Book Reviews: ‘The Concept of Nature in Marx’, & ‘Alienation – Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society’

Who can read Marx?

‘The Concept of Nature in Marx’, by Alfred Schmidt. Published by NLB. £3.25.

‘Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society’, by Bertell Ollman. Cambridge University Press. £4.

These two books by professional philosophers are very different in approach, yet both seem to have been chiefly inspired by two manuscripts of Marx: the Grundrisse and the Paris Manuscripts. In these, Marx’s debts to other writers, particularly philosophers, are much more evident than in Das Kapital, and it is much easier for scholars to get to grips with the feelings which motivated him and the principles which governed his thinking. Neither writer believes that Marx altered his attitudes in anything more than detail or emphasis later in life, and they trace the development of certain ideas from the earlier to the later works.

Socialists will approach both books with a measure of caution, because they are tacitly welcoming Marx back into the philosophers’ fold from which he was at pains to escape. Alfred Schmidt, in the doctoral dissertation which forms the main part of his book, sets out to show that, in spite of Marx’s avoidance of philosophical terms in Das Kapital, the work contains a considerable amount of implicit and explicit philosophy which is a natural development of his earlier ideas about the interaction of man and nature and whose origins lie in Hegel and Feuerbach. Schmidt’s scope is more limited than Ollman’s: he is principally concerned to set the record straight as regards Marx’s philosophical respectability and consistency. This involves the painstaking dissection of a number of Marx’s followers as well as his critics. Although Lenin emerges unscathed, the generality of Soviet philosophising is repeatedly criticised. Kautsky, Plekhanov, and even Engels are shown to be less consistent and rigorously honest than Marx; and the chimera which leads most of them astray is the dialectic. Schmidt examines dialectics in some detail and shows that Marx was judicious in his use of it, whereas Engels, in Dialectics of Nature was led into silliness by his enthusiasm for it, and the Soviet thinkers who have followed him almost up to the present day have made a new metaphysics of it.

The most refreshing thing about Schmidt’s rather turgid book is its scholarly manner, which never gives way to the point-scoring partisan writing on Marx with which socialists are so tiredly familiar. Its most valuable attribute is the documentation of Marx’s scrupulous caution in employing ideas in the effort to understand and describe what exists. Oversimplifications, such as the one some of us slip into when we talk of the development of stages of society, are laid against the considerably more sophisticated explanations used by Marx, and we are reminded that the critics, even to the present day, are in the main [much] less intelligent than the writer they are criticising, and only half aware of what he said.

Bertell Ollman is very much aware of critics, and lays about him with considerable vigour. His is a much more lively book than Schmidt’s, and sets out immediately to challenge the reader with a new approach to Marx’s writing which is to make everything clear. Perhaps it is because he really has an established reputation that he speaks with such scholarly authority and does not think it necessary to substantiate his contentions with many or with very substantial quotations; but it may be simply due to the fact that he is American. When he takes it for granted that the workers in “imperialist” nations have benefited at the expense of the colonial workers, or suggests that, because the workers of the world have not attempted to bring about a communist revolution, they must therefore have a character defect preventing them from acting in their own best interests—such glib assumptions make one wonder whether the main thesis of his book is any more reliable than these.

Ollman’s contention is that Marx is largely misunderstood because he used language in a special way. He had adopted, says Ollman, the philosophy of internal relations, so that a thing was never regarded as itself pure and simple, but a plexus of relationships viewable from many different angles. Marx could only tackle the enormous job of describing the interrelated and changing elements of capitalist society, without distorting the picture, by using such an approach. The result is that his words have different meanings at different times. This is a degree of subtlety which has led critics like Karl Popper to make fools of themselves, according to Ollman, because they have tried to pin Marx down to a more naive terminology in which things are stationary and mutually exclusive.

Ordinary socialists have never found it difficult to think of capital as money at one moment and a factory full of machines, materials and workers the next, or to regard the process of production as also one of consumption. This may be at the root of their steady contempt over the years for the ‘what-Marx-really-meant’ brigade of writers. Nevertheless, if this erudite explanation of how to read Marx is what is necessary for the avowed experts, then Oilman’s book could have a salutary effect on the level of Marxian criticism.

Ollman’s second thesis is that Marx’s experience of philosophy convinced him that it was impossible to state a fact without incorporating a value judgement in the statement . Accordingly, any such study as Das Kapital was bound to set out from a point of view and to incorporate the relevant value judgements. And the point of view that Marx adopted, says Ollman, was that of alienated man—particularly the alienated worker —whose life and whose self were so much inferior to what they might be in a communist society. This is why Ollman entitles his book ‘Alienation’. He regards it as the most meaningful way to study modern society.

On the whole, Ollman’s approach is very convincing. It illuminates the labour theory of value and the role of religion with equal relevance, but his Critical Evaluation which sums up is very disappointing. It is not his pessimism which disappoints, or even his introduction at this late stage of the notion of “character structure’’ to account for working-class apathy, but the strong impression he gives of making reservations about Marx’s work simply in order to seem impartial. In this it echoes the Introduction to the book, but is quite out of keeping with the enthusiastic eulogism of the main text. Perhaps the fact that the Ford Foundation helped to finance the writing of the book has something to do with it, but it does add further doubts about Ollman’s integrity. It also points up the fact that readers who are not considerable Marxian scholars have very little chance of detecting the flaws in clever cases built up on selected quotations. Only a steady scepticism on our part, and the repeated testing of the ideas against our own experience offer any protection. Occasionally we shall have the added advantage of watching the professionals fall out amongst themselves, as these two do to some extent. In his Preface to the English Edition, Schmidt says

    “It will help the English reader to understand this book if from the outset he bears in mind its polemical aspect. It was one of the first attempts to draw on the politico-economic writings of middle-period and mature Marx . . .  for a ‘philosophical’ interpretation of Marx’s life-work. In doing this, the book opposed the widespread Western European, often neo-Existentialist, tendency of the 1950s to reduce Marx’s thought to an unhistorical ‘anthropology’ centred on the alienation problematic of the early writings . . .”

Which is largely what Ollman is doing.

Ron Cook

Leave a Reply