Young Marx On How The Workplace Alters Humanity


In the next few posts, I’d like to try to take you through the thought process of a twenty-something Karl Marx, and show you how he goes from being a student of Hegelian philosophy and a social-critic-at-large to a revolutionary who prophesies an inevitable, communistic, and worldwide revolution…

There are many strands which I need to bring together for this presentation, so bear with me…


One thing to keep in mind during all of this is that Karl Marx lived at the height of the 19th century’s underground revolutionary period.  This was the thirty-year-plus period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of The Revolutions Of 1848.  During this time, Europe roiled beneath the surface, as many oppressed people, clinging to the ideas of the American and French Revolutions, suffered under the yoke of the Empires and regional autocratic regimes set above them and given legitimacy and support by the Metternich-led Congress Of Vienna of 1815.

At the Congress Of Vienna, the European monarchs and aristocracies– after having finally defeated Napoleon Bonaparte– codified and treatified the reactionary backlash against the troublesome ideas of liberty, equality, and brotherhood which Napoleon’s conquering armies had disseminated as they decimated.  The revolutionary spirit, ignited in 1776 and inflamed in 1789, had been interred, though it still cooked beneath the surface without oxygen, like a buried charcoal-making pit.

Young Marx is writing in the years just before the 1848 explosion.  I’m sure he, like everyone else, could feel the ground swelling beneath him.


Young Marx was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Hegel.  For our purposes, the thing to be emphasized about Hegel’s view of world history is that it is DYNAMIC and centered upon CONFLICT.  Thus, Young Marx will bring a certain predisposition to his analyses when he begins contemplating the European society of his day (a society that is basically a thin iron lid of despotism and exploitation clamped over a powder-keg of forcefully suppressed calls for reforms).  This was a tense and unhappy time, a time when all of Europe felt the rumblings of the revolutionary volcano underfoot, but no one had any idea when, how, and where it would erupt.

To superficially gloss over Hegel’s philosophy of world history (of which I do not pretend to be an expert), Hegel interpreted the course of history as the conflict of opposing ideas…  a constant battlefield where THESIS does battle against ANTITHESIS, with the eventual and inevitable result that a SYNTHESIS of both ideas will emerge at the end of the struggle.  This new Synthesis, in turn becomes the next Thesis which fights against its own Antithesis, leading to a second Synthesis, and so on, down through time.

Hegel’s philosophy of conflict and CHANGE stands apart from other systems of philosophy, such as Stoicism or Epicureanism or Christianity, which present stable concepts and ethics and assume a mostly unchanging human nature and a more-or-less consistent world environment.

Young Marx had studied Hegel’s thought intensely.

Going all the way back to the birth of civilization, Young Marx imagines Nature somewhat like a stage upon which Mankind enters.  The first thing Man needs to do when he enters the world stage is to satisfy his most basic needs (food, clothing, and shelter), and he must do this by interacting with–indeed struggling with– Nature. 

Writing before Darwinism began to sweep across the planet (though the general thought was evidently part of the zeitgeist of the age), Marx asserts that the survival of early Man would have required his adaptation to Nature.  Simultaneously –humans being humans– Man would also begin changing Nature to better accommodate his needs. 

This mutually altering interaction between Nature and Man results in both sides accommodating each other to some extent, emerging into what could be called, Hegelianly speaking, a new Synthesis, one which would then become the starting point for a new mutual-adaptation struggle between Nature and Mankind, and on and on we go…  Nature changes Man, Man changes Nature, the new Nature changes the new Man, and so on… a process occurring non-stop throughout the eons. 

As time goes by, new Man develops new needs that must be met in new ways.  Furthermore, Marx observes, not only have Man’s needs changed over time– they have grown more and more complex.  This ever-increasing complexity helps to explain how the ever-greater productivity of the species never seems to lead the world out of want, and also how the world knits itself together into tighter, larger, and more intricate networks of supply and demand.

It is important to Young Marx that he point-out that Nature was FIRST… that Mankind entered an already existing world.  For this reason, Young Marx felt that humanity never had a choice in how it developed…  We had to change right away, adapt from the get-go to the demands of our environment or else perish.  Thus, Nature leads the dance, and the entire evolution of Mankind since the first step of that dance has been little more than a series of “inevitable” developments.


Next, Young Marx shifts the focus from subjects (Nature, Man) to the resultant activities (Labor, Adaptation).  Man adapts to fit Nature, learning to do those tasks (gardening, hunting, building huts, et cetera) that allow him to survive.  In this way, by affecting Man’s LABOR, Nature determines Man’s behavior.  This is why Young Marx will say (in The German Ideology, written with Engels) that Man’s “mode of production” becomes his very “mode of life,” and “the nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions which determine their production.”  In other words, Human Nature is not eternal… it changes over time.  FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION, as they taught us in Biology.

Over the centuries, Man works less and less out of doors, directly in Nature, and more and more indoors.  The factory becomes his new environment.  But the underlying adaptation process remains unchanged– only now, instead of Mankind adapting to Nature, he begins adapting to fit his workplace– not merely superficially or physically– but fundamentally, so that his worldview– his very spirit– is affected.


Meanwhile… other mutually altering syntheses are taking place… Man procreates, thus producing the Family.  Families raise the next generation, exerting incalculable influence upon the development of all family members — most especially, obviously, the children, but parents are also affected by the dynamics of the family unit.  In this way, it can be said that Man creates the thing that creates himself.


And there’s yet another level of mutual-alteration and dual, intertwining evolution occurring… The Family forms the basic unit of Society, and this Society so-created will, in turn, deeply affect both the Family and the Individual via the laws, interactions, customs, and culture it propagates.

Because a person is so incalculably influenced by his interactions with others and with his environment, Young Marx goes so far as to say that, “individuals certainly generate one another, physically and mentally, but they do not generate themselves.”

For Young Marx, probably the most important component of Society’s influence upon Mankind is the ECONOMIC realm of Society:  the Modes of Production, Cooperation, and Commerce/Exchange.

Importantly, by defining the style of interactions between persons, Economic Modes exert a tremendous effect upon how individuals think, behave, and socialize.  In fact, contend Engels and Young Marx, “a certain mode of cooperation” will always be matched to a specific “social stage.”  That economic and social stages are inexorably LINKED is a hugely important part of Young Marx’s developing philosophy (together with his view, as mentioned earlier, that there is an INEVITABILITY to the progress of these Stages).

So, where will these linked socio-economic stages eventually and inevitably lead humanity?  Stay tuned…

Other posts on YOUNG MARX by Hammering Shield…

Young Marx And The Job Hunt

Young Marx As Social Critic

Young Marx On Self-Alienation

Young Marx On Division Of Labor & Consciousness

Young Marx On How Our Possessions Possess Us

Young Marx On Revolution

Young Marx On Why No Real Reform Can Come From Government

Young Marx On The Class Manipulation Of Morality

Young Marx:  SHAME Is Already A Revolution

Young Marx On When The Invisible Hand Becomes The Invisible Fist


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