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Alyson Escalante
Philosophy 452
Final Paper
Word Count: 1,957
Transcendence and Normativity: Towards an Immanent Marxism

Marxism is a revolutionary ideology. Regardless of how we conceptualize revolution, it
is undeniable that the Marxist project is one which demands profound change. Marx himself
exclaims that, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to
change it” (145). This orientation towards action and change, is itself predicated on the critical
nature of Marxist methodology. Marxism is itself a practice of analyzing the structures of a
socio-economic order, while also highlighting the violence within those structures. This
understanding of Marxism begs the question of “what sort of normative categories can be
employed to determine what is violent and unjust within capitalist logic and production?” Within
the broad milieu of marxist tendencies and schools of thought, there have been many approaches
to this question of normative categories. In this paper I will argue that it is both possible and
preferable to develop an understanding of Marxism which does not rely upon transcendent
normative categories, but which also maintains a critical focus and orientation.
In order to demonstrate this I will first examine the role of normative categories within
Marx’s earlier writings. I will primarily be focused on Marx’s theory of alienation in the
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. By focusing on the humanist grounding for the
theory of alienation, I will show that Marx’s early critique of capitalism relies on a certain
normative understanding of humanism and human nature. Next, I will turn to the writing of
Louis Althusser’s critique of humanist Marxism, with special emphasis on his theory of Marx’s

materialist discovery. I will use this critique to explore the possibility of a Marxism which does
not rely on humanist normative ideals, but which takes a critical approach to capitalism through
structurally analyzing the configurations and contradictions of capitalist economy. Finally, I will
explore the reasons a scructural Marxism is preferable to a humanist Marxism, and is still
capable of creating a Marxism which highlights the violence of capitalism.
In Economic Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx outlines a initial theory of alienation,
which lies at the core of capitalist political economy. While Marx sketches out several forms of
alienation, I want to focus on the two types of alienation which relate to human nature and
species being. These two forms of alienation are a grounding upon which the alienation of the
laborer from her product as an object, and the alienation of the laborer from the act of
production. An understanding of the nature of a producing subject under capitalism is prior to
the ways in which that subject is alienated from her object and the process of production. Thus,
at the core and foundation of the Marxist theory of alienation is the theory of species being.
Marx summarizes alienation from the product and the act of production by writing:
As a result, therefore, man (the worker) no longer feels himself to be freely active in any
but his animal functions... in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be
anything but animal... certainly eating, drinking, procreating, etc., are also genuinely

human

functions. But in the abstraction which separates them from the sphere of all other
human activity and turns them into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal (Manuscripts, 74)
It is clear then that alienation is based upon a certain abstraction and dissociation of producing
laborers from a grounded human condition and essence. Marx explains this unifying and

universal human condition from which the laborer is estranged by stating, “In creating an
objective world by his practical activity, in working-up inorganic nature, man proves himself a
conscious species being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as its own essential
being...” (Manuscripts, 76). Alienation thus comes by abstracting the laborer from this process
of creating the objective world out of the natural world, and thus also abstracts the laborer from
her own essence as a human. To be human is to engage in this process of transformation, and
alienation removes humans from this nature. This also causes an intersubjective alienation
through which individual laborers are alienated from each other. Marx explains, “the proposition
that man’s species nature is estranged from him means that one man is estranged from the other,
as each of them is from man’s essential nature” (Manuscripts, 77). This humanism is at the core
of all the forms of alienation in Marx’s early writings.
Having sketched out the role of humanism in the Marxist theory of alienation, I will now
explain how this becomes a lynchpin upon which normative categories in Marx’s early writing
rely. First, it is important to understand how Marx uses the theory of alienation and estranged
labor in order to ground his critique of capitalism and his advocacy for communism. In the
Economic Manuscripts Marx highlights alienation as the basis upon which private property
functions (Manuscripts, 81). Thus the ability to critique private property is derived from a set of
normative categories which are themselves derived from alienation. Capitalism is violent
because it alienates laborers from their species being and abstracts them from humanity. This
violence is thus revealed through the normative categories of humanity and species being. By
having these two ideas as a philosophical foundation, Marx can point to violence in relation to

these ideas. The centrality of this normative system becomes most clear when Marx articulates
the nature of communism. He defines communism as, “the positive transcendence of private
property, or human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriate of the human essence
by and for man... This communism, as fully-developed naturalism, equals
humanism...” (Manuscripts, 84). This makes it clear that the Marxism outlined in the Economic
Manuscript derives the ability to criticize capitalism and imagine an alternative to it from a
humanist normative basis.
Now this well developed theory of alienation may seem to be a useful tool for critiquing
capitalist modernity, a moment of self criticism is necessary to determine what baggage might be
associated with this humanist account of alienation. Interestingly, we do not need to immediately
turn to a secondary source in order to perform this criticism, as Marx does so for us in his later
writing. In the Theses on Fruerbach, Marx seems to take a new and more critical stance towards
humanism. As he develops a new form of analysis in the Theses, he remarks, ”Feuerbach
resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction
inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations” (Marx
145).This passage gives us a lot of material to unpack and work through. First it is important to
note that Marx has abandoned a theoretical reliance upon a universal human essence. This
essence cannot be found within individual subjects, but even more importantly, it does not exist
as a reality independent of material conditions. If the human essence is truly just the “ensemble
of social relations” then the previous articulation of alienation can no longer function. Alienation
has presupposed an independent human essence from which subjects became abstracted by

social relations, yet Marx now claims that there is no such independent essence. It is as if he has
pulled the rug out from his own earlier critique.
In this shocking moment in the Theses, Marx not argues against an independent human
essence, he also problematizes this conception. He goes on,
Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently
compelled: To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as
something by itself and to presuppose an abstract – isolated – human individual. Essence,
therefore, can be comprehended only as “genus”, as an internal, dumb generality which
naturally unites the many individuals. (Marx, 154)”
Here, Marx claims that the abstraction to an independent human essence forces a wholly
individualistic and atomistic view of subjects, and actually reduces the ability to have a thorough
and useful definition and understanding of what essence is. Thus, the very formulation of
alienation and a humanist communism, is bound to a form of criticism that can neither account
for the immanent relationship between subjects and the material conditions of society, nor
account for a thorough and materialist understanding of what exactly essence is. This represents
a shift in Marxist theory and criticism; no longer is marx looking to an idealist and transcendent
set of normative categories in order to critique capitalism, now he moves towards a radically
immanent form of analysis which does not understand normative categories as being
independent of the economic formulations of a society.
In order to understand and contextualize this shift in Marxist critique, and his latter
rejection of transcendent normative categories, I will turn to the writing of French-Algerian

philosopher Louis Althusser. In his work Marxism and Humanism, Althusser attempts to outline
a critique of humanism through a turn towards a marxist antihumanism. Althusser also looks to
the Theses as a rejection of humanism, and notes that:
This total theoretical revolution was only empowered to reject the old concepts because
it

replaced them by new concepts. In fact Marx established a new problematic, a new

systematic way of asking questions of the world, new principles and a new method. This
discovery is immediately contained in the theory of historical materialism, in which

Marx

did not only propose a new theory of the history of societies, but at the same time implicitly, but
necessarily, a new ‘philosophy’, infinite in its implications.” (Althusser)
Althusser reminds us that Marx did not merely scrap his old ideas to leave a gap in his theory,
but in fact revolutionized his theory through the development of historical materialism. He
makes the argument that this new historical materialism allows for a concrete and nontranscendent understanding of society. Now, capitalism can be analyzed and critiqued not
through and appeal to a transcendent human nature, but through a genealogical analysis which
understands how material reality shapes capitalist exploitation, and creates capitalist ideology.
For Althusser, the genius of this theoretical move is grounded in the realization that humanism
itself is a form of ideology, which communists cannot rely upon. He notes that, “the corollary of
theoretical Marxist anti-humanism is the recognition and knowledge of humanism itself: as an
ideology” (Althusser). Althusser believes this understanding of humanism as an ideology, and
the subsequent rejection, is itself a profoundly critical act. He notes that this undercuts the
entirety of capitalist ideology by calling into account “the myth of homo economicus... social

atomism and ethico-political idealism... the transcendental subject” and many other ideals used
to reinforce capitalist hegemony.
This idea of antihumanism as critique in itself allows for the possibility of
conceptualizing a new critical basis for Marxism. This new form of critique is primarily based
around a theory of ideology. Althusser understands this marxist revelation of ideology as the
primary critical act of this new immanent marxism. There is no longer a need for transcendent
normative category of human essence, nor for the theory of alienation. Marxism can now utilize
its critical analysis to reveal the flaws, contradictions, and ideological myths of capitalist logic.
Marxism can now critique capitalist values and the exploitation they produce, by pointing to a
historical and material basis for those values. This is not a Marxism which has abandoned
critical capacity in exchange for detached and abstract analysis, rather it is a self critical
marxism which understands the risks and threats of transcendent normative categories, and
instead choose critique capitalism from an immanent and historical basis. In this sense, Marxism
is revolutionary not only because it demands a change in the material structures of society, but
because disrupts all the previously developed ideological and philosophical categories used to
justify capitalism.

Bibliography
Althusser, Louis. "Marxism and Humanism." Marxists.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.
<https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1964/marxism-humanism.htm>.
Tucker, Robert C., Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York:
Norton, 1978. Print.


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