Saturday, November 21, 2015

Imagining New Individuality with Marx

Satyaki Roy

In the wake of industrial revolution with the advent of mechanisation, deep division of labour, commerce and exploitation the romantic revolt in the realm of thought was against fragmenting of the human self. The ‘whole man’ is fragmented into its usable parts, he is de-figured distorted and appended to the needs of machines, deformed and dwarfed as it suits for the production of commodities. European romantic mind was critical about this fragment of the whole man, where ‘he becomes nothing more than the imprint of his occupation or of his specialized knowledge.’ This was also the point of departure of young Marx who at the age of twenty-one writes in his doctoral thesis at Berlin University: “Thus when the universal sun has set, does the moth seek the lamp light of privacy!” The quest was to reinvent this ‘universal sun’, the fragment to be reintegrated with the societal existence; the lamp light of privacy that revolves forever inside his own skin has to be defeated by a new social dawn. Think of the cosmic ‘I’, the World Spirit who is the creator in Hegel’s philosophy passing through various stages of ‘estrangement’ and finally giving rise to an all-embracing self-consciousness. Marx’s one was the material obverse of this dialectical journey, the man deformed, dehumanized, fragmented, alienated, exploited and oppressed passes through various stages of struggle and reborn into a whole man. The struggle informed by the philosophy of praxis not only changes the objective world around but in that process changes the subject as well. But why this ‘universal sun’ has set and how to embrace the dawn of whole man was the passionate intellectual exercise of Marx through his entire life. Instead of conceiving a disconnect between 'young Marx' who appears to be more Hegelian and that of 'matured Marx' as seen to be built in structures one can see a continuity with varying focus.  

Marx in 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts talks about the unity of human beings on the basis of their differences. Unity is based on complementarity. In other words human beings are different, they have different capacities and qualities and hence they require each other. This is entirely different from the perception of bourgeoisie liberty.  The sense of individual freedom and liberty in bourgeois society is not founded upon the relations between man and man but upon the separation of man from man. Marx denounces this empty individuality that is ‘wholly preoccupied with his private interest and acting in accordance with his private caprice’. Rather Marx talks about the development of ‘the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption’. In Communist Manifesto Marx envisages the new society as “association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Here is the creation of the new individual who is neither expected to possess some divine quality or godly transcendence from mundane affairs but only recognizes a very worldly truth that human beings consciously depend upon each other and therefore they have a specific meaning of societal existence different from the collective practices of gregarious animals. Think of any scientific invention, any scholarly paper, any work of art, any business venture, any human creation. Is there any one that begins with ‘I’ and ends with ‘I”? It is hard to deny the fact that the autonomy of the writer, painter, engineer, scientist is actually embedded in a set of complex causalities, dependence and reciprocity. And the denial of this very truth is the foundation of bourgeois individualism. Actually freedom can't be absolute, it can’t hang isolated from the society and any one’s freedom has to be conditional upon how one respects others’ freedom.

Capitalism naturalizes the denial of social relationships by commodity fetishism. The relationship between human beings and reciprocal exchanges are mediated by a relation between things. The sale and purchase of use values on the basis of equivalence of values creates a grand abstraction, a social forgetting of human relations by way of objectifying exchanges of commodities. This is the reification that creates the false consciousness of objectivity in an exploitative system. The buyer of a commodity faces the object as instantaneous product with a price tag. It has no history, it hardly matters who produces and how; and the act of paying the price 'relieves' the buyer from acknowledging the social process involved in it. Society appears to be an infringement of bourgeois freedom. In fact the monetary expression encapsulates a particular kind of knowledge of the product and all reciprocities within society are expressed in terms of the knowledge that is only amenable to monetary expression. A multilayered process of alienation actually constitutes this reification and the world of commodities becomes the only realizable relation between human beings.

This does not however mean that every relationship within capitalism has to be objectified: parenting of children, love for the partner and beloved ones, looking after parents or neighbours and many such intense engagements are not actually driven by the calculus of value even though there might be grains of exchange, reciprocity and interdependence. But capitalist rationality is only responsive to the sense of having, of appropriating gains as private property: ‘Thus all the physical and intellectual senses have been replaced by the simple alienation of all these senses: the sense of having. The human being had to be reduced to this absolute poverty in order to be able to give birth to all his inner wealth’. So the rationality is utterly selfish and myopic, it is as blunt as animalistic, consists of deficiencies somehow similar to the inability of the starving man who could hardly make difference between good and bad food. The impoverishment of human beings to a sadly deformed creature is what defines the epithet of rationality and efficiency.

Despite much talk about the freedom of market, market is actually absent within the factory where surpluses are extracted. It is the 'black box' that is kept aside from the realm of freedom of exchange. The relation between the worker and the capitalist has never been horizontal. On the contrary it has been capitalist despotism where domination and control is the language of power. The worker being denied of all access to means of production can survive only by objectifying his labour power as commodity. And the determination of necessary labour time that the class society assigns for the worker's livelihood actually declines with the rise of labour's productivity. It is a peculiar society where more the worker becomes productive the less could be his claim for the produced wealth. Unlike slavery and feudal systems capitalism however offers the worker 'great freedom' to choose his/her own exploiter!

It is not only about exploitation but it also produces workers who accepts their passivity and domination as something self-evident natural laws. Therefore conceiving 'rich individuality' should begin with rescuing the individual from the 'phantom of objectivity' and abolition of private property. In other words private property should be replaced by collective ownership. That of course impoverishes few wealthy people but empowers the majority. Higher productivity in that case carries a different meaning and sharing altogether. The more the members of the society produces the greater would be their individual share in output instead of being parked as profit by a few as is the case in capitalism. The parking is possible because of private property that legitimizes private appropriation of social wealth. The exchange and reciprocity within the members of society has to become direct instead of being mediated by money. I do what I can and also get from others what I need. There is nothing absurd or utopian to think like that. In fact within the existing system we do act on the basis of needs where we are not engaged in commodity relations. We do not calculate how much hours we  spend with our children, parents, friends and beloved ones; we do derive pleasure by the act of giving without crude calculations of return and do not think such acts as stupid in any way. It is a kind of engagement that is not determined by the calculus of 'necessary' and 'surplus' and do not require to be mediated by the universal commodity money. It is only under capitalist relations where expressing a need is an act of shame and becomes a source of power for the giver; consciously contributing for the collective is considered to be something meaningless and stupid although deriving benefit out of others' work is what measures productivity. Getting out of this capitalist rationality calls for a creation of a new social rationality that foregrounds communal purposes and nurtures habit of cooperation and solidarity.

The new individuality is informed by a different kind of knowledge that recognizes societal relationships. The knowledge about the product in this case does not end with its price rather one can see the creation of the product as an outcome of a chain of contributions. Men become sensitive not only about what has been produced but also how it has been produced giving rise to a different kind of self-cognition.  Individuals in that case do not find society as something alien and oppressive and opposed to their freedom rather realize social existence as core constituent of individual freedom. With all his senses the individual actually appropriates the human reality of societal existence. But this social existence does not fall from the sky; there is no cut off date when the self-interested individual dies and the 'universal sun' rises. Every new society is born with incompleteness and “economically, morally, and intellectually still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society.” It evolves into a complete organic system only when each of its components presupposes the existence of its complementary parts. It is a battle of ideas, a protracted battle between bourgeoisie rationality based on self-interest and new rationality based on solidarity and cooperation. It is also the creative praxis of not only changing the world around but consciously changing our own self.

Therefore it has to be based on profound democratic practices that educate people to decide their own future. It is this continuous process of direct engagement in deciding communal needs that makes individual the real protagonist of the new world. It can't be based on voluntarism rather it requires strategies to understand communal needs and sharing responsibilities on the basis of that. It requires state power at hand but that does not become an end in itself. In fact the socialist state is born to die; it is a passage to communal self-determination. Socialism is not about social provisioning of utilities by a patron-client relationship; it is not a generosity of the state in exchange of passivity of the citizens; it is essentially the creative praxis of making the new norm where the individual as well as the state is subservient to the communal goal. This submission is neither dictated nor being oppressive; it is the conscious choice of the individual who no longer seeks the 'lamplight of privacy' rather basks under the 'universal sun', his own creation where the 'free development of each is the condition for the free development of all'.


Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, National Book Agency, 1993
Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx-Engels Selected Works, Vol 2, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962.
Michael A. Lebowitz, The Contradictions of Real Socialism: The Conductor and the Conducted, Monthly Review Press 2012, New York.
Ernst Fischer, How to Read Karl Marx, Monthly Review Press 1996, New York.
G. Lucaks, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, Rupa & Co. 1993.
Karl Marx, Thesis on Feuerbach, Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Progress Publishers, 1968.

The author is Associate Professor at ISID, New Delhi.


  1. excellent piece! the ideology of 'natural-common sensical' 'self' under capitalism with instrumental rationality as the operative logic and its historical roots are so lucidly explained.
    However, one wonders regarding the actually existing capitalisms especially in developing countries like ours- where the bourgeoisie 'individuality' stands crippled and pre-capitalist forms of accumulation such as caste transform themselves to grow stronger under such capitalism. Does capitalism in such conditions hold any of the celebrated 'enlightenment virtues' of modernity, especially the individual versus society- when the very process of accumulation bases itself on a communal basis- be it religion or caste? Perhaps a further discussion on this issue of individuality in developing countries, accompanied with Rosa (structural necessity of capitalism to exploit pre-capitalist societies/ forms) as well as Ambedkar (his focus on fighting the feudal structures, which converged with capital) would be necessary.

  2. Nicely articulated. Kind of waiting to read such an article :)


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