The opposition of an early and a late Marx may seem to be a topic of little contemporary moment. Notably, the current round of interest in Marx, in contrast to previous ones, is focused on his later economics to the exclusion of the earlier work. The association of his early writings with philosophy always attenuated its appeal for the more empirically oriented, while these days its reputation for humanism, teleology, and Eurocentrism can diminish it for the more theoretical. In any event, contentions over the intellectual continuity of purpose across various differently demarcated phases of his work took place in a political context in which this was still a matter of some doctrinal significance. The perceived stakes of the philosophical, alternatively methodological, periodization of Marx’s career largely faded away with the end of Western Marxism as a distinct, heterodox historical formation of the workers’ movement.

However, it may be that the sense of familiarity attending this older ideological context may now give way to breakthroughs in reconstruction, raising the problem of the distinction of an early from a late period in a wholly new way. There is, in fact, a previously unidentified unity in the two main periods of Marx’s intellectual career, as well as a break between them that has remained concealed under a haze of long-familiar words and names. The emphasis of the present article, which is a two-part installment of a longer work, falls on the unity of the ‘Early Marx’. What follows here, specifically, is an account of the socio-juridical and economic assumptions underlying Marx’s first articulation of historical materialism.footnote1 These underpin a conception of the state, the nature of classes and the trajectory of their struggle that differs fundamentally from that in his later theorization. The intellectual-historical challenge is to explain and not just describe the unifying pattern of the development of Marx’s thought across a decade from 1842 to 1852. I treat his texts from those years as a single conceptual bloc. Although this involves registering shifts of position in alignment to a succession of primary influences—from Bruno Bauer to Ludwig Feuerbach, from Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say to Ricardo and beyond—the emphasis is on the continuity of a single problematic, requiring departure from a conventional chronological sequence. Although the content of Marx’s theorizations cannot be reduced to the formal conceptual pattern of his inversions, the latter structured Marx’s critique of the imaginary self-determination of society through the form of the state, his first critique of the purported laws of political economy as a mystification of the brutal anarchy of competition, and the ingenious synthesis of these two critiques articulated in his conception of a pattern of historical development leading to communism. The pattern of the trajectory over this decade brings to light the significance of the rupture of 1848–52, when his first unified account of the origins, pattern of development and revolutionary abolition of state and civil society broke down in the aftermath of defeat. 1848 is often understood as a caesura in European history, but its significance as a turning point in Marx’s development has not been grasped. I hope to demonstrate that new perspectives on both an early and a later Marx begin to emerge from a periodization based not so much on an epistemic break as on the experience of an epochal political defeat, which cleared the way for the conceptualization of a subsequent structural transformation.

The subject matter of all of Marx’s writings from 1842 to 1852 is the socio-juridical figure of modern ‘civil’ or ‘bourgeois’ society conceived as a transitional phase in the passage from the old regime to the condition of human emancipation, while the later economic writings set forth the previously unarticulated concept of a capitalist mode of production, whose logic of development would unfold over an epoch of indeterminate duration. Marx, up until his later theorization of the capitalist mode of production, tended to conceive of bourgeois society as the dissolution phase of the old regime, and not as a self-standing form of society with a long history of development before it. The difference between ‘bourgeois society’ and ‘the capitalist mode of production’ does not just concern the adequate periodization and comprehension of Marx’s corpus, but lies at the heart of a number of enigmas surrounding the origins, pattern of development, and ultimate limits of the forms of society that emerged from the breakdown of the European old regime, of modernity and its aftermaths. A standard translation from the German has contributed to obscuring this distinction for the English reader. The term bürgerliche Gesellschaft is translated as both ‘civil society’ and ‘bourgeois society’ in English editions of Marx. The translators of the Collected Works explain the principle of variation:

The term ‘bürgerliche Gesellschaft’ (‘civil society’) is used in two distinct ways by Marx and Engels: 1) to denote the economic system of society irrespective of the historical stage of development, the sum total of material relations which determine the political institutions and ideological forms, and 2) to denote the material relations of bourgeois society (or that society as a whole), of capitalism. The term has therefore been translated according to its concrete content and the given context either as ‘civil society’ (in the first case) or as ‘bourgeois society’ (in the second).footnote2

The problem with this decision is that it obscures the entanglement of the socio-economic with the juridical character of a civil society founded on the institution of private property. In English, the opposition of state to ‘civil society’ clearly evokes the opposition of public and private, an essentially legal distinction, in a way that the opposition of state to ‘bourgeois society’ does not. While it is clear that the term ‘civil society’ is probably referring to something different from the subject of Marx’s later economics, this is not true of ‘bourgeois society’. The translation obscures the identity of civil society and bourgeois society, and establishes an illusory identity between the latter and ‘the capitalist mode of production’.footnote3 This is no mere oversight, for it expresses the nearly universally accepted assumption that the conception of capital and its law of accumulation as understood in the Communist Manifesto was not fundamentally different from the one identified in his later economics. The differences are assumed to involve shifts of terminology amidst a mass of small conceptual changes, but with no fundamental change of socio-historical register.

Marx’s use of the term ‘bürgerliche Gesellschaft’ across the entirety of his writings until Capital speaks to the persistence of the socio-juridical category problems posed by the novel dualism of state and civil society set forth in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. His critique of the latter began by setting aright Hegel’s mistaken conception of the order of determination between these two spheres so as to make apparent the historical meaning and future course of contemporary constitutional and class struggles. As is widely known, he soon came to the conclusion that the fate of bourgeois society could only be identified through the comprehension and critique of political economy. The problems that define the different periods of Marx’s work have less to do with the opposition of idealism and materialism than with sharply distinct conceptions of what was entailed by that critique.

In the period under consideration, Marx conceived of this critique as bringing out and thinking through what was already implicit in the dismal science, not as offering any positive alternative account of his own. In this endeavour, he could rely on a view then prevailing that modern European society was undergoing a process of commercialization, unfolding according to a quasi-Malthusian zero-sum logic and culminating in an eventual stationary state.footnote4 Although he rejected this scenario of the end of accumulation, it was no leap of faith for him to conclude that continuing accumulation must inexorably lead to an ever greater inequality of wealth between capital and labour, mass immiseration and civil wars.footnote5 Continental European civil society was a juridical order of private property as well as a commercial proto-manufacturing economy, but one that had not yet entered onto the path of capitalist development that had opened up in England. The early Marx, like Hegel before him, understood English economic development in terms of Adam Smith’s conception of commercialization, but modified by Ricardo’s more pessimistic quasi-Malthusian premises, which ruled out any rise in real wages. He therefore tended, as Hegel had, to conflate the conditions of the emergence of French civil society out of absolute monarchy with the parallel development of English capitalism.