Karl Marx's Early Writings On Capitalist Production

The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

Shortly after he moved to Paris in 1843, Marx began a critical study of political economy. In 1844, he completed several manuscripts, which were apparently intended to be a major part of a forthcoming book. The book never material­ized, however, and the manuscripts lay unpublished for more than eighty years. When a full edition of these extant works was published in 1932 under the title Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, the occasion gener­ated much excitement among Marxian scholars and some reinterpretation of Marx's later works. Contrary to some interpretations, we find a basic conti­nuity between Marx's early writings and Capital, although by the time he wrote the latter, Marx had abandoned the metaphysical concepts that he had initially acquired from the German philosophers in favor of a more empirical analysis.

The central theme of the Manuscripts is that history, especially under mod­ern capitalism, is the saga of alienation in people's lives as producers and that communism, achieved through a revolution against private property, is the fi­nal escape from alienation. Although he had not worked out the labor theory of value, Marx already expressed in the Manuscripts the idea that labor is the source of all wealth. The empirical observation is also there that the worker gets only a small part of this wealth, barely enough to continue working. The lion's share of the product of labor goes to the capitalist, and this leads to a bitter struggle between capital and labor. In this struggle the aim of the capi-talist, who has all the advantages, is to keep wages to a minimum. Labor be­comes a mere commodity under capitalism, and all human relations are soon reduced to money relations. In these relations, the capitalist inevitably is en­riched at the expense of the worker, who lives at a subsistence level.

In an early analysis of profit, also found in the Manuscripts, Marx noted a trend toward monopoly concentration of capital into fewer and fewer hands. This trend leads to an increase in total profits and an increase in the total mis­ery of the working class. Marx theorized that eventually the contradictions within the capitalist system would lead to its demise, thus opening the way for humans to become truly free. All these ideas reappear in Marx's more mature works, although, as might be expected, they are worked out with more preci­sion and detail there.

What the Manuscripts of 1844 do not contain is a penetrating analysis of the real contradictions of capitalism—one must look to Capital for that. But they do contain a fairly mature statement of methodological criticism aimed at po­litical economy. The following passage is an example:

Political economy proceeds from the fact of private property, but does not explain it to us. It expresses in general, abstract formulas the material process through which private property actually passes, and these formulas it then takes for laws. It does not comprehend these laws—i.e., it does not demonstrate how they arise from the very nature of private property. Political economy does not disclose the source of the division between labour and capital, and between capital and land. When, for example, it defines the relationship of wages to profit, it takes the interest of the capitalists to be the ultimate cause; i.e., it takes for granted what it is supposed to explain. Similarly, competition comes in everywhere [but] it is explained from ex­ternal circumstances. As to how far these external and apparently accidental cir­cumstances are but the expression of a necessary course of development, political economy teaches us nothing... to it, exchange itself appears to be an accidental fact. The only wheels which political economy sets in motion are greed and the war amongst the greedy—competition (Manuscripts, pp. 106-107).

Clearly, Marx criticized economists for not explaining (understanding?) the underlying causes of capitalism; in his view it was simply not enough to un­derstand the mere workings of markets. One must also know how the market mechanism came about and where it was going. Marx felt it essential to grasp the connection between, as he put it: "private property, avarice, and the sep­aration of labour, capital, and landed property; between exchange and compe­tition, value and the devaluation of men, monopoly and competition, etc.; the connection between this whole estrangement and the money system."

Moreover, Marx attempted in the Manuscripts to criticize political econ­omy on the basis of real social contradictions that he had empirically ob­served. The basic contradiction underlined by Marx is that "The worker be­comes all the poorer the more wealth he produces... [he] becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates." The devaluation of workers, in other words, proceeds in direct proportion to the increasing value of commodities, and in the process workers confront the objects of their labor (commodities) as things outside themselves, things that, once completed, they have no control over or ownership of—as alien things, a power independent of its producer. This idea, of course—that labor is by its very nature the exter­nalizing of a human capacity—Marx got from Hegel. But he now criticized economics for concealing the alienation inherent in the nature of labor by not considering the direct relation between the worker and-production. This rela­tion, so assiduously analyzed by Marx, is the hallmark of Marxian economics and is the feature that distinguishes it from classical economics.