The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx, by the Belgian economist Ernest Mandel, forms part of a long-standing controversy over the importance of Marx’s youthful works for the later trajectory of his thought. footnote1 The present phase of this polemic was inaugurated in the early 1960s. Economists, philosophers and political leaders, Marxist as well as non-Marxist, from various European countries and to a lesser extent from the United States, have participated in the debate. Its basic frame of reference has essentially been provided by two early works of Marx: the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, first published in 1932, which constitute the results of Marx’s first study of political economy, begun in the autumn of 1843; and The German Ideology, written in collaboration with Engels in 1845 and also first published in its entirety in 1932, whose aim was ‘to work out together the contrast between our view and the idealism of the German philosophy, in fact to settle our accounts with our former philosophical consciousness’. footnote2 The latter work, together with the Theses on Feuerbach (1845), marks a period of decisive change in the formation of Marx’s thought. It is precisely the meaning of this change which constitutes the central battleground of contemporary debate. Two further works are crucial for the varying positions adopted in the ongoing controversy. The Poverty of Philosophy, written in 1847 against Proudhon, and deemed by Marx to be the text in which ‘the leading points of our theory were first presented scientifically, though in a polemical form’, footnote3 presented a theoretical perspective which would not undergo any fundamental modifications thereafter. Ten years later, the Outlines of the Critique of Politital Economy—the Grundrisse—written by Marx between 1857 and 1858 and published by the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow in 1939, was to form the preparatory work for Capital. The Grundrisse is for some authors today the decisive proof that Marx never abandoned the concept of alienation which appears in his youthful writings. footnote4

Mandel takes these works of Marx as the starting point for an interpretative analysis which, however, ranges well beyond them and offers evaluations of almost the whole of Marx’s output. Making his theoretical points in an extremely thorough and well-documented fashion, Mandel undertakes the following tasks in his book. 1) He provides an analysis of the intellectual trajectory of Marx and Engels during their youth (allowing for certain individual characteristics specific to each). For Mandel this trajectory took a curve which he describes in the following formula: ‘from criticism of religion to criticism of philosophy; from criticism of philosophy to criticism of the state; from criticism of the state to criticism of society—that is, from criticism of politics to criticism of political economy, which led to criticism of private property.’ footnote5 2) He discusses the criteria used by Marx in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and The German Ideology to define the basis of communism. 3) He studies the development of the central concepts of Marx’s economic theory, with the aim of clarifying his relationship to the various classical economists. This study spans several chapters of the book. 4) He examines Marx’s purpose in making a ‘first critical analysis in general terms of the capitalist mode of production’ between 1846 and 1848; the relevant chapter here includes a well-aimed methodological critique of the American functionalist sociologist Talcot Parsons. 5) He takes up the traditional controversy over ‘The Problem of Periodic Crises’ and makes a substantial contribution to two more recent themes of international polemic, in chapters on ‘The Grundrisse, or the Dialectics of Labour Time and Free Time’ and ‘The Asiatic Mode of Production and the Historical Preconditions for the Rise of Capital’. 6) Finally, he recapitulates the central ideas of the whole book in a fundamental section, entitled ‘From the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts to the Grundrisse: from an Anthropological to a Historical Conception of Alienation’. Here Mandel states his position in the now famous dispute over the concept of alienation. A concluding chapter, flowing logically from the whole preceding argument, deals with the contemporary theme: ‘Progressive Disalienation Through the Building of a Socialist Society, or Inevitable Alienation in Industrial Society?’

What is the relationship between Marx’s youthful writings and his later work? Was it one of ‘continuous’ theoretical evolution, allowing us to speak of a permanent identity in the conceptions of the young and the old Marx? Or was this evolution interrupted by theoretical achievements which enable us to differentiate sharply between successive stages? If the latter is the case, what are these theoretical achievements and what is the relationship between them and Marx’s consciousness of them?

Two fundamentally contrasting positions have emerged in answer to these questions. The first holds that there is no basic distinction between the young Marx and the mature Marx: either because concepts from the former are explicitly present in the latter, as with the repeated use of the term alienation in Capital; or because these concepts are considered to be implicit in the later works, whether underlying the whole argument or transfigured in new theses, for example that of the fetishism of commodities. This interpretation presents Marx as a single unity. Its starting point is the explicit or implicit continuity in Marx’s thought. The concepts which serve as the axis of this continuity are alienation, alienated labour, alienated man. footnote6 Marx’s later work, above all Capital, is seen through the prism of the concept of alienated labour. footnote7

Mandel establishes the following distinction within this first camp. There are ‘those who try to deny that there is any difference between the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and Capital, finding the essentials of the theses of Capital already present in the Manuscripts’, and those who ‘consider that compared to the Marx of Capital, the Marx of the Manuscripts sets out in a more “total” and “integral” way the problem of alienated labour, especially by giving an ethical, anthropological, and even philosophical dimension to the idea; these people either contrast the two Marxes or else “re-evaluate” Capital in the light of the Manuscripts.’ footnote8

The second camp holds that between the Marx of the Manuscripts and the author of Capital there are substantial differences. They ‘consider that the conceptions of the young Marx of the Manuscripts on alienated labour not only contradict the economic analysis of Capital, but were an obstacle that made it difficult for the young Marx to accept the labour theory of value. For the extreme representatives of this school, the concept of alienation is a ‘pre-Marxist’ concept which Marx had to overcome before he could arrive at a scientific analysis of capitalist economy.’ footnote9 The starting point of this interpretation is a discontinuity in Marx’s thought. The fundamental change in it is marked by a rejection of the concept of alienated labour.

What is Mandel’s position on this problem and how does it differ from those outlined above? Strictly speaking he does not fall into either of these camps. Yet he is by no means a by-stander. He acknowledges basic discontinuity in Marx’s thought, but not an abandonment of the concept of alienation. For Mandel, there is a ‘Marxist theory of alienation which is both a coherent development of the conception contained in the German Ideology, and a dialectical transcendance of the contradictions contained in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.’ footnote10 From this point of view, the Manuscripts represent a ‘transitional text’ in which ‘the anthropological conception’ of alienation ‘survives here and there, though it already marks a considerable advance on Hegel’s conception’. footnote11 Thus Mandel argues that the concept of alienated labour undergoes a qualitative modification, in the course of a fundamental transition from anthropological to historical thought in Marx.