Hobgoblin Journal

The Realm of Freedom and the World of Work - Marx, Hegel, Aristotle

By David Black

July 1 2007

Neil Kinnock, when he was the leader of the Labour Party, said that the phrase ‘Labour is the source of all wealth’ was the one thing he got from Karl Marx. But the fact that Marx never used any such phrase - and attacked those who did - might make it all the more appealing to Tony Blair as well. For the phrase, ‘Labour is the source of all wealth’, has an affinity with a modern capitalist conception of work that finds expression today in such Blairite notions as 'Human Capital'. This conception was quite unknown in the pre-capitalist world. As the philosopher Alfredo Ferrarin points out, Aristotle in Ancient Greece and the Scholastics of the Middle Ages saw work as determined by the mode of being: that meant if you were born into the peasantry or a medieval guild, for example, you would be a farmer or an artisan. In the modern world, it’s the other way round: social being is determined by work. Your ‘roots’ and inclinations don’t count for much at Job Centre Plus: it’s just a question of what work is available that 'they' determine you can do. Although the conflict between the ancient and modern conceptions of work might appear to have been settled historically, from a radical anti-capitalist perspective it is important to follow the dialectic of this change and its implications for any post-capitalist future.

Hegel and the Greeks

Aristotle divides life-activity in the Greek city state into three distinct spheres: Theory (which includes philosophy) and Praxis (which includes politics) and Production (which is done by artisans and slaves). Of the three only Theory and Praxis are the realms of freedom and happiness: Production is not freedom because, for Aristotle, freedom is the ‘exercise of one’s excellences’ as ends in themselves, in the service of a community which is also an end in itself. Production, as performed by slaves or others excluded from citizenship of Aristotle’s Polis, has its end outside of itself, therefore it is not the realm of freedom.
Hegel, writing during the aftermath of the French Revolution, sees the work of the Athenian slave as more ‘spiritual’ than that of the modern (19th Century) worker, whose condition he describes as one of ‘slavery’. For the Greek slave’s activity at work at least belonged to the slave, although the product was external to it; whereas the modern worker’s activity, which takes place under mechanical conditions and division of labour, is itself alienated and external to the self. No longer is production subordinate to praxis (and thus to the realm of freedom) and no longer does production just imitate nature (a tool imitates a claw, a boat imitates animals that can swim etc). From now on Production is there to liberate us from Nature by violent domination over Nature, and is based purely on the quantitive calculations of value-free ‘science’. [Afredo Ferrarin, Hegel and Aristotle p96-97]

Hegel points out that the Greek world, ruled by fate and character, had no concept of the ‘Will’, which only entered philosophy with Saint Augustine and the Christian version of Neo-Platonism. Hegel sees the Will as the key to the possibility of conciliating work with freedom, and nature with spirit. He says that under the conditions of freedom laid down by civil society, the individual ego, by mediation of the tool, is able to distance itself from nature and make nature into its own product – even if the product, as commodity, goes off and leads a life of its own. The deal is this: in exercising my will at work I externalise part of myself. That is, for a set number of hours I abandon what I would like ‘myself’ to be and become what I wouldn't otherwise want to be. In return for this ‘wage-slavery’ civil society, as a universal system of needs (market, state-regulation, taxes and public services), ‘recognises’ my work and everyone else’s ‘equally’. But as Herbert Marcuse says, in Hegel’s scheme it is the economy that does the recognising; the individual worker is only accorded the ideological honour of being recognised.

According to Marx, Hegel philosophizes from the standpoint of ‘modern political economy’ and fails to see that ‘the principle underlying civil society is neither need, natural moments, nor politics’ but a division of labour which is arbitrary and disorganised. The Proletariat ‘do not so much constitute a class of civil society as provide the ground on which the circles of civil society move.’ [Marx, Early Writings, (London: Pelican, 1975), 147-8.]

Theodore Adorno argues that because Hegel is not able to formulate the division between mental and manual labour that is essential to capitalism, his attempt to reconcile the social conflict dissolves labour into the absolute spirit of the social totality. [Theodore Adorno, Aspects of Hegel 23-24]

Karl Korsch

Korsch makes a similar point to Adorno’s when he writes:
‘Hegel links the freedom of each to the freedom of all as something of equal value. But in doing so he regards the freedom of the individual only in terms of the freedom of the whole, through which it is realized. Marx, by contrast, makes the free development of each the precondition for the correlative freedom of all.’

Korsch sees in Hegel’s attempt to reconcile labour and society an affinity with the Gotha Program of the foundling German Socialist Party in 1874. When the Gotha Program recycled the old slogan of political economy, 'Labour is the source of all wealth', Marx objected strongly. Marx’s 'Critique of the Gotha Progam' points out that Nature is also a source of wealth. Indeed he says, nature is the source of labour, which is manifested as labour-power; and that the bourgeoisie ascribe 'supernatural creative power' to labour precisely because those who do not possess any commodity other than their labour-power must be the 'slaves' of those who own the material conditions for labour: land and capital.

The Gotha Program talked about the ‘equal right’ of all members of society to the ‘proceeds’ of their labour and demanded a ‘free State’ in which ‘all social and political inequality’ would be overcome. It made only one socio-economic demand — the establishment of producers’ co-operatives ‘with State aid’. The rest of the demands were all political and bourgeois-democratic. From such presuppositions, it would not have mattered if there had been more socio-economic demands. Numerous “mass workers parties” have “demanded” wholesale nationalizations, but their method has always been statist and their results nightmarishly bureaucratic. Korsch, writing in 1922, under the influence of the Russian and German Revolutions, says that the problem in the past had been the emphasis on the ‘property issue’ as the ‘fundamental question’. But this emphasis can be interpreted in two ways: Firstly, as a juridical problem of distribution solvable through changes in the form of the State; or secondly, as a social problem of production which can only be solved by overthrowing the economic structure of society. “Specifically,” he says, in the social democratic state, “bourgeois Law and the bourgeois State will not have been totally superseded as the forgotten ideas of a barbarous prehistory.” Korsch argues that the working class needed to control the whole economy, with workers councils playing a ‘constitutional’ role during the ‘first phase’ of communism to guard against any tendencies in management practices that might lead to capitalist restoration through a bureaucracy (which is precisely what happened in Russia).


Lenin – ‘libertarian but statist’

Korsch, in arguing that consistent materialist analysis would produce equally consistent practice, saw Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’ as a new highpoint. This text by Lenin was about the only ‘blueprint’ for a revolutionary society that was ever actually “tested” in practice. A present day writer, Paresh Chattopadhyay, refers to Lenin's State and Revolution as: ‘perhaps the most libertarian work within `orthodox Marxism.' But Chattopadhyay claims that despite the libertarianism: ‘…Lenin's emancipatory idea falls far short of that of Marx (and Engels). Lenin conceives socialism — equated with the first phase of communism (contrary to Marx) — not in terms of new (real) social relations of production, as a free association of producers based on the “associated mode of production,” but in terms of specific ownership (that is juridical) form, in terms of “social ownership” of the means of production, which is reduced to the ownership of the means of production by the “working class state.”

While Lenin apparently excludes commodity production from socialism, he envisages “equality of labour and wage” for all citizens, now transformed into the “hired employees of the state” — in other words, the existence of wage labour and its employment by the (socialist) state.’
Chattopadhyay concludes that:

‘Quite logically Marx envisages society itself distributing not only the labour tokens [based on number of hours worked] among its members, but also the total (social) labour time among the different branches of production. Indeed, Lenin's socialism — particularly if we take his other writings into consideration as well — turns out to be much closer to Lassalle-Kautsky state owned-and-planned economy than to Marx's emancipatory project of the ‘union of free individuals’.’ [http://marxmyths.org/paresh-chattopadhyay/]

Marx poses the question: 'What transformation will the state undergo in communist society?' and answers that, 'Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.' [Critique of the Gotha Program, part 4]

The political form, the dictatorship of the proletariat, then is NOT the form of economic emancipation itself, but the form for working it out in practice. Note that Marx is talking about the ‘transition’ from capitalism to the ‘first phase’ of the socialist/communist new society, NOT about any ‘transition’ from the first phase, (in which, we would argue, he envisions ‘freely associated labour’) to the ‘higher phase of communist society’ of ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!’, in which the ‘the enslaving subordination’ to the division of labour and antithesis between mental and manual labour is ended.

Hegel's Absolute and the New Society

For both Lenin and Korsch the unity of theory and practice comes about because the material conditions allow for the realization of the socialist idea. Lenin’s Hegel Notebooks of 1914 praise the underlying ‘materialism’ of Hegel’s Science of Logic. The culmination of Hegel’s dialectical Logic projects a development in which, ‘The Absolute Idea has now turned out to be the identity of the Theoretical and Practical Idea…’ [Hegel, Miller trans. 824]. The ‘transcendence of the opposition between notion and reality’ [835-36] is reached when ‘the Idea posits itself as the absolute unity of the pure Notion and its reality, and thus gathers itself into the immediacy of being; and in doing so, as totality in this form, it is Nature.’ [843]
This forms the first syllogism of the last section of Hegel’s ‘Encyclopaedia’. In our context this syllogism of ‘transition’ relates to the problem with ‘blueprints’ for a new society, which involve the mediation of external ends such as state power brought about by the party. However, Hegel conceives of a higher moment of development in a process of actualization which is at the same time the Idea’s gradual appropriation of itself and whose end is internal to it. This second syllogism of the Encyclopaedia, is expressed as ‘subjective cognition, of which liberty is the aim, and which is itself the way to produce it,’

Dunayeskaya, quotes this and comments, ‘I cannot help thinking of Marx concluding that the [Paris] Commune is “the form at last discovered to work out the economic emancipation of the proletariat”… Mind itself, the new society is “the mediating agent in the process”’. [Raya Dunayevskaya, Power of Negativity 241]

Finally, if the first syllogism is the syllogism of transition and the second is the syllogism of the subject, in which the new society is the mediating agent, how do we interpret what follows consequentially: Hegel final words in the Encyclopaedia, ‘The eternal Idea which is in itself and for itself actualizes, produces, and enjoys itself as absolute spirit’? Dunayevskaya reads this as philosophic projection of a ‘new society’ and claims that the Idea’s absolute negativity expresses Marx’s concept of ‘revolution in permanence’ as well as the envisioning in the Critique of the Gotha Program of the ‘all-round development of the individual’ through the abolition of the ‘enslaving subordination’ to division of labour and antithesis between mental and manual labour.

Ferrarin explains that the phrase, ‘The eternal Idea which is in itself and for itself actualizes, produces, and enjoys itself as absolute spirit’, uses the same categories Aristotle uses in writing about a society in which being-determines-work. But Hegel, in reaching for the future, while looking back at the beginning, abolishes Aristotle’s tripartition of theory, praxis and production. In a Marxist-humanist reading one might say that, in a certain sense, the idea becomes ‘eternal’ if the social mediations brought about by the revolutionary uprooting are strong and permanently energised enough to prevent any regression into the rule of the old. What is ‘actualised’ is the original potency that was immanent in the subject of the process (the proletariat in its historic mission of self-negation). In the higher stage of communism, humans-as-humans, rather than humans-as-workers enjoy production and produce enjoyment.

Today in our retrogressive times, there is not a single socialist party anywhere in the world that capitalism feels any need to worry about. Along with reformist state-socialism, Lenin’s conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat - having resulted in practice in the dictatorship OVER the proletariat and, despite his intentions, all the horrors of state-capitalism - appears to have been discredited. The question of What Happens After the revolution no longer just expresses a subjective doubt about entrusting some allegedly “workers state” once again to the “revolutionaries”; it has become an objective factor in the realm of possibility.

[This is shortened version of a presentation for a series of classes on 'Alternatives to Capitalism' organised by the London Corresponding Committee.]

July 1 2007


Hobgoblin Journal