Marx's Poverty of Philosophy

It should be of interest for us discuss The Philosophy of Poverty because it is an understudied text in the canon of Marxist theory even though its contents are of vital importance. This is also surprising because so much of elementary Marxist criticism bases itself on the argument that philosophical metaphysics is undermined by a proper understanding of historical materialism. This argument overlaps with the really lousy naive realism included in the modern reception of ideological scientism by both our scientific research institutions and by the popular culture at large. While Marx does not aim to champion the metaphysics as it has so far been established, his argument is more subtle than a replacement of metaphysical illusions by mere empirical objects.

Russian Marxist Isaak Rubin in his 1928 text Theory of Value, states that, “Marx never tired of repeating that value is a social phenomenon, that the existence of value has “a purely social reality”, and does not include a single atom of matter.”

I understand that Marx has judged each philosophy for its conditions, since in the 1846 letter to Annenko, Marx says that Proudhon, “Produces an absurd philosophy”.

Marx asks, “Why does Mr Proudhon speak of God, of universal reason”, and furthermore of our access to the referants of these notions in an unalienated manner?

This question is of relevance because, as Marx describes in his 1844 manuscript on Estranged Labor, “The alien being, to whom labor and the product of labor belongs, … can only be man himself.” It is not our being alienated from god in the sense of a domineering church, but from the product of our own labor always in the task of our common daily work.

In Poverty of Philosophy, Marx quotes Proudhon in what he calls his most clarifying moment, “In the absolute reason … we attain knowledge only by a sort of scaffolding of our ideas. But truth in itself is independent of these dialectical symbols.”

Marx says this allows us to understand that the metaphysics of political economy is an illusion.

But as Proudhon is idealist he thinks we need to find a sense of balance between opposite notions in order to understand them, so that when we are faced with slavery and freedom, we must find the moment of goodness in slavery out there in the world which would match up with freedom in such a way as to restore balance to both notions. This is an attempt at understanding dialectical truth but it is clearly nonsense.

I want to speak now of the side of the reception of Hegel and German philosophy by Proudhon that is decidedly uncritical. From what position does Marx criticize German philosophy? Does he do so as an economist, as it relates to his discussion of such a thing in the Foreward to The Poverty of Philosophy?

In the earlier Critique on Hegel’s Philosophy from 1844, Marx says of Hegel’s development of the notions of “wealth, state-power, etc., are understood as entities estranged from the human being, this only happens in their form as thoughts. The whole process therefore ends with absolute knowledge.”

Hegel argues that the philosopher is “an abstract form of estranged man,” so, “alienation is therefore nothing but the history of the production of logical, speculative thought.” We see here the opposite of the notion of independence of dialectical symbols.

Hegel argues of labor that it has become “object – indeed, alien objects – is thus in the first place only an appropriation occurring in consciousness, in pure thought.”

This shows to Marx that, “there is already latent in the Phänomenologie as a germ, a potentiality, a secret, the uncritical positivism and the equally uncritical idealism of Hegel’s later works – that philosophic dissolution and restoration of the existing empirical world.”

Marx says of Hegel, “The only labour which Hegel knows and recognises is abstractly mental labour,” and that, “he sees only the positive, not the negative side of labour.”

“Therefore, that which constitutes the essence of philosophy – the alienation of man who knows himself, or alienated science thinking itself - Hegel grasps as its essence; and in contradistinction to previous philosophy he is therefore able to combine its separate aspects, and to present his philosophy as the philosophy. What the other philosophers did – that they grasped separate phases of nature and of abstract self-consciousness, namely, of human life as phases of self-consciousness – is known to Hegel as the doings of philosophy. Hence his science is absolute.”

“In Hegel, therefore, the negation of the negation is not the confirmation of the true essence, effected precisely through negation of the pseudo-essence. With him the negation of the negation is the confirmation of the pseudo-essence, or of the self-estranged essence in its denial; or it is the denial of this pseudo-essence as an objective being dwelling outside man and independent of him, and its transformation into the subject.”

In contrast to Hegel, Feurbach later develops explicitly that “philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought.”

He addresses this by further advancing a program of, “The establishment of true materialism and of real science.”

Out of these notions, in the conclusion to this critical text on Hegel, Marx develops that “Nature as nature – that is to say, insofar as it is still sensuously distinguished from that secret sense hidden within it – nature isolated, distinguished from these abstractions is nothing – a nothing proving itself to be nothing – is devoid of sense, or has only the sense of being an externality which has to be annulled.”

Because nature is nothing in total on its own, Marx says later in Grundrisse of the concrete that, “The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure” (Marx. Grundrisse - Method of Political Economy. 1858/1939).

So it is like nominalism in that there are just the quantities of things and the various groupings of those quantities of things, except that in the becoming of those groupings of quantity, there is real change. This is done not just going from the abstract to the concrete as in the normal understanding of thought, but also from the concrete to the concrete (out there) before it. These should both be understood as real but determined in separate sides of the same movement.

Returning to the manuscript on Estranged Labor, Marx says that, “Political economy starts from labor as the real soul of production; yet to labor it gives nothing, and to private property everything. Confronting this contradiction, Proudhon has decided in favor of labor against private property. We understand, however, that this apparent contradiction is the contradiction of estranged labor with itself, and that political economy has merely formulated the laws of estranged labor.”

In ch. 1 on the value of commodities of Capital, Marx says that, “the greater the productiveness of labour … the less is the amount of labour crystallised in that article, and the less is its value.” In Grundrisse, Marx argues, “In the case of machinery, thus, increase of surplus labour with absolute decrease of necessary labour time,” so the development of machinery will not automatically lead to an improvement of the quality of worker’s lives.

“If a capitalist who previously employed 100 workers for £2,400 annually, lets 50 go, and puts a machine costing £1,200 in their place, then this machine – although it costs him as much as 50 workers did before – is the product of fewer workers, because he pays the capitalist from whom he buys the machine not only the necessary labour, but also the surplus labour. Or, if he had his own workers build the machine, he would have used a part of them for necessary labour only.”

Question: Does this inverse relation of productiveness of labour and the value of the commodity sap the development of technology of an inherent revolutionary potential?

Marx argues that Proudhon believes notions like, “the division of labour, credit, machinery, etc. … were invented for the sake of, equality, but unfortunately they have turned against equality.” Because man’s labour only needs to be rescued from its quality of being alienated, we find that machinery is the “logical antithesis” of the division of labour, and in an idealist form of the workshop, being fully automated, we will quickly rediscover our real identity in the essence of man that was distanced from us by under-developed forms of labor.

Machinery only finds its productive quality in the application of big business after the immense accumulation of capital, so it is not available in this same sense as implied by Proudhon to the average entrepreneur.

“Thus, the specific mode of working here appears directly as becoming transferred from the worker to capital in the form of the machine, and his own labour capacity devalued thereby. Hence the workers’ struggle against machinery. What was the living worker’s activity becomes the activity of the machine.”

Marx says in chapter 7 on Producing Surplus-Value in Capital, in regard to the tools we use in commodity production that, “Living labour must seize upon these things and rouse them from their death-sleep, change them from mere possible use-values into real and effective ones.” So they do not have a pre-existing and active nature while they are sitting there unused.

Marx says of the very specifically sensuous quality of our labor’s appropriation of material in the world, “Thus the more the worker by his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in two respects: first, in that the sensuous external world more and more ceases to be an object belonging to his labor – to be his labor’s means of life; and, second, in that it more and more ceases to be a means of life in the immediate sense, means for the physical subsistence of the worker.” (Marx. Manuscripts - Estranged Labour. 1844)

Concluding with Marx’s argument about Proudhon, Marx says that “because he doesn’t know history,” he, “fails to see that, in developing his productive faculties, i.e. in living, man develops certain inter-relations, and that the nature of these relations necessarily changes with the modification and the growth of the said productive faculties. He fails to see that economic categories are but abstractions of those real relations, that they are truths only in so far as those relations continue to exist.””

Returning to the Rubin text from 1928, Rubin says that, “abstract labor must be taken as the basis, as the content and substance of value.”

“One cannot forget that, on the question of the relation between content and form, Marx took the standpoint of Hegel, and not of Kant. Kant treated form as something external in relation to the content, and as something which adheres to the content from the outside.”

“From the standpoint of Hegel’s philosophy, the content is not in itself something to which form adheres from the outside. Rather, through its development, the content itself gives birth to the form which was already latent in the content. Form necessarily grows out of the content itself.”

“From this point of view, the form of value necessarily grows out of the substance of value. Therefore, we must take abstract labor in all the variety of its social properties characteristic for a commodity economy, as the substance of value.”

Why does Marx in the Foreword contemptuously suggest that the French take Proudhon to be a great philosopher of German Idealism? Because he refers to the revolutionary ideas, but he does not understand them.

Of course as was mentioned, and as Marx argues in a letter to the newspaper Der Social-Demokrat in 1865, Proudhon misses that property is essentially and not accidentally theft. So he goes searching for its essential qualities and misses the obvious truth. Marx and Engels instead find the truth of private property in the observation of the law of value, mode of commodity production, and primarily in the production of surplus-value.

Marx instead says that the division of labour leads to craft-idiocy, and it is only in the universality of the integral development of individuals that is required by the workshop in order to overcome the specialized character of labor that pre-dated workshops.

In the 1891 Preface to the Civil War on France, Engels says that Proudhon, “regarded association with positive hatred”. He says that, “competition, division of labor and private property were economic forces,” so were to be totally disregarded. But in Marxist theory these are notions to be overcome but they are also the basis of social as opposed to private labor!

Marx. Manuscripts - Estranged Labour. 1844

Letters: Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenko. 1846-12-28

The Poverty of Philosophy – Foreword

The Poverty of Philosophy - Chpt 1.1

The Poverty of Philosophy - Chapter 2.2

Communist Manifesto (Chapter 3)

Grundrisse (3) Method of Political Economy

Letters: The International Workingmen’s Association, To the editor of the Berliner Reform. 1865-01-24

Engels. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (Chpt. 1). 1880

Engels. The Poverty of Philosophy – Preface. 1885

Engels. On the 20th Anniversary of the Paris Commune - The Civil War in France. 1891

Leon Trotsky: A Note on Plekhanov (1922)

History and Nature in Karl Marx: Marx’s Debt to German Idealism | History Workshop Journal | Oxford Academic

Marx on Automation – Radical Political Economy

Two Methods in Search of Science: Skocpol versus Trotsky on JSTOR

Marx’s Grundrisse and Hegel’s Logic by Hisorshi Uchida

2011 Marx’s Concept of the Transcendence of Value Production Marx’s Concept of the Transcendence of Value Production Peter Hudis Loyola University Chicago

The Uses of Hegel’s Philosophy in Marxist Theory from Georg Lukács to Slavoj Žižek - Anders Bartonek & Anders Burman (eds.)

Louis Dupré. Idealism and Materialism in Marx’s Dialectic on JSTOR