by Ralph Dumain

Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818. 182 years on, on the threshold of the 21st century, we think we know all we need to know about him. Could any topic of discussion be more boring? Well, here our purpose is not to promote Marxism as a political doctrine, but rather to delineate his specific relevance to the autodidact project.

While intensively studying the work of C.L.R. James in the early 1990s, I discovered that one of James's major yet still largely unappreciated themes involves the relations connecting individual development and social environment, intellectuals and the division of labor. This gave me a new orientation towards the works of the young Marx. After doing some reading, I put together a conference program (aborted at the last minute) in 1995 to commemmorate the 150th anniversary of The German Ideology. What particularly motivated me was not the usual understanding of this work as the birth of historical materialism, but aspects of the argument with Max Stirner glossed over, inter alia in the process of abridgment (until recently, only the Soviet English-language edition carried the complete text), and implications (not generally recognized) for the issues raised above.

What could possibly be new after all this time? Not only has Marx been done to death, but also the re-readings and re-interpretations, and a generation or two of the Young Marx industry. There were numerous schools of dissident Marxism in Eastern Europe and the West that returned to the Young Marx as well as the Hegelian heritage to combat Stalinism. What else is there to say?

Rather than to claim any absolute originality, it is much more important to emphasize themes which may be found in the texts but not generally appreciated. There is no need to recapitulate the whole history of humanistic Marxism, but rather to summarize key issues which perhaps even that tradition has not always kept in the limelight.

People need to read these texts closely and not read backwards into them presuppositions that come from a century and more of other people's political sins. One must recognize that the young Marx was already an opponent of we now think of as collectivism. There is no subordination of the individual to the collective in Marx's thinking. Furthermore, Marx's positive attitude towards individual development, including the positive aspects of individualism unleashed but also thwarted by capitalism, needs to be emphasized after a whole century's experience of regimentation and mass manipulation.

Though Marx's theme of the division of mental and manual labor is widely recognized, the very personal, everyday as well as intellectual implications of the division of labor and alienated social existence have not been thought out as thoroughly as they need to be, not from the instrumental perspective of political organizing but above all from the perspective of the development of human beings frustrated by the limitations of environment. If all of society stagnates, why should not intellectuals be thrown into the same cul de sac as everyone else? If the division of labor means that social division also divides what people know, what are the implications of living in a world where some people have too much information with no means of putting it to productive use and others who become more backward and ignorant every day, totally oblivious to the sum total of the accumulated knowledge and understanding that could be set into motion to understanding their world and their personal circumstances? The autodidact's location of self in the universe of knowledge has gone unstudied while everything else under the sun is subject to unprecedented analysis. It is this perspective from which I introduce Karl Marx into this web site, not an instrumental political agenda.

Another concept much misunderstood and much abused is the unity of theory and practice. A contemporary twist on this theme is the obsession with the concept of organic intellectuals inspired by Antonio Gramsci. (See my commentary on Gramsci and intellectuals.) The issue of the relation of intellectual work to the totality of social development is too often reduced to the cliche of Marx's oft-quoted but universally misunderstood eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, that philosophers have only interpreted the world, but the point is to change it. This whole issue has to be fundamentally re-thought.

Along with the question of individualism, misunderstandings of Marx based upon notions of reactionary communitarianism and organicism have to be dispelled in no uncertain terms. Marx does not look backwards toward an "organic" past but ahead, through the discipline and educational process of the experience of capitalism, to the future of the freely associated producers who have learned to manage their communal associations as conscious individuals, free of the repressive ideology of a pre-given, divinely ordained organic spiritual essence that determines their social identity and participation. In the modern world, this pernicious organicism begins with Herder and German Romanticism, reaches its apex with Hitler, and now continues on in other incarnations such as Afrocentrism. Not only is it not known by the general public, but not even scholars have called attention to something I concluded in the past year: that it was Marx and his nascent historical materialism that dealt a philosophical death blow to Herderian organicism, perpetuated though in rationalized form even by Hegel. This knowledge is needed now more than ever, this time not to oppose Stalinism, but to oppose a resurgent fascism and reactionary nationalism around the world, as well as to face at last the inescapable need of conscious individualism in a world where "culture" as we once knew it has either been destroyed by advanced capitalism or badly needs to be jettisoned for being outmoded and deleterious in the conditions we now face. Culture is dead; long live human beings!

(5 May 2000)

©2000 Ralph Dumain

Marx & Individualism Reconsidered: Selected Bibliography

Antonio Gramsci, Organic Intellectuals, & the Division of Labor

"Socialist Individualism?" by Magnus E. Marsdal

Ideology Study Guide
(with links to the following and more:)

The German Ideology After 150 Years
Quotable Quotes from The German Ideology by Marx & Engels

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