Marx became involved in the founding and editing of a new journal [the RHEINSICHE ZEITUNG], got himself bounced out of Prussia by the police for his troubles, and by 1844 was living in Paris [there is a lot of history here that I am sliding over, since it would be tedious to recount it. Check Wikipedia or Siegel's biography if you want to know the details]. He was by this time connected with Engels, an association that would last until his death in 1883. It was in Paris that the two of them wrote both THE HOLY FAMILY and THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY, in which, among other things, they settled scores with the Bauers, Feuerbach, and other German thinkers very close to them in political and philosophical orientation. But for our purposes, the most important of Marx's many writings from the period was a curious document that did not see the light of day until eighty years later -- the working or study notes usually labeled THE ECONOMIC-PHILOSOPHIC MANUSCRIPTS OF 1844 but also sometimes referred to as the Paris Manuscripts. These notes were in the form of a lengthy document in which Marx worked out ideas that he was puzzling over having to do with the economic organization of society. What he did was to draw vertical lines dividing each page into three columns, which were headed Land, Labor, and Capital, the three fundamental categories of the Classical Political Economy of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and their lesser fellow economists. The column that has, quite deservedly, drawn most of the attention is the one labeled "Labor." The long series of paragraphs that Marx inscribed in this column have come to be referred to as "Alienated Labor," and they constitute the fullest and most carefully thought out discussion of this topic that Marx ever wrote.
I have a good deal to say about Marx's theory of alienated labor, but before I begin, I want to take just a moment to explain why this document became so politically important in the 20th century, more than a hundred years after it was written. Briefly [and, inevitably, tendentiously], Lenin and Stalin and the Russian revolutionaries hijacked Marx's theories and used them as the justification for a brutal and dictatorial State Capitalism that they instituted in the Soviet Union. The sheer geopolitical success of the Soviet regime, both before and during the Second World War, all but stifled the objection that this was not at all what Marx had had in mind when he talked about socialism or communism. Marx's writings were elevated to the status of Revealed Truths, and were taught in Russian schools in roughly the way that the Koran is now taught in Madrassas. So rigid and doctrinaire was the slavish adherence to the supposed doctrines of Marx that when the young Wassily Leontief approached the state economic planners with his newly conceived mathematical system of Linear Programming, which he thought [correctly] would be of use to them in planning the Soviet economy, he was told that Stalin himself had decreed that since Marx only used addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and the taking of averages, the Soviet Union's economy was to be planned using nothing more. Leontief emigrated to the United States and spent the rest of his career teaching at Harvard, eventually winning the Nobel Prize. One of the delicious intellectual ironies of this subject is that Leontief's mathematical methods became the means by which scores of modern economists demonstrated the fundamental mathematical coherence of the theories that Marx set forth in CAPITAL [I have already written about this on my blog, and will not repeat myself].
During the Second World War, the Yugoslav partisans, led by Marshal Tito, succeeded in driving the Germans out of their lands without the help of the Red Army, with the result that in the post-war period, the newly formed Yugoslavia, while part of the Soviet bloc, was able to maintain a quasi-independence. A number of Yugoslav philosophers and political theorists were eager to find some way of embracing Marx's theories without toeing the Stalinist line. Casting about for writings by Marx on which they could erect an independent, humanist Marxism, they came upon the Paris Manuscripts, which had first been published in Russia in the 20s, but had then been all but ignored by the Stalinist theoreticians. In the writings of the Young Marx, they heard a voice that called to them and inspired them. To justify their concentration on these juvenalia, they developed the theory of a "break' between the young Marx and the mature Marx.
I will argue a bit later on that there is in fact no such break as they claimed to discover. There is, actually, a break or fundamental reversal in Marx's thinking, and it is important enough so that I shall spend some time talking about it. But it does not have to do with alienated labor.
Well, let us at last turn to the teaching of the essay on alienated labor, and see what we can learn from it. I shall begin, perhaps surprisingly, by talking about the Romantic conception of artistic creativity. The painters, sculptors, poets, and composers of the medieval and classical period were thought of as artisans, skilled craftsmen who worked for patrons or for entire communities, decorating castles or churches and memorializing military victories and the marriages of princes. But a different conception of artistic creativity emerged in the early nineteenth century period that we now call the Romantic era. Artists began to be thought of -- and to think of themselves -- as lonely creators, inspired by their muses to tear works of great art bleeding from their breasts [think Beethoven rather than Bach.] Thus understood, the act of artistic creation has the following structure: First, the artist is inspired to form an idea in his or her mind, an idea of a sculpture, a painting, a poem, a sonata, an idea of beauty. Then, by exercising great skill with chisel and mallet, with canvas and brush, or with pen, the artist makes the idea real, externalizes it, embodies it in some medium, thereby producing the work of art.
This self-externalization [or selbstentausserung -- it always sounds better in German] may be achieved with great effort, leaving the artist exhausted, spent, drenched in sweat. Or it may be accomplished with blinding speed and seemingly little or no effort at all. But in either case, the completion of the act is, for the artist, a moment of triumph and fulfillment. The Idea has truly been made Flesh. The labor is a fulfilling labor, the fatigue a good fatigue. There it stands, on the page, or on the canvas, or on the podium -- what had begun as an idea in the artist's mind is realized, made real, before him or her. And the work of art is now available to all of us to see, to hear, to read, to experience and enjoy. Even those of us incapable of the act of creation can derive great enjoyment from the work, and even inspiration.
But this act of creation has a dark side, a negative dimension, for what originally completely and indisputably belonged to the artist alone, as an idea in mind, now takes on a life of its own. The artist ages, but the work of art does not [think THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY]. At the moment of creation, the object, the embodied idea, belongs to the artist, but it may -- indeed, it most probably will -- be sold, to someone whose intentions and appreciation may be antithetical to those of the artist. There is no way that the artist can control how the public experiences the work of art, what the experts choose to say about it, what uses it may be put to, for the greater glory of a God whom the artist does not worship, a State to which the artist owes no allegiance, or a collector for whose vulgar tastes the artist has only contempt. Eventually, the artist may have to ask permission or pay an entry fee to view the work that he or she has created. Is it any wonder that Emily Dickenson resisted publishing her immortal poems?
What began as an act of fulfilling and satisfying self-externalization runs the risk of becoming an act of self-alienation [selbstentfremdung]. The term "alienation" has a double meaning on which, as we shall see, Marx plays endlessly. To make alien, to alienate, means to make an other, an enemy, something that stands over against oneself [gegen-stand]. But to alienate also means to sell, to transfer title from one owner to another. In this sense, the word is routinely used in the law. By alienating the work of art, by selling it, the artist becomes alienated from it. The work of art becomes not simply other than him or herself, but perhaps even inimical, hurtful, an enemy.
[May I be permitted a brief moment of narcissistic self-absorption? When I am writing -- indeed, as I have been writing these paragraphs this morning --I feel fully alive. My stubby fingers fly over the keys, hitting wrong letters now and again but charged nevertheless with an energy that I feel at no other time in my life. The words come as fast as I can get them onto the screen, and I know, with utter certainty, that what I am saying is right. I never revise, and I never show what I have written to another person before externalizing it, publishing it, either in print or in cyberspace. Once I have published a book, I am finished with it. I move on, perhaps I write another book. But what I have published now exists independently of me, and I cannot control how it is construed, or the uses to which it is put, by persons I have never even met. Now, I know all too well that these subjective feelings of mine do not correspond to any objective greatness. When I see AMADEUS, after all, it is Salieri and not Mozart with whom I identify. But I can at least imagine what it would be like to be Marx writing CAPITAL, or Hume writing the TREATISE. Oh well.]
Marx, with what I consider a stroke of sheer genius, takes the Romantic conception of artistic creativity and generalizes it to all of us, arguing that all human beings are capable of, indeed must engage in, an act with the same fundamental structure -- the act of production. [I am here conflating ideas taken from both the ECONOMIC-PHILOSOPHIC MANUSCRIPTS OF 1844 and THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY, which were, after all, written at roughly the same time. It would take too long and be too tedious to sort this all out textually.] Human beings, unlike animals, live by purposefully transforming nature in accordance with ideas in their minds, so as to make it into goods that can satisfy their needs. [Marx did not know about tool use in animals, but that really does not matter here.] They too first form an idea in mind -- of a stone shaped to be a tool, of a field of grain, of a stick bent to form a bow -- and then externalize it, embodying the idea in an object that can serve our needs, helping us to gain food, clothing, shelter, and other humanly satisfying goods. But unlike the act of artistic creation, the act of production is collective, social. We struggle with nature together, not alone. This act of collective self-externalization, of production, is labor.
Marx here sets himself against a long tradition in Western thought, going all the way back to the Book of Genesis, that sees labor as an evil, a painful necessity, a curse laid upon us by God for our disobedience. Recall the words of GENESIS, Chapter 3, verses 16-19:
"And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed [is] the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat [of] it all the days of thy life;
So it is that man must labor painfully for his bread, as a curse for his disobedience. And so it is that woman's bearing of children is called labor, for it too is painful, and a curse laid upon her for her disobedience.
Well, enough for today. I shall continue with this after I have prepared my lecture for Wednesday.