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Through the Marxian Maze

I am indebted to many valuable suggestions from Hannah Arendt, Adolph Lowe, Edward Neil, and Sidney Morgenbesser, to whom the usual disclaimers and apologies are also due.

Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society

by Bertell Ollman
Cambridge University Press, 325 pp., $10.50

Alienation and Economics

by Walter Weiskopf
Dutton, 202 pp., $7.95

Marx continues to brood over our intellectual life. In view of the immense impact that Marx has had on history, the fact would hardly be worth nothing were not his writing often so baffling. The famous historical essays and a few parts of Capital still have the effect of thunderbolts, but much of his earlier work, not to mention tedious chapters in the later volumes of Capital, are murky in a way that rouses both skepticism and impatience. That we nonetheless go on reading Marx, torturing ourselves by trying to penetrate the obdurate prose, can only be ascribed to a stubborn conviction that there is something of inestimable value beneath this opaque surface, if only we could discern exactly what it was.

At least in my own case, I now have a much clearer idea of that elusive Marxian contribution, thanks to a remarkable book, Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, by Bertell Ollman, a young professor of political science at New York University. For Ollman catches the crux of the difficulty in his very opening paragraph:

The most formidable hurdle facing all readers of Marx is his “peculiar” use of words. Vilfredo Pareto provides us with the classic statement of this problem when he asserts that Marx’s words are like bats: one can see in them both birds and mice. No more profound observation has ever been offered on our subject. Thinkers through the years have noticed how hard it is to pin Marx down to particular meanings, and have generally treated their non-comprehension as criticism. Yet, without a firm knowledge of what Marx is trying to convey to us, one cannot properly grasp any of his theories.

Why is Marxian language so opaque and batlike? The standard answer given to the student brave enough to raise the question is the “dialectical” nature of Marxian thought. Should the student be intrepid enough, however, to inquire: “And what is dialectics?” he is generally shoved off into the still deeper opacities of Hegel or Engels with their negations of negations, or asked to ponder over the famous triadic formula of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.

Ollman also solves the puzzle of Marx’s language by explaining its dialectic purpose, but what sets his book apart is that he has found a way of doing so that avoids—or rather, prepares the ground for—these baffling phrases. For Ollman has discovered a kind of Ariadne’s thread through the maze of Marxian linguistic problems in an element of dialectical thought that is usually overlooked or handled in an apologetic fashion, since it is radically at variance with the commonsense way in which we usually begin our philosophical analyses.

This disconcerting element is a relational view of the world. Such a view is very different from the nonrelational, particularist jumping-off point of normal discourse. To the ordinary person, reared in the tradition of Western empiricism, physical objects usually seem to exist “by themselves” out there in time and space, appearing as disparate clusters of sense data. So, too, social objects appear to most of us as things: land, labor, capital; the working class and the employing class; the state and the superstructure of ideas, philosophies, religions—all these categories of reality often present themselves to our consciousness as existing by themselves, with defined boundaries that set them off from the other aspects of the social universe. However abstract, they tend to be conceived as distinctly as if they were objects to be picked up and turned over in one’s hand.

But it is just this particularist way of looking at the world, according to Ollman, that interferes with our comprehension of Marx. For in Marx’s eyes, the basic “unit” of reality is not a thing but a cluster of relations. That is, the Marxian world (whose roots we can, of course, trace back through Hegel and Spinoza to Parmenides) is a web of relationships, extending through space and time, into which we can break only with difficulty, and whose isolated bits, physical or ideational, always contain within themselves the severed connections to other parts of the totality from which they were forcibly wrenched. Ollman cites Joseph Dietzgen, the first “Marxian” philosopher (a German autodidact little known in this country):

Where do we find any practical unit [of individuation] outside of our abstract conceptions? Two halves, four fourths, eight eighths, or an infinite number of separate parts form the material out of which my mind fashions the mathematical unit. This book, its leaves, its letters, or their parts—where do I stop?

I shall return later to the philosophical problem posed by this relational conception of the world, but I believe that Ollman is correct in insisting that only from such a viewpoint can we begin to make sense out of Marx’s dialectical language. For all the words that Marx uses in his treatment of capitalism or, for that matter, of history—capital, labor, value, the state—are batlike because each concept designates a complex set of relations embedded in a social matrix. For example, in capitalist society “labor” is a word that expresses both the essential productive activity of man and the “reified” form of that activity characteristic of a society in which labor has become a “commodity” (itself a multifaceted term); “capital” expresses both physical artifacts of production and an institution involving particular social relationships such as wage-labor; the “state” is a concrete set of law courts, legislatures, armies, etc., and an invisible web of class relations and ideologies.

Nor is this all. The relational view requires that we conceive the world, including its social elements, as more than a set of complex structures. We must also see it as a set of on-going processes. The word “capital,” for example, includes not only the relations we have mentioned, but also the ideas of accumulation and exploitation. Indeed, in the concept of capital we can even discern, in embryo, the destiny of capitalism.

This helps us to understand the idea of “law” in Marx. When Marx speaks of the “laws of motion” of capitalism, he means both those interactions that are immediately visible to non-Marxian social scientists, and the complex unfolding and working out of tendencies which the Marxian philosopher sees as an essential part of the realities he studies.

As a result of the multiplicity of meanings that lodge in his basic terms, Marx’s statements constantly appear to us as both perplexing and impossible, and at the same time suggestive and rich. The persistent attraction of Marxism, in the face of its confusing vocabulary, is thus evidence that Marx manages to assert himself by the reverberations of his thought even when his argument escapes us. Ollman’s contribution is to supply us with a means of tracing that argument by his analysis of the orchestral language that Marx uses.

Ollman’s book is called Alienation because he believes that the foundation of Marxian social philosophy is a theory of human nature. That is, the phenomenon of alienation, in its Marxian relational meaning, is not merely one of many attributes of life in a capitalist setting, but is the very touchstone through which the deepest and most obscure aspects of our existence become manifest.

What is the Marxian theory of human nature? It is very unlike the kind of theory that we would erect on the foundations of contemporary psychoanalytic or anthropological knowledge. Marx is interested in the “nature” of man in a relational rather than particularistic fashion, which is to say that he is concerned with the twin existence of man both as a biological creature and as a social being. As a biological creature, man shares with every other living being certain “powers” (or abilities) and certain physical needs; but in addition to this substratum of man’s “natural” nature, there is wedded to man his “species” nature—that is, a set of powers and needs peculiar to his existence as a human being.

What are these two sets of powers and needs? The biological substratum is left largely unspecified by Marx. It corresponds, Ollman suggests, with everything in man that is not distinctively “human,” a definition which it is not easy to flesh out. Presumably Marx conceives of natural man as a bundle of drives, instincts, sensory and manipulative capabilities, a creature endowed with animal powers of perception, reflexes, and the like. It is here, of course, that a critique of the Marxian vision begins, as we shall subsequently see. But it is species man, not natural man, that fascinates Marx. Man becomes human in so far as he uses his natural powers and needs differently from animals, injecting them with the mysterious attributes of self-consciousness and the imperatives of belief. For example, as Ollman points out, sexual activity as a natural power is an activity that man shares with all living things, but the manifold ways in which he treats women (or in which women treat men) is a specific human attribute of sex capable of innumerable variations.

Moreover, man’s truly “human” nature lies not only in this differentiation of his natural functions from those of sheer animality, but also in the developmental capabilities of those functions. As Ollman writes with regard to the sexual function, “Marx believes that when women are accepted as equals, possessing the same rights and deserving the same thoughtfulness as males, then man’s sexual activity is no longer that of an animal; sexuality will have been raised to the level of things peculiarly human.”

Three principal relations connect man’s natural being with the world and thus offer the avenues for his species development. The first of these is perception—the process by which man becomes aware of the existence of nature and of himself. The second is orientation—the process by which he “makes sense” of the world he perceives. The last is appropriation, or the use to which man puts the perceived and understood environment. The richer and more fully developed the human being, the more of his environment will he “appropriate,” not in the narrow sense of exerting a claim of ownership over it, but in the deeper sense of incorporating within his own being aspects of the world to which a less developed human will remain indifferent. Thus, in the goal of an ideal communist society, men will appropriate life as poets do, making part of themselves the smallest as well as the largest marvels of existence, until in Marx’s words: “Man appropriates his total essence in a total manner, that is to say, as a whole man.”

We shall look more carefully into the conception of an ideal communist society, but it remains now to trace the consequences of the Marxian conception of man. Here we enter more familiar ground, as we follow the social evolution of man from his “original” state through a long process of historical conditioning to the final goal of full humanity—a hegira which begins and ends in a social relationship that is communal, classless, stateless, and intensely personal, but whose origin and terminus are separated by the immense gulf of technical and intellectual development that distinguishes fully realized man from primitive man. In this process, whose misty beginnings we can vaguely discern in the first division of labor in early agricultural settlements, the central theme is the progressive and changing process of the “alienation” of man, a process that does not begin with, but that attains its most exaggerated and historically significant form in, that socioeconomic formation we call capitalism.

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