The critique of politics and political economy:capitalism, communism and the state in Marx's writings of the mid-1840s

Sayer, Derek (1985) The critique of politics and political economy:capitalism, communism and the state in Marx's writings of the mid-1840s. The Sociological Review, 33 (2). pp. 221-253. ISSN 0038-0261

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In The Poverty of Theory E.P. Thompson makes the heretical claim that Marx's ‘mature’ writings, for all their grandeur, in some ways mark a retreat from his pathbreaking works of the 1840s. The Grundrisse in particular, and to a lesser but still significant extent Capital, are trapped within the analytic and conceptual framework of the very political economy Marx was criticising. Two features of this framework particularly concern Thompson. First, the notion that it is possible to isolate ‘the economic’ from political, religious, legal, moral or cultural activities as an independent or first order object of study; second, the static and ahistorical character of political economy's propositions and methodology. These, he charges, are substantially reproduced in Grundrisse and only partially overcome in Capital.1 I do not wholly endorse Thompson's view. But I do think his argument important, if at times overstated. Marx did, in the 1840s – and not just in overtly ‘philosophical’ works like the 1844 Manuscripts, but above all in The German Ideology– initiate an extremely wide-ranging critique of bourgeois civilisation as a whole, which went far beyond the obvious concerns of Grundrisse and Capital. He did not return to these themes again in anything like the same detail. And part of what Marx showed in these works was precisely the impossibility of abstracting ‘the economic’ in the way Thompson objects to – in Marx's writings of the 1840s, the development of capitalism is apprehended as intimately bound up with wider social changes, in politics, law, culture, morality. Moreover, Marx exhibited an eminently historical grasp of these interlinked changes. In sum, his writings of this period provide the basis of a panoramic historical sociology. Commentary has tended to neglect this: the 1840s writings have been extensively discussed, but it has usually been for their philosophical or ethical content (the 1844 MSS) or as methodological tracts (Part I of The German Ideology). Part II of The German Ideology must be one of the most understudied texts in the whole of the Marxist canon, though I t is rich in insights as to Marx's views on, for instance, the economy/polity relation. Part of my reason for writing this paper is to redress that balance: to sketch the outlines of the coherent – if often unelaborated – historical sociology of bourgeois society, as opposed to capitalist economy, to be found in Marx's writings of the mid-1840s. I focus in particular on what Marx has to say about the relation between capitalist economy and the modern nation state. But beyond this, I go along with Thompson to the extent of suggesting – the case cannot be argued in detail here – that the context I establish in this paper is the correct one in which to set the more specialised concerns of Capital. Elsewhere I have as it were approached the same issue from the other side, arguing that many of the characteristic themes of Marx's mid-1840s writings, particularly regarding the roots and nature of the modern state, are taken up and extended in his writings of the 1870s and 1880s.2 If I am right, the relatively neglected analyses I excavate here cannot be marginalised or dismissed as mere juvenilia, but must affect our evaluation of Marx's intellectual legacy – his contribution to historical sociology – as a whole. One final preliminary point. My primary purpose in this article is an expository one. I want merely to establish what I think is a relatively neglected body of analysis in Marx's thought. I am not unaware either that Marx's mid-1840s discourse creates problems, or that some of these problems have been the object of independent reflection by Marxists in recent years. But considerations of space prevent me dealing properly with either. My discussion, therefore, is almost entirely confined to Marx alone, and my emphasis throughout is on establishing rather than evaluating what he had to say on the issues considered. Given the usual neglect of the themes I address and their intrinsic importance to any overall reflection on Marx's sociological and political legacy, I feel this self-denying ordinance fully justifiable in an article of this length.

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The Sociological Review
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05 Jun 2014 10:41
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17 Sep 2023 01:32