The revival of Marx and Marxism emerged as one of the inevitable consequences of the critical questioning of capitalism with the long-term effects of the Global Crisis by 2007-8. Seeking to carry ‘the renaissance of Marx and Marxism’ forward, Palgrave-Macmillan’s Series expands the studies on Marx, Engels and Marxism(s) with several titles, including George Comninel’s recent contribution: Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx. This book sheds light on the origins of the method of historical materialism and the different departure points of different Marxism(s) from the work of Marx and Engels, eventually opening up a rift between historical materialism’s main focus and various Marxisms’ strategic arrangements of political theory.
Marx’s original conception of historical materialism explores and politicizes the forms of exploitation and the existence of private property. As a result of this, alienation is the central focus in Marx’s attempt to conceptualize capitalism. Hence, without breaking the link between Marx and the influence of the political context after the French Revolution on his thought, (human) emancipation considered by Comninel as Marx’s main motivation to engage with philosophy and politics, especially in the period when Marx and Engels wrote The German Ideology and the Manifesto. Comninel’s second important focus here is how Marxism(s) coming after the founding fathers interpreted these works. However, these references of Marxism(s) according to Comninel were under the influence of liberal materialisms of the precursors and contemporaries of the founding fathers.
Summary of Content & Topical Scope & Key Issues
Comninel’s purpose is to introduce Marx’s approach in relation to the “social history of political theory”, a mode of examination 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 engagement” (p. xv).
At the heart of this effort, Political Marxism appears as a practice Comninel associates his and his circle’s approach with. Political Marxism as a tradition seeks “to emphasize that in pre-capitalist 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 on capitalism” (p. xvii). The significant question here is: ‘what constitutes capitalism? What characterizes capitalist relations relies on the forms of extraction, economic relations in wage labour and market compulsion, while the ‘real secret’ is the second form of compulsion experienced by capitalists themselves. In other words, what transforms the non-capitalist social property relations to capitalist social property relations is essentially the mode of production becoming completely dependent on market relations (p. xix).
After a methodological clarification, attention then turns to Marx and the context of his very early works, starting with the debates surrounding Hegel’s philosophy. Rather than offering a rudimentary biographical summary, Comninel draws our attention to the story of Marx’s early life, primarily by showing the influence that the French Revolution had on Marx’s conception of human emancipation and the idea of progress, which created a new ‘telos’ in history. By approaching the philosophy of Hegel with the theories of the French Revolution, Marx problematized Hegel’s interpretation of history, in which the philosophy of history and the history of philosophy were united to conceptualize the historical development of social forms, corresponding to the realization of philosophical truth (p. 10). Hegel’s absorption of liberal conceptions of historical progress to frame history in idealist philosophical terms resonated in a way with the religiosity of the Prussian monarchy. From the point where the Left Hegelians criticized this resonation, Marx’s main finding in his critique of Hegel went beyond Feuerbach’s materialism and his conceptualization of alienation. Marx traced alienation to the forms of the state, with a strong argument rejecting Hegel’s universal middle class, distinguishing and defining private property as a product and consequence of the alienation of labour (p. 2). What distinguished Marx from the Young Hegelians was how he went beyond Feuerbach and others and offered a much more radical interpretation of alienation which is founded on private property.
Before Marx returned to his analysis of alienation in Grundrisse, his studies on alienation were limited to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), and the Manuscripts of 1844, while his priority was to understand the potential for emancipating humanity from all forms of alienation. As Comninel writes, the critical task here is first to identify what is original in Marx, and “the ideas that not only were original but which may even be discerned to stand at odds with those ideas Marx advanced throughout his ongoing critique of political economy, the merely liberal ideological conceptions from which they were drawn”(p. 93).
For Comninel, The German Ideology remains at the center of misunderstandings about what is unique in Marx. Besides the fact that it is an incomplete work never intended for publication, The German Ideology was written as a political polemic rather than as a theoretical text, a ‘romantic narrative beaconing for the visionary conception of communism’ (p.114). In these manuscripts, both the terminology used and the practical materialism borrowed from the historical stages theory of liberal scholarship already more than fifty years old. While the emphasis on production remains consistent with terms of analysis of the British and French liberals, Comninel argues: “history is not depicted as the history of class struggles, but merely in terms of the success of materially determined social forms” (p. 133). Since it is not concerned with the development of class exploitation, Comninel concludes that The German Ideology treated class as a product of the division of labour (p. 136).
The reason this is problematic is that no pre-capitalist societies had a highly advanced technical division of labour. Therefore, the division of labour becomes the central conceptual tool to analyze the relations of production in capitalism. Using division of labour for the historical analysis carried Marx away from his original starting point, allowed him and Engels to focus on the ‘natural productivity to trade’ as the foundation for the division of labour in a very Smithian way. This shifting focus of Marx and Engels leads to an analysis that considers mental and physical labour separately in The German Ideology, outputting a utilized use of these concepts unmatched in any of Marx’s other writings (p. 137).
For Comninel, the return of Marx to his original starting point happens not through an intellectual rediscovery, but rather with the contextual change during the politics of Manifesto in continental Europe. As the 1843 writings about alienation do not meet with the rise of class politics, and also as Perry Anderson argues, the absolutist state reemerges as a sort of “redeployed and recharged” system that brings back the exercise of pre-capitalist forms of exploitation (Anderson, 1974). As absolutism was re-emerging, Marx intensifies his questioning about human emancipation.
Comninel points out that Marx’s return happens in The Poverty of Philosophy where the confusion between liberal and historical materialisms come to an end. Marx asserts that the classes do not emerge in a given society through the operation of pre-existing processes, and production is defined through the class characteristic organization of surplus appropriation. The priorities of production for Marx are determined first from alienated labour and second, from the materiality of social reproduction (Comninel, 2018, p. 196).
The methodological development of these priorities was realized in the Grundrisse where Marx focusses on the specificities of capitalism. While this focus led Marx to depart from the pre-Manifesto idea of property relations conceived as historically specific expressions of the antagonistic relations of production fundamental to each particular epoch, Marx’s insights into the pre-capitalist form of society are integral to the development of his analysis of the capitalist mode of production (p. 207). By seeing private property as an expression of alienated labour, Marx turns his attention to capital as being distinct as the most fully developed form of property relations in capitalism. Marx reaches the crucial point that the historical social formation of capitalism relies on its distinguishing relation with pre-capitalist forms of landed property. In the Grundrisse, Marx distinguishes capitalist from pre-capitalist property relations by focusing on forms of exploitation involving the landed property.
According to Comninel, in the Grundrisse, Marx discusses ‘alienation’ on several occasions in three different ways. To start with, (i) in analyzing the development of individual economic autonomy in relation to social interdependence through the exchange. He observed that the universality of production based on exchange values, in turn, produces: (ii) the alienation of the individual from himself and others. Lastly: (iii) alienation as in relation to the appropriation of alien labour without exchange, without equivalent, allows Marx to identify the surplus processes which produced the social forms (p. 15). In this regard, for pre-capitalist societies, primitive accumulation can be defined as a process “nothing else than divorcing the producer from the means of production” (p. 17).
A distinguishing feature of capitalism for Marx is that capital is a social relation in which private property is both the product of and a source of alienation. First, for Marx, capital becomes a social relation through the production of commodities under the capitalist system of wage labour which exploits. Second, while exploitation is realized in production, capital becomes the dominant power in managing and controlling the processes of social reproduction (pp. 38-39). Therefore, capital orchestrates the processes of social reproduction for totalizing a system grounded in the logic of the property’s self-expansion.
In this regard, unlike other forms of society characterized by normative social relationships of production, with the commodification of labour-power within society, capitalism through the realization of the social form of abstract labour, constitutes a general system of class exploitation. Moreover, at the same time, it is providing the enjoyment of political, civil and economic freedoms by social individuals. Returning to the framework of the separation of the economic and the political, Comninel’s interpretation argues that Marx’s revolutionary project meets with his examination of the capitalist mode of production, allowing him to conceive the alienation of labour in relation to the development of humanity as a whole and to recognize the necessity and possibility for a social revolution to put end to it (p. 247).
In the following parts of the book, Comninel traces the journey of these findings in Marx’s political involvement in the First International. Regarding his concentration on The Ten Hours Bill and the growth of the co-operative movement among the working classes of Europe after the defeats of eight years of international efforts (pp. 258-264).
Aside from his political commitments, Marx’s reinterpretation of the idea of progress carries significance due to its central contribution of the recognition that the capitalist form of society is only one in a succession of exploitative class societies. Departing completely from the influence of liberal social thought which guided political economy, Marx considered the history of the development of Western societies “to have the character of movement through human estrangement to a point where estrangement itself could be transcended” (p. 298). Explaining the sources of the global spread of capitalism from a perspective of the abstraction of alienation of labour, Marx’s historical materialism distinguishes itself from economic determinism with its focus on the specific characteristics of a certain mode of production without depending upon any canonical development pattern, a transcendentally applicable conceptual analytical tool or any certain class agency carrying pre-given roles (as in the example of the bourgeoisie in the French Revolution).
The alienation of labour remains central for Marxist political theory for two reasons. Firstly, because the alienation of labour is not only the specific form of capitalist class exploitation but it is rather it is the general form of class exploitation through social property relations under capitalism. Secondly, the alienation of labour is not a naturally necessary condition of production. Rather it is a result of the historical necessity of private property (p. 300).
Arrangement of Book
The book consists of thirteen chapters each analyzing the key issues of Marx’s political methodology and political theory throughout his engagement with his terrain and contemporaries. In the first part of the book, Comninel concentrates on describing the approaches to Marx and his concepts in his early writings relating them with the influences of the intellectual legacy of liberal social thought and classical political economy on them. The main purpose of Comninel here to expose and unpack how Marxism(s) received and processed Marx’s historical materialism. By showing the original position of Marx throughout his unique conceptualization of alienation of labour, Comninel examines the process of how Marx with the impact of the social and political context of his terrain, reconstitutes his interpretation of capitalism by perceiving capital as a social relation and alienation of labour as a commodified and abstracted source of private property in capitalism. In the final parts of the book, Comninel’s attention turns to locate Marx inside his political involvements where he further evaluates the alienation of labour as a tendency of capitalism to transcend as a universal source of exploitation. Comninel concludes with a remark that clears out why Marx’s historical materialism is in discontent with the further interpretations that created a canonical understanding of the Marxist framework can be considered as economic determinism.
The Longue durée after the Cold War until the ‘Revival of Marx’ after the Global Crisis was composed of repetitions of political theorizing on Marxism. In the canon that Marxist literature has generated, there are two different traditions: (i) the tradition that derives from Marx’s Hegelian background and (ii) the tradition that builds up a structural critique of capitalism on his internal contradictions (Knafo & Teschke, 2017, p. 1). Comninel’s Alienation and Emancipation in this regard places emphasis on casting Marx once again by tracing his actual engagement with the conceptual framework of his social history’s political thought. The source of these diverging approaches to theorizing historical materialism can be located inside the different departure points from Marx’s theoretical production. Comninel’s interpretation tries to avoid the content under the influence of liberal materialisms rather focusses on how the original conceptual framework of Marx evolved with his critique of capitalism from his initial framework of alienation of labour. From where alienation of labour becomes an analytical tool that both explains the specificity of capitalist class exploitation, historical features of the social formation of capitalist society develops with Marx’s revolutionary project towards socialism.
George Comninel’s exciting contribution can be regarded as a fresh start to recast Marx with his own social and political context, with a strong critique of the Marxist accounts that undermined the essential features of the historical materialist method. This important step to end the desolation of historical materialism also can be considered as a prominent move forward to enrich the materialist explanatory capacity of ‘social history of political theory’ as a method.
Anderson, P. (1974). Lineages of the Absolutist State. London: N.L.B.
Comninel, G. (2018). Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx. (1st ed.). Palgrave Macmillan US.
Knafo, S., & Teschke, B. (2017). The Rules of Reproduction of Capitalism: A Historicist Critique.