of wine and oil. This production was not, how-
ever, subject to the regulating effects of market imperatives—there was no
drive to innovate or increase productivity—and it did not constitute
capitalism in Marx’s sense.

Recognition of the truly unique character of specifically capitalist social

relations was present in Marx’s thought from his 1844 manuscripts on,
though it certainly was deepened through the theoretical breakthroughs
in his later development of the critique of political economy leading to
Capital. The most important points are clearly articulated in the section
known as “Estranged Labour”, which follows upon the ideas developed in
the first section, “Wages of Labour”. The point of departure is the alien-
ation of labour identified in that section, and the profound implications it
has in specifically capitalist social relations, above all in augmenting the
property of the owner of the means of production at the expense of the
worker engaged in production.
Marx noted that “[p]olitical economy starts with the fact of private
property; it does not explain it to us,” and against this asserted, “Do not
let us go back to a fictitious primordial condition as the political economist
does when he tries to explain.” He declared, instead, that “[w]e proceed
from an actual economic fact”.

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more
his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever
cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of
the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world
of things. Labour produces not only commodities: it produces itself and the
worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces com-
modities in general.
This fact expresses merely that the object which labour produces  –
labour’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent
of the producer. The product of labour is labour which has been embodied
in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labour.
Labour’s realisation is its objectification. Under these economic conditions
this realisation of labour appears as loss of realisation for the workers; objec-
tification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrange-
ment, as alienation.9

“Private property is thus the product, the result, the necessary conse-
quence, of alienated labour, of the external relation of the worker to nature
and to himself.”10
Marx achieves two crucial objectives in this analysis. First, he establishes
that it is through the seemingly simple production of commodities under
the capitalist system of wage labour that workers are immediately exploited.
Private property in the means of production is a social relationship—not

a thing—and the means by which the fruits of previously achieved

exploitation are brought to bear on the worker, through antagonistic rela-
tions of wage labour, to increase the property of the employer without
regard to the worker’s well-being.
Second, the exploitation realized in the private property of means of
production—capital—is the consequence, indeed, the embodiment, of the
underlying power that controls the processes of social reproduction, a sys-
tem grounded in its relentless logic of self-expansion.

Capital is thus the governing power over labour and its products. The capi-
talist possesses this power, not on account of his personal or human quali-
ties, but inasmuch as he is an owner of capital. His power is the purchasing
power of his capital, which nothing can withstand.
Later we shall see first how the capitalist, by means of capital, exercises his
governing power over labour, then, however, we shall see the governing
power of capital over the capitalist himself.11

It is essential to Marx’s conception of capitalism that it is a system of

economic compulsion: both of capital over labour and of the systemic
whole over each capital. It is this idea of capitalism being predicated upon
the compulsion of market relations, and not just the enjoyment of market
“opportunities” to make profit, that was central to how Ellen Wood
explained its character.
This structural system of capitalist social relations is at the core of what
Marx, no less than the classical political economists, sought to make clear
about the operation of the “unseen hand” of the market identified by
Adam Smith. The operation of the unseen hand and the many specific
implications of market relations on social experience are realized where the
conditions of a “market society”—not merely a society in which markets
exist—prevail. This form of social organization, founded upon the global
compulsion of market competition in shaping the concrete processes of
production in workplaces, and in determining the developing relations
among individual capitals, is the fullest realization of the inherent charac-
ter of capitalist social relations.
What Marx referred to as “the movement of property”, its broad his-
torical development, has therefore culminated in this very specific, but
increasingly generalized form—which he would later identify with the
“industrial form” of capitalist production. This ultimate realization of the
alienation of labour went beyond its previous limitation of being grounded

in land, and so “dealing the death-blow to rent  – that last, individual,

natural mode of private property and source of wealth existing indepen-
dently of the movement of labour, that expression of feudal property”12:

All wealth has become industrial wealth, the wealth of labour; and industry
is accomplished labour, just as the factory system is the perfected essence of
industry, that is of labour, and just as industrial capital is the accomplished
objective form of private property.
We can now see how it is only at this point that private property can
complete its dominion over man and become, in its most general form, a
world-historical power13

Even in 1844, then, Marx had conceived the “reduction of the greater
part of mankind to abstract labour” in terms of the long historical devel-
opment of the alienation of labour.
This conception of capitalist social relations is clearly not just an exten-
sion of the social relations of market exchanges as have existed for millen-
nia. While the commodity is the logical foundation of the system of
capitalist social relations, capitalism does not exist simply because com-
modities are exchanged for profit on the market. Rather, capitalism exists
because the worker has become no more than a factor of production under
the control of capital—“like a horse, he must receive enough to enable
him to work”, yet is owed nothing more from capital than that. Without
this reduction of the worker to a direct and more or less absolute subordi-
nate to the needs of capital, the social relations of capitalist production
would not exist. It is not, of course, that workers do not struggle against
this loss of power, their virtually complete loss of control in the processes
of labour in which they are engaged—but their resistance does not fully
succeed, or the inherent logic of capitalist production would be defeated.
It is on this basis that it may be said that capitalism only exists where the
direct producers have been reduced to a condition of market dependency.
It is not, however, simply a question of workers being dependent on ­market
relations for subsistence—what is crucial is that this market dependency is
realized in the form of subordination to the control of capital. This idea
was later expressed in Capital as the real subsumption of labour to capital14
(the merely “formal” subsumption existing where the employment of
labour by capital has not been realized in the form of active control over
production). Where capital does not maintain a real subordination of
labour to its control, the distinctive and inherently crucial capacity to

develop and extend relative surplus value—the achievement of (temporary)

market advantage through innovation in productivity—is not possible.
Looking retrospectively at the history of industrial production, it might
seem as if the real subsumption of labour to capital was virtually guaran-
teed by the position of the employer relative to the worker. Nothing, how-
ever, could be further from the truth. Not only was the situation of the
worker maintained through resistance over significant periods of time,
however unsuccessfully in the long run, but in some contexts, the control
of workers themselves over their labour were ensconced in socially recog-
nized rights. Perhaps the most striking instance of this was in the after-
math of the French Revolution.15

Precapitalist France in the Nineteenth Century

When understood in these terms, capitalism was found only in Britain
before the defeat of Napoleon, having developed first in English agri-
culture, then spreading into manufactures there to engender a general
system of capitalist production.16 There have usually been wageworkers
in precapitalist societies, but their labour was never systematically orga-
nized and controlled by those who employed them, nor did markets regu-
late the processes of production in which they were employed. Workers
were instead hired to do work of a well-defined sort, in the way they
themselves understood how to do it. Even in the occasional precapitalist
factories, labour processes were controlled by guilds, laws, tradition and
the workers themselves—not by owners of capital.17 Only after English
capitalism(emerging from agriculture) transformed the practices of indus-
trial production, with capitalists imposing discipline and multiplying
productivity through mechanical innovations in market-dependent and
market-regulated production, did capitalism begin to spread to the rest
of Europe, transforming it over the course of the next century and more.
The extent to which nineteenth-century France truly differed from
England has rarely been accorded proper recognition since it was not sim-
ply a matter of degree. An essential condition of the capitalist mode of
production is that capital controls the process of production through
management, the subordination (or subsumption) of labour to capital.
Marx recognized beyond the formal subordination of labour to capital,
the need for its real subordination—through which capital not only has an
inherent right to control production but successfully intervenes to do so.
In France, however, workers—both in legal principle and in practice within

the workplace—largely retained the right to control production themselves.

In labour law, there had long existed a fundamental difference between
louage d’ouvrage (contract for work) and louage de service (contract of
service).18 This distinction continues to this day: someone working under
louage d’ouvrage is essentially a “contractor”, recognized in law as not
being a subordinate of the person contracting for service, and therefore
retaining rights with respect to the performance of work. The louage de
service, by contrast, was the characteristic form of contract for a subordi-
nate person, such as in domestic service, but in the twentieth century, it
became the basis for the standard capitalist contract of employment.19
Whereas for much of the nineteenth century British labour law built
upon and strengthened the common law relationship of “master and ser-
vant”, labour law in France from 1789 to the latter part of the nineteenth
century instead built upon the liberty of the worker. Legal oversight of
labour contracts was transformed from a police matter of public order into
a civil issue of mutual contractual obligations, overseen by local labour
tribunals.20 In this regard, “the contrast between France and England
between 1789 and 1875 was therefore complete”.21 On the English side,
“a logic of industrial subordination” took the employers’ good faith for
granted; on the French side, “a concern for fairness” instead actively com-
pensated for inequality in economic status, holding employers to account
for the consequences of their management.22 In France, there was a formal
recognition of the difference between “workers” (ouvriers) and “day
labourers” (journaliers, who were under louage de service), with the latter
comprising only 10% of industrial employees and enduring real subordina-
tion to the commands of the employer—unlike the great majority of
workers, who continued to enjoy louage d’ouvrage. Indeed, there is a
“perfect pattern of inverse symmetry” between France and England with
respect to collective bargaining versus face-to-face negotiations by indi-
vidual workers.23 In France, collective bargaining was banned, but workers
benefited from the legal recognition of their rights as individuals relative
to their employer; in England, workers were personally subject to their
employer as “master”, but increasingly the law made room for the “volun-
tary” choice of collective representation.
As a result of the French Revolution—buttressed locally by workers’
demands, and seemingly without concern at higher levels of the state—
legal practice insisted on recognizing contractual equality in social terms,
not just in formal economic terms. This was grounded upon the liberty of
the individual worker, with local labour tribunals acting as conciliators

seeking to balance interests and achieve peace and fairness in the work-
place. It is clear, therefore, based upon a large and growing body of evi-
dence, that the basic capitalist social relationship of the subordination of
labour to capital in industry was very far from fully realizable—if perhaps
not quite actually illegal—down to the last decades of the nineteenth cen-
tury. Just as the French Revolution had the effect of buttressing the rights
and customs of peasants, preventing any development of capitalist produc-
tion on the land, so also it not merely reinforced but greatly increased the
rights of workers in industry. This provided a profoundly different context
for labour.
It was not, of course, as if the French state took away all rights of prop-
erty owners; but it had a predisposition towards benefiting great property
holders in relation to the state itself, as well as large-scale trade and indus-
try, while generally neglecting the position of small-scale proprietors in
relation to production. This state-centric form of class relations had been
characteristic of the old regime, and while important institutional changes
certainly followed as a result of the Revolution, the continuity is strik-
ing.24 This entrenchment of precapitalist economic patterns goes a long
way towards explaining the slow rate of industrialization in France and
sheds light on the historically distinctive development of its labour
It has long been recognized that, after the Revolution abolished guilds
as holdovers from the feudal past, the workers continued to rely upon their
compagnonnages, journeymen’s societies that equally had roots in the mid-
dle ages.25 In addition, workers increasingly developed various forms of
mutual-aid society. Together with the legal regime of louage d’ouvrage,
these forms both expressed and reinforced a corporatist character in work-
ers’ organizations. The form of workers’ associations stood in integral, yet
ironic, connection with the recognition of the rights of workers relative to
employers: workers in a given trade developed a collective identity with
respect to social needs and political participation, in part on the basis of
their relative security and strongly held identity as individual members of
that trade. This relative strength of French workers as individuals contrasted
greatly with the characteristic form of capitalist social relations of wage
labour, above all as realized in England, and provided a powerful historical
foundation for the subsequent development of syndicalism in France.
Of course, workers’ interests were not always met through the concili-
ation of the labour tribunals, and strikes did occur. Still, in keeping with
the strong legal recognition of their rights as individuals, as well as the

role of the state in preserving “public order”, strikes were entirely illegal
until 1864, and strikers were frequently prosecuted.26 In the absence of
collective bargaining, with most terms of employment recognized with
respect to the trade as a whole in each locality, there were no trade unions
as such. When, therefore, workers did resort to strikes, they organized ad
hoc, secret, sociétés de resistance solely for that purpose—yet another
development that contributed to French syndicalism. All of these tenden-
cies were profoundly reinforced by the small-scale and artisanal produc-
tion typical of French industry—as late as 1896, 36% of industrial workers
were employed in workshops of 5 or fewer, and 64% in workplaces of less
than 50.27

The Ancien Régime and Precapitalist Social

Returning to the social and political contexts for Bodin’s work, as Ellen
Wood argued, political thought in early modern France was profoundly
influenced by a very different relationship between state and society than
that characteristic of capitalism.28 Fundamental to the structure of capitalist
social relations is an apparent separation of the political and the economic,
forming seemingly distinct spheres of state and civil society—a separation
that is absent even in principle from precapitalist societies.29 Indeed, a cru-
cial “economic” fact of early modern France was the existence of what
Robert Brenner has characterized as “politically constituted property”.30
This comprised claims to residual benefits from possession of formerly feu-
dal parcellized political jurisdictions, outright ownership of venal offices in
an expanding monarchical state apparatus, and various other calls upon
state-centred income and power. These claims were the subject of endless
negotiation and struggle between the architects of the “absolute” monar-
chy and the national and regional aristocracies of the nobility.31
In this social context, the polemical opposition between the Protestant
Huguenots’ resistance to central monarchical authority and the absolutist
political project of the politiques necessarily takes on a social and economic
significance that is wholly absent from any comparable debate over consti-
tutional authority in a capitalist society.32 In articulating the rights of
“lesser magistrates”—specifically identified as noble seigneurs—against
claims that the monarchy enjoyed the “absolute” power of undivided
sovereignty, Huguenot tracts transparently expressed the interests of
disaffected regional nobles. Those who were being excluded from the

processes of co-optation, reallocation and elevation by which a new

“absolutist” structure of politically constituted property was being con-
structed in early modern France had good reason to embrace Protestantism.
This legitimized their opposition to the formally Catholic institutions of
the monarchy, while they had little to lose from the religious exclusion
from the burgeoning absolutist state apparatus that was a consequence.
This Catholic absolutist state structure became firmly entrenched by the
eighteenth century, following the Fronde’s last spasm of decentralizing
resistance. By 1787, when aristocrats once again pressed their own inter-
ests against those of the king, they had come to articulate their opposition
to “absolute” monarchy wholly in terms of rights which they claimed
within the central state, and no longer in fundamental opposition to it.
The prevailing form of politically constituted property had by then been
definitively transformed into claims upon the centralized power and cen-
trally collected revenues of the monarchical state. This new constellation
of aristocratic political interests was promoted by Montesquieu. In striking
contrast to the earlier position of the Huguenots, Montesquieu defended
the rights of noble magistrates such as himself (a President of the par-
lement of Bordeaux) to counter royal prerogative entirely through the
principle of the “separation of powers” within the state.33
It is essential to recognize that the historical context for the develop-
ment of French political ideas continued to be defined by precapitalist
social interests, based primarily upon the role of the state as a locus for
careers and a principal source of income. Capitalism did not emerge in
France until well into the nineteenth century (initially through the intro-
duction of limited new factory production on the British model that fell
outside the purview of local labour tribunals), and this point is of great
significance in understanding the French Revolution and political thought
in the revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods.34 The same consider-
ation applies to political thinking in other parts of continental Europe.
By contrast, the context for early modern political thought in England
was very different. In England—and in England alone—a unique system
of social property relationships developed. This system provided the basis
for capitalism as a distinctive mode of production and progressively trans-
formed society and the state over the course of the early modern period.
As Neal Wood and Ellen Meiksins Wood argued, this particular historical
context is crucial to understanding the history of English political
thought from Sir Thomas Smith, through Hobbes and Locke, to Mill
and beyond.35

Since these approaches to the historical social contextualization of

French and English political thought have been underpinned by a histori-
cal materialist understanding of the development of state and society,36 it
is especially appropriate for this method also to be extended to the devel-
opment of the political thought of Karl Marx. In this case, it is important
to recognise that although most of Marx’s writings were done in England,
the first and long the most highly developed capitalist society, his early
works were the products of studies undertaken in precapitalist continental
Europe. Nevertheless, it was in Marx’s earliest writings, specifically in the
development of his ideas between the summer of 1843 and the summer of
1844, that precapitalist Europe first confronted the profound new reality
of capitalist social relations, through Marx’s critical encounter with the
classical political economists.
One lesson we may learn for a contextually specific consideration of
these works is the paradoxical one that Marx’s critical insights into the
nature of capitalist society may well have been facilitated by the very
absence of capitalist presuppositions in his intellectual formation: he had,
to the end of 1843, no knowledge whatever of the basic ideas of political
economy.37 A second lesson is that, considered in relation to the develop-
ment of political thought in precapitalist Europe from Machiavelli through
Hegel, the contributions made by Marx in his earliest works, even before
the astonishing insights subsequently achieved through his critique of
political economy, were significant in their own right.
This line of analysis runs diametrically counter to the usually accepted
conceptions of historical development, by which it is assumed that all of
Western Europe (at least) took part in a broad, uniform and systemically
integrated evolution of modern society—including capitalism—from the
common experience of medieval feudalism. As I have argued, that
­conception not only underpins the major nineteenth-century contribu-
tions to historical social theory, as well as virtually all of their extensions
into twentieth-­century thought, but is also particularly central to the idea
of historical progress expressed in liberal (and subsequently Marxist) dis-
course since the mid-eighteenth century. The case against this general
conception depends upon careful delineation of the particular attributes
that distinguish capitalist society from the societies that preceded it, in
terms coinciding with Marx’s critique of political economy.
The economies of precapitalist European societies remained “embed-
ded” (to use Karl Polanyi’s phrase) in larger systems of collective social
regulation. The questions of who would produce what and how were in

principle subject to determination by custom, law, collective bodies, and

state regulation, in various combinations. They were not determined by
the operation of market principles upon “factors of production”, even
when (as for example in medieval and Renaissance Florence) a good deal
of what was produced was intended for market. What seem to us from a
capitalist perspective to have been “economic” issues were previously sub-
jected to normative moral, political, and customary regulation by society,
in much the same way as socially relevant practices that might instead be
characterized as religious, familial, associative or political. All such issues of
collective social life were simultaneously moral, legal and political.
Throughout the history of political thought, from ancient Greece into the
nineteenth century, they were understood to be subject to social regula-
tion. Taken together, these comprised the substance of moral philosophy.
The integration of these various social elements can be seen, for example,
in the way Aristotle considers education, household management, and the
regulation of trade, among other things, in his Politics, itself directly linked
to his Nichomachean Ethics.38
Precapitalist moral regulation acknowledges no supremacy of the mar-
ket. According to Aristotle, exchange should be governed by “proportion-
ate equality”—based on the inherent relative merits of different forms of
activity—and not the crass equality dictated by the market.39 It was not
that Aristotle did not understand the market, but rather that he conscien-
tiously rejected it as a template for social organization. Yet, though the
market disturbed the moral order of Athens more than Aristotle liked, it
continued to be hemmed in by custom and law. In medieval society,
Aquinas likewise warned of the dangers of the market, and outright
rejected usury, which was in fact outlawed. Still later, so closely was eco-
nomic life regulated in ancien régime France that royal inspectors destroyed
bolts of cloth that did not meet the standards. Such interference with what
economists see as the “natural” regulation of the economy by market
forces is, of course, wholly inconsistent with the premises of capitalist soci-
ety. It is, however, perfectly normal within the theory and practice of pre-
capitalist societies.

The Novelty of Capitalist Social Regulation

The classic argument against “interfering” with market principles, and for
a laissez-faire approach to the economy instead, was taken from Adam
Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Smith articulated a sustained critique of what

he saw in the contemporary “continental system” of regulating trade and

production through laws, intermediary corporate bodies and the state.
Smith was himself a moral philosopher. Yet, writing in capitalist Britain, he
clearly distinguished between the overt forms of normative regulation
appropriate to law, custom, ethics and religion, and the providential effi-
ciency realized through the “unseen hand” of the market. The morality of
the market principle lay not in complying with norms, but in securing a
greater good for a greater number. Whether in the grim calculations of
Reverend Malthus or in the Benthamites’ optimistic calculus of utility, the
English development of capitalism led to the idea of an autonomous
sphere of the economy, taken to be subject to a qualitatively distinct order
of social rationality—and increasingly conceived to be eternal, immutable,
and knowable through “natural” laws.
As Neal Wood argued, the specifically capitalist character of English
society, and its emerging political-economic conceptions were profoundly
important determinants of John Locke’s thought.40 Indeed, in the course
of the period during which agrarian capitalism took form and transformed
English society, roughly from the first of the Tudors to the last of the
Hanoverians, a distinctive body of social thought—comprising both polit-
ical theory and political economy—reflected these developments, coming
together ultimately in the classic liberalism of John Stuart Mill.41 Elsewhere
in Europe, however, social and political thought remained tied to the very
different particularities of precapitalist societies, as we have seen in the
controversies of the French Religious Wars.
The absolutist and constitutionalist thought that emerged in early
modern France and England differed fundamentally. Both societies were
marked by the political dominance of propertied classes, but these classes
and their interests inherently differed, based on very different forms and
legal regimes of social property. Throughout the histories of Western class
societies, dominant classes have been plagued by the contradictions flow-
ing from their dual social interests: on the one hand, maintaining the
political power of the state, while on the other hand preserving the forms
of social power directly manifested in private property. Because precapital-
ist forms of class relations have all been characterized by extra-economic
coercion—the foundation for Brenner’s conception of “politically consti-
tuted property”—there is an unresolvable tension between the twin ruling
class interests of maintaining a strong state and preserving individual
property. As the Roman Republic grew, it faced recurrent threats of leaders

like Sulla or Caesar achieving pre-eminent power, which resulted in the

transition from Republic to Empire.42 Subsequently, however, the ability
of great senatorial families in the West to evade taxes on their property,
widely extended through patronage, undermined the capacity of the
Imperial state to maintain itself.43
From Aristotle and Cicero, through the medieval conciliar debates, to
the ancien régime, a central enduring problem for Western political
thought has been “Who rules, and how is that rule to be constituted?”—a
problem largely absent from the social thought of China and Islam, for
example—because of the contradictions generated by politically consti-
tuted property. Only in capitalist society, with its formal separation of
political and economic powers, confining class relations to the nominally
non-political sphere of the economy, has it proved possible to resolve the
recurrent contradictions in constituting power through the novel form of
the liberal state.
In the ancient world, the contradictions of ruling class power revolved
about the political constitution of society as an inherently solidaristic,
moral, legal, and economic community, whether Greek polis or Roman res
publica. The contradiction was given a somewhat different form by the
medieval development of feudalism, in which the basic property form
became the seigeurie, literally a local jurisdiction of formally parcellized
sovereign power. In place of the typically republican self-government of
free property owners—expanded in Athens to include all free men as citi-
zens, or narrowed in Rome primarily to the circles of senatorial nobility—
the feudal state took the form of village-sized parcels of independent
jurisdiction, grouped within constantly shifting hierarchies of feudal rank.
In this context, the inherent contradictions between state power and pri-
vate property took the form of a dynamic tension between the centraliza-
tion of authority through the reassertion of monarchical power, and the
resistance by individual nobles seeking to preserve more decentralized
autonomy. It was of course through this dynamic that France, with its
regular spasms of civil war, developed the “absolutist” monarchy from the
late fifteenth century down to the great crisis of the Revolution. Other
European societies (with England being exceptional due to its develop-
ment of capitalism from a unique variant of feudalism) each followed their
own historically specific trajectory of national organization—or disorgani-
zation—of the state.

The Ideal of Liberty

Notwithstanding the feudal/monarchical dynamic generated in the
aftermath of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the ideal of lib-
erty in a solidaristic self-governing republic did not disappear entirely. No
longer representing the interests of wealthy aristocrats, as it did for
Aristotle or Cicero, the republican ideal stood as a challenge to prevailing
forms of constituted power. Aided by geography, the smallholders of the
Swiss cantons successfully achieved republican liberty at the end of the
feudal era, and were an inspiration to Machiavelli, the great theorist of
republicanism.44 Unfortunately for Machiavelli, the very success of feudal-
ism in northern Europe, and its transformation into a range of national
“absolutist” states, undermined the conditions that had in the first place
produced the flowering of Italian republican city-states between the
twelfth and fifteenth centuries.45 Brushing aside Machiavelli’s idea that
good and frugal government—such as a republic might provide—was the
best course for preserving power, the Medicis, like rulers throughout
northern Italy, transformed a once vibrant republic into a sleepy principal-
ity, extinguishing the hopes for republican renewal.
While Europe had a variety of specific contexts of class society, includ-
ing the unique society emerging in England, European thinkers continued
to read each other, together with theorists from the past, as they formu-
lated ideas in each particular context. Rousseau, for example, rejected the
radically asocial conceptions of the state of nature put forward by Hobbes
and Locke, which gave the former an atomistically individualist defence of
absolute sovereignty, and the latter an atomistic foundation for liberalism.
Conceiving a far more social origin for inequality, property and the state,
Rousseau addressed himself to the classically republican, solidaristic proj-
ect of realizing the “general will”. Though perhaps achievable in small
republics of petty proprietors, the simultaneous enjoyment of liberty,
equality, and sociality seemed to him regrettably beyond the grasp of large
and complex national states like France.
The radical Jacobins in the French Revolution, of course, embraced just
such a project. From the wealthiest aristocrats to the most modest bour-
geois lawyers and officials, the bearers of politically constituted property in
the ancien régime arrayed themselves across a continuum of political posi-
tions, from the staunchest defence of privilege in state and society to
democratic republicanism.46 The radical bourgeoisie did not seek to create
a capitalist form of state—they were not capitalists and there was no
capitalism—but rather a “republic of virtue” which they would serve as

administrators, educators, and politicians. The enduring opposition of the

causes of Aristocracy and the Nation, however, opened an avenue of social
revolution for an autonomous popular movement. Tutored in the rhetoric
of the Third Estate, the people of Paris rose up in July 1789 to save the
Nation, then provided a succession of increasingly radical bourgeois lead-
ers with a means to push the Revolution to the left. In the process, the
people not only supported the radical bourgeois ideal of a republican
Nation, but also increasingly articulated their own interests in terms of
direct—not representative—democracy, and social—not merely political—
equality.47 Ultimately, these aspirations proved unacceptable even to the
incorruptible Robespierre, whose subsequent fall from power met with
popular apathy. The development of the popular movement reached an
apotheosis in Gracchus Babeuf’s socialist Conspiracy of Equals, yet it was
easily crushed in the Revolution’s lurch back to the right.
Writing in the wake of the Revolution, in a Prussia that profited hugely
from its defeat, but at a time when there was a growing awareness of
England’s Industrial Revolution, Hegel sought to produce a total phi-
losophy, comprehending human society not only as it existed in his own
time, but through the whole of its (European) historical development.
His goal was to subsume the whole of Western philosophy, from Aristotle
to Adam Smith, in a developmental moral philosophy of individual, state,
and society. Yet, what is striking in considering Hegel’s work in context
is—notwithstanding his familiarity with Smith—how much his ideas were
grounded in the precapitalist social realities of early nineteenth-century
Germany.48 The most obvious and significant expression of this lies in
Hegel’s casting of the state as agent of the universal, bringing order and
the realization of Spirit to the diverse egoistic manifestations of civil soci-
ety. It is not, as is sometimes supposed, that Hegel has proposed some-
thing akin to a social democratic corrective to the inherent “irrationality”
of capitalist society. Hegel never appreciated Smith’s principle that it was
the market that brought order to seeming chaos. He may have read
Smith and married British ideas to French ideas in developing the con-
cept of Bürgerliche gesellschaft—but he never actually encountered capi-
talist society and never grasped the crucial point that it inherently, and
necessarily, lacked any principle of planning and regulation superior to
the market. Indeed, even below his universalizing state, Hegel’s concep-
tion of civil society remains thoroughly structured by guilds and corpo-
rate bodies. In short, Hegel’s philosophy depicts a complex society, with
a large and important commercial sector, but one that remains funda-
mentally precapitalist.

It is, of course, precisely with a critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

that Marx began his development as a social and political theorist in 1843.
In confronting this precapitalist work, Marx’s ideas were strongly influ-
enced by two other equally precapitalist sources: the ideas of the Left
Hegelians, and the radical democratic and socialist ideas that had ema-
nated from the French Revolution and since grown in opposition to the
established order across Europe. The efforts of the Left Hegelians to turn
Hegel’s conceptions against the Prussian monarchy, rather than to apolo-
gize for it, are readily seen to be rooted in the issues and institutions of
precapitalist society once Hegel himself is viewed in this light. They were,
after all, preoccupied with religion as a mystifying alienation of human
social life and particularly sought to challenge the official establishment
and general regulation of religion by the state. Their moral philosophy was
radical and secular, but no less precapitalist for that.

Early-Nineteenth-Century Socialist Ideas

The growth of socialist ideas and movements in early nineteenth-century
Europe, however, has usually been understood as a response to the growth
of capitalism. Upon closer examination, not only is it clear there was very
little development of truly capitalist industry on the continent before the
middle of the century, but the political movements of the time instead had
roots in the precapitalist politics of the French Revolution. Frederick
Engels (who unlike Marx had become familiar with capitalist society by
1843, working at his father’s cotton mill in Manchester) first drew atten-
tion to the relative priority of German developments in philosophy, French
developments in politics, and English developments in the economy.49
The political priority of the French had nothing to do with capitalist devel-
opment and everything to do with the Revolution.
French industrial workers in the 1840s were overwhelmingly artisanal,
and the organization of their labour, political participation, and social life
continued to be mediated in an entirely precapitalist way by the compa-
gnonnages they created as a substitute for the guilds of the past and a host
of similar practices. The huge silk industry of Lyons in the 1840s differed
little from a hundred years before. Throughout France, as new forms of
capitalist production came to be introduced in the second half of the nine-
teenth century, they developed alongside highly traditional production
that only slowly began to change.50 Indeed, the development of labour law
in France was conditioned by the Revolution’s principle of individual

liberty and equality. In consequence, the rights of workers to control their

own labour were enshrined in local and regional labour regulations, which
developed in conscious opposition to the British legal principle of the
“master/servant” relationship.51 Although the legal principles were trans-
formed and the pace of social change accelerated later in the century—
driven by industrial market competition emanating from Britain and by
geopolitical pressure to emulate the growing capitalist adoption of innova-
tions in technology, especially evident in Prussia—1840s France was as yet
only slightly affected by the development of capitalist industry and, at the
time, Germany still less so.
And yet, early on Marat had declared that the Revolution itself raised
the question of the loi agraire, long before the Jacobin introduction of
price controls in the maximum, let alone the Conspiracy of Equals.52 The
idea of republican action to counter poverty and at least partially restore
social equality through limiting and redistributing property dates back to
the demand for an “agrarian law” in ancient Rome, as Marat’s usage sug-
gests and Babeuf’s choice of name reinforces. The origin of a socialist
political movement in the French Revolution, then, had at the time no
more to do with capitalism than did the origin of the Revolution itself.
The whole of the politics of the Revolution, which continued to define
politics well into the nineteenth century, was grounded in the material
social interests of a precapitalist France.
If the reconfiguration of the English state as a result of capitalism
involved a growing liberal subordination of a specifically royal prerogative
to representatives of the propertied class, the liberalism of the French
bourgeoisie was instead characterized by direct and specific opposition to
the political privileges of aristocracy. (Indeed, it had been nobles who
­challenged royal prerogative in the “pre-revolution” of 1787–8, not the
bourgeoisie.53) Radical Jacobin demands for a representative republic, pub-
lic education, and effective national administration, meanwhile, were
directly traceable to precapitalist interests of the lesser bourgeoisie in secur-
ing meritocratic access to the growing public sector—law and state office
being the most characteristic bourgeois careers.
Finally, as even their great Marxist historians maintained, the radical,
popular, sans-culottes of the Revolution were never a capitalist working
class.54 The fundamental preoccupation of the popular movement
throughout the Revolution lay in securing an affordable food supply.
Increasingly, this was recognized to require not merely the preservation of
the Nation, but direct democratic popular political participation against

“aristocrats”—eventually including all those who, regardless of birth, put

the interests of wealth ahead of the well-being of the people. In seeking to
carry this popular political project further, there was nothing in Babeuf’s
politics to link it to capitalism. Nor was the resurrection of babouvism in
the nineteenth century and development of other socialist ideas and move-
ments, any more connected to capitalism than the revival of Jacobinism
during the restored Bourbon monarchy and the Orleanist regime.

The Context for Marx’s Initial Political Ideas

and Critique of Political Economy

This, then, was the social context for the development of Marx’s thought
in 1843. While a detailed consideration of its key points would deserve a
major work in its own right, even a cursory examination reveals that his
1843 works are preoccupied with the politics emanating from the French
Revolution. Only with his 1844 Paris manuscripts did Marx first engage in
the critique of political economy that constituted the grounding for his-
torical materialism, and his primary contribution to social thought.55 The
central problem addressed in the earlier works remained that of the state,
consonant with precapitalist political thought from Rousseau, through the
French Revolution and Hegel, down to the Left Hegelians. It was specifi-
cally in his 1843 critique of both Hegel’s and French Revolutionary con-
ceptions of the state that Marx was able to carry the idea of human
emancipation beyond the terms established by Rousseau, making a signifi-
cant contribution to the development of political theory in its own right.
First, in his unpublished critique of The Philosophy of Right, Marx chal-
lenged Hegel’s claim that state officials provided the essential “universal”
or “general” element that was lacking in the particularism of civil society.
He argued that neither they nor the “middle class”, from which they were
drawn, could be a universal class because of the particular interest they
held in protecting private property.56 Beyond this—already a trenchant
point in the context of politically constituted property (figuring as much
in Prussian as in French absolutism)—Marx challenged the state itself as
inherently a kind of alienation. Where the Left Hegelians were primarily
preoccupied with alienation in the form of religion—which attributed
human social and moral capacities to the Divine—Marx recognized in the
state the crucial concentration of human collective power, creating an
alien force acting back upon us. Where Rousseau removed the sting of
state power by presupposing a general will (even if it might not always be

realizable, as was the problem with large national states), Marx could not
accept this resolution of the contradiction between the universal and the
particular. He instead described democracy as “the genus Constitution …
the solved riddle of all constitutions”, for what it fundamentally expressed
was human collective power and social capacity.57 But so long as the state
continued to take concrete form as a separate and alien power over against
us as individuals, it remained, itself, a barrier to human emancipation. Far
from being able to resolve the conflicting propertied interests of civil soci-
ety, the state preserved all those interests, adding to them its own subjec-
tion of the individual.
With his two articles written for the Deutsch-Französische Jarhbücher
between October 1843 and January 1844, Marx carried forward this anal-
ysis to transcend the entire framework of French Revolutionary politics. In
“On The Jewish Question”, he argued against the Young Hegelian Bruno
Bauer that the project of simply secularizing the state—granting political
rights to all, including the Jews, by abolishing every official recognition of
religion—was wholly insufficient for the purposes of true human emanci-
pation. In his preoccupation with religion, Marx argued, Bauer could con-
ceive only of a political form of emancipation. The “political” form of state
implied by the French Revolution, however—meritocratic, rather than
founded on privilege—continues to take civil society (or, as the German
can also be read, bourgeois society) as its precondition. Therefore, its
political power necessarily ensures the separation of human social capaci-
ties from humanity as a whole. True emancipation must, therefore, depend
on ending this separation, and so necessarily the political form of the
state.58 Ridiculing Bauer for proposing “the free state” in place of the
emancipation of humanity, Marx exposed the basic failing of even the
most radically democratic precapitalist republican politics: they left
unchanged both the social power of private property in civil society and
the constitution of political power in the form of the state.59 With this,
Marx issued a fundamental emancipatory challenge to the whole frame-
work of political thought that had been articulated by dominant classes
since ancient times.
For Marx, then, not even radical Jacobinism could turn state personnel
into a “universal class”—nor would even direct democracy bring emanci-
pation as long as it remained merely political, leaving the structure of
power in civil society unchallenged. Already inclined towards socialism, his
critique of both liberal and radical expressions of German political
philosophy led Marx to put paid to the whole bourgeois (non-capitalist)

project of the French Revolution. Instead, Marx turned Hegel’s conception

(an adaptation of the sort of class agency already prevalent in liberal
accounts of history) into a very different idea of the “universal class”—a
class having “radical chains”, capable of achieving real emancipation.60
Marx’s subsequent turn to embrace the critique of political economy
created a body of social thought that transcended the limits imposed by
precapitalist society altogether, recognizing in capitalism a specific source
of historical dynamism with the potential to emancipate humanity from all
forms of alienation and exploitation, and not merely to achieve classical
republican ideals. The key moment was his exposure to Engels’s “Outlines
of a Critique of Political Economy”, which was submitted to Marx in
November 1843 for publication in the Jarhbücher. In this work, it was
Engels who first suggested that the capitalist working class would be
responsible for a social revolution, in a passage prefiguring a key argument
of the Manifesto of Communist Party:

as long as you continue to produce in the present unconscious, thoughtless

manner, at the mercy of chance—for just so long trade crises will remain;
and each successive crisis is bound to become more universal and therefore
worse than the preceding one; is bound to impoverish a larger body of small
capitalists, and to augment in increasing proportion the numbers of the class
who live by labour alone, thus considerably enlarging the mass of labour to
be employed (the major problem of our economists) and finally causing a
social revolution such as has never been dreamt of in the philosophy of the

It was only after reading this that Marx, in his “Contribution to the
Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction”, argued that the
proletariat constituted the class with requisitely “radical chains”.
Immediately after completing this article and his editorial work on the
Jarhbücher, Marx turned his attention to reading each of the political
economists Engels had cited. Never before having confronted these ideas,
Marx powerfully brought his powers of critique to bear on political econ-
omy in the spring of 1844, in his Paris manuscripts.62
It was at this turning point that Marx truly undertook his life work. At
once, he raised two crucial questions, defining first the historical material-
ist project of understanding the history of class society (“What in the evo-
lution of mankind is the meaning of [the] reduction of the greater part of

mankind to abstract labour?”), and then the project of emancipation

through working class struggle that would end it (“What are the mistakes
committed by the piecemeal reformers, who either want to raise wages…
or regard equality of wages … as the goal of social revolution?”).63 What is
astounding is the immediacy of what Marx achieved with his critique, lit-
erally in the first few pages of his manuscript, as he confronted the political-­
economic account of the “Wages of Labour”. Like a stranger in a strange
land, Marx instantly saw capitalism for what it really was, an inherently
exploitative system of social reproduction based on class relations of prop-
erty embodying the alienation of labour.
Marx’s historical materialist critique of political economy remains a
uniquely powerful framework for understanding the nature of capitalist
society, as it since has come to transform the world. Yet at the moment of
this first great insight into the system, he literally had yet to set foot in a
capitalist society. Instead, inspired by a Hegelian appreciation for the inte-
gral historical unity of human social life, he looked deep into the nexus of
the specifically capitalist relationship of wage labour—solely based on the
accounts in political economy—and found the ultimate expression of
human alienation.
Much remains to be said about the development of Marx’s thought in
confronting capitalism as a social system, but excellent guides to this work
already exist.64 What has yet to be appreciated is that the astounding acuity
of Marx’s insights may result from his having approached capitalism with-
out the blinkers that would likely have been imposed growing up in a
context that took its peculiar social relationships for granted. Marx instead
began as a thinker in precapitalist Europe, disturbed by social inequality
and oppression, but unfamiliar with specifically capitalist social forms. His
initial forays into political theory significantly advanced upon Rousseau’s
thought, offering an understanding of the need to transcend both the
conflicting particularities of private property and the alienating form of the
political state, as such, in order to realize human emancipation. Although
he grasped the essential nature of the project, he as yet saw no means to
achieve it other than through philosophy,65 bound as he was by precapital-
ist frames of reference. Then, stepping across the bounds of precapitalist
social experience to confront the character of a qualitatively different uni-
verse of capitalist social relations, he opened an entirely new avenue for
social and political thought.

1. The introductory chapter, “A Question of Method”, to Neal Wood’s John
Locke and Agrarian Capitalism (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984) offers
an illuminating discussion of the historical approach to political theory.
Ellen M.  Wood addressed the issue in more detail in her volumes con-
ceived as the social history of political theory, From Citizens to Lords: A
Social History of Political Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages
(London: Verso, 2008) and Liberty and Property: A Social History of
Western Political Thought from Renaissance to Enlightenment (London:
Verso, 2012).
2. Wood, Liberty and Property, 147–69.
3. On the face of it, “precapitalist” would appear to be a problematically
teleological term. The point, however, is that capitalism truly is unique as
a social form, qualitatively different from all the forms of society that
preceded it, however different those various forms may have been from
each other. Thus, “precapitalist” is not a teleological usage, but a historical
one: it was only possible to identify what all precapitalist societies had in
common relative to capitalism after the latter actually developed as a novel
social form.
4. Max Weber, “Origins of Industrial Capitalism in Europe”, in Weber:
Selections in Translation, ed. W.  G. Runciman (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1978), 333–4.
5. As Karl Polanyi pointed out, however, use of the market mechanism for
regulating exchange did not long predate the classical age of ancient
Greece; it was not a feature of earlier civilizations in Egypt or Mesopotamia
or in Minoan Crete. See “Aristotle Discovers the Economy”, in Trade and
Market in the Early Empires, ed. Karl Polanyi, Conrad M. Arensberg and
Harry W.  Pearson (Glencoe, Ill: The Free Press, 1957), 64–94. Ellen
M. Wood considers some of the implications of the social change between
the entirely “marketless society” of Bronze Age Greece and that of classical
Attica in Peasant-Citizen and Slave (London: Verso, 1988), 81ff.
6. Weber, “Origins of Industrial Capitalism in Europe”, 336–7.
7. It may, of course, be the case that in a broad social context in which work-
ers generally are subjected to the control of capital over their labour, there
remain pockets of production in which control rests with the workers. One
might then reasonably conceive the society to be generally capitalist in
character, with the artisanal workers an exception, and one likely constrained
in various ways by the largely capitalist whole. It would not, however, be
reasonable to find that capitalism existed (in Marx’s sense) where few if any
wageworkers were subjected to the control of capital over production.

8. Surplus value is the difference between the value produced by a worker and
the value of the living wage required for her employment. The wage is
determined socially, historically, and through struggle, but will always be
less than the value a worker will typically produce or there would be no
basis for profitable employment. Relative surplus value refers to the poten-
tial for an innovating owner of capital to have commodities produced more
efficiently than the average in the market, and thus to have an advantage
over less productive enterprises. Typically, this advantage would translate
into being able to sell at a somewhat lower price while still making at least
average profit, and thus to gain market share at the expense of the least
productive enterprises. Innovation in production therefore produces a
market advantage that exists until all remaining owners of capital in that
market can match it. In a normal market, the price of a commodity over
time (discounting inflation) will therefore decline as capitals joust with
each other for advantage.
9. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, MECW,
vol. 3, 272.
10. Ibid., 279.
11. Ibid., 247.
12. Ibid., 291.
13. Ibid., 293.
14. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, MECW, vol. 35, 511. There is an enormous
body of literature on this issue, drawing particularly on a chapter in Marx’s
original manuscript analysing the formal and real “subsumption” of labour
to capital, which was not included in Capital. I take account of the pub-
lished text alone here simply because it is entirely sufficient to the point.
15. I am indebted for much of what follows on France to the analysis of Xavier
Lafrance in his as yet unpublished doctoral dissertation, Citizens and
Wage-Labourers: Capitalism and the Formation of a Working Class in
France (York University, 2013).
16. See Ellen M.  Wood, The Origin of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2002),
George C. Comninel, “English Feudalism and the Origins of Capitalism”,
Journal of Peasant Studies 27, no. 4 (2000), and Michael Zmolek,
Rethinking the Industrial Revolution (Leiden: Brill, 2013).
17. The work of E. P. Thompson is especially enlightening on the long strug-
gle by capitalists to impose their control over labour upon the workers they
employed, who, for centuries, resisted the notion that their labouring
capacities were not theirs to control even when working for wages. This
theme runs throughout Thompson’s work, but see particularly “Time,
Work-­Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism”, in Custom, Law and Common
Right (New York: The New Press, 1991) and The Making of the English
Working Class (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968).

18. Alain Cottereau, “Sens du juste et usages du droit du travail: une évolution
contrastée entre la France et la Grande-Bretagne au XIXe siècle”, Revue
d’histoire du XIXe siècle 33, no. 2 (2006): 101–20 (published in English as
“Industrial tribunals and the establishment of a kind of common law of
labour in nineteenth-century France”, Private Law and Social Inequality
in the Industrial Age, ed. Willibald Steinmetz (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2000)).
19. Cottereau, “Sens du juste et usages du droit du travail”, 103, 113–4.
20. Ibid., 105–9.
21. Ibid., 109 [my translation].
22. Ibid., 112.
23. Ibid., 116.
24. See my analysis in Rethinking the French Revolution, 200–3.
25. For a classic typology of the forms of working-class organization in France,
see Louis Levine, Syndicalism in France (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1914), 26–33. On the compagnonnages, and particularly their politi-
cal role after the Revolution, see William H. Sewell Jr., Work and Revolution
in France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
26. There were 14,000 prosecutions between 1825 and 1864, and 9,000 strik-
ers were imprisoned (Robert J.  Goldstein, Political Repression in 19th
Century Europe (New York: Routledge, 2010), 58.
27. Roger Magraw, “Socialism, Syndicalism and French Labour Before 1914”,
in Labour and Socialist Movements in Europe Before 1914, ed. Dick Geary
(Oxford: Berg, 1989), 49. Magraw offers an excellent overview of the role
of syndicalism in French politics.
28. Ellen M. Wood, “The State and Popular Sovereignty in French Political
Thought: A Genealogy of Rousseau’s ‘General Will’”, in History from
Below: Studies in Popular Protest and Popular Ideology in Honour of George
Rudé, ed. Frederick Krantz (Montréal: Concordia University, 1989),
29. Ellen M. Wood, “The Separation of the ‘Economic’ and the ‘Political’ in
Capitalism”, in Democracy Against Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1995), 19–48.
30. In his original formulation, Brenner termed this “private property in the
political sphere” in “The Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism”, in The
Brenner Debate, ed. T.  H. Aston and C.  P. E.  Philpin (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1985), 290.
31. See particularly William Beik, Absolutism and Society in Seventeenth-­
Century France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). Also, see
my discussion of the politics of class interests in the ancien régime, in
Rethinking the French Revolution (London: Verso, 1987).

32. As Wood argues, notably in Liberty and Property, the “absolute” power of
the monarchy was not so much a reality as an objective relative to the
genuine local and regional power of the formerly feudal nobility. The
centralized power of the state in England far exceeded that of France
throughout the early modern period.
33. Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 156–66.
34. There is an extensive theoretical and empirical analysis in Rethinking the
French Revolution, arguing that there was no capitalism in the ancien
régime. This argument is based on the ground-breaking work of Robert
Brenner, who first emphasized the divergent paths of England and
France in 1976 in “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development
in Pre-Industrial Europe”, reprinted with a series of responses prompted
by the article and Brenner’s lengthy reply to critics in The Brenner
Debate. I have pursued the origin and development of these divergent
paths more deeply into history, buttressing the case that there was no
emergence of capitalism in France before the nineteenth century, in
“English Feudalism and the Origins of Capitalism”, Journal of Peasant
Studies XXVII (2000).
35. See Neal Wood, John Locke and Agrarian Capitalism (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1984), The Politics of Locke’s Philosophy (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1983), Foundations of Political Economy (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1994); Ellen M. Wood, The Pristine Culture
of Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991), Liberty and Property; Ellen M. Wood
and Neal Wood, A Trumpet of Sedition (London: Pluto Press, 1997).
36. This historical materialist analysis of the origin of capitalism and the
divergence of France and England clearly is at odds with conventional
Marxist accounts. The reasons for this discrepancy, and the extent to
which the present analysis is in accord with the core of Marx’s own work,
have been taken up at some length in Rethinking the French Revolution,
and “English Feudalism and the Origins of Capitalism”, as well as in
Robert Brenner, “On the Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique
of Neo-­Smithian Marxism”, New Left Review 104 (1977), and “Bourgeois
Revolution and Transition to Capitalism”, in The First Modern Society,
ed. A.  L. Beier et  al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)
and Ellen M. Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical
Materialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) and The
Origin of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2002).
37. This is to exclude the idiosyncratic “national political economy” of
Friedrich List, and the elements of Adam Smith’s work incorporated into
Hegel’s conception of “civil society”.

38. See Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press,

1980), 1179a33–1181b23.
39. Aristotle, Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), 1256b40–
1259b36; Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1980),
40. Wood, John Locke and Agrarian Capitalism.
41. Ellen Wood and Neal Wood, A Trumpet of Sedition; Ellen Wood, Pristine
Culture of Capitalism; Michael Zmolek, Rethinking the Industrial
Revolution. Today read primarily for his liberal political theory, Mill also
produced Principles of Political Economy, which was the standard text on
the subject for a generation.
42. Ronald Syme’s classic account of this political dynamic, The Roman
Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), remains
43. For a brief synopsis, see Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to
Feudalism (London: N.L.B., 1974), 98–103, citing particularly the defini-
tive work of A. H. M. Jones, especially The Later Roman Empire, 282–602,
2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964).
44. Niccolò Macchiavelli, “Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius”. In
The Prince and the Discourses (New York: Modern Library, 1950), Bk. I,
Chap. lv.
45. Justin Rosenberg, The Empire of Civil Society (London: Verso, 1994),
46. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution, 107–13, 180–202.
47. Comninel, “The Political Context of the Popular Movement in the French
Revolution”, in History from Below, ed. Frederick Krantz, 143–62;
“Quatre-Vingt-Neuf Revisited: Social Interests and Political Conflict in the
French Revolution”, Historical Papers/Communications historique, 1989.
48. Ellen M.  Wood discusses Hegel in this light in Pristine Culture of
49. Frederick Engels, “Progress of Social Reform on the Continent”, The New
Moral World 19, no. 4 (November 1843), MECW, vol. 3, 392–3.
50. For the role of artisanal labour in nineteenth-century France and the links
between politics and artisanal workers’ organizations, see Sewell, Work and
Revolution in France, Ronald Aminzade, Class, Politics, and Early
Industrial Capitalism: A Study of Mid-Nineteenth-Century Toulouse,
France (Albany NY: State University of New  York Pres, 1981) and
“Capitalist Industrialization and Patterns of Industrial Protest: A
Comparative Urban Study of Nineteenth-Century France”, American
Sociological Review IL (1984): 437–53.
51. Cottereau, “Sens du juste et usages du droit du travail”, 101–20.

52. Shirley Gruner, “Le concept de classe dans la révolution française: une mise
à jour’, Histoire Sociale/Social History” IX, no. 18 (1976): 412–5.
53. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution, 199.
54. Albert Soboul, Understanding the French Revolution (London: Merlin
Press, 1988), 99–101. This point is emphasized throughout the work of
Soboul and George Rudé, who both argued that the identity of sans-
culottes, comprising small proprietors, artisans, and day labourers alike,
derived primarily from their position as consumers of bread.
55. See Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution, 121–31.
56. Karl Marx “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law”,
MECW, vol. 3, 44–54.
57. Ibid., 29.
58. Karl Marx, “On The Jewish Question”, MECW, vol. 3, 168.
59. Ibid., 152ff.
60. Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law,
Introduction”, 186. For the liberal conception of class in history, see
Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution, 54–74.
61. Frederick Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy”, MECW,
vol. 3, 434.
62. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, MECW, vol. 3
(New York: International Publishers), 229–346.
63. Ibid., 241.
64. On the nature and meaning of Marx’s critique of political economy as a
historical materialist approach to the class society of capitalism: Ellen
M. Wood, Democracy against Capitalism; E. P. Thompson, “The Poverty
of Theory”, in The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (London: Monthly
Review Press, 1978); Lucio Colletti, From Rousseau to Lenin (New York,
London: Monthly Review Press, 1972); Harry Braverman, Labor and
Monopoly Capital (New York, London: Monthly Review Press, 1974); Hal
Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, 4 vols. (New York: Monthly
Review Press, 1976–87).
65. See Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, 1: 147–8.

Emancipation in Marx’s Early Work

The Modern Problem of Emancipation

One does not often hear serious discussion of human emancipation these
days, and yet the idea is at the core of critical thinking about the human
condition and remains the ultimate goal of truly transformative politics.
Although a range of issues concerning political liberty emerged earlier in
the modern age, and some can be traced back still earlier through the his-
tory of popular struggles and the history of political thought, it really was
in the era of the French Revolution and its aftermath that the question of
human emancipation as such came to the fore. While other thinkers con-
tributed to understanding the issues, it remains particularly the theoretical
achievements of the young Karl Marx in this period that help to illuminate
what human emancipation entails, and how it is to be achieved.
Marx grew up in Trier, an ancient and formerly free Rhineland city. It
had embraced the progressive principles emerging from the French
Revolution, but, as definitively sealed by the defeat of Bonaparte shortly
before his birth, it became subject to the reactionary rule of Prussia.
Marx’s father had been compelled to set aside his Enlightenment princi-
ples and deist beliefs and to abandon his inherited Jewish identity and
formally become a Lutheran in order to maintain his legal career. While,
on the one hand, it mattered little whether the details of theology from
which he stood apart were those of Judaism or Lutheranism, on the
other hand, this undoubtedly rankled, as indeed was the case for many

© The Author(s) 2019 65

G. C. Comninel, Alienation and Emancipation in the Work
of Karl Marx, Marx, Engels, and Marxisms,

in the city of Trier. Karl was a brilliant and philosophical young man,
sufficiently so as a youth to have taken part in long walks with the Prussian
Baron von Westphalen. The latter was relatively liberal and thus sent to
oversee this possibly fractious new territory, and it was his daughter Jenny
who was the love of Marx’s life.
It is clear that from an early age Marx was deeply committed to a radical
realization of human freedom, and to atheism proper. Frustrating his
father by turning towards philosophy and away from a career in law, then
abandoning even the pretence of legal studies after his father died,1 Marx
devoted himself as student, journalist, and activist to clarifying the mean-
ing of human emancipation and how it was to be achieved. As also was the
case for virtually every other thinker and activist of the time, the immedi-
ate and inescapable starting point for Marx’s ideas required coming to
terms with the politics, objectives, and limitations of the French Revolution.
In its opposition first to aristocratic privilege, and then to monarchy,
the politics of the Revolution revolved about issues of liberty, equality, and
sociality.2 The radical Jacobins had conceived the Revolution in terms of
fundamentally political emancipation, and the lawyers, office holders, and
professionals who constituted their majority came to understand this
almost entirely in terms of building a democratically representative repub-
lican “Nation”. They saw their mission as—and increasingly they became—
functionaries of the state serving as a revolutionary instrument devoted to
instilling democratic republican citizenship. This project of realizing a
republic in accord with Rousseau’s ideas, embodying the General Will of
the people as the nation—however much Rousseau himself may have been
doubtful of such a possibility—went far beyond the relatively mild forms
of earlier and more obviously liberal politics, from the most tentative of
original revolutionaries through the moderate Girondins.3
Yet, from the perspective of the even more radical popular movement
within the Revolution, which embraced not only direct democracy but
increasingly also ideas of social equality—political tendencies that culmi-
nated in Gracchus Babeuf’s “Conspiracy of Equals”—even the most radi-
cal Jacobins fell far short of advocating true human emancipation. Babeuf’s
ideas, in turn, constituted a key contribution of the French Revolution to
the development of “socialism” in the first half of the nineteenth century,
notably in the emergence of babouvism as a movement among workers in
the 1840s. Indeed, it was in reference to the raising of “the social ques-
tion” that a distinctive radical politics emerged within what otherwise was
a broad “left”—comprising democratic, republican, and even merely

liberal-­constitutionalist ideologies—defined by shared opposition to abso-

lute monarchy following the Revolution.
It was in this context that, by early 1844, it had become clear to Marx
that both the social question and the “political notion of power” had to be
urgently addressed. The latter phrase is how Jean Bruhat described the
focus of Marx’s interest during the first half of 1844, a period he charac-
terized as one of “preoccupation” with the radically Jacobin Convention
of 1792–4.4 Simultaneously, with his close study of the radical politics of
the French Revolution, Marx in this period undertook his first efforts at
the critique of political economy. At this time, Marx wrote to Arnold Ruge
of his plan to write a history of the French Revolutionary Convention, and
he urged the publication in Vorwärts of excerpts from the memoirs of the
Jacobin revolutionary René Levasseur, which he had studied. Yet, while it
is important to take note of this interest in the radical politics of revolution
at the time, his most significant work in this period was undoubtedly the
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in which he first developed
his critique of political economy.5
It was also in this period, after completing his articles for the Deutsch-­
Französische Jahrbücher that he had edited with Arnold Ruge, that Marx
definitively abandoned the idea that human emancipation was either a
project of philosophy or a collaboration between philosophy and the pro-
letariat. From the spring of 1844 onwards, Marx was clear that the eman-
cipation of humanity belonged to a historical process grounded in the
development of social relations (the material history of social humanity),
and that the processes of class struggle that drove and informed the real-
ization of real emancipation emerged from the interests of the working
class in their immediate character as “common humanity”, and not from
Indeed, in examining Marx’s manuscripts and texts from 1843 through
mid-1844, we can discern—in language that is sometimes daunting in its
dense philosophical analysis, if also at times poignant, scathing, or breath-
taking in its vision—the process through which his immanent critique of
both Hegel and the philosophy of the Left Hegelians culminated in his
transcending the idea that philosophy was action. This new stance was
most famously articulated in Marx’s eleventh “Thesis on Feuerbach” the
following year: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in vari-
ous ways; the point, however, is to change it.”6
What, then, we are led to ask, is the form of change that is necessary—
what is the nature of the emancipation that must be achieved?

That even the most conservative forms of liberalism can be recognized

still to have embodied genuine elements of emancipation was due to the
oppressive legacy of feudalism. At the core of the “feudal revolution” that
swept the territories of Charlemagne’s empire in the middle of the middle
ages (circa 1000 CE), and which spread from there through territories
acquired through colonization in the later middle ages (notably in Eastern
Europe), was the reduction of virtually all previously free persons to a
status of unfreedom. This followed from the sudden appropriation of all
sovereign powers of state authority by great landlords, who constituted
themselves in a directly political sense as lords over not only tenants of
their own properties, but also over all who lived nearby.7 This transforma-
tion wiped out the surviving traces of a public sphere, first established in
the ancient world, in which free men (if only men) enjoyed political rights,
and were protected in their freedom. In the early modern period, after the
demise of feudalism proper in the mid-fifteenth century, re-establishment
of a meaningful public sphere—accompanied by much debate over consti-
tutional forms, legal rights, and the proper limits of sovereign power—
emerged as the most fundamental and enduring issue of politics within the
dominant classes. The circumscribed limits of this project of minimal
political emancipation were, however, blown open by the experience of
the Revolution.
In light of this historical contextualization, emancipation in its broadest
sense can be seen to be a particular political project of the modern age.
The politics of the ancient world had been characterized in fundamental
ways by the possession of liberty (though, of course, many were excluded
from it). With the introduction of feudalism proper, however, citizenship
and liberty were extinguished for the great majority of even the formerly
free male population relative to lordly bearers of sovereign power.
The republics and republicanism of late medieval Italy were neither
simply ancient survivals, nor prematurely modern political forms, but his-
torically specific developments within the middle ages that integrally con-
nected both surviving and new (e.g., Venice) urban, commercial and
industrial societies in Italy with the feudal societies of the north.8 Indeed,
it is telling that in the wake of the Renaissance after the feudal era, Italian
cities generally lost their ascendency and republican autonomy even within
the peninsula, and slipped into a long political somnolence. Early in the
modern era, few other than the Swiss had won back anything like the
essentially republican form of liberty characteristic of the ancient world,9
liberty that was thereafter jealously preserved in their cantons. It is because
of the general imposition of unfreedom in the feudal societies of the later

middle ages, and the limited extent to which emancipation had since been
realized, that the Genevan Rousseau was prompted to confront the conun-
drum that men were born free, yet everywhere were in chains.
Subsequently, there emerged at the level of culture, in “the
Enlightenment”, a growing rejection of superstition and revealed faith as
the basis for public discourse and the regulation of public activity. The
feudalism of the Middle Ages had devolved upon the Church virtually
complete control over culture—regulation of morality, the forms of social
intercourse, artistic expression, and acceptable knowledge and legitimate
ideas, while the lords enjoyed almost untrammelled political power as
bearers of the sword. As issues of public rights and freedom re-emerged in
the modern era, so also did challenge to the power of the Church. Contrary
to much recent opinion, this cannot be reduced to a single dimension of
modern discourse, such as liberalism—neither Voltaire nor de Sade can in
any way be said to have been liberals, nor is it easy even to reconcile
Rousseau with liberal ideas. The emancipation of thought and cultural
production that constituted the “Enlightenment” in the course of the
modern era took many and varied forms, framed within a broad rejection
of authorized received knowledge, leading to the profound displacement
of religion as guardian of ideas, values, and legitimacy.
Nor can the modern era be associated with a single form of social and
economic development. As Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood
have demonstrated, capitalism did not develop across Europe, but uniquely
in England; and not in the context of town life, but in agriculture.10 In
France, by contrast, the social property relations of the modern era increas-
ingly took the form of politically constituted property within the monar-
chy, centred upon increasingly formal property rights in personally owned,
heritable, and saleable “public” offices, supplanting the immediately polit-
ical property form of territorial sovereignty characteristic of the feudal era.
This led to a society characterized by intense bureaucratism and statism—
in contrast with both feudal society and modern England—with intense
and frequent struggles over interests that were simultaneously “political”
and “economic”.

States and Property After the French Revolution

It is in this light that we must interpret the “nation building” that the
Jacobins undertook as professional administrators of the French Republic.
With every major political development between the calling of the Estates
General in 1788 and the consolidation of Bonaparte’s Empire, the number

of state officials grew. Much like the absolutist monarchy of the old régime,
this burgeoning apparatus of power both played a vital role in the social
and economic life of France, and provided income and career to the
already rich and powerful, the talented and ambitious, and the merely
comfortable bourgeois.11
This development is evident in Marx’s commentary on the state at the
founding of the Second Empire by Louis Bonaparte:

the executive power commands an army of officials numbering more than

half a million individuals and therefore constantly maintains an immense
mass of interests and livelihoods in the most absolute dependence; where
the state enmeshes, controls, regulates, superintends, and tutors civil society
from its most comprehensive manifestations of life down to its most insig-
nificant stirrings, from its most general modes of being to the private exis-
tence of individuals; where through the most extraordinary centralization
this parasitic body acquires a ubiquity, an omniscience, a capacity for acceler-
ated mobility, and an elasticity which finds a counterpart only in the helpless
dependence, the loose shapelessness of the actual body politic… But it is
precisely with the maintenance of that extensive state machine in its numer-
ous ramifications that the material interests of the French bourgeoisie are
interwoven in the closest fashion. Here it finds posts for its surplus popula-
tion and makes up in the form of state salaries for what it cannot pocket in
the form of profit, interest, rents, and honorariums.12

It is striking to what extent, not only in this passage but throughout the
work, Marx identifies the material interests of the French dominant classes
in terms of finance, state incomes, and rents, and at the same time the
slight extent to which any industrial bourgeoisie is even noted, let alone
credited with having a significant role. Moreover, Marx clearly identified
the peasantry as bearing the burden of supporting the dominant classes
through their astounding level of mortgage indebtedness, together with
the heavy taxes that were the “life source” of the apparatuses of state.13
The French state, through its successive absolutist, Republican, constitu-
tionally monarchical, and Bonapartist forms, erected an ever more stupen-
dous edifice of administration, rule, and war—nominally for the good of
the people, or the glory and General Will of the Nation, but always on the
backs of impoverished peasant masses, and to the great benefit of its archi-
tects and overseers.
There were, then, different paths of social and political development in
the modern era, each emerging from the middle ages in accord with the
historical specificities of the societies of the era. In Italy, robust industry

and commercial dominance, together with strong republican institutions,

subsided into undistinguished centuries of aristocratic dominance over
sharecropping peasant tenants, aside from a few surviving enclaves of
commerce. France and England, meanwhile, increasingly diverged as a
result of having had fundamentally different feudal forms.14 In France, the
central state developed as means for politically constituted property to
appropriate peasant surplus. England, however, became the unique locus
for the development of agrarian capitalism, from which its generalized
industrial form subsequently developed, with considerable direct assistance
from the state.15 Not only, then, were the forms of state different in differ-
ent European societies, but the differences directly related to structures of
social property relations through which class exploitation was realized.
In 1843, it was Frederick Engels who first delineated between England,
having priority in the sphere of the economic; France, with priority in the
political; and Germany, first in the sphere of philosophy. He drew out this
idea specifically in relation to how the doctrine of communism emerged in
each country.16 This focus on ideas is telling: socialists in England were
driven to communist ideas “practically, by the rapid increase of misery,
demoralisation, and pauperism in their own country”, with little aware-
ness of the ideas and movements on the Continent. French socialists
instead came to the same conclusion “politically, by first asking for politi-
cal liberty and equality; and, finding this insufficient, joining social liberty,
and social equality to their political claims”. Since, however, “the Germans
became Communists philosophically, by reasoning upon first principles”,
it is not hard to appreciate that this development was not grounded in the
economic or political experiences of working people. This German priority
in philosophy was associated by both Engels and Marx with its priority in
the development of modern religious theology.17 Not only did Germany
produce the Reformation, but almost immediately, the ideas of religious
reform were appropriated by German peasants, with the radically commu-
nist preacher Thomas Münzer as their leader, to justify demands for social
equality, elimination of private property, and an end to the right of ­political
power over others.18 Luther exploded in vituperation against this pre-
sumption that a return to original Christian values might thus be applied
to social life outside the ecclesiastical structure, and exhorted those in
power to “kill them like dogs!”
The role of religion as a specific form of inequality and oppression in
addition to those of property and political power was particularly clear in
Germany. The Holy Alliance of 1815 brought together the Christian
states of Orthodox Russia, Catholic Austria, and Lutheran Prussia—with

tacit support from Anglican-dominated Britain—to suppress the liberal,

democratic, and socialist ideas that emerged during the French Revolution.
Then, in pursuit of a more complete Christian union, Frederick William
III forced a merger of Lutheran and Calvinist faiths in Prussia, generating
not only resistance from “Old Lutherans” who rejected the apparent
incorporation of Calvinist doctrine, but a profound awareness of the polit-
icization of religious belief. Whereas the French state, both during the
Revolution and after the overthrow of the restored Legitimist Bourbon
monarchy in July 1830, stood opposed to the claims of the Church—and
the established Church was becoming ever less significant to the increas-
ingly liberal form of state in Britain—the absolutism of the Prussian state
was grounded in a reconfirmation of faith.
It is this confluence of religious oppression, political oppression, and
the oppression of all “socialist” ideas challenging inequality and immisera-
tion in the wake of the defeat of the French Revolution, that provided the
immediate context for the development of Marx’s ideas with respect to the
meaning of human emancipation in 1843 and 1844. Since his youth, he
had become increasingly critical of oppression in each of these forms.
Forced by state censorship from his position as editor of the Rheinische
Zeitung, he returned in 1843 to a critical reading of Hegel’s Philosophy of
Right to clarify his thought.19

Marx’s Critique of Hegelian Philosophy in 1843

One of the crucial issues with respect to the development of Marx’s ideas
is their relationship to the thought of G. W. F. Hegel. Whole books have
been written on this, of course, yet there nonetheless has been a tendency
to mystify the relationship, while at the same time reducing the ideas of
each thinker to a few oft-repeated tropes. Normally, what is stressed is the
dialectical character of their thought, with the materialist Marx turning
the upside-down idealism of Hegel, right side up. The meaning of “the
dialectic” itself is in turn too often conveyed simply by reference to the
succession of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
It is not that these formulations are, when properly interpreted, funda-
mentally wrong, but rather that they do not do a very good job of explain-
ing the nature of these ideas to persons not already familiar with them.
The result is that many readers have come away with a somewhat mechani-
cal conception of “the dialectic”, and little real understanding of the phil-
osophical genius of Hegel and the way it influenced Marx’s own ideas.

Given the difficulty of Hegel’s texts, it is actually then more likely that a
non-specialist reader will come to appreciate some of their depth through
familiarity with Marx’s ideas than to glean insights from Hegel with which
to illuminate Marx.
To facilitate understanding of the thought of each, one may begin by
emphasizing fundamental elements that their philosophical perspectives
shared. At their core, the ideas of Hegel and Marx had in common a rec-
ognition that human existence takes form in and through a systemic social
unity, or totality; that the historical development of human activity, ideas,
and institutions proceeds from early, and simpler, forms to more complex
forms through continuous interactive processes within the social totality;
and that this history of social development constitutes the realization of
our collective human potential as a meaningful and integral whole. To
shed light on these common elements, it may help to relate briefly the
ideas of both thinkers to the ideas of Aristotle.
For Aristotle, the elements of both the natural world and the social
world of humans in each case possessed a fundamental form that reflected
their essential purpose, nature, or position within the whole: what might
be said to be their telos, or “end”. In the classic example, the telos of an
acorn is realized in the form of the mature oak tree. Rarely will this telos be
realized perfectly, but even if the acorn grows into a stunted tree, or is
devoured by squirrels, its end remains that of the towering oak. In opposi-
tion to Plato’s conception of purely ideal forms, Aristotle conceived these
ends to be rooted in nature. This can be interpreted as merely a different
variety of idealism, given the presupposition of an essential telos, but the
difference from Plato is real. In Aristotle’s view:

it is evident that the polis belongs to the class of things that exist by nature,
and that man is by nature an animal intended to live in a polis [zoon poli-
tikon]. He who is without a polis, by reason of his own nature and not of
some accident, is either a poor sort of being, or a being higher than man…20

We humans, then, are inherently social animals, and only gods and
monsters naturally exist outside society. Without further elaborating
Aristotle’s ideas, what is most striking is that his conception of the nature
of humans is fundamentally ahistorical. Although Barbarians and the
“slavish” peoples of the east are conceived to fall short of the telos of
humanity, there is nothing in Aristotle to suggest the superiority of the
Greeks is the result of any historical process of human development. In his
thought, the telos of a thing is fundamentally timeless.

Hegel conceived himself to be taking up the mantle of Aristotle, and

the real extent to which he achieved this ambition is a mark of his
undoubted genius. For Hegel, however, human social existence—and the
telos of humanity—was not timeless. Instead, humanity had for Hegel an
inherently historical dimension of development. Human social capacities,
institutions, and ideas change over time, and in his far more complex phil-
osophical understanding, Hegel embraced the pervasive liberal concep-
tion of history as progress. Through the historical processes of change,
humanity has been approaching its ultimate end, the record of our devel-
opment evident in the progress of societal forms and institutions, the
growth of reason and human capacities, and the sphere of our ideas.
Humanity has developed both as the individuals who constitute the
social totality and in that totality, as such. Ideas, for example, do not exist
only in individuals, but are shared among humans in our collectivity, creat-
ing a sphere of knowledge transcending that which any individual could
achieve. Human ideas being the only form of rational consciousness that
is known to exist in the universe, our development as humanity corre-
sponds to the development of consciousness itself. It is in this sense that it
is said that Hegel’s philosophy of history and history of philosophy were
the same. Our telos is the historical realization of fully rational and ethical
life in our social collectivity, while at the same time our ideas will achieve
comprehension of the universal.
In Hegel’s thought—roughly corresponding again to liberal views on
historical progress—the social forms, institutions, and ideas that exist at
any given time fit with the development of the totality to that point in
time. Throughout history, the ensemble of social forms constitutes a
whole, realizing the best social life possible at each time, while continuing
to develop, individually and together, in conjunction with consciousness
and human activity. In his notable expression of this idea, “The life of the
ever present Spirit is a circle of progressive embodiments”.21 It is this con-
ception of integral and systemic historical development that was attractive
to Marx, though his own ideas veered towards materialist foundations for
the processes of history, where Hegel focused upon ideas.
Marx had initially rejected the philosophy of Hegel—the comfortable
academic who provided an apologia for the Prussian monarchy—but sub-
sequently found himself drawn to the “Left” or “Young” Hegelians, who
pursued an atheist and materialist re-grounding of Hegel’s historical con-
ception of social totality. Recognizing humanity in its collectivity as the
real embodiment of consciousness in the universe, Hegel brought together

philosophy, religion, and history to conceive the development of humanity

as the realization of the divine in the world over historical time. Its key
contribution was the way in which he incorporated the already pervasive
liberal conception of history as progress into formal philosophy. Where
the philosophy of Aristotle conceived the world in fundamentally fixed
terms and the telos of a thing was simply the end towards which it devel-
oped within this ahistorical frame, Hegel powerfully advanced the idea
that the social whole—indeed, the whole of humanity—realized its devel-
opment, both as a totality and in its integral parts, through history.
Through discernible stages of growing consciousness and increasing com-
plexity, humanity was seen to be in development towards a final form of
fully realized human potential.
Whereas the political economy of England conceived progress largely
in terms of economic development, and the political ideology of France
conceived progress in terms of historical class struggles, progress found its
expression in Germany primarily in philosophical terms, and notably in
terms that made peace with the Prussian theocratic monarchy. It was then,
in opposition to Hegel’s accommodation with this monarchy,22 that the
Left Hegelians sought to turn his ideas against the reactionary state. It was
this combination of theoretical depth and sophistication with a left politi-
cal agenda that attracted Marx, despite his initial distaste for Hegel.
Within his work, Hegel elaborated upon the longstanding philosophi-
cal (and theological) concept of alienation, particularly pursuing the inte-
gration of its sense of the sale of property with a more profound sense that
involved personal identity, informed by the idea of being a “stranger” to
God.23 The Left Hegelians turned this conception back against Hegel’s
concessions to Prussian official religion, articulating the view that religious
belief constituted alienation from our own humanity. In this critical con-
ception of alienation, putting faith in an imaginary divinity was a denial of
our own responsibility, through our individual and especially collective
human capacities, for the forms of life and achievements we realize in and
through the social whole. In worshipping God, then, “religion alienates
our own nature from us”,24 we project the potency of our own collective
existence as something apart, a divine “other” to which we are subject—a
subjection made palpable in subordination to religious authorities, and
particularly to the “holy” form of the monarchy. Rejecting the conserva-
tive view that human freedom and rationality, as conceived by Hegel, had
already been realized in the Prussian state (however explicit his texts
seemed on that point), they sought through their own approach to phi-
losophy to make reason and emancipation real.

For the most part, as is especially evident in Bruno Bauer’s book The
Jewish Question, Left Hegelians conceived the emancipation of humanity
in terms of its release from religious alienation. The authority of the
Prussian state was said to be grounded in religion, and it directed much of
its attention towards religious issues. The philosophical freedom of
humanity from the alienation of religion, embodied in the freedom of the
state from religion, would result in the realization of freedom in the
republic, or Freistaat. It was this reduction of human emancipation to
nothing more than achieving the merely political objective of the French
Revolution—the “free state” rather than free humanity—to which Marx
directed his caustic criticism of Bauer in the first part of “On The Jewish
Question”.25 He concluded this critique by demanding a great deal more:

All emancipation is a reduction of the human world and relationships to man

Political emancipation is the reduction of man, on the one hand, to a
member of civil society, to an egoistic, independent individual, and, on the
other hand, to a citizen, a juridical person.
Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citi-
zen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his
everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only
when man has recognized and organized his “forces propres” as social pow-
ers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the
shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been

In his first published work of theory, then, Marx declared the need to
go beyond the “merely political” politics of the French Revolution—
human emancipation required the transformation of our “own powers”
into a truly social form.
Among the Young Hegelians, however, Moses Hess had already begun
to take the idea of alienation an important step further, in ideas best known
from The Essence of Money, published in 1845. He had first broached this
approach in a Swiss publication of 1843 that contained pieces by several
Left Hegelians, as well as Frederick Engels, and Marx’s critique was
directed towards Bauer’s piece in this collection as well as The Jewish
Question.27 Hess’s contribution clearly made a significant theoretical
advance. As Hess articulated his ideas in 1845, he conceived “the human
essence” to be “the collaboration of individuals of the human species” in

the social whole of life activity, and he saw in money the alienation
(estrangement) of humans from that essence in terms drawn from the
critique of religion:

in the old mutual estrangement of men, an external symbol had to be invented

to represent the spiritual and material exchange of products. Through this
abstraction from real, spiritual and living intercourse the capacity, the creative
force of men was increased during their estrangement; in other words, they
found in this abstract means of intercourse a mediating essence for their own
estrangement; they had to seek the unifying essence outside of themselves,
i.e., an inhuman, super-human essence, since they were not men, i.e., were
not united. Without this inhuman means of intercourse they would never
have entered into intercourse. But as soon as men unite, as soon as a direct
intercourse between them can take place the inhuman, external, dead means
of intercourse must necessarily be abolished.28

In the second part of “On The Jewish Question”, referring specifically to

Bauer’s piece in the Swiss collection, Marx developed a critique of money
as alienation in conjunction with his critique of merely political emancipa-
tion. In passages that are too often misread (because their subject is not
the question of Jews, as such, but rather the preoccupation with money
that Christianity created and imposed as the day-to-day meaning of being
“Jewish”), Marx’s point is that this preoccupation with money has finally
reached its highest development in bourgeois society “under the dominance
of Christianity”.29 In this sense, he argues, Christians have themselves
become “Jews” (as, he notes ironically, it was Jews who first became
Christians). The real object of emancipation, therefore, is not the merely
political freedom of the secular state—which is insufficient even to end the
religious form of alienation—but achievement of social life without the
alienation from ourselves that is embodied in the pursuit of money.
In this first of his published “early works”, therefore, Marx advanced a
philosophical position that went beyond the Jacobinism of the French
Revolution and explicitly incorporated “the social question”. He had,
however, already developed an even more far-reaching contribution to the
idea of emancipation than that contained in “On The Jewish Question”,
marking, indeed, a remarkably original and profound contribution to
political theory. Through his earlier return to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,
Marx had already come to appreciate that the very form of the state, as
such, was inherently a form of human alienation.

This point emerges through his point-by-point critique of Hegel’s ideas

in relation to their fawning embrace of the Prussian monarchy. In these
terms, the final stage of human existence saw the achievement of individ-
ual and collective ethical life in full, through which humans subsumed
themselves to harmonious order, under regulation by the highest realiza-
tion of right. This was the state, specifically in the form of constitutional
monarchy, with judicial and representative legislative institutions united
with the power of the executive, in the person of the sovereign and
through the agency of his administrators. At one level, Hegel’s claims do
go beyond merely legitimizing or apologizing for that monarchy, but in
their toadying, they are immediately open to the most cutting criticism,
which Marx did his best to provide.
In taking these ideas seriously, however, Marx moves from Hegel’s
assertion that “the general interest” is the purpose of the state, to its
implications for the nature of the constitution. Here, where Hegel
abases himself to assert that without a monarchy the state “is no longer
a state”, Marx focuses upon the meaning of the constitution in relation
to the people, and observes that the constitution is always grounded in
the people:

Democracy is the genus Constitution. Monarchy is one species, and a poor

one at that… Democracy is the solved riddle of all constitutions. Here, not
merely implicitly and in essence but existing in reality, the constitution is
constantly brought back to its actual basis, the actual human being, the
actual people, and established as the people’s own work.30

From this point on, as he increasingly loses patience with Hegel’s

dodges, Marx has in mind that the real social collectivity of the people—
not comprised even by the democratic form of the political state—stands
in opposition to the state as such. The political form of the state, in other
words, is itself inherently a form of alienation. It is for this reason, in all of
the work that follows in 1843, and still more in the life-work that he truly
takes up from 1844, that Marx’s conception of emancipation always
requires transcending the state as such. “It is not the radical revolution,
not the general human emancipation which is a utopian dream for
Germany, but rather the partial, the merely political revolution,” he
asserted in his published critique of Hegel, identifying the agents for this
emancipation as the proletariat, whose lack of particular interest compelled

them to realize the interests of humanity as a whole.31 He still, however, at

the time conceived this in relation to philosophy, as such, “which finds its
material weapons in the proletariat”.32
In these writings of 1843, Marx advanced the concept of emancipation
beyond that of any previous political theorist.33 Alienation constituted the
projection of forms of material human sociality—the social relations
through which we realize our collective existence, the necessary condition
for human existence—into artificial conceptions of institutions and ideas
treated as real; not merely alien to us as individual human beings, but hav-
ing power over us. Emancipation was overcoming alienation, in all of its
forms, to return the human world to real human beings, themselves.
Alienation existed in the form of religion, as the Left Hegelians first
claimed. It also existed in the form of money (and so property), by which
the social intercourse of humanity became a means to exercise power over
others, reducing them to mere things. Then, in identifying the very form
of the state as a form of alienation, Marx found the solution to the “riddle
of all constitutions”, as well as to Rousseau’s conundrum. So long as the
state existed in its political form, as an alienated social power that acted
back upon us as individual humans, we could never be free. For humanity
to live without chains, the General Will had to be realized freely, without

The Alienation of Labour and True Human

Yet, the achievement that Marx realized in his Paris manuscripts of 1844,
upon which he built throughout the rest of his life, primarily through
means of the critique of political economy, dwarfs even these profound
contributions of 1843. Having been alerted to the real import of the ideas
of the political economists by Engels’s “Outlines of a Critique of Political
Economy”—submitted for the Deutsch-Französische Jarhbücher—Marx
subsequently read each of the authors cited in it, and undertook a detailed
critique of his own.34 He began his manuscript by dividing the pages into
columns under the headings of the three basic classes and corresponding
forms of income identified by the political economists: Wages of Labour,
Profit of Capital, and Rent of Land. Initially writing down the columns of
“Wages of Labour”, he drew out what the political economist asserts, and
what it actually means for workers:

He tells us that originally and in theory the whole product of labour belongs
to the worker. But at the same time he tells us that in actual fact what the
worker gets is the smallest and utterly indispensable part of the product – as
much, only, as is necessary for his existence, not as a human being, but as a
worker, and for the propagation, not of humanity, but of the slave class of

From this, Marx rises above the point of view of political economy, and
in subsequent passages known on the basis of their content as “Estranged
Labour”, he conceives of the alienation of labour. The alienation of labour
is not a product of property or monetary wealth—rather, property is itself
the concrete form of alienation of labour.36
This realization had the most profound impact upon Marx’s thought,
and posed the problem of human emancipation for him in entirely new
terms. This is evident in the two questions that are posited at the end of
his original analysis of what political economy had to say with respect to
workers, under “Wages of Labour”:

1) What in the evolution of mankind is the meaning of this reduction

of the greater part of mankind to abstract labour?
2) What are the mistakes committed by the piecemeal reformers, who
either want to raise wages … or regard equality of wages … as the
goal of social revolution?37

The first question takes Hegel’s conception of human society develop-

ing through the course of history and reconceives it in relation to the
development of the alienation of labour. It is this reconception that then
leads Marx to assert in the Manifesto of the Communist Party that “The
history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
This follows from the fact that the differences of wealth between classes
are the product of the alienation of labour. As he noted in the opening
words of “Wages of Labour”, this basic social relationship between worker
and capitalist involves antagonistic struggle.
Where other forms of alienation may have predominantly negative
effects upon those who labour, they are not directly constituted antagonis-
tically in the way that the alienation of labour is. The worker can use the
form of money to meet needs of his or her own, and even the capitalist may
fall victim to money. The alienation of labour is profoundly different in mak-
ing the life-activity of some humans alien to themselves in the immediate
form of benefit to others. It is for this reason that, in conceiving a general

relationship of antagonism between classes at the start of the Manifesto,

Marx summarized it as “in a word, oppressor and oppressed”.
This historical conception of human society developing through par-
ticular forms of the alienation of labour is not developed to any great
extent in the 1844 manuscripts, yet already it is present. Marx asserts that
labour and capital in their opposition “constitute private property as its
developed state of contradiction”, and refers to earlier social forms
(“ancient Rome, Turkey, etc.”) as having an “antithesis between lack of
property and property” that is as yet undeveloped relative to it.38 He con-
ceives “the entire movement of history” in relation to “Communism as the
positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and
therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man…
the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being.”39
And communism, in this conception, is a movement of real, historical
struggle against the alienation of labour—it is not the weapon of philoso-
phy, but the movement of humanity recovering itself, by itself. This move-
ment is a material historical social process grounded in the development of
social production:

The entire movement of history, just as its [communism’s] actual act of

genesis – the birth act of its empirical existence – is, therefore, also for its
thinking consciousness the comprehended and known process of its

That is, rather than following the dictates of philosophy, or seeking

historical verification in “disconnected historical phenomena opposed to
private property”, communism as a mature movement “finds both its
empirical and its theoretical basis in the movement of private property –
more precisely in that of the economy”.

This material, immediately perceptible private property is the material per-

ceptible expression of estranged human life. Its movement – production and
consumption – is the perceptible revelation of the movement of all produc-
tion until now, ie., the realisation or the reality of man.41

It is for these reasons that the revolution of proletarian workers is the

basis for the general emancipation of humanity. To transcend the “reduc-
tion of the greater part of mankind to abstract labour” is to redeem
humanity as a whole by and for humans.42 The long, historical, one-sided

development of human social capacities through forms of the alienation of

labour culminates in those who have nothing to lose but their chains
transforming social existence for all humanity into a form that will have no
chains on anyone. This, then, is a complete resolution of Rousseau’s
It is for this reason that the paltry aspirations of “piecemeal reformers”
always remain inadequate. What is at issue is not “better wages for the
slave”, but the complete emancipation of all humankind. This requires,
first and above all, an end to the alienation of labour; but the general
emancipation of humanity requires an end to alienation in all of its forms.
Alienation in the form of the state exists primarily to ensure that alienation
in the form of private property—the alienation of labour—is maintained.43
Thus the political form of the state must itself be transcended.
There is, however, necessarily a dialectical character to this. Unless the
state’s defence of property is overcome, there can be no overcoming the
alienation of labour. At the same time, without overcoming the alienation
of labour, there can be no transcendence of the political form of the state.
Mere anarchists appreciate that both the state and private property must
be superseded, but offer no solution beyond ending both at the same
time. There are substantial reasons for recognizing that human emancipa-
tion cannot, however, be so simply realized. One significant issue, of
course, is that the forces defeated in any revolutionary transformation will
not simply disappear, even if there is simultaneous revolution across the
globe. This is, however, far less profound a problem than the fact that
social production in all its forms—including the institutions and patterns
of daily social life, and the built-form that the infrastructure of our social
existence has taken—has been realized over long generations of funda-
mental social inequality and political power. Who will live where, how
people will travel to work, what jobs will continue to exist, how needs will
continue to be met where current production relations are inherently
­abusive, how environmentally destructive production upon which entire
communities depend should be dealt with—these are not questions that
can be resolved through simple social consensus on the morrow of the
revolution. Alienation in all of its forms will bequeath to any social process
of human emancipation an enormous range of challenges; problems that
are not without solution, but which will vex persons of reason and good-
will for a considerable period of time.

Emancipation and Revolution
In his later political writing, especially his “Critique of the Gotha
Programme”, Marx briefly sketched an approach to these problems.
Asserting both the need for revolution to make possible an end to capital-
ist social relations of production and the need not only to change the state
in its immediate form but to eliminate the state as such as a condition of
full emancipation, Marx nonetheless accepted the need for a political form
of the state to continue for some time (and one might well expect not a
short time). Here—using the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” in
one of a very few places in the whole of his writing—he explicitly (if briefly)
explored the implications of it not being possible to transform social life
completely all at once.
He recognized that a process of transformation in social life was required
to make possible a move from the principles of what he described as “bour-
geois right”. In a capitalist society, “bourgeois right” does not apply to
workers, in that their returns from production are not proportional to the
labour that they contributed.44 The first stage of revolutionary transforma-
tion must necessarily end the alienation of labour by which workers inher-
ently produce wealth for their capitalist employers, but cannot immediately
go very far beyond that. Only

after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor,

and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has
vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime
want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around
development of the individual; and all the springs of co-operative wealth
flow more abundantly45

is it possible to move to a form of society in which it is not necessary to

maintain the principles of “bourgeois right” in distributing the proceeds of
collective social labour. And only then, therefore, would no state be
required. Thus, the most tangible and immediate forms of state must be
defeated in revolution to make possible the end of the alienation in its most
immediately manifested expressions, as well as the most oppressive and
undemocratic characteristics of the state itself. Yet, only after transcendence
of the alienation of labour—and in its other forms—has been made real to
a far more profound extent, and the real social landscape reconfigured to
allow free human interaction on the basis of “from each according to his
ability, to each according to his need”, can the state truly wither away.

On the one hand, human emancipation requires that the state itself
must truly be transcended, in time. On the other hand, the political form
of the state cannot simply be dispensed with on the morrow of the revolu-
tion. It is, therefore, essential to recognize the ways in which the alien-
ation inherent in the state has been partially constrained through the
construction of human rights during the modern era. States long ago gen-
erally ceased to be embodiments of relatively simple communities of like-­
minded persons among whom a General Will might be said to exist at the
political level.
Notwithstanding the revolutionary conception of liberty, equality, and
sociality that informed the Jacobin project of building a Rousseauan
republic, such a state cannot achieve true human emancipation. Relative
to the alienation inherent in state power, however, the establishment of
individual and collective rights has been a profound political achieve-
ment. The state’s alien potency has not been replaced by benign, freely
determined, self-governance, but it is potentially held in check relative to
ourselves as individuals. There is no certainty that rights will be respected,
of course, and they can never simply be taken for granted, but instead
must be preserved and extended through struggle. It is, indeed, not least
because rights are limited and uncertain that the state as such must, in
the end, be transcended. It is, therefore, profoundly important to recog-
nize the potential for what Bakunin—in diatribes to which Marx pro-
vided criticism that on the whole was both apt and scathing—called
“dictatorship over the proletariat”, a form of alienation that is not to be
trivially dismissed.

Moving On
The struggles for human emancipation must have, at their core, class
struggle to end the alienation of labour. This is not, however, the only
form of alienation through which humanity has been, and continues to
be, oppressed. Ultimately, the realization of full human freedom requires
the elimination of our collective subordination to any form of sovereign
power—we must not be subjected to some “other” that is constituted as
more than “us”. Since this transcendence cannot be realized all at once,
however, we must recognize and preserve that partial recovery of liberty
relative to the state that has been one of the signal achievements of the
modern age. As part of an ongoing struggle for the realization of eman-
cipation—necessarily dialectical in pursuing real ends through real

contradictions—we must hold on to the rights that we have constructed,

without holding them to be either above criticism, or the essence of
In this regard, it is equally important to recognize that, even if it can be
said that the structures of power—not only in the form of the state but in
other forms of oppression—have roots in the systemic reproduction of
fundamental inequality through the alienation of labour, it is not only class
from which humanity must be emancipated. Religion is potentially a rela-
tively benign form of alienation—“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed
creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.
It is the opium of the people”.46 Other forms of alienation—the objectifi-
cation of some humans for the benefit of others—are far less benign, and
these include not only the form of the state, but also the reduction of
women to subjects of men’s will, as well as the reduction of persons of
colour to subordinate means of satisfying needs (or worse still, to threats
to security)—in short, of all forms of objectifying the autonomy of persons
that reduces one human to mere means to an end (or obstacle) of another.
The emancipation of humanity requires the “reduction of the human
world and relationships to [humanity itself]”.47 This “reduction” is not a
form of alienation, but of realization—humans in their relations with each
other must recognize themselves in others, and so realize their species-­
being. Through the lifework of his critique of political economy, Marx
identified and focused upon the fundamental challenge of the alienation of
labour, through which the historical development of society consistently
has been bent towards the interests of the already wealthy and powerful.
Yet, from his earliest exploration of the forms of alienation to his mature
observations on the need and the capacity to achieve a society founded on
the principle of “from each according to ability to each according to
need”, nothing less than the complete emancipation of humanity ever
would suffice for Marx.

1. On this period of Marx’s life, see especially Francis Wheen, Karl Marx
(London: Fourth Estate, 1999), 21–30.
2. Fraternité might be translated as “fraternity” or “brotherhood”, but its
implications went beyond the sense generally conveyed by those terms in
the context of Anglo-American liberal ideology. Inherent in early modern
French political thought was a robust idea of the centrality of society in

human experience, both informing and informed by the ideas of Jean-

Jacques Rousseau. See Ellen M. Wood, “The State and Popular Sovereignty
in French Political Thought: A Genealogy of Rousseau’s ‘General Will’”,
in History from Below: Studies in Popular Protest and Popular Ideology in
Honour of George Rudé, ed. Frederick Krantz (Montréal: Concordia
University, 1989).
3. See George C. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and
the Revisionist Challenge (London: Verso, 1987).
4. Jean Bruhat, “La Révolution française et la formation de la pensée de
Marx”, Annales historique de la Révolution française 38, no. 2 (1966): 141.
5. Marx not only completed and published the first volume of Capital, but left
lengthy, uncompleted manuscripts of the critique of political economy. His
brief notes on Levasseur, however, were his only writings on the French
Revolution as such, apart from passages in other primarily political works
such as the Manifesto of the Communist Party and The Eighteenth Brumaire
of Louis Bonaparte. In moving ever more decisively beyond the politics of
the French Revolution, he also moved beyond studying it as such.
6. R. C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edn. (New York: Norton
& Co., 1978), 145. This is my preferred translation from the German, but
there are many alternatives.
7. See J.  P. Poly and E.  Bournazel, The Feudal Transformation: 900–1200
(New York: Holmes & Meier, 1991); G. C. Comninel, “Feudalism”, in The
Elgar Companion to Marxist Economics, eds. Ben Fine, A. Saad Filho, and
M.  Boffo (Cheltenham: Elgar, 2012), and “English Feudalism and the
Origins of Capitalism”, Journal of Peasant Studies 27, no. 4 (2000): 1–53.
As I note in these latter works, England had a unique form of “feudalism”
in which sovereignty was not truly parcelled among lords, unlike the experi-
ence on the Continent, and in which as many as one quarter of the peasantry
remained legally free, and protected (as freeholders) in the public courts.
8. See Justin Rosenberg, “Secret Origins of the State”, in The Empire of Civil
Society (London: Verso, 1994).
9. Even in the period of the Empire, both in theory and generally in practice,
Roman citizens enjoyed protection of their liberty under law, and the state
in principle remained “the public thing”—the literal meaning of res publica.
10. Robert Brenner, “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in
Pre-Industrial Europe”, Past & Present 70 (1976), 60–9 (reprinted in
T. H. Aston, and C. H. E. Philpin, The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class
Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1985)); “On the Origins of Capitalist
Development: a Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism”, New Left Review
104 (1977), 25–92; “The Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism”, Past

& Present 97 (1982): 16–113 (reprinted in Aston and Philpin); “Bourgeois

Revolution and Transition to Capitalism”, in The First Modern Society, ed.
A. L. Beier, D. Cannadine, and J. M. Rosenheim (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1989). Ellen M.  Wood, “The Separation of the
‘Economic’ and the ‘Political’ in Capitalism”, New Left Review 127
(1981): 66–95 (also in her Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing
Historical Materialism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)).
See also Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution and “English
Feudalism and the Origins of Capitalism”.
11. See Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution.
12. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, MECW, vol. 11,
13. Ibid., 181–97.
14. Comninel, “English Feudalism and the Origins of Capitalism”.
15. See Michael Zmolek, Rethinking the Industrial Revolution: Five Centuries
of Transition from Agrarian to Industrial Capitalism in England (Leiden:
Brill, 2014).
16. Frederick Engels, “Progress of Social Reform on the Continent”, MECW,
vol. 3, 392.
17. Ibid., 400; Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, MECW,
vol. 3, 182, 290.
18. Engels, “Progress of Social Reform on the Continent”, 400.
19. Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Part One,
‘Preface’”, MECW, vol. 21, 262.
20. Aristotle, Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), Book I, Chap. 2,
21. G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of History (New York: Colonial Press, 1899), 79.
22. This is not to say that there were not, implicit in Hegel’s work, significant
points that looked beyond the existing absolutist state. What he did not
do, however, was elaborate such points in explicit criticism of the existing
23. István Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation (London: Merlin Press,
24. Ludwig Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity, Chap. 25, Marxists Internet
Archive (http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/feuerbach/works/
25. Karl Marx, “On The Jewish Question”, MECW, vol. 3, 146–68.
26. Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity.
27. Moses Hess, Einundzwanzig Bogen aus der Schweiz, pt. 1 (Zurich:
Verlagsort, 1843), 329. I am greatly indebted to Marcello Musto for
bringing this point to my attention.

28. Moses Hess, The Essence of Money, Chap. 14, Marxists Internet Archive
29. Marx, “On The Jewish Question”, 173.
30. Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law”,
MECW, vol. 3, 29.
31. Ibid., 186.
32. Ibid., 187.
33. The German communist theologian Thomas Müntzer, and the English
“Digger” Gerrard Winstanley, had both produced writings that argued
human freedom required abolition of both the state and private property,
but their works are not accepted as part of the “canon” of political thought.
34. See Chap. 2, this volume.
35. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 239.
36. Ibid., 271–3.
37. Ibid., 241.
38. Ibid., 293–4.
39. Ibid., 296.
40. Ibid., 297.
41. Ibid.
42. Ibid., 241.
43. This point is apparent in much of anthropology and sociology, and figures
centrally in the history of political thought. See, for example, Morton
Fried, The Evolution of Political Society: An Essay in Political Anthropology
(New York: Random House, 1967) or Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and
Steel (New York: Norton, 1997).
44. Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme, Section I”, MECW,
vol. 24, 81–90.
45. Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, MECW, vol. 24, 87.
46. Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law.
Introduction”, MCEW, vol. 3, 175–6. I prefer the translation “opiate” to
“opium”, recognizing that at the time opiates were readily available at phar-
macies to alleviate the pains incurred through exhausting labour. Religion
was not so much a means of exhilaration as of escape from the physical and
mental pain of overwork with inadequate compensation or rest.
47. Karl Marx, “On The Jewish Question”, 168.

The Developing Conception of Historical


Marx’s Ideas After 1844

There is a profound continuity between the ideas that Marx first devel-
oped in 1844 and those that he expressed in his maturity and into his final
years. Throughout his life, his priorities remained, on the one hand, to
understand the potential for emancipating humanity from all forms of
alienation and, on the other hand, to work actively towards achieving that
end. Fundamentally, the various forms of alienation amount to the realiza-
tion and institutionalization of social oppression and exploitation (com-
bined with, generally at a lower level of injury to human freedom and
self-realization, varieties of self-delusion, especially in the form religion).
From the start, Marx conceived that the forms of alienation existed in
conjunction with the development of historical societies.
It is in this regard that—particularly in consideration of recent textual
scholarship—the claim by Louis Althusser that there was an “epistemo-
logical break” in Marx’s thought during 1845, coinciding with the writing
of “The German Ideology” manuscripts, must be rejected.1 It has now
become apparent, as will be discussed in the following chapters, that the
texts that came to be published as “The German Ideology”, in the form of
a coherent book, originally had a quite different and very fragmentary
character. Their seeming coherence must now be recognized as entirely
the result of a politically motivated editorial reconstruction of unrelated
and disjointed manuscripts in the twentieth century.2

© The Author(s) 2019 89

G. C. Comninel, Alienation and Emancipation in the Work
of Karl Marx, Marx, Engels, and Marxisms,

Indeed, strikingly, a part of the 1845 “The German Ideology”

manuscripts (not, of course, included in the book of that name) actually
was written by Moses Hess.3 Hess was a critically minded Left Hegelian, a
committed socialist, and a friend of Marx and Engels until the late 1840s,
when they broke with him. Even after that point, however, he continued
broadly to identify with Marx’s ideas and collaborated with him in the
First International against Bakunin’s anarchism. He never, however,
embraced the class analysis and critique of political economy that Marx
and Engels advanced, and was critically characterized by them as a “true
socialist” by the time of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Since a part
of the manuscripts of “The German Ideology” is in Hess’s hand and
embodies his ideas, it is hard to see how Marx’s contributions to the same
texts can be said to have followed an “epistemological break” between
early humanist ideas and mature “scientific” ideas. Hess’s ideas in 1845 in
many ways corresponded to ideas previously found among those of Marx
and Engels. That such ideas figured within these manuscripts should be
sufficient in itself to argue against the idea of an epistemological break.
More importantly, however, Marx’s 1844 manuscripts, with which
“The German Ideology” is supposedly to be contrasted as a more devel-
oped and “scientific” expression of his materialist conception of history,
are far from constituting a fundamentally “humanist” philosophical dis-
course (not that there necessarily would be anything wrong with that). In
fact, those Paris manuscripts were above all the first fruits of Marx’s
engagement with the critique of political economy, the key works of which
he had just read for the first time. Recognized in terms of the critique of
political economy, the continuities are unmistakable from 1844 down to
the final manuscripts of Capital, and there is no break to be identified at
the time of the 1845–6 “The German Ideology” manuscripts. Where
there is an unmistakable difference within Marx’s work is between the
works of 1843, before he encountered political economy, and the bulk of
his life work that followed. Still, notwithstanding the profound role played
by the critique of political economy in the development of his ideas after
1843, there remain significant points of continuity with his even earlier
thought. Marx’s commitment to exposing alienation and ending it
through human emancipation certainly began before his engagement
with the critique of political economy. Indeed, Hal Draper, focussing on
the development of Marx’s ideas about revolution, traced their funda-
mental continuity back to observations he had made as a radical journalist
even before his 1843 works.4 It is clear that, though his writings in 1843

were not yet informed by familiarity with either political economic

thought or the social realities of specifically capitalist society, Marx’s pri-
mary concerns at that time can be seen to be the same as those that
remained central to his thought for the rest of his life: the profound reality
of alienation in daily human life, on the one hand, and the potential for
true human emancipation, on the other. Although he tended to move
away from the term “alienation” as excessively philosophical, he did con-
tinue to use it as late as the 1857 manuscripts of the Grundrisse,5 and his
conception of exploitation—the appropriation of surplus from direct pro-
ducers, backed by the potential use of force—was entirely consonant with
that of the alienation of labour.6
The times of Marx’s youth had been profoundly marked by the politi-
cal aftermath of the French Revolution, the democratic, republican, and
even merely liberal gains of which had almost entirely been rolled back
everywhere. Yet—while important—these merely political revolutionary
objectives were never sufficient for Marx. Far from being merely politi-
cal, his 1843 writings clearly focus on the multiple forms in which alien-
ation existed in society, with growing appreciation of their extent and
implications. In his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx recog-
nized that alienation existed in the very form of the state, as such, regard-
less of whether it was democratic, republican, or under some other form
of constitution. In his critique of Bruno Bauer’s merely republican
though staunchly atheist politics, he identified the pervasive problem of
social alienation as existing not merely in the form of money—as Moses
Hess already had argued—but even more generally in the form of private
As Marx began systematically to address the problem of human alien-
ation, he observed that

only when man has recognised and organised his “forces propres” [own pow-
ers] as social forces, and consequently no longer separates social power from
himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation
have been accomplished.7

Human emancipation therefore requires putting an end to the separa-

tion of the social elements of civil society from the political realm of the
state, in the process of which alienation must be brought to an end in
both the political and social spheres. Although this observation from
1843 pre-­dates his identification and focus upon of the alienation of

labour, nothing that Marx expressed during the rest of his life supersedes
it. Any merely political emancipation that did not address this artificial
separation of the social from the political—therefore allowing substan-
tive social inequality to be maintained under conditions of formal politi-
cal equality—could never be the basis of true human emancipation. At
the same time, notwithstanding his critique of Bauer, Marx, of course,
accepted the Left Hegelian view that alienation also existed (though not
with so profoundly deleterious effect8) in religion, which venerated
human social capacities as divine.
Marx never backed away from these early insights. Once, however, he
identified the alienation of labour to be the underlying basis for the other
forms of alienation, as realized in property, money, the state, and even
religion, it was this more profound and fundamentally exploitive form of
alienation—the foundation for the history of class society—that took pre-
cedence in his thought. At the same time, he brought these ideas—con-
ceiving that alienation, the state, and property relations constituted
elements of human social totality in a very Hegelian way (though of course
not following Hegel)—into an equally Hegelian understanding that their
social manifestations developed through the course of history.
What is crucial in this regard is that Marx was not simply following
Hegel. Rather, Hegel’s far from revolutionary efforts to make sense of the
complex historical development of human society and its institutions pro-
vided Marx with an example—perhaps even a guide—for how one might
conceive processes of social development over time. It was in this way,
focussing on the actual ongoing consequences of the development of
material social relationships, rather than just the development of ideas in
which they were expressed, that Marx believed he had turned Hegel’s
upside-down history right side up.9
Thus, the “movement of property” through history—which is to say
the concrete realization of the alienation of labour, or exploitation,
through the long course of its historical development—increasingly clearly
became for Marx the basis for comprehending the history of class societ-
ies. Only through the elimination of alienation in its full range of histori-
cally developed forms could humanity achieve generalized emancipation,
which now could be discerned both as an objective towards which the
politics of the French Revolution had been (imperfectly) tending, as well
as a proper philosophical “end” for human social development. It was in
this way that Marx’s project of revolutionary freedom always was deeply
connected to his conception of the processes of history.

There remained considerable theoretical development to be realized in

each of the related areas of Marx’s most profound analysis, broadly cor-
responding to those two epochal questions with which he had concluded
“Wages of Labour” in 1844: what was the meaning of the development
of alienation with respect to the history of humanity; and how were the
consequences of such alienation to be eliminated? This theoretical devel-
opment continued to be grounded within a conceptual framework predi-
cated upon the theoretical pursuit of his ongoing critique of political
economy, wholly absent before 1844. It is in this way that the develop-
ment of the materialist conception of history—or historical materialism—
emerged in Marx’s thought in close conjunction with his critique of
political economy.
Yet, at the same time, beyond discerning the lines of this underlying
and integral theoretical development, it is necessary to recognize and
come to terms with a range of points that Marx problematically incorpo-
rated into his texts along the way. These points were not original but
expressed ideas—widely accepted in his time—that had been articulated
by progressive liberal historians, who rejected radical ideas yet adamantly
opposed the reactionary views put forward on behalf of the Church and
aristocracy. It is with this in mind that we must navigate the meaning of
Marx’s writings.
This critical task has a double character. On the one hand, it is necessary
to identify those ideas that were original to Marx and truly belong to his
integral historical-social analysis. On the other hand, ideas that not only
were not original but which may even be discerned to stand at odds with
those ideas Marx advanced throughout his ongoing critique of political
economy, must be exposed and underscored in relation to the merely lib-
eral ideological conceptions from which they were drawn. If, as he recog-
nized later in life, ideas that were far from his own could be characterized
by others as being “Marxism”,10 it also was the case that Marx’s own work
incorporated at certain points ideas that were inconsistent with his truly
original conceptions.

Liberal Ideas in Marx’s Writings

That Marx might have incorporated into the development of his thought
ideas that not only were not original but were indeed highly problematic
is hardly a new suggestion. Althusser, after all, required the intrusion of an
“epistemological break” in order for Marx to leave behind earlier flawed

points of view. Numerous others have argued in one way or another that
Marx only reached his profound insights after moving beyond previously
accepted conceptions—or that, instead, his early insights into human
alienation were undermined by later “economistic” preoccupations. There
are few indeed who have taken the position that Marx never in his life put
a foot wrong—and, outside of hagiography, one should not be surprised
that even the most brilliant of thinkers might have been misled at certain
points, particularly insofar as some of the problematic ideas maintained
alongside his own were drawn from the prevailing conceptions of the age.
Once one is open to looking at the ideas Marx expressed in his work in
relation to such potentially opposed categories, it becomes strikingly clear
that there are indeed two lines of thought to be discerned in his writings.
His truly original ideas were those driven by criticism, and above all were
immediately associated with his critique of political economy. It is essential
to recognize, however, that there were in his day a broad range of ideas
that self-identified with the concept of historical progress, and which
stood opposed to the hide-bound reactionary conceptions that rejected
every aspect of the French Revolution. Indeed, the prevailing reactionary
ideas of the day were more antithetical to liberty and progress than even
the ideas that had prevailed during the ancien régime; now, moreover, they
were consciously grounded in religion and tied to fundamental, some-
times racial, claims to inherent social privilege. Even the ideas central to
liberal political economy, though they could unblushingly justify the most
profound degrees of substantive social inequality, stood in stark opposi-
tion to such deeply reactionary ideas.
Marx did critically discern the fundamentally liberal ideological content
of political economy and turned his ideas to confront that. The ideas of
liberal history, however—dealing with the past and, being liberal, opposed
to legal recognition of arbitrary class privileges—were not on the face of it
points with which Marx needed to take issue. Indeed, to the extent that
they articulated conceptions of “class struggle” and historical progress,
they expressed ideas that it is not hard to see Marx embracing.

Historicization in the Critique
of Political Economy

Marx was only 25 years old when he first took up the critique of political
economy. He died at the tragically young age of 64—almost certainly in
part due to the hardships of his daily life, including the toll they had taken
on his family. Still, he accomplished great things in those 39 years, if only

a fraction of what he indicated that he had in mind. Although his actual

publications were relatively few, he left thousands of unpublished large
manuscript pages filled with his ideas. Frederick Engels, his trusted friend,
ally, and co-author, edited from these unfinished texts the second and
third volumes of Capital. Karl Kautsky—in whom Engels, who died nearly
20 years before the dramatic turn in Kautsky’s politics coinciding with the
First World War and Russian Revolution, had placed great trust—edited
and published the manuscripts of the three volumes of Marx’s Theories of
Surplus Value.
Other manuscripts were known to exist, but they were not published
for many more years. Some, indeed, are only now being published for the
first time as part of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (often referred to as
MEGA2, the successor project to the original MEGA collected works
published shortly after the end of the Stalin era), which will be the defini-
tive critical edition of Marx and Engels’s writings. A number of claims
have been made with respect to the significance—especially in political
terms—of several of the previously unpublished manuscripts when they
appeared for the first time. This has given rise to debates, and a range of
misunderstandings, which together bear upon understanding Marx’s ideas
with respect to alienation and emancipation as they developed in the
course of his life.
Any summary or analysis of these complex and sometimes difficult
issues will understandably become subject to criticism and further debate,
but one cannot come to terms with the whole of Marx’s thought without
in the process negotiating this minefield of ideas. In doing so, one often
must begin with the terms of “official” Marxism—the “war-horse”
Marxism of the USSR and national Communist Parties during the first
half of the twentieth century and into the Cold War. Some of these ideas
did have a bona fide intellectual foundation independent of the political
demands of the period, but the rigid political conformity demanded at the
time had an enduring impact on the formulation and understanding of
what was understood to be “Marxism”.11
Although there have been a number of debates within Marxist circles
and among scholars of Marxist thought with respect to the terms of
Capital’s critique of political economy, the most significant issues debated
with respect to his ideas have had to do with historical social theory (or
philosophy of history, for those so inclined). This has been complicated by
the fact that, even under the Second International, but especially under
the Third International—and above all in the period of Stalin’s domi-
nance—questions of historical development within Marxist thought were

broadly subordinated to immediate political considerations. In most

national contexts, political histories have been associated with particular
narratives that not only could be taken to be relevant to what was under-
stood to be “Marxist” historical thought but even tied to specific political
positions of the present day.
On the whole, this tended to recognize certain historical conceptions
not merely as being consistent with, but actually conducing towards, a
political position understood as having validity in relation to the current
state of “class struggle”. None of the historical positions, of course, were
actually related to historical reality other than as they might have bearing
on the politically salient issues of the time. No question of “semi-­feudalism”
in the era of the Comintern or Cominform could ever be separated from
current political implications with respect to India, Latin America, or else-
where. To a great extent, historical interpretation corresponded to con-
temporary political need.
On the one hand, the issues of history were understood to have been
once and forever established in texts of Marx (most notably in the com-
pressed terms of a scant few sentences in the “Preface” to A Contribution
to a Critique of Political Economy). Yet, on the other hand, these suppos-
edly “scientific” ideas were subordinated and adapted as necessary to the
(primarily Soviet) politics of the day. As a result, the analysis of historical
social development was rendered arbitrary, imprecise, and theoretically
incoherent. While it was trumpeted that Marx had “scientifically” identi-
fied the historical modes of production, there was nowhere any clear
agreement as to what those modes, and the sequence of their succession,
actually were.
This was not, however, merely a problem of twentieth-century political
practice. There had never, in fact, been any definitive account of the his-
torical succession, or even number, of the historical modes of production
in Marx’s work. As Eric Hobsbawm put it more than 50 years ago (intro-
ducing the first English translation of sections of the Grundrisse dealing
with precapitalist societies), Marx was primarily concerned with the con-
ception of an overview of historical development:

Though particular social-economic formations, expressing particular phases

of this evolution, are very relevant, it is the entire process, spanning centu-
ries and continents, which he has in mind. Hence his framework is chrono-
logical only in the broadest sense, and problems of, let us say, the transition
from one phase to another, are not his primary concern, except in so far as
they throw light on the long-term transformation.12

Moreover, although Marx did an enormous amount of original research

in the British Museum Library, the bulk of that research was oriented
towards developing his critique of political economy. He never undertook
any serious, sustained, and independent investigation of the histories of
even Western European societies, although later in life, he not only con-
tinued to be interested in ethnographic work on hunting-gathering and
simple agricultural societies—notably that of Lewis Henry Morgan—but
also undertook extensive historical study of both India and Russia.13
With respect to the main currents of European social development,
however, Marx broadly adopted the widely disseminated and generally
accepted work of the leading liberal or Whig historians. This was some-
thing about which he and Engels were always clear. In a well-known letter
of March 5, 1852, to Joseph Weydemeyer, in New York, Marx addressed
issues of class struggle and history with respect to the relatively “undevel-
oped” class relations in the United States. Marx suggested that his friend
advise the “democratic gents” who were taking issue with class analysis to
“study the historical works of Thierry, Guizot, John Wade and so forth, in
order to enlighten themselves as to the past ‘history of the classes’”. He
noted that the bourgeois economist Ricardo referred to the classes of capi-
talist society on the first page of his magnum opus. He then went on in an
excessively modest way to characterize his own contribution:

Now as for myself, I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of
classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me,
bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this strug-
gle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anat-
omy. My own contribution was 1. to show that the existence of classes is
merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of produc-
tion; 2. that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the
­proletariat; 3. that this dictatorship itself constitutes no more than a transi-
tion to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.14

That this letter not only addresses the concept of class in both history
and political economy but does so with one of Marx’s rare references to
“the dictatorship of the proletariat” has ensured that it has received con-
siderable attention over many years. Its implications with respect to Marx’s
ideas about history, however, have received very little attention. More
than 40 years later, in the year before his death, Engels also wrote about
this in a letter to H. Starkenberg:

While Marx discovered the materialist conception of history, Thierry,

Mignet, Guizot and all the English historians up to 1850 are evidence that
it was being striven for, and the discovery of the same conception by
Morgan proves that the time was ripe for it and that it simply had to be

There is, then, little doubt that both Marx and Engels attributed to the
liberal historians a fundamental recognition of the role of class in history
(as well as, to the political economists, recognition of the role of classes
within the capitalist economy). In this regard, they each appear to con-
ceive the role of class—both in history and within capitalism—as a “scien-
tific” fact with which even bourgeois scholars were compelled to come to
There is, however, a profound and fundamental difference between lib-
eral and Marxian conceptions of class. In liberal history, the idea of class is
simply associated with that of relative ranks within society; while in liberal
political economy it is associated with sources of revenue. Although liberal
history is capable of recognizing that oppression and exploitation existed
in past societies—as in the cases of slavery in the ancient world and serf-
dom in the Middle Ages—it is fundamental to the liberal conception of
capitalist society that it is grounded in a generalized realization of personal
freedom, and this makes class a difficult idea to incorporate. In liberal
historiography, class as a matter of fundamental inequality was acknowl-
edged to have constituted a regrettable fact of the past but understood to
have been wholly superseded by the liberal norms of capitalist social rela-
tions. Classical political economy recognized different classes to exist as
social expressions of different forms of income: capitalists, landlords, and
workers. Liberal discourse, however, has been resistant to recognizing the
existence of fundamentally unequal classes in contemporary capitalist soci-
ety. When it has deigned to recognize them, it has primarily been in rela-
tion to a structure of simple social stratification brought about by
differentials in levels of income.

Marx’s Conception of Class

For Marx, however, the idea of class was instead tied to inherently conflic-
tual relations that continued into the capitalist era. Indeed, as the first
words of the 1844 manuscripts had it, “Wages are determined through the

antagonistic struggle between capitalist and worker.”16 This notion of

fundamental antagonism was perhaps most notably articulated in the cru-
cial opening passages of the Manifesto of the Communist Party:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and
journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposi-
tion to one another17

These ideas were grounded in Marx’s conception of the alienation

of labour as the movement of property through history, as he had artic-
ulated in the 1844 manuscripts. The paired oppositions do not specifi-
cally correspond to distinct historical periods (indeed, the periods
overlap, leaving aside entirely questions as to the historical validity of
the individual pairings). What they express above all is the idea of direct
relationships of oppression and exploitation—together with the strug-
gles they engender—as the concrete underpinnings for historical social
In these terms, classes are far from being mere expressions of stratifica-
tion in society. There is nothing that might suggest different social strata
having a common, but variously graduated, relationship with some shared
measure—whether income, wealth, income, status, or anything else—as
classical political economy and mainstream sociology might put forward.
Instead, classes are paired off as immediately engaged in antagonistic
binary relationships. From this perspective, the history of human social
development corresponds to the realization and dynamics of successive
relationships between “oppressor and oppressed”, immediate relation-
ships of class exploitation. What is involved in this formulation has nothing
to do with the details or sequence of systems of production, but rather the
historical development of what Marx conceived as “the alienation of
Hobsbawm’s observation, therefore, can be seen to have been very
much to the point: it is Marx’s overview of the history of class society, his
overview of the dynamic historical developments in antagonistic class rela-
tions, that is central to his materialist conception of history, or historical
materialism. The 1844 manuscripts offer Marx’s first statement that there
is such a dynamic and that it corresponds to the “movement of private
property”, or, more precisely, the historical development of the antithesis
100   G. C. COMNINEL

between lack of property and property. In so preliminary a statement, of

course, the full implications could not be realized at once. Yet the germ of
a conceptual framework was articulated within these manuscripts, and it is
this line of thought that continued to be developed uninterruptedly
through Marx’s works.
Marx, however, never pursued the historical dynamics of precapitalist
class societies in the serious and sustained manner of his critique of
capitalist political economy. As a consequence, much of the little he did
have to say about precapitalist class society is problematic. Indeed, in the
manuscripts published as “The German Ideology”, as will be seen, the
continuity of his thought was substantially deflected by a broad re-infusion
of the terms of materialist ideology derived from liberal thinkers, the
effects of which regrettably continue to bedevil Marxist thought to this
day. Still, Marx’s early insight into the historically fundamental character
of class exploitation would endure, ultimately finding its mature expres-
sion in the achievements of Capital.

Historical Materialism and Class Struggles

This, then, is the central concept of historical materialism: that the realiza-
tion of human social existence over the course of history has corresponded
to developments in the social relations of private property, as increasingly
significant expressions of the alienation of labour, predicated upon a fun-
damental and growing antithesis between the propertied and the proper-
tyless. This is the meaning behind the thundering assertion that “The
history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. It
is, on one hand, the history of struggle because this has been the history
of alienated labour—of exploitation—through the course of its
­development; it is, on the other hand, the history of hitherto existing soci-
eties, for these historical processes correspond to the actual history of
human social development.18
Marx as yet had very little to say about the details of this development
prior to the period of bourgeois society. He would never have very much
to say about such details, and much of that would prove to be historically
inaccurate.19 He was not an academic or a historian, and the task of
comprehending history as such never rivalled in significance the cause of
revolutionary human emancipation to which he was so fundamentally
committed. He was, of course, well versed in European history, which

Western historiography, philosophy, and emerging social science had long

generally understood to be coincident with the main expression of human
history. (Marx’s own study of non-European histories in later life corre-
sponded to a growing, conscious, rethinking of Eurocentric presupposi-
tions—raising the possibility that other historical trajectories might equally
lead to socialism—even as it remained clear that the development of capi-
talism, as well as the colonial dominance of European states in the modern
period, increasingly had imposed themselves upon the whole of the
world.)20 As he focused upon the historical development of Western
European societies, it was not, in his analysis, in the course of earlier forms
of society but only in modern capitalist society that the primary historical
antithesis between property and propertylessness came to be fully realized.
Responding critically not only to Hegel but to the increasingly mainstream
liberal conceptions of social development, he conceived that it was the full
realization of the growing antithesis between owners of property and the
rest of humanity that made the transcendence of human alienation both
possible and necessary. Though earlier development in class societies had
led to this point, it was, therefore, the specific character of capitalist society
that required analysis. His primary commitment always remained the poli-
tics of revolutionary transformation that would end alienation or estrange-
ment—which he consciously came to describe, in non-philosophical terms,
simply as exploitation.
In addition, recognizing the extent to which philosophy, in particular,
could deflect consciousness away from the implications of concrete social
reality, Marx increasingly developed his ideas against philosophy. At the
end of 1843, he had conceived that, specifically in relation to revolution-
ary emancipation in Germany:

The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat.

Philosophy cannot be made a reality without the abolition of the proletariat,
the proletariat cannot be abolished without philosophy being made a reality.21

Beginning with his first critical confrontation with political economic

thought in 1844, however, Marx undertook a profound re-evaluation of
philosophy relative to class struggle, concluding that the process of self-­
emancipation by the proletariat would realize communism for the whole
of humanity. Philosophers were relegated to the position of confronting
the world in intellectual terms, while the proletariat now was specifically
conceived as the agents for changing it.
102   G. C. COMNINEL

For these reasons, as he sought a means to understand communist soci-

ety’s “process of becoming”,22 and a guide to working-class revolutionary
objectives within capitalist society, it would continue to be the critique of
political economy that commanded Marx’s attention, and not history or
philosophy. On the one hand, the history of the French Revolution’s radi-
cal Convention that he had planned to undertake was put aside forever
after 1844. On the other, his 11th Thesis on Feuerbach in the spring of
1845 explicitly held that “The philosophers have only interpreted the
world in various ways; the point is to change it”.23 Moreover, between
1845 and 1847 he and Engels together wrote The Holy Family as a cri-
tique of the philosophy of Bruno Bauer and other Left Hegelians, and
Marx also wrote The Poverty of Philosophy, his critique of Proudhon. It is
the significance of this context of polemics against philosophy, as such,
that will be explored in the following chapters in relation to the manu-
scripts published as “The German Ideology”.
Partly in response to Hegelian philosophy, and partly in response to
liberal political economy—but through criticizing both—Marx had come
to recognize a line of historical development from a past that neither of
these forms of ideology would acknowledge, to a future that neither could
accept. In making this conceptual leap, Marx did not attribute the evolu-
tion of mankind either to the development of an idea or to a spurious
unfolding of inherent human nature. Instead, he proposed a fully materi-
alist conception of history that was rooted in the profound social contra-
dictions embodied in relations of property, rather than ideological
preconceptions as to the meaning and ends of human life. It was not
merely “material” factors that had bearing upon social development that
mattered, but rather the specific consequences of class exploitation and
reactions against it, including concrete struggles engendered by it.
He developed this idea in a number of pages of the 1844 manuscripts
devoted to the specifically social character of production—and particularly
the social production of consciousness—arguing from a critical appropria-
tion of social reality against speculative history. It is this social character of
his thought that underlies the materialist conception of history that he
developed. He repudiated those expressions of liberal ideology that would
treat history as a merely a form of “natural” development. With respect to
the “movement of property” that he conceived to constitute the founda-
tion for history, Marx argued that

both the material of labour and man as the subject, are the point of depar-
ture as well as the result of the movement (and precisely in this fact, that
they must constitute the point of departure, lies the historical necessity of
private property).24

Which is to say that social development requires human subjective exis-

tence. This stood in striking opposition to the dominant liberal forms of
materialism, which evacuated history of human subjective existence—
active social consciousness—in favour of such “objective” determinants as
population growth, technology, climate, or mere density of human inter-
actions. It is because the historical development of humanity follows the
history of the movement of property, that property is a “historical neces-
sity”. The point of departure is not, therefore, production: it is the alien-
ation of labour, exploitation.

Thus the social character is the general character of the whole movement:
just as society itself produces man as man, so is society produced by him.
Activity and enjoyment, both in their content and in their mode of existence,
are social: social activity and social enjoyment. The human aspect of nature
exists only for social man; for only then does nature exist for him as a bond
with man … Thus society is the complete unity of man with nature – the true
resurrection of nature – the accomplished naturalism of man and the accom-
plished humanism of nature.25

These passages may still seem to be excessively philosophical, their ter-

minology perhaps obscure, with their resort to formal oppositions more
stylistic than substantive. It is, of course, this “philosophical” early Marx
that has so often been opposed to a hard economic determinism taken to
constitute the truly orthodox materialism of mature Marxism. Yet, there is
no doubt that this is an expression of a social materialism, and it is, in fact,
the social materialism expressed here that will remain at the core of Marx’s
work over the next four decades, increasingly clearly realized through the
critique of political economy. The social materialism with which Marx pro-
poses to start does not begin with the unity of humanity and nature in the
hundreds of thousands of years of hunting and gathering bands, or with
the accumulation over time of innovations in tools and material culture.
Marx’s social materialism starts with property, not tools; with social rela-
tions that develop in and through the inherent inequality and exploitation
of the alienation of labour. By contrast, the “hard” materialist determin-
104   G. C. COMNINEL

ism that is particularly evident in the manuscripts published as “The

German Ideology” drew upon the mainstream political economy, social
theory, and historiography of European liberalism—for reasons to be seen
below—expressing ideas that would largely fall to the wayside in the fur-
ther development of Marx’s thought. In this regard, it is notable that
Marx asserts in these early pages that there can be no speculative abstrac-
tion of “original” humanity from humanity as it now exists; that the “gen-
esis” of humanity must be sought in the process of human development,
through social reproduction, not with some raising in imagination of
“original man”.26 It is this unrelenting emphasis on the genuinely social,
as it takes the form of the history of class societies, that is truly at the core
of Marx’s ideas., and is the foundation of historical materialism.27

Preliminary Considerations of Class Struggle

in Historical Materialism

The central idea of historical materialism, then, is that antagonistic class

relations have provided the fundamental dynamic of human historical
development.28 It is not in any way Eurocentric to recognize the particular
salience of this conception to the historical processes of the development
of Western societies that rose to world ascendancy.29 Such inherently antag-
onistic relations centre on direct confrontation between the class of
exploiters and the producing class—which are also, as noted in the
Manifesto, “oppressor and oppressed”. This antagonistic opposition exists
both as routinized in regular contention over the production and distribu-
tion of surplus within the “normal” relations of class society, and as it occa-
sionally erupts in open conflict over the very existence of exploitation.
It is, however, important to recognize that the antagonistic class rela-
tions of social development are not limited to the class struggles between
the ruling class and the exploited majority. For, in class relations specifi-
cally predicated upon private property—as has been the case in all histori-
cal Western societies—surplus is appropriated by the individual members
of a class of exploiters. All individual ruling class members enjoy formal
equality with respect to the fundamental relations of surplus extraction
(essentially proportional to their possession of property). At the same
time, however, they compete with other members of the ruling class: both
in careers of acquiring power, on the one hand; and in applying such
power to magnify the appropriation of surplus, on the other (in forms
specific to each society).

It is such competition within the ruling class30 that, for example, con-
stitutes the main substance of conventional political history, with the
material interests of individuals, families, or factions figuring centrally.
This competition, of course, is also an essential expression of the form of
class exploitation/struggle that underwrites it. That is, in precapitalist
class societies, where class exploitation takes directly extra-economic and
political forms, politics and/or conquest are the definitive ruling class
careers, in which differential access to surplus through the state, social
domination, or plunder, can be gained, maintained, or squandered by the
individuals and families of the ruling class.
Intra-ruling class conflicts may also become directly associated with, or
emerge as a response to, the conflict between the opposed fundamental
classes over exploitation: all of the French revolutions between 1789 and
1871 can be offered as examples of ruling class struggles that became
associated with popular movements that were, at least in some sense,
rooted in exploitation and its social effects. Where struggle within the rul-
ing class reaches the point of civil war, rather than merely individual com-
petition, it might well be expected that one side—generally that which has
closer connections to the exploited, if the intra-class division takes such a
form—will be able to attract the support of a popular movement. Yet,
while the potential for intra-ruling class conflict is created in the first place
by the existence of exploitation/fundamental class struggle, it has a spe-
cific, characteristic identity of its own—witness feudal warfare. It also may
have a contradictory bearing on the struggle of exploiter and exploited—
as when capitalists facing a shortage of workers bid up wages, or when,
post-population collapse, medieval lords lured surviving peasants by offer-
ing advantageous terms that brought an end to their status of unfreedom.
The specific form of intra-ruling class competition must, therefore, be
taken into account alongside the particulars of inter-class antagonism.
These aspects of class struggle are generally neglected as a systemic
issue in formulating a Marxist theory. Marx, however, had explicitly recog-
nized this form of ruling class competition in relation to capitalism—
beyond what was implied in the 1844 manuscripts—as early as The Poverty
of Philosophy:

On the other hand, if all the members of the modern bourgeoisie have the
same interests inasmuch as they form a class as against another class, they
have opposite, antagonistic interests inasmuch as they stand face to face with
one another.31
106   G. C. COMNINEL

Competition is certainly recognized as integral to capitalism, yet it is too

rarely treated as real competition among the members of the ruling class,
by which some may be ruined. It is even more rarely if ever, acknowledged
that competition is a general feature of other class societies, in a form spe-
cific to each society.32
Simply considering the role it played in the increasing instability of the
Roman Republic, the endemic warfare of feudal society, and the business
cycles of industrial capitalism, however, reveals the enduring centrality of
competition within the ruling class. On the one hand, such competition
has importantly contributed to the dynamism of historical processes of
social change, and the realization and development of material social con-
tradictions. On the other hand, by necessitating a balancing of collective
class interests against the acquisitive interests of individual class members,
intra-ruling class competition has contributed to shaping the form of the
state within each specific class society.
These preliminary considerations with respect to the “history of class
struggles” follow directly from the terms by which Marx (and Engels) first
came to formulate them between 1844 and 1848. In these early works lay
the basis for the developed terms of analysis that would appear through
the profound achievements of Marx’s critique of political economy
between the late 1850s and the 1867 publication of Capital, plus subse-
quent tweaks. These issues will be taken up again in a later chapter, in
relation to the further development of Marx’s ideas. First, however, it is
necessary to come to terms with what might appear to be a major misstep,
in the form of “The German Ideology”.

1. Not that this argument ever was convincing. Louis Althusser, For Marx
(New York: Vintage, 1970), 36–6, 61.
2. Terrell Carver and Daniel Blank, A Political History of the Editions of Marx
and Engels’s “German Ideology Manuscripts” (New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2014). See Terrell Carver and Daniel Blank, A Political History
of the Editions of Marx and Engels’s “German Ideology Manuscripts” (New
York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), and below.
3. Also involved in the manuscripts was Joseph Weydemeyer, Carver, and
Blank, A Political History, 38. Weydemeyer was one of the earliest and tru-
est converts to Marx’s ideas until his untimely death in the United States.

4. The issue of the youthful Marx’s ideas on revolution are explored at length
in Draper’s multivolume work, but see his analysis of Marx’s writings in
1842–3, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (Monthly Review Press:
New York, 1977), 1: 39–76, 61ff.
5. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (New York: Vintage, 1973), 150, 160–2, 470, 488,
509, 515.
6. See his analysis of “the exchange of objectified labour as exchange value for
living labour as use value”, explicitly articulated in terms of “the alienation
of labour”, Marx, Grundrisse, 515.
7. “On The Jewish Question”, MECW, vol. 3, 168.
8. Indeed, as he famously noted, it provided comfort, much like the relief
from bodily aches obtained by taking the opiate concoctions available at
9. In fairness to Hegel, it might be noted that for both thinkers, concepts and
their concrete manifestations alike develop through the web of the social,
that the level of experience at which concrete forms of behaviour are
shaped by and in turn shape ideas. Hegel’s idealism lay primarily in his
acceptance of a telos for human social experience. While—much as for
Aristotle—not the denial of material reality, still, though there perhaps
might have been some teleology in Marx’s early thought, it faded over
time. He always believed in the “necessity” of communism, but generally
not in the “hard” philosophical sense of a telos. More to the point, Hegel’s
conception of human development stopped far short of the full realization
of emancipation, even going so far as to express the idea that it was the
Prussian monarchy that was the means for the realization of the universal.
10. In a letter to Eduard Bernstein of November 2–3, 1882, Engels wrote
that, in 1880, Marx had said to Paul Lafarge, with respect to what was
called “Marxism” in France, regarding the programme of the French
Workers’ Party, “If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist”
(MECW, vol. 46), 356. Engels repeated this in a letter to Conrad Schmidt,
October 27, 1890.
11. The extent to which this was realized in the form of construction of a
book, “The German Ideology”, will be taken up in Chap. 5.
12. Eric J. Hobsbawm, “Introduction”, in Karl Marx, Pre-Capitalist Economic
Formations (New York: International Publishers, 1965), 14.
13. See below, and Kevin B.  Anderson, Marx at the Margins (University of
Chicago Press, 2010), 196ff.
14. Karl Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer, March 5, 1852, MECW, vol. 39, 62–6.
Both this and the following reference were importantly flagged by Raphael
Samuel many years ago: Raphael Samuel, “British Marxist Historians,
1880–1980: Part One”, New Left Review 120, (1980): 21–96.
108   G. C. COMNINEL

15. Frederick Engels to H. Starkenberg, January 25, 1894, in Karl Marx and
Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence, 1846–1895, trans. Dona Torr
(London: M. Lawrence ltd, 1934), 518 [preferred translation]. (Moscow:
Foreign Languages Publishing, 1953), 550.
16. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, MECW, vol. 3,
235. Marx began these manuscripts with the section “Wages of Labour”,
not the “Preface”, which was written later.
17. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party,
MECW, vol. 6, 482.
18. While the history of class relations of property, as known in Europe, is far
from the only way in which human social experience has unfolded across
the globe, over hundreds of millennia, it remains true that, particularly
through the development and spread of capitalism, European class society
has transformed the world.
19. Most notably with respect to Ancient Greece and the French Revolution.
See Ellen M.  Wood, Peasant-Citizen and Slave (London: Verso, 1988),
and George C.  Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution (London:
Verso, 1987).
20. This has particularly been stressed by Anderson, Marx at the Margins. Also
see the contextual account of these late studies in Marcello Musto, Another
Marx (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018).
21. Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law.
Introduction”, MECW, vol. 3, 187.
22. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 297.
23. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”, MECW, vol. 5, 5.
24. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 298.
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid., 304–6.
27. While there are those who argue against the term “historical materialism”
to describe Marx’s historical social theory, there is not only long usage
behind it, but a clear theoretical foundation for it, provided its specific
grounding in the social history of exploitation is always kept in mind.
28. In 1888, Engels noted that in 1847 the pre-history of human societies,
before the written history of civilizations, was “all but unknown” [Marx
and Engels, Manifesto, 482f]. Still less had Marx begun to consider that
there were other courses of history than that of Europe. It is, however, the
history of class societies, founded on exploitation, that Marx has in mind
29. The issues of development in non-Western societies will be taken up in a
later chapter.

30. This is not to preclude the possibility of multiple dominant classes, with
further competition between them. The point is that even where there is a
single ruling class there is bound to be competition within it.
31. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy. Answer to the Philosophy of Poverty by
M. Proudhon, MECW, vol. 6, 176.
32. It should go without saying that in precapitalist societies, characterized by
extra-economic class relations, intra-ruling class competition will generally
not take the form of market competition.

Problems of The German Ideology

The Misconstrued Manuscripts of 1845–6

A tremendously rapid intellectual transformation was crystallized in the
pages of Marx’s 1844 “Economic and Philosophic” manuscripts. In a
matter of months, Marx had gone from his first glimpse of the proletariat
as universal class in alliance with philosophy, to a materialist conception of
history, while carrying the critique of political economy far beyond
Engels’s initial efforts. Marx at this point did still seem to accept the
proposition put forward by Engels that communism would proceed from
“self-­consciousness” in Germany, whereas from “politics” in France and
“practical” need in England. Yet, already in the Paris manuscripts Marx
had made a substantial movement away from philosophy, as such:

In order to abolish the idea of private property, the idea of communism is

quite sufficient. It takes actual communist action to abolish actual private
property. History will lead to it; and this movement, which in theory we
already know to be a self-transcending movement, will constitute in actual
fact a very rough and protracted process.1

This understanding was underscored in his devastatingly critical reply to

Ruge on the Silesian weavers’ movement of the day, written during the
weeks he worked on these pages, which stressed the importance of the
self-directed struggle of the proletariat.

© The Author(s) 2019 111

G. C. Comninel, Alienation and Emancipation in the Work
of Karl Marx, Marx, Engels, and Marxisms,
112   G. C. COMNINEL

Just after completing the Paris manuscripts in August 1844, Marx met
Engels for the second time.2 Together, they outlined The Holy Family, in
which, as Hal Draper noted years ago, they not only dispensed with Left
Hegelian philosophy but clearly asserted that communism will be the self-­
emancipation of the proletariat through class struggle.

It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole pro-
letariat, at this moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the prole-
tariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be
compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is visibly and irrevocably fore-
shadowed in its own life situation as well as in the whole organization of
bourgeois society today.3

Finally, in 1845–6, after their collaboration on The Holy Family, the

now close friends sat together, side by side, producing manuscripts that
have come to be known primarily in the form of a book—as they first were
published—“The German Ideology”. This joint work has often been
taken to be the first genuinely Marxist text, and sections of it have often
been used as an introduction to Marx’s method.4 This supposed book,
however, is deeply problematic in both form and content, and while it
undoubtedly includes much that is of value from the thought of Marx and
Engels, its text requires careful critical evaluation.
To begin with, as noted in the previous chapter, recent research has left
no doubt that the manuscripts collectively known as “The German
Ideology” were never, in fact, written with the intent of constituting a
single work. It is, then, not simply that these writings were left by Marx
and Engels to “the gnawing criticism of the mice”, but even more that
what they put aside was never in the first place intended to be a book.
There is, of course, no doubt that most of the text was written by Marx
and Engels (though, as noted previously, a part was contributed by Moses
Hess). The texts, therefore, cannot simply be dismissed; nor should they
be. What is essential, however, is to understand why these texts were writ-
ten, so as to more clearly locate them in relation to the development of the
ideas of Marx and Engels. This is especially necessary since, as will, in turn,
be seen in what follows, a good deal of what they contain does not directly
reflect the ideas of Marx and Engels themselves, but rather a range of pri-
marily British and French mainstream liberal ideas, marshalled in critique
of the peculiarly German ideology of philosophical “True Socialism”.

In the first place, then, it is necessary to recognize that, as Terrell Carver

and Daniel Blank have so clearly demonstrated, the publication of the
manuscripts identified as “The German Ideology” has had—and indeed
continues to have—a fundamentally political history.5 The manuscripts
were not “lost”, but were known to exist by the leading Marxists of the
Second International. In their view, however, there did not appear to be
any great reason to publish them. This changed in the Soviet Union of the
1920s and 30s, when they first were assembled as a book that was con-
strued to constitute a fundamental statement of Marx’s materialist con-
ception of history. At the core of this deeply political history of editing and
publication, therefore, have been issues relating to the conception of his-
torical processes as they have been understood to be meaningful to class
politics in the twentieth century (and after).
The story behind the publication of these manuscripts is far too com-
plicated to summarize neatly. As Carver and Blank have observed, this
history contains “solidarity, hope, and revolutionary spirit, but also mur-
der, betrayal, and political intrigue. It is almost like a crime thriller”.6
At the same time, “The German Ideology”—as published—has been a
particularly influential text, playing an enormous role in framing under-
standings of Marx’s conception of history, particularly in the United
States, and especially within the discipline of sociology (where Marx’s
ideas have had perhaps their greatest resonance as social theory).
The range of political controversies regarding these manuscripts is truly
enormous.7 There are numbers of cross-cutting issues, each of which has
two or more politically informed interpretations. In the first place, the
manuscripts clearly were left in a jumble: as works of Marxist thought,
should their lack of coherence be given the detailed scholarly attention of
philology; or should instead thematic threads of potential political signifi-
cance be more clearly framed and drawn out in order to inform working
class politics? In short, should the unpublished work be made available
with the minimum of editorial work that would be required for specialists
to comprehend them, or should it be massaged into a more comprehen-
sible form for a broader audience that, in the view of the editors, expressed
their theoretical implications (whatever those might be determined by the
editors to be). Whereas the scholarly approach may be hoped to shed valu-
able light on Marx’s ideas and developing politics, editorial reconstruction
must instead be premised on the presumption that his thought is already
sufficiently known. Such editorial intervention would necessarily embody
114   G. C. COMNINEL

a specific conception of Marxist politics and theory, whatever relationship

may exist—if any—between that approach and Marx’s own views.
The difficulty with freighting these texts with too great a theoretical
burden is well illustrated with reference to one well-known and often
cherished passage. In the course of their critical discussion of the social
division of labour, they contrast it with life in communist society

where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become
accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general produc-
tion and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another
tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the
evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming
hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.8

This evocative statement is one of a very few in which Marx or Engels

actually offers a description of communist society and its attractive, even
Romantic, embrace of absolute creative freedom in social production
makes it one of the most utopian formulations in the whole of their work.
The importance attributed to “The German Ideology” as a work of theory
lends considerable weight to the passage by Marx and Engels, making it a
beacon for the visionary conception of communism.
The text of the original manuscript presented in the definitive Marx-­
Engels-­Gesamtausgabe (MEGA2), including all of the emendations by
each author, is, however, very revealing with respect to this passage. Marx
and Engels appear to have playfully passed the page back and forth, add-
ing and crossing out a number of occupations, including “actor”, before
settling on hunter, fisherman, shepherd, and critic. It also is noteworthy
that the first three of these occupations coincide with the hunter-gather-
ers and pastoralists that characterized the first two stages of the classic
liberal sequential stages of modes of subsistence. Does the overall playful-
ness and indecision mean the statement is less of a definitive theoretical
assertion? Is the resonance of the final occupations with the historical
“modes of subsistence” of Adam Smith and others significant? What then
is one to make of the occupation of “critic”? Although much of what is
known to us of Marx’s work was never published in his lifetime, and there
are certainly questions with respect to other manuscripts and their emen-
dations, nothing quite like these textual issues arise with respect to the
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 or Grundrisse. In a variety
of ways, the manuscripts assembled as “The German Ideology” are
uniquely problematic.

Beyond the question of the selection and ordering of the texts (and
what editorial notes might be appropriate), a second and closely related
issue has to do with how the underlying conception of human historical
development in the texts should be presented. Should this be presented as
having a structure that directly conforms to the historical developments in
material forces of production (and/or the division of labour)? Should it
instead be represented in terms of the evolving human experience of alien-
ation/exploitation and its social consequences? Might it rather be taken to
be a realization of human essence, in a manner that seems to be more
Hegelian than Marxist? These different views were very much in play dur-
ing the early decades of the twentieth century with respect to not only
determining the implications of the manuscripts but also providing a pur-
pose to their publication.
The first editor of the manuscripts as a whole was David Ryazanov, in
the USSR. While he was undoubtedly a Marxist, he made it clear that he
was not a Leninist. The conception established for the Marx-Engels
Institute that he directed was to focus exclusively on the period up to the
outbreak of the First World War (thus avoiding the Russian Revolution
entirely). He nonetheless was readily recognized to be one of the Soviet
opponents to Stalin, and he was arrested in 1931.
At the same time, however, one of Ryazanov’s main targets of criticism
was the other great advocate for publication of “The German Ideology”
in the 1920s: Gustav Mayer, a member of the German Social Democratic
Party. That party’s fundamental opposition to Soviet developments in the
wake of the Russian Revolution—and their permanent turn away from
revolutionary socialism—was by then clear. This opposition between a
Menshevik Soviet Marxist and a Social Democratic German Marxist, both
advocating for the significance of these texts, is only a small part of the
convoluted political story of the manuscripts. It is, however, undoubtedly
significant that, as respectively Menshevik and Social Democrat, both of
their points of view would have had much in common with more main-
stream—and less revolutionary—currents of social thought. Ryanazov
explicitly described Mayer as a “bourgeois writer”,9 but it is open to ques-
tion to what extent either of these antagonists really embraced the essen-
tial idea Marx had put forward that “the history of all hitherto existing
societies is the history of class struggles”.
There are, therefore, many subtle political as well as merely textual
issues to be negotiated with respect to the publication of “The German
Ideology” as a book. Indeed, to follow the intrigues and political turns of
116   G. C. COMNINEL

publication of these manuscripts through the Stalin period, the Cold War,
and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, is something of a daunting task.
Fortunately, it is not wholly necessary for present purposes. The central
conclusion to be recognized is that these texts were far more fragmented,
on the one hand, yet more nuanced in meaning, on the other, than ever has
been made evident in their published versions, especially in English. The
texts were clearly the work of Marx and Engels, even though the editing
might be suspect, so the published editions cannot simply be disregarded.
There remain, however, issues with respect to the intentions of Marx and
Engels that have important bearing on how the texts should be read.
The central issues with respect to the importance of these manuscripts
clearly revolve about their conception of history. While Marx did not
actually use the term, the significance of these texts since the 1920s has
been stressed to be in relation to what they revealed about “the materialist
conception of history”.10 Certainly, it is for its passages on history and
materialism, rather than its use of Feuerbach to critique the other Left
Hegelians, that this work has become so widely read and referenced. For
this reason, it becomes important that the real purpose behind the text
produced by Marx and Engels was not an articulation of the materialist
conception of history. It is not simply that they were not writing a specific
book, nor even that the texts were something of a pastiche, their editors
having given them whatever textual integrity and organization they might
be said to possess as a whole. Rather, it is crucial that the original purpose
of the texts was very different from the purposes that the editors had in
mind in publishing them. There are, in fact, very good reasons for recog-
nizing the perspective articulated in these texts to be different from most
of the rest of the canon of Marx and Engels, and, more to the point, to be
at odds with much of the ideas they—and particularly Marx—articulated
With respect to the ideas actually expressed within “The German
Ideology”, the grounds for such claims long predate the current issues of
the political history of the texts and were in fact identified in a doctoral
dissertation as early as 1983.11 The history of these texts—both how they
were written, for which Carver and Blank have provided unique insight
into the working relationship between Marx and Engels, and how they
were published, which reveals much about what Marxists have sought to
find in their work—certainly may shed light upon the interpretation of
their meaning. Even a simple reading of their supposedly final form, how-
ever, leads one to recognize significant issues that need to be addressed

relative to the line of development in Marx and Engels’s work from

1843–4 to the end of their lives. As Carver and Blank have pointed out,
there actually was very little gnawing by mice on these texts, critical or
otherwise. It would certainly have been better if along the line had they
been subjected to more serious criticism—by rodents or humans—than in
fact was the case.

An Overview of “The German Ideology”

From 1844 onwards, Marx, with increasing clarity, based his thought on
the central idea that history was the history of class society—and that his-
tory in this sense would come to an end through revolutionary human
emancipation. The fundamental “movement” of history (grounded in the
“movement of property”) had been revealed to follow that of the develop-
ment of social relations of production in class society. These were from the
start conceived not in terms of merely material processes of production,
but rather inherently in terms of property relations, in the broad historical
sense that corresponded to the development of “alienated labor”: in other
words, exploitive class relations.
Despite the historical frame of their thinking, however, Engels’s The
Peasants’ War in Germany, was the only truly historical work ever written
by either of the two and at its heart was really the question of revolution
in modern Germany. Their accounts of the history of class societies before
capitalism were never more than broad sketches. Indeed, these often
amounted to summarizing the whole of Western history in a few sen-
tences, as in the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Prior to the substantial
manuscripts that Marx later devoted to the critique of political economy,
it was only in the various and partial texts known to us as “The German
Ideology”—and primarily in that part which has erroneously been known
as the chapter on Feuerbach—that Marx and Engels made an attempt to
describe in explicit and detailed terms the historical dynamic of social
development, and even then in broad strokes. The deeply flawed result
must be contrasted with the development that their thought (and espe-
cially that of Marx) can be seen to have otherwise followed.
As noted previously, “The German Ideology” has enjoyed something
of a special place among the texts of Marx and Engels: it was characterized
by Althusser as the text coinciding with Marx’s “epistemological break”,
and its theoretical passages often take pride of place among the Marxist
texts assigned to undergraduate students, particularly in sociology.
118   G. C. COMNINEL

To claim that it is instead unreliable and in many ways doubtful as a work

of Marx’s historical materialism will surely be contentious, though the
work of Carver and Blank no doubt goes a long way towards making this
pill easier to swallow. There is no intention here to repudiate the entire
content of “The German Ideology”, and certainly there are many passages
that are consistent with the historical materialism that Marx continued
afterwards to develop, and which contribute to areas of conception that
are otherwise little considered in his thought.
What needs to be stressed, however, as Carver and Blank repeatedly
emphasize, is that this set of unfinished and discontinuous texts expound
a profoundly political polemic against the Left Hegelians and that it never
had the character of a fundamentally philosophical or theoretical text.12 In
their view, these manuscripts did not so much advance materialism against
philosophical ideology but rather embodied and built upon the views
recently put forward by Marx in the Theses on Feuerbach. As posited in the
first Thesis: “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of
human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood
only as revolutionary practice”. Most pointedly, as Thesis 11 holds, “The
philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is
to change it”.13
By this reading, Marx and Engels intended to leave theorizing to the
ideologists, and here they were engaged in polemical efforts to describe an
understanding of humanity and our social world in practical terms,
advancing the goal of actual—not philosophical—emancipation. Indeed,
as Carver and Blank observe, Marx added forceful underscoring to com-
plete Engels’s point that “for the practical materialists, i.e. the commu-
nists, it is a matter of revolutionising the existing world”.14 They assert
that the arguments of Marx and Engels should be read not as fundamen-
tally philosophical in nature—even as regards their critique of Bauer and
Stirner as would-be Feuerbachians—“but rather that Marx and Engels’s
substantive theses on humanity, history, modernity, and a communist
future develop in these fragments as political points through and
through”.15 In Carver and Blank’s cogent formulation:

The nub of the matter was not so much that these philosophers were think-
ing the wrong things because they were thinking the wrong way, but that
they were doing politics the wrong way (hence thinking the wrong way) and
were thus merely encouraging others to be just as wrongheaded and (so
Marx and Engels were arguing) ineffectual.16

These texts were a critique of German “socialist” philosophy in entirely

political terms, with Marx and Engels definitively rejecting the idea of
philosophy being in any way itself inherently “political”. The philosophy
of the German Left Hegelians led to potentially endless interpretations of
the world, with nothing actually being done to change it.
What is crucial in this view is the implication that, as Carver and Blank
put it, to understand these texts as fundamental expositions of theory
“would be a regression to the very position – excoriated as both ‘ideologi-
cal’ and typically ‘German’ – that they were at such pains to attack in their
sustained critique of the ‘critical critics’”.17 It must, in this regard, be
stressed that the critique of Marx and Engels was directed at ideas that
they understood to be both ideological and German. Their point—consis-
tent with ideas each had previously articulated—was that Germany was
not merely behind Britain and France in the historical development of
capitalism and the class of the proletariat, but that this “backwardness”
directly contributed to the ideological priority of philosophy there.
The perspective that Carver and Blank have brought to these manu-
scripts helps to clarify the ways in which they constituted some of the first
true collective expressions of Marx and Engels’s thought, as they under-
took to develop together a shared perspective, cement their working rela-
tionship, and deepen the great friendship of their lifetimes. The partial,
fragmented and incomplete character of the texts make it difficult to say
much more. Nonetheless, it must be recognized that this early attempt to
provide a historically and socially grounded materialism for political
action had unforeseen and regrettable consequences, particularly after the
texts were taken out of their (consciously abandoned) original contexts
and reconceived to constitute a “true guide” to the materialist conception
of history.
Some of the “materialism” that Marx and Engels incorporated into
these texts—drawn from fundamentally liberal historiographical and polit-
ical economic sources—must be criticized as inherently flawed relative to
their own, original insights. The great bulk of it can be seen to have been
not only endowed with undue weight by the editors but selectively
­constructed into a seemingly coherent text conveying what subsequent
Marxists strived to comprehend and advance as the “materialist concep-
tion of history”.
The fact that, beginning a year after Marx’s 1844 manuscripts, the two
friends drew extensively upon ideas formulated by liberal historians and
political economists should not be shocking. In the Paris manuscripts,
120   G. C. COMNINEL

after all, Marx had discovered the foundation for his own critique in the
words of the political economists themselves. While he “rose above”
their perspective in order to frame those critical insights for his own pur-
poses—to advance communism and to put paid to Hegelian philoso-
phy—this did not involve arguing that the liberal political economists
were “wrong”. Only after many years of developing his increasingly orig-
inal critique of political economy did Marx have a fuller comprehension
of the nature and extent of ideological conceptions within political econ-
omy, as well as the errors and theoretical flaws of its proponents. Marx
was never merely “a political economist”, but in 1845, his critique was
still at an early stage.
Even more strikingly, Marx never brought his critical faculties to bear
against the historiography of the liberals. As previously noted, he and
Engels always attributed to the liberal historians the original recognition
of the role that class played in history. Marx certainly acknowledged the
political failings of the great historian Guizot, but did so in terms that
contrasted his political defence of the Orleanist monarchy that he had
served with the earlier insights of his historical analysis.18 In contrast to his
continued development of the critique of liberal political economy, the
major project of his life, Marx unfortunately never undertook a critical
engagement with liberal historiography, perhaps the most significant
lacuna in the whole of his work.
In 1845, as Marx and Engels engaged in their political critique of the
Left Hegelians, part of their point continued to be the lack of German
social, political, and intellectually practical development relative to France
and England. Both friends had already contrasted Germany with these
more economically and politically developed societies, identifying in
Germany a preoccupation with—and undoubted excellence in—philoso-
phy as opposed to politics or political economy. In Germany, history simi-
larly was freighted with a philosophical cast—most evident in Hegel, but
also in the Left Hegelians—with no sign of those striking social, political,
and economic dimensions tied to terms of class that historians elsewhere
had discerned. The great problem with the Left Hegelians like Bauer and
Stirner was that they had not got beyond mere philosophy; they continued
to ­understand such essential issues as alienation and emancipation exclu-
sively in philosophical terms. In this regard, they trailed even the mundane
liberals in France and England, to say nothing of the practical criticism
advanced by the communists.

The observation of crucial cultural-political differences between

Germany, and France and England, dated to 1843 in the work of both
Marx and Engels.19 In 1843, however, they had both seen themselves to
be in common struggle with the German philosophers, who were in turn
seen to be in alliance with—if not at one with—the communists. Marx
concluded his second article for the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, with
the view that the consequence of Germany being behind France and
England in social development was that liberation in Germany necessarily
had to be more radical:

In Germany no kind of bondage can be broken without breaking every kind

of bondage … The emancipation of the German is the emancipation of the
human being. The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart is the
proletariat. Philosophy cannot be made a reality without the abolition of the
proletariat, the proletariat cannot be abolished without philosophy being
made a reality.20

By 1845, Marx and Engels had gone far beyond this perspective in
many ways, and had now in fact trained their sights on those very same
German philosophers, as ideologists who did not advance, but indeed
even obstructed, the practical task of the communist self-emancipation of
the proletariat.
It is in this light that the manuscripts of “The German Ideology”
must be addressed.21 Never either complete or coherent, they were early
texts by Marx and Engels addressing the failings of German philosophy
in political terms. The German philosophers, they argue, did not con-
front practical reality even when they declared themselves to be materi-
alists. They produced only “ideology”, ideas about ideas, which had no
practical, emancipatory value. It was through their profoundly polemi-
cal criticism of this form of German radical and socialist thought that
Marx and Engels sought to establish their own position and practice:
that of the practical criticism of communism, which would lead to actual
revolution and real emancipation. Throughout their writing they drew
upon the concrete and practical, often inspired directly by mainstream
writers of the “more advanced” societies of Britain and France, posing
their relatively practical ideas in contrast to the mere ideology emanating
from the “sainted” Left Hegelian atheists (already taken to task in The
Holy Family).
122   G. C. COMNINEL

1. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, MECW, vol. 3, 313.
2. A first meeting in 1842 had been cool, Boris Nicolaievsky and Otto Maenchen-
Helfen, Karl Marx: Man and Fighter (London: Methuen, 1936), 90.
3. Karl Marx, and Frederick Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical
Criticism. Against Bruno Bauer and Company, MECW, vol. 4, 37.
4. As noted previously, for Althusser it marked an “epistemological break in
Marx’s work”, and it has for generations figured in undergraduate courses
on social theory.
5. Terrell Carver, and Daniel Blank, A Political History of the Editions of Marx
and Engels’s “German Ideology Manuscripts” (New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2014).
6. Carver and Blank, A Political History, 2.
7. This analysis is deeply indebted to and closely follows that of Carver and
8. Karl Marx, and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, MECW,
vol. 5, 47.
9. Ibid., 17.
10. Ibid., 33, 37.
11. George C.  Comninel, Historical Materialism and Bourgeois Revolution:
Ideology and Interpretation of the French Revolution (Toronto: York
University, 1984).
12. Terrell Carver, and Daniel Blank, Marx and Engels’s Marx and Engels’s
“German Ideology Manuscripts” (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 7.
13. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”, MECW, vol. 5, 4, 5.
14. Carver and Blank, Marx and Engels’s “German Ideology Manuscripts”, 7–8.
15. Ibid., 7.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
18. Karl Marx, and Frederick Engels, “Guizot, Pourquoi la révolution
d’Angleterre a-telle réussi? Discours sur l’histoire de la révolution
d’Angleterre, Paris, 1850”, MECW, vol. 10.
19. Frederick Engels, “Progress of Social Reform on the Continent”, MECW,
vol. 3, 392–3; Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s
Philosophy of Law. Introduction”, MECW, vol. 3, 179.
20. Ibid., 187.
21. Carver and Blank’s presentation of an English text includes only parts of
the unfinished polemics against Bauer and Stirner which Marx and Engels
had laid aside but which were later assembled by Ryazanov into the “main
manuscript” of a supposed “Chap. 1. Feuerbach”. In what follows, cita-
tions will therefore be made to the MECW edition, despite the problems
of heavy-handed editorial intervention that Carver and Blank (Marx and
Engels’s “German Ideology Manuscripts”, 68–70) detail.

The German Ideology versus Historical


Marx and the Liberal Historians

As discussed in the previous chapter, Terrell Carver and Daniel Blank have
made a powerful case that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels did not intend to
put forward an account of the “materialist conception of history” in system-
atic theoretical terms in the primarily polemical manuscripts subsequently
selected and assembled by others, and published as “The German Ideology”.
In confronting the “ideology” by which the Left Hegelians confused mere
philosophy with actual politics, Marx and Engels found themselves oppos-
ing their inherent idealism with the broadly materialist social theory that
had become characteristic of England and France. The determinedly
practical cast of these texts, therefore, involves contrasting conceptions of
historical development grounded in social, political, and economic terms as
they prevailed in France and England with the “ideological” forms of ide-
alist conception characteristic in Germany. It is not merely that the German
Left Hegelians were committed to woefully inadequate politics (as already
articulated in “On The Jewish Question” and The Holy Family), but that the
fundamental flaw in their politics lay in the embrace of mere philosophy
(and an implicitly idealist philosophy, despite their Fueurbachian claims to
be materialists), rather than the “practical materialism” of communism.
It is, therefore, not merely philosophical materialism, but practical
materialism—the politics of working-class communism1—with which
Marx and Engels are concerned. Their opponents, however, are so

© The Author(s) 2019 123

G. C. Comninel, Alienation and Emancipation in the Work
of Karl Marx, Marx, Engels, and Marxisms,
124   G. C. COMNINEL

ensconced in “ideology” that mere ideas are taken to be sufficient to

transform the world. In opposition to this ideological historical social the-
ory—grounded in Hegelian idealism notwithstanding the Left Hegelians’
belief that they were materialists—Marx and Engels brought to the fore
well-­established ideas from English and French materialism. Indeed, they
go so far as to ground an account of history in biological materiality,
beginning with individual human animals, sexual reproduction, and the
acquisition of food. The brief and speculative account of human social
development that they adduce immediately calls to mind the stages theory
of history developed in the previous century. Nor is this a superficial simi-
larity: Marx and Engels specifically address stages of historical develop-
ment in terms of “the means of subsistence”, and the classic liberal theory
of four stages of history directly informs their account.
The published text2 of “The German Ideology” in fact begins with the
concept of producing the means of subsistence:

[Men] begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin

to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their
physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are
indirectly producing their actual material life.
The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first
of all on the nature of the actual means they find in existence and have to
reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as
being the reproduction of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it
is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing
their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life,
so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both
with what they produce and with how they produce.3

It is important to keep in mind that this was not intended by Marx and
Engels to be the beginning of a text on the materialist conception of his-
tory. It was instead chosen to be the opening passages for a constructed
“book” by editors who believed that they could discern a fundamental
Marxist text on historical materialism in otherwise disconnected manu-
script fragments. As noted previously, the passages of this “chapter” have
resonated very widely as articulations of Marx and Engels’s materialist
thought. What is most striking, then, is how conventional these ideas were
at the time; how consistent they were with mainstream social scientific
ideas about history and social development that were broadly dissemi-
nated in the nineteenth century.

The idea that human society had progressed through a series of clearly
demarcated stages of modes of subsistence had been established in con-
ventional liberal social and historical theory more than half a century
before Marx was born. Indeed, the liberal historiography of stages of
modes of subsistence was fully developed long before the French
Revolution. In his Social Science and the Ignoble Savage, Ronald Meek
provided a profoundly insightful account of the development of this lib-
eral conception of historical progress proceeding through distinct stages
of modes subsistence.4
As previously noted, the political economists Adam Smith and Anne
Robert Jacques Turgot first conceived the idea of four fundamental and
sequential stages of modes of subsistence—hunting, pastoralism, agricul-
ture, and commerce—in the middle of the eighteenth century. Meek
noted that as early as 1758, Lord Kames had produced a history of law and
public governance based upon these progressive stages of the classic modes
of subsistence.5 Kames’s description of the modes of subsistence then
made reference to the simultaneous development of a growing “intimacy
of union” in the course of these successive stages of historical progress.
In these terms, he explicitly recognized both the growth of the social
division of labour in society (with concomitant mutual dependence) and a
necessity for the development of forms of government that could provide
an adequate legal structure to accommodate the new social relations asso-
ciated with this growth of complexity. By the time of Marx’s childhood,
this story of progressive stages of history founded upon successive modes
of subsistence not only was broadly accepted (at least within liberal per-
spectives) but had been specifically articulated in terms of the civilizing
role of a rising commercial bourgeoisie. The idea that this specifically
modern class, the inherent embodiment of historical progress, had been
compelled to contest for political ascendancy with an increasingly out-
moded aristocratic agrarian ruling class, desperately clinging to power, had
by this time become an integral element in the widely disseminated liberal
historiography of “bourgeois revolution” put forward by Augustin
Thierry, François Mignet, and François Guizot.6
Meek observed that the concept of mode of subsistence can be distin-
guished from Marx’s conception of mode of production on the grounds
that the latter “embraces not only the kind of living that men get but also
the relations they enter into with one another in order to get it”.7 Given
Kames’s account of the developing social division of labour, however, this
position demands drawing a careful distinction. In Meek’s view, it would
126   G. C. COMNINEL

seem, the mere increase in division of labour among persons in society

cannot in itself constitute a sufficient change in “the relations they enter
into with one another” to mark a different mode of production. This view
would seem to be consistent with the emphasis in Marx’s 1844 manu-
scripts on the role of alienation of labour in fundamental historical devel-
opment, later reinforced in the Manifesto’s 1848 emphasis on the successive
class oppositions of “oppressors and oppressed”.
In the 1845–6 manuscripts of “The German Ideology”, however, Marx
and Engels extensively draw upon implications of the idea of division of
labour in historical analysis—with scarce reference to the previous identi-
fication of alienation of labour—to a degree that would never again be
matched in any of their works. It can be argued that in some places Marx
and Engels go beyond the merely liberal conception of “mode of subsis-
tence” in offering the idea of a mode of production that is more than
simply technique: it is social existence, a “mode of life”, through
Still, this seems scarcely more than what Kames argued so many years
before, and quite far from the idea that the historical development of the
alienation of labour—the movement of property through history—was
the key to historical social development. Relative to the insightful analysis
of property as the consequence of the alienation of labour in the 1844
manuscripts—pointedly opposed to the standard liberal resort to suppos-
edly primordial conditions—the texts of “The German Ideology” seem to
reproduce the conventional materialist ideas of French and British liberals
as a means to confront the hopelessly idealist character of even the most
radical expressions of German philosophy. This is not the articulation of
Marx’s materialist conception of history, but a polemical sidebar.
Although the emphasis on the “practical” nature of French and British
thought can be seen to have relevance to Marx and Engels’s polemic
against the German “ideologists”, it substitutes a merely liberal material-
ism for the profound foundation of historical materialism upon the alien-
ation of labour—the exploitation/oppression of one class by another.
Indeed, the conception of mode of production articulated in “The German
Ideology” does not even refer to class, let alone the alienation of labour.
When the idea of class does enter these texts, it is almost exclusively in the
terms that had long been used in liberal historiography and political econ-
omy. The emphasis on production throughout these texts is entirely
­consistent with the terms of analysis of the British and French liberals who
were primarily responsible for developing materialist ideas within the
mainstream social science of the day.

In arguing against the ideology of the German philosophers, Marx and

Engels held that even the ideas of bourgeois liberals—who were perforce
grounded in practical reality—were more advanced, and especially more
materialist, than the positions of Max Stirner, Bruno Bauer, and, ulti-
mately, even Ludwig Feuerbach. There is no doubt something to be said
for this view, but it falls far short of conveying the ideas articulated in
Marx’s 1844 manuscripts. It is, indeed, little more than a critique of the
Hegelian idealism that still underpinned German forms of “radical” phi-
losophy, grounded in a broadly materialist perspective that was shared by
most British and French liberal theorists.
This critique of otherwise absent materialism, was not, however, itself
conceived to be philosophical in character, as Carver and Blank take pains
to emphasize. Far from being a theoretical “chapter on Feuerbach”, as the
texts have been presented from their first publication, Marx and Engels
were in fact engaged in political polemics throughout.

This was a relentless critique of political posing and posturing, of self-­

deceiving fantasies of potency belied by evident social realities and predict-
able economic developments.8

Specifically, in critique of Feuerbach, Marx and Engels wrote:

in reality and for the practical materialist, i.e., the communist, it is a ques-
tion of revolutionising the existing world, of practically coming to grips with
and changing the things found in existence. When occasionally we find such
views with Feuerbach, they are never more than isolated surmises and have
much too little influence on his general outlook to be considered here as
anything but embryos capable of development.9

Against the German Philosophers

Carver and Blank carefully follow the developments in the manuscript pas-
sages that follow, noting how the additions and corrections of both Marx
and Engels increasingly focus upon and sharpen their political critique of
the merely philosophical.10 They note that Marx and Engels are “criticiz-
ing Feuerbach for merely hinting at what they themselves are stating
directly  – as opposed to more egregious ‘ideologists’ who have not
advanced even to the point that Feuerbach had reached with his hints”.11
128   G. C. COMNINEL

This critique of Feuerbach’s limited materialism leads to a direct

appreciation of more practical social thought in general. As Carver and
Blank argue, the text gives “[d]ue credit to the political economists for
offering influential clues about history – which for Marx and Engels are
producing a new politics”.12 In their critique not merely of the ideologists,
but of Germans generally, Marx and Engels start with the “first premise of
all human existence”, taking account of the essential fact that for there to
be any history at all, there first must be the production of the necessities
of human life: “the Germans have never done this, and they have never,
therefore, had an earthly basis for history and consequently never a

The French and the English, even if they have conceived the relation of this
fact with so-called history only in an extremely one-sided fashion, especially
since they remained in the toils of political ideology, have nevertheless made
the first attempts to give the writing of history a materialistic basis by being
the first to write of civil society, of commerce and of industry.13

This historical appreciation was indeed already more extensive than

what the political economists had suggested. By the 1840s, the fundamen-
tally liberal perspective grounded in progress through the successive
modes of production informed the whole of mainstream French and
English historiography.14 Only the most reactionary—or at the very least
deeply conservative thinkers—who rejected not only the ideas and values
of the French Revolution in their entirety but also the idea that there was
a tendency towards social progress in history, had not come to see history
in these fundamental terms. For the rest, as Guizot had maintained at the
Sorbonne before entering government, the rise of European civilization
was grounded in the rise of bourgeois commerce. Even those who were
reluctant to embrace directly the idea of “class”, or who saw great danger
in opening politics to “the mob”, tended to see history broadly in these
terms so long as they did not actively embrace the social and political privi-
lege of aristocracy associated with the old regime.15
In this, the passages that articulate materialist approaches to history in
“The German Ideology” contrast starkly with the developing conception
of the capitalist mode of production that—both previously and subse-
quently—emerged through Marx’s critique of political economy. This will
especially be clear with respect to Marx’s ideas on precapitalist modes of
production, particularly as developed in Volume III of Capital, as will be

seen below, and in his later work. What is clear, however, is that there is
great continuity in Marx’s thought from 1844 through the three volumes
of Capital, and into his later studies, and that the ideas incorporated in
“The German Ideology” diverge from these profoundly. “The German
Ideology” remains fundamentally flawed in its reliance upon ideas that
were drawn from non-Marxist sources; that articulated uncritical views on
the historical character of production, as such; and that gave precedence
to simple productive technique over property relations in the development
of history. Marx’s earlier, profoundly original insight that it is alienation of
labour that is the essential moment of production in the course of human
history was therefore undercut by a broad infusion of a fundamentally
liberal materialism.
It is clear that in the course of pursuing the political polemical purposes
of rejecting the ideology of the German “True Socialists”, the focus of
Marx and Engels shifted from property relations and alienation of labour to
forms of production, as such. There is nothing in this project that would
have been necessary in any country other than Germany, and even with
respect to Germany, there is little doubt that the main reason for this
polemic against the Left Hegelian philosophers is that Marx and Engels had
previously been associated with them. The ideologists had, in fact, negligi-
ble impact on the development of actual radical politics in Germany, and
even within philosophy, their impact shrank profoundly within a few years.
In these polemical writings, Marx and Engels did not explicitly aban-
don their earlier insights. Their analysis seems, however, to have lost sight
of them, perhaps as a consequence of the scope, specific polemical pur-
pose, and relative immaturity of “The German Ideology” texts. In con-
fronting the Left Hegelians, Marx and Engels were compelled to articulate
their ideas in relation to the historical scope and embrace of social totality
that was characteristic of Hegel’s own ideas. It was not, of course, Hegel
himself but the “critical” Left Hegelians whom they sought to confront.
Yet, notwithstanding their supposedly “materialist” critique of Hegel, the
Left Hegelians were entirely dependent on Hegel’s system,16 which forced
Marx and Engels to confront the latter’s far more profound reach (corre-
sponding to his greater genius) even while criticizing the former’s more
limited arguments. Marx and Engels, therefore, were drawn into an
extended polemic against German idealism, in which they sought to
­counterpose to the Hegelian idealist philosophy of history (even as the
Left Hegelians claimed to be materialist) a truly materialist and social con-
ception of history that was at the same time comparably broad and deep.
130   G. C. COMNINEL

But their purposes were not—as Carver and Blank remind us—fundamen-
tally philosophical (or theoretical), so much as a critical rejection of the
idea that the advancement of philosophical insights (however valid) con-
stituted real politics.
Marx and Engels’s intent was a fundamentally political polemic against
Left Hegelian philosophers who not only claimed to have the only correct
approach but rejected the self-organized struggle of working people.
While compelled to confront the inherent Hegelianism of their oppo-
nents, their actual purpose was to reject entirely the supposition that phi-
losophy was politics. As Carver and Blank have argued, they were not
trying to counterpose one philosophy with another, were not seeking to
establish a correct philosophical or theoretical approach against one that
was incorrect. The point was fundamentally that philosophy could never
change the world in the way that was required, and that therefore the
necessary political task was instead to develop concrete communist action
among the working class: practical politics leading to practical change.
Finally, it is important to recognize that this profound engagement with
the Hegelianism and flawed materialism of the German “True Socialists”
was undertaken when Marx’s critique of political economy had not yet
been carried very far. Many issues that would have been germane to
addressing the weaknesses of the Left Hegelians had as yet to be taken up,
little more than a year after completion of the 1844 manuscripts.
In the development of his ideas, Hegel (following the example of
Aristotle) began with the individual, followed by the family, and in turn
the social form of life. Marx and Engels also began, therefore, with the
very origins of human society, their point of departure being a social con-
ception of humanity defined by human self-creation through production.
They sought to challenge the idealist framework of Hegelian thinking
insofar as it remained integral to the Left Hegelians, even where the latter
sought to style themselves as materialists.
In so doing, Marx and Engels generalized upon Marx’s earlier recogni-
tion that social institutions and modes of consciousness are founded upon
the social relations of production. Indeed, they pushed this crucial frame-
work for historical analysis back beyond the initial threshold of social
property relations, with which Marx’s original observations had begun in
1844. As a consequence, “The German Ideology” begins with the role of
social production as providing the basis for the structure of society in gen-
eral, even before the existence of exploitive forms of class society.

While not without validity, this shift from a focus upon social produc-
tion that inherently embodies the alienation of labour, to a more general
appreciation of the materialist significance of social production in all of its
forms, articulates a far less critical social insight. This perspective, indeed,
is one congenial to many liberal perspectives, not least that of the prog-
ress of stages of subsistence. This shift in attention from the alienation of
labour as the essential foundation for exploitive class-based production,
to a broad consideration of the social implications following upon any
systemic form of production, obviously may divert analysis from “the
movement of property through history”, to the no doubt real—but far
less telling—implications of material social reproduction in any form of
human society.
There no doubt remains an important relationship to consider between
the material forms of social reproduction—in general—and social institu-
tions at the legal, political, and cultural level. This is, however, little more
than what Lord Kames observed in 1758. It may perhaps be argued that
with this exposition, Marx and Engels had improved on the long-standing
liberal view that historical social forms corresponded directly to the “means
of subsistence”, narrowly conceived. Nonetheless, there remains an essen-
tial difference between this broad and general materialist conception of
the fundamental social role of production, and Marx’s prior (and subse-
quent) recognition that history—the history of class society—begins with
and is founded upon the development of specifically exploitive relations of
production. The general materialist conception of a relationship between
“social life”—broadly grounded in social production—and social institu-
tions and ideas are not at all a problem for mainstream liberal thinkers. In
Marx’s earlier insight, however, it is explicitly social relations of exploita-
tion—the alienation of labour realized as human estrangement in the form
of property—that is socially determinant, not production in any merely
material terms.
That original conception specifically addressed the world-historical
development of class society, culminating in industrial capitalism. It was in
relation to this specific context, indeed, that Marx first observed that “reli-
gion, family, state, law, morality, science, art, etc.” fell under the “general
law” of the “movement of property” (which was the historical realization
of the alienation of labour). In other words, the social forms of class society
correspond to the development of class exploitation and not to the devel-
opment of production as such.
132   G. C. COMNINEL

In “The German Ideology”, by contrast, this focus was to a real extent

displaced in an effort to contrast the social-material understanding of
human existence to Hegelian idealism. There is no doubt that such a
social-materialist conception of human society is important in its own
right, providing insight into all forms of social organization. In broad
theoretical terms, it is clear that the social science of human development
can and should be grounded in relation to the material conditions of
human existence, whether or not such existence is predicated upon social
exploitation (e.g., with respect to the many forms and long duration of
societies based upon hunting and gathering). There is, however, funda-
mental significance to the question of whether or not a form of systematic
social exploitation does in fact exist, and what might follow from that.
There is, in these terms, a profound difference between the advance of
social complexity within society, and the development of social exploita-
tion. While in the growth of division of labour, most notably, the two may
be found to coincide, it is also clear that instead, they may not. In terms of
the historical development of the social relations of production, therefore,
no simple development of the social division of labour can be taken to
imply an introduction of the alienation of labour or systematic social rela-
tions of exploitation.
Locating the issues of actual historical development within the frame-
work of “The German Ideology”, therefore requires establishing an effec-
tive link between the forms of social production in general—with which it
begins—and the actual historical emergence of exploitive relations of pro-
duction that are characteristic of class society. Beginning with the distant
origins of human society, for so long characterized in relation to forms of
hunting and gathering, one must account for the subsequent emergence
of class in terms of the alienation of labour, or social exploitation. This
cannot be finessed merely by reference to increased social complexity.
Hunting and gathering does not provide a ready foundation for the
“alienation of labour”. It is hard to oppress a hunter/gatherer, who must
go out into the world on his/her own to acquire food from nature, and
who in the face of potential exploitation might simply keep on going. It is
difficult to conceive how a society of free hunters and gatherers could end
up in class relations of exploitation merely through the evolution of their
social relations, without some concrete change in the form of production,
which was accompanied by some specific introduction of relations of
oppression. Once the existence of oppressive and exploitive class relation-
ships is given, of course, it is not difficult to consider their ongoing

evolution as the result of a range of internal contradictions. There is,

however, much evidence that humans consistently tend to resist both the
enduring social inequalities and subordination to bearers of power.17
Within the texts of “The German Ideology”, however, history is not
depicted as the history of class struggles, but merely in terms of a succes-
sion of materially determined social forms. Therefore, some social bridge
between free and egalitarian human bands and established class society
must be conceived without taking for granted a priori the existence of
oppressive social power and/or the existence of the state. It is one thing
to suggest that the evolution of the division of labour leads to develop-
ment within existing relations of property. It is quite another to under-
stand how and why truly free human beings would in the first place
accept property relations that made them less free, and which burdened
them with obligations. Yet, nowhere in the texts of “The German
Ideology” is there the suggestion that some introduction of oppression
is required to transform a simple increase in social complexity into the
origin of class society.
In order to confront the essentially timeless “materialism” claimed for
the German philosophers—not only Bauer, Stirner, and the rest of “the
Holy Family”, but also Feuerbach—Marx and Engels brought to bear the
far more genuinely materialist bourgeois liberal accounts of French and
English historians and political economists. Marx and Engels retained
greater respect for Feuerbach than the lesser “sainted” ideologists, but in
comparison to all such German philosophers, the “more advanced” liberal
theorists of France and Britain had undoubtedly engaged at a more practi-
cal level with concrete issues of material existence, in broadly historical
terms. These mainstream liberal perspectives of France and England com-
bined recognition of historical change in the forms of class societies—in
their terms, the stages of modes of subsistence, which might seem to cor-
respond to what Marx had characterized in terms of the “movement of
property”—with a general materialism of explanation (further drawing
upon geography, climate, demography, etc.) that stood in opposition to
the German ideologists. To the extent that the object was to contrast the
absence of real engagement with the material basis of daily social existence
in German philosophy, in even its supposedly most critical forms, with the
immediate, practical materialism of even bourgeois liberals in France and
Britain, there was indeed something to be said for this approach.
Regrettably, having not yet developed the terms of their own critical anal-
ysis very far, Marx and Engels appear to have gone too far in embracing
the liberal materialism of mainstream French and British thought.
134   G. C. COMNINEL

Where in the 1844 manuscripts Marx had identified the alienation of

labour as the origin of property, foundation for enduring social inequality,
and the form of the realization of an exploitive class in society, none of this
is to be found in “The German Ideology”. In place of recognizing the
alienation of labour as foundational to both property and class society,
Marx and Engels introduced a new causal link between production in
general and the exploitive form of production in class society—one that,
however, was derived directly from the historical logic of liberal ideology.
Immediately following the idea of a distinct social mode of production,
they assert, “This production only makes its appearance with the increase
of population.”18 In ways that are fully consistent with mainstream liberal
social science, Marx and Engels here associate the fundamental introduc-
tion of property—and so exploitive class relations between oppressor and
oppressed—with the merely mechanical effects of population growth.
This opens their discussion of division of labour, in which the technical
aspects of materialism seem substantially to outweigh the social aspects,
and the links to liberal stages theory are most clearly revealed. Indeed,
the most regrettable feature of the texts of “The German Ideology” from
the standpoint of historical materialism is precisely the emphasis they
place upon the primary social role of division of labour, conceived in the
terms of political economy and explicitly related to the observations of
Adam Smith:

The relations of different nations among themselves depend upon the extent
to which each has developed its productive forces, the division of labour and
internal intercourse. This statement is generally recognized. But not only
the relation of one nation to others, but also the whole internal structure of
the nation itself depends on the stage of development reached by its produc-
tion and its internal and external intercourse. How far the productive forces
of a nation are developed is shown most manifestly by the degree to which
the division of labour has been carried. Each new productive force, in so far
as it is not merely a quantitative extension of productive forces already
known … brings about a further development of the division of labour.
The division of labour inside a nation leads at first to the separation of
industrial and commercial from agricultural labour … At the same time,
through the division of labour there develop further, inside these branches,
various divisions among the individuals co-operating in definite kinds of
labour. The relative position of these individual groups is determined by the
methods employed in agriculture, industry and commerce (patriarchalism,
slavery, estates, classes)…

The various stages of development in the division of labour are just so

many different forms of ownership; i.e. the existing stage in the division of
labour determines also the relations of individuals to one another with refer-
ence to the material, instrument, and product of labour.19

What is distinctive and new in the version of the stages theory here
presented by Marx and Engels is the history of the development of prop-
erty. They transform the liberal conception, by arguing that property is
simply an aspect of division of labour. Their purpose is to demystify and
“historicize” property, in contrast to the economists who regard it as “nat-
ural”. In making property an aspect of the division of labour, they make it
into a specifically social relation, derived from that division of labour by
which the reproductive life of individuals is socially organized.
Their intent is clear—to bring to the materialist conception of historical
development the critical insight that the basis of all social progress has at
the same time been the basis for the development of exploitive human
alienation. This insight is a rebuke to the simple-minded liberal ideology
of progress, and particularly to the German ideologists who believe they
have discovered the “resolution” to problems of modern misery, without
experiencing, understanding, or even acknowledging the historical devel-
opment of capitalism, of which these problems are an expression.
Yet, in theorizing the social origins of property (and hence exploita-
tion) by deriving it from the division of labour—instead of taking oppres-
sive exploitation to mark the definitive point of departure—Marx and
Engels have in fact embraced the scheme of the four stages theory, and so
incorporated its mechanical and “naturalistic” conception of social devel-
opment. They present the history of social development in terms that are
strikingly similar to the ideas of Turgot (whose work they comment on in

The first form of ownership is tribal ownership. It corresponds to the unde-

veloped stage of production, at which a people lives by hunting and fishing,
by the rearing of beasts or, in the highest stage, agriculture.20

This significantly modifies the “modes of subsistence” model by recog-

nizing in all of the prehistoric stages of development—the stages ­preceding
private property and commerce—an epoch of “communal property”. It is
suggestive in allowing for the identification of specifically private property
as the basis for real historical development. However, telescoping the early
136   G. C. COMNINEL

epochs of human society into the “undeveloped” stages of property also

suggests an anachronistic conception of property as a single, timeless and
natural category of human experience, and it obscures the critical point
that private property is a consequence of exploitation and not the reverse.
In “The German Ideology”, “class” is something very different from
the fundamentally opposed pairs of classes which Marx and Engels would
offer in The Communist Manifesto. “Class” is treated as a product of the
division of labour, precisely as the political economists would have it—
developing within the various branches of labour “among the individuals
co-operating in definite kinds of labour”, the “relative position of these
individual groups … determined by the methods employed in agriculture,
industry and commerce (patriarchalism, slavery, estates, classes)”. Class,
then, is simply one more “economic” category of labour. The sociologist
T. B. Bottomore observed this difference in Marx’s use of class between
“The German Ideology” and The Manifesto, but since he himself took
class to be narrowly “economic” in character, he suggested that the earlier
concept of class was the “scientific” one while the more general concept of
The Manifesto was problematic.21 The truth of the matter is just the reverse.
It is the use of class found in The Manifesto which belongs to historical
materialism, which studies the supposedly economic category of class only
to criticize it, to reveal that class is not merely an “economic” category of
“income” but rather a politico-economic category of exploitation and
conflict. The historical sufficiency and accuracy of the pairs of classes actu-
ally offered in The Manifesto are open to question, but their sense of oppo-
sition, of exploiters and exploited, oppressors and oppressed, is central to
historical materialism.
The resort to anachronistic and liberal ideological meanings for impor-
tant terms at this early point in their thought can also be seen in their use
of Bürgerliche Gesellschaft. This term was at the time used to signify both
“civil society” and “bourgeois society” (as it does to this day). In “The
German Ideology”, “civil society” is described as “the true source and
theatre of all history”, which finally comes into its own as “bourgeois

Civil society embraces the whole material intercourse of individuals within a

definite stage of the development of productive forces. It embraces the
whole commercial and industrial life of this stage … The word “civil soci-
ety” emerged in the eighteenth century, when property relationships had

already extricated themselves from the ancient and medieval communal soci-
ety. Civil society as such only develops with the bourgeoisie; the social orga-
nization evolving directly out of production and commerce, which in all
ages forms the basis of the State and of the rest of the idealistic superstruc-
ture, has, however, always been designated by the same name.22

This discussion of civil society, and all the discussions of property as

such, still carry the same flaws as the account of the “movement of private
property” in the 1844 manuscripts: they are “historicized” only in the
abstract-formal manner of political economy. From the perspective of the
critique of political economy, which Marx had yet to develop very far, it is
not civil society which knows stages, but class society.

The Division of Labour

It is, however, undoubtedly the role of the “division of labour” as such
that is most problematic. In the texts of “The German Ideology”, this
concept is utilized to an extent unmatched in any of Marx’s other writings.
The term may be used to signify either the technical division of tasks in
production—as in the breakdown of tasks in the production of pins within
the workshop famously described by Adam Smith—or, instead, the social
division of labour, the development of enduring, separate and distinctive
occupational roles within the larger whole of social production. In the
technical or workshop division of labour, some general labourers may
draw pins from lengths of wire all day, while others form heads for the
pins—tasks that in themselves require little by way of skill, and which read-
ily allow a worker to move from one task to the other. Such workshop
division of labour, however, is not characteristic of non-capitalist societies,
whereas in capitalist relations of production it plays a central role. The
increase in “relative surplus value” that follows from increasing output per
worker, per hour, through technical innovations expressing the real sub-
sumption of wage labour to capital, realized through management’s active
control over production processes, is unique to the capitalist mode of
The growth and maintenance of distinct social identities tied to the
specialized skills of different occupations—butcher, baker, brewer—is by
contrast fundamentally characteristic of precapitalist societies. Each
­occupation carries with it a range of social expectations as to normal prac-
138   G. C. COMNINEL

tices in production, and in many social contexts, the occupations are

strictly regulated with respect to all or most issues of production and
exchange. Such regulations—whether by custom, guild, or state—gener-
ally reinforce the social identity of producers. This enduring context of
social regulation imparts a strong significance to socially normative occu-
pations. The social division of labour, therefore, tends to multiply con-
crete social identities in production and exchange, while increasing social
interdependence and complexity at the level of individuals.
In the capitalist factory or workshop, by contrast, the specific skills of
distinct occupations tend increasingly to be dissolved in favour of the
employment of general labour closely controlled by the capitalist.
Undoubtedly, there is in this some growth in social “complexity”, but it is
not realized primarily at the level of individuals. The division of labour is
less frequently expressed in terms of a range of distinctive productive
occupations, and more generally takes the form of a workshop division of
labour across numerous limited actions within closely controlled processes
of production. There may be many more discrete steps of production
within a capitalist factory, but there generally are fewer distinct occupa-
tional identities. In its usual capitalist realization, then, the workshop divi-
sion of labour has very nearly the opposite effect of the social division of
labour. That both are usually described in terms of “the division of labour”
clearly is a potential source of enormous confusion.
That such fundamentally different social processes are known by the
same term and subject to being confused with each other, is a direct con-
sequence of political economy. As Ellen Meiksins Wood noted, following
Marx’s account in the Introduction to The Grundrisse, political economy
systematically reads back into even the earliest stages of human existence
the categories of capitalist society.23 What is thus inscribed in the past sub-
sequently is taken to explain historical development into the starting point
of the present.
In Adam Smith’s view, stated at the very beginning of The Wealth of

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the

greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where
directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.24

He then outlines the efficiencies of the pin workshop, after which he


The separation of different trades and employments from one another,

seems to have taken place, in consequence of this advantage.25

Smith thus projects the advantages of the workshop division of labour

into the past as explanation for the social division of labour between dif-
ferent trades, which of course appeared millennia earlier. For Smith, there
is no distinction to be made between these two forms, but rather a con-
tinuum of development. The development of the division of labour is then
attributed to yet another characteristic of modern society projected not
merely into the distant past, but as part of human nature:

This division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not
originally the effect of any human wisdom …. It is the necessary, though
very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature
which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter,
and exchange one thing for another.26

For liberal classical political economy, the division of labour took the
form of a natural force, the inevitable consequence of the supposedly
inherent tendency of humans to trade. It is the inherent tendency of
humans to trade that explains the specialized occupational structures of
the social division of labour (which strikingly do not follow from “human
wisdom”). Having postulated that it is the detailed impact of division of
labour in the workshop that underpins the social division of labour, Smith
has attributed to human nature an inherently natural process for increas-
ing productivity at the most basic level. This, in turn, provides the ideo-
logical rationale by which social complexity, structures of class, and the
“natural” organization of the workshop, all was to be explained, in a world
that led inexorably from first principles to capitalist production.
Given their political polemic against the “ideology” of German philos-
ophers, Marx and Engels appear to be prepared to travel a long way down
the road alongside the “practical” political economists. In his later critique
of political economy—in The Grundrisse and Capital—Marx would offer
scathing rebuttals of the political economists’ bourgeois essentialism. At
this point, however, he had yet to develop his critique very far, and the
contrast between Anglo-French materialism and German idealism (even
the “ideology” of the supposedly materialist Young Hegelians) was too
tempting to ignore. Regrettably, taking on board such fundamentally lib-
eral materialist conceptions as the division of labour as a primary driver of
140   G. C. COMNINEL

history introduced a range of ideas that were in fact fundamentally at odds

with the direction of historical materialist thought that already was
inscribed in Marx’s work.
One consequence within the texts of “The German Ideology” is the
tendency to conflate entirely the technical and social senses of division of
labour, not merely emphasizing the forces of production, but attributing
to them directly even the social division of labour. This is particularly evi-
dent in Marx and Engels’s discussion of the development of the division
of labour leading to the feudal separation of town and country:

[N]ot only the relation of one nation to others, but also the whole internal
structure of the nation itself depends on the stage of development reached
by its production and its internal and external intercourse. How far the pro-
ductive forces of a nation developed is shown most manifestly by the degree
to which the division of labour has been carried. Each new productive force,
insofar as it is not merely a quantitative extension of productive forces
already known (for instance, the bringing into cultivation of fresh land),
causes a further development of the division of labour.27

There could hardly be a more complete statement of technological

determinism. Neither in this passage, nor those that follow, is there any
pussyfooting around, any tempering, for example, of the role of forces of
production with the “relations of production”.
In the first place, there is a one-to-one correspondence between the
extent of division of labour and the development of productive forces,
with the latter bearing the whole of causal responsibility. Second, in con-
sequence, the extent of division of labour can in itself be taken as a reliable
indicator of the development of productive forces. Third, and most signifi-
cantly, “the whole internal structure of the nation” follows from the “stage
of development reached by its production” and trade.
It is just at this point that Marx and Engels introduce “tribal owner-
ship” as the form of property that coincides with hunting/gathering, pas-
toralism, and even agriculture. They are, therefore, both emphasizing the
fundamentally liberal conception of modes of subsistence, and yet going
beyond even that in a more or less mechanical materialism by attributing
a far more profound and extensive development of the division of labour—
and hence productive forces—to the later eras of agriculture (“ancient and
feudal”) and the development of commerce and industry. If this represents
the considered and developed opinion of Marx and Engels, then they

would, in fact, have been technological determinists, pure and simple.

Indeed, this account is more technologically determinist than the classic
stages theory had been.
What is especially telling is their emphasis on the division among agri-
cultural, commercial and industrial labour, with the division between the
former and the latter two forms of labour coinciding with the separation
of town and country. It was, of course, a hallmark of liberal materialism
that the two modes of subsistence most consistent with civilized society
were agriculture and commerce. Adam Smith had himself made much of
the separation of town and country.
It, therefore, becomes clear that Marx’s earlier insights are here being
integrated into an overview taken over from the prevailing liberal concep-
tions of history. Without his actually abandoning the idea of the alienation
of labour, it is clear that labour has now been fitted into a historical process
quite different from the one suggested in 1844.

The various stages of development in the division of labour are just so many
different forms of property, i.e., the existing stage in the division of labour
determines also the relations of individuals with reference to the material,
instrument, and product of labour.28

Even on the face of it, this is a very different conception of property

from that offered in the 1844 manuscripts. It is not presented as the con-
sequence of the alienation of labour, but rather as the expression of the
division of labour. Where Marx had previously objected to returning to “a
fictitious primordial condition as the political economist does”,29 here he
and Engels, in fact, conceive that “primordial” relations of production
produce “primordial” relations of property.
They begin with “tribal property”, corresponding to “the undeveloped
stage of production, at which a people lives by hunting and fishing, by
cattle-raising or, at most, by agriculture”.30 This once again clearly refer-
ences the standard liberal stages theory, with a bit of a twist in allowing for
the possibility that agriculture might still be an “undeveloped” stage
(where it “presupposes a great mass of uncultivated stretches of land”31).
While this is in one sense an improvement over the standard liberal view
(recognizing the possibility of agriculture in the Americas, for example,
without civilization being necessary), it imposes upon the idea of the devel-
opment of property a “natural” foundation that has nothing in common
with the alienation of labour. Instead, there is a projection of familial
division of labour associated with the “slavery latent in the family”.32
142   G. C. COMNINEL

Only under the conditions of the second form of property—the “com-

munal and state property” of the ancient world—does the private form of
property begin to develop. Coincident with this, there is “for the first time
the same relations which we shall find again, only on a more extensive
scale, with modern private property”.33 The subsequent feudal form of
property is then characterized as following from the country, in contrast to
the ancient form associated with the rise of towns. They then consider the
development of feudal property relations in terms of inherent conflict with
the surviving (and emerging) towns. They conclude that in the era of feu-
dalism “there was little division of labour”, aside from that between town
and country.34 All of this analysis is far more consistent with the liberal
materialist accounts than with Marx’s earlier insights, although it undoubt-
edly improves upon those liberal accounts.
Still, their focus remained unmistakably upon the social division of
labour: they emphasize the social character of production, the social char-
acter of property, and indeed the social character of all aspects of human
existence, beginning with language and consciousness itself.

The production of life, both of one’s own in labour and of fresh life in pro-
creation, now appears as a double relationship: on the one hand as a natural,
on the other as a social relationship … It follows from this that a certain
mode of production, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain
mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode of co-operation is itself
a “productive force.”35

This observation—that social relationships may themselves be forces of

production and have a material existence—is extremely important, yet it
depends entirely upon how the social relationships are themselves con-
ceived. If social relationships are no more than reflections of fundamen-
tally natural forces, then this is simply a wrinkle upon a wholly naturalistic
materialism, not an expression of a truly social materiality. If there is to be
any real meaning to Marx’s earlier insight that “both the material of labour
and man as the subject, are the point of departure as well as the result” of
human history, then there must be a human reality which is material but
more than simply “natural”.
Not to belabour the philosophical point, it is apparent that such a real-
ity is precisely that which is created by consciousness and human intention.
A book is composed of natural materials and produced through human
labours that, in both muscle and machine, are material processes. Yet, the

material reality of the book as a human artefact must include its meaning
as a product of consciousness, a reality which is entirely natural in its con-
tent, yet which cannot be comprehended in purely “natural scientific”
terms that would exclude the processes of conscious existence. Only con-
sciousness can produce a book.
In appropriating the liberal materialism of the stages theory—notwith-
standing their critical amendments and Marx’s prior recognition of the
social character of human material existence—Marx and Engels unfortu-
nately succumbed in “The German Ideology” texts to liberal “technical”
and “naturalistic” conceptions, especially with regard to the social rela-
tions of division of labour. Much as in the purely liberal conception, the
material basis of social development is said to be “increased productivity,
the increase of needs, and, what is fundamental to both of these, the
increase of population”:36

With these there develops the division of labour, which was originally noth-
ing but the division of labour in the sexual act, then that division of labour
which develops spontaneously or “naturally” by virtue of natural disposition
(e.g. physical strength), needs, accidents, etc., etc.

It is, perhaps, notable that Marx and Engels move away from the
Smithian emphasis on a natural proclivity to trade as the foundation for
division of labour, and instead turn towards a quite different natural foun-
dation in the form of the sexual act.
This approach maintains an emphasis on natural developmental pro-
cesses but shifts this away from the political-economic presumption of the
primordial nature of trade relations. This seems, on the one hand, to chal-
lenge political economy in terms that resonate with the 1844 manuscripts:
it is prone to push explanation into the “grey nebulous distance” of pri-
mordial conditions while failing utterly to illuminate the origin of divi-
sions between classes.37 In contrast to the emphasis upon alienation of
labour in the Paris manuscripts, however, the resort to natural explana-
tions for the development of divisions within society—beginning with
reproduction and the biological foundations for differentiation in family
life—substitutes for the original political economic natural propensity to
trade a different but comparable naturalism. Marx and Engels have
replaced naturally trading humans who learn from this to differentiate
socially, with humans who are naturally differentiated in their social rela-
tions, and who learn from this to trade. It does not require a profound
144   G. C. COMNINEL

conversion for those influenced by liberal thought to accept this account.

Indeed, in linking the division of labour in society to natural-scientific
accounts of biological development, this interpretation of materialism
shifts the focus from the arguable terrain of “natural” social behaviour to
differentiation grounded in biologically recognized science. These seem-
ingly more “scientific” bases go a long way towards explaining the attrac-
tiveness of “The German Ideology” as a foundational Marxist text.
In this account within “The German Ideology” text, the process of
division continues, leading to the differentiation of mental and physical
labour. Here, finally, the issue of exploitation is rejoined, since “enjoyment
and labour, production and consumption … devolve on different indi-
viduals, and … the only possibility of their not coming into contradiction
lies in the negation in its turn of the division of labour”.27 Yet, while Marx
and Engels label this to be the level of “true” division of labour, they
merely continue to elaborate a single, natural process of differentiation
and development, from the act of procreation to the machine shops of
Europe. Indeed, whereas political economy merely obscured the differ-
ence between the social and technical division of labour, Marx and Engels
here appear to have systematized the social division of labour as being itself
a technical process. While they have criticized the non-conflictual content
of liberal ideology, they have not yet come to criticize its anachronisms
and especially its tendency towards a technologically deterministic materi-
alism. Significant as these failings are within “The Germany Ideology”
texts—which Marx and Engels withheld from publication—none of these
errors is reproduced within their later works, and most particularly not
within Marx’s further development of the critique of political economy.

The Historical Materialist and Liberal Conceptions

of Class

There are many passages from “The German Ideology”—including some

of those cited above—which could just as well be taken to demonstrate
Marx and Engels’s ongoing development of historical materialism. The
texts of “The German Ideology” are, after all, a part of the continuous line
of their work from 1844 until their deaths, work which, as a whole, does
embody the development of historical materialism. For this very reason,
however, it is not the presence of historical materialist concepts in this
work which must be emphasized, but the persistence of fundamentally

liberal concepts: liberal political economy, which would increasingly be

criticized; liberal history, which would not; and a liberal natural-­
economistic materialism which was criticized, but not completely.
Ironically, however—although perhaps not surprisingly—the elements
of liberal ideology which can be found in Marx’s work have not only gen-
erally been accepted as integral, but even, in vulgar Marxism, as central to
his thought. It is precisely because of this enduring confusion that it is
particularly important to contrast clearly these two lines of thought in
Marx’s early work. Historical materialism, on the one hand, is based upon
the criticism of political economy; is fundamentally rooted in a social con-
ception of human existence; is historically specific in its analytical catego-
ries, and takes exploitive relations of production as its starting point.
Liberal materialism, on the other hand, takes a natural-technical approach
to human existence, is prone to analytical anachronisms, and begins with
“production in general”.
Before finally elaborating upon historical materialism as a method of
analysis, it is important to demonstrate the extent to which Marx did and
did not criticize the liberal materialism which he had incorporated into his
early work. Those elements of liberal ideology which have been magnified
by subsequent Marxists as a foundational economic determinism must par-
ticularly be confronted and criticized, and the extent to which some of
these ideas persisted in Marx’s own thought must be accounted for. Aside
from its apparent similarity to the stages theory of development, the two
most significant specific instances of liberal conceptions incorporated into
“The German Ideology”, and persisting with lasting effect upon Marxism,
are the conflation of the liberal conception of class with Marx’s own—a
conflation which is at the core of the Marxist theory of bourgeois revolu-
tion—and the subordination of the history of class society to the technical
development of the division of labour—which continues to underwrite
the economic determinism that still dogs Marxism to this day.
In the course of his works, Marx used “class” in quite a number of
senses. It is the sense of opposed classes, classes which come into being
through the systematic antagonisms of social relations of surplus extrac-
tion (alienated labour), that is inherent to historical materialism as a social
theory grounded on recognition of the exploitation of the productive
majority in society. The specific instance of opposed classes which is pecu-
liar to capitalism is the opposition of the capitalist and working classes.
These take the appearance of merely economic categories in political
economy, because of the uniquely economic character of exploitation
146   G. C. COMNINEL

through the commodification of labour-power. Hence, Marx’s “economic”

use of the term, indicating the modern economic classes, is really a specific
and critical instance of the general exploitive sense. Marx also used “class”
in a variety of other instances to describe social groups demarcated by
particular social interests within the dynamic workings of capitalist soci-
ety—these included the classical political economic “class” of the land-
lords (which he recognized to be a part of the capitalist class, in capitalism),
the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, and so on. In the earlier works in
particular, however, one can detect not only uncriticized political eco-
nomic uses of the term, but also the use of “class” to mean social rank:
precisely as in liberal history, the history of the “lower”, “middle”, and
aristocratic “upper” classes.
Marx took over whole the liberal history of civilization as the progress
of the bourgeois “golden mean”. He criticized it only partially, by insist-
ing that bourgeois society was itself still a form of class society. As such, it
continued to be marked by what he characterized as an enduring pattern
of classes rising to ascendancy.

For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is
compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest
as the common interest of all the members of society … The class making a
revolution appears from the very start, merely because it is opposed to a
class, not as a class but as the representative of the whole of society; it appears
as the whole mass of society confronting the one ruling class. It can do this
because, to start with, its interest really is more connected with the common
interest of all other non-ruling classes … Every new class, therefore, achieves
its hegemony only on a broader basis than that of the class ruling previously,
in return for which the opposition of the non-ruling class against the new
ruling class later develops all the more sharply and profoundly.38

That there is an important insight in this well-known passage will not

be denied. Yet, it is perplexing that its sequential ranking of classes—in so
general a form as to suggest many classes, though the usual stack is only of
three—should generally remain unremarked. It is clearly at odds with the
conception of two fundamental classes locked in struggle over e­ xploitation;
classes here come into opposition not through exploitive relations, but
because a “rising” class confronts the class at the top. Rather than the
dyadic classes of “oppressor and oppressed”, classes here seem merely to
sit one atop another, like the candies in a Pez dispenser.

Notwithstanding his earlier analysis of the alienation of labour, even

Marx’s conception of the proletariat as the revolutionary universal class in
“The German Ideology” carried a sense of it being the last in a series of
ranked classes. It would rise up in its turn and, in so doing, bring an end
to class society. In this context, however, its historic mission followed from
its position as the last class. For this reason, possessed of nothing but its
common humanity, it, therefore, had no particular interest to pursue.
Indeed, it is hard to see how any sense can be made of bourgeois revo-
lution, in its usual form, from the perspective of class exploitation. For the
peasantry, who might be expected to be opposed to the feudal aristocracy,
are not usually included at all—even in Lefebvre’s history, the episode of
“peasant revolution” is little more than the work of few weeks in the sum-
mer of 1789. The enduring struggle is that of the bourgeoisie and the
urban people against the aristocracy. Where do relations of exploitation
figure among these classes—particularly since it is always emphasized that
the sans-culottes were not proletarians? And if the bourgeoisie were to be
taken as capitalists, whom do they exploit? If no one (or so few as not to
count) on what grounds do they become a ruling class? What internal
dynamic of class society can have led to this peculiar constellation of
classes, and to a class struggle with no apparent basis in exploitation? It is
little wonder that the French Marxists have had such difficulty in finding a
satisfactory response to the revisionists, once Cobban showed the right
questions to ask.
The inherent problem is that the liberal conception of class which origi-
nally gave rise to the theory of bourgeois revolution cannot be reconciled
to the historical materialist conception of exploitive class society. The
impact of this contradiction can be seen not only in Marxist confusion
over the French Revolution, but also in the Sweezy-Dobb transition
debate.39 Sweezy’s position can be seen as a reluctance to allow a bour-
geois class to emerge between feudal lords and serfs, preferring to accept its
emergence only through a process external to feudalism altogether—the
growth of trade. Dobb instead insisted upon identifying an inherent con-
nection between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, whatever the prob-
lems, in order to retain the sense of an internal dynamic in class history.
Sweezy, however, did approve of Dobb’s assertion that feudalism, per se,
was dead long before genuine capitalism emerged, and he argued for an
intervening period of “pre-capitalist commodity production” under the
mediation of the Absolutist state.40 Though there are problems with this
148   G. C. COMNINEL

aspect of Sweezy’s analysis—particularly with his separation of the ques-

tion of the ruling classes (he sees at least two) from the question of specific
relations of class exploitation—the idea is not dependent upon his very
problematic reliance on the external growth of trade. There is indeed a
great deal to be said for an intervening period between feudalism and capi-
talism, as will ultimately be seen.
What is perhaps most striking about the transition debate is that all of
the contributors offered significant insights, without any being able to
make complete sense out of Marx’s analysis. Their positions must be rec-
ognized as competing attempts at resolving a very real contradiction, one
that is inherent in Marx’s conflation of the liberal and the historical mate-
rialist meanings of class in describing the origins of bourgeois society.
Since the contradiction is really in Marx’s work, each attempt at resolution
can offer a measure of plausibility, but in its turn will reveal an aspect of
fundamental incoherence. The partial insights can only be brought
together and made sense of by abandoning the orthodoxy of “what Marx
said” about precapitalist society, and striking out anew solely on the basis
of the historical materialist method.
In making this criticism of Marx’s conceptions of precapitalist society—
and particularly his account of bourgeois revolution—it is perhaps neces-
sary to emphasize again how much Marx got right, given his purposes.
Aside from his uniquely perceptive and fundamental critique of political
economy—in which most, if not quite all, of the purposes of historical
materialism were achieved with regard to capitalist society—and his overall
conception of dynamic human social development through the history of
class society, there remains the fact that Marx’s interpretation of the
French Revolution was essentially correct with respect to the purpose it
was meant to serve. For the point of Marx’s interpretation was the critique
of liberal and purely radical-democratic politics. That is to say, the essential
point was that the politics of the French Revolution offered the proletariat
nothing more than liberal democracy in class society.
Still, that was something. Alliance with the bourgeoisie for democratic
ends had been and would continue to be appropriate where it offered the
real prospect of democracy. As Hal Draper points out, for several years the
question of whether or not a German bourgeois revolution in alliance with
the proletariat was possible was a central issue for Marx.41 After many
twists and turns, he decided that, no, in Germany a proletarian revolution,
as part of the European revolution, was on the agenda. Because Marx’s
conception of the dynamics of proletarian revolution was so intimately

connected to his understanding of bourgeois revolution, much of his anal-

ysis of the coming of proletarian revolution must also be critically reconsid-
ered. Most of Marx’s thought on revolution, however, had to do with
what it must be, what socialist revolution must accomplish, not when or
how it will arrive. And this thought, derived from his understanding of the
structure of capitalist society achieved by the critique of political economy,
is not called into question by these criticisms.

1. Karl Marx, and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, MECW, vol. 5, 38.
2. It must be kept in mind that, though the words are those of Marx and
Engels, the texts were assembled after the fact by others having their own
priorities, purposes, and interpretations. For this reason, references in the
text will be made to “The German Ideology” to avoid perpetuating the
idea that this was a book by Marx and Engels.
3. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 7.
4. Ronald Meek, Social Science and the Ignoble savage (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1976).
5. Ibid., 103–4, citing L. Kames, Historical Law-Tracts (Edinburgh, 1758),
1: fn, 77–80.
6. George C. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution (London: Verso,
1987), 53–61.
7. Meek, Social Science and the Ignoble savage, 229n.
8. Terrell Carver and Daniel Blank, A Political History of the Editions of Marx
and Engels’s “German Ideology Manuscripts” (New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2014), 7.
9. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 38–9.
10. Carver and Blank, A Political History, 8–12.
11. Ibid., 8.
12. Ibid., 12.
13. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 42.
14. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution, 63–74.
15. Ibid., 61–3.
16. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 29–30.
17. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel (New York: Norton, 1997);
Morton Fried, The Evolution of Political Society: An Essay in Political
Anthropology (New York: Random House, 1967).
18. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 32.
19. Ibid.
20. Ibid., 32–3.
150   G. C. COMNINEL

21. Thomas B.  Bottomore, Classes in Modern Society (New York: Vintage,
1966), 22.
22. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 89.
23. Ellen M. Wood, Democracy against Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1995), 22; Marx, Grundrisse (New York: Vintage,
1973), 87.
24. Smith, Wealth of Nations, Bk 1, Chap. 1, first sentence.
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid., Bk 1, Chap. 2.
27. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 32.
28. Ibid.
29. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, MECW, vol. 3,
30. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 32, 33.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid.
33. Ibid.
34. Ibid., 35.
35. Ibid., 43.
36. Ibid., 44.
37. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 271.
38. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 60–61.
39. Maurice Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism (New York:
International Publishers, 1964); R. Hilton, P. Sweezy, M. Dobb, et al., The
Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (London: Verso, 1976).
40. Hilton, et al., Transition, 49–50, 107–108.
41. Draper, Hal. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. II (New York: Monthly
Review Press, 1978) Chapters 7–10.

The Puzzle of the Manifesto

of the Communist Party

The Purpose of the Manifesto

of the Communist Party

The great, inescapable fact about The Manifesto of the Communist Party1
(hereafter, Manifesto) is that, more than a century and a half after its pub-
lication, the call to arms issued by Marx and Engels has never been taken
up by even one working-class revolution in a developed capitalist society.
The International Communist movement that grew out of the Russian
Revolution—which claimed the Manifesto for its own and shaped world
politics for most of a century—is essentially defunct, its once tangible suc-
cesses crushed, beaten back, or called into question. It is generally accepted
that the Cold War was won by the capitalists and that the game is over.
Yet, even before the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the USSR, it had
long been hard to reconcile the Manifesto’s striking imagery—European
powers haunted by the spectre of workers bringing communist social
emancipation—with the increasingly dissolute social life, enervated poli-
tics, and marginalized labour movements of modern capitalist societies.
From a communist perspective, the dispiriting political realities of capital-
ist society were matched by all too grim social realities in the Soviet Bloc.
While Marx and Engels’s brilliant evocation of the cause of radical change
might still stir readers, they were far more likely to be idealistic university

© The Author(s) 2019 151

G. C. Comninel, Alienation and Emancipation in the Work
of Karl Marx, Marx, Engels, and Marxisms,
152   G. C. COMNINEL

students than the workers for whom it was originally intended. Over time,
even those who most credited and abided by its message had come increas-
ingly to view the Manifesto as a document belonging to history.
It is simply a fact that no working class in the advanced capitalist world
has managed more than ephemeral moments or minuscule movements of
revolution. This fundamental failure of class politics to meet the expecta-
tions of the Manifesto has posed an enduring challenge to Marxist thought,
from the Second International to the second New Left of the 1970s, and
beyond. Repeatedly, Marxists have found themselves hard-pressed to
rethink the Manifesto’s fundamental call for proletarian revolution. On the
one hand, reformists have always jumped at the chance to abandon the
politics of class struggle as “unrealistic” and “divisive”; on the other hand,
revolutionary socialists have been confronted by the eternal question of
“what is to be done” in the face of the working class’s failure to develop
revolutionary politics. By the twenty-first century—the all too imperfect
achievements of revolutionary socialism succumbing on every side to
seemingly triumphant capitalism, and most surviving parties of the left
rushing to embrace the agenda of capital—even those convinced by Marx’s
call for socialist class politics have found it hard not to see the Manifesto as
a historical document of the nineteenth century with sadly little to say to
the present.
It is obvious, therefore, that something is in fact fundamentally wrong
with the Manifesto. It will be argued here, however, that this does not
include either its fundamental class analysis of capitalist society or its call
for revolutionary transformation through the struggle of the working
class. There is, therefore, no reason to abandon the ideas of the Manifesto.
Yet, the problems that exist in this great text are sufficiently critical—and
so much at the centre of what has been taken to constitute Marxism (even
if not truly belonging to the core of Marx’s own thought)—that there will
undoubtedly be resistance to recognizing them. The revolutionary project
of the Manifesto can and must be revindicated. To do so, however,
demands a new historical materialist understanding of the development of
capitalist society, and of socialism as a movement within it.
The most obvious error in the Manifesto lies in the historical position it
claimed for itself in its call for revolution relative to capitalist society. In
only 1848—when barely half the GDP of Britain itself was industrial in
origin2—it trumpeted not only the need for an end to the era of industrial
capitalism across Europe but that the very hour of that end had come. For
all the insight Marx (and Engels) brought to bear on the historical

moment, their polemic must be recognized to have been no more than a

harbinger of prolonged class struggle still to come, in a capitalist epoch
that was only then beginning to emerge. The proletarian revolution was
not in fact delayed by the consequences of working-class economism, rul-
ing class hegemony, or some combination of conjunctural factors in 1848,
nor in the decades following, as has been argued since Lenin’s What Is To
Be Done?3 It must be accepted that its hour simply was not then at hand.
There is no doubt that, through his critical insights into the implica-
tions to be drawn from political economy as to the character of capitalist
society, Marx was profoundly ahead of his time. The mistake in his histori-
cal judgment, however, was not simply one of timing. His misplaced
expectations can in part be attributed to the astonishing acuity of his
insight into the nature of capitalism and the dynamics of its development
at a time when the thing itself had yet to achieve full expression even in its
homeland. At the same time, a more immediate and consequential cause
of error lay in the fundamental misunderstanding that Marx shared with
his contemporaries as to the causes and significance of the French
Revolution, and the politics to which it gave rise.
The French Revolution is in no way tangential to the Manifesto. The
text provides a substantial and heroic account of it as bourgeois revolution:
the forging of a unified national state and a historically decisive clearing
away of archaic social, political, and economic impediments to capitalist
society by a class rising to ascendancy. This historical interpretation of
1789 clearly was integral to the message that a comparable proletarian
class revolution was at hand in 1848.
Yet, as previously noted, this conception of the French Revolution as a
bourgeois revolution was not, in fact, a product of Marx’s own historical
materialist analysis. Instead, it belongs to a current of liberal historical
thought which Marx incorporated alongside—though in implicit contra-
diction with—his truly original historical materialist ideas, as they were
derived from his critique of the liberal ideology of political economy.
As Ellen Meiksins Wood and Robert Brenner have argued, the contra-
diction between Marx’s historical materialist critique of political economy,
and his acceptance of prevailing liberal views on the role of classes in his-
torical progress, has had a profound and enduring effect, distorting
Marxist accounts of the origins of capitalism and the history of precapital-
ist societies.4 Such a claim poses an obvious challenge to much of what has
long been accepted as orthodox Marxist thought, which in some quarters
continues to be fiercely defended today. But the advocacy of class struggle
154   G. C. COMNINEL

to end capitalist society does not require—and ultimately does not

­permit—the defence of every aspect of Marx’s work, as if it all had the
same degree of validity as his sustained critique of capitalist social rela-
tions. Marx made the mistake of accepting contemporary bourgeois
accounts of historical class relations as if they were consistent with his own.
This in no way undermines the validity of his distinct and entirely original
analysis of class relations in capitalist society, but the mistake must none-
theless be admitted and confronted.
Arguments about precapitalist class society and the origins of the
French Revolution in the twenty-first century may seem remote, exces-
sively academic, and perhaps too “narrow” in construction, reinforcing a
disinclination on the part of many to call Marx’s own judgements into
question. Yet, as has been previously noted in detail, the French Revolution
was the crucial fact of Marx’s youth and the dominant historical issue of
the age. It is not, however, simply a question of the French Revolution.
Once the incorporation of a liberal ideological conception of the French
Revolution into Marx’s historical ideas is recognized to have been respon-
sible for misconstruing not only the timing but even the nature of prole-
tarian revolution, this mistaken conception in the Manifesto can be seen to
have had a far more than merely academic impact on strategies for class
struggle. A careful rethinking is necessary, therefore, not only for under-
standing the French Revolution in its own terms but especially in its rela-
tion to the revolutionary socialist project of the Manifesto.

Ideas of the French Revolution in the Early

Nineteenth Century
The issues of the French Revolution resonate throughout the letters and
articles that Marx wrote during the 1840s. Long after the defeat of
Napoleon—which marked the defeat by united forces of reaction of revo-
lutionary Jacobinism, in particular, and political liberalism in general—the
politics of the Revolution continued to define the basic political issues of
the nineteenth century. Following, respectively, the July Revolution of
1830 and the Reform Bill of 1832, France and England had each clearly
embraced moderate sorts of liberalism. Although both were now constitu-
tional monarchies, each also strove to keep the popular forces of democ-
racy at bay. Even under the Restoration, the French state had preserved
many elements of Jacobin nation-building, described by Tocqueville as
largely constituting the continuation of processes already evident in the

Old Regime.5 Though the development of a “rational” state bureaucracy

was far less advanced in Britain—as would remain the case through the
greater part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries6—both states
attended in broadly liberal terms to the needs and claims of resurgent
trade and emergent industrialization after the devastating Revolutionary
and Napoleonic Wars. The Orleanist monarchy was, in this regard,
emblematic. Its chief minister in the 1840s was the liberal historian Guizot,
who long had trumpeted from the Sorbonne the cause of the bourgeoisie
as the fount of historical progress in Europe, which he identified first in
the growth of town life and urban economy during the middle ages, then
successively in the English Civil War, the revolution of 1789, and of course
in the new regime of France.7
Most of Europe in 1848, however, remained under the rule of reac-
tionary states, for which even the most anaemic liberalism remained sub-
versive and revolutionary. At the same time, however, decades after defeat
of the Revolution’s call for liberté, egalité, fraternité, opposition was wide-
spread. As previously discussed, the generally liberal Rhineland of Marx’s
birth particularly chafed under the Prussian monarchy imposed by con-
quest and confirmed by the Holy Alliance, but throughout Europe, there
were many who at least concurred with Guizot’s view of what 1789 had
meant. A good number went further.
Disdaining the moderate liberalism of Guizot were those who looked
beyond the modest ambitions of the early days of the French revolution.
Some embraced the radical and democratic republicanism of the Jacobins;
some went further, to be inspired by the egalitarian and participatory pop-
ular democracy of the even more radical and proudly labouring (though
heterogeneous and non-proletarian8) sans-culottes; and, in the extreme,
there were growing numbers who identified with the explicitly egalitarian
socialism of Gracchus Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals. While there was no
shortage of adherents to the reactionary party of order, everywhere there
were liberals, republicans, democrats, socialists, and communists—all of
whom were inclined to measure each nation’s historical progress relative
to a high water mark reached during the French Revolution. In most of
Europe, therefore, another revolution on at least the terms of 1789
seemed possible, and more radical revolutionary ideas abounded.
There was, therefore, nothing remotely novel about the account of the
French Revolution in the Manifesto. As discussed in earlier chapters,
throughout his writing before the Manifesto Marx had taken for granted
that his audience shared his understanding that the Revolution had been
156   G. C. COMNINEL

made by a historically progressive bourgeois class against the reactionary

forces of aristocracy and absolute monarchy.9 This was a long-established
view. He expected his audience to recognize that the German burghers of
his day were of a type with, if relatively less developed and more timid
than, the French bourgeois of 1789. A distinguished line of historians, of
whom Guizot was only the most notorious, had for decades described
historical progress in terms of the class agency of the bourgeoisie, and
Marx and Engels presumed that their readers were familiar with such
ideas, and they always credited these as the principal achievements of lib-
eral historiography.10 It had been this liberal conception of the historical
project of bourgeois revolution that provided Marx with his initial context
in 1843 for confronting the inadequacies of contemporary political ideas
based on even radical rereadings of Hegel’s synthesis of liberalism and
Prussian absolutism, as advanced by Bruno Bauer and others.
Before his exposure to political economy at the end of 1843, there is no
sign in Marx’s thought of a specifically capitalist working class. As a jour-
nalist, Marx had been concerned with social and political struggles, yet his
concern with the “backwardness” of Prussia contrasted it particularly with
the liberal societies of France and England, a contrast focussed primarily
on achievements credited to the French Revolution. As a radical—cer-
tainly among the most radical thinkers and activists of the day—Marx had
been preoccupied with both the political movements and the develop-
ments in radical philosophy that were directly traceable to the politics of
the French Revolution. Then, as seen in previous chapters, the texts pub-
lished as “The German Ideology” were written by Marx and Engels in
polemic against the muddled and “backward” politics of the German
“left” philosophers in comparison with even the thoroughly bourgeois
thinkers of France and England.
It was, however, through the critique of political economy that Marx
came to acquire a completely new foundation for the communist project,
one grounded firmly in the specific character of capitalist society (initially
revealed to him through Engels’s citing of the ideas of political economy).
As has been seen, the nature of capitalism as an exploitive system of class
relations was immediately clear to Marx from his first reading of the politi-
cal economists. Over the next two decades, he would continue to develop
this critique, resulting in the towering achievement of Capital. It is not
that critique, but the presumption that its critical analysis was germane to
the social conditions actually existing in the Continental Europe of the
day, that must be challenged.

Throughout Europe in the 1840s, there was, of course, the production

and sale of commodities, often on a large scale. Further, in many of these
contexts there existed the regular payment of wages for labour. Virtually
everywhere there was growing dependence upon the market for acquiring
normal daily requirements.
None of these circumstances, however, was unique to this period. All of
them, indeed, could be found in the ancient and even medieval forms of
European society. It is not difficult to see how these forms of social rela-
tions might be taken to correspond to those of capitalist society. If,
however, the production of commodities in ancient Athens, or thirteenth-
century Europe, is not simplistically to be characterized as “capitalist”,
clear criteria are required to distinguish between the mere production of
commodities (either with, or without, the payment of wages), and truly
capitalist production. As argued in Chap. 2, Marx’s critique of political
economy does provide a clear conception of the unique character of capi-
talist social relations. What is required is actually to apply these criteria to
Europe in the mid-nineteenth century.
Notwithstanding Marx’s immediate and brilliant analysis of the social
property relations of capitalist class society in 1844, he did not bring
these to bear in any systematic examination of European society as it
existed in 1848. In writing the Manifesto, Marx and Engels had under-
taken a call to arms, not an academic work of history or a philosophical
work of theory. In political terms, applying the emancipatory insights of
1844 to the conjuncture of the day required conflating Marx’s critique of
political economy—as it bore in the abstract upon the largely future
potential of capitalist society—with extant forms of society, political
movements, and political philosophies that were still fundamentally non-
capitalist. The Manifesto is very problematically built upon such a confla-
tion, and as a result, it misinterprets struggles that were coincident with
the inception of capitalist society in Europe as signs of the imminent
demise of that society.

English Capitalism and the Continent

The importance of the specific and unique character of capitalist social
property relations, and the need to take these seriously in historical analy-
sis, is a recurring theme of this book. It has already been explored in Chap. 2
and will come up again in Chap. 9. It is the failure to take up and apply
Marx’s critique of political economy rigorously and in detail that is largely
158   G. C. COMNINEL

responsible for the mess that has been made of “Marxist” approaches to
history. However pervasive the idea may be that capitalism was well devel-
oped in the Europe of 1848, and despite the fact that Marx himself
undoubtedly held that to be true at the time, this idea must be repudiated
on the grounds of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
This should not be terribly surprising with respect to Germany, which
was so frequently described as “backward”. Hegel was familiar enough
with political economy to give his conception of civil society a superficially
Smithian character. Yet it is striking that where Smith’s Wealth of Nations
consistently argued against the “Continental system” of corporatist regu-
lation, and in favour of self-regulation by the market, Hegel took for
granted that the persistence of corporate regulating bodies was essential to
the functioning of civil society. His political theory conceived the state to
rise above the antagonism of the particular interests within civil society,
not least through direct, non-market regulation.11
It is not, as some have supposed, that Hegel transcended the particular-
ism of capitalist society, anticipating something like the twentieth-century
conception of social democracy. Nor did he have in mind simply the nor-
mal capitalist state meeting social needs unmet by the market. Rather,
Hegel’s take on civil society is firmly grounded in a precapitalist perspec-
tive, most evident in his description of the “corporations”; it is a perspec-
tive that accords a central place to exchange, yet which still presupposes
the necessity of normative social regulation by corporate bodies and the
This fundamentally normative and corporatist approach to social and
economic regulation is, in fact, characteristic of precapitalist states—and it
is precisely this sort of regulation that in principle capitalism does without,
and against which Smith argued. The strikingly anti-normative, unregu-
lated, and indeed “anarchic” character of capitalism is central to the per-
spective of political economy, and to Marx’s critique of it. As Karl Polanyi
also recognized, the principle of social regulation exclusively through
means of the market was the unique, and largely disastrous, distinguishing
feature of the profound social change of the transition to industrial capital-
ism.12 Yet it is clear in reading Hegel that he simply did not “get it” when
it came to the ideas expressed in capitalist political economy. The same is
true of Saint-Simon, whose Catechism of the Industrialists proposed to
provide a new normative framework of regulation to replace the old moral
order that appeared to have been rendered obsolete by the social order
articulated by the political economists.13 With perhaps rare exception,

social thinkers on the Continent at the time of the French Revolution and
in the decades that followed simply did not “get” capitalism as conceived
in political economy (the works of which they certainly read) because their
social experience of market relations was very different. The social rela-
tions of capitalism had not developed there indigenously, and only began
to spread there after the Revolution—often very slowly—from the increas-
ingly industrial capitalist society developing in England.14
Marx, therefore, had no direct experience of capitalist social relations,
nor did he have any basis for identifying the specific character of the capi-
talist working class, prior to his encounter with Engels’s critique of politi-
cal economy. Notwithstanding the many popular struggles, strikes, and
even organized socialist movements that came to the fore following 1789,
neither a capitalist form of society nor a capitalist working class yet existed
in France or Germany (nor anywhere outside England). Indeed, as noted
in Chap. 2, the development of labour law in France following the
Revolution had been diametrically opposed to that in Britain, and actually
stood as a barrier to industrial capitalism.
Marx’s ideas on human emancipation and transcending alienation in
the form of the state, which down through 1843 were his primary focus,
were not initially grounded in the class politics of capitalist society. Nor
did the broad Continental “bourgeoisie” which he opposed as yet have a
capitalist character more than 50 years after they had taken to the political
stage in the French Revolution. Specifically, capitalist society did not fig-
ure in Marx’s thought until after he was introduced to it by the work of
Engels in 1843. Engels was deeply immersed in capitalist social relations
working at his father’s mill in Manchester, and he both read the works of
political economy and attended to the unprecedented misery of the work-
ers. It was through Engels’s lead that Marx came to confront the character
of specifically capitalist social relations. Though neither he nor Engels rec-
ognized the point, these English social relations of capitalist production
did not, in fact, exist on the Continent.
Perhaps understandably, this has been an especially difficult point for
some Marxists to accept, given the emphasis in the Manifesto on the
French Revolution as a bourgeois revolution. Still, the crucial fact about
the French Revolution from a historical materialist perspective is that nei-
ther it nor its whole range of politics—Liberal, Jacobin, or even Socialist—
had anything to do with capitalism as such. It certainly was grounded on
issues of class struggle, but it did not involve any classes that had a capital-
ist character; above all, the French bourgeoisie was not in any way a
160   G. C. COMNINEL

c­ apitalist class, was not in the process of becoming one, nor was there any
development of capitalist social relations underway anywhere in France.15
Beyond the fact that there was no tendency towards the development of
capitalist social relations anywhere in France, neither did the existence of
powerful agrarian capitalism and the beginnings of industrial capitalism in
England provide some geopolitical impetus for the actual development of
capitalism in France. The French certainly were aware of England’s eco-
nomic advantage but found themselves utterly unable to emulate the
social changes (such as enclosure) that underpinned this advantage. French
society not only was not capitalist, it was inherently structured in ways that
were inimical to capitalism. Not only did the French Revolution not have
the effect of fostering capitalist development, or even clear obstacles for it,
the Revolution actually entrenched precapitalist socialist relations in
France, causing it to fall behind even “backward” Germany in its industrial
development by the later nineteenth century.
A substantial body of Marxist scholarship now argues, following Robert
Brenner and Ellen Wood, that contrary to prevailing social, economic, and
historical theories grounded in liberal ideas, capitalism did not develop
across Europe as a whole, but uniquely in the society of England.16 Most
evidently, and significantly, the specifically capitalist and socially transfor-
mative industrial revolution followed through historical processes that
were unique to England, and which played out over at least 450 years of
distinctive social and economic development.17
In England, and England alone, a peculiar historical dynamic emerged
through the development of the common law under Norman royal aus-
pices following the Conquest, in the context of a legal system of national
courts previously established under the centralized Anglo-Saxon monar-
chy.18 The existence of a separate system of effective law—providing the
crown with an important counter-balance to arbitrary lordly power in the
countryside, while at the same time securing the inheritance and other
property interests for lords otherwise subject to the vagaries of feudal
law—proved to be enormously important, allowing for the truly unique
English experience of enclosures.19 This unique historical development
was directly responsible for the emergence of agrarian capitalism in
England. Nothing like the early modern transformation of English rural
property relations through enclosure, and with it the whole structure of
agrarian society, occurred anywhere else.20
During the early modern period, trade everywhere grew to unprec-
edented levels. But simply making a profit in trade is not capitalism.21

About 80 to 90% of all social production beneath Western Europe’s bur-

geoning commercial sector, and at least a comparable proportion of the
surplus appropriated by owners of property, remained agrarian in origin.
Throughout France and Germany at the time of the Revolution, the
whole of this agriculture remained characterized by the social relations of
traditional peasant production. Peasant families worked the land accord-
ing to centuries-old customs that specified every detail of agrarian produc-
tion, and which locally had the force of law, reproducing themselves on
the land while producing surpluses that were appropriated in the form of
both rents and taxes. These were collected on the one hand by owners of
land, and on the other hand by holders of what Robert Brenner has called
“politically constituted property”, in the form of income accruing to state
offices and a variety of residual feudal jurisdictional obligations.
England, by contrast, had even before the nineteenth century acquired
substantial geopolitical power based primarily on the wealth produced by
“improved” agriculture on large tenant-farms. Enclosure had removed
these farms from the restrictions of custom, allowing them to be engrossed,
and turned into autonomous units of production that could benefit from
improved circuits of production, economies of scale, and eventually the
application of technical innovations.22 Through enclosure, the peasantry
was over time almost entirely removed from occupation of productive land
and reduced to a local casual labour pool of cottagers or relocated to
towns or the newly growing districts of manufacturing (not yet capitalist)
cottagers. Only a few agrarian smallholders—primarily in areas of dairy
production—persisted in the face of the new economy.
Capitalist tenant-farming brought an astonishing growth in agricultural
productivity by means of characteristically capitalist processes, as access to
the means of production was made ever more market-dependent. This was
notably realized in the early eighteenth-century Agricultural Revolution,
which for the first time saw the application of (modest) technological
advances directly in agrarian production. Such innovation in production
progressively reduced the need for labour, while increasing output. The
owner of capital, rather than the collective rural community, increasingly
determined what would be produced, and how, through enclosure and
the extension of private property rights—at first over the use of land, and
then over the commodified labour-power of wageworkers.
English agrarian capitalism provided more and better food, more
cheaply, and using fewer workers than the traditional agriculture that it
replaced. This came, of course, at the cost of lost security in the land and
162   G. C. COMNINEL

wrenching dislocation for much of the population; lost control over work
by those who laboured; and the plain and simple immiseration of a grow-
ing mass of people.23 In the process of this dramatic social transformation,
roughly from 1450 through the Industrial Revolution of the late eigh-
teenth and early nineteenth centuries, the English gentry remade them-
selves into a capitalist landlord class, transforming their manors and
adopting tenant-farmers as junior partners responsible for production. It
was these tenant-farmers who were the actual agrarian capitalists, gaining
access to the land only through the market in leases, and as and when
necessary hiring the dispossessed as labourers. This was the foundation of
the “trinity formula” of classical political economy—the three fundamen-
tal classes of landlords, capitalists, and workers, each with their distinctive
form of income. Finally, with the rapid growth of industrial forms of pro-
duction based on an extension of the same capitalist principles during the
first half of the nineteenth century, the landlord and capitalist classes, at
first recognized to be distinct, began to merge into one.24
There are three crucial claims that emerge from Brenner’s analysis.
First, that capitalism developed in, and through the transformation of,
agriculture, not in the growth of urban-based trade or workshops. Second,
that capitalism developed through a specific historical process connected
with the unique English experience of enclosures (a complex phenome-
non having more to do with the suppression of common rights and collec-
tive control over land use than with hedging fields, consolidating holdings,
or even dividing common woodland and pasture). Third, that capitalism
led to the radical transformation of non-agricultural sectors in the
Industrial Revolution only after the radical transformation of agriculture,
which included an Agricultural Revolution. As Ellen Wood pointed out,
these positions correspond precisely with Marx’s account of “so-called
primitive accumulation” in Capital.25
If the Brenner-Wood analysis is correct, indigenous developments of
trade or industry on the Continent prior to the spread of novel and dis-
tinctive forms of capitalist production following the Industrial Revolution
simply cannot be taken as a sign of actual, nascent, or even latent capitalist
development. Capitalist development cannot be taken for granted, but its
presence must instead be demonstrated and explained. The growth
of precapitalist forms of trade and industry can never explain their
transformation into capitalism. Only if the Brenner-Wood account is
proved wrong can anything to do with the bourgeoisie, trade, workshops,

cottage industry, or even commercial agriculture—in France, Germany, or

anywhere in Europe—be said to reflect any development of truly capitalist
society, prior to whatever point at which production in those societies
underwent transformation through the direct influence of English capital-
ist relations.
Already in the eighteenth century, there were those in Europe who
recognized that something significant was happening in England. Yet,
even if they had been able to understand precisely what (and, it is clear
from the cases of Hegel and Saint-Simon, as also the French Physiocrats
before them, that generally they did not), it would have been no simple
thing to set in motion a transformation of the very basis of wealth and
power in class society. Given the non-capitalist agrarian production on
which class society throughout Europe was based (notwithstanding the
important role of trade in distributing surplus), it is hardly surprising that
it was not agrarian capitalism that spread from England to transform the
world. Rather, it was only the industrial form of capitalist production,
which emerged at the end of the eighteenth century and gathered force in
the early nineteenth, that began to spread abroad. Where the prevailing
“bourgeois paradigm”, as Ellen Wood has called it, would have it that
capitalism developed in cities across Europe, forming a basis for the rising
bourgeoisie to challenge the landed aristocracy, this was simply never the
case.26 Recognizing the origins of capitalism in the transformation of
English agriculture through a unique historical process, and contrasting
the form of legal and economic relations that emerged there with those
found elsewhere, one must conclude there is not the slightest hint of spe-
cifically capitalist social relations anywhere in the agrarian, commercial, or
industrial sectors of the Continent in 1789.27
The English people resisted the imposition of capitalist property rights
and the tyranny of the market as well as they could and managed to pre-
serve certain customary rights through the whole of the eighteenth cen-
tury, and into the nineteenth.28 Still, it clearly cannot be said that in 1800
England was a peasant society—whereas equally clearly France, Germany,
Italy, and Spain still were. Where, as Marx observed, England eliminated
its peasantry in the process through which capitalism came into being, the
“peasant problem” was everywhere else a mark of the introduction of cap-
italist production through industry. Over the course of more than a cen-
tury—after World War II peasants still constituted a huge proportion of
164   G. C. COMNINEL

the population in both Italy and France—Europe would continue to be

transformed by industrial capitalist development, only clearly becoming
entirely capitalist by the 1970s.
There were no more than the early beginnings of a capitalist working
class in Continental Europe during the 1840s. Only slowly were competi-
tion and the logic of capital accumulation, conveyed through international
trade, bringing about dramatic social change through the introduction of
new, capitalist forms of industrial production. Even slower was the exten-
sion of capitalist social relations over existing sectors of manufactures and
trade. From the work of E. P. Thompson, we know how long and difficult
the transformation of traditional forms of industry was, even in England
where laws, market structures and other social relations had long been
given a capitalist stamp through the prior development of agrarian
There had, of course, been urban artisanal workers and day labourers,
as well as mine and foundry workers and those engaged in cottage indus-
try, long before the social relations of production began to be transformed
by English capitalism. In precapitalist European societies, however, such
labour was structured in the traditional forms of corporatist organization
that Hegel still favoured, such as guilds. Even after the Revolution abol-
ished guilds along with the other forms of “privilege”, in the first half of
the nineteenth century French industrial workers characteristically orga-
nized themselves through such informal but well-defined corporate forms
as the compagnonnages.
As William Sewell has shown, from 1789 through 1830, and on past
1848, most French workers engaged not only in their daily life and labour,
but also in confrontations with their employers, and even in revolutionary
politics, through such corporatist bodies.29 What has tended to distort our
understanding of workers in this period (outside of England, though even
there we have had much to learn from Thompson), has been the presump-
tion that the context for their struggles should be understood to have
been that of established capitalist society. Once we recognize that capital-
ism had not developed on the Continent, that 1789 was not about the
ascendancy to power of a capitalist bourgeoisie, but had been a struggle
over the form of the state in a society characterized by “politically consti-
tuted property”, we also can accept that the popular struggle for democ-
racy, social justice, and even social equality that emerged in the course of
the French Revolution, and persisted afterwards, likewise belonged to a
context of precapitalist class relations.

Liberalism and Revolution in Precapitalist Europe

The typical Marxist view associates both liberalism, as an ideology, and
socialism, as oppositional class struggle, directly with capitalism. The
European Continent during the French Revolution and long afterwards,
however, remained fundamentally precapitalist. Far from being the ascen-
dant moment of a rising capitalist bourgeoisie overturning the domination
of a declining and reactionary feudal aristocracy, the French Revolution
began as a kind of civil war within an entirely non-capitalist ruling class
comprising nobles and bourgeois alike.
The class relations of the absolutist ancien régime were based upon
extraction of both rent and taxes from the peasantry, through varying
combinations of ownership of land, possession of privileged monopolies
and rights of jurisdiction, and ownership of venal offices in the state. While
no longer truly feudal in character, there is otherwise much to be said for
Perry Anderson’s description of the absolutist state as a sort of “rede-
ployed and recharged” system of precapitalist class exploitation.30 The
French bourgeoisie, however, belonged in its entirety to this dominant class
of proprietors, with no more than a small minority of perhaps 10% also
engaged in trade. Nowhere in all the commercial relations of those rela-
tively few merchants, even in the handful of large industrial concerns
(some of which were owned by nobles), was there to be found the slight-
est evidence of the transformation of production based on capitalist rela-
tions of commodified labour-power and the subordination of the labour
process to the logic of capital accumulation.
Far from being opposed classes, the French noblesse and bourgeoisie
both depended upon ownership of entirely non-capitalist forms of prop-
erty, and differed fundamentally only with respect to the possession of
noble status, as such. Indeed, those bourgeois who acquired sufficient
wealth—mostly through the general eighteenth-century expansion of
trade, especially with the colonies—almost invariably then acquired nobil-
ity through purchasing venal state offices that conferred it. Most of the
high-ranking nobles of the Paris parlement, in fact, were from recently
ennobled families.31 Only after the aristocracy—the leading ranks of the
office-holding nobility—finally compelled the monarchy to acknowledge
their role and power within the state by calling the Estates General, did
conflict emerge between nobles and bourgeois over whether noble status
itself should be ensconced in a still to be determined constitution.32 State
offices and the practice of law were the major sources of income for a
166   G. C. COMNINEL

majority of the bourgeoisie, and there was an immediate outcry on behalf

of the Third Estate against the pretensions to privileged political power of
the First and Second Estates, setting in train a polarizing political dynamic
which eventually led to the people of Paris rising up, in the name of the
Nation, to defend the rebellious bourgeois deputies.
Capitalism, then, played no role in the origin or politics of the French
Revolution. Liberalism, however, did: the political mobilization of the
bourgeoisie, against the monopolization of state power (and potentially
state offices) by those possessing aristocratic privilege, was accomplished
precisely by articulating liberal political principles. Liberal conceptions
such as civic equality, representative government, and the rule of law, coin-
cided neatly with the bourgeoisie’s direct social interest in limiting, and
ultimately abolishing, the role of privileged personal status in connection
with the state. Such liberal ideas had first clearly emerged in England in
the previous century, where a civil war had instead pitted two sections of a
wholly capitalist ruling class against each other over the extent to which it
was permissible and safe to limit royal authority while asserting the indi-
vidual rights and freedoms of the propertied.33
Those, like Locke, who then advocated liberal government by and for
the propertied in the belief it need not (as the royalists feared) fall prey to
the democratic aspirations of the people, have been well vindicated. Only
late in the nineteenth century would anything like democratic govern-
ment, still limited to men and effectively constrained by its representative
character, become established in England—and not even then would the
state’s support for and furtherance of the rights of property be seriously
threatened. As Ralph Miliband argued in The State in Capitalist Society,
there is still every reason to recommend the Manifesto’s view that “[t]he
executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the com-
mon affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.34
Yet it is only the modern capitalist state that actually has the character
of serving the whole of the propertied class, with seeming disinterest to
other than their common affairs. States in precapitalist societies were
directly implicated in the extra-economic surplus appropriation that distin-
guishes these societies from capitalism, as Marx explicitly recognized in
the Grundrisse and Capital.35 Marx and Engels’s use of the word “bour-
geoisie” in the Manifesto and elsewhere, therefore, begs the question.
Taken as a synonym for “capitalist ruling class”, the term serves them well
in the critique of political economy. Likewise, in their political writing, the
term is meaningful in referring to the owners of commercial, financial and

industrial—but also landed—property. When, however, can these two

meanings actually be said to coincide? In England, there never really was a
“bourgeoisie”: the gentry became capitalist landlords and eventually
merged with the industrial capitalists made rich by the transformation of
the non-agricultural economy. The nobility and bourgeoisie in France, by
contrast, fought over the constitution of the state in 1789 because of its
crucial role in surplus appropriation, which made it far more than merely
a committee for managing the affairs of the propertied. The state itself had
become constituted as a form of property.
Because, however, the term entered political parlance through liberal
accounts of the French Revolution, its usage ignored the real social
grounding of the bourgeoisie in owning politically constituted property,
and gave to them an ideologically-constructed connection to commerce
as the source of historical progress. This emphasis on the link between a
minority of the bourgeoisie and what was taken to be the historically pro-
gressive role of trade provided a justification for their struggle with the
nobility. The real difference between bourgeoisie and nobility lay simply
in noble status itself (so long as state offices remained open to both, there
was, in fact, no class difference between these groups). Members of the
nobility, however, derogated their privileged status if they engaged in
demeaning commerce or labour (other than in the exalted form of
Already, long before the Revolution, in England and France alike, the
prevailing liberal conception of historical progress was conceived in terms
of a sequence of distinct stages based on particular modes of subsistence—
first hunting, then pastoralism, next agriculture, and finally “commerce”.36
Only by adapting this widely accepted liberal historical conception to por-
tray the bourgeoisie as a heroic and progressive force for social develop-
ment, driven to revolution by a declining but fiercely reactionary aristocracy
seeking to protect an outmoded social order, did they become particularly
associated with trade. Already during the course of the Revolution, the
idea emerged that the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the aristoc-
racy marked a passage from the dominant class in agriculture, to the domi-
nant class of the era of commerce. Barnave wrote an account in these
terms while awaiting execution, in 1795.37 While it was not itself pub-
lished until the 1840s, the key elements in the idea of bourgeois revolu-
tion enjoyed wide currency by the end of the Napoleonic period.38
This liberal conception of bourgeois revolution, justifying the political
struggle against entrenched political privilege, built upon a variety of ideas
168   G. C. COMNINEL

that emerged through the cross-fertilization of political, historical and

economic concepts between England and France (and Italy, Germany, the
Netherlands, etc.) throughout the early modern centuries, a period when
their societies were actually diverging. This might seem paradoxical, but
there is a solid foundation for such cross-fertilization in the remarkable
continuity of the issues addressed by political theory in different forms of
class society, characterized as they all are by the dominance of private
property, but immediately in conjunction with the organization of politi-
cal power in the form of the state. The central problem for ruling classes
over the whole of Western history since ancient Greece has been the prob-
lem of “who rules”: what balance in the constitution of the state is required
both to protect free men of property from tyranny, and to ensure that the
state can preserve enough “good public order” that they may continue to
enjoy their property at the expense of others. The issues of absolute royal
power versus constitutional rule emerged in both France and England
during the early modern period, but the differences between the class rela-
tions of politically constituted property, and agrarian capitalist class rela-
tions, led to significant corresponding differences in conception.39
In a similar vein, both capitalist and non-capitalist forms of class society
have considered which policies of the state are most conducive to public
well-being, conceived primarily in relation to the rights and enjoyment of
property. It is not so surprising, then, to find that the term “political econ-
omy” seems first to have emerged in France, associated with the principle
of harnessing private greed to the furtherance of the supposed public
good, since such a principle is not specifically capitalist in character.40 In
England, however, it was proposed as early as 1547 that free trade in grain
would lead to higher profits, with the effect of stimulating both increased
agrarian production and demand for manufactured goods; and that this in
turn might solve the problem of unemployment for those dispossessed of
their land through enclosure—a sort of “import substitution strategy”
that already seems to reflect a specifically capitalist form of political econ-
omy, advocating the growth of the “Trinity” of landlord, capitalist, and
worker, in place of the peasant village.41 While their societies continued to
diverge over the course of the early modern period, English and French
authors could thus still read each other with varying degrees of compre-
hension, sharing many of the same political issues, and the disposition to
promote trade, yet failing to comprehend the different logic behind the
other’s system of social production.

Liberal political principles of civic equality among the propertied, then,

had a cogency in France in 1789 that had nothing to do with the capitalist
context that had produced their classic formulation in the work of Locke.
At the same time, a variety of French theorists could read the work of
English political economists approvingly, even if they more had in mind
circumventing the impediments that traditional privilege posed to trade,
rather than a truly revolutionary reorganization of production based
exclusively on the market-driven imperatives of capital. England and
France had truly different social systems. Yet the ascendancy of private
property; the ambiguous relationship between members of the dominant
propertied class and centralized state power; and the increasing salience of
trade (whatever the underlying system of production)—these made for
striking points of congruence between at least some of the liberal ideology
developed on each side of the Channel.
When Marx and Engels wrote of the modern state managing the com-
mon affairs of the “bourgeoisie”, then, they conflated the very different
states and societies of England and France. In doing so, they followed the
lead of liberal historians who championed the bourgeoisie as a class for
historical progress. Together with the liberals, Marx and Engels excluded
the states in Germany, Italy, and Iberia from the ranks of modern states,
for they had not yet experienced “bourgeois revolution”. While a few
lesser states like the Netherlands could be fit to it, the established model
for historical progress was obviously based upon a conflation of France
and England. Through the liberal association of strikingly similar political
struggles in fundamentally different social contexts, “bourgeois” became
a synonym for “capitalist”, when in virtually every respect the French
bourgeoisie of 1789 were almost the antithesis of a truly capitalist class.
From the start, Marx’s critique of Hegel affirmed the reappropriation
of power by the people directly, as had been demanded and practised by
the sans-culottes at their most revolutionary, when they challenged even
the Jacobins who sought to wield the instrument of the state. More than
this, however, it affirmed the socialist objective that had only begun to
achieve coherent expression during the years of the Revolution. Again and
again, the positions and practice of even the most revolutionary bourgeois
revealed that the preservation of private property remained the foundation
of the state, even to the extent that the people were robbed in substance
of the very liberty, equality and sociality for which the Revolution stood
for in purely political terms. Marx realized, therefore, that we were alien-
ated from our collectivity not only in the form of the state, but also within
170   G. C. COMNINEL

civil society, based on different relationships to the forms of property, and

propertylessness. Thus, though even the political goals of the French
Revolution still remained unmet in Germany, Marx was from the outset
committed to socialist goals that went far beyond merely political revolu-
tion, and he clarified the foundations for these goals against the claims not
only of Hegel’s demure liberalism, but also the more radical philosophical
Jacobinism of Bruno Bauer.
This much, then—a fundamental critique of liberal and Jacobin politics
and political philosophy—Marx already had achieved by the autumn of
1843. These earliest works of Marx, indeed, made a significant contribu-
tion to the understanding of emancipation within the critical political phi-
losophy of precapitalist Europe. Yet by the time Marx had identified the
proletariat as the key to the whole social revolutionary project of human
emancipation, at the turn of 1844, he had not only gone beyond the poli-
tics of the French Revolution, but—through his exposure by Engels to a
new line of critical thought that in turn revealed the “innermost secret” of
an emerging, radically different form of class society—he had embarked
upon a fundamentally new approach to the emancipatory project that
would become the basis of his life’s work. Earlier, he had expressed to
Arnold Ruge his intention of writing a history of the Convention during
the French Revolution, and his notebooks reveal that during 1843 he had
begun work to that end.42 After Marx turned to the critique of political
economy, however, that project dropped from his agenda. In its place, he
eventually produced Capital.
Marx never acknowledged a rupture in this move from the problematic
of the politics of the French Revolution, to the problematic of class strug-
gle in capitalist society. Yet both politics and political philosophy on the
Continent had continued to be rooted in the dynamics and conditions of
precapitalist class society. The Enlightenment had not been defined by
liberalism as such—Voltaire was certainly no liberal—but by a looser rejec-
tion of revealed knowledge, hoary superstition, and the pretended sanctity
of too-human institutions and mores. The ideas of the English liberals
certainly influenced Continental thinkers, but Montesquieu’s conception
of the separation of powers, for example, corresponded more to the inter-
ests of the noblesse de robe in relation to the absolutist monarchy rather
than to any social or political interest discernible in England.43 Rousseau
subsequently rejected both the claims and theoretical foundations of liber-
alism, as well as absolute monarchy, to conceive of the “general will” in
terms that were solidly grounded in precapitalist normative sociality.44

It was significant social inequality, and the inherently abusive power of the
state that preserved it, to which Rousseau objected—not anything specific
to capitalism or its development, with which he reveals no familiarity. Nor,
in attempting to justify the absolutist state as having something akin to
this “general will”, was Hegel any more concerned than Rousseau with
specifically capitalist society. In neither the context of Continental political
philosophy, nor that of the political movements which he covered as a
journalist, did Marx have occasion to confront capitalism before the end
of 1843. Like Rousseau, but enriched by the experiences of the popular
movement in the Revolution, Marx conceived of human emancipation
from the chains imposed by property and the state. No more than
Rousseau, however, had he yet conceived of a process or agency, beyond
philosophy, by which this emancipation could be achieved.
Through the critique of political economy, however, Marx did more
than just identify the agency of the proletariat in 1844. Far more impor-
tantly, the proletariat was transformed in his thought from being simply
the “propertyless”, as they had been in precapitalist social and political
thought, to take the specific form of the capitalist working class. Their
struggle was not simply the struggle of the dispossessed and disenfran-
chised everywhere, but specifically located in the structured social rela-
tionships of capital accumulation and its crises, founded on the
commodification of labour-power and the continual revolutionizing of
Though social justice would demand equality and human emancipation
in any form of class society, it was Marx’s particular claim, arrived at
through the critique of political economy, that the same revolutionary
transformation of society which brought about capitalism, in turn, estab-
lished a dynamic contradiction between ever-expanding human produc-
tive capacities and the reduction of actual humans to a means for achieving
that growth. In the history of hitherto existing class societies there had
been what Marx called in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
the “movement of property”: “Only at the culmination of the develop-
ment of private property does this, its secret, appear again, namely that on
the one hand it is the product of alienated labour, and that on the other it
is the means by which labour alienates itself, the realisation of this alien-
ation.”45 As he argued in the Manifesto, “modern bourgeois property is
the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and
appropriating products that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploita-
tion of the many by the few”.46 It is specifically in and through these fully
172   G. C. COMNINEL

developed property relations—the particular social relations of capitalist

production which he came to understand through the critique of political
economy—that the contradiction between human capacities and human
needs is itself fully developed.
This contradiction takes form both in periodic economic crises, which
capitalism cannot escape, and in the forging of a capitalist working class,
whose interests ultimately can only be met by ending the system of capital-
ist production, exchange, and property.47 While it is yet to be proven that
Marx and Engels were right in believing that the contradictions of capital-
ism would lead through these developments to a social revolution, which
in turn would lead to the development of communism, this process of
historical transformation was explicitly predicated on the logic of capitalist
social relations which Marx discerned through the critique of political
It was through reading the political economists and drawing out the
real implications of the system they described—eventually through the
massive project of Capital—that Marx came to understand the specific
possibility of achieving communist society through working-class struggle
that is associated with his name. Classical political economy articulated a
principle of social and economic organization that had, however, yet to be
fully realized even in England. It was Marx’s genius to identify through his
critique the contradictions and potentialities inherent in the logic of this
yet to be realized system, allowing him to describe both the basic character
of capitalism, and the process by which it would be superseded, at a time
when it was still only taking form.
Given the historical presumptions he shared with the proponents of the
capitalist system, but also the unprecedented magnitude of social and eco-
nomic transformation that it actually embodied, it is hardly surprising that
Marx misjudged the extent to which capitalism had actually developed by
the 1840s. Indeed, notwithstanding the brilliance of his insights into the
implications of capitalist social relations as early as 1844, it was only in the
late 1850s that he clarified even for himself the crucial differences between
capitalist and precapitalist modes of production. Had he seen fit, a decade
earlier, to ask whether capitalist relations were actually manifest in the
“bourgeois” property relations prevalent on the Continent, it is not clear
that he would yet have had the tools to answer the question.
He did not ask. In England, France and Germany alike, liberals had
long presumed that freedom included the right to free enjoyment of prop-
erty in at least some sense. The untrammelled economic freedom of

­roperty specific to capital, meanwhile, was articulated in terms of

“freedom of trade” even in England. Indeed, though Marx emphasized in
Capital the difference between capitalist production and mere exchange,
he also revealed that the truly unique character of capitalist production
rests upon extension of the commodity form to the heart of the produc-
tion process through the commodification of labour-power. Though capi-
talism is really about production by the market, it is commonly thought of
even by Marxists as production for the market. Liberals already under-
stood historical progress in terms of the growth of commerce. Everywhere,
as a result, the undeniably important growth of trade in modern Europe
was mistaken to coincide with capitalist development in the terms of polit-
ical economy.
“Civil society” had originally signalled to the English the establishment
of the state as a bulwark to property and the natural relations of exchange
based upon it. “Bourgeois society” had subsequently signalled to the
French the emergence of freedom from privilege, and the principles of
freedom and equality in trade and political life, realized through the rise of
the bourgeoisie. In Germany, these terms found a happy confluence of
meaning in the term bürgerliche Gesellschaft. With Hegel, drawing on
Smith, attaching much significance to bürgerliche Gesellschaft as the sphere
for development of the economic individual, every authority was in agree-
ment that whatever was true of English society applied equally to the rest
of Europe, allowing for differences in the form of state. Marx never
doubted that the liberals who went before him, in describing the bour-
geoisie as agents of historical progress for advancing their interests as a
class, had accurately depicted both the class and their interests. In this
regard, however, he gave the liberals far too much credit, and too little
considered the ideological underpinnings of their histories. Not only did
this error cause Marx and Engels to miss the fact that capitalism was only
beginning to spread from England (where at the time it remained far from
fully developed in its generalized, industrial form), but it suggested a spu-
rious model of revolutionary class agency.

Socialism and Proletarian Revolution

The idea of revolution, in the wake of 1789, was indelibly marked by the
idea, first propagated by liberal apologists ready to accept the bloody man-
tle of class war as the necessary price of progress, that, characteristically, an
ascending class would rise up to cast aside a previously dominant class
174   G. C. COMNINEL

whose time had passed. It was generally recognized that to prevail against
the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie had had to involve the people. Yet, if on
the one hand there was much to unify the Third Estate, as “the Nation”,
against the aristocracy, who were opposed to the Nation, it was clear on
the other hand that there was a crucial division between the interests of
the propertied bourgeoisie, and those of the poor. As early as 1791 a fierce
debate arose, in deciding whether there should be a property qualification
for elections, over the difference in interests between the bourgeoisie and
the people (or as the apologists for the bourgeoisie then put it, between
“the Nation” and “the brigands”).48 Through the involvement of the peo-
ple, the bourgeois political revolution of 1789 became a truly social
The tension between the bourgeois political project, which even in its
most radical Jacobin form always took the preservation of private property
to be a precondition of the state, and the social interests of the property-
less, for whom democracy could never be a merely “civic” right without
social implications, was an enduring feature of the Revolution’s political
dynamic. Though Robespierre was a truly incorruptible advocate for the
people as citizens, and he accepted the need to limit the negative effects of
property (at least temporarily, during the war), he would not cross the line
to advance the people’s interests by making a fundamental challenge to
property itself.50 This helps to explain why the sans-culottes did not rally to
his defence in 1794, while at the same time a movement (admittedly small)
began to distinguish itself from the merely political tasks of building and
defending the Nation, specifically advocating radical measures to redress
social inequality. As Marat had recognized from the start, the very fact of
the Revolution would eventually raise the issue of whether a loi agraire
should affect the distribution of property; and so, quite independently of
the development of capitalism in England, it was the Revolution of 1789
that put the idea of socialism on the European political agenda.
The autonomous political activism of the sans-culottes was decisively
crushed by the Thermidorean regime after their final insurrection on 1
prairial, and the Conspiracy of Equals was later dispatched with little dif-
ficulty. But babouvism survived Babeuf, and one of the legacies of the
Revolution was the small but growing socialist movement of the early
nineteenth century. Still, as their Marxist historians always recognized, the
sans-culottes never themselves constituted a capitalist working class, and
their common social interest lay in the provision of affordable bread rather
than the sale of commodified labour-power.51 By the early 1840s, French

workers were already highly conscious of what was now called “the social
question”, and increasingly identified with one or another of the
approaches to “socialism” articulated by Cabet, Blanc, Proudhon, and
others—even as they continued to maintain their compagnonnages.52 In its
origin, then, French socialism was no more specifically an indication of the
development of capitalist society than were the liberal politics of the bour-
geoisie in 1789.
However, much as the common characteristics of liberalism in England
and France tended to blur the crucial differences in their societies, so did
the idea of socialism tend to blur the differences in their workers’ move-
ments. In both England and France, workers fought for traditional rights,
as well as against novel inequities. In England, however, one enduring
form of struggle in the first half of the century, much emphasized by E. P.
Thompson, was resistance to the capitalist demolition of precapitalist
rights of labour, and for retention of “honourable” control over the labour
process by the workers themselves. At the same time, workers fought to
maintain their rate of pay in the face of competition from “dishonourable”
trades, and argued for preservation of the Speenhamland system of poor
relief for the unemployed and underemployed, even if it had been initially
imposed by justices of the peace in the interest of maintaining public
order. From early in the modern period, indeed, the English maintained a
system of poor relief based on taxes that differed from all other European
approaches to poverty, which can be seen to be part of the long process of
adaptation by an increasingly capitalist form of state to the pressures atten-
dant on the continuing development of capitalism.53 In trying to preserve
what they came to see as their right to relief, workers were not, in fact,
fighting to hold on to a part of “the old order”, but were engaged in con-
tinuing struggle over the responsibility of the state for social welfare in a
capitalist society.
In France, during the first half of the century, struggle was character-
ized instead by essentially traditional artisans—reinforced in that status by
post-Revolutionary labour law—confronting what had become a chronic
condition of underemployment. Where English workers in the 1830s
sought to keep the state from eliminating poor relief, the last refuge from
the naked effects of “the labour market”, in France the demand instead
emerged for the state to address the chronic problem of underemploy-
ment through establishing workshops to create jobs. Only in the course of
the latter half of the century did the French workers’ movement slowly
come to include the struggles of workers in proletarianized industries; but
176   G. C. COMNINEL

these newer, more capitalist struggles often took place at the same time
that artisanal workers continued to press for traditional demands. This
tension played a pivotal role in the development of socialism in France,
particularly insofar as anarcho-syndicalism came to constitute a significant
challenge to the socialist organizational project of the French Section of
the Workers’ International (as French socialists insisted on calling them-
selves until a decade after the establishment of the Fifth Republic). The
syndicalist emphasis on direct action and organization by workers in the
workplace resonated powerfully with the traditional corporatist organiza-
tion and struggles of the artisans. The contrast with the development of
the trades unions in Britain, and eventually the emergence of Labourism
from a Liberal-Labour alliance, is telling. The greater political radicalism
and relatively lesser development of effective unions among French work-
ers, throughout the nineteenth, and well into the twentieth century, was
not, in fact, a hallmark of the advanced proletarian character often imputed
to them, but rather of the later and less intensive development of industrial
capitalism in France.
In England, a working-class had made itself through struggle over the
establishment of capitalist property rights, capitalist forms of production,
and the capitalist laissez-faire state. In France, traditionally precapitalist
artisans and labourers had been radically politicized by the protracted
struggles among the propertied over the constitution of the state.
Traditional forms of economic organization, such as the guilds, might be
abolished for immediately political purposes, as when, on the night of
August 4, 1789, most of the forms of “privilege” recognized by the old
social order were thrown on the bonfire of revolutionary civic zeal.54 Such
political manifestations of liberalism were dictated by struggle against the
aristocracy itself, and not by an underlying agenda of capitalist economic
reforms. This is clear in the case of the guilds, as also with the abolition of
legal impediments to enclosure in the countryside, since, in both cases,
during and after the Revolution the same essential structure of precapital-
ist economic organization survived.

The Future Potential of the Manifesto

It is not, then, socialism as conceived by Marx that has failed to live up to
expectations. In the terms with which Marx conceived it, as the emancipa-
tory successor to capitalism, socialism was never really on the agenda in
the nineteenth century. The expectation that it was then on the agenda (as

even Marx thought) derived from a historical misunderstanding, based on

an inherently ideological misrepresentation of the politics and society of
late eighteenth-century France. The great fear in the first half of the nine-
teenth century was that of social revolution, in which the people—or at
least a mobilized part of them—would thrust themselves onto the political
stage, handing control over public policy to those who spoke on behalf of
popular interests. But the “socialist” character of the spectre then haunt-
ing Europe was derived from the political legacy of the French Revolution
and was no manifestation of the barely emerging class struggles specific to
capitalist society.
The class struggles of ancien régime France were struggles in a non-­
capitalist society, and it was these that gave rise to the politics of the French
Revolution. As capitalist relations of production were gradually intro-
duced to the Continent in the course of the nineteenth century, the devel-
opment of specifically capitalist forms of class struggle came to be marked
by this prior precapitalist political legacy. This is particularly evident in the
contrast between the highly politicized and consciously revolutionary
workers’ movements that took form on the Continent, and the largely
“economistic” trade unionism that prevailed in Britain after the final, glo-
rious manifestation of Chartism in 1848. From the perspective of more
than 150 years on, it is evident that it was not, in fact, the Continent that
was in the van of capitalist class struggle. It was the peculiarity of English
history that its people endured capitalist social relations long before any-
one else, and that its society was peculiarly shaped by that capitalism.55 As
European societies became increasingly capitalist, especially in the course
of the second half of the twentieth century, it is striking to what degree
they, in fact, have become more like the English.56
This is, of course, why the question of whether there is any validity at
all to the Manifesto arises today. The spectre that was haunting Europe in
the 1840s has certainly passed from the scene, whatever the future may
hold. The fervent hope of socialists from Marx to the New Left that
English trade unionists would learn to act more like Continental revolu-
tionaries has never been realized. Instead, most of what remains of the
organized European left seems to have embraced policies more akin to
those of the pro-capitalist parties.57 What, then, are we to make of the
Manifesto today?
The historical trajectory sketched in the Manifesto is that of the devel-
opment of capitalism as the ultimate form of exploitive class society. It is
this line of analysis that is at the heart of Marx’s historical materialism,
178   G. C. COMNINEL

expressed through his critique of political economy: first adduced in his

Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, theoretically deepened in
long passages of the Grundrisse, and presented in virtually complete form
in the three volumes of Capital. Aside from the signal error of projecting
this development onto the liberal account of European history as the rise
of the bourgeoisie, everything Marx had to say about the nature of capital-
ist society still holds.
Through his critique of Hegel and the merely radical politics of the
French Revolution, and his embrace of popular struggles for social justice,
Marx had been a “socialist” even before he began the critique of political
economy. But the socialist transformation which he conceived through his
confrontation with the guiding principles of capitalism had a dramatically
different character than anything that had been conceived before. This
socialism was conceived as the product of class struggles specific to capital-
ist society, where ultimately there would no choice but to bring an end to
the whole history of class societies in order to secure the interests which
the working-class majority have in putting an end to exploitation through
the commodification of labour-power.
We can recognize today the errors of the view that the ascendancy of
capitalist society was achieved through bourgeois revolution, a historical
conception rooted in the ideology of European liberalism. Nowhere was a
feudal landlord class overthrown by a capitalist bourgeois class. Instead,
the dominant class of English feudalism became the dominant class of
English agrarian capitalism, and progenitors of the capitalist class in mod-
ern industrial capitalism. As industrial capitalist production spread through
the mechanisms of the market and geopolitical competition, the dominant
classes of precapitalist societies generally were transformed in their turn.
The history of the origin and development of capitalism, then, can be seen
to have depended largely on the unintended consequences of actors in
other forms of class society pursuing interests grounded and understood
in terms of the class relations of those societies. Just as capitalism had its
origins in the dynamics of precapitalist class societies, Marx argued that
the classless society of socialism would have its origins in the dynamics of
capitalism and its own class struggles. This is not to assert that the achieve-
ment of socialism must be as historically unconscious as the development
of capitalism may have been. However, it points to an ultimate potential
for fundamental social change in actions taken in pursuit of perceived class
interests within an existing context of class exploitation. By 1844, Marx
had abandoned his initial idea that it would be the philosophers who

would lead the way to human emancipation, arguing instead that the very
structure and contradictions of capitalist class society would lead the
working-­ class majority to end class society as such through its self-­
emancipation. The politics of class interest, not disinterested philosophy,
held the key to the transcendence of class society. And so the Manifesto
was issued as a call for class struggle.
The known history of societies may indeed be the history of class strug-
gles, but the Manifesto makes it clear that these societies have had different
specific forms, with differing forms of class struggle. Capitalism, more-
over, is unique in that its class relations take an apparently purely eco-
nomic form, in contrast to the extra-economic coercion that is characteristic
in every precapitalist form. It is essential, therefore, not to confuse the
class struggle which is specific to capitalist society with the sorts of strug-
gles found in earlier times.
With this in mind, it is significant that the idea of redistributing wealth
in the interest of social justice can be traced back to the ancient world,
finding notable expression in the Agrarian Law championed by the broth-
ers Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus in the second century BC (leading to
their successive murders at the hands of the thugs of Roman Senators).
When similar ideas surfaced during the French Revolution, the links to the
past were again obvious, in the references made to a loi agraire as early as
1789, and subsequently in the name adopted by Gracchus Babeuf, as well
as the goals he espoused. The ideas of babouvism made an important con-
tribution to the politics of the nineteenth century, along with other social-
ist conceptions and schemes for the redistribution of wealth. Yet all had far
more in common with the social issues of dispossessed peasants and urban
plebeians than with solutions to the problems of capitalist society, and they
were no more indicative of the development of capitalism than the radical
republicanism of the Jacobins. The legacy of such socialist ideas and move-
ments played an important role in the later development of specifically
capitalist workers’ movements, of course, as did the ideal of a democratic
citizens’ republic. They constituted an important lineage of radical thought
and action which—whatever their defects—were often an asset in organiz-
ing struggles within and against capitalism. However, particularly because
it was Marx and Engels in the Manifesto who first distinguished the com-
munist project of the capitalist working class from all the utopian socialist
ideas of the past, it is crucial to recognize that (especially on the Continent)
this radical legacy had its origin in social struggles within fundamentally
non-capitalist societies.
180   G. C. COMNINEL

In the terms of the day, then, Marx was certainly a socialist in 1843. He
had a highly developed socialist critique of merely Jacobin radicalism and
embraced the struggles of working people and the dispossessed in his jour-
nalism. But this sort of socialism, even when pushed by Marx to conceive
of the potential for human emancipation through the transcendence of
alienation in society, was still very different from the specific conception of
socialism that he developed through the critique of political economy,
beginning in 1844. The difference lies not so much in the goal of emanci-
pation, as in the conception of a historical process of class struggle that
would lead to it. Through the critique of political economy, Marx con-
ceived of the emancipation of humanity through the self-emancipation of
the capitalist working class. Exploitation had achieved its most perfectly
realizable form in capitalism, and with no further capacity to develop
alienation, class society would come to an end with it through its own
inescapable contradictions and the class struggle generated by them. This
is the key to the project outlined in the Manifesto. The conflation of this
process with the social conflicts of precapitalist Europe was an error, as was
Marx’s acceptance of the liberal accounts of 1789 as a bourgeois class
revolution. But these errors take nothing away from the core of the ideas
put forward in the Manifesto, which Marx went on to develop with great
clarity through the more rigorous critique carried out in the Grundrisse
and Capital. However inspiring the socialism of Babeuf and the others, it
is the project of ending the commodification of labour-power and the
tyranny of market forces over social life which remains relevant to us today,
and it is this which is the legacy of the Manifesto.
The weaknesses of the Manifesto have everything to do with looking
back to 1789, while its strengths involve looking forward to the role of
class struggle within capitalist society, and its capacity to bring about an
end to the history of class society as such. The confusion of the issues of
capitalism with the issues of the aftermath of the French Revolution was
virtually universal at the time, and Marx’s failure to recognize it can be
attributed to the fact that, after turning from the issues of the Revolution
to those of capitalist society, he never had occasion to re-examine his initial
presumptions about the nature of the historical conjuncture. Marx, in fact,
proved amazingly perceptive in the Manifesto. He claimed that Europe in
1848 was on the verge of revolution, and a great wave of revolution in fact
coincided with its publication. He recognized fundamental truths about
the nature of capitalist society—truths widely acknowledged by a range of
commentators looking back from the present—at a time that it had still
barely taken form even in England.

If the European politics of the day were not in fact yet the politics of
capitalist class society, and the politics that have developed since have been
very different from what was anticipated on the model of the French
Revolution, this takes nothing away from the essential message put for-
ward in the Manifesto. Clearing away its historical errors, we are left with
the understanding that the history of hitherto existing society has been the
history of class struggles; that, in capitalism, class society has realized its
ultimate form; that it is crisis-ridden as well as incapable of delivering
social justice; and since, if capitalism is not to last forever, the only way
forward is through socialism (the alternative being a relapse into more
manifest forms of social injustice), the pursuit of the class interests of the
majority in ending insecurity and want has the potential to liberate human-
ity from the indignity of class exploitation. In these terms, it is as true
today as it was in 1848: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their
chains. They have a world to win.”

1. Karl Marx, and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party,
MECW, vol. 6, 477–519.
2. D.C.  Coleman, The Economy of England 1450–1750 (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1977).
3. Vladimir Lenin, “What Is to Be Done?” in V.  I. Lenin: Collected Works
(Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1961), 5.
4. See George C. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and
the Revisionist Challenge (London: Verso, 1987); Robert Brenner,
“Bourgeois Revolution and Transition to Capitalism”, in The First Modern
Society, ed. A.  L. Beier et  al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1989) and the postscript to Merchants and Revolution (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1993), 638–716; Ellen M. Wood, The Pristine
Culture of Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991); “The History of the
Market”, Monthly Review 46 (July/August 1994): 14–40; Democracy
Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1995).
5. Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution (Garden City,
NY: Anchor Books, 1955).
6. Ellen Wood, The Pristine Culture of Capitalism.
7. See François Guizot, Historical Essays and Lectures, ed. Stanley Mellon
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).
182   G. C. COMNINEL

8. On this point, the great Marxist historians of the sans-culottes are clear:
Albert Soboul, The Parisian Sansculottes and the French Revolution, 1793–
4 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964); George Rudé, The Crowd in
the French Revolution (London: Oxford University Press, 1959).
9. This understanding of the French Revolution is central to the arguments
of Marx’s contributions to the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher—see
MECW, vol. 3, 133–87. See also Marx’s argument against the politics of
his former friend Ruge in “Critical Notes on the Article: ‘The King of
Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian’”, MECW, vol. 3, 189–206, spe-
cifically citing Michel Chevalier on the bourgeois nature of the French
Revolution, and his later polemic against Karl Heinzen, “Moralizing
Criticism and Critical Morality”, MECW, vol. 6, 312–40, which first
appeared in the Deutsche-­Brüsseler Zeitung in 1847.
10. I discuss this historiography in some detail in Rethinking the French
Revolution, dealing with the works of Guizot, Mignet, Thierry, and
Barnave, among others.
11. G.  W. F.  Hegel, Philosophy of Right (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1967), 147, 161, 189.
12. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins
of Our Time (Boston: Beacon, 1957); Ellen M.  Wood, The Origin of
Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2002), 21–6.
13. Henri de Saint-Simon, “The Catechism of the Industrialists”, in The
Political Thought of Saint-Simon, ed. G.  Ionescu (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1976), 182–203.
14. Michael Zmolek. Rethinking the Industrial Revolution (Leiden: Brill,
15. This is the central argument of Rethinking the French Revolution.
16. See T. H. Ashton and C. H. E. Philpin, eds., The Brenner Debate: Agrarian
Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), and Gwyn Williams,
“Twenty Years After”, in Artisans and Sans-Culottes: Popular Movements
in France and Britain During the French Revolution, 2nd ed. (London:
Libris, 1989), xiii–xlii.
17. As detailed in Zmolek, Rethinking the Industrial Revolution.
18. See Brenner’s two articles in The Brenner Debate, as well as Wood, Pristine
Culture, and Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution.
19. I have pursued in some detail the unique character of the legal social prop-
erty relations that developed in England following the Norman Conquest
in “English Feudalism and the Origins of Capitalism”, Journal of Peasant
Studies 27, no. 4 (July 2000), 1–53.

20. While important changes did take place in agriculture in the Netherlands
and Flanders, these changes did not lead to development of the classic
“trinity formula” of landlords, capitalist tenant-farmers, and workers. The
Low Countries introduced many agrarian innovations that proved impor-
tant—not least when adopted in England—but they did not produce
agrarian capitalism. There was, however, no transformation to speak of in
the agriculture of France, Germany or Spain.
21. Marx’s insistence upon the difference between the capacity for merchants
to make profits in trading commodities and the specifically capitalist pro-
duction of surplus value is central to the approach I share with Wood and
Brenner. On the failure, even of many Marxists to recognize this distinc-
tion in the development of capitalism, see Robert Brenner, “On the Origins
of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism”, New
Left Review 104 (1977): 25–92. For a clear exposition of Marx’s concep-
tion of capitalism and of the nature of work in capitalist society, see the first
few chapters of Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital (New
York: Monthly Review Press, 1974). These chapters stand on their own,
notwithstanding the “monopoly capital” approach that figures later in the
22. Wood, Origin of Capitalism; Comninel, “English Feudalism”.
23. E. P. Thompson was chiefly responsible for documenting this transforma-
tion and the resistance to it by the people of England, notably in The
Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968)
and Customs in Common (New York: The New Press, 1991). A powerful
overview, however, was provided by Marx himself in the section on “The
So-Called Primitive Accumulation” which closes Capital, Volume I,
MECW, vol.35, 704ff. The classic account of the impact of enclosures is
that of R. H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (New
York: Franklin, 1912). I discuss Tawney’s account and offer a critique of
the revisionist historians that have challenged it in “English Feudalism and
the Origins of Capitalism”.
24. It was Engels who offered the first intimation of this merger, identifying
the “struggle of capital and land against labour” in “Outlines of a Critique
of Political Economy”, in MECW, vol. 3, 434. Throughout Capital, Marx
deals with the two classes of workers and capitalists. In the final, unpub-
lished chapter of Volume 3 entitled “Classes” (Capital, Volume III,
MECW, vol. 37, 870–1), he returns to consider the trinity of landlord,
capitalist, and worker that appear in classical political economy, the very
classes with which he had first begun his critique in the Economic and
Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.
25. Wood, Origin of Capitalism, pp. 35–7.
184   G. C. COMNINEL

26. Wood, Pristine Culture, 3–19.

27. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution, 182–93.
28. See Thompson, Customs in Common, especially the chapter, “Custom,
Law, and Common Right”.
29. William H. Sewell, Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labour
from the Old Regime to 1848 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
30. Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: NLB, 1974), 18.
31. François Bluche, Les magistrats du parlement de Paris au xviiie siècle (1715–
1771) (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1960).
32. All of this is discussed in the concluding chapter of Rethinking the French
33. See particularly Wood, Pristine Culture, and Brenner, “Bourgeois
Revolution”. Also see Neal Wood, John Locke and Agrarian Capitalism
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) and The Politics of Locke’s
Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), as well as Ellen
M. Wood and Neal Wood, A Trumpet of Sedition: Political Theory and the
Rise of Capitalism, 1509–1688 (London: Pluto Press, 1997).
34. Marx and Engels, Manifesto, 486; Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist
Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1969). Miliband uses this
quote to frame his whole enquiry.
35. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (New York: Vintage Books, 1973); Capital, Volume
III, MECW, vol. 37, 777–8.
36. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution, 64–74. For a brilliant analy-
sis of the origins and implications of the classical liberal stages theory, see
Ronald Meek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).
37. A. P. J. M. Barnave, Introduction à la Révolution française, translated and
edited by Emanuel Chill as Power, Property, and History (New York: Harper
and Row, 1971).
38. The Whig view of history as progress realized through the rise of the mid-
dle class was already well established in England, and moderate French
liberal historians sought to appropriate this perspective to legitimate the
early stages of the Revolution. Thierry, for example, published an account
of the English Civil War as a bourgeois revolution, and in these terms a
major historical advance, just two years after the final defeat of Napoleon,
during the deeply reactionary days of the Restoration. See Augustin
Thierry, “Vue des révolutions d’Angleterre”, in Dix ans d’Études historiques,
Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Furne, Jouvet, 1851), 6. Thierry relied on his
French audience to read between the lines of this history of England, an
indication that the liberal interpretation already was familiar to them as
well. See also Stanley Mellon, The Political Uses of History: A Study Social
Science and the Ignoble Savage of Historians in the French Restoration
(Stanford: University Press, 1958).

39. Wood, Pristine Culture, and “The State and Popular Sovereignty in French
Political Thought: A Genealogy of Rousseau’s ‘General Will,’” in History
from Below: Studies in Popular Protest and Popular Ideology in Honour of
George Rudé, ed. Frederick Krantz (Montréal: Concordia University,
40. Wood, “The State and Popular Sovereignty in French Political Thought”.
41. Sir Thomas Smith, A Discourse of the Commonwealth of This Realm of
England, ed. Mary Dewar (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia,
1969). For further discussion, see Neal Wood, Foundations of Political
Economy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).
42. MECW, vol. 3, n117, 606, and Marx’s notebook excerpts from the
Mémoires de R. Levasseur, to which the note refers.
43. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution, 198–9.
44. Wood, “Popular Sovereignty”.
45. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, MECW, vol. 3,
46. Marx and Engels, Manifesto, 498.
47. Ibid., 490.
48. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution, 108–9.
49. For a discussion of the French Revolution as a social revolution, and a
vindication of Georges Lefebvre’s views, shorn of the conventional gloss of
“bourgeois revolution” that he applied to them, see George Comninel,
“Quatre-vingt-neuf Revisited: Social Interests and Political Conflict in the
French Revolution”, Historical Papers—Communications historiques
(1989): 36–52.
50. George Rudé, Robespierre: Portrait of a Revolutionary Democrat (London:
Collins, 1975).
51. Soboul, The Parisian Sansculottes; Rudé, The Crowd in the French
52. Sewell, Work and Revolution, 219–22.
53. For a thorough exploration of this unique historical experience, see
Larry Patriquin, Agrarian Capitalism and Poor Relief in England, 1500–
1860: Rethinking the Origins of the Welfare State (London: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2007).
54. See the discussion of the night of August 4, 1789, in “Quatre-vingt-neuf
55. For a brilliant exploration of this theme, see Wood, Pristine Culture.
56. This is not, of course, to deny that crucial national differences continue to
exist, reflecting the specific historical experiences of capitalist development
in different precapitalist social contexts. Notwithstanding centuries of cul-
tural, religious, political, and economic interactions, the histories of Italy,
186   G. C. COMNINEL

Germany, France, and Spain have been very different. The persistence of
significant national differences is far easier to understand if capitalist devel-
opment is recognized to have been late, and external in origin, rather than
all of Western Europe presumed to have developed along a common path
for more than a millennium. Though greater homogeneity may lie in the
future of Europe, the historical legacies of national difference are unlikely
to fade any time soon.
57. The hopeful radical turns of left parties in Greece, Spain, and even Britain,
will have to be evaluated over the course of time.

Debating Marx’s Conception

of Class in History

Historical Materialism Versus

Economic Determinism
The purpose behind Marx’s historical materialism, including both the cri-
tique of political economy and his political works, was exposure of the
specific class character of capitalist society, against liberal ideological claims
to the contrary. His works were to serve as a guide and a complement to
the development of socialist revolutionary class struggle. Except for the
texts published as “The German Ideology”, Marx’s work always had as its
central focus the nature of capitalist society, only occasionally glancing
retrospectively at precapitalist social relations (as in The Grundrisse). His
comments on precapitalist social forms belong, for the most part, to the
critique of political economy, and their point was to describe the specific
form such relations take under capitalism. Such comments were intended
to distinguish what the relations had become from what they had been,
always from the point of view of the evolution of capitalism and without
serious regard for their actual roles in precapitalist class societies.
This was a conscious approach. It was for Marx’s purposes sufficient to
assert that the history of human social development has been the dynamic
history of exploitive class society. The historical details might be interest-
ing, they might in some ways be suggestive, but they were not essential in
the way that the detailed critique of political economy and close political
analysis of contemporary class society were; a rough overview of history

© The Author(s) 2019 187

G. C. Comninel, Alienation and Emancipation in the Work
of Karl Marx, Marx, Engels, and Marxisms,
188   G. C. COMNINEL

was adequate, the rest could be presumed. For this reason, the one aspect
of liberal ideology which remained largely uncriticized by Marx was his-
tory. The consequent failure of Marx’s “historical” formulations to
describe the conditions and processes of precapitalist class societies really
has no bearing on his lifework. It is the misguided efforts of Marxists to
construct a history of precapitalist modes of production from his paltry
sketches and retrospective analyses that are problematic; the errors in his
own published works do not significantly affect the purposes for which
they were intended.
If Marx’s failure to criticize liberal historical conceptions can be attrib-
uted to the fact that history lay outside his focus of study, the same cannot
fairly be said of those suggestions of economic or technological determin-
ism which can be found in his work. Correcting the impression that his-
torical materialism is economic determinism has been a major theme of
Marxist thought in recent years.1 Yet while it has been argued that eco-
nomic determinism contradicts Marx’s historical materialism, and runs
directly counter to the critique of political economy, it must be admitted
that support for such determinism can genuinely be found in a number of
the brief statements of their work that were made by Marx and Engels,
qualifications notwithstanding.
An inclination towards economic determinism—and at times the
straightforward embrace of it—has therefore persisted within Marxism.
The economic determinist argument—which may imply or even be frankly
stated in terms of a technological determinism, as in G. A. Cohen’s Karl
Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense—is rooted in the metaphor of “base
and superstructure”, as undeniably utilized by Marx and Engels, most
notably in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political
Economy.2 An exhaustive treatment of the subject of base and superstruc-
ture is not possible here, but from the foregoing discussion of the origins
and character of historical materialism, it should be clear that the point of
departure and continual focus of Marx’s central work was not “the eco-
nomic base” but class exploitation.
It was with relations of exploitive production—alienated labour—that
Marx began, not the idea of the determination of social behaviour by the
structured activities of production. Indeed, it was only in “The German
Ideology” that Marx came to state his basic historical conception of social
development in terms of determination by stages in the process of pro-
duction—terms which are strongly redolent of the liberal mode of subsis-
tence theory. All subsequent Marxist formulations of economic/technical

determinism clearly are derived from that account. Yet, by attributing the
development of both class and property forms—and so, by his analysis,
the whole line of human social development—to the effects of the “divi-
sion of labour”, in a conception rooted in natural/technical processes,
Marx was engaging in the sort of abstract-formal and anachronistic analy-
sis which he soon came to criticize.

Marx and the Division of Labour

Marx would never again attribute so central a role to the concept of the
division of labour. Indeed, in the course of his critique of political econ-
omy—in which one might expect the category to loom large, judging
from Adam Smith’s heavy emphasis upon it—the role of the division of
labour is remarkably limited. In his important introductory essay in the
Grundrisse,3 in which he clarifies his analysis of “production in general”,
the “general relation between production, distribution, exchange and
consumption”, and “the method of political economy”, he barely men-
tions the division of labour. The entire point of his analysis is to situate the
subject of political economy in the context of global and historical human
production. Yet, precisely because Marx rejects the idea of “production in
general”, which the bourgeois economists present

as encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, at which opportu-

nity bourgeois relations are then quietly smuggled in as the inviolable laws on
which society in the abstract is founded,4

he has no room for an abstracted conception of the division of labour as

some universal driving force of production. Instead, he indicates only that
exchange, a category in which he is very much interested as an aspect of the
production of commodities, requires the division of labour, and that divi-
sion of labour is numbered among the “determinant, abstract, general
relations” which the political economists first analyse, in order to recon-
struct the operation of the economic system as a whole.5 This penetration
of the abstract operation of “the economy”, however, is predicated upon
first recognizing the specificity of its subject: capitalist production. In A
Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, a redraft of one of the
chapters of the Grundrisse, Marx again makes limited reference to the divi-
sion of labour: he observes that the social division of labour might be
developed without commercial exchange, but since he is concerned with
190   G. C. COMNINEL

political economy and capitalism, he simply notes its necessary underpin-

ning of the production of commodities.6
Finally, in Capital, Marx devotes one chapter to the division of labour,
out of the thirty-three contained in Volume I. Here, he not only settles
accounts with the difference between social and technical division of
labour, but he makes the point that the role of the division of labour with
which the political economists were preoccupied is unique to capitalism.
In the first place—and crucially, given the earlier points of confusion—

in spite of the numerous analogies and links connecting them, division of

labour in the interior of society, and that in the interior of a workshop, differ
not only in degree, but also in kind.7

The social division of labour is found in all societies, “whether such divi-
sion be brought about or not by exchange of commodities”.8 The produc-
tion of commodities—which is the essential focus of Capital—is, of course,
predicated upon the social division of labour. This, however, does not
mean that the production of commodities is itself in any way a “natural”
necessity: on the contrary, the organization of social production based on
quite elaborate division of labour, without internal commodity exchange,
has existed in a number of societies, such as ancient Egypt.
Moreover, not only is there a basic difference between the production
of commodities, as such, and social division of labour in the production of
articles for use, but there is an even more profound difference between the
social production of commodities and the technical division of labour in
the workshop. The latter “is a special creation of the capitalist mode of
production alone”.9 Whereas the social division of labour is a means of
organizing social production as a whole, the division of labour in the
workshop is a specific means of maximizing the production of surplus
value for the capitalist. The “natural” drive to increase productivity, the
very association with the progress of technique, is specifically historical in

By decomposition of handicrafts, by specialisation of the instruments of

labour, by the formation of detail labourers, and by grouping and combin-
ing the latter into a single mechanism, division of labour in manufacture
creates a qualitative gradation, and a quantitative proportion in the social
process of production; it consequently creates a definite organisation of the
labour of society, and thereby develops at the same time new productive

forces in the society. In its specific capitalist form … manufacture is but a

particular method of begetting relative surplus-value, or of augmenting at
the expense of the labourer the self-expansion of capital … It creates new
conditions for the lordship of capital over labour. If, therefore, on the one
hand, it presents itself historically as a progress and as a necessary phase in
the economic development of society, on the other hand, it is a refined and
civilised method of exploitation.10

To underscore the distinctive quality of this division of labour, Marx

points to the fact that political economy conceives of the division of labour
exclusively in terms of “the means of producing more commodities with a
given quantity of labour”, whereas the authors of classical antiquity entirely
ignored any quantitative implications of division of labour, and instead
saw in it the means to improve the quality of the product, and the talent
of the producer.11
From the perspective of his fully mature work, then, it is clear that the
conception presented in “The German Ideology” of a natural and strongly
technical impetus behind the division of labour as the fundamental source
of social development could no longer be sustained. For, that conception
attributes the specific and peculiarly economic character of the division of
labour found in the capitalist workshop to the social division of labour in
the abstract. Such an application of economic concepts to societies, in
general, is an anachronism of the first order:

Labour seems a quite simple category. The conception of labour in this

general form – as labour as such – is also immeasurably old. Nevertheless,
when it is economically conceived in this simplicity, “labour” is as modern a
category as are the relations which create this simple abstraction.12

It is this line of critical thought, grounded in the critique of political

economy, that was central to Marx’s work, emphasizing the social determi-
nation of relations of production in contrast to their supposedly “natural”
character, and revealing the class exploitation disguised by this ideology.
The relatively uncritical use of political economic ideas in “The
German Ideology”, in conjunction with the general schema of the stages
theory of development, permitted the excessively philosophical and
abstract-formal conception of point-by-point correlation between tech-
nological development, division of labour, forms of property, and class
structure. Marx and Engels had arrived at the view that production is
192   G. C. COMNINEL

“social”; but both production and society were still conceived by them in
the terms of political economy, and were not yet historicized by any criti-
cism of abstract-formal materialism.
Yet no more than a year passed before, in his next important work, The
Poverty of Philosophy, Marx explicitly criticized Proudhon precisely for his
anachronistic and technical conception of division of labour:

The division of labour is, according to M.  Proudhon, an eternal law, a

simple, abstract category. Therefore the abstraction, the idea, the word must
suffice for him to explain the division of labour at different historical epochs.
Castes, corporations, manufacture, large-scale industry must be explained
by the single word divide. First study carefully the meaning of “divide”, and
you will have no need to study the numerous influences which give the divi-
sion of labour a definite character in each epoch.13

Here, Marx argued that it was not the natural unfolding of the division
of labour that gave rise to Adam Smith’s workshop, but rather the imposi-
tion of new social relations by the exercise of capital, which made possible
the workshop and made necessary the further increase in division of
labour.14 This analysis clearly belongs to the line of the critique of political
economy. Marx had already abandoned the problematic terminology of
“The German Ideology” and its tendency towards a natural-deterministic
conception of social development, and once again emphasized the role of
class relations instead.

The Confusion of Liberal and Historical

Still, some Marxists have persevered in treating the base and superstruc-
ture metaphor, which Marx occasionally used, as the essence of his histori-
cal materialist method. Against this form of economic or technological
determinism—specifically G.  A. Cohen’s conception of the “social” as
determined by the “material”—Ellen Meiksins Wood argued that it
ignores or misinterprets the whole thrust of the Grundrisse and Capital:

Marx’s object is to criticize the mystifications of political economy which are

achieved precisely by beginning with “material production in general” and
then proceeding to treat the process of producing capital abstractly as if it
were the process of production as such.15

Any conception of historical development which is rooted in “nature” or

“material existence” reveals an underlying liberal ideological orientation
which displaces class exploitation as the central fact of history.
Materialism in the abstract is not enough, and it is not Marxist. Wood
states the matter clearly: the essence of historical materialism, “in contrast,
say, to the materialism of the political economists  – is precisely that it
socializes and historicizes the material base”.16
Any conception of the “social” or “social production” which does not
begin its analysis of a historical (Western) society with the fact of its class
character ultimately must reproduce liberal ideology by deriving “class”
from some presumed “natural” social relations of humanity, in just the
manner that political economy itself derives “classes” and “property” from
relations of “exchange” and the division of labour, taken in the abstract.
Classes do not emerge in a given society through the operation of pre-­
existing social processes. Instead, class is the initial and fundamental
determinant of social relations in exploitive class societies—a defining
characteristic of those societies. This is the cardinal point of historical
materialism, the point Marx recognized in 1844, and which forms the
historicizing context for his critique of political economy.
It may be objected that this conception of historical materialism is not
generally applicable to all human societies, in the way that determination
by relations of production, as such, claims to be—that it could not, for
example, be meaningfully applied to Trobriand Islanders in the social for-
mation which preceded their engagement with the commercial circuits of
the modern capitalist world. Indeed, it must be acknowledged that it
remains a general principle that every society can be fruitfully examined in
terms of its relations of production, and particularly the production and
appropriation of surplus, known to every human society beyond pure
hunting and gathering. The structure of these relations may be egalitarian
in some non-class societies and hierarchical in others.
Marx, however, was specifically concerned with those societies in which
production and surplus appropriation are organized in class ways; and the
historical dynamism he describes is that of class society. This is not to sug-
gest that there is a mystical separation of Western class society from other
types of society, or that the origins of class society cannot be considered by
historical materialism. On the contrary. There is, however, an all-­important
qualitative difference between recognizing that class relations of produc-
tion have been the specific basis of Western social reproduction, on the
one hand; and on the other, merely recognizing in production a general
194   G. C. COMNINEL

social character, without acknowledgement of the fundamental impact of

exploitive social relations.
The latter approach has been the tendency in both liberal political
economy (and economic history) and liberal materialist history (including
demographic “social” history). Unfortunately, as Robert Brenner, in par-
ticular, has argued, this is also characteristic of a tendency towards “neo-­
Smithian” Marxism, which approaches the origins of capitalist development
from the perspective of “economic growth”, or the rise of trade, in order
to account for underdevelopment as an aspect of world capitalism.17
Brenner’s series of articles rank among the most important efforts to apply
historical materialism to precapitalist societies, and at their core is a return
to the history of class struggle which is exemplary.
While it is clear that staunch economic determinists have failed entirely
to recognize the meaning of the critique of political economy, it must
again be admitted that the ambiguity and contradictions in Marx and
Engels’s work are real. The persistence of certain liberal concepts and per-
spectives in their thought is a matter that must be accounted for. After
Marx’s initial criticism of Hegel and liberal politics, his development of
historical materialism remained for a time associated with both philosophy
and political economy. Only after the development of a more complete
critique of political economy did Marx produce an analysis, specifically
limited to capitalist society, which was inherently free of liberal ideology.
There still remained, however, three main contradictory areas of Marx’s
thought, in which—for a variety of reasons—liberal conceptions were
taken to be consistent with historical materialism, and therefore were never
properly criticized as ideological.
In the first place, liberal materialist history had already recognized
classes, seen struggle between them as central to political history, and
asserted that economic progress was the key to bourgeois class strength—
so much is clear from Hume, Mignet, Guizot. It was not Marx who
claimed that the bourgeoisie was triumphant, but the bourgeois them-
selves. The French Revolution was their own—within limits, and save for
the subversive, radical democracy of the popular movement, whose raising
of the “social question” called for stern measures. Since Marx’s essential
political point was precisely that the politics of the French Revolution
served only the bourgeois class, and his primary concern thereafter was
with bourgeois class rule in capitalist society, he simply had no cause to
doubt the bourgeoisie’s own claim to a class revolution.

Marx also had no reason to call into question the pervasively held gen-
eral historical interpretations of progress, which recast in class terms
seemed only to support his overall conception of history. He could not
have had reason to question them, unless he were to investigate precapital-
ist society seriously, on its own terms. Not only was the theory of bour-
geois revolution standard history, dramatically turned to serve Marx’s
purposes, but it recommended a historical precedent for proletarian class
revolution and evoked the memories of earlier popular action. Remembering
that Marx’s thought began with the class politics of the French Revolution,
it is not surprising that he never criticized liberal history as a whole.
In the second place, while a criticism of liberal materialism was implicit
in the developed critique of political economy, the liberal materialist pre-
sumption that social development followed from economic development
did appear to provide an adequate account for the dynamic of liberal class
history. The contradiction was not immediately apparent, and without cre-
ating an entire alternative history, it would have been difficult to specify
any different dynamic. After “The German Ideology”, of course, Marx did
not attempt actually and specifically to describe the dynamic of class history
(and he never published that work). Instead, a simple correlation of the
stages of social relations of production with stages of the forces of produc-
tion continued to offer a convenient framework for history and an apparent
explanation for the emergence of classes. The ambiguity created by endow-
ing the “forces of production” with a broadly social definition appeared to
raise the argument above the level of determination by the division of
labour, per se—without actually contradicting it. This ambiguity can only
be resolved in favour of either the economic determinism of base/super-
structure or the dynamism of class exploitation in the social relations of
production. Historical materialism clearly, if implicitly, requires the latter.
A similar approach to explaining this ambiguity in Marx’s overall con-
ception of historical development is offered by Melvin Rader in his some-
what problematic Marx’s Interpretation of History. Rader asserts that
Marx’s mature insights are most faithfully expressed in the metaphor of
organic structure—which implies that the political and the economic are
inseparable, and that “production in its organic totality is internally related
to ‘moments’ that are not usually thought of as economic”; in short, that
society as an organic whole is characterized by class.18 Yet, he argues, there
remained a need for the base/superstructure metaphor also, in order to
emphasize the priority of production within this structure, as opposed to
the role of consciousness.
196   G. C. COMNINEL

There were, in fact, two different senses of “priority of production” for

Marx to convey. With regard to development within class societies, on the
one hand, the fundamental priority of “production” can be taken to mean
the priority of “alienated labour”—the extraction of social surplus—in
class relations. Class is not a function of ideology, status, and so on—
though it takes those forms as well—but a manifestation of the exploita-
tion of producers of social surplus that is inherent to certain, historically
specific social relations of production. The organic totality of class society
is a function of these class relations of production; and however imper-
fectly, the metaphor of base and superstructure helped to convey that “at
bottom” real issues of the creation, possession, and enjoyment of surplus
product were at stake in such relations.
With regard to social existence generally, on the other hand, it is the
materiality of social reproduction, the fundamental reality of human self-­
creation, which must be stressed—a reaffirmation of the broad materialist
perspective argued in “The German Ideology”. Insofar as the base/super-
structure underscores the priority of material reproduction in social exis-
tence, it serves this purpose. To the degree, however, that the metaphor
implies the determination of social development uniquely, or even pre-
dominantly, at the level of productive technique, it comes into contradic-
tion with historical materialism. Because the only developmental link which
Marx ever offered between the generally fundamental character of social
production and the specific dynamic of exploitive class relations was that of
progress in the division of labour, and because he never entirely repudiated
the association of level of technique with stage of society, Marx’s use of the
metaphor must be recognized to involve real contradictions.
Finally, the liberal conception of the French Revolution had a lasting
impact on Marx’s political thought and his expectations for proletarian
revolution. Marx began as a radical-democratic critic of both absolutism
and liberalism, in the wake of the French Revolution. He had decided on
the “necessity” of revolution by a universal class and had seen this class in
the proletariat before he developed historical materialism through the cri-
tique of political economy. His further studies—and exposure to proletar-
ian movements—confirmed his belief that such revolution was needed,
and led him to announce its inevitability. Together with Engels, Marx
became an active communist—in the main, a journalist and propagandist
for proletarian and democratic revolution, against utopian, “feudal”, and
petty bourgeois socialism. Then, with the passing of 1848, and a return to
capitalist prosperity for another cycle, Marx accepted that the immediate
prospect of revolution was gone, but not its inevitability.19

Marx’s Conflation of Historical Necessities

The issue of “necessity” in Marx’s writings is problematic and is essential to
a full understanding of the persistence of liberal materialism in Marxist
thought. Marx’s critique of political economy as historical materialism is
not being challenged here. The many arguments which have been raised
over Capital, and the supposed necessity of revising its analysis claimed by
many Marxists, all relate to the prognosis for capitalism and its ability to
sustain growth—in other words, these arguments ultimately concern the
prospect of proletarian revolution. In hindsight, it can be seen that Marx and
Engels leapt forward a whole era in their understanding of capitalism’s class
dynamics, mistaking the struggles of early capitalist society for its death
throes. To what extent this misperception, the erroneous conception of
bourgeois class revolution, and philosophical tinges of determinism which
were never fully repudiated, may have combined to produce misleading
conclusions about the specific processes to be expected in proletarian revo-
lution is an issue which must still be taken up by historical materialists.
What becomes apparent from a consideration of the history of Marxism is
not that the belief in the “necessity” of proletarian revolution is wrong, but
that the various meanings of this necessity have been confused.
Historical materialism, recognizing exploitation in the very fabric of
history, is inherently value-laden as well as “scientific”—and this is no less
true of the critique of political economy, as Lucio Colletti, in particular,
often argued.20 Colletti’s perspective is a corrective to E. P. Thompson’s
evaluation of the critique of political economy. Thompson goes too far in
criticizing Marx’s “Grundrisse face” precisely because he recognizes the
tendency among many Marxists to “disinfect” Capital of its essential value
Marx does not only lay bare the economic processes of exploitation,
but he also expresses (or presents his material so as to evoke) indignation
at suffering, poverty, child labour, waste of human potentialities, and con-
tempt for intellectual mystifications and apologetics.21
This “moral” attitude is not, however, simply an addition to Marx’s
argument, as Thompson seems to suggest. It is rather the impetus for the
critique of political economy, on the one hand, and the very substance of
that critique, on the other: capitalism is revealed to be only one system of
exploitation among many, while also the most dehumanizing.
Thompson criticizes Capital on the grounds that if the “moralistic”
elements are removed,
198   G. C. COMNINEL

a very considerable part of that work – the major part – could be taken just
as “what the English call ‘the principles of Political Economy’”: an analytic
critique of the existing “science”, and an exposition of an alternative “sci-
ence”, of economic functions, relations, and laws. That is, if we did not (for
exterior “reasons” of value) disapprove of exploitation, waste and suffering,
then we would find ourselves presented with an alternative lawed structure
of economic relations.22

Certainly, many Marxists do attempt to disinfect Capital. Yet Marx did

not intend it to be disinfected; it was consciously written as both critical
exposition of the Law of Value, and the critical analysis of capitalism as
class society.
In revealing capitalism to be an exploitive class society, in challenging
bourgeois ideological conceptions of human existence, in exposing the full
measure of dehumanization and its sources, and in pointing up the just,
heroic, and purposeful character of class struggle, writ large and small—in
all this, Capital accomplishes no less than that which the best historical
studies of class society hope to do. It is not a history, and at this late date,
a history of capitalist society is indeed overdue. Still, capitalism cannot be
understood as class society unless the hidden operation of the extraction
and distribution of surplus value—and the attendant contradictions of
development—are revealed. This, in both abstract-analytical and concrete
terms, is what Capital does.
The dialectical character of Marxism, as science and ideology, was a
special concern of Colletti’s. He considered the impact of this quality—
particularly the extent to which Marxism has been falsified by refusals to
accept this union—and the implications it ought to have. Of particular
importance is his argument that there is a real dialectic in the combina-
tion of science and ideology, grounded in a real opposition. Many
Marxists have mistakenly attempted to “resolve” this through the theory
of the crash: the theory that capitalism must crash because it cannot grow
infinitely, and that the crash necessitates revolution.
As Colletti argued, there are grounds in the critique of political econ-
omy for recognizing the impossibility of infinite capitalist expansion,
but this cannot be stated in the purely formal and structural terms of a
capitalist “law”, whatever else the implications of the “laws” of capital-
ism. Instead, “necessity” must be based on the historical prospect of
class struggle:

The system is not destined to an inevitable “crash” through a mechanical

impasse. The only factor that can destroy it is the clash of classes, a clash in
which, besides objective material conditions, all the subjective factors like
“class consciousness”, the degree of class unity and organization, and the
efficacy of each class’ “political instrument” participate.23

This once again emphasizes the dynamic centrality of class exploitation

and class struggle in historical materialism: the reproduction of society and
the creation of history, by human subjects, bound by class relations. No
mechanical, structural determinism can replace the process of history. The
necessity of communism can only be the historical necessity of real human
action, a revolutionary necessity—comprising moral, scientific, philosoph-
ical, political necessities, and so on—not an “objective”, “natural”, unilin-
ear necessity.
Yet it is true that Marx and Engels did reveal a tendency to conflate
these necessities, to confound the logically distinct forms of “necessity” in
their revolutionary perspective. All of these necessities are implied by his-
torical materialism and the critique of political economy, but they have
varying senses, and rest on different grounds. Marx argued the necessity of
humans realizing their emancipation and full potential in classless society;
the necessity of capitalist economic relations being limited by the contra-
dictions of their growth; the necessity of working-class struggle in its own
interests; the necessity of replacing irrational and atomized production for
profit with conscious production for social needs. These are all “necessi-
ties” for socialist revolution, but they are so in logically quite distinct ways.
In their different senses, they each make a contribution towards the deter-
mination of socialist revolution.
One of the most regrettable consequences of the persistence of liberal
materialism, and the inclination towards a natural-scientific determinism
of the “base” is that all of these differences become dissolved together in
a single overriding economic necessity. Clearly, in expressing their belief in
a revolutionary future, Marx and Engels were sometimes tempted by the
certainty suggested by this sort of materialism; most of their followers
have insisted upon it. Yet historical materialism cannot impose a false logi-
cal identity on such differing “necessities”; it cannot make socialism more
necessary than it really is by confounding different logics. The task of
historical materialism remains to bring together science and ideology, to
integrate these differing necessities in a concrete analysis of the ongoing
dynamic of class history.
200   G. C. COMNINEL

The Practice of Historical Materialism

Such an abstract exposition of the analytic method of historical material-
ism cannot really be satisfactory. Its high level of abstraction is almost a
denial of real historical class analysis; it is at most an indication of what
must be accomplished through historical practice. In fact, the foregoing
exposition is not truly a methodology, but an anticipation of what is to be
learned—a partial systematization of what historical materialist analysis can
yield. The methodological injunction of historical materialism is to locate
in actual history the dynamism of class exploitation and struggle and to
reveal the source of historical social change and human self-­development
in the dialectical determination of social structure by relations of class.
It is Thompson, again, who has put it best:

We have often been told that Marx had a “method”, that this method lies
somewhere in the region of dialectical reason, and that this constitutes the
essence of Marxism. It is therefore strange that, despite many allusions, and
several expressions of intent, Marx never wrote this essence down … If he
had found the clue to the universe, he would have set a day or two aside to
put it down. We may conclude from this that it was not written because it
could not be written, any more than Shakespeare or Stendahl could have
reduced their art to a clue. For it was not a method but a practice, and a
practice learned through practicing.24

The history of class society itself provides the structure of knowledge,

not any methodology of analysis. Of course, the initial decision must be
made to structure historical knowledge in terms of class; nothing can be
understood without conceptual structures. This is exactly the point of
Marx’s critique of liberal ideology: to provide a critical basis of knowledge
against the contrary assertion that class is an accidental by-product of
human nature and natural development. This, however, provides only the
point of entry, without guarantees, into historical knowledge.
With his somewhat too critical evaluation of Marx’s “Grundrisse face”,
Thompson, unfortunately, sees in Capital a work entrapped by the system
of political economy, and not a work of historical materialism: “Marx’s
hope of himself developing historical materialism in practice remains, very
largely, unfulfilled.”25
Thompson does not sufficiently credit the necessity of practising the
critique of political economy in capitalist society—a society in which the
effects of class exploitation may be apparent in the lives of workers, but not

the form of exploitation, nor its pervasive penetration of the whole fabric
of society. Yet it remains true that even Marx’s historical materialist analysis
of capitalism was never completed, or even advanced in properly historical
terms. The analysis of precapitalist societies—including the history of the
transition to capitalism—was never even attempted. The task of historical
materialism still lies ahead: to improve and extend the analysis of capitalist
society, and to make a comparable analysis for the rest of class history.
On the whole, this history will have little to do with Marx’s retrospective
glances at the antecedents to the political economic categories with which
he was primarily concerned. In general, Marx’s specific suppositions can be
expected to be proved wrong. Yet it is not hard to perceive that his overall
conception of history will be vindicated. There is much that can be recov-
ered from the histories that have already been written. And already in
Thompson’s and Brenner’s works can be found that focus on the concrete
history of class relations and the balance of class struggle which is essential
to historical materialism. Particularly in the contributions they have made
to the history of the transition to capitalism, the leading edge of historical
materialism can be seen emerging from the heavy fog of “Marxist theory”.
While a historical materialist interpretation of the French Revolution can
only truly follow from a great deal more work upon the society that lay
behind it—and not the society that lay ahead—the present work would not
be complete without some effort to anticipate how the method outlined
here might reveal a structure of exploitive class relations in the ancien régime
and relate it to the political conflict of “bourgeois” and ­“aristocrats”. The
conclusion which follows will, therefore, offer a preliminary historical syn-
thesis, incorporating most of the data the revisionists have used to criticize
the social interpretation. The evidence clearly suggests that the Revolution
was indeed the direct result of the conflicts and contradictions generated by
class relations of exploitation in the ancien régime, though in a fundamen-
tally different way than is usually associated with “bourgeois revolution”.

1. The work of Lucio Colletti can be cited, particularly his essays “Marxism as
Sociology” and “Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International”,
both in Lucio Colletti, From Rousseau to Lenin (New York, London:
Monthly Review Press, 1972), 3–108; and “The Theory of the Crash”,
Telos 13 (1972): 34–46, reprinted in Bart Grahl, and Paul Piccone, Towards
a New Marxism (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973). Raymond Williams’ critical
202   G. C. COMNINEL

discussion of the major categories of Marxist analysis in Marxism and

Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977) is particularly good.
For an excellent discussion from a perspective that is more philosophical
than Marxist, see Melvin Rader’s Marx’s Interpretation of History (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1979). For a direct confrontation of contempo-
rary economic determinism, see Ellen M. Wood, “The Separation of the
Economic and the Political in Capitalism”, in Democracy Against
Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
2. G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1978); Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of
Political Economy, Part One, ‘Preface’, MECW, vol. 29.
3. As noted previously, the text was written as an introduction for A
Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy but not published with it,
and has been included as part of the Grundrisse, written in the same period.
4. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 87.
5. Ibid., 99–100.
6. Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, MECW, vol.
29, 299–300, Marx, Grundrisse, 104; Marx, Contribution, 292, 328–9.
7. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, MECW, vol. 35, 359.
8. Ibid., 364.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid., 369–70.
11. Ibid.
12. Marx, Grundrisse, 103.
13. Karl Marx, Poverty of Philosophy, MECW, vol. 6, 179.
14. Ibid., 186.
15. Wood, “Separation”, 71.
16. Ibid., 74.
17. Robert Brenner, “On the Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of
Neo-Smithian Marxism”, New Left Review 104 (1977).
18. Rader, Marx’s Interpretation, 59.
19. Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (New York, London: Monthly
Review Press, 1978), 2: 250.
20. See works cited in endnote 1.
21. E. P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (London: Monthly
Review Press, 1978), 250.
22. Ibid.
23. Colletti, “Theory of the Crash”, 44.
24. Thompson, Poverty of Theory, 306.
25. Ibid., 258.

Historical Materialism and the Specificity

of Capitalism

Social Categories and Historical Social Formations

As is recounted and explored in the contributions to Marcello Musto’s
edited book Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the critique of political
economy 150 years later, the dissemination of Marx’s 1857 manuscript of the
critique of political economy—the Grundrisse had a major impact upon
understanding the development of Marx’s thought and the nature of his
method. One particularly well-known passage appears in the Introduction
to the manuscript:

Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic
organization of production. The categories which express its relations, the
comprehension of its structure, thereby also allows insights into the struc-
ture and the relations of production of all the vanished social formations out
of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly still unconquered
remnants are carried along within it, whose mere nuances have developed
explicit significance within it, etc. Human anatomy contains a key to the
anatomy of the ape. The intimations of higher development among the sub-
ordinate animal species, however, can be understood only after the higher
development is already known.1

My work has much in common with Ellen Meiksins Wood, whose con-
tribution to Musto’s book, “Historical Materialism in ‘Forms which p
­ recede
Capitalist Production’”,2 considers both the historical problems in Marx’s

© The Author(s) 2019 203

G. C. Comninel, Alienation and Emancipation in the Work
of Karl Marx, Marx, Engels, and Marxisms,
204   G. C. COMNINEL

specific formulations in the Grundrisse and the extent to which his overall
historical materialist analysis is nonetheless vindicated. My intention here is
to approach some of the same ideas from a somewhat different angle.
Marx does not begin his analysis in the Grundrisse historically and does
not start with an account of the “Forms which precede Capitalist
Production”. Instead, setting out to address “Production, Consumption,
Distribution, Exchange” as general categories of economic analysis, he
begins with “material production”. From the very start, however, he con-
trasts his critical approach with that of the political economists:

Individuals producing in Society − hence socially determined individual

production − is, of course, the point of departure. The individual and iso-
lated hunter and fisherman, with whom Smith and Ricardo begin, belongs
among the unimaginative conceits of the eighteenth-century Robinsonades.3
The more deeply we go back into history, the more does the individual,
and hence also the producing individual, appear as dependent, as belonging
to a greater whole.4
The human being is in the most literal sense a ζωον πολιτικóν [zoonpoli-
tikon, social animal], not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which
can individuate itself only in the midst of society.5

This conception of the individual in relation to society derives from,

and in these pages expresses, Marx’s understanding of the social whole as
an organic, developmental totality. This social totality comprises the entire
range of socially determined individual human activity, from the most per-
sonal and private, to the most collective and public, encompassing all
material and cultural manifestations of social life and its ongoing repro-
duction. This idea of social totality is one of the most significant and
enduring elements of Marx’s method, traceable to Hegel’s conception of
the historical development of society.
Indeed, in these pages, Marx can be seen to be more clearly drawn back
to Hegel’s methods of analysis than at any time since the mid-1840s. I
believe that this is precisely because of his growing understanding of the
specific character of capitalist social relations. On the one hand, a society
structured by capitalist social relations not only, like every society, exists as
a social totality, but it also is driven by a totalizing logic as it reproduces
itself. Leaping forward to the terms with which Marx develops this ­concept
of a totalizing logic in Capital, the Law of Value not only governs all eco-
nomic decisions within existing capitalist social reproduction, but compels
the growth and extension of the capitalist economy through processes of

increasingly incorporating previously non-capitalist forms and sectors of

production, establishing new forms of production, and transforming other
forms of society which it increasingly draws into its circuits of exchange.
On the other hand, as Marx increasingly appreciated in writing the
Grundrisse, this abstract, totalizing logic that governs capitalism is unique,
setting it apart from all earlier forms of social reproduction. It is unique not
merely in the particular details of its logic, but in the very fact that abstract
principles, rather than concrete rules, regulations, and traditions, informs
the processes of production. As expressed by the economic anthropologist
Karl Polanyi,6 whereas in all previous forms of social reproduction the econ-
omy was embedded within broader forms of social organization—kinship,
custom, religion, collective decision-making, the state—the market econ-
omy of capitalist social reproduction is disembedded and normally operates
subject only to its own internal principles. This self-­regulation of the econ-
omy by the market is fundamental to the capitalist mode of production.
Indeed, this totalizing logic, which Norman Levine has aptly described
as the essence of capitalism precisely as that term is conceived in Hegel’s
Logic,7 provides an abstract systemic character to the capitalist mode of
production for which there is nothing comparable in any other form of
social production. As Adam Smith first clearly articulated, capitalist pro-
duction—and with it, capitalist society as a whole—is organized through
the “invisible hand” of the market. As Ellen Meiksins Wood has argued,
this market principle of capitalist society is a form of compulsion, imposing
upon capitalist producers the obligation to compete through ceaseless
efforts to increase productivity, as well as to innovate in other ways. Only
in specifically capitalist society, internally driven by the Law of Value and
its totalizing logic, does the market impose such a compulsion on the pro-
cesses of social production. In other forms of societies in which market
exchange has existed—and, of course, contrary to the presuppositions of
the political economists, market exchange has not existed in all societies—
markets operate after the fact of production, and are not at all central to
their logic. Marx noted this in the Grundrisse with respect not only to
simple communal societies, but also at least some “very developed but
nevertheless historically less mature forms of society, in which the highest
forms of economy, e.g. cooperation, a developed division of labour, etc.,
are found”.8 The absence of the compulsion of general market regulation
makes an enormous difference in the processes of social reproduction,
even where market exchange may exist. In a society characterized by peas-
ant households producing in the first instance for their own subsistence,
206   G. C. COMNINEL

for example, peasants are not compelled to sell any surplus that they may
retain after meeting their obligations to the owners of the land and/or the
state. If market prices are high, they may indeed put effort into producing
more to take advantage of this opportunity. When prices are low, however,
they will instead be inclined to produce less, because it is not worth the
effort to produce the maximum, and by this means they may reduce sup-
ply to an extent that will restore prices to what is understood to be a nor-
mal level. They are, in any event, in control of the means of production—even
if they do not own them—and in possessing the means to produce their
own subsistence, the market remains for them only an opportunity, not a
means of compulsion.

Confronting the Specificity of Capitalism

It is precisely in the Grundrisse, as a work of self-clarification, that Marx
first began to discern such fundamental distinctions. As he brought to
bear tools of critical analysis that already were informed by a conception of
the social totality as a developmental whole, Marx increasingly came to
appreciate the extent to which his project of representing the systemic
structure of capitalist social relations—and exposing not only their essence
but their implications for workers—required a method of articulating con-
cepts that drew upon Hegel’s method. The crucial difference, of course, is
that Marx’s conception of the development of the social whole rejects
Hegel’s conception of the Idea unfolding through history to arrive at the
Universal. Instead, of course, for Marx history was made by living human
agents acting in their own capacity through the social relations that they
have collectively constructed and changed over time, though not under
conditions of their choosing.
It was in considering consciously the difference between the political
economists’ assertion of “timeless” economic categories, and his own
understanding that the categories of analysis must capture the historical
and social determination of the forms of social life, that Marx was increas-
ingly brought to contrast the social forms of the present with those of the
past. It is in the passages of the Introduction to the Grundrisse9 entitled
“The Method of Political Economy” that he first begins to undertake a
comparative analysis of precapitalist and capitalist forms of society, a
method of comparative analysis that he continued to extend and deepen in
subsequent work, especially Capital. What must again be emphasized is
that this developing method of historical-comparative analysis did not

emerge from nor was grounded in any historical narrative. It did not even
follow from recounting history as context for theoretical analysis. Instead,
it emerged immediately from the critique of political economy, and was
pursued in the systematic terms of his method of critique.
Within the articulation of his critique of political economy, his insights
into precapitalist forms of society are integral to the development of his
analysis of the capitalist mode of production.

In the succession of the economic categories, as in any other historical,

social science, it must not be forgotten that their subject − here, modern
bourgeois society − is always what is given, in the head as well as in reality,
and that these categories therefore express the forms of being, the character-
istics of existence, and often only individual sides of this specific society, this
subject, and that therefore this society by no means begins only at the point
where one can speak of it as such;… For example, nothing seems more natu-
ral than to begin with ground rent, with landed property, since this is bound
up with the earth, the source of all production and of all being, and with the
first form of production of all more or less settled societies − agriculture.
But nothing would be more erroneous. In all forms of society there is one
specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose rela-
tions thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination
which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity. It is a
particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which
has materialized within it … Among peoples with a settled agriculture … as
in antiquity and in the feudal order, even industry, together with its organi-
zation and the forms of property corresponding to it, has a more or less
landed-proprietary character … In bourgeois society it is the opposite.
Agriculture more and more becomes merely a branch of industry, and is
entirely dominated by capital.10

This grounding of his understanding of precapitalist social formations

directly through contrasting them with the specifically capitalist mode of
production is very different from other places in Marx’s work in which he
offers details with respect to historical societies on the basis of the work of
earlier, liberal historians.
As Ellen Wood argues in her chapter in Karl Marx’s Grundrisse, Marx’s
more detailed discussion of the “Forms which precede Capitalist Production”
contains a number of historical assertions that subsequent research has chal-
lenged. Historical knowledge has advanced enormously over the past century:
much of what once was universally accepted has been shown to be wrong, and
much that historians have discovered was completely unexpected. Today, the
208   G. C. COMNINEL

societies of ancient and medieval Europe are known in greater detail, and with
greater certainty, than at any previous time in the modern era. It should not
be surprising, therefore, that Marx’s directly historical accounts contain sup-
positions that have since been disproved.
But what is perhaps even more significant is that Marx explicitly gave
credit to “the liberal historians” for uncovering of the role of class in his-
tory,11 without distinguishing between their liberal ideas about classes and
his own historical materialist conception of classes engaged in antagonistic
relationships of exploitation. In many cases, as Ellen Wood, Robert Brenner,
and I have argued, those liberal accounts were constructed in directly ideo-
logical terms. Marx never undertook a critique of historical ideas compa-
rable to his critique of political economy, so their liberal ideology, prejudices,
and presuppositions escaped serious scrutiny. As a result, not only much of
the detail but even basic historical concepts that Marx incorporated into
the historical accounts within his work are neither accurate nor really
Marxist. Those places in his critique of liberal political economy where
Marx found himself compelled to differentiate that which was specific to
capitalism from that which was precapitalist are strikingly different from
this broad and relatively uncritical appropriation of historical ideas grounded
upon liberal ideological formulations. His recognition of the development
through history of the social forms and relations between labour and capi-
tal already was evident in his 1844 manuscripts. At that time, he had as yet
only an inkling of the relationship between earlier forms of the alienation
of labour and fully developed capitalist society, but he conceived of the
development of relations of surplus appropriation as “the movement of
property” through history. While he did not at this point recognize that
there were qualitatively different forms of society along the way, he already
conceived historical development in these terms:

Only at the culmination of the development of private property does this, its
secret, appear again, namely that on the one hand it is the product of
­alienated labour, and that on the other it is the means by which labour alien-
ates itself, the realization of this alienation.12

This clearly intimates that capital is distinct as the most fully developed
form of property relationship, though it does not yet distinguish between
that which is capitalist and that which is precapitalist.
The methodological assertion of just such a distinction in the
Introduction to the Grundrisse marks a huge advance in historical materi-
alist analysis. In drawing attention to the difference between the anatomy

of the ape and that of the human, Marx articulated the existence of quali-
tatively different social contexts, in which apparently identical social forms
of property and economic interaction may have very different characteris-
tics and implications. Then, on this basis, recognizing that capitalist soci-
ety contains the most fully developed social property relations, he pointed
to the analytical potential for learning about earlier forms precisely in
comparison with the later ones. It goes without saying that, as a dialectical
thinker, Marx also recognized that this use of the developed form to illu-
minate the earlier also offers the potential of shedding light on the pro-
cesses of development themselves.
One particular example that Marx pursues in these terms is labour,
which “seems a quite simple category”, and which “in this general form—
labour as such—is also immeasurably old”.13 “Nevertheless,” he contin-
ues, “when it is economically conceived in this simplicity, ‘labour’ is as
modern a category as are the relations which create this simple abstrac-
tion.” Marx had already, in his 1844 manuscripts, come to recognize that
the most fundamental capitalist social relations had a profoundly abstract
character, which he articulated in terms of the alienation of labour. Indeed,
as noted in Chap. 3, at the end of the first section of his manuscript,
“Wages of Labour”—beginning with the stark assertion that “Wages are
determined by the fierce struggle between capitalist and worker”14—he
posed a question that both summed up what the political economists had
themselves revealed about the antagonistic relations between labour and
capital, and his appreciation of its significance for the whole of history:
“What is the meaning, in the development of mankind, of this reduction
of the greater part of mankind to abstract labour?”
This abstract character is precisely a manifestation of the alienation of
labour that he analyses in detail in the subsequent section, “Estranged
Labour”. This alienation of labour is at the very heart of the capitalist
system and is the fundamental form of class exploitation, and as such, the
origin of property rather than its consequence. While, as is well known,
Marx does not use the terminology of alienation in Capital, it is telling
that he does use it in the Grundrisse, in the chapter on Capital:

Production based on exchange value, on whose surface this free and equal
exchange of equivalents proceeds, is at its base the exchange of objectified
labour as exchange value for living labour as use value, or, to express this in
another way, the relating of labour to its objective conditions – and hence to
the objectivity created by itself – as alien property: alienation [Entäusserung]
of labour.15
210   G. C. COMNINEL

Through these terms of analysis, then, Marx has come to understand

that the apparently simple category of labour, conceived as an abstract
generality, in fact results from a historical process of realizing the alien-
ation of labour in its most complete form. Thus, “the relation of labour to
capital, or to the objective conditions of labour as capital, presupposes a
process of history which dissolves the various forms in which the worker is
a proprietor, or in which the proprietor works”.16 The “original formation
of capital” is not the accumulation of means of subsistence, instruments of
labour, and raw materials; so-called primitive accumulation is not literally
the amassing of capital, but is instead a dissolution of the prior mode of
production that creates the ability to exchange money against “the living
labour of the workers who have been set free”.17

The Anatomy of the Ape

Through the articulation of such fully developed characteristics of capitalist
social relations in his critique of political economy, Marx identified key
aspects of precapitalist social formations. The qualitative difference between
capitalist and precapitalist societies—already established in the Grundrisse—
was subsequently more fully elaborated in crucial passages in the third vol-
ume of Capital. In chapter 47 of Volume III, on “The Genesis of Capitalist
Ground-rent”, Marx was compelled to return to the specific character of
precapitalist societies in order to account for the peculiar nature of rent in
the capitalist mode of production: “The whole difficulty in analysing rent,
therefore, consists in explaining the excess of agricultural profit over the
average profit, not the surplus-value, but the excess of surplus-­value char-
acteristic of this sphere of production.”18 Ultimately, indeed, Marx is led to
the conclusion that while differential rent in c­ apitalist agricultural produc-
tion is a consequence of the market effects of differences in soil fertility,
absolute rent—the irreducible minimum that must be paid with respect to
even the most minimally productive land—can only be understood with
reference to the legacy of precapitalist landed property.
The section on “Labour Rent” in this chapter includes one of the
most significant accounts of the historical materialist approach to the
analysis of class societies to be found in the whole of Marx’s work. He
begins by noting that in feudal society “ground-rent … is not only
directly unpaid surplus-­labour, but also appears as such”. He continues
with a famous observation about the necessarily extra-economic character
of the precapitalist appropriation of surplus:

It is furthermore evident that in all forms in which the direct labourer remains
the “possessor” of the means of production and labour conditions necessary
for the production of his own means of subsistence, the property relationship
must simultaneously appear as a direct relation of lordship and servitude, so
that the direct producer is not free … Under such conditions the surplus-
labour for the nominal owner of the land can only be extorted from them by
other than economic pressure, whatever the form assumed may be.19

This essential character of immediate extra-economic coercion is funda-

mentally different from the way in which the appropriation of surplus in
capitalist society, through the production of surplus value based upon the
commodification of labour-power, operates through exclusively economic
Marx then goes on to address forms of society in which no private land-
owners exist to appropriate rent, but only the state:

then rent and taxes coincide, or rather, there exists no tax which differs from
this form of ground-rent. Under such circumstances, there need exist no
stronger political or economic pressure than that common to all subjection
to that state. The state is then the supreme lord. Sovereignty here consists in
the ownership of land concentrated on a national scale. But, on the other
hand, no private ownership of land exists, although there is both private and
common possession and use of land.20

This observation builds upon his earlier identification in the Grundrisse of

peasant-based agricultural production as the general foundation for precapi-
talist class societies. Here, in the context of his fully developed critique of
political economy, Marx identifies two different forms of precapitalist society
that are equally based upon the exploitation of self-subsisting peasant house-
holds. This stands as a fundamental challenge to those who would associate
the idea of different historical modes of production directly with the devel-
opment of forces of production. In the case of these two forms of peasant-
based exploitive society, it is not at all through production that we can
distinguish them, but only through differences in social property relations.
Marx continues:

The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of

direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows
directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining
element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic
212   G. C. COMNINEL

community which grows up out of the production relations themselves,

thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relation-
ship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers – a
relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development
of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity – which reveals the
innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the
political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the cor-
responding specific form of the state.21

No single statement could ever be freighted with the burden of encap-

sulating the whole of Marx’s method of analysing modes of production,
but this statement in its forceful clarity comes as close as any passage in the
whole of his work to providing a means to approach historical class societ-
ies. All forms of class society prior to the capitalist mode of production are
in the first place based upon extra-economic coercion, which is ultimately
in some way political, in contrast to the specifically economic form of sur-
plus appropriation through the system of free wage labour in capitalism.
In the second place, while Marx acknowledges that a different form of
non-capitalist surplus appropriation may exist in a “slave or plantation
economy”, not only is this noted to be different—“in that the slave works
under alien conditions of production and not independently”—it is sig-
nificant that he does not even raise the possibility of a specifically “slave
mode of production”.

Property and Exploitation in History

As previously argued, “The German Ideology” presents significant prob-
lems with respect to understanding Marx’s theoretical framework—most
particularly regarding the articulation of materialist principles as they apply
to history. Much of what was put forward in these originally unpublished
manuscripts seems fundamentally at odds with the highly original terms of
historical social analysis that Marx developed in the course of his critique
of political economy, beginning in 1844 and continuing through the man-
uscripts of the later volumes of Capital.
Instead, mainstream European ideas of liberal materialist history were
broadly accepted by Marx and Engels, given their polemical purposes at
the time. Nowhere were liberal conceptions challenged in the way that
Marx challenged political economic concepts, both previously and subse-
quently. The implications of this early conflation of historical materialism

with liberal materialism have long endured within the body of Marxist
theory. Marx’s own work, however, was thereafter primarily focused on
specifically capitalist society, and with ever-increasing acuity he came to
criticize the quintessential liberal ideology of political economy.
This development by Marx of a consistent and thorough critique of
political economy, over the whole course of his work from 1844 to the
posthumously published volumes of Capital, coincides with the real devel-
opment of historical materialism, and particularly its increasing realization
by Marx in practice. The key to this development was Marx’s growing
appreciation of the historical specificity of the categories of political econ-
omy. For, at the same time that his critique exposed the specific class char-
acter of political economic categories in capitalism, it also laid the basis for
criticizing the ideological conceptions of previous class societies. It has
already been noted that the very concept of “the economy”, or even “the
economic”, is necessarily specific to capitalist society, with its uniquely
economic form of exploitive surplus extraction. A major point of this work
is that Marx’s study of this unique form of class exploitation, through his
critique of political economy, provides a guide for understanding the nec-
essarily quite different terms of analysis of extra-economic surplus extrac-
tion in precapitalist societies.
Perhaps the clearest discussion by Marx of the historically specific eco-
nomic categories of capitalist society—such fundamental concepts as
property, labour, and exchange—occurs in the section on the method of
political economy in the Grundrisse.

Although it is true, therefore, that the categories of bourgeois economics

possess a truth for all forms of society, this is to be taken only with a grain of
salt. They can contain them in a developed, or stunted, or caricatured form
etc., but always with an essential difference. The so-called historical presen-
tation of development is founded, as a rule, on the fact that the latest form
regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself, and since it is only
rarely … able to criticize itself … it always conceives them one-sidedly.22

Marx’s work is full of the presentation of previous forms “as steps leading
up to” the forms of capitalism—but there is no unintentional irony in this
statement. For Marx’s extensive retrospective use of history in Capital was
conscious, informed precisely by these insights of the Grundrisse, and
intended to reveal the class character of these supposedly timeless forms. It
is only subsequent Marxists who have taken this “history” written retro-
spectively from the point of view of capitalism to represent history, per se.
214   G. C. COMNINEL

This conscious historical specificity in Marx’s critique of political econ-

omy was not confined to the Grundrisse, but first appeared in The Poverty
of Philosophy, a year after the texts taken to constitute “The German
Ideology”. In attacking Proudhon’s spurious “synthesis” of political econ-
omy and communism, Marx observed that the economists treat the laws
of capitalism as eternal, despite the fact that they also attempt to counter-
pose these laws to the restricted economic life of feudal society:

Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any. There has been his-
tory, since there were the institutions of feudalism, and in these institutions
of feudalism we find quite different relations of production from those of
bourgeois society, which the economists try to pass off as natural and, as
such, eternal.23

Here the link is quite apparent between Marx’s critique of political

economy and his historical conception of specific social modes of produc-
tion (in which it is not the historical detail that is important, but the con-
trast which reveals development). The point is that historical development
proceeds through successive epochs of equally specific exploitive relations
of property (whatever they might be).

In each historical epoch, property has developed differently and under a set
of entirely different social relations. Thus to define bourgeois property is
nothing else than to give an exposition of all the social relations of bourgeois
To try to give a definition of property as of an independent relation, a
category apart, an abstract and eternal idea, can be nothing but an illusion
of metaphysics or jurisprudence.24

The continuity between the critical thought in this passage and that in the
Grundrisse a decade later is striking. Whereas “property” was in 1844
treated as a simple category—though one which had history—already by
1847, before the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx conceived prop-
erty relations to be historically specific expressions of the antagonistic rela-
tions of production fundamental to each particular epoch.
Marx had, then, already substantially arrived at the conceptual founda-
tions of historical materialism. Its development followed from his percep-
tion that the central dynamic of “historical movement” lay in the evolution
of alienated social production—that history was the history of class exploi-
tation and struggle. The essential accomplishment of historical materialist

thought to this point had been to grasp the historical specificity of capital-
ist social relations as one stage in the development of exploitive social
This overview of historical development did, of course, imply some
actual succession of equally specific class epochs—each social mode of pro-
duction being developmentally linked with those preceding and follow-
ing. The essential point was that capitalism, too, was such an epoch of class
society and that it too would be superseded. It has already been suggested
that the historical details which Marx attached to this overview were drawn
from ideologically liberal historical conceptions of ancient slavery, feudal
agriculture, and bourgeois progress. The extent to which his conception
of the succession of epochs, particularly in “The German Ideology”, was
influenced by the century-old theory of stages of subsistence must of
course be considered carefully. Yet with regard to the overview itself,
Marx’s central critical perception remains: in capitalism, the social devel-
opment of relations of alienated labour and class relations have reached a
logical terminus—the condition of universal commodification, encom-
passing even living human labour-power, as he came to express it.
The essential concepts of historical materialism—the historical over-
view, the fundamental role of class exploitation, the specificity of relations
of production in each epoch—were, then, developed through the critique
of political economy. The original formulation was suggested by Marx’s
critical treatment of “private property”, as an expression—not the cause—
of alienated labour. By this, he attributed to property a process of origina-
tion and a history of development. This leap beyond the merely economic
conception of property as a “natural” category was embodied in his critical
recognition of the simultaneously exploitive and historical character of
property relations. Through all of Marx’s work, the two essential strategies
of historical materialist analysis in criticizing liberal ideology were to reveal
its class content, and to identify the historical specificity of its concepts.
The only systematic application of this critical historical materialist
approach was to be in Marx’s lifelong study of capitalist class society.
Although he never completed the major project of analysing world capital-
ist society that he set for himself—which, according to the Grundrisse, was
to have included “[c]oncentration of bourgeois society in the form of the
state”25—the fundamental class analysis provided by Capital can be ade-
quately supplemented by inferences from the major works of Marx’s con-
temporary political analysis. Together, these form a consistent and integral
picture of capitalist class society as it existed in Marx’s lifetime, a genuinely
historical materialist analysis, rooted in the critique of political economy.
216   G. C. COMNINEL

This critique had commenced with Engels’s criticism of the “separa-

tion” of capital and labour, sanctioned by political economy, but seen by
Engels to be the source of working-class impoverishment.26 Here was the
initial theoretical recognition of exploitation and class struggle in capital-
ism. In carrying this critique further, Marx located capitalism within the
whole course of the history of class exploitation—if only in overview—
establishing the basis for historical materialism. Most of the real work of
historicization, however, would remain no more than prospective, since
the primary concern of Marx and Engels always remained the revolution-
ary transformation of capitalist class society.
Liberal ideology, on the one hand, claimed that the social relations of
capitalism were natural and eternal, and on the other hand, construed the
generalized commodity market, into which human labour was dissolved,
as a true and just circulation of equivalents. The critique of political econ-
omy revealed the specific, historically imposed character of these relations,
and exposed a system of class exploitation in the regular exchange of
labour-power for subsistence. The historical dimension is fundamental to
this criticism, just as this critical conception of capitalism is essential to an
understanding of the history of class society as a whole. One of the real
weaknesses of E. P. Thompson’s “The Poverty of Theory” is its somewhat
dismissive treatment of Marx’s critique of political economy.27 Far from
having created a blind alley as Thompson argued, Marx’s “Grundrisse
face” was the key to his achievement in developing historical materialism
(although it is of course true that an enormous proportion of his energies
were expended in systematic analysis of the structure of capitalist class rela-
tions, the social and exploitive character of which are realized only through
the entire circuit of capital).

Precapitalist Modes of Production: An Open

Question of Historical Materialist Analysis
A substantial section from the Grundrisse’s chapter on “Capital”—pre-
cisely the “Forms which precede capitalist production”—was, as previ-
ously noted, published in English before the 1973 publication of the
whole manuscript. Hobsbawm’s Introduction to this edition of Pre-­
capitalist Economic Formations was particularly notable for the serious
doubt it raised concerning the possibility of identifying any of several lists
of precapitalist modes of production in Marx’s work as definitive. Rather
than seeing this open question as to the number and nature of precapitalist
modes of production as deeply problematic, Hobsbawm argued that

The general theory of historical materialism requires only that there should
be a succession of modes of production, though not necessarily any particu-
lar modes, and perhaps not in any particular predetermined order.28

At the same time, Hobsbawm noted that the proliferation of societies

described in terms of “semi-feudal” class relations had made the term
meaningless. It was for these reasons that he found the publication Marx’s
analyses from the Grundrisse to be theoretically significant. Given the very
real challenges to many of the assertions that Marx made with respect to
historical class societies based upon the works of liberal historians—such as
the idea that appears in some places that there was a slave mode of produc-
tion in the classical ancient world—it is long past time for Marxists to carry
out the independent analysis of precapitalist societies on the basis of
Marx’s method and a rigorous critique of liberal ideological conceptions.
Marxists have done little to advance our understanding of historically spe-
cific patterns of social development in attempting to locate precapitalist
forms of society—both historical and as they have stood in relation to
capitalism—within the terms of narrowly conceived variations on one or
another list of stages of social development. It is instead incumbent upon
us to learn from his practice in the critique of political economy and to
begin to apply his method to original analyses of the forms of class societies
other than capitalism.

1. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 105.
2. Ellen M. Wood, “Historical Materialism in ‘Forms which precede Capitalist
Production’”, in Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the critique of
Political Economy 150 Years Later, ed. Marcello Musto (London: Routledge,
2008), 79–92.
3. Ibid., 83.
4. Ibid., 84.
5. Ibid.
6. Karl Polanyi, Conrad M. Arensberg, and Harry W. Pearson, “The Place of
Economies in Societies” in Trade and Market in the Early Empires, eds.
Karl Polanyi, Conrad M. Arensberg, and Harry W. Pearson (Glencoe, IL:
Free Press, 1957).
7. Norman Levine, Divergent Paths: Hegel in Marxism and Engelsism
(Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006), 214.
8. Marx, Grundrisse, 102.
218   G. C. COMNINEL

9. As previously noted, this Introduction actually was written for A

Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, but not published with it.
The rest of the Grundrisse, begun immediately afterwards, similarly is not
historical in structure, but starts with fully developed social forms.
10. Ibid., 106–7.
11. As discussed in Chaps. 4 and 6; Raphael Samuel, “British Marxist Historians,
1880–1980, Part One”. New Left Review 120 (1980): 35.
12. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, MECW, vol. 3,
13. Marx, Grundrisse, 103.
14. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 282.
15. Marx, Grundrisse, 514–5.
16. Ibid., 497.
17. Ibid., 507.
18. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume III, MECW, vol. 37, 763.
19. Ibid., 776–7.
20. Ibid., 777.
21. Ibid., 777–8.
22. Marx, Grundrisse, 106.
23. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, MECW, vol. 6, 174.
24. Ibid., 197.
25. Marx, Grundrisse, 108.
26. Frederick Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy”, MECW,
vol. 3, 430.
27. E. P. Thompson, “The Poverty of Theory”, in The Poverty of Theory and
Other Essays (London: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 169.
28. Eric Hobsbawm, “Introduction”, in Karl Marx, Pre-Capitalist Economic
Formations (New York: International Publishers, 1965), 14.

Capital as a Social Relation

Theory and History
The relationship between theory and history has long been a problem for
Marxists.1 Although the general form of Karl Marx’s critical analysis of
class societies can rightly be characterized as “historical materialism”,
there is an obvious imbalance between his extensive study of class relations
in contemporary capitalist society and limited observations on precapital-
ist class relations. Having considered the historical materialist analysis of
precapitalist societies, we must now consider how Marx’s critique of polit-
ical economy relates to history.
As mentioned in previous chapters, Marx devoted decades of study and
thousands of pages of manuscripts to the capitalist mode of production.
Unfortunately, as we have seen, he did not provide a comparably compre-
hensive and historically accurate account of any precapitalist form of class
society, let alone all of them. Indeed, he produced no canonical statement
even of what precapitalist modes of production he supposed had existed.
His various statements are mostly off-hand, and sometimes contradictory.2
Even more to the point, Marx and Engels uncritically credited the “bour-
geois historians” with having discovered the existence of classes and histori-
cal development of class struggles,3 despite the fact that liberal historical
ideas about class never included the idea of exploitation, to say nothing of
its being defined by specific, antagonistic relations between classes that—as

© The Author(s) 2019 219

G. C. Comninel, Alienation and Emancipation in the Work
of Karl Marx, Marx, Engels, and Marxisms,
220   G. C. COMNINEL

“oppressor and oppressed—stood in constant opposition to one another”,

as powerfully put forward in the Manifesto of the Communist Party.
Not only has historical knowledge grown enormously relative to what
Marx could have known, but a great deal of the liberal historical writing
upon which he depended (as well as much produced since then) was con-
structed in fundamentally ideological terms.4 It is necessary, therefore, for
the history of class societies to be subjected to the same sort of critique
that Marx so powerfully brought to bear on capitalist social relations. To
do so, however, requires recognizing the profound difference between
precapitalist and capitalist forms of society, and that the model of rigorous
abstract analysis that he developed in Capital is fundamentally inappropri-
ate for earlier forms of class relations.
This unique and historically specific nature of capitalist class relations
was captured by Perry Anderson, building upon points articulated in the
Sweezy/Dobb debate over the transition from feudalism to capitalism,
and crucial passages of Volume III of Capital:

All modes of production in class societies prior to capitalism extract surplus

labour from the immediate producers by means of extra-economic coercion.
Capitalism is the first mode of production in history in which the means
whereby the surplus is pumped out of the direct producers is “purely” eco-
nomic in form – the wage contract: the equal exchange between free agents
which reproduces, hourly and daily, inequality and oppression. All other
previous modes of exploitation operate through extra-economic sanctions –
kin, customary, religious, legal or political.5

The implications of this qualitative distinction between capitalism and

all previous forms of class society are profound. It particularly requires us
to recognize that such a fundamental social transformation must be
explained, not taken for granted.

Capitalism and Commodities
At the heart of prevailing conceptions of capitalism is the market exchange
of things. Of course, beyond the substantial commodities of agriculture
and industry, commodified services became important during the twenti-
eth century, though they certainly existed earlier. The growing impor-
tance of information commodities, especially in digital form, is a cliché of
contemporary commentary. What truly is significant, however, is less the

existence of non-material capitalist products than that capitalist social rela-

tions involve far more than just the exchange of material goods.
Indeed, in Capital, Marx describes the commodity as “a mysterious
thing”. What are, in fact, complex social relationships—numbers of living
humans, each having a part in meeting the needs of others through highly
integrated social processes, extending over time and, often, great dis-
tances—are manifested in what appear to be relations between things:
commodities and money. Purchasing a cotton shirt contributes to the
viability of cotton growers and a particular network of shippers and pro-
ducers linking their raw material to the finished product, engaging many
paid workers and generating profits in certain locales. Purchasing instead
a polyester shirt casts one’s money, like a vote, in favour of a different
network, and—with a big enough shift in spending—unseen lives may be
Commodities, like fetish objects in “the mist-enveloped regions of the
religious world”—“endowed with life, and entering into relation both
with one another and the human race”—become bearers of unseeable
qualities with profound importance to people.6 This is what Marx called
the “Fetishism of Commodities”. It is not a worship of material posses-
sions, but the seeming power of mundane goods and services to deter-
mine crucial aspects of the lives of people, ostensibly beyond human
control, through “the market”. The discipline of economics strives to
present market exchange as basic to human nature, presenting the global
networks of capitalist production as merely their natural extension, differ-
ing only in scale. In reality, of course, that this nearly infinite complexity
among interrelated producers and consumers exists at all, and functions
with some reliability—though certainly not without problems and contra-
dictions—is every bit as mysterious and astounding as Marx suggested. In
all prior forms of human social organization almost all important ques-
tions of who will do what, when, and how, are known in advance, estab-
lished through explicit rules of kinship, custom, or law. The organization
of capitalist society through the “invisible hand” of the market, by con-
trast, is known only through abstract principles, the effects of which econ-
omists try to codify and understand like farmers watching the skies and
behaviour of animals to predict the weather. Even more mysterious, for
those who look beyond the pervasive capitalist social relations that are
now second nature to us, is how such a system came to be.
In the “Introduction” Marx drafted in 1857 for A Contribution to the
Critique of Political Economy, he famously concluded that it was wrong to
222   G. C. COMNINEL

present economic categories according to the sequence and forms in

which they historically appeared.7 For this reason, Capital begins neither
with the historical forms of production, nor with money, but with the
commodity as basis for market exchange. Yet what Marx sought to describe
in Capital was not at all reducible to simple profit-making through sys-
tematic market exchange.
Marx recognized from the start—despite beginning Capital with the
commodity—that capitalism was far more than just making profit through
trade. As explored in the first few chapters of this book, from his earliest
thoughts on the subject, Marx saw capitalism to be an integral system of
production that was inherently exploitive, conceiving this initially in terms
of “alienated labour”. He arrived at this understanding in only the first
seven pages of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.8 Not
only did he see the inherently exploitive character of capitalist production,
he recognized this to be of the greatest historical importance. As previ-
ously noted, after drawing out from the words of the political economists
themselves the abject misery to which workers were condemned, he pro-
posed, “Let us now rise above the level of political economy,” and then
put forward perhaps the most fundamental question of historical material-
ism as social theory: “What in the evolution of mankind is the meaning of
this reduction of the greater part of mankind to abstract labour?”9 Of
course, much still remained to be developed in his critique of political
economy—from the distinction between labour and labour-power with
which to explain surplus value, to the averaging of profit across sectors of
production. This early insight into the exploitive character of capitalist
production, however, was foundational, and immediately informed his
conception of property.

Exploitation and Property
As noted in Chap. 2, Marx first addressed the question of property in the sec-
tion of the 1844 manuscripts known as “Estranged Labour”. The analysis is
unlike anything that had previously been argued in social or political theory,
though Marx accepted (and later greatly improved) the labour theory of
value articulated by the political economists. He pointed out that “[p]olitical
economy starts with the fact of private property; it does not explain it to us”,
and against this asserted, “Do not let us go back to a fictitious primordial
condition as the political economist does, when he tries to explain.” He then
declared that “[w]e proceed from an actual economic fact.”

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more
his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever
cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of
the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world
of things. Labour produces not only commodities: it produces itself and the
worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces com-
modities in general.
This fact expresses merely that the object which labour produces  –
labour’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of
the producer. The product of labour is labour which has been embodied in
an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labour.
Labour’s realisation is its objectification. Under these economic conditions
this realisation of labour appears as loss of realisation for the workers; objec-
tification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement,
as alienation.10

“Private property is thus the product, the result, the necessary conse-
quence, of alienated labour, of the external relation of the worker to
nature and to himself.”11
Marx achieves two crucial objectives in this analysis. First, he establishes
that it is through the seemingly simple production of commodities under
the capitalist system of wage labour that workers are immediately exploited.
Private property in the means of production is a social relationship—not a
thing—and the means by which the fruits of previously achieved exploita-
tion are brought to bear, through antagonistic relations of wage labour, to
increase the property of the employer without regard to the well-being of
the worker. Second, this exploitation realized in the private property of
means of production—capital—is the underlying power controlling the
processes of social reproduction, a totalizing system grounded in the
relentless logic of that property’s self-expansion.

Capital is thus the governing power over labour and its products. The capi-
talist possesses this power, not on account of his personal or human quali-
ties, but inasmuch as he is an owner of capital. His power is the purchasing
power of his capital, which nothing can withstand.
Later we shall see first how the capitalist, by means of capital, exercises his
governing power over labour, then, however, we shall see the governing
power of capital over the capitalist himself.12

What Marx at first called “the movement of property”, its historical

development, has culminated in its most generalized form, going beyond
224   G. C. COMNINEL

its previous limitation of being grounded in land, thus “dealing the death-­
blow to rent – that last, individual, natural mode of private property and
source of wealth existing independently of the movement of labour, that
expression of feudal property”.13

All wealth has become industrial wealth, the wealth of labour; and industry
is accomplished labour, just as the factory system is the perfected essence of
industry, that is of labour, and just as industrial capital is the accomplished
objective form of private property.
We can now see how it is only at this point that private property can
complete its dominion over man and become, in its most general form, a
world-historical power.14

Here, indeed, is the most complete realization of the “reduction of the

greater part of mankind to abstract labour”, and the basis for Marx’s
answer to the question he had posed. It is communism that is the positive
expression of the abolition of private property, ending the realization of
human exploitation, and establishing human emancipation at a more
highly developed level of social existence.15
Hegel had earlier conceived human historical progress in terms of the
developing dialectical relationship between the individual and the social
whole, private property and personal action constituting civil society, in
turn mediated by law and the state. Though conceived in idealist terms,
and inherently limited by the liberal values to which it adhered, this con-
ception of historical development was nonetheless far richer and more
profound than the conventional liberal conception of historical stages
defined by economic-technological means of subsistence and social orga-
nization. What Marx achieved as early as 1844, however, towered over
both these alternatives. His analysis was wholly original, informed by a
novel perspective. It had philosophical depth equal to Hegel’s conception
of historical development, but was accompanied by an inherent critique of
social inequality and the reduction of the majority of humanity to service
to the few. It rejected idealism, yet was grounded in a materialism that
took off from the fundamental sociality of human existence, rather than
extrinsic economic conditions and anachronistic presumptions about how
people acted. This was a theoretical breakthrough of undeniable genius.
There is profound and obvious continuity between this first work of
Marx’s critique of political economy and his mature works. Aside from
important developments within his deeper analysis of capitalist social rela-
tions, however, Marx also quickly came to conceive the capitalist system of

production not simply to be the historical realization of a fully developed

form of private property, but as a distinct form of class society, differing
fundamentally from preceding forms of “the alienation of labour”.
Throughout Capital and his unpublished manuscripts, Marx was clear
that the social relations of capitalist production were not timeless, but
historically bound; not only different but uniquely different.
For those conceiving capitalism to be no more than the systematic pur-
suit of profit through commerce, leaving production unexamined and
subordinate in importance to trade, this understanding is scarcely possible.
Without a clear conception of capitalism as the market-determined pro-
duction of commodities through commodities—above all the commodi-
fied form of human labour-power—the self-expansion of capital driven by
compulsion of market competition to innovate systematically in the pro-
cesses of production seeking higher rates of relative surplus value, it is not
possible to understand the specific character of modern “industrial” soci-
ety. This is not, however, an understanding that can be adopted only when
convenient. Marx’s conception of capitalist social relations is not a refine-
ment required only in specialized contexts, nor can it be toyed with or
trivialized without consequences. One may, of course, hold up these ideas
for critical examination of their internal consistency and external validity,
as Marx would himself insist. One may not, however, casually slip from
conceiving capitalism as an integral system of production realized in the
fetishism of commodities, to conceiving it simply as profit making in trade.

The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism

Although there is little that is directly reliable in Marx’s work with respect
to precapitalist class societies, he did at times—necessarily—attend closely
to differences between specifically capitalist social relations and earlier
social forms, and to processes of historical change. As he also wrote in his
1857 “Introduction”, “Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of
the ape.”16 Marx’s point, however, as Ellen Meiksins Wood has observed,
“is exactly antithetical to the kind of teleology sometimes read into this
His “objective is to free political economy from the habit of reading capi-
talist principles back throughout history”. He grounds his critique of politi-
cal economy in historicizing the capitalist mode of production, against
ideologically informed tendencies to universalize its categories and identify
seeming historical antecedents as but early realizations of capitalism to come.
226   G. C. COMNINEL

His purpose is instead “to reveal their differences and, in so doing, inescap-
ably to raise the question of how capitalism, as a specific and unprecedented
social form, came into being—not simply as a maturation of earlier forms
but as a transformation”. As Wood concludes, Marx’s method both stresses
the specificity of each economic formation and compels us to locate the
“principles of motion from one to another” not in universal historical forces,
but within the dynamics of each social form itself.18 This conception of social
transformation through internal development, reaching a point of rupture
that results in a fundamentally new social formation, with different principles
of motion—a transformation necessarily unintended from the perspective of
the prior social forms—is at the heart of the historicization of capitalism in
Marx’s critique of political economy, and the materialist approach to history
realized through it.
In addition to the 1857 “Introduction”, there are points in Capital
where Marx finds it necessary to clarify the distinctiveness of capitalist
social relations by means of contrast with precapitalist social forms.19 His
chapter on “Genesis of Capitalist Ground Rent” in Volume III offers
notable insights into precapitalist class relations, and how modes of pro-
duction should be conceived; but Section VIII of Volume I, “The
So-Called Primitive Accumulation”, particularly focusses on the transition
to the capitalist mode of production. Close consideration of this transition
yields a better understanding of capital as the fundamental social relation
of our epoch, and motive force behind the fetishism of commodities. This
is particularly valuable for distinguishing between social formations in
which capitalist relations of production genuinely are present, and those in
which the circulation of commodities must be judged to occur in a pre-
capitalist context.
There has, unfortunately, been profound and widespread misunderstand-
ing among non-specialists about feudal social relations, and endless, largely
pointless debate about the meaning of feudalism.20 Marxist theorists have
for the most part failed even to recognize what Marx himself had to say on
the subject, and have focussed on entirely wrong aspects of medieval society.
In consequence, they have had enormous difficulty making sense of the
transition from feudalism to capitalism.21 A significant advance in Marxist
historical understanding, however, came with historian Robert Brenner’s
argument that the primary transformation of social relations of production
in the transition from feudalism to capitalism occurred in agriculture, not
manufactures.22 Ellen Wood, particularly, has drawn out the implications of
Brenner’s work with respect to the agrarian origin of capitalism, providing
crucial perspective with which to approach Marx’s analysis.23

Not only have Marxist theorists had inadequate understanding of the

nature of feudalism, but also—with far less reason—too often they have
failed to take Marx’s analysis seriously, falling back upon a conception of
capitalism as merely commercial profit-making and making the transition
little more than growth in trade.24 As Wood has emphasized, such an
approach shares with the defenders of capitalism an underlying view of the
market as fundamentally an “opportunity”, rather than an imperative, a
determining social force that imposes decisions and outcomes.25 It is pre-
cisely this role of the market as ineluctable social determinant that led
Marx to begin Capital with the commodity and its role as fetish-like
bearer of social relationships.
In looking for the origin of capitalism, therefore, it is necessary to keep
in mind that the development of a new form of subordination was involved.
As Wood argues, this is just the point of Marx’s account of “so-called
primitive accumulation”:

The “primitive accumulation” of classical political economy is “so-called”

because capital, as Marx defines it, is a social relation and not just any kind
of wealth or profit, and accumulation as such is not what brings about capi-
talism... What transformed wealth into capital was a transformation of social
property relations.26

While it is not uncommon for private property to be described as a

social relation even in mainstream sociology, the pervasiveness of the com-
modity form in capitalist society tends to suggest property as being in the
first instance a “thing”, which certainly is consistent with prevailing eco-
nomic conceptions. If one instead considers that most historically signifi-
cant form of the means of production, the land, it is easier to recognize the
real nature of the social relationship. If a certain portion of our common
planet is said to be mine, it is not because I can carry it away, destroy, or
otherwise dispose of it. To own land is to have the right to determine what
other persons may or may not do in relation to it. It is so with all forms of
property: fundamentally, the right of property is a socially enforceable
capacity to circumscribe the actions of other people.
In the first instance, the transition to capitalism required that the means
of production, initially and most crucially the land—upon which so many
generations of peasant families had laboured for their own subsistence, but
also the wealth of their lords—had to become property in a form that
excluded them fundamentally. As Marx wrote:
228   G. C. COMNINEL

The process, therefore, that clears the way for the capitalist system, can be
none other than the process which takes away from the laborer the posses-
sion of his means of production; a process that transforms, on the one hand,
the social means of subsistence and of production into capital, on the other,
the immediate producers into wage-laborers. The so-called primitive accu-
mulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing
the producer from the means of production.27

As Marx also observed, “In England alone, which we take as our exam-
ple, has it the classic form.” The history of agrarian social relations was
indeed very different in other societies, both European and non-­European,
as Wood and Brenner emphasize in their work. While, therefore, the anal-
ysis set out in Capital is both historically accurate and extraordinarily
revealing with respect to the processes of social transformation, one can-
not generalize from this to developments elsewhere. It is, however, by
recognizing in detail the historically specific form of this radical transfor-
mation that we can truly come to understand the unique character of capi-
talist society.

The Origin of Capital: Enclosure Versus Socially

Regulated Production
The capitalist fetishism of commodities is a system regulating production
through the market, not merely exchange. Historically, prior to capitalism,
direct producers themselves had immediate control over use of the means
of production and, broadly, over what would be produced and how. This
immediate control, however, was in turn subject to social regulation, in
such forms as custom, community decisions, religious prescription, arti-
sanal guilds, law, and state administration. In both manufactures and
­agriculture, what was produced, and how, was determined primarily by
societal norms. Such social regulation of production was perhaps never so
strong as in feudal Europe.28 While manufactures were closely regulated
by guilds in towns, even tighter was the social control over production in
the open-­field systems of agriculture.
Virtually everywhere, seigneuries imposed feudal exactions and juridi-
cal encumbrances on production and economic activity. In thinly settled
regions (or for local topographic or historical reasons) agriculture might
be relatively less regulated, with greater room for individual discretion. In
densely populated northern France and central England, however, the

dominant two- and three-field systems of arable production left almost

nothing to individual decision. In these areas, individual occupiers of the
soil held numbers of selions (furrows) widely distributed and interspersed
among the fields. Perhaps a few small fields had been enclosed in extend-
ing production at the height of population, but almost all peasants—and
generally the lord—held all or most of their land (village crofts aside)
within large subdivided fields.
Outside closes and crofts, all agricultural production—winter grain and
spring crop (where there was one); field rotation, including fallow; pastur-
ing animals on fallow and after harvest; using permanent pasture, meadow,
woods, and other “waste” held in common; timing and responsibility for
all agrarian activities, including maintenance—was regulated. Because
fields were subdivided, coordination in production was inescapable; but
bylaws regulated far beyond the minimum. In open-field agriculture,
increasing profit through innovation was both impossible and illegal.
Throughout Continental Europe, no legal foundation for landed prop-
erty outside the seigneurial framework of feudal social relations existed. In
England, however, the Normans imposed feudal social relations of pro-
duction where a strong state existed, claimed by William the Conqueror as
legitimately his own. The legal system of English royal courts persisted—
in striking contrast to the collapse of central legal authority, and emergent
parcellized feudal jurisdictions, in Carolingian territories. This preserva-
tion of royal courts in England led to a significant fraction of peasant
proprietors being recognized as free, and protected by law. This strong
and effective Common Law system was then adopted by feudal lords
themselves as a means to protect their own interests—far better to trust a
disinterested royal judge to ensure a minor heir inherited the family hold-
ings than one’s overlord.
This duality in the law of property was unique to England. Feudal lords
in England had little choice but to accept that real sovereignty resided in
the Crown, yet used its principles of law not only in protection from each
other but against the king as well—witness Magna Carta. By contrast,
under Continental feudalism, sovereignty had decisively devolved to
regional magnates, and then to individual seigneuries. Seigneurial jurisdic-
tion on the Continent was real, and no “common” law existed.
English manors had courts, but jurisdiction was largely restricted to
unfree tenants and bylaws regulating common land and open fields. Free
men had recourse to royal courts, where manorial customary law was
viewed as just an encumbrance on freehold property. While customary
230   G. C. COMNINEL

tenures persisted alongside freehold, and freehold might lie either within
open fields or outside their regulation, in principle, the entire structure of
customary feudal holdings and manorial regulation of production could be
eliminated, leaving a fully developed property system in place. Where free-
hold proprietors agreed—or “unity of possession” existed—the system of
customary tenures and open-field regulation could simply be extinguished.
This was the real meaning of enclosure; fencing or hedging was merely a
consequence, where it occurred at all. This explains why the process of
enclosure—the single most dramatic transformation in law and social rela-
tions of production in early modern Europe—was unique to England.
When enclosures began in the late fifteenth century, relatively few cus-
tomary tenants actually were evicted because population had fallen so dra-
matically over the previous hundred years, and peasants often exercised
newly won freedom to move to more advantageous land. Much less arable
land was required for a population one-third or less of that in 1300. Living
standards were high, inflation underway, and prices rose more quickly for
livestock products than for grain. Despite mistaken ideas of a “natural
economy” persisting under feudalism, the many charges levied in money
by seigneurs, pervasive re-coinage under seigneurial jurisdiction, and the
enormous growth of trade coinciding with unprecedented population
growth between 1050 and 1250, all speak to the familiarity with markets
of lords and peasants alike before enclosures. In England’s west midlands,
in villages outside zones of strict open-field production—where less inten-
sive regulation and prior enclosures readily accommodated pastoral pro-
duction—population levels were sustained, in contrast to the depopulation
and many deserted villages of open-field zones.29 Peasants voted with their
feet to engage in more remunerative types of production.
The truly significant transformation, however, occurred where open-­
field regulation had been intensive, and feudal-era closed fields were rare.
When proprietors in these areas enclosed their fields—especially landlords
completely replacing open-field peasant production with sheep runs leased
to graziers—they were not taking advantage of existing flexibility. Instead,
they exercised freehold property rights against the whole framework of
established agrarian society. Even where few, if any, tenants were evicted—
perhaps a depopulated hilltop village, surrounded by less-exposed villages
with better soil—the fact that centuries-old messuages might be pulled
down, and the ancient rotation of fields replaced by large flocks and a few
shepherds, supported the view expressed in Thomas More’s Utopia: sheep
had become man-eating beasts.30

Of greater significance was that the obliteration of customary law ended

the role of custom or community in regulating production. Although the
Tudor monarchy acquired a guarded view of enclosure—issuing acts to
limit it; establishing commissions to study its effects; suppressing regional
uprisings opposed to it—freehold rights of property were maintained by
its own courts. The great landowners and even lesser freeholders were
represented in the two houses of Parliament, and the royal power to ruin
wealthy individuals necessarily was tempered in relation to landlords as a
The real impact of enclosure was revealed after a rebound in population
shifted prices back towards grain. Had only existing flexibility in agrarian
production (including modest flexibility in the regulation of open fields)
been employed in response to the lure of profit in pastoral production—a
market “opportunity”—the same flexibility might have brought a shift
back towards arable production within the same underlying system. Such
flexibility was evident elsewhere in Europe as production responded to
population collapse and reflux. Where there had been general enclosure,
however, there was no going back. Such enclosures had occurred in less
remote areas, suited to arable farming.
Tenants who leased this land might still make a profit with livestock
alone, but greater profit could be realized by combining sheep with grain,
as Cistercian granges had demonstrated in the feudal era. After 1550,
sheep-corn farming offered the greatest potential for profit in much of
England, and knowing farmers were willing to offer higher rents for large
enclosed farms. With rents rising on enclosed land, the market imposed its
compulsion—land suitable for the “improved” husbandry of sheep-corn
farming could no longer profitably be rented for pasture alone. And with
the general increase of rent for enclosed arable land, the pressure to enclose
also increased.
It is in this way that land became capital. Social relations of production
no longer were established by custom, law, and mere opportunity. Means
of production were stripped of their role as the immediate foundation for
social existence. It was not just that production changed. Where produc-
tion had been the basis for community life, in a variety of forms, it existed
now only to create commodities. Niches of specialized agrarian produc-
tion had previously existed alongside peasant communities in which mar-
ket production was subordinated to self-reproduction; now even basic
agrarian production was separated from community life. How land was
used to produce commodities no longer depended on how villages were
232   G. C. COMNINEL

sustained, and land itself became just another commodity. For the first
time anywhere, production of exchange values became so divorced from
use values that peasant society itself—the norm since agriculture devel-
oped, and basis for “civilisation” itself—became expendable and began to
disappear. By the nineteenth century, though pockets of smallholding
farming survived (mostly in dairy), and people still lived in the country,
peasant society was gone.
In place of control by direct producers and the community, enclosure
put determination of what was produced and how solely in the hands of
the owners of the means of production. After centuries of strict customary
regulation, custom was debarred in law. No immediate community ratio-
nale existed (though political economy would develop a defence of
market-­ oriented self-interest as public policy). Production increasingly
was conceived in terms of the self-expansion of wealth in commodities,
and even before this logic was carried into manufactures, the wealth of
England’s landlords and capitalist tenant-farmers rose to world-historic
levels. This agrarian transformation “freed” most labouring people from
the land their ancestors worked, making them available to work for wages
in expanded cottage industry, and then capitalist factories.
While enclosure did not result in the immediate subsumption of labour
to capital, that essential condition for increasing relative surplus value would
not have been possible had control over the social relations of production
not been wrested from producers and their communities. As Marx observed
in 1844, capital is power over labour and its products, power by which
alienated labour is appropriated. This globally transforming social relation,
without which the capitalist mode of production could not exist, was first
forged in the so-called primitive accumulation of English enclosures.

1. Ellen M.  Wood, Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing Historical
Materialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
2. Eric Hobsbawm, “Introduction”, Precapitalist Economic Formations (New
York: International Publishers, 1965).
3. Karl Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer, March 5, 1852, MECW, vol. 39, 62–5;
Frederick Engels to Walter Borgius, January 25, 1894, MECW, vol. 50,
4. In addition to the above, see Ellen M.  Wood, The Origin of Capitalism
(London: Verso, 2002).
5. Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: Verso, 1974), 403.

6. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, MECW, vol. 35, 83.

7. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (New York: Vintage, 1973), 25–51.
8. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, MECW, vol. 3.
9. Ibid., 241.
10. Ibid., 272.
11. Ibid., 279.
12. Ibid., 247.
13. Ibid., 291.
14. Ibid., 293.
15. Ibid., 294ff.
16. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 105.
17. Wood, Democracy against Capitalism, 150.
18. Ibid., 151.
19. For more on this as it relates to Marx’s method, and historical materialism
as a contribution to social theory, see Chaps. 11 and 13 below.
20. Marc Bloch, Feudal Society (University of Chicago Press, 1961), 2; F. L.
Ganshof, Feudalism (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).
21. See Paul Sweezy, The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (London:
Verso, 1978). On feudal class relations, see George C.  Comninel,
“Feudalism”, in Elgar Companion to Marxist Economics, eds. Ben Fine and
Alfredo Saad Filho (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2012), 131–7,
and “English Feudalism and the Origins of Capitalism”, Journal of Peasant
Studies 27, 4 (July 2000): 1–53.
22. T. H. Aston, and C. H. E. Philpin, The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class
Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1985).
23. Wood, The Origin of Capitalism.
24. Robert Brenner, “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of
Neo-Smithian Marxism”, New Left Review 104 (July/August 1977):
25–92; Wood, The Origin of Capitalism, 34ff.
25. Ibid., 6–7.
26. Ibid., 36.
27. Marx, Capital, Volume I, 705–6.
28. Much of what follows draws on Comninel, “English Feudalism”, which
has an extensive bibliography of relevant works.
29. Christopher Dyer, “Deserted Medieval Villages in the West Midlands”, in
Everyday Life in Medieval England (London: Continuum International,
2000), 27–45.
30. Thomas More, Utopia (New York: Norton, 1991), 14.

Capital and Historical Materialism

Marx’s Critique of Capitalism Versus His

Revolutionary Project
It is obvious that at least some significant problems must be acknowledged
with respect to the ideas expressed by Karl Marx. Most obviously, 170
years after the Manifesto of the Communist Party, there still has been no
working-class revolution in any developed capitalist society, while—what-
ever one makes of Russia’s 1917 revolution—the Soviet Union existed for
less than 75 years.1 Yet, at the same time, although the collapse of the
USSR led many to trumpet the death of Marxism in the 1990s, the global
crisis of capitalism that began in 2007 has brought even mainstream econ-
omists to declare that “Marx was right”.2 This juxtaposition raises the
question of the relationship between the ideas Marx articulated specifically
about capitalism, primarily in the three volumes of Capital and its related
manuscripts, and his overarching conception of history as the history of
class struggles, culminating in a revolutionary transformation that finally
brings to an end the long line of societies founded on the exploitation of
labouring people for the benefit of a tiny minority.
One approach to understanding Marx’s work—so-called Political
Marxism3—attributes many of the problems to be found in his work (and
that of most later Marxists) to the uncriticized incorporation of ideas origi-
nally advanced by earlier liberal historical thinkers.4 The influence of
­conceptions drawn from liberal historians of the eighteenth century and

© The Author(s) 2019 235

G. C. Comninel, Alienation and Emancipation in the Work
of Karl Marx, Marx, Engels, and Marxisms,
236   G. C. COMNINEL

early nineteenth century is especially manifested in the pervasive idea—

within mainstream social theory as well as Marxism—of inevitable and
unilinear historical progress, most often explained in terms of an underly-
ing economic, demographic, technological, and/or climatological deter-
minism. Far from being in any way original to Marx, such ideas were
common long before he was born.5 In contrast to such progressivist,
deterministic, and unilinear forms of analysis, Political Marxism stresses
specific historical trajectories of social development, often differing even
between neighbouring nations, based upon the particular historical forms
through which social property relations developed and the concrete bal-
ance of forces and outcomes in particular histories of class struggle. Indeed,
the approach stresses not only that there is no general historical form of
social development applicable across the continents, but that even the
major societies of Western Europe diverged profoundly during their his-
torical development. Only in the era of spreading industrial capitalism—
dating back less than two centuries—has there been significant convergence
in national forms of economy and society for the first time since the heyday
of European feudalism.6
This approach, challenging not only centuries of mainstream liberal
thought but many supposedly “orthodox” historical conceptions within
Marxism, has certainly been controversial. It is, however, directly grounded
upon that analysis of the capitalist mode of production articulated by
Marx through his critique of political economy, and the insistence that this
conception not be conflated with such earlier historical forms as the wide-
spread “merchant capitalism” of the early modern era. In this, it chal-
lenges the conception of capitalism as originally mere commercial
profit-making, over time taking on industrial production as if this were
natural and inevitable—a profoundly ahistorical conception that not only
pervades liberal historical social theory but ironically also underpins most
Marxist accounts.
This regrettable failure to apply Marx’s ideas in Marxist historical analy-
sis follows from Marx’s own deference to the liberal historians, whose
ideas he never subjected to a searing critique comparable to that of liberal
political economy, to which he devoted so much effort. This is often com-
pounded by misunderstanding the possibility—indeed, necessity—of ana-
lysing capitalist society through abstract theoretical modelling of its
economic structure as a general approach to historical social analysis. It is,
however, central to Marx’s analysis that the capitalist mode of production
is unique in this regard.

Indeed, it is precisely at those moments in the three volumes of Capital

and the Grundrisse when Marx was compelled to contrast the capitalist
mode of production with precapitalist forms of class society that he came
the furthest in articulating principles of historical materialist analysis, and
developing original alternatives to the concepts of liberal history and the
social theories informing them. By systematically differentiating Marx’s
analysis of capitalist social relations from those that were precapitalist, and
recognizing that, on the one hand, many established historical ideas with
which he was familiar were ideologically informed, and, on the other, that
we have more and better historical knowledge today than was available to
Marx and his antecedents, we can not only correct the historical errors and
dubious judgements in his work, but clarify the integral unity between his
analysis of capitalism and historical materialist analysis of the history of
societies. The problems with Marx and, much later, Marxist work largely
result from not being consistently Marxist.

Capital and the Commodified Form of Class Society

Marx was too kind by far to liberal thinkers such as Locke, Ferguson,
Smith, Turgot, and Guizot. Their conceptions of class had nothing to do
with the exploitation of labouring direct producers by the owners of prop-
erty, but instead the existence of ranks within society. It was through his
critique of liberal political economy that Marx originally and uniquely
exposed the social relations of class exploitation, beginning at the end of
the story, the capitalist mode of production. The final form of this theo-
retical critique (to the extent he articulated it in at least manuscript form)
was an extraordinary achievement, realized through decades of empirical
study and intense critical reflection.
The magnitude of his achievement is best captured in the recognition
that, in contrast with all prior forms of class society, capitalism alone is
founded upon a formal separation of political and economic spheres in
society, the fundamental processes of social reproduction structured
through operation of the Law of Value. Capitalism concretely realizes the
social form of abstract labour within society through its commodification
of labour-power, by which means it constitutes a general system of class
exploitation despite its ostensible basis in the enjoyment of political, civil,
and economic freedoms by social individuals. Whereas other forms of
society are characterized by inherently normative social relationships
throughout the sphere of production, as well as overall governance and
238   G. C. COMNINEL

culture, the individual and autonomous economic actors on which capital-

ist production is based are in principle guided only by the “invisible hand”
of the market. How it is even possible for a society to be organized in this
way can only be understood through conceiving it in terms of a totality (as
acknowledged even by mainstream macroeconomics).
Totality is in fact simultaneously at the core of both Marx’s historical
materialism and his critique of political economy. It is, however, crucial
that a diachronic totality underlies his conception of history, whereas his
conception of the capitalist mode of production is instead fundamentally
synchronic. Even more to the point, it is not only history as a whole that
is diachronic, but the history of class societies, none of which—prior to
the specifically capitalist mode of production—can be characterized by a
synchronic structure of fundamentally abstract social relations. That the
capitalist mode of production is uniquely structured in a way that makes a
synchronic approach to the passage of time necessary to its understanding
is essential to comprehending Marx’s analysis.
As is generally recognized, Marx began Capital with the commodity,
presented as the central fact and concept of the capitalist mode of produc-
tion: “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of pro-
duction prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of
commodities’, its unit being a single commodity”.7 It is first of all striking
that this conception of “the wealth of nations” directly posits a transitive
equivalence of commodities. They exist as individual elements, but they
can and intrinsically must be accumulated into a collectivity possessing
concrete magnitude, a sum that constitutes the total wealth of any capital-
ist society.
Inherent in this transitive equivalence of commodities is that they can
be compared with, and thus exchanged against, each other. This is the
tangible meaning of the commodity. It may, we hope, actually prove to
have a use value; and certainly, it may analytically be discovered to have an
undisclosed but profound significance as a bearer of human social rela-
tions. But in its most immediate incarnation, it is something that we can
confidently take to market to exchange for something else.
It is crucial that, by beginning with the commodity as a part of a totality
in a specifically capitalist mode of production, Marx manages to evade the
naïve, timeless, ahistorical, and ultimately anachronistic implications of
viewing it as liberal social theory always has—from before Locke,
­throughout the era of classical political economy, and then again through
the Marshallian revolution, all the way down to Friedman and Samuelson.

While Locke acknowledged that it was labour that put the “difference of
value upon every thing”, and the classical political economists recognized
that behind the fact of normal or average prices there had to be some
comparability of the labour expended in production, the implications of
these assertions were never taken to the extent of a truly total social con-
ception of production. Thereafter, in the wake of the shift to marginal
utility theory and the emphasis upon arbitrary individual desire as estab-
lishing value, liberal thought has consistently denied that there can be any
intrinsic basis for the equivalence of commodities. Yet, where the capitalist
mode of production exists, commodities do not first exist as individually
constituted entities and then come into relation through the subjective
will of their possessors. Rather, from the start, they exist in relation to each
other as elements in a social totality.
Marx acknowledged that the immediate appearance of exchange was as
a form of arbitrary agreement between free individuals: “Exchange-value
appears to be something accidental and purely relative, and consequently
an intrinsic value, i.e., an exchange-value that is inseparably connected
with, inherent in commodities, seems a contradiction in terms.”8 But, he
went on to observe, the fact that they can be related in regular proportions
under normal conditions, within a systemic whole, means that they must
have something in common that can explain such a consistent quantitative
His embrace of the labour theory of value was therefore not simply a
restatement of the view held by Locke and Smith. It was instead grounded
in the idea that within capitalist society there exists a social totality of com-
modities that is the true summation of the social production of wealth.
Since within this totality, any and every commodity necessarily must be
able to be related to any and every other, all that they can possibly be said
to have in common is that they are in some measure the product of human
labour: “there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are
reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract”.9
This conception is based upon the broadest possible conception of labour
as the basis of total social production. Marx again writes, “The total labour
power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all
commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous
mass of human labour power, composed though it be of innumerable indi-
vidual units.”10 This holistic conception of the commodity, and of the
capitalist mode of production as inherently a social totality, is fundamental
to Marx’s thought.
240   G. C. COMNINEL

At the same time, as he was quick to point out, such an abstract totality
cannot be presumed to be characteristic of all societies. Indeed, also within
the first section of the first chapter of the first volume of Capital, Marx
noted that production of wealth in the form of use values in feudal society
was not predicated on the production of commodities:

The medieval peasant produced quit-rent corn for his feudal lord and tithe-­
corn for his parson. But neither the quit-rent corn not the tithe-corn became
commodities by reason of the fact that they had been produced for others.
To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it
will serve as a use-value, by means of an exchange.11

And so, within the first six of more than 2000 pages of Capital, we are
presented with a qualitative difference between the capitalist mode of pro-
duction and what, by reference to both his prior and subsequent analyses,
can ultimately be said to be all previous forms of human society. It is the
capitalist mode of production alone that is structured around the produc-
tion of commodities: use values embodying the most abstract possible
form of human labour as the basis for exchange, through which social
production in its totality is regulated. Other forms of society have also
involved the production of use values for enjoyment not only by the indi-
vidual producer but by exploitive others. They have not, however, in any
comparable way been predicated upon the abstraction inherent in the spe-
cifically capitalist commodity form as both an expression of and means to
realize the social totality of production.
After Marx himself, perhaps the best-known exponent of this recogni-
tion that capitalism differs qualitatively from all precapitalist societies with
respect to the role of the commodity has been Karl Polanyi. Polanyi is an
important figure, but his ideas are not without serious problems in several
ways. What is most significant in his work is precisely that he fundamen-
tally distinguishes precapitalist from capitalist societies on the basis of the
commodity (or market) becoming the very basis for social organization in
the latter.12 Polanyi acknowledged that human societies have generally
been characterized by forms of organization predicated upon basic prin-
ciples of social unity. Early human societies were fundamentally character-
ized by some combination of two basic principles of collective integration:
redistribution and reciprocity.13 These forms of organizing what might
from a capitalist perspective be described as economic interaction gener-
ally are integrated with other forms of social relationship, such as kinship.

Whereas the simplest forms of human society, hunting/gathering

bands, have primarily been characterized by a prevalence of immediately
redistributive social relations, among tribal societies there typically exist
more complex rules and obligations of reciprocity tied to kinship. Polanyi
noted the Trobriand Islanders of the South Pacific, who famously grew
more yams than they could ever need, taking great pride in their bounty
yet delivering them to kin, receiving yams from other kin in turn. Similarly,
they would travel hundreds of kilometres across open seas by canoe to
make gifts of attractive shells and the like, which then were passed on in
the same way. Eventually, these gifts would return to the giver, after a long
circuit of annual gifts over great distances, only to be given yet again.
In exchanging like for like, compounded by unnecessarily great effort
and a goal of giving more than is received, such forms of trade clearly do
not embody market rationality. Instead, they reveal what Polanyi charac-
terized as the social relations of an “embedded economy”—transfers of
non-commodified social products, or use values, on other than market
principles. Far from being universal to human societies, often asserted as a
point of departure for the discipline of economics, market exchanges of
commodities can be seen to be atypical, appearing in the Mediterranean
basin only after several thousand years of civilization, and as many as
twenty thousand years of settled agricultural societies, following a hun-
dred thousand or more years of hunting and gathering.14
As Polanyi noted, it was Aristotle who first attempted to describe the
function of the market, only a few centuries after market relations of com-
modity exchange came to be common in the ancient world.15 Marx him-
self noted in Capital that it was Aristotle who first analysed the form of
value,16 deducing its inherently commutative character, expressed in terms
of the equivalence of specific quantities of unlike objects, such as beds and
houses. Marx then observed that Aristotle here

comes to a stop, and gives up the further analysis of the form of value. “It is,
however, in reality, impossible that such unlike things can be commensura-
ble”—ie., qualitatively equal. Such an equalization can only be something
foreign to their real nature, consequently only “a makeshift for practical

Marx attributes this apparent blockage in Aristotle’s thought to the role

of slavery in Greek society, asserting that, having as its “natural basis, the
inequality of men and of their labour-powers”, it could not comprehend
value as an expression of a generalized equality of labour.
242   G. C. COMNINEL

This is an instance of Marx adopting mistaken and ideologically con-

structed views, however, and there is more behind what Aristotle had to
say about human labour than what Marx notes. Ellen Wood has written
extensively on the erroneous view that the society of ancient Athens was
based upon the labour of slaves, demonstrating that there is little evidence
to support the idea that slaves significantly engaged in the agricultural
labour central to its social production. Instead, it is abundantly clear that
the great majority of Athenian citizens were peasants who worked the land
with their own hands, while a significant minority were artisans. Slaves
were above all household servants and agents, generally with positions at
most in the interstices of production.18 Indeed, Aristotle himself asserted
that slaves are servants whose primary function is to assist the head of
household in living and that other subordinates—which is how he also
characterizes free artisans—are responsible for production.19 All subordi-
nates, both slaves and artisans, are mere conditions for social life, existing
solely to make life possible for the true parts of the polis, freemen of prop-
erty who are by nature unsuited for menial labour.20 For this reason, he
argued, artisans ought never to be citizens.
Wood shows that it was modern European thinkers who developed the
myth of an idle mob of Athenian citizens, supported by slavery as they
engaged in the increasingly self-destructive democratic politics of the
assembly. This ideological conception played a significant role, even before
the French Revolution, in a two-pronged assault against both democracy
and the supposed “idleness” of the poor. The preponderance of such ideas
among even liberal thinkers, as opposed to defenders of aristocratic privi-
lege and the ancien régime, contributed to Marx’s acceptance of them as
part of the supposed discovery of the role of class in history. As Wood
reveals, however, the real class antagonism in ancient Athens was between
the majority of citizens—comprising labouring peasants and artisans—and
a minority of aristocratic landed proprietors who generally despised
democracy even more than Aristotle.
Seen in these terms, Aristotle’s failure to follow through and complete
the analysis of value as a form cannot be attributed to slavery. Rather, he
could not acknowledge the legitimacy of a real equivalence between com-
modities because to do so would have undermined the idea that the polis
naturally existed to be the locus for social life dominated by landed propri-
etors. The inherently unnatural potential to secure unlimited wealth
through trade and manufacture21—the absence of limits being unnatural
in itself—was compounded for Aristotle to the extent that the material

form of a commodity might be incompatible with honour. Among the

most egregious examples of this was tanning, the disgusting trade of pick-
led animal skins, to which Cleon, the legendary populist leader of the
Athenian Assembly despised by aristocrats, owed his wealth. It is in this
context that he could not countenance any merely “arithmetic” relation-
ship between an ignoble commodity like shoes and something so intrinsi-
cally important as a house.22 In Aristotle’s view, it was essential that the
market remains embedded in broader and more fundamental social rela-
tions, holding in check its potential threat to the natural hierarchy in
Therefore, notwithstanding the importance of the commodity in
Athenian society, it was downplayed and misrepresented by its most
empirically oriented philosopher. Yet, while Aristotle recognized and was
appalled by the potential for commerce to subvert the natural forms of
wealth and hierarchy, the capitalist mode of production did not itself exist
in Athens. This is not because of a (non-existent) slave mode of produc-
tion, but because even the systematic exchange of commodities for profit
does not in itself constitute capitalism. Marx directly observed that in
ancient societies “the conversion of products into commodities, and there-
fore the conversion of men into producers of commodities, holds a subor-
dinate place”.23 Indeed, not even wage labour—which existed in the
ancient world and throughout European history, including the middle
ages—is in itself sufficient to constitute capitalism. On the basis of Marx’s
account in Capital, only when the human capacity to labour has been
transformed into the abstract commodity of labour-power, and subsumed
to capital not only formally, but increasingly in real subordination of the
worker through active control over the labour process, can it be said that
capitalist production truly exists. If the capitalist mode of production is
predicated upon the commodity, this specifically and necessarily is realized
in the regulation of production by the market as effected by the owners of
capital. Where the direct producers enjoy ownership of the means of pro-
duction, or by direct possession or some other means they remain able to
control the labour process, there can be no basis for the relentless self-­
expansion of capital through the form of relative surplus-value.
Recognizing this to be the standard for determining whether or not
capitalist social relations of production existed, it becomes clear from a
close reading of history that nowhere did the capitalist mode of produc-
tion serve as the general basis for social reproduction until after the indus-
trial revolution had largely transformed English society in the course of
244   G. C. COMNINEL

the first half of the nineteenth century. The prevalence of commodity

exchange prior to that time can no more be taken to be a sign of incipient
capitalist development in modern Europe than in ancient Greece, in the
absence of historical processes that clearly conduced to the transformation
of labour into the commodity of labour-power, and the subordination of
labour processes to owners of the means of production rather than direct
It was the unique transformation of agrarian production in England by
means of the social property relations of enclosure—realized through a
profound defeat of peasant producers in class struggle—that led to a spe-
cifically agrarian form of capitalist development there.24 This transforma-
tion of the basic form of social production from self-reproducing peasant
households to market-dependent tenant-farmers, employing labourers
deprived of access to the means of production, on large farms owned by a
landlord class—which began in the late fifteenth century and culminated
in the society described by Adam Smith—occurred nowhere but in
England. This process is precisely what Marx described in Capital as “the
secret of primitive accumulation”.25

An Inherently Exploitative System

of Social Reproduction

While there always were wage workers in European precapitalist class soci-
eties, their labour—as Marx noted—was never systematically organized
and controlled by those who employed them, nor did markets regulate the
processes of production in which they were employed. Workers instead
were hired to do work of a well-defined sort, in labour processes that they
themselves understood and directly controlled. Even in such precapitalist
factories as occasionally existed, labour processes were controlled by guilds,
laws, tradition, and the workers themselves, not by owners of capital.
There were significant factories in pre-Revolutionary France, but the
workers in them wandered about more or less as they pleased, taking
impromptu breaks and the like.26 One can exaggerate the extent of this
autonomous control over production by direct producers, but it was
nonetheless very real, especially in contrast to the development of capital-
ist factories in England in the period after 1780. Indeed, in France, the
primary exponent of control over commodity production was the state,
which increasingly licensed and regulated producers and closely dictated
standards. In Normandy, the cottage industry of woollen weavers, through

which merchants had sought to escape the guild environment of towns,

continued to be subject to royal inspectors until the Revolution: stamps of
approval were required before sale, and inferior bolts of cloth were
destroyed.27 If there was no sign of the capitalist mode of production in
the manufacturing of France—whose commercial and manufacturing
economy was pre-eminent on the Continent—still less was there any
transformation of agrarian production from the open-field peasant systems
that had survived the feudal era (and continued to persist long after the
In short, while at first in agriculture, and then increasingly in industry,
England witnessed the indigenous development of capitalism from the
late fifteenth century to the first half of the nineteenth century, in the
societies of Continental Europe there was instead only a growth in trade
and manufactures constituted within the parameters of non-capitalist pro-
duction. There was no introduction of even the most rudimentary ele-
ments of specifically capitalist production in France or Germany until after
the Napoleonic Wars, following which English industrial technology—
often spurred by geopolitical priorities of the state, especially in the form
of railroads—came increasingly to the fore. Prior to the introduction of
capitalist industrial production from Britain the primary class relations of
Europe, though for the most part no longer strictly feudal, remained
based on appropriating peasant surpluses through private ownership of
land and “politically constituted” property (primarily in the form of state
offices).28 The bourgeoisie who pursued the Revolution in France was not
in any way capitalist, nor anticipating the development of capitalism.29
Rather, they were primarily lawyers, professionals, and non-noble officers
of the state (with a significant minority of pure rentiers), who came increas-
ingly to identify with opportunities in the ever-expanding civil service of
the Republic, Empire, and restored monarchy, after the proprietary state
offices of the ancien régime were abolished. Returning to Hegel, who
wrote in the wake of the French Revolution in a Prussia that profited
hugely from its defeat, it is striking to what extent—notwithstanding his
familiarity with Adam Smith—his ideas were grounded in the similar pre-
capitalist social realities of early nineteenth-century Prussia.
The most obvious and significant expression of this lies in Hegel’s cast-
ing of the state as agent of the universal, bringing order and the realization
of Spirit to the diverse egoistic manifestations of civil society.30 Though it
is sometimes supposed that he proposed something akin to a social demo-
cratic corrective to the inherent “irrationality” of capitalist society, this
246   G. C. COMNINEL

presumes that he had familiarity with capitalism. It is clear, however, that

Hegel never comprehended Smith’s principle that it was the market that
brought order to seeming chaos. He may have read Smith, and married
British ideas to French ideas in developing the concept of Bürgerliche
gesellschaft, but he never actually encountered capitalist society and never
grasped the crucial point that it inherently, and necessarily, lacked any
principle of planning and regulation superior to the market. Indeed, even
below his universalizing state, Hegel’s conception of civil society contin-
ued to be structured by guilds and corporate bodies. In short, Hegel’s
philosophy depicted a complex society, with a large and important com-
mercial sector, but one that remained fundamentally precapitalist.31
It is, of course, precisely with a critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right that
Marx began his development as a social and political theorist in 1843. As
previously discussed, particularly in Chap. 3, even a cursory examination of
his 1843 works reveals that they are preoccupied with the politics emanating
from the French Revolution.32 It was only with his Economic and Philosophic
Manuscripts of 1844 that Marx first begin to engage in the critique of politi-
cal economy that constituted the grounding for historical materialism, and
his primary contribution to social thought. While there is enormous devel-
opment in his analysis between these manuscripts and Capital, it is, as
stressed above, continuous development without fundamental “rupture”.33
It is stunning to see how quickly Marx came to the insights that
informed his historical materialism, in just the first few pages of his initial
critique of political economy. His comments throughout these first pages
are telling, from the opening line—“Wages are determined through the
antagonistic struggle between capitalist and worker”34—to the recogni-
tion that “the proletarian, the same as any horse, must get as much as will
enable him to work”.35 It is, however, the questions that he poses imme-
diately after this that reveal the theoretical depth of his analysis:

Let us now rise above the level of political economy and examine the ideas
developed above, taken almost word for word from the political economists,
for the answers to these two questions:
(1) What in the evolution of mankind is the meaning of this reduction
of the greater part of mankind to abstract labour?
(2) What are the mistakes committed by the piecemeal reformers, who
either want to raise wages and in this way to improve the situation of
the working class or regard equality of wages (as Proudhon does) as
the goal of social revolution?36

What is astounding is the immediacy of Marx’s achievement. He instantly

saw capitalism for what it was, an inherently exploitative system of social
reproduction based on class relations of property embodying the alienation
of labour. His reaction was twofold: to conceive of this alienation of labour
in relation to the development of humanity as a whole, and to recognize
the necessity—and possibility—for social revolution to put an end to it.
This historical materialist critique of political economy, fully realized in
Capital, remains a uniquely powerful instrument for understanding the
nature of capitalist society as it has come to transform the world. Beyond
this, however, from his first moment of insight into the system, Marx recog-
nized in the specifically capitalist relationship of wage labour the ultimate
expression of human alienation, and he understood it to be central to the
historical evolution of human societies in a way that took Hegelian idealism
and turned it right side up. It is clear, therefore, not only that there is inher-
ent unity between his early writings and Capital, but between his analysis of
the capitalist economy, his conception of the history of class societies, and
his political project of revolution to bring about human emancipation.
Marx, however, was neither a historian nor an academic philosopher,
and he never devoted his efforts to an original, critical examination of the
history of class societies and their processes of social change. During his
life, he devoted much energy to building the International Workingmen’s
Association, to analysing major historical turning points such as the revo-
lutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune, to commenting upon political
strategies and movements, to wide-ranging journalism, and (particularly
later in life) to studying histories and social forms outside the Western
European experience. Yet, the greatest part of his work, occupying much
of his attention through the whole of his life, remained the critique of
political economy.
Although this commitment to what the historian E.  P. Thompson
called his “Grundrisse face”37 has been a disappointment to those (like
Thompson) who have wished for more historical analysis, Marx had a
good reason for his priorities. It is not only that capitalism already was
emerging to be the increasingly prevalent form of class society in his time
and ever since, increasingly, the context for global class struggles. More
than this, from 1844 onwards, Marx saw that the capitalist mode of pro-
duction necessarily would be the final form of class society, since—in its
formal separation of the political from the economic, its apparently free
economic relations, and its inherent drive towards greater productivity
and technological progress—it constituted the most complete possible
248   G. C. COMNINEL

realization of the alienation of labour through property relations.38

Capitalism is not “the end of history”, but there is good reason to see in
it the end of “the history of class struggles”.
At the same time, however, Marx’s systematic development of the cri-
tique of political economy periodically brought him to confront, as has
been seen above, essential differences between capitalist and precapitalist
social relations. This was, moreover, something of which he was conscious.
Indeed, as he wrote in one of the most important of his passages on the
method of his analysis, precisely in the “Introduction” written in the late
1850s and noted frequently above:

Bourgeois society is the most developed and many-faceted historical organ-

isation of production. The categories which express its relations, an under-
standing of its structure, therefore, provide, at the same time, an insight into
the structure and the relations of production of all previous forms of society
the ruins and components of which were used in the creation of bourgeois
society. Some of these remains are still dragged along within bourgeois soci-
ety unassimilated, while elements which previously were barely indicated
have developed and attained their full significance, etc. The anatomy of man
is a key to the anatomy of the ape. On the other hand, indications of higher
forms in the lower species of animals can only be understood when the
higher forms themselves are already known. Bourgeois economy thus pro-
vides a key to that of antiquity, etc.39

In contrast with how in 1844 he initially conceived the development of

the alienation of labour merely in terms of the development of property,40
Marx came to appreciate that precapitalist class societies had existed with
different specific forms of class relations. Although this idea is certainly
best known from the bare sketch offered in the “Preface” to A Contribution
to the Critique of Political Economy—“In broad outline, the Asiatic,
ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be desig-
nated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of soci-
ety”41—it has long been recognized that there is no single authoritative
account of the historical modes of production in Marx’s work, nor can it
be said that there is any without problems.42
There is, however, one important place in Capital where Marx was
compelled to confront the differences between capitalist and precapitalist
social relations, as noted in Chap. 9 of this volume. In Volume III—when
dealing with the concrete movements of capital as a whole after the analy-
sis of the process of production in Volume I and the process of circulation

in Volume II—Marx was brought to address mercantile profits, interest,

credit, and rent as each existed both in precapitalist forms and in a form
specific to capitalism. At several points, his analysis underscores not only
the difference between the earlier and later forms but that the one cannot
be taken simply to have developed into the other. With respect to mer-
chant capital, for example, he asserted that despite its historical impor-
tance, it “is incapable by itself of promoting and explaining the transition
from one mode of production to another”.43 It is particularly in Chapter
47, “The Genesis of Capitalist Ground Rent”, when addressing the differ-
ence between the role of rent as the fundamental form of class exploitation
in precapitalist societies and its role in capitalism, that Marx’s analysis
amounts directly to a statement of historical materialist method.
As Marx remarked, the challenge in analysing capitalist rent lay in
explaining the general “excess of surplus-value characteristic of this sphere
of production”.44 The question of rent in capitalist society is exceedingly
complex, with two forms of inherently capitalist differential rent, a form of
genuinely monopoly rent (fortunately a minor consideration) and abso-
lute rent.45 Setting aside the complexities, the point is that absolute rent,
the main anomalous expression of excess surplus value realized in agricul-
ture, cannot be explained on the basis of purely capitalist social relations.
It is, instead, a form that specifically derives from the historical existence
of a landlord class, which is in no way required by the logic of capitalist
social relations but is instead a legacy of precapitalist class society.
In order to trace the concrete development of rent, therefore, Marx
devotes a section to Labour Rent, noting of the precapitalist peasant-based
class societies of which it is characteristic that “[r]ent, not profit, is the
form here through which unpaid surplus labour expresses itself.”46 He
observes immediately that in feudal society, the labour rent owed by peas-
ants to lords “is not only directly unpaid surplus labour, but also appears
as such”. He continues with a famous observation, previously taken up in
Chap. 8, about the necessarily extra-economic character of the precapital-
ist appropriation of surplus:

It is furthermore evident that in all forms in which the direct labourer

remains the “possessor” of the means of production and labour conditions
necessary for the production of his own means of subsistence, the property
relationship must simultaneously appear as a direct relation of lordship and
servitude, so that the direct producer is not free; a lack of freedom which
may be reduced from serfdom with enforced labour to a mere tributary
relationship. Under such conditions, the surplus labour for the nominal
owner of the land can only be extorted from them by other than economic
pressure, whatever the form assumed may be.47
250   G. C. COMNINEL

This extra-economic character of precapitalist class relations of exploita-

tion is, as has been stressed by Perry Anderson, one of the most crucial
and fundamental ways in which they differ from those of the capitalist
mode of production.
Marx importantly then went on to address forms of peasant society
where no private landowners exist to appropriate rent, but only the state:

then rent and taxes coincide, or rather, there exists no tax which differs from
this form of ground-rent. Under such circumstances, there need exist no
stronger political or economic pressure than that common to all subjection
to that state. The state is then the supreme lord. Sovereignty here consists in
the ownership of land concentrated on a national scale. But, on the other
hand, no private ownership of land exists, although there is both private and
common possession and use of land.48

He continues, as previously emphasized:

The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out
of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it
grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a deter-
mining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the
economic community which grows up out of the production relations them-
selves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct
relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct pro-
ducers – a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the
development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity –
which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social struc-
ture and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and
dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state.49

There is, as noted several times above, no single statement that should
ever be taken to encapsulate the whole of Marx’s method for analysing
modes of production, but this certainly provides a clear guide to a most
fundamental consideration.
At the same time, this statement is directly associated with Marx’s class
analysis of two different modes of production having the same foundation
in terms of the forces of production or material conditions of social repro-
duction: self-reproducing peasant households. Marx does nothing here to
freight his conception of the first, so-called Asiatic mode of production—
which may not reflect the social realities of any Asian society in the modern
era, but certainly corresponds to societies in Bronze Age Greece, the

ancient Near East and Asia, and precolonial America—with any supposition
of hydraulic agriculture, nor does he in any other way distinguish its pro-
duction from the second, feudal, case. For this reason, his reference to “a
definite stage in the development of the methods of labour” cannot be
taken to mean that any deterministic relationship exists between forms of
production and social relations of class exploitation. It must, instead, be
taken simply to express a limitation on the forms that such relations can
take relative to social productive capacities.
The significance of Marx having conceived two different “modes of pro-
duction” with identical grounding in terms of both technological forces of
production and social relations of production—evident in the form of vil-
lages of peasant households—cannot be overemphasized. Perry Anderson
recognized this to the extent that he insisted on including the conception
of hydraulic society in the (so-called) Asiatic mode of production, though
there is nothing in Marx’s work to sustain this point.50 Clearly, there can be
no immediate correlation between forces and relations of production and
modes of production if two separate modes of production are based on the
same forces and relations—as Marx seems clearly to have intended here.

We Still Have Our Chains to Lose

Virtually the whole of the history of class societies—even in Western
Europe, but especially elsewhere across the globe—remains to be written
in historical materialist terms.51 Although Marx devoted his life primarily
to confronting the abstract system of social property relations that consti-
tute the capitalist mode of production—and among the greatest mistakes a
Marxist can make is to think that such an abstract form of analysis should
be applied to any precapitalist form of class society—his critique of political
economy does offer certain instructive guideposts for a broader historical
materialist method. What is required is in the first place to abandon reli-
ance upon what Marx said about any given non-capitalist society, and to
begin—as he did—with the actual ways in which direct producers of social
surplus were exploited. This cannot be conceived primarily in terms of the
material basis of production but must focus on the specific, fundamentally
extra-economic social relations through which the product of unpaid
labour was systematically appropriated. It is history—the history for which
Marx himself did not and could not have had the time—that is required.
Yet, it also can be seen that there are, indeed, grounds for confirming
the overarching frame of Marx’s conception of the history of class societ-
ies, culminating in the capitalist mode of production. Simply because
252   G. C. COMNINEL

c­ apitalism embodies the most logically complete form of the alienation of

labour cannot mean in itself there is no alternative but to move on to
communism, any more than Marx’s analysis of the inherently crisis-ridden
nature of the capitalist system means it will simply come crashing down
some day. Both his prescient critique of political economy—anticipating
developments in capitalism on the basis of its structure and internal
dynamics—and his conception of historical social change conditioned by
social relations of exploitation and concrete forms of struggle against
them, do however provide reason to believe a future of human freedom
and humane rationality are possible.52
It is not only because of global economic crisis that we have much to
learn from a return to Marx. When he wrote in 1848 that “A spectre is
haunting Europe”, he was mistaken in the belief that this then was the
spectre of communism. It was, instead, still the spectre of the French
Revolution and its unresolved political issues, in a Europe that still was
profoundly precapitalist.53 Yet, while the timing of his prediction was cer-
tainly wrong, there is no reason to believe its substance was not correct.
The link between his critique of capitalist exploitation and irrationality,
and the possibility of realizing a better world for all through transcending
it is strong. And, we still have our chains to lose.

1. None of the successful revolutions of the twentieth century have ever been
argued to have occurred in developed capitalist societies; the few potentially-
or quasi-revolutionary episodes (as in 1919) never came close to success.
2. See, for example, these Internet videos: George Magnus, “Give Karl Marx a
Chance to Save the World Economy: George Magnus”, Bloomberg View
(August 29, 2011). Nouriel Roubini, Karl Marx Was Right (August 16, 2011).
3. The term originated in a critique of the work of Robert Brenner by Guy
Bois, but has since been accepted by most working within the approach.
Another term, preferred by Charles Post, The American Road to Capitalism:
Studies in Class Structure, Economic Development and Political Conflict,
1620–1877 (Leiden: Brill, 2011), is “Capital-centric Marxism”, resonating
with the argument here.
4. See Harvey Kaye, The British Marxist Historians (Cambridge: Polity Press,
1984); Ellen M. Wood, Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing Historical
Materialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). For a critical
account, see Paul Blackledge, “Political Marxism”, in Critical Companion
to Contemporary Marxism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009).

5. In addition to analyses above, see George C.  Comninel, Rethinking the

French Revolution (London: Verso, 1987); Ellen M.  Wood, Peasant-
Citizen and Slave (London: Verso, 1988); Robert Brenner, “On the
Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism”,
New Left Review 104 (1970); Robert Brenner, “Bourgeois Revolution and
Transition to Capitalism”, in The First Modern Society, eds. A. L. Beier and
et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
6. See George C.  Comninel, “English Feudalism and the Origins of
Capitalism”, Journal of Peasant Studies 27, no. 4 (2000): 1–53; George
C. Comninel, “Feudalism”, in The Elgar Companion to Marxist Economics,
eds. Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad Filho (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2012).
7. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, MECW, vol. 35, 45.
8. Ibid., 46.
9. Ibid., 48.
10. Ibid., 49.
11. Ibid., 51.
12. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic
Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon, 1957), 40–1.
13. Ibid., 45.
14. See Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel (New York: Norton, 1997).
15. See Karl Polanyi, “Aristotle Discovers the Economy”, in Trade and Market
in the Early Empires, eds. Karl Polanyi, Conrad M. Arensberg, and Harry
W. Pearson (Glencoe, Ill: The Free Press, 1957), 64–94.
16. Marx, Capital, Volume I, 69.
17. Ibid., 69–70.
18. Wood, Peasant-Citizen and Slave, 82.
19. Aristotle, Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), 10.
20. Ibid., 13, 108.
21. Ibid., 22ff.
22. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980),
23. Marx, Capital, Volume I, 90.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid, 704ff.
26. See Michael Zmolek, Rethinking the Industrial Revolution (Leiden: Brill,
27. See Pierre Goubert, Beauvais et Le Beauvaisis de 1600 à 1730: Contribution
à L’ Histoire Sociale de La France Du XVIIe Siècle (Paris: Éditions de
l’EHESS, 1960).
28. Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1993), 625ff.
29. This is a central point of Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution; see
also Brenner, “Bourgeois revolution and transition to capitalism”.
254   G. C. COMNINEL

30. G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
31. I briefly discuss this in both Comninel, “English Feudalism and the Origins
of Capitalism”, and “Feudalism”.
32. See Comninel, “Revolution in History”.
33. In addition to my works cited above, see Marcello Musto, “The Formation
of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy. From the Studies of 1843 to the
Grundrisse”, Socialism and Democracy 24, no. 2 (2010): 66–100; Marcello
Musto, “Marx En París: Los Manuscritos Económico-­ Filosóficos de
1844”, in Tras Las Huellas de Un Fantasma. La Actualidad de Karl Marx
(Mexico: D.F.: SIGLO XXI, 2011).
34. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, MECW, vol. 3,
35. Ibid., 241.
36. Ibid.
37. E. P. Thompson, “The Poverty of Theory”, in The Poverty of Theory and
Other Essays (London: Merlin Press, 1984), 74.
38. Wood, Democracy against Capitalism, 35–7.
39. Karl Marx, “Introduction”, MECW, vol. 28, 42; George C.  Comninel,
“Die Anatomie Des Affen Verstehen: Historischer Materialismus Und Die
Spezifik Des Kapitalismus”, Z.  Zeitschrift Marxistische Erneuerung 84
(2010): 104–15.
40. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 293ff.
41. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, MECW,
vol. 29, 263.
42. See Eric Hobsbawm, “Introduction”, in Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations
(New York: International Publishers, 1965).
43. K. Marx, Capital, Volume III, MECW, vol. 37, 325.
44. Ibid., 769.
45. Ibid., 734ff.
46. Ibid., 776.
47. Ibid., 776–7.
48. Ibid., 777.
49. Ibid., 777–8.
50. Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: N.L.B., 1974),
“B. ‘The Asiatic Mode of Production’”, 462–549. Anderson argues that
such a mode of production—following the terms of his definition—never
51. Ibid., 403–48.
52. Ibid.
53. See especially Chaps. 2 and 7 above.

Marx and the Politics of the First


The Founding of the First International

In 1859, Karl Marx published A Contribution to the Critique of Political
Economy in Berlin.1 This constituted only the first part of the first book of
the six books he planned on the subject and included only a small part of
the material already written.2 In the following year, he was distracted by a
variety of issues and problems, including lawsuits and polemics following
libellous charges made by Karl Vogt (whom he already knew to be, as was
subsequently proved, a paid agent of Louis Bonaparte).3 When he returned
to seriously pursue his critique of political economy in mid-1861, he soon
transcended the project of completing the second part of the book, as
such. Over the next two years, he produced an enormous manu-
script—1472 large pages in 23 notebooks—that comprised the first drafts
of what would become the three volumes of Capital plus the further three
volumes of Theories of Surplus Value.4
Whereas Marx wrote the first (1857–8) manuscript, comprising the
Contribution and Grundrisse, at a time of deepening economic crisis—
writing to Frederick Engels that he was “working like mad all night and
every night” to get it at least in rough shape before “the déluge”5—the
1860s were on the whole a relatively prosperous period. The next signifi-
cant crisis, in fact, did not occur until 1873 (the onset of “the Long
Depression”, lasting until 1896). Much of the attention of the working
class in the 1860s was directed towards issues of international politics,

© The Author(s) 2019 255

G. C. Comninel, Alienation and Emancipation in the Work
of Karl Marx, Marx, Engels, and Marxisms,
256   G. C. COMNINEL

such as the American Civil War, the conflicts attending unification in Italy
and Germany, the Polish uprising, and the Irish struggle for indepen-
dence. Then, with the end of the decade came the Franco-Prussian War—
the last major European war before 1914—and the Paris Commune.
It was, in fact, out of efforts to forge international working-class politi-
cal solidarity that the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) came
into being on September 28, 1864.6 What is striking is the extent to which
it was the International, born entirely from a working-class initiative, that
seized and imposed itself on Marx. Not only did he have nothing to do
with the idea in the first place, but his correspondence in the years before
this historic turning point suggests that, if anything, he might have been
expected to have been sceptical, and to have kept aloof from it.
Only six months earlier, Engels had remarked with respect to the pos-
sibility of reissuing his The Condition of the Working Class in England that
“this is not a suitable moment in any case, now that the English proletar-
iat’s revolutionary energy has all but completely evaporated and the
English proletarian has declared himself in full agreement with the domi-
nancy of the bourgeoisie”.7 Writing back the following day, Marx men-
tioned that he had attended the large meeting called by the London
Trades Union Council on March 26 to support the Northern states in
their struggle to end slavery and oppose possible British intervention on
the side of the South. “The working men themselves spoke very well
indeed”, he noted, “without a trace of bourgeois rhetoric or the faintest
attempt to conceal their opposition to the capitalists.” Yet he continued,
“How soon the English workers will throw off what seems to be a bour-
geois contagion remains to be seen.”8
Beyond scepticism as to the readiness of the working class, he was now
deeply committed to completing his theoretical critique of political econ-
omy and the capitalist system. In the period of his responding to Vogt, he
had good reason to emphasize that the Communist League belonged to
history, that it was he himself who had moved to dissolve it years before,
and even that he had belonged to no organization since. Still, writing to
Ferdinand Freiligrath (another Red 48er) in connection with the Vogt
affair, Marx went significantly further:

since 1852 I had not been associated with any association and was firmly
convinced that my theoretical studies were of greater use to the working
class than my meddling with associations which had now had their day on
the Continent… Whereas you are a poet, I am a critic and for me the experi-
ences of 1849–52 were quite enough.9

One would hardly anticipate based on this, or anything else he expressed

since entering into serious economic study, that from virtually the day of
its founding the International would become the constant focus of Marx’s
efforts and attention for eight years and more. Indeed, he would need to
steal time from it to complete Capital (occasionally even claiming to be
out of town so he could write undisturbed by the press of its business).
Yet, he did not withdraw from it. The International became the most sig-
nificant historical development in working-class unity and collective action
to this day, and the potential that he perceived in it from its inception
made it impossible for him to stand apart.
When the Communist League was formed in 1847 through a merger of
the League of the Just and the Communist Correspondence Committee of
Brussels (of which Marx and Engels were founding members), it was a
secret organization committed to a revolution that would end existing class
society and usher in a new age of equality and true human freedom. Marx
induced the League to set aside the traditional trappings of secret societies
as previously established by revolutionary groups and workers in trades.
Secrecy was, of course, still necessary for a group dedicated to revolution.
With its reorganization, the League commissioned Marx and Engels to
write its statement of purpose, and The Manifesto of the Communist Party
could hardly have been more explicit in its call for revolution.
What is so striking in contrast is the extent to which the IWA did not
take the form of an explicitly revolutionary organization, but instead
engaged in what might be called class politics in ordinary times. This is not
merely a matter of its rhetoric. To be sure, when Marx wrote to Engels
about the founding meeting and its aftermath, which included composing
the Association’s “Inaugural Address”, he noted the real limits as to what
could be expected:

It was very difficult to frame the thing so that our view should appear in a
form that would make it acceptable to the present outlook of the workers’
movement… It will take time before the revival of the movement allows the
old boldness of language to be used.10

If the workers were not ready for bold language, they certainly did not
found their Association to undertake revolution. Yet, that this clearly was
no rebirth of the old revolutionary politics did not prevent Marx from
interpreting the fact that the meeting was “chock-full” as a sign that “there
is now evidently a revival of the working classes taking place”. Moreover,
258   G. C. COMNINEL

far from holding back from the Association, to the founding of which he
was invited as a non-speaking presence on the platform, he accepted mem-
bership not only on the provisional organizing committee but also on the
subcommittee charged with drafting a statement of rules and principles.
The difference is also not simply a matter of stated objectives. In the
Manifesto, for example, the stated goals include a “graduated income tax”
and “Free education for all children in public schools”.11 The Communist
League was nonetheless seriously and immediately committed to revolu-
tion. Within the IWA, Marx not only did not hide his ultimately revolu-
tionary goals, but included them from the start in the Inaugural Address
and Rules of the Association.
The Address began not with the spectre of revolution haunting Europe,
but with the “fact that the misery of the working masses has not dimin-
ished from 1848 to 1864”.12 After rehearsing both the facts of that misery
and the crushing political defeat after 1848, Marx pointed only to two
“compensating features”: the Ten Hours Bill and the growth of the coop-
erative movement. Still, his conclusion was that “[t]o conquer political
power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes.”13
The Rules—unanimously adopted and published by the Association
together with the Address—were even less ambiguous. They stated that
“the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the work-
ing classes themselves”, called for “the abolition of all class rule”, and
asserted that “the economical emancipation of the working classes” was
the ultimate goal.14 The concluding words of the Address even echoed
those of the Manifesto: “Proletarians of all countries, Unite!”
Yet, where the Manifesto was directly a call for revolution, the founding
documents of the International, the policies adopted at its Congresses, and
the organizational undertakings over the course of its existence all focussed
on precisely the task of building and uniting—in the open—a mass politi-
cal instrument for the working class. It is not that Marx was ever in any way
less committed to revolution, let alone converted to reform. Nor were he
and his closest associates alone among IWA members in advocating for
revolution. As profoundly different as they were in their politics, Mikhail
Bakunin and his supporters—who eventually ­outnumbered those who
stood with Marx—were no less committed to the idea of revolutionary
change rather than reform. The key difference between Marx and Bakunin,
indeed, lay precisely in the former’s recognition that a revolutionary trans-
formation presupposed a political process, that in the first instance a politi-
cal revolution was necessary, and that this required the real and substantial

development of working-class political agency. It was to this end, from the

beginning, that Marx devoted his energies to the International.
This purpose fits with the whole impetus behind the founding of the
IWA. Although the development of capitalist economic relations and of
national workers’ organizations varied enormously across Europe,15 there
was a great deal shared at the level of progressive political positions, par-
ticularly in the international arena, as well as with respect to basic rights
and social policies. The founding meeting was called in the wake of a con-
fluence of international issues—Italian unification, American Civil War,
and Polish Uprising—that had brought British workers together with vis-
iting French workers and resident workers from other countries.16 In addi-
tion to the issues of peace, freedom and an end to slavery, and causes of
national self-determination, the leading issues on which workers virtually
everywhere agreed involved political rights and electoral democracy, the
right to organize with respect to their labour, preventing recourse to for-
eign strike-breakers, the reduction of working hours, and (still) progres-
sive taxation and free public education. Aside from the many issues that
were directly international, the value of international cooperation could be
seen in the fact that, as Marx observed in his Address, continental govern-
ments had been obliged to follow the example of English factory legisla-
tion after that victory had been won. Even reformist workers embraced
the gains to be made on these issues, while for Marx their achievement
embodied the real substance of “the political reorganisation of the work-
ing men’s party” for which he had called in the Address.

Divergences in Economic Development, Working-­

Class Organization, and Politics
Across Europe, the situation of the working class was different in each
country. There existed profound national differences in the form and
extent of capitalist production, hugely disparate historical experiences and
ideological tendencies, a range of nationally specific characteristic forms of
workers’ organization, and enormous divergences with respect to political
situations and forms of state.
In the first place, the capitalist mode of production was not old, but very
recent; and it had not developed originally throughout Western Europe, but
only in England. These claims remain controversial for many, despite a
growing body of evidence that supports them.17 However, it is virtually uni-
versally recognized that industrial development on the European continent
260   G. C. COMNINEL

lagged significantly behind that in Britain. Belgium was the first continental
nation to undergo significant capitalist development; France grew relatively
slowly at least until the 1870s; and Germany came from far behind but then
rapidly surpassed France.18 Marx himself weighed in on the unique status of
Britain in 1870:

Although the revolutionary initiative will probably start from France, only
England can act as a lever in any seriously economic revolution. It is the only
country where there are no longer any peasants, and where land ownership
is concentrated in very few hands. It is the only country where almost all
production has been taken over by the capitalist form, in other words with
work combined on a vast scale under capitalist bosses. It is the only country
where the large majority of the population consists of wage-labourers. It is
the only country where the class struggle and the organization of the work-
ing class into trade unions have actually reached a considerable degree of
maturity and universality. Because of its domination of the world market, it
is the only country where any revolution in the economic system will have
immediate repercussions on the rest of the world.19

He concluded, “England cannot be treated simply as a country along

with other countries. It must be treated as the metropolis of capital.”20
The extent to which France truly differed from England has rarely been
accorded proper recognition, since it was not simply a matter of degree.
An essential condition of the capitalist mode of production is that capital
controls the process of production through management, which is referred
to as the subordination (or subsumption) of labour to capital. Marx, in
addition, recognized that there was not only the formal subordination of
labour to capital, but also its real subordination, through which capital not
only has the inherent right to control production but actively intervenes
to do so.21 As discussed in Chap. 2, however, French workers—in legal
principle and in practice within the workplace—largely retained the right
to control production themselves.22 In labour law, there had long existed
a fundamental difference between louage d’ouvrage (contract for work)
and louage de service (contract of service).23 This distinction continues to
this day: someone working under louage d’ouvrage is essentially a “con-
tractor”, recognized in law as not being a subordinate of the person con-
tracting for service, and retaining rights with respect to the work. The
louage de service, by contrast, was originally the characteristic contract for
a subordinate person, such as in domestic service, and has in the twentieth
century become the basis for the standard capitalist contract of

Whereas for much of the nineteenth-century British labour law built

upon and strengthened the common law relationship of “master and ser-
vant”, labour law in France from 1789 to the latter part of the nineteenth
century instead built upon the liberty of the worker. Legal oversight of
labour contracts was transformed from a police matter of public order into
a civil issue of mutual contractual obligations, overseen by local labour
tribunals.25 In this regard, “the contrast between France and England
between 1789 and 1875 was therefore complete”.26 On the English side,
“a logic of industrial subordination” took the employers’ good faith for
granted; on the French side, “a concern for fairness” instead actively com-
pensated for inequality in economic status, holding employers to account
for the consequences of their management.27 In France there was a formal
recognition of the difference between “workers” (ouvriers) and “day
labourers” (journaliers, who were under louage de service) with the latter
comprising only 10% of industrial employees, and enduring real subordi-
nation to the commands of the employer—unlike the “workers”, who
continued to enjoy louage d’ouvrage. Indeed, there is a “perfect pattern of
inverse symmetry” between France and England with respect to collective
bargaining versus face-to-face negotiations by individual workers.28 In
France, collective bargaining was banned, but workers benefited from the
legal recognition of their rights as individuals relative to their employer; in
England, workers were personally subject to their employer as “master”,
but increasingly, the law made room for the “voluntary” choice of collec-
tive representation.
As a result of the French Revolution—buttressed locally by workers’
demands, and seemingly without concern at higher levels of the state—
legal practice insisted on recognizing contractual equality in social terms,
not just in formal economic terms. This was grounded upon the liberty of
the individual worker, with local labour tribunals acting as conciliators
seeking to balance interests and achieve peace and fairness in the work-
place. It is clear, therefore, based upon a large and growing body of evi-
dence, that the basic capitalist social relationship of the subordination of
labour to capital in industry was very far from fully realizable—if perhaps
not actually illegal—down to the last decades of the nineteenth century.
Just as the French Revolution had the effect of buttressing the rights and
customs of peasants, preventing any development of capitalist production
on the land, so also it not merely reinforced but greatly increased the
rights of workers in industry. This provided a profoundly different context
for labour.
262   G. C. COMNINEL

It was not, of course, as if the French state took away all rights of prop-
erty owners; but it had a predisposition towards benefiting great property
holders in relation to the state itself and large-scale trade and industry,
while generally neglecting the position of small-scale proprietors in relation
to production. This state-centric form of class relations had been character-
istic of the old regime, and while important institutional changes certainly
followed as a result of the Revolution, the continuity is striking.29 This
entrenchment of precapitalist economic patterns goes a long way towards
explaining the slow rate of industrialization in France, and sheds light on
the historically distinctive development of its labour organizations.
It has long been recognized that, after the Revolution abolished guilds
as holdovers from the feudal past, the workers continued to rely upon
their compagnonnages, journeymen’s societies that equally had roots in the
middle ages.30 In addition, workers increasingly developed various forms
of mutual-aid society. Together with the legal regime of louage d’ouvrage,
these forms both expressed and reinforced a corporatist character in work-
ers’ organizations. The form of workers’ associations stood in integral, yet
ironic, connection with the recognition of the rights of workers relative to
employers: workers in a given trade developed a collective identity with
respect to social needs and political participation, in part on the basis of
their relative security and strongly held identity as individual members of
that trade. This relative strength of French workers as individuals con-
trasted greatly with the characteristic form of capitalist social relations of
wage labour, above all as realized in England, and provided a powerful
historical foundation for the development of syndicalism in France.
Of course, workers’ interests were not always met through the concilia-
tion of the labour tribunals, and strikes did occur. In keeping with the
strong legal recognition of their rights as individuals, as well as the role of
the state in preserving “public order”, strikes were entirely illegal until
1864, and strikers were frequently prosecuted.31 In the absence of collec-
tive bargaining, with most terms of employment recognized with respect
to the trade as a whole in each locality, there were no trade unions as such.
When, therefore, workers did resort to strikes, they organized ad hoc,
secret, sociétés de resistance solely for that purpose—yet another develop-
ment that underpinned French syndicalism. All of these tendencies were
profoundly reinforced by the small-scale and artisanal production typical of
French industry—as late as 1896, 36% of industrial workers were employed
in workshops of 5 or fewer, and 64% in workplaces of less than 50.32

These syndicalist tendencies were expressed not only in the strength of

various anarchist movements but also in the difficulty of forging a socialist
political organization. In 1880, Jules Guesde met with Marx to draft the
program for the French Workers’ Party. Marx dictated its preamble and
collaborated on the sections of minimum political and economic
demands.33 Ironically, however, it was after Guesde (with Marx’s own son-­
in-­law Paul Lafargue and other leaders of the party) demonstrated that the
minimum demands were to be little more than a lure to attract workers—
as opposed to means both to develop class organization and ameliorate
social conditions—that Marx made the famous assertion that if this was
Marxism, then “[i]f anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a
Marxist.”34 Far from being a potent political force, this party was chal-
lenged by several other socialist parties, to say nothing of the anarchists.
With the heavy repression of the left after the Paris Commune, and unions
only given real status in 1884, the strong syndicalist currents and relatively
weak formal economic organization of the working class continued long
after the end of the nineteenth century.
While, unlike Britain, France remained a largely rural society in the
period of the International—indeed, even in 1914, 60% of the population
was rural35—there was nonetheless a good deal of industrial production,
albeit mostly on a small scale and with limited subordination of workers to
capital. Germany, by contrast, had seen much less development of industry
in any form prior to the mid-nineteenth century, but rapid growth from
that point led its manufacturing to surpass even that of Britain before the
First World War.36 Yet, at the time of the founding of the International,
Germany was the only country in which a real socialist party existed, the
General German Workers’ Association established by Ferdinand Lassalle in
1863. Not only did Lassalle support German unification even under the
reactionary Prussian monarchy, but he met with and sought to work with
its chief minister, Bismarck.37 This seemingly strange political cooperation,
however, made sense on both sides. On the one hand, unification of
Germany was long a goal of the left (though Marx, as well as like-minded
socialists and radical democrats, rejected the idea of doing so through the
Prussian monarchy). On the other, Bismarck was not afraid to work with
working-class leaders who would contribute to his nationalist project (wit-
ness his appointment of Lothar Bucher—a radical democrat of 1848 and
intimate of Lassalle—as an aide).38
Bismarck’s willingness to co-opt even socialist revolutionaries, and to
introduce extensive measures of state welfare—while also wielding the
264   G. C. COMNINEL

power of the state in the Anti-Socialist Laws—combined with the state-­

centric legacy of Lassalle’s politics, gave a peculiar stamp to the develop-
ment of the labour movement in Germany. What is most striking is the
extent of working-class political development relative to that of trade
unions. Not only did Germany have the first working-class socialist politi-
cal organization, but it had the second as well: the “Eisenach” Social
Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany, founded in 1869. Under the
leadership of Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, the Eisenachers
declared themselves from their founding to be a branch of the International
and lent important support to Marx in its last years. After these parties
merged into the Social Democratic Party in 1875 (adopting a statement of
principles that was, however, importantly criticized by Marx),39 it rapidly
developed into a powerful political force and the largest socialist party in
the world.40 While it is famously recognized that the labour unions associ-
ated with the Social Democratic Party became strongly reformist, not-
withstanding the party’s formal commitment to Marx’s ideas and the
cause of socialist revolution, it is the prior development of significant
socialist political organizations that is truly distinctive in Germany, and it
shaped the working-class movement there as a whole.
The working-class movement in England differed from those of both
France and Germany in profoundly important ways. As noted above, Marx
recognized it to be capitalist to a unique degree even in the 1870s. It was
England that held priority in developing the form of industrial production
that characterized capitalist social relations proper. The long battle through
which capitalists established their subordination of workers in production
was fought here first, and in response, the working-class trade union
movement developed early.41 Despite heavy legal suppression in the first
quarter of the nineteenth century, there was a long history of workers’
economic organization, and effective mobilization to achieve gains such as
the Ten Hours Bill, prior to the formal legalization of unions in 1871.
Although important political organization existed in the era of Chartism,
no political party ensued from this, and English workers through their
unions mostly collaborated with the Liberal party through the end of the
nineteenth century. It had been British trade unionists who were instru-
mental in founding the IWA, and despite the founding of such parties as
the Social Democratic Federation in 1881 and (more significantly) the
Independent Labour Party a decade later, the workers’ movement
remained dominated by the unions until they themselves finally estab-
lished the Labour Party in 1900.42

At the founding of the International, therefore, it is clear that even

considering only the three major countries of European industrial capital-
ism,43 there was enormous variation in the development of the capitalist
mode of production, and correspondingly great differences in the forms of
workers’ organization, both economic and political. This is evident even
apart from the profound differences in the forms of state across Europe.
Britain had its liberal parliamentary regime, yet even after the Second
Reform Act less than 60% of urban male workers—and far fewer in the
countryside—had the vote.44 Although France had adult male suffrage,
and Prussia the three-class franchise,45 elections had little meaning in
either, and Prussia had yet to unify Germany. These variations in the form
of state were enormously significant. While Marx’s reasons for dedicating
himself to building a working-class political movement internationally
may be readily understood, the challenges of doing so under such varied
conditions can hardly be overstated.

Political Currents Within the International

One of the greatest challenges lay in the profusion of cross-cutting politi-
cal movements. As is clear from the forgoing, there were many different
political tendencies among the European working classes. All the major
currents, moreover, co-existed within the IWA. Among them were several
with which Marx had to deal.
British workers were above all committed to their trade unionism,
though there were numbers of individuals—especially former Chartists
and émigrés from the aftermath of 1848—who adhered to developed
political perspectives. The London Trades Council was particularly active
politically, having organized meetings such as those supporting the strug-
gle against slavery and the Polish Uprising, to say nothing of the founding
of the International itself. Outside the circle of those immediately involved
in the IWA, however, support for progressive causes did not much ­translate
into active politics. While it may well be a mistake to attribute inherent
“trade union consciousness” to those primarily committed to the eco-
nomic organization of the working class, it is certainly the case that the
British membership of the International was overwhelmingly reformist in
The French workers who had joined in the founding meeting of the
International were greatly influenced by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. His empha-
sis on the right of the individual to the proceeds of labour; his opposition to
266   G. C. COMNINEL

political organization, but also to strikes; the great role that “mutualism”46
played in his thought: all these resonated powerfully with the largely artisanal
French workers.47 A case can be made that Proudhonism was the primary
current against which Marx had to struggle down to 1867, when the begin-
ning of a wave of strikes—in which active support by the IWA played an
important role—signalled an important shift away from Proudhon.48
Mikhail Bakunin was a very different anarchist thinker (though that
term was no more common at that time than was “Marxist”). The rela-
tionship between Marx and Bakunin changed tremendously over time. At
the time of the International’s founding, Marx wrote to Engels that he
had seen him for the first time since 1848, and liked him very much,
“more so than previously”, adding, “On the whole, he is one of the few
people whom after 16 years I find to have moved forwards and not back-
wards.”49 Yet, the history of the second half of the brief life of the
International revolved around the growing opposition between Marx and
his supporters, and Bakunin and his own.50
Another French current was represented by Louis Auguste Blanqui,
revolutionist par excellence, who had taken part in numerous conspiracies
and every uprising and revolution, from joining the Carbonari in the
1820s to being elected president of the Paris Commune in 1871 (though
already under arrest by the Versailles government). While he was undoubt-
edly a socialist in at least the broad sense of the term, his primary commit-
ment was to making political revolution, from which change would be
introduced. As Engels characterized the man and his movement:

Blanqui is essentially a political revolutionary, a socialist only in sentiment,

because of his sympathy for the sufferings of the people, but he has neither
socialist theory nor definite practical proposals for social reforms. In his
political activities he was essentially a “man of action”, believing that, if a
small well-organised minority should attempt to effect a revolutionary
­uprising at the right moment, it might, after scoring a few initial successes,
carry the mass of the people and thus accomplish a victorious revolution.51

If perhaps many socialists would not meet the stringent criteria of

Engels, it is still true that for Blanqui the revolution itself came first.
Blanquism, however, was not a significant force in the International before
1870. But after the bloody suppression of the Commune, many surviving
Blanquists fled to London, where they immediately made an impact and
were a force in the IWA’s last year.52 They opposed moving the General

Council of the International to New York, and officially split to create a

specifically Blanquist organization in opposition.53
The last significant political current of the period reflected the ideas of
Lassalle. To a great extent, Lassalle’s nationalism and founding of a specifi-
cally German socialist party—to say nothing of his death immediately
before the founding of the International—limited the influence of his
ideas within the IWA. Marx and Engels had been in regular communica-
tion with him, and despite growing differences, they mourned his passing.
Although in many ways the primary influence of Lassalleanism was as an
absence from, and even barrier to, the IWA, the doctrine of “the Iron Law
of Wages” that Lassalle espoused did figure among the ideas to which
members of the International adhered. That there was a limited “wages
fund” in the economy, as a result of which efforts by trade unions to
increase wages must be frustrated, was an idea that predated Lassalle; but
the name he gave to the doctrine lent unwarranted “scientific” credibility
to it and helped make it a force to be reckoned with. Many of the Germans
who did belong to the International were influenced by Lassalle.

Marx’s Politics and Interventions

in the International

Marx’s contributions to the International can be seen to correspond

broadly to the course of its history. This was not, however, because he
dominated it, however great his influence. The members of the
International were never afraid to express their opinion or stand their
ground, and eventually the tide turned against Marx and towards Bakunin.
His success, particularly in the early years, followed in the first place from
his deep and energetic commitment and constant attention to maintaining
the vision he had for it. Again and again, Marx undertook obligations for
day-to-day matters as well as grand statements of purpose and policy
(which, of course, always had to be voted upon). At the same time, he
revealed real talent in political organization, strategy, and manoeuvring,
which became particularly important in the later years.54
Marx’s role was especially important in relation to international issues.
Soon after the Inaugural Address and Rules were adopted, the Central
Council sent a message of congratulations written by Marx to Abraham
Lincoln—“the single-minded son of the working class”—on his re-election:
268   G. C. COMNINEL

The working men of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of
Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the
American Anti-Slavery War will do for the working classes.55

He wrote in a similar vein on behalf of the International to President

Johnson after Lincoln’s assassination, and subsequently (citing the letter
to Lincoln) to the National Labor Union of the United States, urging
them to work for peace and to allow the working class to advance, at a
time when “their would-be masters shout war”.56 Among his other inter-
ventions in relation to international issues were the well-known addresses
on the Franco-Prussian War.
Marx also drafted a number of resolutions that were among those
adopted at the Congresses of the International in 1866 and 1868.57 These
covered such issues as limitation of the working day to 8 hours, abolition
of child labour (other than in connection with education), elimination of
indirect taxes, replacement of standing armies with armed citizens, and
general strikes as a means to prevent war.58 In 1869, he advocated a policy
of free and compulsory public education, using the example of US states
but arguing for nationally regulated systems to ensure equal quality
regardless of local conditions.59 At the London Conference of 1871, Marx
himself moved that “The Conference recommends the formation of
female branches among the working class”.60 At the same conference, he
also moved that reports be prepared on “the means of securing the adhe-
sion of the agricultural producers to the movement of the industrial pro-
letariat”.61 By 1871, however, the struggle with the Bakuninists had
already begun in earnest.
Although much of what he wrote reflected the progressive stances with
which the International was founded, pressing for stronger but widely
accepted policies of social justice, it was in putting forward positions
­dealing directly with the economic and political struggles of the working
class that Marx was increasingly compelled to contend with opposing
views within the IWA. In June 1865, he addressed two consecutive meet-
ings of the General Council in London in order to refute the idea of a
fixed wages fund in the economy (the “Iron Law of Wages”).62 This fol-
lowed a series of speeches by the former Owenite and Chartist John
Weston that maintained this view and argued that trade union efforts to
raise wages would therefore necessarily have negative consequences.
Marx’s intervention—virtually a short course in what he would publish as

Capital—opened into weeks of debate on the subject, involving other

members as well, until his view generally carried the day.
Subsequently, Marx defended trade unions in a resolution for the
Geneva Congress of 1866: in the first instance, as necessary to workers’
struggle around “questions of wages and time of labour”; but, further, as
“unconsciously… forming centres of organization of the working class”
and having a crucial role “as organized agencies for superseding the very
system of wages labour and capital rule”. Then, as a result of the growing
wave of successful strikes organized with support from the International,
his resolution to the 1868 Brussels Congress went further to assert that
while “strikes are not a means to the complete emancipation of the work-
ing classes” they “are frequently a necessity in the actual situation of the
struggle between labour and capital”, as well as to call for the organization
of unions in trades where they did not exist, and for their joining together
both locally and internationally. Through tireless efforts of this kind, Marx
won growing support for his views, and increasingly displaced the influ-
ence of Lassalle and Proudhon on economic and labour issues.
The politics of Blanquism did not present such a great problem. It was
neither nationalist, as Lassalle had been, nor anti-political, like Proudhon.
Although, given their insurrectionary orientation, the Blanquists were not
inclined to see the International in the same terms as Marx, their strong
support for political organization and action meant they were not infre-
quently on the same side as Marx. The real issues were more deeply stra-
tegic: the difference between (a) building a workers’ movement that in
the end would not only represent the whole of the class, but even be able
to mobilize them as a class, and (b) organizing revolutionary insurrection
in essentially the classic form of taking to the barricades.
Few Blanquists had been drawn to the International initially, because of
the dominant role of Proudhonists among its French membership.
However, as the International’s success and recognition grew, and with
the decline of Proudhonism after 1868, some Blanquists joined even
before the Commune. Although Marx worked with the Blanquists, par-
ticularly against Bakunin, the basis for his politics was never similar, as
became evident with the move of the General Council to New  York.
Marx’s interpretation of the Commune underscores the extent to which
he saw revolutionary struggle in terms that differed greatly from theirs.
Already in early August 1870, a month before the stunning French
defeat at Sedan, Marx wrote to Engels that
270   G. C. COMNINEL

If a revolution breaks out in Paris, it is questionable whether they will have

the means and the leaders capable of offering serious resistance to the
Prussians. One cannot remain blind to the fact that the 20-year-long
Bonapartist farce has brought tremendous demoralisation in its wake. One
would hardly be justified to rely on revolutionary heroism.63

This was not so much a question of whether a “Commune” might be

formed, given the history of both 1789 and 1848. The question was
whether a revolutionary insurrection in the 1870s—with France defeated,
the Prussian army on the doorstep of Paris, and a National Assembly of all
the old parties sitting at Versailles—could succeed.
There was, of course, no doubt, once the Commune was established,
that Marx would support it. As he wrote to Ludwig Kugelmann,

If you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire you will find that
I say that the next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as
before, to transfer the bureaucratic military machine from one hand to
another, but to break it, and that is essential for every real people’s revolu-
tion on the Continent. And this is what our heroic Party comrades in Paris
are attempting.64

Notwithstanding his frustration at their wasting time with trivia, failing

to seize opportunities, and neglecting even to prepare adequately for the
onslaught that was coming, it is clear not only in his published writing but
also his letters that his admiration for the Communards in “storming the
heavens” knew no bounds.65
Yet, despite Marx’s several suggestions that success might have been
possible, it is not only their many mistakes but the objective situation that
seem to argue otherwise. Revolutionary heroism, as he had predicted, was
not enough. At least ten thousand were left dead in the street, tens of
thousands more transported, and the militant working class of Paris was
depleted for a generation. As Marx well knew, a revolution requires more
than heroic insurrection.
The greatest conflict Marx faced in the International was of course that
with Bakunin, culminating in the removal of the General Council to
New York. Skirmishes were fought on several issues of policy, though the
major battles were mainly organizational. Bakunin and his associates
joined the IWA in 1868. The following year, the subject of inheritance—
the abolition of which was a central tenet for Bakunin, and one of the few

goals that might precede revolutionary abolition of the state—figured

importantly as a policy issue. Marx produced a report, adopted by the
General Council, that stressed that inheritance was only a problem because
of the social power inherent in capital, and that in the struggle against
capital, “[t]o proclaim the abolition of the right of inheritance as the start-
ing point of the social revolution would only tend to lead the working
class away from the true point of attack against present society.”66 After
Bakunin spoke against the position, however, this report became the first
from the General Council that failed to be adopted at an IWA Congress.
The most pointed policy struggle directly focussed upon the issue of
political organization and action, against which the Bakunists were solidly
arrayed. In this regard, Marx had the great advantage of having included
the centrality of political struggle in both the Inaugural Address and Rules
of the Association, though this was challenged (partly on the basis of bad
translation). There were, therefore, several motions confirming the impor-
tance of workers’ political liberties and active political engagement in the
last years of the International, and it is testimony to Marx’s own political
skill that they passed. In offsetting the influence of Bakuninists, he drew
support particularly from German delegates (whose increased involve-
ment broadly corresponded to his own growing stature in Germany fol-
lowing the publication of Capital) and from the Blanquists.
At the London Conference of 1871, it was the leading Blanquist (and
Communard) Édouard Vaillant who moved:

In the presence of an unbridled and momentarily victorious reaction, which

stifles any claims of socialist democracy and intends to maintain by force the
distinction between classes, the Conference reminds members of the
Association that the political and social questions are indissolubly linked,
that they are two sides of the same question meant to be resolved by the
International: the abolition of class.
Workers must recognize no less than the economic solidarity that unites
them and join their forces, on the political terrain as much as on the eco-
nomic terrain, for the triumph of their cause.67

In response, the London Conference commissioned a resolution—sub-

sequently drafted by Marx and Engels—for submission to the next
Congress to supplement the revised Rules already adopted at the
Conference in order to clarify the importance of political organization.
This new Section 7a of the Rules, adopted by the 1872 Congress at The
Hague, began
272   G. C. COMNINEL

In its struggle against the collective power of the propertied classes, the
working class cannot act as a class except by constituting itself into a political
party, distinct from, and opposed to all old parties formed by the propertied

This was, of course, a major political achievement for Marx.

With, however, German socialists focussing primarily on their two
national parties and on the newly established Reich, the Blanquists com-
mitted to a fundamentally different conception of what the International
should be, and the Bakuninists growing in strength, Marx recognized that
the Association had reached a limit to what it might at the time achieve in
terms of the politics to which he was committed. Indeed, there was a real
possibility of its becoming either a Bakuninist association opposed to
political organization or a Blanquist association that largely ignored eco-
nomic organization and struggle in favour of fomenting insurrection. In
either case, the potential of the IWA to build a working-class political force
and its capacity to advance progressive social policies in meaningful ways
would be profoundly compromised. He therefore adroitly undertook to
frustrate both political tendencies at the Hague Congress: on the one
hand, through a report that led to Bakunin being expelled (though the
Congress balked at expelling all members of Bakunin’s secret organization
within the IWA) and, on the other, largely responding to the looming
presence of Blanquist émigrés in London, by relocating the General
Council to New York. In consequence, these fractious internal forces took
their separate paths, leaving few behind with Marx and Engels. It really
was this fact of fundamental political fragmentation and opposition, rather
than the move to New York as such, that spelled the end of the International.
The idea of a broad international movement, working together despite
national differences and comprising a wide range of political ideas, with
the common objective of building the capacity of the working class for
revolutionary transformation of society while ameliorating their condition
in the present, was—not for the last time—undone.

Marx Was Not a Leninist

Of course, Marx was not a Leninist. When Marx died, Lenin had not yet
turned 13. Yet issues of Marx’s politics have been approached from Lenin’s
perspective for more than one hundred years now, often even by non-­
Leninists. This is not the place to take up a serious critique of Lenin,69 and

one must be careful not to trivialize or reduce his ideas to simplistic cari-
catures. It is instructive, however, to locate Marx’s politics concretely in
relation to those proposed by Lenin, and to contrast the two.
If the emancipation of the working class—and with it, the whole of
humanity—was to be the task of the workers themselves, then the first
requirement was development of the capacity of that class to act in their
own interests. It is precisely in this regard that Marx’s conception of class
politics comes to the fore, and can be seen to be inherently different from
the politics of reformists, insurrectionists, anarchists, and Leninists alike.
Marx was prepared to make great sacrifices to help the working class
advance in its struggle. It always remained, however, the self-organization
of the workers that was central. Workers had to make themselves collec-
tively into agents who would end the state’s role as instrument of class
rule, and remake their lifetime of labour from a means of enriching the few
into a collective realization and enjoyment of human potential. No single
institution, leader, or ideological conception was either sufficient or irre-
placeable for that to be achieved. It is this commitment to development of
the working class, as such, into a social and political force that is most
clearly revealed by Marx’s participation in the International.
Marx never became a reformist—contrary to the views of Eduard
Bernstein, most notably70—despite his efforts to ameliorate conditions of
workers, engage in politics within existing states, and resist irresponsible
calls to provocative action. By the same token, despite his abiding commit-
ment to revolution and genuine support for the Commune, he was never
an insurrectionist, and he certainly could conceive revolutionary change
being achieved without taking to barricades. Marx also was never an anar-
chist, as such, though as early as 1843 he became the first political theorist
ever to view the state—in itself, and regardless of how democratic it might
be—as inherently a form of human alienation that needed to be tran-
scended in achieving human emancipation.71 In this regard, he was so
profoundly anti-statist to the end of his life that it might be said that his
disagreement with anarchism72 was not with its end, but over the feasibil-
ity of its means. Finally, beyond all this, he was never a Leninist, and if
anything more clearly not in his maturity than in his youth.
Fifty-four years passed between the Communist Manifesto and Lenin’s
What Is to Be Done?, with the transfer of the International to New York not
quite halfway between the two. As noted above, the International was very
different from the Communist League and had a different purpose.
Moreover, the IWA clearly never had any of the characteristics that Lenin
274   G. C. COMNINEL

called for, either in a party as such, or subsequently in the Third International,

founded directly on the Bolshevik party model.73 Most importantly, Marx
never made any effort to introduce such characteristics.
To begin with, when Marx stressed that “the emancipation of the work-
ing classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” (as the
first rule of the Association had it) he meant exactly that. In Marx’s resolu-
tions submitted to and adopted at the Geneva Congress, the call for work-
ers themselves to undertake “a statistical inquiry into the situation of the
working classes of all countries” was posited not only to be able to know
what needed to be done, but to demonstrate “their ability to take their
own fate into their own hands”. His resolution on cooperative labour
went on to hold that

[i]t is the business of the International Working Men’s Association to com-

bine and generalize the spontaneous movements of the working classes, but
not to dictate or impose any doctrinary system whatever.74

The extent to which the democratic practice of the IWA was real—and
anything but a form of “democratic centralism”—can be seen in the dif-
ficulty Marx continuously had in dealing with the various other political
currents. Yet, despite the growing battle with Bakunin, he made no effort
to limit membership, a basic principle of the Bolshevik model. Indeed, the
revised Rules of 1871 made the openness of membership even more
explicit than the original Rules, stating that “Everybody who acknowl-
edges and defends the principles of the International Working Men’s
Association is eligible to become a member.”75 When Marx’s participation
in the International is viewed in full, and without the filter of one or
another expression of Leninism, the vivacity, openness, and democracy of
the politics that can be discerned is not merely a revelation, but an
It is an inspiration that is desperately needed today. The situation of the
working class internationally has (in relative terms) worsened even more in
recent decades than it had when Marx wrote the Inaugural Address. The
gains that workers achieved following the decisive global defeat of fascism
more than two generations ago—a defeat won by working-class men and
women determined to end not only rapacious and horrific oppression, but
also economic vulnerability and immiseration—have been rolled back dra-
matically. Yet, as Marx noted then, there are compensating factors.

On the one hand, globalization and the extension of genuinely capital-

ist social relations of production have brought about a far greater eco-
nomic commonality than existed in the era of the First International.
National historical and cultural differences are, of course, still very real,
even within the confines of Europe, let alone globally. Yet, with Chinese
capitalists now opening sweatshops in Italy, and with urbanization and
digital communications bridging—if far from eliminating—many cultural
divides, the capacity for international cooperation among labour move-
ments is greater than ever. At the same time, on the other hand, despite
the enormous oppressive power of states, and intimidating anti-labour
practices of multinational giants and small-scale employers alike, signifi-
cant advances have been achieved with respect to the rights of workers.
These rights certainly are abused on a daily basis, but they exist in ways
that they did not 150 years ago. If, therefore, the situation then called for
workers to come together—and to find means to overcome not only pro-
found social differences, but political differences as well—how much
greater is both the need and the potential today! An important first step
would be to recognize the value Marx himself saw in a movement like the

1. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, MECW,
vol. 29, 257–419.
2. Ibid., 540–2, n57.
3. Marx’s letters of 1860 are preoccupied with Vogt’s calumnies, widely
reported in Germany, including the astonishing claim that Marx had run a
racket during the 1848 Revolution, extorting money from vulnerable
communists in Germany (Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, 1860–64,
Letters, MECW, vol. 41, 43). The whole matter is documented in Marx’s
Herr Vogt, MECW, vol. 17, 21–329.
4. Karl Marx, Economic Manuscript of 1861–63, MECW, vol. 30, 455, n1.
5. Karl Marx to Frederick Engels, December 8, 1861, MECW, vol. 40, 217.
6. Karl Marx to Frederick Engels, November 4, 1857, MECW, vol. 42, 15–8,
n18, n19. For a brief history of the International, and a selection of its
most important documents (including those that are cited here), see
Marcello Musto, Workers Unite! The International 150 Years Later
(London: Bloomsbury, 2014).
7. Frederick Engels to Karl Marx, April 8, 1863, MECW, vol. 41, 465.
8. Karl Marx to Frederick Engels, April 9, 1863, MECW, vol. 41, 468.
276   G. C. COMNINEL

9. Karl Marx to Ferdinand Freiligrath, February 29, 1860, MECW, vol. 41,
10. Karl Marx to Frederick Engels, November 4, 1864, MECW, vol. 42, spells
out his view of the meeting and his intentions in what followed.
11. Karl Marx, and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party,
MECW, vol. 6, 505.
12. Karl Marx, “Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s
Association”, MECW, vol. 20, 5.
13. Ibid., 12.
14. Karl Marx, “Provisional Rules of the Association”, MECW, vol. 20, 14.
15. The original Rules of the Association referred specifically to Europe, which
only was changed in the revised rules written by Marx and Engels in 1871.
16. David Fernbach, “Introduction”, in The First International and After
(London: Penguin/NLR, 1974), 10–3.
17. I have discussed this in virtually all my previous work, and throughout this
book, and will cite here only George C. Comninel, Rethinking the French
Revolution (London: Verso, 1987) and “Critical Thinking and Class
Analysis: Historical Materialism and Social Theory”, Socialism and
Democracy 27, no. 1 (March 2013): 19–56. The foundation for this histori-
cal conception lies in the work of Robert Brenner, most notably two articles
collected (with rejoinders) in T.  H. Aston, and C.  H. E.  Philpin, The
Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in
Pre-Industrial Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
Ellen M. Wood has contributed importantly to these ideas in Democracy
Against Capitalism: Rethinking Historical Materialism (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1995), The Pristine Culture of Capitalism
(London: Verso, 1991) and The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View
(London: Verso, 2002). Michael Zmolek’s book, Rethinking the Industrial
Revolution (Leiden: Brill, 2013) provides a lengthy historical analysis of the
long development and late realization of industrial capitalism in England.
18. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital (London: Sphere, 1977), 56; François
Crouzet, “The Historiography of French Economic Growth in the
Nineteenth Century”, Economic History Review 56, 2 (2003): 223.
19. Karl Marx, “The General Council to the Federal Council of Romance
Switzerland,” MECW, vol. 21, 86.
20. Ibid., 87.
21. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, MECW, vol. 35, 511. There is an enormous
literature on this issue, drawing particularly on a chapter in Marx’s original
manuscript analysing the formal and real “subsumption” of labour to capi-
tal, which was not included in Capital. I take account of the published text
alone here simply because it is entirely sufficient to the point.

22. I am indebted for much of what follows on France to the analysis of Xavier
Lafrance in his as yet unpublished doctoral dissertation, Citizens and
Wage-Labourers: Capitalism and the Formation of a Working Class in
France (York University, 2013).
23. Alain Cottereau, “Sens du juste et usages du droit du travail: une évolution
contrastée entre la France et la Grande-Bretagne au XIXe siècle”, Revue
d’histoire du XIXe siècle 33, no. 2 (2006): 101–20 (published in English as
“Industrial tribunals and the establishment of a kind of common law of
labour in nineteenth-century France”, in Private Law and Social Inequality
in the Industrial Age, ed. Willibald Steinmetz (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2000).
24. Cottereau, “Sens du juste et usages du droit du travail”, 103, 113–4.
25. Ibid., 105–9.
26. Ibid., 109 [my translation].
27. Ibid., 112.
28. Ibid., 116.
29. See my analysis in Rethinking the French Revolution, 200–3.
30. For a classic typology of the forms of working-class organization in France,
see Louis Levine, Syndicalism in France (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1914), 26–33. On the compagnonnages, and particularly their politi-
cal role after the Revolution, see William H. Sewell Jr., Work and Revolution
in France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
31. There were 14,000 prosecutions between 1825 and 1864, and 9,000 strik-
ers were imprisoned; Robert J.  Goldstein, Political Repression in 19th
Century Europe (New York: Routledge, 2010), 58.
32. Roger Magraw, “Socialism, Syndicalism and French Labour Before 1914”,
Labour and Socialist Movements in Europe Before 1914, ed. Dick Geary
(Oxford: Berg, 1989), 49. Magraw offers an excellent overview of the role
of syndicalism in French politics.
33. Karl Marx, “Preamble to the Programme of the French Workers’ Party”,
MECW, vol. 24, 340; Karl Marx and Jules Guesde, “The Programme of the
Parti Ouvrier”, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/
parti-ouvrier.htm. See also Frederick Engels to Eduard Bernstein, October
25, 1881, MECW, vol. 46, 144–51.
34. A remark to Paul Lafargue that Engels reported to Bernstein, MECW, vol.
46, 356.
35. Roger Magraw, “Socialism, Syndicalism and French Labour Before 1914”.
36. Dick Geary, “Socialism and the German Labour Movement Before 1914”,
in Labour and Socialist Movements in Europe Before 1914, ed. Dick Geary
(Oxford: Berg, 1989), 102–3.
37. Jonathan Steinberg, Bismarck: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2011), 199ff.
278   G. C. COMNINEL

38. Ibid., 206–7.

39. Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, MECW, vol. 24, 75–99.
40. Geary, “Socialism and the German Labour Movement Before 1914”, 101.
41. Zmolek, Rethinking the Industrial Revolution, provides an excellent his-
tory of this struggle over control of production. There are many histories
of English unions and working-class organizations, but one would be hard
pressed to recommend any work ahead of E. P. Thompson’s The Making of
the English Working Class (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968).
42. See Gordon Phillips, “The British Labour Movement Before 1914”, in
Labour and Socialist Movements in Europe Before 1914, ed. Dick Geary
(Oxford: Berg, 1989).
43. Though Belgium was far more developed in industry on a per capita basis
than either France or Germany, and its workers played a crucial role in
the International, its small size undercut the impact it might otherwise
have had.
44. Phillips, “The British Labour Movement Before 1914”, 39.
45. Geary, “Socialism and the German Labour Movement Before 1914”, 125.
46. Proudhon anticipated the transformation of society largely through the
formation of producer cooperatives, and it was largely to the end of real-
izing this that he strongly advocated the idea of “the People’s Bank”.
47. Albert S. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1983), 106.
48. Fernbach does see the history of the IWA in these terms, “Introduction”,
49. Marx to Engels, November 4, 1864, 18–9.
50. In 1874–5, Marx commented importantly on the text of Bakunin’s
Statehood and Anarchy, throughout which Bakunin criticized Marx explic-
itly (Karl Marx, “Notes on Bakunin’s book Statehood and Anarchy”,
MECW, vol. 24, 485–526). Bakunin died in 1876. The literature on Marx
and Bakunin is enormous.
51. Frederick Engels, “Programme of the Blanquist Commune Refugees”,
MECW, vol. 24, 13.
52. For more on Blanquism as a political force, see Patrick H.  Hutton, The
Cult of the Revolutionary Tradition: The Blanquists in French Politics
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).
53. Engels, “Programme of the Blanquist Commune Refugees”, 13.
54. This was, however, evident as early as in his first letter to Engels on the
founding of the IWA, in which he related finessing a dreadful statement of
principles through his unanticipated preparation of the Inaugural Address,
which was then met with unanimous approval in its stead.
55. Karl Marx, “To Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of
America”, MECW, vol. 20, 20.

56. Karl Marx, “Address to the National Labour Union of the United States”,
MECW, vol. 21, 53–5. The threat of war loomed in 1869 as the US pressed
claims against Britain for damages resulting from the Alabama, a ship built
in Britain and delivered to the Confederacy, and other violations of neu-
trality. The chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sought the
enormous sum of $2 billion, with the possible alternative of annexation of
British Columbia, the Red River Colony, and Nova Scotia. The claims ulti-
mately were resolved through arbitration.
57. Marx did not himself attend any of the Congresses until the last, at The
Hague, in 1872, but he submitted resolutions through the General
Council. There were, of course, other resolutions as well.
58. Office of General Council, International Working Men’s Association,
Resolutions of the Congress of Geneva, 1866, and the Congress of Brussels,
1868 (London: IWMA, 1868).
59. Karl Marx, Synopses of Speeches on Education (August 10 and 17, 1869),
in General Council, International Workingmen’s Association, The General
Council of the First International, Minutes, 1868–1870 (Moscow: Progress
Publishers, 1964), 140–1, 146–7.
60. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Resolutions of the Conference of
Delegates of the International Working Men’s Association”, MECW, vol.
22, 424.
61. Karl Marx, “The London Conference of The International Working Men’s
Association September 17–23, 1871”, MECW, vol. 22, 246.
62. Karl Marx, “Value, Price and Profit” [sometimes published as Wages, Price
and Profit], MECW, vol. 20, 102–59.
63. Karl Marx to Frederick Engels, August 8, 1870, MECW, vol. 44, 39.
64. Karl Marx to Louis Kugelmann, April 12, 1871, MECW, vol. 44, 131.
65. Aside from The Civil War in France, MECW, vol. 22, 307–59, see Marx’s
letters of April 12, 17, and 26, May 13, and June 12, 1871, MECW, vol. 44.
66. Karl Marx, “Report of the General Council on the Right of Inheritance”,
in General Council of the First International, Minutes, 1868–1870 (Moscow:
Progress Publishers, 1964), 322–4.
67. Jacques Freymond et  al., La Première Internationale (Geneva: E.  Droz,
1962), 2: 191–3.
68. International Workingmen’s Association, 5th Congress, The Hague
Congress of the First International: September 2–7, 1872, Vol. 1, Minutes and
Documents (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 282.
69. Which in any case would also have to take account of Lenin as a Marxist—
an entirely different matter—as well as the unique historical context cre-
ated by the Bolshevik Revolution.
70. Bernstein did not deny that Marx was a revolutionary, especially originally,
but saw a second, reformist current in his ideas, which he sought particularly
280   G. C. COMNINEL

to develop; Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism: A Criticism and Affirmation

(New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1912).
71. On the state as a form of human alienation, see above, Chap. 3, 77f f.
72. That is, socialist or communist—not “libertarian”—anarchism.
73. On Lenin’s conception of the party, see V.  I. Lenin, What Is to Be Done?
Collected Works (Moscow: Progress, 1961), 5: 347–530. On the organization
of the Third International, see H. Helmut Gruber, International Communism
in the Era of Lenin: A Documentary History (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University
Press, 1967) and Fernando Claudin, The Communist movement: from
Comintern to Cominform (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975).
74. General Council, Resolutions of the Congress of Geneva, n57 [original
75. Karl Marx, “General Rules of the International Working Men’s Association”,
MECW, vol. 23, 7.

Marx and Social Theory

Class, History, and Historical Materialism

Marx’s central contribution to historical social theory, bearing upon both
politics and our understanding of the world, is the recognition that the
capitalist form of society is only one in a succession of exploitative class
societies: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class
struggles. … in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant oppo-
sition to one another.”1 It is a crucial point of Marx’s analysis, however,
that the capitalist form of society is not only different from earlier forms of
class society but truly unique. Because capitalist social relations are quali-
tatively different from other historical forms of social organization—as
different from all other forms of class society as class society is from non-­
class society—they mark a terminal point to the development of class
exploitation. Unless warfare or unsustainable technologies thrust human-
ity back into non-industrial savagery, we could persist in the capitalist
mode of production forever if we fail to bring about a transition to social-
ism. Within the structural logic of class relations, capitalism constitutes an
apex that cannot be transcended.
All precapitalist forms of class exploitation are founded on undisguised
relationships of formal inequality, fundamentally backed by forms of extra-­
economic coercion.2 Capitalist social relationships, by contrast, are
grounded in the formal equality of economic actors engaged in commod-
ity exchange. A central point of Marx’s critique of political economy was

© The Author(s) 2019 281

G. C. Comninel, Alienation and Emancipation in the Work
of Karl Marx, Marx, Engels, and Marxisms,
282   G. C. COMNINEL

that despite the political freedoms characteristic of modern capitalist soci-

ety, and despite any extensions of formal equality within it, it remains a
form of exploitative class society.
The inherent logic of capitalist economic relations has made it more
difficult to justify and maintain formal inequality in other social relations.
Of course, many formal inequalities persisted long after capitalist relations
of production developed, not least in the extreme form of slavery. Yet,
although there are countries in which capitalist production continues to
coexist with a substantial range of formal inequalities among persons (and
while real and substantial limitations on rights and liberties remain wide-
spread elsewhere), the dramatic reduction in formal and legal inequality in
advanced capitalist nations over the past 70 years marks an epochal turning
point in human social development. As recently as 1970, women were
denied the right to vote in some western European countries. Today,
same-sex marriage is recognized in a growing number of jurisdictions.
Unfortunately, far from being understood as an integral element of
historical materialist social theory, the qualitative difference between capi-
talist and precapitalist class relationships stressed by Marx is not even
incorporated into most approaches to class analysis. There have, of course,
been many good accounts of the critical analysis Marx offered with respect
to specifically capitalist class society.3 Yet, consciously or not, such accounts
can only exist in connection with some particular conception of historical
social change leading to modern capitalist society.4 It is Marx’s under-
standing of the processes of social change during the history of class soci-
eties, culminating in capitalism, that is the foundation for historical
materialism. Ironically, however, Marxists, on the whole, have probably
paid less attention to the nature of Marx’s historical materialism than have
non-Marxist social theorists, and very few of either have recognized in its
fundamentally critical character his most original contribution to social
It has certainly always been understood that Marxism included a theory
of history. Most Marxists, however, have been almost exclusively con-
cerned with the political and economic issues of capitalist society, and with
the problem of socialist revolution. Very few have given serious consider-
ation to the central importance of a truly historical conception of social
development—one not rooted anachronistically in the presuppositions of
contemporary social life—to Marx’s critical theoretical project. A signal
exception has emerged from the line of inquiry into the role of class strug-
gle in history among British Marxist historians, from Maurice Dobb to

E. P. Thompson.5 This inquiry has given rise to a conception of historical

materialism, often dubbed Political Marxism, which radically challenges
the economic determinism so widely associated with Marxist thought.6
Otherwise, however, the predominant expressions of Marxist theory
remain bound by concepts drawn from specifically capitalist society. These
theoretical elements have been incorporated both at the level of concrete
social categories and in the central paradigm of what is taken to constitute
Marxist historical social theory. Ideas rooted in the social reality of capital-
ist class society are anachronistically projected into the past, forming the
basis for what is then construed to be a historical dimension of analysis.
This allegedly historical theory is inherently unable to depict the social
forms and relationships of capitalist society as anything other than natural
and inevitable products of social evolution, based on seemingly timeless
principles drawn from capitalist social experience in the first place.
It is entirely appropriate, of course, that the conceptual categories with
which capitalist society is described and theoretically analysed should
reflect the particularities of capitalism. Indeed, it is essential to the analysis
within Capital that Marx opens with the form of the commodity, not with
history. But it is an entirely different matter when such categories are
applied to historical societies that differed from capitalism, or to the pro-
cesses of historical transformation that led to the emergence of capitalism.
The latter approach precludes drawing meaningful distinctions between
historical and contemporary forms.
Within the capitalist system of production, for example, competition
compels capitalists to seek market advantage through technological inno-
vation in the production process (in Marx’s terms, increasing the rate of
relative surplus value). As Ellen Meiksins Wood stressed, this characteristic
compulsion of the capitalist market does not exist where markets merely
offer producers an opportunity to sell surplus product. It is thus wrong to
project into history a type of pressure towards technological innovation
that is specific to capitalism.7 Neither can the generalized economic ratio-
nality of capitalist societies be projected historically—not because the peo-
ples of precapitalist societies were ignorant, slothful, or ideologically
blinkered, but because non-market aspects of social life held greater mate-
rial import. Nobles in ancien régime France did not irrationally “squan-
der” fortunes on conspicuous displays at Court—they played to the
expectations of a King who dispensed the munificence of enormous state
284   G. C. COMNINEL

When such distinctions are ignored, no methodological basis exists for

conceiving a process of development through qualitative social transfor-
mation. Fundamental categories become timeless, and social change is
limited to variations on a theme. Consider the state. If the very concept of
the state is premised on fundamental separation between a sphere of
strictly political social action and an opposed sphere of economic social
action, then a distinction between feudal and modern forms of state makes
no sense. If the underlying premise of such separation does not hold with
respect to the feudal period—and it does not—the theoretical category of
the state must be opened up, and the opposition between political and
economic spheres must be conceived as specific to the capitalist state.
It is in fact precisely this question of separation between political and
economic spheres that reveals the extent to which Marxist analyses have
incorporated a specifically liberal theoretical paradigm grounded in capi-
talist social experiences. That Marxists have understood class to be an eco-
nomic category has been based on just this separation of the political and
the economic. In most formulations of Marxist thought, class is conceived
to be an integral aspect of the economic base, which supports and (in one
or another sense of the term) determines a social superstructure that
includes the state. The problem with this whole economic determinist
framework is not that there is no basis in modern capitalist society for
distinguishing between economic and political spheres, but that Marxists
have failed to rise above the prevailing liberal paradigm, which takes for
granted the separation of politics and the economy as natural, inevitable,
and essentially timeless, very much as it conceives capitalism.
The work of Ellen Wood has been particularly important in clearing the
ground for a historical materialist methodology based on Marx’s thought.
Wood asserted that the prevailing conceptions of Marxism have essentially
lost sight of Marx’s critical theoretical project:

In particular, this is so to the extent that Marxists have, in various forms,

perpetuated the rigid conceptual separation of the economic and the politi-
cal which has served capitalist ideology so well ever since the classical econo-
mists discovered the economy in the abstract and began emptying capitalism
of its social and political content.
These conceptual devices do reflect, if only in a distorting mirror, a his-
torical reality specific to capitalism, a real differentiation of the “economy”;
and it may be possible to reformulate them so that they illuminate more
than they obscure, by re-examining the historical conditions that made such
conceptions possible and plausible.8

The method of historical materialism is grounded in critical confrontation

with social thought that takes for granted the world as it is. As Wood sug-
gested, in order to understand historical materialism, one must first recog-
nize that the prevailing conceptions of economic categories and processes
of social development leading to capitalism are fundamentally ideological,
even while based upon real and unique characteristics of capitalist society.

The Development of Capitalism

and the Idea of Progress

It is, in fact, only the historically specific and peculiar context created by
capitalist social relationships that makes it possible even to conceive of
society in terms of separate economic and political spheres.9 Liberal social
thought emerged to give novel articulation and intellectual systematiza-
tion to these new capitalist relationships, and at the same time constructed
a new conception of history as progress to conform with them.10 In the
context of this new form of social structure, and the new forms of social
theory based upon it, the foundation of Marx’s social theory must be rec-
ognized to lie not merely in a critique of the legitimation of contemporary
capitalist social relations by liberal social theory, but in a more basic cri-
tique of the ways in which modern social thought adopts from liberalism
a conception of the economy and of social progress through processes of
economic development. Indeed, far from being historical materialist, eco-
nomic determinism is a quintessential expression of the incorporation of
liberal social thought into Marxist theory.
The failure of Marxism to develop and sustain a truly historical material-
ist methodology has had far more significant effects than those narrowly
interested in the study of capitalist society might suppose. The deeply
flawed theories of historical social development that have been accepted as
Marxism have created profound distortions not only with respect to
European history but also in conceptions of the relationship between
Europe and the rest of the world.11 They also undermine the critical foun-
dations of Marx’s account of capitalism as a class society. For in not only
building upon categories drawn from capitalist society but doing so in
terms derived directly from liberal social theory, these theoretical approaches
stand in stark contrast to the critique of liberal ideology in the form of
political economy that is the basis of Marx’s approach to capitalism.
Indeed, without a self-conscious methodological commitment to ongo-
ing critique of the liberal categories and concepts of development integral
286   G. C. COMNINEL

to the predominant modern paradigm of social theory, Marxist thought

can only remain bound by the ahistorical constraints of liberal ideology.
Social concepts are necessarily grounded in a particular cultural frame-
work, imparting a bias even where they are not associated with ideology,
per se. Much like the cultural predispositions of an anthropological field-
worker, this intrinsic bias and concomitant blindness to whole varieties of
social experience cannot be eliminated, only confronted. In the case of
modern social theory, however, the formation of the prevailing concepts
of history and society is widely recognized as connected to the rise of lib-
eralism as political, economic, and social ideology. A critical approach in
social theory is therefore even more necessary.
It is in this regard particularly ironic that Marxists, too, have failed to
attend to the theoretical injunction to criticize, since few social theorists
have been as explicit or categorical on this point as Marx.12 It is a further
irony that while the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political
Economy is usually cited as evidence of economic determinism in Marx’s
work, it is the general introduction that he wrote for but omitted from this
work and since published as part of the Grundrisse (previously discussed in
several chapters) that offers the clearest refutation of this idea.13 What
Marx has to say in this introduction is so crucial to understanding the criti-
cal nature of his method, and yet so strikingly absent from both Marxist
and non-Marxist accounts of his thought, that substantial reference to its
key passages is warranted.
Marx begins with the question of theoretical me