The aim of this article is to explore the relationship between two apparently contradictory elements in Marx’s thought; namely, his belief that proletarian revolutionary consciousness will develop in a relatively straightforward way under capitalism, and his argument, in his later economic writings, that the fetishised nature of capitalist social relations gives rise to forms of ideological mystification which significantly conceal the basic features of the capitalist mode of production. The first part of this article will be devoted to establishing that the former thesis was, in fact, Marx’s position in those works written prior to his mature economic writings, and the second part will examine Marx’s position after that time. It will be argued that, rather than revising his earlier views, Marx incorporated his later arguments into his previous perspectives concerning the relative ease with which proletarian revolutionary consciousness would develop, and that there is an essential consistency between his later and earlier views. As a consequence, Marx gravely underestimated the seriousness of the widespread support for reformism that was already becoming evident towards the end of his life; he therefore failed to deal at all adequately with what remains the most serious problem facing revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist countries.footnote

These problems are ones that have been seriously neglected in writings on Marx. Some commentators, it is true, have drawn attention to Marx’s failure to develop an adequate critique of reformism but the real reasons for this fact have never been properly examined.footnote1 Discussions of Marx’s theory of fetishism have failed to situate that theory within his wider political and theoretical perspective, and have tended falsely to depict it as a basic explanation of the dominance of bourgeois ideology under capitalism. They have failed to realise that, while Marx’s theory of the mystification arising from the fetishised nature of capitalist social relations is essential for an understanding of his critique of political economy, he saw it as having only very limited implications for proletarian consciousness in either its reformist or revolutionary forms.footnote2

Underlying the failure to come to grips with this problem has been, in turn, a failure to understand that Marx’s thought was constrained and restricted by political perspectives which he developed at a relatively early stage in his life, and never subsequently questioned. This article will outline the chronological development of Marx’s views, for, as will be seen, it is only in this way that the origins, nature and limitations of his thought can be adequately understood. The first part will trace Marx’s views from the early works through to the theoretical writings of 1845–7 and conclude with a discussion of the political writings of the late 1840’s and 1850’s. The second part will deal with his mature economic writings and with his political writings of the 1860’s and 1870’s.

The problems of mystification and of the development of revolutionary consciousness were ones that concerned Marx from a relatively early stage in his work. As early as 1842 he argued that religion, and other forms of mystified consciousness, arose from a distorted reality and could only be abolished by changing that reality.footnote3 In On The Jewish Question, he extended Feuerbach’s critique of religion to the political sphere, representing the state as a false and inadequate realization of the human essence. Underlying the ‘heavenly’ political sphere was an ‘earthly’ existence in civil society where man ‘acts as a private individual, regards other men as a means, degrades himself into a means and becomes the plaything of alien powers’.footnote4 Such a situation could only be overcome by humanity collectively reappropriating its own powers as social forces. These arguments already pose the problem of how humanity could become conscious of the need to change reality given the mystified forms of consciousness to which its alienation gives rise.

Marx’s answer first appears in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law. Introduction. The key lay in the German proletariat, which he argues, is alienated in fact rather than in thought. Because of Germany’s relative historical backwardness, the German bourgeoisie had missed its chance of carrying out a political revolution in which it could appear as the general representative of society as a whole. Rather, the proletariat was already beginning to struggle against it.footnote5 What remained possible was not a partial and mystifying political emancipation but a full social emancipation carried out by the proletariat.footnote6 The implication is that, given such conditions, the proletariat’s consciousness of its historical task is a direct product of its alienation. Marx contends that the proletariat is the only class capable of bringing about such a general emancipation because it is the most wronged class in German society; the ‘universal’ nature of its suffering entails a total ‘antithesis to the premises of the German state’.footnote7

On the other hand in works such as the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts Marx does depict man’s alienation as giving rise to mystified forms of consciousness such as bourgeois political economy. For his main criticism of bourgeois economic theory is that it ‘defines the estranged form of social intercourse as the essential and original form corresponding to man’s nature.’footnote8 Because of this, political economy fails fully to comprehend the nature of categories such as private property, trade, competition, capital and money, which can only be understood in terms of the estranged labour underlying them.footnote9 Most importantly, in the light of Marx’s later theories, he argues that this also explains why political economy has an inadequate conception of value, which can only be properly understood by analysing the estranged nature of the exchange relationship.footnote10

However, Marx does not develop any further these arguments concerning the mystifying forms of consciousness that alienation can produce. Given his implicit argument that alienation will itself give rise to a revolutionary consciousness, Marx places his emphasis on the ways in which the workers’ conditions increasingly deteriorate. As he wrote in the section on ‘Estranged Labour’ in the Manuscripts: ‘The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size . . .’.footnote11 In Marx’s view these worsening conditions can be proved ‘on the basis of political economy itself.’footnote12