Marx's Concept of Labor
We have seen the importance Marx attributed to individual emancipation, and the methodological role he assigned to the "real individual"; but the essential capabilities he ascribed to these individuals remain to be elaborated. Questions, indeed, are raised by some of his most famous aphorisms. For example, in his preface to the Critique of Political Economy , he stated that "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary their social existence that determines their consciousness." Such statements seemed to portend a materialist theory of the objective determination of consciousness, portraying an individual's mind as the passive object of causal processes purely external to consciousness as such. Similar problems were raised by the theory developed in The German Ideology , where Marx and Engels argued that the leading ideas of an epoch were "phantoms," mere "sublimates" of empirically verifiable material premises. This approach to ideology and consciousness implied that the individual's ideas at best submissively reflected the given reality.
Such an account of consciousness in turn raised doubts about the possible autonomy of the individual: could human beings be emancipated from capitalism only by molding their minds according to some constellation of external imperatives? Could the intentions of an individual, even in principle, ever contribute creatively to this emancipatory process?
These doubts, specifically about the possible importance of consciousness and individual intentions, can be provisionally settled through an examination of Marx's understanding of labor. For when he spoke of the determinant force of "social existence," he had in mind that being which objectifies itself through labor. Even after abandoning philosophical anthropology as an acceptable basis for
social theory, he continued to maintain a relatively consistent empirical anthropology, focusing on homo faber —man as a practical animal. Man was inherently active, engaged in shaping a world, and labor became Marx's paradigm for this practical being. By insisting on the teleological element in labor, the projection of an idea to be worked up through the mastery of natural materials, Marx in principle invested individuals, through their intentional agency, with a margin of conscious creativity, a margin which not only separated men from productive animals, but also helped sustain Marx's hopes for communism. That this practically oriented human being anchored consciousness hardly entailed an eclipse of individual autonomy. As Ernst Bloch said of Marx's practical orientation, "The concrete idea has never been more highly valued, for here it becomes the illumination for the act; nor has the act ever been more highly valued, for here it becomes the crown of truth."
Practice and Materialism
Marxist materialism has frequently been distinguished from previous materialist doctrines by its introduction of practice, and, with it, history, into the concept. Auguste Cornu, Marx's biographer, sees this practical perspective as the key to Marx's break with Feuerbach, and his subsequent elaboration of a distinctive theoretical outlook. Yet even before this break, Marx had developed, largely in the 1844 manuscripts, his own concept of labor, derived in part from his critique of Hegel, in part from his readings in political economy.
Marx praised Hegel for making the "dialectic of negativity . . . the moving and generating principle" of his Phenomenology . Because Hegel conceives "the self-creation of man as a process, conceives objectification as loss of the object, as alienation and as transcendence of this alienation," Hegel grasps "the essence of labor and comprehends objective man—true, because real man—as the outcome of man's own labor ." For Marx as well, "The entire so-called history of the world is nothing but the creation of man through human labor, nothing but the emergence of nature for man. . . . "
Labor comprised the "life-activity" peculiar to the human species. Since Marx defined the "whole character of a species" by the
character of its life activity, the role Marx assigned labor set his interpretation of such Feuerbachian concepts as "species-being" apart from Feuerbach's own. In The German Ideology Marx wrote that "men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce . . . . " But what was unique to man, according to Marx in the 1844 manuscripts, was not mere production, since "admittedly animals also produce"; rather, human production was "conscious life-activity," which "distinguished man immediately from animal life-activity." Only "in creating a world of objects , by his practical activity, in his work upon inorganic nature" did man prove himself "a conscious species-being."
In short, man effectively distinguished himself as a conscious being through production. A purely interiorized consciousness remained nothing, unless it was communicated or cast outside of itself, into the objective world. Labor for Marx represented the primary medium of this crystallization of consciousness, an externalization that simultaneously bore witness to its objective existence. When he asserted that "free, conscious activity is man's species character," Marx both offered an abstract description of individual labor as a necessary condition for human survival and proposed a norm of labor as it potentially could appear under unalienated conditions of free and conscious social production.
Because man had a capacity to shape the products of his life activity with a consciousness and a will, men, unlike animals, were capable of producing an infinite variety of objects. An animal produced only what it immediately needed; it reproduced only itself; its products belonged immediately to its body; it formed things only "in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs." Man by contrast produced objects even when free from physical need; he produced articles that other men could use; and he produced tools for carrying out production, implements that could be used again. He was capable of reproducing entire aspects of nature; he freely faced the products of his own hand as independent objects; and he could form the world according to an endless variety of standards, including the peculiarly human standard of beauty. Labor as such, considered in abstraction from historically specific social relations, thus in principle comprised a unity of mind
and body and creatively realized, by altering the world, the aims, not only of the laboring individual but also, indirectly, of the species. The labor process and its products represented the objective existence of subjectivity and the subjective self-formation of the species: man, by working within the world, "subjectified" the world, by subjecting it to his own ends.
This presentation of labor as a potentially free, conscious, and purposeful activity affected Marx's understanding of human history. If history was the story of humanity's self-genesis through labor, it was also the story of this genesis as "consciously self-transcending." History, like labor itself, never simply unfolded as a one-dimensional succession of happenings, but, additionally, as a series of ideal projects—ones that may not yet have been accomplished. "The entire movement of history is therefore both its actual genesis—the birth of its empirical existence—and also for its thinking consciousness the comprehended and known process of its becoming. . . . " Marx insisted not only on the moment of conscious projection in the labor process: he also defended the intentional projects of men as an essential element of history. In 1844, he even hinted that the aims the communists sought to actualize had their current basis in just such intentions—even more than in the objective reality those intentions, to be effective, had to reckon with.
To be sure, by stressing labor as the paradigmatic medium for realizing human intentions, Marx also stressed the importance of anchoring effective agency in an objective understanding of the world, in contrast to the Young Hegelians, who preferred to emphasize "pure critique" and the "pure act" to implement it: for Marx, there could be no "pure act," no "pure will." On the other hand, his respect for purposeful as well as effective agency served to distinguish his thinking from the materialism of Feuerbach as well as the idealism of the Young Hegelians. In his "Theses on Feuerbach," Marx made explicit his departures from previous versions of materialism.
One of Marx's central objections to Feuerbach concerned his passive portrayal of subjectivity. "The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation , but not as sensuous human activity , practice , not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active
side was developed abstractly by idealism—which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such." This active side entailed for Marx, as for idealism, the conscious assertion of aim. Earlier materialist doctrines had postulated a one-way determinism of circumstances impinging on the individual; but Marx argued classical materialism "forgets that circumstances are changed by men. . . . The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice ."
The touchstone of man's objective existence thus became the practical realization of his intentions through labor. The emphasis of course fell on practice, not consciousness in itself: to the extent that thought was detached from reality, it had not yet even gained the element of its effective existence. "The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question . Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice."
Marx's analysis of practice in 1844 and the "Theses on Feuerbach" transfigured his materialism in two important respects. The agent discussed was not the solitary cogito of contemplative philosophy; instead, through practice, other individuals were experienced, not as objects of thought, but rather as partners in action. As Lucien Goldmann put it, other subjects become "beings with whom I act in common . They are no longer on the object side but on the subject side of knowledge and action." As a consequence, Marx viewed society itself as a collective subject. But this was no transcendental subject whose inert essence would by nature unite the individuals comprising society through a bond of universality; rather the "essence" of man presented an historical accomplishment and objective possibility delimited by the structure of the social whole.
His analysis of practice also enabled Marx to penetrate the circle of passivity erected by previous materialisms. Practice, before actually transforming the world, projected a goal to be realized; to this extent, the cycle of practices was always a cycle of teleological transcendence. The standpoint of materialism incorporating practice was therefore not limited to the immediately given reality, but encompassed as well feasible projects for rationally reforming this reality. Translated into social terms, "the standpoint of the old materi-
alism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity." This transcending perspective catapulted materialist theory out of the merely contemplative realm: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." Feuerbach had wished "merely to produce a correct consciousness about an existing fact: whereas for the real communist it is a question of overthrowing the existing state of things."
Excursus on Hegel's Concept of Practice
Marx's estimation of the labor process and human practice remained a key element in his theory as it evolved into Capital . This is not to suggest that no differences exist between Capital and the earlier works in their depiction of the labor process. Indeed, the differences might be said (with some exaggeration) to recall those between Hegel's Phenomenology and Science of Logic . In any event, both of these exercised a considerable influence on Marx's understanding of the labor process. A discussion of Hegel's views on practice can therefore help clarify the status Marx assigned labor.
In the Phenomenology , Hegel had described how individuality became actual "in and for itself," through accomplishing works. As he put it, "An individual cannot know what he is till he has made himself real by action." In action, man dissipated the objective situation or original nature he confronted in order to establish a reality formed after his own design. Such action comprised three "moments" or elements in Hegel's account. In the first instance, action presented itself to the individual as a "purpose, and thus opposed to a given reality." In the second, this purpose found its "process of actualization" in a "means," which produced the act's third instance: an object incarnating the original purpose as "brought to light and established as something other than, and external to the acting subject."
On Hegel's account, the means of action recognized, exploited, and finally transcended objective circumstances, adapting them to purposive ends. Man thus came to treat nature as the objective material for actualizing subjective aims. In this sense, the means represented a "unity of inner and outer." Insofar as the essence of the act lay in this unity of the subjective (purpose) and objective (cir-
cumstances), the individual's effective act, far from being arbitrary, contained within itself a certain "necessity," which "consists in this, that purpose is directly related to actuality, and the unity of these is the very notion of action. . . . " Hegel valued such action highly for, through work, consciousness learned "the lack of correspondence between idea and reality, which lies in its essence. . . . In work, therefore, consciousness becomes aware of itself as it in truth is, and its empty notion of itself disappears." At this stage of the Phenomenology , as Jean Hyppolite has pointed out, "the objective world and conscious individuality comprise but one concrete reality, and this reality is that of the act."
The convergence of this account with Marx's own is hard to miss; yet even more striking is the correspondence between his analysis of the labor process in Capital and Hegel's discussion of teleology and causality in the Science of Logic . If there are any important differences to be drawn between Marx's earlier and later works, they would probably involve the relatively greater concern he shows in Capital for the objective world and the laws governing it. Hegel's discussion of the act in the Science of Logic shared this concern. "Right action is placed in the adherence to objective laws which have no subjective origin and admit no caprice and no treatment which might overthrow their necessity." In this section of the Logic , Hegel defined the teleological end as "the subjective notion [considered] as essential tendency and impulse toward external selfpositing." To the ends a person pursued were counterposed "Mechanism" and "Chemism," as Hegel referred to the principles of determinism and causality governing the natural world. An activity guided by a purpose or end was related to the Mechanical and Chemical world of nature as "something already given." On this objective basis, man, through teleological (i. e., purposive) action, attempted to transform the natural world and "to posit the object as determined through the [subjective] notion." By realizing his subjective ends, man rendered them objective. The means to the end had necessarily to acknowledge the law-governed objectivity of nature. Through the "means"—the tools and applied knowledge that made work possible—the notion came to have "objectivity as such in itself; indeed, through the means, the end ceased being merely impulse and tendency, and became activity. There was thus a certain dignity conferred upon the means which a purely utili-
tarian end might lack: "in his tools man possesses power over external nature, even though, according to his end he frequently is subjected to it."
Hegel's presentation of the intimate relation of the teleological end to law-governed determinism enabled him to overcome the rigid dichotomy subjective idealists like Fichte had established between the human world of voluntary purposive action and the natural world of involuntary causal processes. Hegel, to be sure, had praised the subjective idealists for "giving a correct expression to the nature of all consciousness. The tendency of all man's endeavors is to understand the world, to appropriate and subdue it to himself: and to this end the positive reality of the world must be as it were crushed and pounded, in other words, idealised." But according to Hegel, and Marx after him, human ends governed the laws of nature only as their complement, never as their arbitrary master. The efficacy of subjective purposes rested on a recognition of natural objectivity and its immanent order, distinct from man. To this extent, "mechanical causality" informed effective ends, and eliminated the possibility of arbitrary action, at least where the real transformation of the world was at stake. That Hegel's description of teleological action and Marx's account of the labor process shared an appreciation of freedom within and through necessity is probably not coincidental.
The Labor Process in Marx's Later Works
Marx's mature discussion of the labor process can be found in the Grundrisse as well as in Capital . In both, the labor process is accorded a central position: the concept of labor clarified the origin of wealth and provided a paradigm of effective human agency. In Capital , Marx described labor as a "natural" condition of all human existence, "a condition of the exchange of matter between man and nature." To the extent that labor was useful, it comprised an "eternal nature-imposed necessity"; by useful labor, Marx meant "productive activity of a definite kind and exercised with a definite aim."
Marx throughout presupposed labor "in a form that stamps it as exclusively human." The labor of men had consequently to be dis-
tinguished from the instinctual activity of animals. Here Marx recapitulated the comments on conscious life activity he had first made in the 1844 manuscripts: "a spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality."
The teleological project that framed the goal of labor itself achieved the dignity of a law in Marx's account—a law that the laborer himself gave to his modus operandi and to which he freely subordinated his will. Marx's description of the labor process in Capital left no doubt about the purposive agency of subjectivity; it was precisely by means of this capacity that the individual could effect a change of form in the material on which he worked. "At the end of the labor process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the laborer at its commencement." Projective consciousness enabled labor to exist as purposeful activity. When resolved into its "simple and abstract moments," the labor process then appeared as "purposive activity for the production of use values, appropriation of the natural for human needs, the general condition of the metabolism of material between man and nature, and the eternal natural condition of human life, therefore independent of any form of this life, or rather common to all its social forms."
At the same time, Marx's description of the labor process recalled Hegel's discussion of teleology and causation in the Science of Logic . Marx, like Hegel, now emphasized the lawfulness of nature as the precondition for effective labor: the worker "makes use of the mechanical, physical and chemical properties of some things in order to set them to work on other things as instruments of his power, in accordance with his purposes." Marx also followed Hegel in dividing the act into three elements: the material worked on (the raw material), the means utilized in work (the instruments of labor), and living labor itself. These elements combined within the labor process to create the product. Labor's object was then twofold: "raw materials , i.e., the formless material for the forming, purposive activity of labor, and the instruments of labor , the objective means through which subjective activity inserts, between itself and the object, an object as its conductor."
The essence of human labor, however, remained its formative power. Labor existed "only as the form external to the material, or it exists itself only materially." The fate of objectified labor was bound to its formed object through a frail and accidental tie, inasmuch as the form of a table, for example, was not the inherent shape of the substance of wood. However, the possibility of the disintegration of the formed object equally signaled the possibility of the mutability of substances for a range of human purposes: "The transitoriness of things is used in order to establish their utility." Marx here confirmed man's creative intervention in the material world of things. "Labor is the living fire that shapes the pattern; it is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, their transformation by living time."
By providing Marx with a criterion of effective agency, the concept of labor fulfilled a critical function throughout Capital . In the later chapters of the book, for example, Marx was at pains to refute the individualistic premises and optimistic conclusions of the classical political economists. He discredited their premises by documenting at length the cooperative character of production under capitalism, and the "creation of a new power, namely the collective power of the masses." At the same time, by starting from his own individualized paradigm of labor, which we have just examined, Marx was able to underline to what extent the expansion of productive powers feasible through cooperation benefited, not the worker, but the capitalist: what ought to have been an augmentation of the individual's effective agency appeared instead as an augmentation of the power of others—both men and machines. What he worked on, the pace he worked at, the kinds of tools he used, the variety of tasks he performed—all this was removed from the control of the individuals in cooperative production; "hence the connection existing between their various labors appears to them, ideally, in the shape of a preconceived plan of the capitalist, and practically in the shape of the authority of the same capitalist, in the shape of a powerful alien will, which subjects their activity to its aims." Within capitalist relations of exchange, labor forfeited its effective agency. As Marx put the point in The Communist Manifesto , "In bourgeois society, capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality."
In this context, Marx's "labor theory of value" appears as an asser-
tion of historic right as much as a statement of scientific fact. Inherent in the simple concept of labor as it has developed under capitalism is a claim to effective agency, a claim that each person be enabled to direct his own labor freely and consciously and to benefit fully from it. To deny the value of labor is not merely to condone exploitation, then, but also to disinherit living human agency. For Marx, the integrity of labor became the index of human dignity and true individuality.
Marx's discussion of labor thus supports the interpretation offered in Georg Lukács's last work: "In labor, with the projection of the goal and its means, through a self-guided act, i.e., through teleological projection, consciousness sets out to surpass mere adaptation to the environment . . . by effecting changes in nature which could not originate in nature. When realization becomes a transforming and innovating principle of nature, in contributing impulse and direction, consciousness can no longer exist as an epiphenomenon. This conclusion reveals the distinction between dialectical and mechanical materialism." For Marx, Hegel's restless self-consciousness became restless labor; for both thinkers, reality contained within itself the traces of realized purposes. The human constitution of the world, which Hegel had founded on the achievements of spirit, Marx approached through the accomplishments of labor. While Hegel sublimated actual practice as a formative moment in the self-realization of the Idea through self-consciousness, Marx incorporated consciousness as a formative moment in the self-realization of humanity through labor. He thus viewed each individual as a potentially purposeful and autonomous participant in the transformation of both nature and social relations.