Young Karl Marx: Explore the Controversial Philosopher’s Early Ideas

Karl Marx’s writings had a strong yet controversial impact on human history. The philosopher’s lesser-known early ideas may change your perception of his philosophy.

Dec 11, 2022By Baran Barlas, MA Political Studies, BA Philosophy

young karl marx early ideas


Karl Marx’s philosophy is usually understood as a rigid thought aimed at achieving a purely collectivist organization of social life. This perception stems from Marx’s emphasis on class movement, fueled by historical materialism in his widely popular mature writings. Taking a fresh look at the German philosopher’s early writings surprisingly leads us to a different Marx; a humanist Marx.


The Discovery of Karl Marx’s Early Writings

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Marx and Engels at the Reischene Zeitung by E. Capiro, 1849, via Wikimedia Commons


Considered one of the most influential thinkers in modern history, Karl Marx’s work has been both praised and denounced. Marx’s writings influenced revolutions, global politics, and the development of numerous social sciences. Despite this multi-dimensional impact, Marx’s early writings remained unknown for a long time.


Most of Marx’s writings from the early 1840s were not written for publication as they consisted of disorganized manuscripts. Several efforts to unearth Marx’s early writings in his notebooks had been undertaken following his death. These texts were published in satisfactory English editions almost a full century after they were written. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Comments on James Mill, and Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 are the key texts of young Marx, while The German Ideology and Theses on Feuerbach define Marx’s transitional period.


Soon after their publication, people realized that these writings drew a different line of thought from that of the mature Marx. The wide recognition of these works by intellectuals sparked a controversy about correctly interpreting these writings within Marx’s philosophy as a whole.

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young karl marx deutsch französische jahrbücher
The German title page of Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, which included the first publication of Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1844, via Bavarian State Library.


Marx’s thought can roughly be divided into three interconnected theories. Firstly, Marx built a philosophical anthropology in his early writings, which consists of a theory of human nature. Secondly, a theory of history – materialist conception of history – marks the transition of Marx from his early characteristics. Finally, a political-economic program is developed in Marx’s later writings, that proposes ways to overcome modern society’s problems through collective action.


Marx’s philosophical anthropology is at the center of our examination in this article. Unfolded in his early writings, Marx’s philosophical anthropology bears the traces of Young Hegelians, an intellectual group he was a member of until 1843. Marked by the Young Hegelian secular humanist influence, Marx’s theory of human essence lays the foundation of his early thought.


Marx on Human Nature: The Species-Being

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Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci, c. 1490, via Gallerie Accademia Venezia


Whether Karl Marx ever provided a clear definition of human nature has always been a hot topic, due to contrasting ideas found in Marx’s early and late writings. It is therefore an intriguing starting point for our examination. Marx’s critique of modern society in these texts is largely based on anthropological assumptions. Orthodox Marxists tend to avoid Marx’s early writings, as they consider them to be humanistic and in contradiction with scientific socialism. Marx, especially in the Manuscripts, frequently uses the term dehumanized to describe workers’ life under capitalism. One can simply argue that if Marx speaks of a dehumanized life, he must also have a conception of a human mode of life in mind. This conclusion is in line with his definition of productive activity under communism as human production. The following is an examination of the anthropological foundations of what constitutes the human mode of life for young Karl Marx.


At the heart of Marx’s philosophical anthropology, we find the concept of species-being (gattungswesen). Marx borrowed this notion from his predecessor Young Hegelian Ludwig Feuerbach. In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach uses the term to explain how human beings are conscious about their own species. Animals also have a simple sort of self-conscious feeling as the center of their sensations perceiving the outer world. But humans are able to make their species an object of their thought and see their own nature in it. For Feuerbach, this consciousness is what enables human beings to relate to other human beings and their shared essential nature:


Man is himself both I and you; he can put himself in the place of another precisely because his species, his essential mode of being – not only his individuality – is an object of thought to him.”


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Caricature drawing of Young Hegelians by Friedrich Engels, c. 1842, via Wikimedia Commons


In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx uses Feuerbach’s conception of species-being to explain human beings’ social nature. Marx certainly doesn’t argue that human beings are mere political animals following Aristotle’s idea. Marx deems the human being as a species-being not only for living in societies, “but also because he treats himself as the actual, living species.”


Here, Marx is trying to explain how individual human beings actualize their species essence in social activities and relations. Sure, some animals may be living in communities by cooperating, but not in the same sense human beings do. Keeping in mind Feuerbach’s description, the picture becomes clearer. As a human being, I am conscious about myself in the context of my community. I see my mode of life as a human one and conceive myself in reference to my understanding of what constitutes humanity. So, all individuals’ conception of themselves involves their conception of humanity. Individuals see their own mode of life as a human mode of life, just as they see the species life as their own mode of life. This is how the universal conception of humanity relates to all human individuals, hence why they are a species-being.


Now we can proceed to examine the missing point: What exactly constitutes this human mode of life for the young Karl Marx?


Productive Activity as the Essential Activity of Human Beings

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The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet, 1857, via Musée d’Orsay.


In the concluding paragraphs of Comments on James Mill, Marx states that producing in a human manner is the objectification of human essential nature. Then, the objective species essence inherent in every individual has to be realized in activity for a good life.


As every other animal, human beings maintain their life by making use of nature for satisfying their vital needs. We have seen that Marx differentiated human beings from animals based on their features of consciousness. In a similar way, Marx also distinguishes them in regard to their production: “The animal is immediately one with its life activity…” whereas “man makes his life activity itself an object of his will and consciousness. He has conscious life activity.”


Animals can only produce in order to satisfy their immediate needs. Their activities are driven by instincts, therefore not conscious. Human beings, on the contrary, can produce independently from their immediate needs. The fact that a piece of art can only be produced by a human being is the embodiment of this idea. If human beings are capable of grasping their activity as an object of their consciousness, they can then determine their actions without the enforcements of their instincts. An individual can see the productive activity itself as worthy, while for an animal it is only a means.


For Marx, the productive activity is an end in itself for the humankind. Hence, we always seek to actualize and further develop our essential skills. Regardless of the end product, the activity itself must be meaningful and creative to promote our human essence. Degrading the productive activity to a mere means is one of Marx’s early criticisms of capitalist production, revealed in alienated labor.


Alienated Labor: Dehumanized Productive Activity

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Factory Worker by Pieter de Josselin de Jong, 1899, via Museum Boijmans.


The first traces of Karl Marx’s concept of alienation are found in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. By describing the modern state as abstract and civil society as atomistic in his analysis of the modern social world, Marx lays the foundation for his conception of alienation. Marx then builds a more solid formulation of his theory in his famous Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. The term alienation (entfremdung) was previously conceptualized by Marx’s predecessors Hegel and Feuerbach. Although in very different contexts, the three philosophers seem to use the term to denote essentially the same phenomenon: the separation of things that naturally belong together. Marx’s theory rests on one paradigm form of alienation called alienated labor. He unfolds his conception of alienated labor by pointing out four different relations in which it emerges.


The complex division of labor in capitalist production imposes monotonous, repetitive, and exhausting tasks on workers such as pulling a lever all day long. While work should have been a free creative activity corresponding to human essence, its sole purpose becomes to satisfy the physical survival needs. The worker becomes alienated from his own activity as he “does not develop free mental and physical energy.” Furthermore, the worker doesn’t determine what is produced or how it is produced and doesn’t even get to own the end product. As a result, the product of her own labor stands as an opposing power dominating her. As a commodity, her product is now an alien reinforcing the capitalist mode of production.


Another significant alienation experienced by workers is concerning their species-being. By turning their vital activity into a mere means, capitalism alienates the workers from their essence: “It estranges man from his own body, from nature as it exists outside him, from his spiritual essence, his human essence.” Finally, as a fourth implication, Marx contends that alienated labor turns individuals against each other. The worker’s alienation from her essence is inevitably reflected in her relationship with other human beings; subsequently, with her whole community.


Fixation of Social Activity Under Capitalism

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Illustration of the overcrowded London slums in ‘London: a pilgrimage’ by Gustavo Doré, 1872, via British Museum


Some people argue that Marx’s theory of alienation only makes sense for industrial labor, questioning its relevance for other modern-day professions. A broader critique of capitalism based on the division of labor by Marx might be eye-opening. Division of labor, Marx argued in The German Ideology, created a contradiction between the common interest of all individuals and the self-interest of the particular individual. Marx in this case stands in opposition to Adam Smith who claimed that the whole of society would benefit from a system in which individuals only pursued their own interests. Marx opposes Smith’s argument, because for him, there is a communal interest of individuals constituted by their mutual interdependence as species-beings.


Furthermore, individuals in capitalism “lived within the conditions of existence of their class – a relationship in which they participated not as individuals but as members of a class.” This means that individuals in capitalist society are bound to the conditions of the class they belong to. Individuals don’t even live truly as individuals because their mode of life is determined by their class conditions. This restriction is revealed in the fixated social activity imposed on the individuals by the division of labor: “He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a social critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood.” Marx’s concern is that each individual is trapped in a particular sphere of work, being unable to engage in free activity.


One might be surprised to realize that Karl Marx’s criticism of the division of labor stems from individualistic grounds. Many people are inclined to believe that Marx’s main concern was the well-being of a particular class, the proletariat. However, Marx’s ultimate goal was to create a classless society. Socialism, as a social organization that favors the working class, has a merely instrumental worth: to pave the way for communism, which abolishes all classes and allows individuals to live as free individuals.


Young Karl Marx’s Vision of Communism

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The German title page of The Communist Manifesto, 1848, via Friends of the Lincoln Collection.


Having examined Karl Marx’s theory of human nature and how capitalism alienates human beings from their essence, we can now delve into his ideas on society. Socialism is a means to reach communism: a necessary stage for the ultimate goal from Marx’s standpoint. It refers to an organization of society in which the working class owns all means of production. Socialism eliminates exploitation as the workers wholly own their products. Communism, on the other hand, refers to an organization of society that abolishes alienation. At that point, productive activities are now ends in themselves compatible with human essence. Although Marx never described communism in detail, he provided some insightful hints.


Comments on James Mill, written in 1844, offers Marx’s intriguing vision of labor under communism. Supposing that we produce in a human manner, Marx describes the relationship between the producer and the consumer in communism: “1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality… 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature.” Considering both the producer and the consumer, Marx thinks that producers will be affirming both themselves and others in communism.


Marx’s first point emphasizes that in her production, the worker would have the pleasure of knowing that a part of her individuality is objectified in the product. His second point emphasizes the social aspect of production under communism. As examined in the previous chapters, human beings are species-beings. That’s why Marx states that the producer will be objectifying the human essence: through the conscious production of an object corresponding to a human need, the worker will be experiencing a human relation. For that matter, Marx further contends that the producer acts as a mediator between the consumer and the species, confirming and realizing her communal nature.


Making Sense of Continuity in Marx’s Thought

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Portrait of Louis Althusser from the cover of ‘Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978 – 1987’, 2006, via Verso


There’s a reason why Marx’s early writings are a topic of their own in academia. These texts are quite different in character from the predominant Marxist thought at the time they were discovered. But how should we understand their relation to Marx’s mature writings?


In his early writings, Marx is mainly concerned with the problem of alienation based on his theory of human nature. Marx’s shift from this context is found most clearly in Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology. The sixth thesis in Theses on Feuerbach marks a break from the Early Marx’s conception of human essence, contending that “…the human essence is no abstraction in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” This circumstantial description of human essence is grounded on Marx’s construction of the materialist conception of history in The German Ideology. Marx’s criticisms of Max Stirner and Bruno Bauer in The German Ideology also point to a break from the Young Hegelian ideas which were influential in the 1844 manuscripts.


French Marxist Louis Althusser famously sparked a debate by claiming that there was an epistemological breaking point in Marx’s thought, found in The German Ideology and Theses on Feuerbach. He argued that Marx’s early works were humanistic and ideological as they contain normative elements. Althusser described Marx’s later writings, on the other hand, as scientific, because they were based on the materialist conception of history. Marxist humanists such as Erich Fromm, on the contrary, argued that there was a continuity in Marx’s thought. They further attempted to show that the humanistic writings of the young Karl Marx were key for understanding his later works.


The Legacy of Young Karl Marx

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Photographic portrait of Karl Marx, 1861, via Wikimedia Commons


Whether Karl Marx’s early writings have any significance in today’s world is a legitimate question that needs to be addressed. The answer to this, first of all, depends on one’s personal opinion on Marx’s philosophical assumptions. Marx first makes a description of human essence in relation to how we produce. Secondly, he attempts to show how our human essence has been frustrated by capitalism. Finally, his vision of communism gives us a hint on what constitutes a humane life. If it is believed that Marx has a point in all this, then Marx’s principles can be used as a normative ground for future theories. Because if something is considered desirable, then the issue becomes just a matter of feasibility. Here the hidden characteristic of the young Marx comes forward: its lack of determinism.


Ironically, what traditional Marxists believe was the weakness of Marx’s early thought may actually be its strength. By giving us only humanistic descriptions without the prescriptions for achievement, young Marx leaves communism open to interpretation. Perhaps blindly following deterministic and rigid theories like those of late Marx is not the way to go. Although the world has never experienced a communist state, it is quite familiar with socialist states.


The project of reaching communism through socialist planning failed in the 21st century, with countless socialist states formed only to eventually fail. The open-ended communism of early Marx can make us rethink the ways to achieve a society that eliminates alienation. Philippe Van Parijs’ attempt to show that we can bypass socialism and move directly from capitalism to communism is one of many examples.

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By Baran BarlasMA Political Studies, BA PhilosophyBaran is a writer and translator from Istanbul. He holds a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Political Studies. His main areas of interest are political philosophy, ethics, and the intersection of the two. He has recently been focusing on the ethical aspects of Marx's philosophy and looks forward to starting a PhD in philosophy. He's passionate about gastronomy, history of music, and football.