Enrique Dussel’s Toward and Unknown Marx (2001) is a pathbreaking interpretation of the ethical foundations of Marxism. In it he brings together the principles of his liberation theology with a careful and original reading of Marx’s Manuscripts of 1861-63. The Argentinian philosopher (who has lived and worked in Mexico since the 1970’s after being hounded from Argentina by right-wing death squads) is a philosopher of enormous scope and erudition but who is less well know than he should be amongst social and political philosophers in the Global North. He traverses the history of Western philosophy with rare depth, but situates its key ethical insights as developments of older traditions of thought that emerge first in Egypt. (See his The Ethics of Liberation in an the of Globalization and Exclusion). The unifying principle of this ancient tradition (which reappears in the Old and New testaments and is implicit in the older life-ways and practices of indigenous communities) is the absolute value of human life– a value regularly denied by hierarchical and exploitative forms of social organization from the Phaoronic Egypt to out own day.
The book in question here is a commentary on Marx’s relatively little known (outside circles of Marx scholarship) manuscripts of 1861-1963. These were written after The Grundrisse (where Marx began to work out the arguments that became Capital) and are, in Dussel’s apt interpretation, a laboratory in which Marx further develops and tests his concepts against the theories of leading bourgeois political economists. They are the source of a set of books often published under the title Theories of Surplus Value, as well as the material from which Engels assembled Capital Volume Three. They are also a wealth of methodological and philosophical comments, and it is here that their main interest lies for Dussel, the philosopher of liberation.
Dussel defends the thesis that these manuscripts help to prove that the fundamental category of Marx’s critique of political economy is the ‘exteriority’ of living labour. He means that for Marx living labour, the real human beings who make up the economy, are not ever just personifications or functions of its motive forces. Capitalism subsumes these living, hoping, loving, and struggling people and tries to reduce them to nothing more than exploited objects, but it can never fully succeed. The foundation of Marx’s critique of capitalism is these living beings– their needs, their deprivations, their talents, their goals, their struggles. He contends that understanding the meaning of the exteriority of workers
with respect to the ‘totality’ of capital is the conditio sine qua non for the total comprehension of Marx’s discourse. From this moment on, I shall refer on many occasions to the ‘living labour’; it will become the obligatory realm of all his argument and the radical place, beyond the ‘bourgeois perspective’. Not to understand the absolute position (the only real absolute in the totality of Marx’s thought and the ethical rule of all of his ethical judgments) living labour, of the actuality of the labourer’s corporeality, or in other words, the person or subjectivity of the labourer, will lead bourgeois economics (and its philosophies as ‘philosophies of domination’) to fall into necessary hermeneutical mistakes. The truth of Marx’s analysis rests on and departs from the ‘real reality ( wirkliche Wirklichkeit )’ of the Other different from capital; the living labour as actuality, as creator of value or source of all human wealth in general, not only capitalist.”(p.8).
This is a bold thesis. I think that it is correct (and textually well-substantiated by Dussel). At the same time, it leads him to insist upon a unified meaning of Marx’s work that perhaps covers over some methodological tensions that must be understood if certain problems in the subsequent development of Marxism are to full explained.
Before discussing the tensions let us first pause to appreciate the deep philosophical insight into Marx’s work that Dussel achieved. His fundamental claim had been touched upon in different ways in all the humanist readings of Marx that emerged in the wake of the discovery of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, and especially that of Marcuse’s early understanding of those manuscripts significance. In fact, he notes the contribution of Marcuse. (p.xxxii ) Towards an Unknown Marx is unique in that he articulates the argument that human life and its fundamental needs constitute the ethical core of Marxism with his previous work in liberation theology. He thus broadens the perspective of liberation beyond the interests of the working class to connect with the interests of the exploited peasants and indigenous peoples of the world. He thus achieves a wider universality than is typical in Marxist literature because, from his perspective, peasants and indigenous people are not extras added on to an essentially working class movement, but form one body with workers of exploited and need-deprived humanity– victims of capitalism who all have the same interest in transforming it.
If the world still needs proof that Marx never abandoned his early ethical arguments and the key idea of alienation, Dussell provides it. Consider this quotation that Dussel mines from the manuscripts: “The objective conditions of living labour appear as separate values , become independent as against living labour capacity as subjective being ( Dasein ) [ … ] What is reproduced and newly produced is not only the being ( Dasein ) of these objective conditions of living labour but their being as alien ( Fremdes Dasein ) to the worker, as independent values, i.e. values belonging to an alien subject, confronting this living labour capacity.”(p.177) Althusser’s “epistemological break” does not exist: Marx’s work is an ethical critique of capitalism from beginning to end.
Exteriority is the through-line that establishes the continuity beneath such fundamental concepts as alienation and exploitation. “Marx performs the critique of all possible
political–economic science starting from ‘living labour’ (as the most simple
category; as the most abstract and real principle), and the critique of capital
itself as effective reality (the ‘development of its concept’ from Marx’s point of
view, not only by the mediation of other texts, but starting from his own
research, also from ‘living labour’). Critique of the established, prevailing political
economy, is destructive. Development and construction of his own discourse
… is affirmative. In both moments, ‘living labour’ is the generating starting point.”(191) In sum, Marx, in Dussel’s view, always begins from and returns to the ways in which capitalism damages the life-interests of real human beings. Socialism is not about releasing the growth of the forces of production from the “fetters” of capitalist relations of production, it is about liberating people from the violence and poverty of life under capitalism.
For Dussel, this point is not only central to Marx’s politics, it is central to his materialism, which he calls “productive” rather than cosmological. Marx’s materialism is not an abstract metaphysics based on the principle that only that which is physically measurable and quantifiable is real. “The person–nature relation is neither the first, concretely speaking, nor is it, according to Marx, the most important one. The person, always the person, is the critical starting point, as the condition of all objectified labour, of allmaterialized institution, of anything which is an effect of this labour (as capital
itself and in totality).”(193) On the contrary, it begins from the primacy of social relations between human beings and not the abstract relationship between human beings and nature. “The essence of capital has a practical, moral (non-ethical) standing. The
‘person–nature’ relation is productive; the ‘person–person’ relationship is
practical, moral (as the prevailing system) or ethical (as the other who ‘interpellates’
(appeals) from exteriority). For Marx there is no doubt, against
naive materialism, the ethical relationship determines and concretely constitutes
the productive relation.”(202) While Dussel is right to argue that for Marx the ethical foundation of socialism lies in the value of the social bonds upon which the development of human life-capacities depends, there is more ambiguity here than Dussel allows for.
That ambiguity is best studied in The German Ideology, in which Marx maintains both a) that all life presupposes on-going connection with external nature, and b) that external nature ceases to exist at a certain point in the development of human productive power and intelligence. He chastises Feuerbach for arguing as if nature were something in itself apart from human labour. He would be right, if “nature” meant only those manifest forms of energy and matter that we can transform to suit our purposes. The landscape, flora and fauna, even now the genetic codes of some organisms are not purely “natural” i.e., not free of alternations born of human intentions and actions. But the forces of nature themselves- the strong and weak nuclear force, electromagnetism, the naturally occurring elements, the entire universe beyond the solar system (with the exception of the trajectory of Voyager and the electromagnetic radiation emanating from earth) are completely untouched by human labour and surely part of nature.
This point is not philosophical pedantry: a proper estimation of human power, dignity, and creativity must begin with a proper understanding of our original and enduring dependence on the natural world. Dussel does not deny our dependence, but I think he underestimates its ontological and ethical significance. Its ethical significance is central to the values of the indigenous peoples of the world from which he in other places learn so much. The value of nature is not only instrumental; respect for the earth as home and life-host sets the tone for all other relationships. If we think the earth is nothing but matter for us to use, we will extend that principle to our treatment of people. The history of colonialism suggests that there is much truth to this argument.
Dussel’s interpretation of Marx could also be criticized on the grounds that it overestimates the unity of Marx’s theoretical position. As we have seen, Dussel sees the exteriority of living labour as the throughline that unifies the whole of Marx’s work into an ethical critique of capitalism. “Marx can measure ethically , or from human labour, the totality of categories and the capitalist economic reality, and, therefore, can make an ethical critique of it (if by ‘ethical’ is understood, correctly, the critique of the dominant and established structure of capitalism).”(p. 109) Others, starting with Gramsci and continuing into the present with the work of Michael Lebowitz, accept that Marx is an ethical critic of capitalism, but argue that this criticism fades out in Capital. Capital is called “a critique of political economy,” but that which makes Marx a critic does not appear here (or only rarely): living working people struggling within capitalism to make their lives as good as can be. Instead we have endogenous laws of production working themselves out using people- who appear only as personifications of capital, as Marx himself says– as playthings.
Let us take the example of wages, a key touchstone of Lebowitz’s argument. In Beyond Capital, Lebowitz argues that what is missing from Capital’s understanding of wage rates is the organized fightback of workers to raise real wages. These struggles have been central to the determination of wages in capitalism, but Marx says nothing about them. That he is silent here gives the impression that Marx thinks that wages are simply functions of the dynamics of capital and cannot be affected by organized struggle. Of course, that is not the whole story, but it is the whole story in Capital. Hence the need for, in Lebowtiz’s view, the unwritten “Political Economy of the Working Class.” Dussel looks at the same issue and sees the outlines for a work on wages (the political economy of the working class) but fails to appreciate, as Lebowiutz does, the implications of its not having been written. “Hence, wages are the price of the value of labour capacity, strictly speaking, and consequently and improperly , the ‘price of labour’ (in truth, living labour cannot have a price, because it has no value). If we add to the foregoing other related moments (surplus value, variable capital, surplus labour and necessary time) (pp. 78ff.), we already have the fundamentals for a Marxist theory of wages, which here – as in Capital – was never developed as a separate part, but was studied (as rent, credit, etc.) as was required to clarify the ‘ concept of capital’ in general, in abstract, in its essence.” (p.172) My point is that Dussel is not wrong to argue that Marx’s work is a unified totality of ethical critique, but perhaps fails to appreciate the methodological tension that exists between this critique and the abstract analyses of Capital. Those abstractions needed to be made in order to understand how capitalism functions, but their purpose is understanding, not critique, and they have been used to construct what Lebowtiz criticizes as a technocratic and productivist understanding of socialism in which the key values of human need-satisfaction and self-emancipation play no role. Dussel’s aim is to rescue Marx’s criticisms from these inhuman conceptions of socialism, but his purposes would perhaps be better served if he noted the tensions that Lebowitz notes rather than subsume it in a grander unity.
Nothing in these criticism takes away from the ethical grandeur of the work (and the larger project of building an ethics of liberation within which it should studied and evaluated). Living labour’, or more generally, living human beings, and their absolute claim to continue to live and live well that their existence as self-conscious subjects exerts is the universal, transhistorical foundation of all ethical principles. Towards an Unknown Marx thus re-situates Marx not as the last word of emancipatory theory, but as a moment of a longer and broader struggle. “Latin American Philosophy of Liberation has a lot to learn from Marx. Marx’s ‘science’ was the ‘Liberation Philosophy’ of living labour alienated incapital as wage labour in Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. Today, the ‘Philosophy of Liberation’ must also be articulated with the science of the alienated living labour of classes, peripheral, under-developed
peoples, of the so-called Third World struggling in national and popular processes
of transformation against central and peripheral globalized capitalism,
at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”(204) The main fault line of that struggle today, Dussel makes clear here, is the Global South, where the majority of the most deeply violated human beings live. Here, he argues, Marxist class analysis must be combined with national liberation struggle against the structural dependency of countries in the Global South on the imperialist countries of the Global North.
His commentary ends with ideas to develop Marx’s categories into a new theory of dependency that comprehends super-exploitation of the labour in the Global South contemporary global market conditions and the political fault lines of domination. “That is, dependency exists at an abstract, essential, or fundamental level, and it is the international social relation between bourgeoisies possessing total national capitals of different degrees of development. In the framework of competition, the less developed
total national capital finds itself socially dominated (a relation between persons),
and, in the final analysis, transfers surplus value (an essential formal moment) to
the more developed capital, which realizes it as extraordinary profit.”(225) Capitalism is thus, in its very essence, according to Dussle, a system of domination which is incompatible with the fundamental conditions of universal life-support and development.
Dussel’s work is rich and complex, technical and difficult to understand at first. It can profitably be read in connection with and contrast to John McMurtry’s life-value onto-axiology, and my more modest efforts to read Marx through the frame of life-value. No understanding of political philosophy, and, more importantly, no comprehensive criticism of capitalism, is possible without addressing the core themes of Dussel’s work.