The Young Left and the Young Marx

Derek Lewis

Summary: Thoughts of a young Marxist-Humanist — Editors

The 2016 Presidential Primaries and Election awoke the political scientist and activist within me. Hillary Clinton, the embodiment of the neoliberal order, beat out Bernie Sanders, the champion of social democracy in the U.S., in the Democratic Primaries; however, she failed to beat Donald Trump, a proto-fascist, in the National Election. While the loss to Trump in 2016 was a setback for the U.S. left, one would be remiss not to mention the renaissance that followed, from grassroots activism nationwide to Sanders or AOC’s policy goals. Love them or hate them, they offer a bourgeois alternative to the fascism threatening our humanity. Sanders’ reformist rhetoric, calling for reforms such as Medicare 4 All or a $15 Minimum Wage, is reminiscent of the stances of Lassallians or Blanquists. When the 2020 election loomed large, Sanders was my obvious candidate of choice, but over time, I understood his reforms were simply not enough and that his ideology would attempt to change capitalism rather than overcome it.

As time went on and my studies intensified and moved to focus on the political world, I found it odd that while we discussed Foucault in earnest, Marx was almost illegitimate to some of my professors. Marxism was the ideological basis for the U.S.S.R. and revolutions around the world, or so such revolutionaries claim. How could a political scientist look me in the eyes and say, “Most political scientists have moved beyond Marx” or something to that end? To be sure, other members of the faculty were interested and educated on his writings, but an implied taboo still remained.

Another class and a study group introduced me to many of the fundamental tenets of Marxist-Humanism, including the dialectic and what Marx and later humanists truly advocated for. As a young person looking at the historical development of capitalism and “communism” thus far, it might appear as if no desirable alternative to capitalism truly exists. Despite this misconception, capitalism has not and will not always be. An alternative does exist but has yet to be truly realized. Incomplete revolutions have taken place, leaving the proletariat in a centralized, planned economy that is still capitalism in that it replaces the capitalists with bureaucrats.

The former Soviet Union nor the People’s Republic of China may truly be called Communist. At best, theymight be considered forms of vulgar or crude communism. I argue this point in line with Marx’s unfinished 1844 Manuscript on “Private Property and Communism” and Raya Dunayevskaya’s analysis of the U.S.S.R. in Marxism and Freedom. I later offer an interpretation of Marx’s First Manuscript on Alienation and the forms he discusses there.

Marx offers woman as an analogy to the type of “leveling-down” that crude communism uses as a panacea. A woman, married to one man, might be thought of as the private property of her husband – that is, after all, the basis of the institution we call marriage. If women were to become “communal and common property”, would one argue the system of oppression, in this analogy sexism and patriarchy, has been eliminated by communalizing women even as they remain property? Absolutely not. I find it, based on Marx, to be counterintuitive. In regard to property, merely universalizing or generalizing it to all people, “wishes to eliminate talent… the role of the worker is not abolished, but is extended to all men.”

The Soviets’ and the PRC’s “communism” are tainted by anti-humanist ideologies such as the vulgar materialism of Stalinism or the Chinese Characteristics of the PRC. Using the state as an apparatus to communalize property while holding the mode of production constant is “abstract negation of the whole world of culture and civilization, and the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor and wantless individual who has not only not surpassed private property but has not yet even attained it.” A startling rebuke from the very pen behind the “communism” these authoritarian states have claimed to follow, and one that came more than sixty years before the Soviet Union emerged.

In Chapter Three of Marxism and Freedom, Dunayevskaya compares the Russian propaganda machine to the early capitalists who attempted to focus the early proletariats’ attention on how capitalism was better for them than feudalism. In 1955, V.A. Karpushin wrote an article in Russia’s leading philosophic journal. The ideologue attacked the Hegelian dialectic and the young Marx – particularly his 1844 Manuscripts – for their humanism. Dunayevskaya writes, “Karpushin tried to turn Marx into a vulgar materialist, a practical man with ‘practical problems…’ [because] it is the revolutionary method of the dialectic and the Humanism of Marx that threatens their existence in theory even as the working class does in life.”

This is why, just as Marx pointed out how history had “ended” for the classical political economist, Dunayevskaya writes, “For the Russian totalitarians, the Russian Revolution stopped in 1917, and history stopped with the triumph of the One-Party State.” History must end in both instances. If history is to continue beyond the point of establishing capitalism or the Party, both would ultimately be negated. The lie purported by capitalists (whether they be private or state) that capitalism is the ultimate achievement of humanity is necessary to maintain the stability of status quo, I think. Conversely, I believe capitalism to be the penultimate mode of production.

The U.S.S.R.’s perversion of Marx fails to transcend the first negation and rebuild. Dunayevskaya’s analysis of Karpushin demonstrates a fear for such a Hegelian dialectic, one where “the negation of the negation… is the objectivemovement.” Therefore, it regresses to a type of state-capitalism not dissimilar to the structure of the U.S. economy because it cannot surmount the power and lure of capital. When private property is merely generalized and controlled by the state, “The community is only a community of work and of equality of wages paid out by the communal capital, by the community as the universal capitalist.”  Marx refers to this form of communism as one merely in its infancy, its “phenomenal form.” The U.S.S.R. and P.R.C. arose in the name of the proletariat but failed to live up to that mandate. They ought to serve as warnings to the young left of pitfalls to avoid and where revolution leads without the dialectic. The young Marx himself writes about such pitfalls almost in anticipation of the challenges ahead of us.

Later in the same essay, Marx describes what Communism is, “the positive abolition of private property, ofhuman self-alienation, and thus the real appropriation of human nature through and for [humanity]…” I believe this “positive abolition” is the negation of the negation (aufheben), an active abolition of the alienation innate to private property, allowing for unhindered human self-development. In another rebuke of past and present “communisms,” Marx writes, “Communism as a fully-developed naturalism is humanism and as a fully-developed humanism is naturalism.” While vulgar materialists may try to extinguish any trace of Marx the Humanist, it is evident in his early writings that neither state-ownership of private property nor a strictly naturalist or materialist view of the world are enough to truly overcome our alienation, expressed sensuously through private property.

In Marx’s First Manuscript on Alienated Labor, he outlines the four types of alienation workers and society undergo:


  1. Alienation from the Product – Simply put, “[Capitalist production] implies that the object produced by labor, its product, now stands opposed to it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer.” The more workers produce, the less they have.
  2. Alienation from the Process – The capitalist relation of the worker to production is rife with contradictions. Machines, objects created by workers, come to dominate them as they labor. The process dehumanizes workers, turning them mechanical, such that, “the more value [the worker] creates the more worthless [the worker] becomes; the more refined his product the more crude and misshapen the worker…”
  3. Alienation from the Self – Our current mode of production obscures the “species life of man” or, I think, our existential and human “spirit” which the early Marx argues labor is central to. It can be said, then, that humans are alienated from ourselves in that we cannot find a purpose. I believe such absurdities can arise in what we in the U.S. refer to as a “mid-life crisis” – we do not know ourselves.
  4. Alienation from Humanity – Marx writes, “When [the worker] confronts [themselves they] also confront other [workers]. What is true of [humanity’s] relationship to [our] work, to the product of work and [ourselves], is also true of his relationship to other[s], to their labor and to the objects of their labor.” The alienation workers experience culminates in our social relationships: humans are workers, servants to the capitalist class, and creators of products they will never fully enjoy. This alienation, degradation, and abuse of the worker, I believe, is so clearly seen in the cut-throat, individualistic, and greedy attitude toward others that develops as a result of the first three kinds of alienation.


This is what Communism truly seeks to overcome, to negate. The common misconception of socialism or communism, that state ownership is their equivalent, was hammered into my head at least until high school (and even then, I only had one explicitly leftist teacher who was still very careful) and to a lesser extent in college.

However, the process was the same, alienating mode of production! As a young, gay male in the U.S. I hope to transform society using Dunayevskaya and the Young Marx as the starting point and the dialectic as the guiding principle. Nearly everyone I know my age regards capitalism with contempt; however, they only see “communism” in Venezuela or China. The issue, I believe, is that these countries have made an “abstract capitalist” out of the community. Dunayevskaya believes solving this issue, without altering the way in which labor is alienated – the mode of production – is to stop short of human liberation. Unless “freely associated individuals” control private property, rather than an abstract state or capitalists, we can never truly socialize production, emancipate ourselves from capitalism, and move toward a human and equal society.


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