Reclaiming the Individual in Marx

The historical adaptation((Testing inline fn)) of every thinker adds a sedimented layer to their philosophy. Very few have received more posthumous disciples and despisers than Marx. This is no accident. Marx argues that we must evaluate the world by way of theory, and the reverse is also true; theory must necessarily be valued based on its practical effects.((Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” in Robert Tucker (ed.) The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978), Thesis VIII, 162.)) We must apply this same judgment to his thought. Hegel is judged for his alignment with the Prussian monarchy, Nietzsche was posthumously adopted by — and Heidegger unapologetically aligned with — the Nazis. Yet few claim that they have nothing to offer us today. Marxist theory was instrumentalized to legitimate revolutions and tyrants, yet we should extend his thought the same generosity; while the focus often falls on Stalinism, his thought retains the same liberatory potential that has kindled revolutionary fire around the world. We can identify the ways Nietzschean thought was able to be warped into a fascist clarion call — in the wake of such a catastrophe, the political dimensions of his thought were excised. The vulgarizations of Marxism have taken the same path; it comes as no surprise given decades of intellectual repression by both the United States and the Soviet Union — the latter of which invested heavily in only the most anti-dialectical and positivistic readings to render Marx less a radical challenge than neutralized, or even as a legitimator of the reactionary hierarchies and social relations he hated most.

Friend and foe alike have found interpretations ranging from collectivism to economic determinism, to moralizing, and (most vulgar of all) even authoritarian nationalism. There has been understandable reticence about returning to Marx given his historical usage, but there is clear and practical usage for his thought if we can excise the oppositional impulses that have allowed such violence to be done to it. The claims of determinism, oversimplification, and even laziness in Marx’s thought must be responded to; by renewing Marx’s individualism we can return to the storied issue of determinism with fresh eyes, and in this new light see the immediacy of his political imperative.

Whether being used for “socialism in one country” or rejected outright, Marx’s critics find him easiest to dispose of by surgically removing the fundamental device — the dialectic — that underlies all of his radicality. The result, in other words, has been Marxism’s reduction into oppositional and causal categories. None is more stratified than the gulf between individual and collective. While determinism might attract accusations of laziness, this abstraction has resulted in Marx being vilified — possibly more than any other philosopher in history. From The German Ideology, we can see Marx’s emphasis is almost a full reversal from what is assumed of him:

The real intellectual wealth of the individual depends entirely on the wealth of his real connections. Only [communist revolution] will liberate the separate individuals from the various national and local barriers, bring them into practical connection with the production (including intellectual production) of the whole world and make it possible for them to acquire … the control and conscious mastery of these powers, which, born of the action of men on one another, have till now overawed and ruled men as powers completely alien to them.((Karl Marx, “The German Ideology: Part I” in Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader, 172.))

This is a paradigm shift from the often accepted wisdom of class as the dogmatic kernel of Marx’s worldview; instead, it is individuals’ self-determination that is the beating heart of Marxism. The novelty of this move will be fully explicated through a brief turn from his theory of alienation to his idea of the labor process, and then disposing of the vulgar economic determinism so laden upon him, before returning to this passage and its practical utility.
Capital’s productive capacity can be understood as an extension of human powers beyond human control; the Communist Manifesto likens us to a “sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers … he has called up by his spells.”((Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: International Publishers, 1948), 14.)) It exercises itself as an alien power, importantly not just over the laboring class, but the ownership class too, so that both experience self-alienation. For the former, life itself becomes instrumentalized, as labor is done solely for the right to continue subsistence, and for the latter, the imperatives of capital consistently overcome urges to be, for example, an “ethical” producer.
If we want to exercise our individuality, usually we mean something along the lines of autonomy and the exercise of our will on our world with minimal interference. Venturing out more positively, we wish to draw out what makes us uniquely human, and amongst humanity itself; to pursue what Marx calls “the peculiarity of [our] individuality.”((Karl Marx, “Notes on James Mill” cited in David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (London: Macmillan Press, 1973), 99-100.)) Notice again how Marx focuses on the open and constantly constructed question of our human nature (the Marxist answer, shockingly, is not “what class am I a part of”), and provides a blank canvas on which we can define what we find humanizing. In contrast to the inhuman processes of capital, we can observe, for example, a rich labor history that secured laws on child slavery and the working day, or movements to expand enfranchisement to new groups. The often violent responses to these movements expose the actually existing antagonism between the imperatives of inhuman social relations, and the insatiable drive of humanity to express our peculiarities as humans. There is no space carved out for this ghost in the machine, especially as the last corners of the globe are colonized by a global market that cannot hide from its own lurching spiral of value.
Even if all this is granted, what remains is consumerism: that magnificent bastion of “free” and “individualistic” societies today. Yet a brief look at the sprawl of advertising firms and ballooning value of data (wherein value is being subtly produced by mere scrolling) gives the lie to the idea that a consumer — whose tastes are malleable from targeted advertising while being reduced to mere algorithm fodder — is expressing much human particularity at all.
Where previous relations of production found those in dominant positions exercising their individuality while the subjugated experienced a lack by degree, the unique nature of capital as the dominant force is such that it is inhuman and precludes individuality altogether. On one hand, this is the key to productive dynamism that has terraformed the world, and on the other, that terraforming knows no limits — part of a positive project of human self-determination is an understanding that limits and discipline are part of the dialectic of freedom; to arrive at a mature freedom, we need to sublate limitation, not see it as the authority we define ourselves by through negation. Capital is inhuman; it knows no discipline, and the looming ecological crisis is but a particular manifestation of its infinite churn.
The irony, of course, is that the system which seemingly precludes individualism (even a broadly palatable, positive formulation) has also rhetorically adopted it as almost identical to itself — the Cold War’s linguistic battle was lost from the start as one side lay claim to the moniker of the “free world.” We arrive, then, at an unbridgeable conceptual divide in light of capitalism’s ability to “[create] a world,” or in this case, a conception of freedom, “after its own image.”((Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 13.)) In other words, the social system proves incompatible with a positive freedom, and with that, the alienated condition of life, or the atomized subject that is revealed by its social relations, becomes the pinnacle of freedom. Perhaps our obsession with freedom does not stem from the fact that we are already the freest people, but precisely in that something is missing. A “free” person can only describe herself as free in relation to the lack of interference from mob rules, from some collective or totalitarian tyranny. We are free through negation; which is, as Hegel so succinctly put it, “only a liberation through flight. And the person who flees is not yet free, for in fleeing, he is still determined by the very thing from which he is fleeing.”((Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel et al, The Encyclopaedia Logic: Part I of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences with the Zusätze (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991), §94Z.))
The metaphysics of the social atom have exerted a silent force on all that grows out of it. Our mental conception of the self as a private, self-interested individual begs a basic question: how does the identity of the individual constitute itself but through relation to the community? The abstractions of individual and community as two poles are alien to Marx’s thought. For him, there is no community without individuals, but the reverse is true; their identities are intertwined, as is their freedom. Thus we see how Marx’s dialectical mode of thought is itself the emancipatory key to his politics, precisely in its contradiction. The oppositional nature of individual and collective in the modern imagination has a specific ideological function in that it reveals everyone as self-subsisting and thus as a fully un-coerced participant in the market. It is a mental conception that legitimates the society we reside in, and it arises reciprocally out of our life conditions.
We remain chained to the communal, denying its existence out of fear of the totality. This is again understandable. The 20th century brought life to a new age of totalitarian regimes, which Arendt identified as the “subterranean stream of Western history”((Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (United States: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973), Preface to the First Edition, ix.)) that manifests itself as “total domination [that] does not allow for free initiative in any field of life, for any activity that is not entirely predictable.”((Ibid., 339.)) American materialism would never be so banal as to follow in these footsteps; instead, an inversion has taken place — the inverted totalitarianism which has taken hold, which Sheldon Wolin describes as “all politics all of the time but politics largely untempered by the political … the attention of the nation is required to make a choice of personalities rather than a choice between alternatives. What is absent is the political, the commitment to finding where the common good lies amidst the welter of well-financed, highly organized, single-minded interests rabidly seeking governmental favors and overwhelming the practices of representative government and public administration by a sea of cash.”((Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008), 66.))
Our denial of the communal out of fear has hemmed us in. The search for meaning inside of a social order that precludes autonomy, and where our best offer is a fantasy of consumptive identity, has coagulated as a series of big Others that justify “managed” democratic and bureaucratic functions whose gravitational center is market imperatives that excise the human; the message to the technocrats is “if you don’t have the stomach for it, someone else can do it.” These alien powers exercised even at the supposed level of “rulers” is part of what Marx is referring to by “technological” developments. It is not Marx that has excised the individual, but the system he critiques. As long as we continue denying the communal, an untheorized other will haunt the forces that guide our world; a positive conception of freedom as more than flight is more necessary than ever.
Marx himself has been seen as a totalizing thinker — this is an unfortunate side effect of what makes his theory powerful, in that he embraces classical political economy on its own terms to show its internal contradictions. Most criticisms of his purportedly totalizing and deterministic thought focus specifically on how he “gives no credit to the importance and power of individual initiative, and depicts everyone as automata blindly obeying abstract forces over which they have no control.” Yet, as David Harvey points out in response to this accusation, Marx was merely adopting the framework of the revered Adam Smith, who put forth the idea of the invisible hand operating outside of individual capacity that was broadly guiding society, on aggregate, in the direction of his utopian pretensions.
That the libertarian right continues to embrace Smith’s utopian pretensions while excoriating Marx seems mighty odd—except of course when it is realized that Marx’s purpose in embracing the Smithian model is to show how it cannot possibly work for the benefit of all. It exacerbates and deepens class inequalities, which is precisely why, one suspects, the bourgeoisie so happily embraces the Smithian but not the Marxist version of the same theory.((David Harvey, A Companion To Marx’s Capital: The Complete Edition (United Kingdom: Verso Books, 2018), 738.))
This is not to say that the places in which Marx appears to embrace bourgeois knowledge or dream up the resolution of contradiction are then universally applicable. Marx is taking up the worst impulses of Hegelian history when he asserts that “communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.” His theory is an innate critique, and thus is exactly as totalizing as capitalism is as a system — overcome the latter and the former will gladly be outdated. Marx might as well have been responding to Arendt’s critique of ideological history a century later when he wrote, “What is designated with the words ‘destiny,’ ‘goal,’ ‘germ,’ or ‘idea’ of earlier history is nothing more than an abstraction formed from later history.”((Marx, “The German Ideology: Part I” in Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader, 182.)) Thus the “riddle” of history’s full solution is problematic for anyone determined to keep Marx from falling into his own trap of escaping the dialectical method already identified as so essential to his radicality. We must then expand our reading of his view of freedom and history to restore the emancipatory potential energy hidden in his own abstractions.
The realm of freedom really begins only where labour determined by necessity and external expediency ends; it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper … Freedom, in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power … But this always remains a realm of necessity. The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis.((Karl Marx, Capital, Volume III, trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin, 1981), 958–9, cited in Harvey, Companion To Capital, 114.))
The “development of human powers as an end in itself” is the true end goal here — that is what the “practical connection” and communal striving of revolution seeks to achieve. Contemporary anthropological findings (which political philosophy would be well served to incorporate at much more length) find that the “stages” of history are a violent oversimplification of what has been a jagged process of trial and error in human society.((David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (United States: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).)) Engels pre-empted the dogmatic historical materialism that would follow when he vividly described the “infinite series of parallelograms of forces” that drive history. Similarly, in an oft-cited footnote to Capital (it is unfortunate that one has to look so hard for an explicit statement of his methodology), Marx writes,
Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.((Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Classics, 1990), 493, cited in Harvey, Companion to Capital, 193.))
Harvey has theorized each of these six interrelated elements as an “internally dynamic … ‘moment’ in the process of human evolution.”((Harvey, Companion to Capital, 196.)) Each hangs together, not as a one-way street between economic base and cultural superstructure, but a perpetual dance between each; sometimes geography dictates, others mental conceptions transform society, but only insofar as the technological conditions, and thus social relations (or modes of production) exist in which to realize new advancements. It should be self-evident how much more complex this theory is than what Marxism is typically assumed to be; we have strict base-superstructure, or individual-collective abstractionists like Stalin to thank for the hegemony of this warped and simplified (and as has been shown, far less radical) form. No doubt, there is no shortage of passages in Marx’s work that contradict this dialectical method, but Engels himself wrote after Marx’s death that the economic determinism in their theories was overblown.
Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasize the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved in the interaction to come into their rights. Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have mastered its main principles, and even those not always correctly.((Friedrich Engels, “Letter on Historical Materialism” in Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader, 762.))
One is still hard-pressed to find a wealth of causal language in Marx. This is no accident. When we emphasize the dialectical method in Marx’s thought, the importance of the individual emerges. As mentioned above, mental conceptions play a role in the interplay of historical factors (as they are simultaneously arising out of our circumstances as well). Marx’s theory of the labor process is thus:
What distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour process, a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally.((Marx, Capital, Volume I, 284, cited in Harvey, Companion to Capital, 114.))
With this, we finally arrive back where we began. The individual finds “his own purpose in these materials.” There are echoes of Kant when he asserts that “this is a purpose he is conscious of, it determines the mode of his activity with the rigidity of a law, and he must subordinate his will to it.”((Ibid.)) Most importantly, however, we see how mental conceptions from the individual are rooted in purposive, directed action; the will is consciously giving itself the law of its project, or of its self-directed labor. This is the basis for freedom wherein labor is determined not for external and instrumental means of self-subsistence, but for itself in the sense that man gives himself the purpose. While there may be no transcendent Ideal to Marx’s thought, there is now no doubt that our individuality plays a constitutive role in the interrelations that dictate history. Yet this is a fragile gain, one that can be lost when we become complacent, or simply want an easier path to understanding — people love a good Manichaean tale, but it has no place in Marx’s social science.
Again, these forces hanging together as moments in a greater whole, interrelated but individually dynamic (just, as it turns out, like individuals themselves), are hardly a totality, but a scientific approach limited to the same bounds of modernity as those whose framework Marx adopted. Thus when the “riddle” of history is solved, we must not see it as the eternal resolution of it, but the negation of the negation (or, if you please, Aufheben) of the specific class dialectic that has undergirded the process of civilizational history. If we transcend it — in light of the runaway train of inhumanity barreling down on our ecosystem, teleology seems foolish whether one ascribes it to Marx or not — we will not arrive at simply a harmonious eternity, or an escape from all movement, but instead a new and untheorized future; if it is to be a free one and not the “spurious infinity” of our endless flight,((Hegel, Encyclopedia Logic, §94.)) the necessary basis must be fulfilled, and then a new positive form of emancipation must be constructed out of the ruins of old idols.

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