Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism: A Review Symposium

Marija Krtolica,
Karel Ludenhoff,
Dale Parsons

Three reviews of Peter Hudis’s new book Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism – Editors

Marx’s Odyssey to the Alternative of Capitalism – by Karel Ludenhoff

“The standpoint of the new materialism is human society or social humanity”– Marx

“The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self- change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice” — Marx

In the Preface to the second edition of Capital, Volume One, Marx writes about the rationality of his notion of the dialectic and makes clear the difference between his dialectic and the dialectic in its mystified form:

“In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is its essence critical and revolutionary.” (Capital I, p. 103, Fowkes trans., here slightly altered, with my emphasis — KL)

Marx is thus using in Capital a rational form of dialectic to analyse capitalist society. Whatever the thoughts of the bourgeoisie and its intellectual footmen, their ideas are, from Marx’s dialectical point of view, irrational. Marx’s dialectical view is a vision that is contrary to that of the bourgeoisie and contrary to their society, a society that is dehumanizing.
When Marx talks about the mystified form of dialectic he certainly has Hegel in mind. Dunayevskaya writes about the transcendence of the dialectic of Hegel by Marx: “Marx could transcend the Hegelian dialectic not by denying that it was ‘the source of all dialectic’; rather it was precisely because he began with that source that he could make the leap to the live Subject [which Dunayevskaya conceptualises as “the human being, the masses” — KL] who is the one that transforms reality” (Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution [RLWLKM], 143).

Marx’s ideas about the dialectic as the movement of capitalist society, as the method with which to analyse this form of society and the discovery of the live Subject, are most of all connected with, and coming out of, capitalist society. They did not come like a bolt from the blue. This becomes clear when we read Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism by Peter Hudis. In his study, Hudis makes a journey through the work of Marx with a focus on Marx’s thinking about an alternative to capitalist society. On this journey — from the first writings of Marx up to the last ones — we find some beacons we will have to keep in mind and to think over when we are looking closer to Marx’s working out of the concept of the alternative to capitalism.

Firstly, the aim of the book is “to survey Marx’s work with one aim: to see what implicit or explicit indications it contains about a future, non-alienating society”(5). Besides this, although Hudis calls the aim of his study “modest,” one can find in his book an overwhelming amount of information about the development of Marx’s thought in all possible areas of knowledge. In his Marx research, Hudis is standing in the tradition of Dunayevskaya, who always emphasized the study of Marx out of the “totality” of his work.

Secondly, and for the above reason, this study analyses the concept of the alternative to capitalism on the basis of the whole of Marx’s work. That means that the works published by Marx (and partly by Engels), the works not published during Marx’s lifetime, and the recently published works in the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) or translations of it in the Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) are considered in their interconnectedness, as totality (8).

A lot of strains in Marxism did not or do not have their focus on the totality of Marx’s thinking, and this has, or has had, a negative effect in the grasping of the concept of the alternative Marx was working out for capitalist society. That is why “…the tendency to analyse one part of Marx’s oeuvre at the expense of others has made it all the harder to discern whether he has a distinctive concept of a new society that addresses the realities of the twenty-first century.” Hudis is here thinking of what he calls the objectivist and subjectivist tendencies in Marxism. The objectivist strain sees “Marx’s critique of capital is best understood as an analysis of objective forms that assume complete self- determination and automaticity” (9). The subjectivist tendency has a focus on Marx’s work as “…delineating the forms of subjective resistance that arise against the logic of capital” (25).

Thirdly, when one is considering Marx’s concept of the alternative to capitalism there is the distinction Hudis emphasizes between material wealth in non-capitalist, i.e., precapitalist societies and post-capitalist societies, and material wealth based on value and surplus-value production in capitalism (12). In his working out of the concept of the alternative to capitalism Marx always assumes that wealth in capitalist society is based on a connection between the alienation of labour, (surplus) value production, and capital.

Fourthly, there is the historical specificity of Marx’s analysis of capitalist society. In keeping with the aim of this book, Hudis takes The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) as Marx’s first Draft of Capital instead of the Grundrisse. In his 1847 discussion with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon,  “Marx vigorously objects to applying categories that are specific to capitalism — such as the determination of value by labour-time — to conceptualizing the kind of society that should replace it” (96). This emphasis on the historical specificity of the categories has a tremendous significance for our knowledge of capitalist society, for it means that all categories that Marx uses to analyse capitalist society are fitted only for the capitalist form of society. As for precapitalist societies, one can use these categories only in the sense as Marx remarks in the Introduction to the Grundrisse, when he says “Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape.”

Marx analyses the historical issue of subject and predicate in Western philosophy in his search for the ideal in the real. In searching for the real subject in the form of society he is living in, he studies it by looking at the history of Western philosophy from Classical Antiquity to Hegel, especially the comparison between philosophy after Aristotle and philosophy after Hegel, in which he is especially interested. One of the results of this process is his dissertation, On the Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature. Together with the other so-called early works subsequent to this doctoral dissertation, there is the critique by Marx of the inversion of subject and predicate which took place in Western thinking. In this process of theoretical labour Marx is also developing his idea of human freedom. About this idea, Hudis says, “…Marx’s effort to discern the idea of freedom ‘in reality itself’ is a theme that will govern all of his subsequent work, and it has a direct bearing on his understanding of how to posit an alternative to capitalist value- production” (42).

In developing his ideas, Marx is getting into a critical dialogue with Hegel’s notion of dialectic and the distortions Hegel makes in grasping reality. He also begins to read works of political economy. Furthermore, he makes acquaintance with members of the working class and all kinds of socialist and communist circles. What results from this is that Marx’s notions about inversion and freedom carry “over into his critique of the economic formations of capitalism, in which the self-development of individuals becomes thwarted by the products of their productive activity” (207). Marx eventually discovers the real subject of capitalist society. He develops the notion of the working class as gravedigger of capitalist society, and finds a “special kind of work” in the sphere of production that is essential for the functioning of capitalist society. The works after the Paris Manuscripts of 1844 show the working out and development of these findings. As one of the echoes of this conceptualisation by Marx, we can, for example, think of the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, where Marx speaks about the interpreting and changing of the world and touches on the relation between both elements.

In the Paris Manuscripts Marx writes, as Hudis indicates, “capital is the expression of ‘a special sort of work [which is] indifferent to its content, of complete being-for-itself, of abstraction from all other being’” (5). This special work, this kind of labour, is an alienating activity in capitalist society. It is the preceding shade of what we will later find in Chapter 1 of Capital, Volume One, where Marx develops his concepts of abstract and concrete labour.

In analysing this specific sort of work, Marx is dealing with the alienating aspects of this phenomenon in capitalist society. The human being can only be free, in Marx view, if this alienation is transcended. In his thinking about the alienating effect of labour activity in capitalist society, Marx criticises Hegel. In Marx’s view, Hegel only sees the mental side of alienated labour, the mental form of labour. But, as Hudis remarks, “…Marx is not referring to Hegel’s prioritisation of ‘idealism’ over ‘materialism’” (66). Hudis puts forth some good reasons for his argument. At first, basing himself on the interpretation of Nicholas Lobkowicz, Hudis states “…Hegel sees labour as the creative self-expression of human creativity unfolding through the dialectical process of externalisation and the transcendence of externalisation” (68). Marx critically takes in this notion of Hegel. But because Hegel has no embodied subject, no real subject, he is not able “to envisage the actual transcendence of alienated labour in capitalist society” (68). Dunayevskaya said it in these words: “Where Hegel saw objective history as the successive manifestations of a world spirit, Marx placed the objective movement in the process of production” (Marxism and Freedom [M&F], 55). Secondly, this argument is in line with Marx’s notion in the Paris Manuscripts where he says, “Thoroughgoing Naturalism or Humanism distinguishes itself from idealism and from materialism and is at the same time the truth uniting both.” And thirdly, there is the critical taking in by Marx of Hegel’s concept of “the negation of the negation,” which Marx sees as the concept of self- movement through absolute negativity.

Before going over to some misunderstandings concerning Marx’s notion of abstract labour, arising from a wrong interpretation of it, we have to return to Marx’s view of the specifics of abstract labour in capitalist society. Above all, as said before, abstract labour in capitalism is alienating.  Furthermore, Marx holds that the origin of value and surplus value is in the area of production. The value and surplus value production in capitalist society are, in Marx’s view, also mystifying, because the social relations based on the socially necessary labour time required to produce commodities are not transparent, since they are established behind the backs of the producers by a social average that operates outside of their control.

The beginning of Marx’s notion of abstract labour is, as we have seen, in the Paris Manuscripts and he will develop this concept in his critique of Proudhon, his criticism of classical political economy in the Drafts of Capital and in Capital itself, as above all things represented in his critique of the theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. As for Capital, Hudis says “The development and content of Capital show that the primary object of Marx’s criticism was the domination of things over individuals, dead labour over living labour, of the object over the subject” (207).

Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism discusses some ideas in which there is a misunderstanding of the above mentioned.  It is extremely important in relation to Marx’s concept of the alternative to capitalism to grasp the specifics of Marx’s notion of abstract labour and the history of that notion in Marx. A misunderstanding of that notion and its history will mean either losing sight of the real subject in capitalist society, or a failure to connect crisis and contradiction in capitalist society and post-capitalism, or not getting clear the nature of post-capitalist society. These three misunderstandings will now be reviewed.

When Hudis is considering the subjectivist and objectivist tendencies within Marxism in relation to Marx’s view on societal development in capitalist society, he refers to Chris Arthur on abstract labour. Actually, Arthur sees the existence of abstract labour as based upon the exchange of commodities (23,24). I think Arthur is in this sense representative of a lot of people who are saying that they base themselves on Marx, although they hold that abstract labour in the capitalist production process does not exist and does not have its origin there. Instead, they explain the existence and the origin of value and surplus value out of the exchange of commodities. These people are thus putting forth a notion of abstract labour contrary to that held by Marx, who sees abstract labour as having its origin in the sphere of production. The culmination of Marx’s notion is in Chapter 1 of Capital, Volume One. Marx says clearly in Chapter 1: “Therefore, the common substance that manifests itself in the exchange value of the commodities, whenever they are exchanged, is their value itself” (Capital I, p. 128, trans. altered). And the common substance is not coming out of nothing – nothing can originate out of nothing! — but out of abstract labour, which is creating value before the exchange of commodities, thus originating in production.

That is why such people find it necessary to say that Chapter 1 of Capital, Volume One is defective. It will be clear that such a notion is not only contrary to the dialectical perspective and method Marx used in Capital, but is also contrary to the whole history of the development of Marx’s thinking, which resulted in his critique of the inversion of subject and predicate, his looking for the ideal in the real — the working class in the sphere of production as the real subject, the source of surplus value — and his idea of human freedom.

In this context, it is good to be aware that Marx’s view does not mean that it is only the working class, functioning in the sphere of production, which is alienated and exploited. Rather, Marx is saying that the way production has been organized in capitalism on the basis of value and surplus value production, determines all the other social areas in capitalist society. Because of that, Hudis says, “Marx also goes further than merely condemning the class-relations of capitalist society, since, as I have shown, his foremost object of critique is alienated human relations— including those between man and women” (208).

In analysing aspects of Capital, Volume Two in relation to the question of value and surplus value in capitalist society, Hudis also refers to the views of Rosa Luxemburg on the reproduction formulas in this volume of Capital. He says Luxemburg had the notion that “…Marx’s assuming-away of realisation crises projects a tendency of unimpeded equilibrium or balanced growth” (172). Whatever one could say about the reproduction formulas in Volume Two, Marx to my knowledge never talked about equilibrium in capitalist society. On the contrary, he always emphasized that the tendency of this society is toward disequilibrium. That is why Marx bases his crisis theory on the law of the tendential fall in the average profit-rate, thus on the basis of the existence of abstract labour in the capitalist production process, which creates value and surplus value.

Henryk Grossmann, the first economic thinker after Marx in the tradition of Marx, returns to a crisis theory of capitalism on the basis of the law of the tendential fall of the average profit rate. He criticizes Luxemburg’s notion concerning the reproduction formulae of Marx in an essay, “On the Production of Gold in the Reproduction Formulae of Marx and Rosa Luxemburg.” He demonstrates that Luxemburg did not conceptualize Marx’s reproduction formula correctly. Earlier, in his The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System [also a Theory of Crisis], Grossman had already criticized Luxemburg, saying that “she did not derive the necessity of the downfall of capitalism out of the immanent laws of capital accumulation, out of a certain level of these, but out of the transcendent fact of the lack of non-capitalist countries.” She transfers “the issues decisive for the existence of capitalism out of the area of production to the area of circulation” (my trans. — KL).

It is in this context Dunayevskaya is saying that in Luxemburg’s view, ”The historic necessity of the proletarian revolution falls to the ground. (…). Put otherwise, the dialectic both as movement of liberation and as methodology, is entirely missing” (RLWLKM, 45).

The only conclusion can be that Luxemburg misses the organic connection between her theory of capitalist crisis in capitalism and the path of breakdown, to post-capitalist society.

When Georg Lukács talks about socialist society, he says that in this form of society labour exploitation also exists, because he is thinking that Marx uses a concept of labour that is applicable to any mode of production. Lukács thus falls victim to using a non-historically specific notion of labour, here contrary to Marx’s notion. He does not see that Marx’s concept of the law of value in capitalist society implies a distinction between actual labour time and socially necessary labour time, which can explain the origin of surplus value in this society. This means that Lukács is not able to discern the difference between the capitalist form of production and production in post-capitalist society.

In my view it is a great merit of the Hudis study that he connects the development and the existence of Marx’s key concepts with his concept of the alternative to capitalism. He shows that Marx was able to transcend capitalist society intellectually only by analysing capitalism from the perspective of a post-capitalist society. The different forms of misunderstanding of these conceptions of Marx in the past and the present show a failure to conceptualize post-capitalist society and to indicate the conditions for a breakthrough to a post-capitalist society. This becomes very clear when we look to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, the work Hudis calls his “most sustained, detailed, and explicit discussion of a post-capitalist society” (187).

In the Critique of the Gotha Program Marx talks about the issue of directly and indirectly social labour: “Within the collective society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the product appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of the total labour.” (cited on 189/190). In this passage, Marx is taking up the notions he was discussing previously in “Section 4 — The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof” in Chapter 1 of Capital, Volume One. In this section Marx explains why abstract labour in capitalist society appears as value, and why social relations, based on this abstract labour, are appearing as relations between things. In this process of explaining, Marx is making an analogy between the sphere of religion and the production process in capitalist society.  He does so when he compares the productions of the human brain in the area of religious life to the productions in the world of commodities by human hands. In both spheres, Marx’s critique of inversion is operative and applicable.

In analysing the kind of labour in capitalist society — in Capital — that determines the character of this society, in abstract labour, Marx is “going out” of capitalist society to other forms of society: Robinson Crusoe’s Island, the society of the European Middle Ages, and “a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour- power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour- power of the community” (Capital I, p. 171, trans. altered). By going out to such a community of free individuals one can see the transparency of the social relations of the individuals in this type of society, they “are in this case perfectly simple and intelligible, and that with regard not only to production but also to distribution” (Capital I, p. 172).

Marx was forced to criticize the working out of the so-called Gotha Program for a future post-capitalist society, because the participants did not understand what was really at stake in the transition to a post-capitalist society. Actually they did not know the differences between the laws of production and distribution in capitalist and post-capitalist society. Marx was here already anticipating the above-mentioned misunderstandings. This also becomes clear when Hudis touches on the subjective development of the individuals in post-capitalist society. He states, “The ‘subjective’ development of the individual is as important a precondition of a truly new society as such ‘objective’ factors as the development of the forces of production” (201, italics in orig.). When we are talking about the development of the forces of production in capitalist society we must not forget that their nature is class-determined. Dunayevskaya remarked, “This develops into the absolute contradiction between the nature of machine industry and the value-form of its operation. Technological writing had analysed the few main fundamental motions. There it stopped. It could go no further because there is no such thing as an abstract, remote, classless development of machinery. Technology is an integral part of the development of the productive forces. To exclude from it the greatest productive force — living labor — cripples and emasculates science itself” (M&F, 93). It means, of course, the nature of the productive forces in post-capitalist society will be totally different from the one in capitalist society. The same holds for the nature of science, technology, legislation, etc.

It is in this sense that Marx’s notion of Humanism, which he formulated in the Paris Manuscripts, can get its form in post- capitalist society.

Finally there is the issue of “organization and consciousness.” It will be clear from the above that Marx does not espouse the idea of an automatic transition to post-capitalist society. He did find a gravedigger of capitalist society. The question that arises is how the real subject, the gravedigger, can succeed in bringing down capitalism.  This requires both the objective conditions of capitalism and at the same time a revolutionary theory. Hudis says, “Marx does not equate the consciousness that emerges from the oppressed with revolutionary theory”. And he continues: “The latter does not emerge spontaneously from the masses, but from hard conceptual labour on the part of theoreticians”. There will be need of a “philosophy of revolution that helps to disclose the complex forms and dynamics of capitalism as well of the alternative to it” (80-81).

Marx made the assumption that there is a potential in the masses for revolutionary change; otherwise he could not have spoken about an alternative to capitalist society. He discovered this potential in the first instance in the real subject as part of capitalist society. Hudis rightly emphasizes that Marx did listen to this real subject while he was doing hard conceptual work. In this sense, Marx was theoretically working out what objectively happened in capitalist society.

The point today is how to connect this revolutionary theory to the revolutionary potential in the masses. One of the needed conditions is the working out and showing of an alternative to capitalist society. Not as a daydream or a blueprint, but rather as a real perspective related to the de-humanizing aspects of capitalist society; and such a concept will make it more possible to understand the alienating effects of capitalist society.

We will have to think about what knowledge (and feelings) is (are) in capitalist society and to be aware that there are basically two forms of knowledge in that society: one with a focus on the downfall of capitalism and one with a focus on preserving capitalist society.

This will be an enormous challenge for the side of the real subject and its theoreticians, an enormous but not impossible task.

Peter Hudis’s Marx Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism is in this process an important contribution.


Review of Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism — by Marija Krtolica

“Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transition by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life” — Karl Marx, “Preface” to Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)

Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, by Peter Hudis, addresses one of the common criticisms directed towards the philosophy of Karl Marx. In this review I am focusing on the development of the notion of alienation, and Marx’s critiques of idealist conceptions as they relate to utopian visions of the future.

Hudis asserts that although attention was previously given to the materialist conception of history and Marx’s “critique of value production,” the aspect of Marx’s work that presents the alternative to capitalism has been undermined. This omission resulted in various misappropriations of Marxist materialism. Some of these knowledge formations did not threaten in any clear way the prevailing world order and theories that support it. In the Introduction, Hudis writes that a serious student will “attempt to discern and analyze the indications of the future that flow from the critique of capital…” (p. 5).

In the Grundrisse, Marx criticizes the way in which the other socialist thinkers of his time were attempting to change society. He mainly appears critical of equating the market with labor phenomena, that is, those who prefer to deal with exchange rather than with the underlying productive processes and ignore relations between seemingly independent producers. Solutions offered on this basis, end up as empty, purely formal transformations.

Money itself presents for Marx a social bond. In the Grundrisse Marx writes that money “directly and simultaneously becomes the real community.” It is a general substance for all, but it is also “a means for [individual’s] satisfaction as an isolated individual.” “Money, as the universal equivalent, connects one individual’s labour and product of labour to someone else’s” (p. 109). So, through the “mediation of exchange” there is a renewal of social connections.

The movement is from basic exchange to one in which surplus-products are exchanged for one another, an exchange via “an abstract equivalent,” which gives rise to the social problems that are not, according to Marx, inherent, in the acts of exchange as such.

Hudis writes that Hegel’s Phenomenology “provides the philosophical expression of the very realities that Marx is determined to criticize” (p. 69). Marx focuses his criticism of Hegel on what he perceives as the inversion of subject and predicate. Hudis emphasizes that Marx does not object to Hegel’s focus on “mental instead of material entities.” On the contrary, Hegel’s abstractions reflect the abstractions one is faced with when one engages with alienated social reality. Both Hegel and Marx were looking into the dichotomies arising from the establishment of the clear division of social life into  the civil and the political spheres. Hegel’s philosophy tends to justify the elaboration of the state together with its bureaucratic apparatuses. Thus, for Hegel, the resolution of the conflicts between individual interests and the abstract unity of the particular and universal is found in the realization of statist social institutions. These, for Hegel, gain mystical power.

When Marx criticizes Hegel for inverting subject and predicate and thus prioritizing the abstract state of consciousness over the corporeal being, he does not deny the creative potential of the Hegelian vision. It seems more appropriate to say that Marx finds it necessary to engage with the material situation, and brings it back into its historical background that it escaped through the “magic” of capitalist abstraction. Marx is tracking the pathways of economic and social phenomena, pointing out interconnections, and demystifying the historical processes.

In the appendix to the book we find a translation of Marx’s notes on the chapter on “Absolute Knowledge” from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (this is the first English translation of these Notes). Here, Marx rewrites passages, and adds a few brief comments. Hegel explains Spirit as having “for the element of its existence nothing else but knowledge of itself.” This knowledge arises out of duty. Hegel proceeds to the idea of the valuing of its action. Marx significantly adds the word “money” next to “valuing.” Thus, the universalizing abstracting role of money reflects the process of abstraction. ‘Hegel’s philosophical system…expresses, Marx argues, the very economic process of abstraction that is at the core of capitalism’ (p. 69). “Logic is the money of the spirit”—the disembodied essence.

Thus, Marx views the Hegelian subject as disembodied self-consciousness, when faced with specific historical realities. Hegel’s reduction of real phenomena to mere thought formations paradoxically engenders the potential for permanent revolution, which Marx outlines when seeking solutions for alienation. Is this alienating process that takes place in the consciousness of laboring humanity something that Hegel does not want to take note of? It appears that Hegel sees a positive potential in this depersonalized force; the apparent loss of the subject’s consciousness within abstracting activities leads towards the resolution of alienation, in “Absolute Knowledge.”

Here, Hegel tends to purposefully favor mental over physical processes. This is clearly represented in his prioritizing of the state over civil society. Hegel is not a pure idealist, and Marx does not criticize him for idealism but rather for ignoring the real, experiential subject.

As Hudis points out, Marx argues that the movement “through second negation” leads to the transcendence of alienation and it can be reached (p. 70). The first negation—the abolition of private property—does not constitute freedom. This abolition is threatening to private interests which are gratified in the capitalist society. Through private property private interest is materialized. Freedom, which is conditioned not only on the material development, but also on the access to the products of historical knowledge will not arise with a simple abolition of private property.

It is necessary to end estrangement in labor. “As the worker alienates his activity from himself, so he hands over to an alien person an activity that does not belong to him” (from Early Writings 1837-1844: Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, p. 84). Through this “alienated, externalized labour” the worker creates relationship to the labor that is alienated, which then engenders an alienated relationship to “the master of the labor’ (capitalist). Private property is seen by Marx as “the product, result, and necessary consequence of externalized labor, of the exterior relationship to the nature and to himself” (Marx, p. 84). “Private interest prevails over the general interest in the form of private ownership of the production-process” (Hudis, p. 60). Capitalism solves the riddle of human motivation for perpetual participation in the productive processes through the existence of private property. “Property is, after all, the product of human activity” (p. 62). Abolishing private property on its own would not lead to human emancipation. It is necessary to end the estrangement in labor itself.

Hudis writes that not only capitalism, but even “crude communism,” reduces human sensuousness to “the sense of having” (p. 74). Thus, the possibility for an alternative to capitalism does not lie solely in the realization of collective ownership; rather, its reversal is contingent on a major negation of the production process. Communism would be only an immediate goal, while the true alternative allows for a continuous manifestation of “a totality of latent and acquired sensuous abilities in an endless process of becoming” (p. 74). This concept of revolution “in permanence” presents a direction for human striving.

Marx does not criticize Hegel’s idealism per se. It is the relationship between the corporeal and mental labor that he assesses. Alienation as a concept was first espoused by Marx in 1844 in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The idea itself emerged from Marx’s study of Hegel. Hegel emphasized that history is the manifestation of the movement of Spirit. This Spirit acts behind the backs of the actual actors—the human subjects. For Marx this is an inversion. According to Marx, Hegel’s “Spirit” cannot be anything but the activity of the human subject itself. However, in modern society the products of human activity enslaves the individual and restricts his free will; freedom is no longer the main attribute of a fulfilled human experience. The activity of “appropriating” beauty—the aesthetic dimension and truth— and ethical dimension of relations of mutual recognition are activities that lie within the realm of freedom. Marx distinguishes the idea of “appropriation” from the idea of “possessing” or “having” beauty or truth. Thus, private poverty eventually presents an obstacle towards the positive experiences associated with the idea of freedom.

What connects property owners in capitalism is the specific nature of the objects that constitute their property. The longing for the objects points towards totality of being. Here the property is the manifestation of “the particular quality peculiar to …[one”s] essence.” The exchange between the two owners in capitalist society is of “mutual alienation.”  The Abstraction of labor allows for the relationship to take place. This abstraction is what Proudhon fails to look at. “In the name of ‘liberation’, Proudhon is fulfilling the central mission of capitalism–to reduce laboring activity to an undifferentiated sameness by failing to take issue with the dominance of abstract labor’ (p. 64).h the dominance of abstract’ (: 6

“Marx is specifying the inversion of subject and predicate as the defining feature of modern social existence, in that the relations formed by individuals become ‘a person apart’ that governs their lives without their consent’ (p. 76). Marx’s critique of the young Hegelians points to their relationship to truth. If the truth is presented as a metaphysical subject that posits the human subject as its messenger in order to prove itself, then human agency is limited to the obedience of some kind of abstract principle that they cannot completely grasp. This is especially the case in the modern world, in which the human subject is continuously immersed in or is attempting to become involved in material progress. Abstraction becomes both the ruling power and the way to escape from social realities without overcoming them.

Hudis writes à propos the relationship between the state, the ultimate materialization of the abstract mediation between antagonistic forces, and civil society: “The state, a product of human activity, now takes on a life of its own and governs the behavior of individuals behind their backs-because of the limitations of civil society” (p. 77). Marx disagrees with Hegel when the latter declares that “the state holds together civil society.” According to Marx, civil society takes on an abstract form through the social division of labor. How does the edifice of the state correspond to the seemingly more fluid civil society?

In The Holy Family Marx remarks ironically that society “behaves as exclusively as the state, only in a more polite form.” Civil society can provide an illusion of free will, where all sorts of exclusions appear natural, as acts of autonomous subjects. Marx criticizes the mystificatory aspects of Hegelian dialectic.

When he approaches writings of young Hegelians, specifically Ludwig Feuerbach, he criticizes the lack of logical consistency and the failure to grasp the connection between the “uncritical idealism” of the premises and the “uncritical positivism of conclusions.” In Chapter 2 of the Poverty of Philosophy (1847) entitled “The Metaphysics of Political Economy,” he attacks Proudhon for doing with political economy what Hegel has done for the human sciences (religion, law etc.). Marx is critical of the reduction of substance to mere abstractions. In his view, Proudhon sees in the social actual relations nothing but the incarnations of abstract economic principles. On the other hand Marx, points out that that the economic categories are nothing but the theoretical expressions of the actual social relations of production. He distinguishes the religious man (Christian) from philosopher in that the former, “in spite of logic, has only one incarnation of Logos; the philosopher has never finished with incarnations.” The metaphysician in his religious zeal bypasses the relational nature of social production, and all too easily, treats obstacles as mere abstractions.

In his early writings, Marx opposes the forceful imposition of the products of economic development upon humanity. However, already in Holy Family (1845), he posits existent industrial development as containing “material conditions for a postcapitalist society.” The class that he perceives as revolutionary—the proletariat ­—is “produced by modern industry” (p. 79). Thus, the inversion through which depersonalized industry has become a subjective force is perceived as containing the potential for “an inversion of the inversion.” In relationship to this second inversion, Hudis writes: “This inversion can only be inverted through the conscious intervention of a human subject that strives to reorganize social relations from top to bottom” (p. 80). Hudis proceeds to explicate that a full-fledged understanding of the alternative to capitalism does not “emerge spontaneously from the masses.” To develop one we need conceptual labor. However, this conceptual labor must be “rooted in, but not reducible to, the consciousness of the oppressed.”

Marx’s vision of postcapitalist society in 1840s is classless. This vision is contingent on the eventual disappearance of proletariat, the very class that carries the revolutionary élan. The opposition between work and enjoyment disappears, and so labor as an utilitarian activity performed by the dispossessed working class is abolished.

Hudis writes about Marx’s vision for “a truly free society” (p. 145). In this vision of an alternative, the relationship to time appears diametrically different from the existent time management, in which time is governed by the labor-time of production. In capitalist society, time is understood as an object that is to be utilized in a most efficient way in order to quickly produce usable products. In a paradoxical way, capitalism dictates and sells ideal ways to relax, be entertained, and “resolves” problems in seamless, effective, smooth, non-discursive manners in order to simultaneously save time. Thus, time itself is commodified. It appears that there is a need for more time, but it is only certain kind of time, one dependent on the alienated labor relationship, that has value. So, in a “truly free society,” time would be governed by how long it takes for the totality of “one’s sensuous and intellectual capacities” to be expressed. How can this vision of human freedom in relationship to time, where the biological sense of timing, including knowledge of one’s death, not itself become a knowledge object used to manipulate human existence in ways that differ from alternatives to capitalism that Marx was criticizing?

Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism investigates some of themes that have been overlooked inthe Marxist theory, in particular the origin and specific attributes of Marx’s alternative to capitalism. Is a non-alienating society possible? What kind of philosophical contribution to the investigation of the logic of capital, and to the ways of grasping potentials for alternative to the present production relationships and modes of exchange which arise from them, do Marx and subsequent Marxist theory provide? Embarking on a thorough inquiry of Marx’s texts, along with an overview of recent interpretations of Marx by the thinkers on the Left, Hudis’ book offers an elucidation of the more complicated aspects of Marx’s philosophy, and of their relationship to Hegel’s dialectics.  Marx’s revolutionary positing of the laborer as an active subject happened in response to disembodied concepts that were previously engendered to resolve contradictions within dialectical thought. This movement towards historical materialism with an emphasis on the working subject is rendered comprehensible through the detailed analysis of Marx’s texts. Hudis points out the relevance of these texts in today’s world.  For a student of Marx’s philosophy—its theory and practice—Hudis provides a pathway through the textual maze, confidently capturing the concrete nature of Marx’s vision for the future society.


A Review of Peter Hudis’s Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism – by Dale Parsons

Our present stage of “degenerate” globalized capitalism has made the need for working out Marx’s concept of the alternative to capitalism more urgent than ever before. Objective crises militating toward the destruction of humanity, e.g. global warming, nuclear disaster and any number of other environmental disasters too numerous to mention here, should be reason enough to seek a “human” alternative to capitalism. The subjective symptoms of the destructive effects of capitalism’s tendency to return to its original contradictions, slavery and genocide, can be seen in the deteriorating conditions of life and labor in the world. A few examples beginning with the United States (US) of capitalist retrogression include the mass incarceration occurring within the Black dimension (see Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Loic Wacquant’s, “Deadly Symbiosis”  Consider also the frequency of mass shootings taking place in the US (see Harriet Fraad’s Also the unconscionable practice of human trafficking in the US and globally includes peonage, trafficking in body parts or organs, sex trafficking and child sex tours (see “The Slave Next Door” Slavery in America Today by Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter, and Also, the International Marxist-Humanist Organization’s video on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) takes up CIW’s battle against peonage, Globally, approximately one million children starve to death each year. Per capita suicides are also on the rise globally, a tendency Marx related to deteriorating living conditions.

As Peter Hudis states in his Introduction to Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, “Why Explore Marx’s Concept of the Transcendence of Value Production? Why Now?”: “Capitalism has clearly exhausted its historic initiative and raison d’être when all it can offer the future of humanity are social and natural conditions that are bound to become worse than those afflicting us today” (1-2).

While recent developments have made the entire body of Marx’s work available for the first time, little attention has been paid to Marx’s conception of what constitutes an alternative to capitalism by the global justice movement. The global justice movement seems to be more focused on reforms and safer economic alternatives, what are referred to as “soft” revolutions. Reforms are obviously needed to lessen the severity of the ravages of capitalism and community co-ops (what are often referred to as community cooperative islands within a sea of capitalism) can temporarily improve the lives of small groups of people, but much more is needed if we are to save the planet from ecological destruction, not to mention the improvement of human existence through the establishment of a “New Human Society.”

Hudis’s book is premised on the belief that philosophy, i.e., the comprehensive search for truth, is the sine qua non of political activism and if we don’t grasp the Marxian/Hegelian dialectic we will make mistakes, disastrous mistakes with fatal consequences. The failed revolutions of the past century carried out in Marx’s name are a testament to that fact and were not the fault of Marx but in large part to the failure to grasp Marx’s Marxism. The following comment by Hudis helps to explain why we still need to proceed through Marx to develop an alternative to capitalism as well as explaining the difficulty in comprehending Marx: “Marx’s body of work is one of those rare historical achievements that represent the crossing of a conceptual threshold; it marks a new philosophical moment that radically transforms all subsequent approaches to the object of investigation” (6). To help aid us in grappling with Marx, Hudis’s pedagogical development allows him to approach the subject matter from many different angles, which are very helpful when trying to grapple with Marx, particularly his labor theory of value.

Marx’s Humanism

Hudis describes how Marx’s philosophic project from very early on in his career, beginning when he was a student, was based on “humanistic” normative principles, e.g., Kant’s categorical imperative, “Wherever possible, treat your fellow humanity as well as yourself never merely as a means to an end, but as an end in itself” (51n73). Marx spent his entire life opposing capitalism’s use of “living labor” as a means to augment capital. “His very earliest writings also display a powerful feeling for social justice,” Hudis writes (39). In discussing career goals with his father, Marx wrote, “The chief guide which must direct us in the choice of a profession is the welfare of mankind and our own perfection…man’s nature is so constituted that he can attain his own perfection only by working for the perfection, for the good of his fellow men” (cited in ibid.) Another of Marx’s normative principles, adds Hudis, was his “philosophical commitment to the immanence of the ideal within the real— helped to predetermine and shape Marx’s approach to a host of different problems” (ibid): “The ideal, towards which we must strive, Marx contends, is to unmask and transcend ‘human self-estrangement’ in the ‘unholy forms’ of existing society. This cannot be achieved without a philosophy based on ‘the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being’” (54). To help discern what was at the core of “human self-estrangement” or alienation, Marx employed another normative principle, “subject-object inversion.” Subject-object inversion is where the products of our own creation, whether they are “commodities,” “social relations,” or, for that matter, “gods,” become “a person apart” or a power ruling over us. “Marx’s main object of critique of capitalism is the inverted character of social relations in capitalism, wherein human relations take on the form of relations between things. There is little doubt that Marx’s critique of capitalism centers upon a critique of value-production” (8).

Value Production

After an explanation distinguishing exchange value as the appearance of value, we are given another explanation of why this distinction is significant. Marx writes, “Value does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labor into a social hieroglyphic.” The classical economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo assumed value to be a natural property of labor. “Marx, on the contrary, argues that living labor serves as the substance of value only when labor assumes a specific social form – the dual form of concrete versus abstract labor. Labor can serve as the substance of value only if it is alienated labor” (135). The “dual form of labor,” which is concrete versus abstract labor or alienated labor, is Marx’s unique contribution to defining the nature of labor in capitalist value production.  The classical economists didn’t discern the specific kind of labor that produces value because their “theoretical categories did not proceed from the standpoint of the subjectivity of the laborer” (135-6). They were more interested in the products of labor than in the laborer.

There isn’t the space here to give an adequate exposition of capitalist value production. I can only give a brief description and strongly urge readers to study Hudis’s book for themselves. We cannot develop an alternative to capitalism until we first grasp what capitalism is, specifically capitalist value production, so we can be sure we are creating human social relations at the point of production and not trapped in some other form of value production disguised as its opposite. It wasn’t just the classical economists who failed to discern the essence of capitalist value production; it’s been the historic barrier from Marx’s contemporaries to present day economists and most of post-Marx Marxism as well.

The Paris Commune

“Consciousness is something that it (humanity) has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”

Hudis begins Chapter 4, “Marx’s late Writings on Post Capitalist Society” with the “The Impact of the Paris Commune on Marx” (183).  I would highly recommend reading Marx’s “The Civil War in France” along with this chapter, where Hudis writes:

“Marx was deeply impressed with the liberatory content of the Commune. In a matter of a few weeks, the populace of Paris put an end to the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon by eliminating the standing army; stripped the police-force of its political powers; established the separation of church and state; organized the production and distribution of foodstuffs and other goods through deliberative bodies of workers; and arranged for municipal officials to be democratically elected and subject to immediate recall” (183-4). It placed “the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the State… into the hands of the Commune” (184). “Marx considered the Commune to be ‘the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor’” (ibid).

Marx had dramatically changed his position on the State from what he had written in the Communist Manifesto on the centrality of the State. In The Civil War in France he writes, “But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the readymade State machinery and wield it for its own purposes” (ibid). Elsewhere, Marx described the State as a “parasitic excrescence” (185). The Paris Commune “breaks the modern State power. It aspires to the reabsorption of the State power by society” (ibid). “Marx now conceives of an association of freely-associated cooperatives as the most effective form for making a transition to a new society” (186).

Time is the Space for Human Development

The pivotal characteristic of the “New Society” must be the elimination of the hallmark of capitalist society, value production. It isn’t any accident that Marx from his early writings through his entire life ruthlessly criticized value production. Marx’s critique of value production was even more severe I think, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875, “his most sustained, detailed, and explicit discussion of a postcapitalist society” (187). In 1875, the two tendencies of the German socialist movement met in the city of Gotha to form a united organization. In short, Marx was pissed off because his followers, who composed one of the socialist tendencies, the Eisenachers, didn’t learn the lessons of the Paris Commune of 1871 or heed his warnings about compromising socialist “principles.” The Eisenachers completely capitulated to the Lassallean “General Union of German Workers” who composed the second socialist tendency and whose “principles” included a disguised form of value production. The union of these two groups later became known as the “German Social-Democratic Party,” which became the largest socialist organization in European history after Marx’s death. To say the General Union of German Workers, later known as the SPD was a compromise of principles is an understatement. The SPD was later to vote war credits to Germany’s Kaiser to enter World War I and following World War I, was complicit in the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

One of the arguments made about Marx’s philosophy in general is that Marx’s position during his whole, approximately 46 year long, philosophic project was from the standpoint of the new society. I personally believe this was Marx’s position and one of my reasons for believing so is Marx’s philosophic grounding in Hegel’s dialectic. I believe Hegel’s purpose in life was to help develop the ground for the future society and Marx’s recreation of Hegel’s dialectic was for advancing the philosophic development needed to bring about the new society. (Marx had mastered Hegel’s philosophy when he was still fairly young). Included in Hudis’s book is an Appendix, “Translation of Marx’s Excerpt-Notes on the Chapter ‘Absolute Knowledge’ in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.” I’m not going to pretend to have very much of a grasp of what Marx was getting at here, but I think that it is safe to say at this point that ‘Absolute Knowledge’ in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit connects to Marx’s normative principles especially, “time is the space for human development.” Marx attacked what he considered to be capitalism’s squandering of humanity’s time to augment value, among many other destructive diversions, when it should be augmenting its own self-development. “Time is the space for human development” was obviously central to that perspective.

New Society

The Critique of the Gotha Programme represents the first time Marx explicitly refers to two “phases” of a new society and these are not to be confused with stages. For Marx the universal determinant was the social relationships at the point of production. In the capitalist mode of production, wages are based upon the minimum amount of labor-time necessary to reproduce the worker, i.e., the minimum level of subsistence necessary to stay alive and provide future workers for capitalism through her children. The workers were forced to constantly battle the capitalists to maintain even a minimum level of subsistence just to stay alive, something that we are still witnessing today!

Obversely, in the new society, the form of actual labor time can be defined as follows: “each individual gives to society ‘his individual quantum of labor’, which is measured in ‘the sum of hours of work’. ‘The individual labor-time of the individual’ represents the individual’s share in society, and the individual receives back from society a corresponding amount of means of subsistence. ‘The individual producer receives back from society – after the deductions have been made – exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor’. Individuals receive from society a voucher or token that they have ‘furnished such and such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds)’ and from it obtains from ‘the social stock of means of consumption as much as the amount of labor costs.’ Remuneration is based on an ‘equal standard’ – the actual amount of labor-time performed by the freely-associated individuals” (193-4).

With the initial phase of socialism or communism, on the other hand, the disregard of actual labor time in favor of socially-necessary labor-time is abolished. “The exertion of concrete acts of labor in producing use-value performed by freely-associated individuals becomes the one and only expression of living labor. The dominance of time as an abstract standard is shattered through the formation of freely-associated production-relations, in which the producers organize the manner, form, and content of their activity on the basis of their actual capabilities. The replacement of the dictatorship of abstract time with time is the space for human development serves as the basis for a new kind of labor – directly social labor. With this momentous transformation, the split between abstract and concrete labor is healed” (191). “With the abolition of the conditions of value-production, values form of appearance – exchange-value likewise ceases to exist” (ibid).

“This does not mean that labor as such vanishes in a higher phase of socialism or communism. Marx explicitly states that in such a higher phase, labor would no longer be ‘only a means of life but life’s prime want’. Labor is now radically-transformed as compared with capitalism, since it serves not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. In a higher phase of socialism or communism, labor is fully inseparable from the individual’s self-activity and self-development. It becomes a self-sufficient end” (201). Marx’s vision of a higher phase of socialism or communism requires momentous material and intellectual transformations, a whole series of preconditions including the overcoming of the antithesis between mental and physical labor. These preconditions have to occur before a new, radically different distributive principle, “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs,” can begin. This is also the point where “the absolute movement of becoming” can begin in earnest.


Personally, I would have preferred Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism to have been written over 40 years ago, if not before. I understood early on the transformative power of revolution and that the creation of a new “human” world was the only option available to the lower and deeper layers of society to overcome the psychic damage capitalism and its psychic agents (social oppression, parents, patriarchy, etc.) inflicted upon us. I was also struck by the fact that only a small minority of acquisitive type people “fit” into capitalism, usually people who hail from the upper classes or happen to be talented in the arts, entertainment or sports. We need to create a world where the multiplicity of “human” passions, desires and strivings can thrive, where each individual can develop all their “human” potentialities, not restricted to the few allowed under capitalism (as Marx warned us, the sense of having is the simple alienation of all the senses). My initial attraction to Marx wasn’t due to any love of philosophy or any desire to grapple with difficult concepts but rather Marx’s “Humanism.” Marx demonstrated through his concept of “alienated labor” in his “Humanist Essays of 1844,” read by me in 1968, that he understood what I was going through on the factory production line beginning in the mid-1960’s. I was more than ready for the “new society of freely associated labor” and to start developing what Marx called “a totality of human manifestations of life” at that time in my life. When I thought I finally found an organization that practiced Marx’s Marxism, I discovered, much to my chagrin, that it was going to take approximately three more decades of rigorous philosophic development before such a book could be published.

The challenges to creating a new human society are immense. The devastating impact of the Stalinist left on the legacy of Marx and the mind-forged manacles of entrenched belief systems, e.g., “bourgeois right,” more currently known as “there is no alternative” (TINA), are obvious challenges to creating a new society. In my opinion, the greatest challenge to creating a new society is the separation of political activism from theory, the separation of revolution from philosophy. The following is a quote by Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist-Humanism; “Without such a vision of new revolutions, a new individual, a new universal, a new society, new human relations,” and “without a philosophy of revolution, activism spends itself in mere anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, without ever revealing what it is for.”  I believe that Hudis’s Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism demonstrates the link of continuity the International Marxist-Humanist Organization has with Dunayevskaya’s Marxist-Humanism. We now have the philosophic tools necessary to begin the process of overcoming the separation of philosophy from revolution, of philosophy from organization, which is needed to overcome the challenges to creating the alternative to capitalism, the New Society.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 Comment

  1. Matt Owen

    “Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism:” a critical appreciation.

    “Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism,” by Peter Hudis, clearly evinces that Marx had far more to say on the subject than is evinced by the works usually cited: his initial writing on communism in “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” written when he first became a communist, and “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” in which he counters the fuzzy thinking that programme reflected with his own razor-sharp analysis.

    It turns out that the often-cited works mentioned above bookend a lifelong quest to clarify a concept of the alternative to capitalism firmly grounded in his understanding of capitalism, which is why that concept, developed via a dialectical self-critical process (first evinced in his evolution as a radical democrat via the realisation that capitalism and democracy are blood enemies) is embedded in the various works which led up to “Capital,” and in “Capital” itself: in all of these works, his concept of a post-capitalist society is contrasted with capitalism. This continuity of the method of dialectical self-criticism resulted in a concept which evolved from a basic, relatively abstract notion to a more complex and concrete alternative…exactly the same plan followed in the three volumes of “Capital” and, as Kevin Anderson reminds us in “Marx at the Margins,” also in his critique of imperialism, which he began shortly after arriving in London in 1849, and in which his self-criticism of his earlier Eurocentrism is dialectical, resulting in a far more powerful analysis and synthesis than a mere antithesis could have achieved.

    There is much we can take from “Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism:” the specificity of the alienation of labour (present in all class-divided societies) via its abstraction in a labour market (specific to capitalism); that, in order to challenge capitalism, one must construct an alternative not only to the employer-employee relation of production, but likewise to the capitalist world market, lest both private-sector (cooperatives) and public-sector (socialist governments) alternatives end up capitalism without capitalists: that is, with a situation in which the organisation itself becomes an incorporation of capitalism, or a collective capitalist (a possibility foreshadowed in capitalism itself with the birth of the corporation).

    There is much food for thought here, not only on what socialists and communists should advocate…but on what we should construct when we get the opportunity, is is being done by the Venezuelan Communards…and we might yet do in my San Bernardino, if we socialists can contribute substantially to city charter reforms here. Marx’ clear concept of the free association of producers, exchanging activities rather than commodities, developing that free association in order to constantly reduce the amount of socially-necessary labour time, and so on, should prove immensely helpful to the fight to replace capitalism with that alternative.