by Professor Dag Østerberg
The writings of Marx occupy a paramount position within the history of ideas, not only because of their momentous impact upon the historical process, but also owing to their intrinsic value and truth.
Marx’s activity as a scientific and philosophical writer persisted during four decades – from the youthful, first attempts to come to grips with social and political reality to the gigantic enterprise of his maturity; from his partly unpublished writings to found a new doctrine of History to the masterly exposition of the capitalist mode of production and the concomitant critique of prevailing political economy. In the course of this time span, Marx, like most thinkers, changed in many ways, and this fact raises the question of continuity. To what extent is the work of Marx a unified whole? To what extent does it fall apart in to several different, even mutually exclusive, doctrines? These are not merely the questions of concern to the historian and the biographer; they direct our attention to our understanding of essential features of our society, such as, for instance, the proper relationship between politics and technics, or between individual personality and sociality.
Nasir Khan has devoted himself to the study of some of Marx’s early writings, with special reference to his treatment of man’s alienation. The notion of alienation came into the foreground after the publication in the ‘thirties of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, where it plays a decisive rôle. Since then, Marx’s use of the alienation concept has been a permanent topic of investigation and discussion, bearing on the sense of Marx’s humanist stance, and its relation to a positivist conception of science.
Nasir Khan’s monograph is another contribution to this field of research. His study is not intended as an introduction to the problematic, but rather addresses the advanced reader, who has already acquired a basic knowledge of Marx and Engels’ ‘materialist conception of history’ in general, their main works, the history of Marxist thought and practice, and the concept of alienation as an aspect of human subjugation and suffering.
The author deals with this subject matter in a thoroughly scholarly manner. His work is based upon a close scrutiny of the original texts, and displays an impressive command of the enormous literature commenting on what Marx wrote. He himself purports, not to revolutionise the current interpretations, but to restate them a little more clearly than the preceding authors, by utilising what they have said in their texts. In this way, the present work makes a specialised contribution within the world-wide research activity.
The field of inquiry is strictly limited, concentrating on what Marx wrote on alienation within an interval of 17-18 months, between March 1843 and August 1844. This narrow scope permits a very detailed account, following the sinuosities of Marx’s itinerary as he strives for clarity, passing from the critique of politics to that of private property, and arriving at an understanding of alienated human existence, founded upon a conception of what a truly rich human existence would be. To participate in the discussion about whether the notion of alienation is essential merely in Marx’s early writings is not the main purpose of Nasir Khan. He does however make his standpoint clear, stating, and in my opinion rightly, that the concept and doctrine of alienation are fundamental to Marx’s thought from the beginning to the end.
The ‘death’ of Marxism has been proclaimed over and over again, and today, in the wake of the rapid political changes in Eastern Europe, this proclamation is perhaps made more triumphantly than ever before. But it is clear that the perishing of these regimes cannot disprove the truth of Marx’s doctrines. For one thing, the strong revival and renewal of the Marxist movement in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies took place rather in spite of, and not because of, the achievements of these regimes. Hence, their dismantling changes little or nothing on the scientific level, even if it may serve as a pretext for those who for other reasons want to break with Marxist thought. Moreover, the economic and social conditions in Western Europe nowadays do not at all warrant any en bloc rejection of Marxian conceptions. Governmental policies based upon ‘the general theory of employment’ no longer ensure approximately full employment, with the consequence that new social strata resembling Marx’s ‘reserve army’ of wage labourers have appeared. The ‘welfare state’, the declared function of which is to guarantee certain basic rights and thus to make the class struggle less urgent, shows alarming signs of weakness. All experts agree that socio-economic inequality has increased and that class cleavages have become sharpened contrary to the optimistic perspectives on our future some decades ago.
Yet, the validity of Marxian conceptions does not, to my mind, ultimately depend upon such events and trends. Rather, the basic conceptions of Marxian thought, such as that of human alienation, should be understood as an internal critique of the basic Liberal notions of the Individual, the Market, and the State. These notions are constitutive of a social order, the hypocrisy and insufficiency of which are uncovered by Marxist thought. This Liberal order and its capitalist mode of production are still expanding throughout the world. For this reason, the Marxian critique is still ‘alive’ and indispensable for the understanding of the human world, and this holds both for the critique of political economy and the critique of human alienation, the theme of the present study.
Professor of Sociology
University of Oslo