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Marx: On Labor, Praxis and Instrumental Reason

Author(s): David M. Rasmussen

Source: Studies in Soviet Thought, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Oct., 1979), pp. 271-289
Published by: Springer
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Accessed: 18-09-2016 00:02 UTC

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The issue regarding the relationship between labor and praxis in Marx's
thought pertains to whether or not Marx inadvertently presented an instru
mental definition of labor and, as a consequence, a questionable concept of
praxis in his reflections on the nature of modern society.1 If Marx presented
such a definition, it would follow that he is the true author of bureaucratic
socialism, the latter being little other than the socialist alternative to Western
and non-Western forms of capitalist domination. This is not a simple problem
since it involves not only a consideration of Marx's thought but also a concise
reconstruction of the repository of socio-political thought of the modern
period, beginning with Hobbes and including Hegel.
At the outset one must note that the modern formulation of the notion of
labor was not given by Marx or even by Hegel: rather it finds its original
statement in Hobbes. C. B. Macpherson, in his illuminating study of Hobbes,
argues against prevailing interpretations, most notably that of Leo Strauss,
that Hobbes presents a political theory of modern society essentially con
sistent with the rubrics and categories of a possessive market society. Funda
mental to this argument is the claim that Hobbes deduces moral obligation
from what he presumes to be fact, i.e., the givenness of a possessive market
society. Macpherson claims, and I agree, that in so doing Hobbes had taken a
radically new position.

While it may be said that, from Plato on, rights and obligations had always been infered
from men's capacities and wants, the inference had always been indirect: from men's
capacities and wants to some supposed purposes of nature or the will of God, and thence
to human obligations and rights .... Purpose or Will, brought in from outside the
observed universe, was hypostatized as an outside force constantly imposing itself (by
way of reason or revelation, or both) on men ....
Hobbes reversed the assumption. Instead of finding rights and obligations only in
some outside force, he assumed that they were entailed in the need of each human
mechanism to maintain its motion. And since each human mechanism, to do so, must
assess its own requirements, there could be no question of imposing a system of values
from the outside.2

Of course, it is well known that Hobbes found the origin of human motivation

Studies in Soviet Thought 20 (1979) 271-289. 0039-3797/79/0203-0271 $01.90.

Copyright ? 1979 by D. Reidel Publishing Co., Dordrecht, Holland, and Boston, U.S.A.

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in that mysterious realm of power and death to which he attributed the term
'state of nature'. There Hobbes conceived every individual to be endowed with
equal power leading to the consequence that if all were similarly possessed
each acquisitive individual's power would conflict with the power of every
other acquisitive individual with the tragic result that the state of nature
would end in a war of all against all. According to Macpherson's analysis of
Hobbes, this general assumption of equality could only have its origin in the
model of a possessive market society which presumes one fundamental reality,
namely, labor is alienable. Beyond that, as distinguished from other models
of society, labor in a possessive market society has been separated from land
and capital so that while some may join labor to land and capital and there
fore engage in productive labor, others have nothing to materialize but their
own labor. In a possessive market society labor is the key concept. However,
labor is also ambiguous, not simply because of the distinction between pro
ductive and ordinary labor, but because of the consequences ofthat concept
of labor for human interaction. Labor as the right of acquisition, when un
mediated by law, results in total acquisition. Total individual acquisition
results in total conflict. Hence, the concept of free labor leads to the concept
of control and to contract ; ultimately it leads in Hobbes' view to the necessity
for the sovereign.
The general assumptions of a market society rationality do not necessarily,
or at least in the context of their immediate appearance, define labor as
instrumental. The right to labor and to acquire regardless of social condition
appears to be the basic condition of human equality. All human beings can
fulfill their wants, needs and desires on the basis of their ability to indulge in
their own labor and alienate the product thereof. Only under conditions of
contract does labor become instrumental, i.e., subject to the conditions of a
market rationality which are paradoxical. An individual who is conceived
totally in terms of her/his own self-interest must submit to conditions and
obligations that are totally beyond that self-interest and, hence, be subject
to conditions of external domination. In that context labor is conceived
Generally, it is Locke rather than Hobbes to whom credit is given for the
development of the theory of labor in modern society, namely, the labor
theory of value. Locke makes explicit the theory implicit in Hobbes by
reformulating Hobbes' notion of a possessive market society in a form more
palatable to the English 'possessive class'. As Macpherson states: "Before the

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end of the century, the men of property had come to terms with the more
ambiguous and more agreeable doctrine of Locke".3 Locke's labor theory of
value states quite simply that labor when joined to an object makes that
object one's own possession. Hence, the right to possession of a thing is
exclusively that of the one whose labor was joined to it. Consequently, the
labor theory of value is also a theory of property. In principle, property is
created by labor under the rubrics and categories of the theory of possessive
individualism. Thus it would seem that each person has the unlimited right to
the acquisition of as much property as can be acquired in the state of nature.
However, in the state of nature Locke restricts acquisition to need. Under
those conditions one would acquire simply as much as necessity demands.
This restriction would also hold for society if it were not, in Locke's view,
for the introduction of money. Money overcomes the initial restriction on the
accumulation of property allowing, in turn, for the unequal accumulation and
distribution of wealth. The equality which exists in the so-called natural state
of mankind becomes in the social state, under conditions of contract and the
market, a condition for inequality. (According to Locke, the reason why
money overcomes the intial restriction on accumulation is because money
does not perish while the products of agricultural production do.) The trans
formation of labor and land into money and capital allows for unequal
accumulation for some and the existence of wage-labor for others. Hence,
Locke's doctrine initially based on natural right and natural law presuming
conditions of freedom and equality becomes the justification for inequality
? and a market society based on wage labor. Macpherson concludes:

In short, Locke has done what he has set out to do. Starting from the traditional as
sumption that the earth and its fruits had originally been given to mankind for their
common use, he has turned the tables on all who derived from this assumption theories
which were restrictive of capitalist appropriation. He has erased the moral disability with
which unlimited capitalist appropriation had been handicapped. Had he done no more
than this, his achievement would have been a considerable one. But he does even more.
He also justifies, as natural, a class differential in rights and in rationality, and by doing
so provides a positive moral basis for capitalist society.4

From this brief analysis of Hobbes and Locke one may conclude that they
both derive their political theories, in principle, from the characteristics of a
modern market society. Also their theories represent the basic contradictions
of that society. The theory is divided between a claim for universal equality
based on natural right and a concept of labor and property which denies for a

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large segment of the society that which it is supposed to provide. Labor,

which emerges in their theories as the generating principle of freedom, finds
its consummation in compulsion, the very antithesis of freedom. In this sense
the heritage of modern socio-political theory is that of an instrumental theory
of labor. Of course, the derivation of principles from the characteristics of a
market society was not without consequences. It would mean that the tradi
tional concepts of justice which were based on some principle intrinsic to the
human species itself would be relegated to a market determination. At this
point the heritage of political thought from Plato on was truly abandoned.
If Hobbes and Locke provided the foundation for the modern theory of
labor, it was Hegel who perceived the enormous significance that the market
society, civil society, had for modern experience not only as that which gave
shape to that experience but also as the source of its conflicts. He attempted
to account for the development of the market society on the one hand while
on the other he attempted to overcome the limitations of that model by
superimposing upon it a theory of the state. Although the Hegel of the Phe
nomenology emphasized the centrality of labor, the strategy of the Philosophy
of Right was to accept, not uncritically, the basic categories of rationality
characteristic of a possessive market society. Hence, the categories chosen
under the heading, 'Abstract Right', are all associated with the general theory
first articulated by Hobbes and reformulated by Locke without the super
imposition of the dubious doctrine of human origins associated with the 'state
of nature'. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the categories 'posses
sion', 'alienation of property' and 'contract' form the original categories of the
work. The uniqueness of Hegel's strategy, however, is to superimpose upon the
foundation of abstract right 'morality' and 'ethical life', categories that might
have escaped the undiscerning student of the ethical dilemma of modern
society. Actually, he wished to repossess for modern society the notion of
'ethical life' central to his interpretation of Greek thought and society.
Hegel's Philosophy of Right reserves its discussion of labor for consideration
under 'civil society'; however, the basis for that discussion is already esta
blished in the original discourse on 'possession', 'property' and the 'alienation
of property'. Hegel repeats the fundamental characteristics of the natural
right doctrine at the beginning of his Philosophy of Right:

A person has as his substantive end the right of putting his will into any and every thing
and thereby making it his, because it has no such end in itself and derives its destiny and

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soul from his will. This is the absolute right of appropriation which man has over all

When this right is externalized it has the character of possession of property,

or private property, which under certain conditions, the primary condition
being the infringement against the alienation of personality otherwise known
as slavery, can be alienated. The condition whereby alienation can be mediated
is the condition of contract. Contract does nothing other than repeat the
initial formulations of the contractarians who preceded Hegel.

The sphere of contract is made up of this mediation whereby I hold property not merely
by means of a thing and my subjective will, but by means of another person's will as well
and so hold it in virtue of my participation in a common will.6

Although Hegel repeats the basic notions of the contractarians, his criticism
of them is reserved for his doctrine of the state which contains his critique of
a possessive market society.

If the state is confused with civil society, and if its specific end is laid down as the security
and protection of property and personal freedom, then the interest of the individuals as
such becomes the ultimate end of their association, and it follows that membership in
the state is something optional.7

Hegel, at this point, clearly has in mind the assumption that the state must
function as something beyond the purely acquisitive orientation which
characterizes the self-interested individualistic aim of a possessive market
society. Whether or not this transition from the interests of civil society to
the interests of the state resolves adequately the conflicts of modern civil
society is a question open to considerable debate. This much is clear, the
form of state into which civil society emerged, with its notion of individual
representation in the monarchy, was a form whose historical time had passed
almost immediately after Hegel's death, if not before. (Perhaps even Hegel
knew this, as some interpretations of the final paragraphs of the preface to
the Philosophy of Right would seem to suggest.) Equally, the argument that
the contractarian interests of civil society were transformed into the rational
(rational in the Hegelian sense) interests of the state would be difficult to
sustain in light of the actual developments of the modern state.


In the following discussion I wish to trace the formula which Marx initially

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settled upon for his analysis of labor beginning in the 1843 period, a formula
which extended through his mature work. My initial concern will be to dis
cover the extent to which this formulation correlates with the instrumental
definition of labor initially presented by Hobbes and reduplicated by Marx's
predecessors in the modern political tradition. One may assume that Marx's
initial formulation takes its point of departure from the modern instrumental
definition, particularly as it is reformulated by political economy. However,
the precise manner in which this reformulation occurs requires some specifi
cation. The interpretation and the reformulation of Marx's theory of labor is
not without its particular problems, especially when it is viewed, as it should
be, in the context of the modern tradition of political and social philosophy.
For example, if it is the case that the modern tradition settled upon an
instrumental definition of labor, a tradition in which Hegel is both the
exception and the rule, a departure from that tradition will be fraught with
difficulties. The most obvious temptation would be to interpret the initial
construction of Marx's theory of labor as a reversion to classical thought.
Here, of course, it is not labor per se that is the issue, for according to classical
thought labor was relegated to an association with the economy of the house
hold, disassociated from practical wisdom and its development in the Polis.
However, the attempt to generate norms for a non-instrumental theory of
labor on the part of Marx could be interpreted as an attempt to construct a
theory along classical lines. Specifically, the issue is this: if one chooses to
depart from the modern instrumental definition of labor, and if this definition
is correlative with the actuality of modern political and economic life, whence
is a positive theory to be derived? When Marx constructs his positive theory
with its associated notions of species-being, a teleological good, the proper
relationship of species to object, the concept of social categories and the
notion of a particular form of a good society, it could be argued that this is
no more, nor no less to be sure, than the extension of the Hegelian program
of integrating the Greek notion of ethical life into the context of the modern
framework of human economic and political activity. Certainly, this inter
pretation has merit. However, it is not without fundamental problems. If
this general interpretation were followed, Marx would emerge as the idealist
whereas Hobbes would be the true materialist in the modern political tradition.
Parenthetically, the arguments for the rejection of Greek categories were
already well-established in the modern political tradition. One need only cite,
among the numerous examples, both the fifteenth chapter of Machiavelli's

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The Prince, where the prince is advised to do that which is not good and the
eleventh chapter of Hobbes' Leviathan where Hobbes dispenses with the
notion of a teleological end in the political arena. Hence, Marx will find
himself, in his attempt to construct a non-materialist theory of labor, steer
ing between the veritable Scylla of reconstruction along classical lines and
Charybdis of falling into the errors of the modern poUtical tradition. If he
chooses the first alternative there will be no historical ground for the theory,
while if he follows the second he may fall into precisely those errors of his
immediate predecessors.
Marx's theory of labor begins with what is perhaps his very first attempt to
analyze concepts in political economy at the outset of 1844. There, in his
'Comments on James Mill, ?l?ments d'?conomie politique', he begins to
formulate a theory which he will retain, with modification, throughout his
entire career.8 In dialectical fashion labor is defined as a relation between
labor and its object. His criticism of political economy at this early point is
that it inadvertently has chosen to define the relationship between labor and
its object negatively, a definition which will lead to his construction of an
originary negative, or critical, component of the theory. There, under the
rubric 'labor to earn a living', Marx assumes that when labor is separated from
the need of the work, i.e., when it has no direct relationship to the worker, it
may be characterized in essentially negative categories. Under the negative
relationship of labor to its object, the activity of labor, Marx assumes, is
determined by needs which are alien to the laborer. These needs, in turn,
appear to be the purpose of labor. Marx presumes that this false relationship
of labor to its object manifests itself as a 'social power' which reduces human
needs to 'egoistic needs' that estrange human beings from their own true
Without venturing into the problems regarding the true nature of human
beings, the manifestation of social power and the problem of egoistic needs ?
problems Marx will have to attend to in a more rigorous fashion later ? Marx
does, in this early manuscript, provide a description of the context in which
this negative theory of labor occurs, namely, under the modern system of
private property. Under the system of private property, labor is related to a
'specific kind of object' which places the owner of one object in relation to
another object. The relation that occurs from the juxtaposition of owners
of property is one that requires 'reciprocity in alienation'. As a consequence
of this analysis Marx can make his famous deduction, namely, that under

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political economy the originary point of departure is not labor but alienated
labor. Significantly, Marx has taken the notion of alienation from contrac
tarian theory as a term designating the transfer of property. However, with
the help of Hegel, he gave that term something other than the contractarians
had intended. From that point on in Marx's thought, alienation would always
mean something negative about the human condition.
Later, in 1844,9 Marx makes the initial negative component of his theory
much more elaborate. There he will argue that the subjective essence of private
property is labor while its objective essence is capital. Private property
produces the antithesis between labor and capital. Also, private property
produces within itself the juxtaposition of property and propertylessness.
Marx concludes that under the system of private property the relationship
between labor and its object is falsified in such a manner that the activity of
labor is distorted by the social system of private property which, under social
conditions of necessity, forces labor into a relationship to its object which it
neither freely chooses nor freely creates. Hence, one can conclude that labor,
when placed under conditions of force, must express itself in a form that
alienates itself from its proper object.
The concept of labor in relationship to its improper object requires, as its
complement, the concept of labor in relationship to its proper object. A
positive theory must follow the negative one just established. Having chosen
originally to take a critical stance, Marx must now show how the object is
appropriately constituted. His solution was to locate the realm for the consti
tution of the object of labor in the context of the primary relationship be
tween nature and human beings, a realm in which the object is created through
the practical activity of laboring upon nature. Marx assumes that human
beings can be said to be species-beings because in their producing activity
they are able to make the species their object. Therefore, the standard esta
blished for human production is in fact a human standard and any departure
from that standard is equally a diminishing of human potentiality. In this
process of laboring on inorganic nature, nature assumes the appearance and
actuality of a human artifact. In labor upon its object, nature, human beings
duplicate themselves leading to the result that, according to Marx, labor is the
"objectification of man's species life". Epistemologically, it follows that not
only is authentic self-knowledge produced in the course of human interaction
but also restrictions on this process, in the form of external constraint, result
in the limited self-development of the species. The generation of objects

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of knowledge, independently of social systems of constraint, provides the

possibility for the development of human freedom.
The evolution of Marx's theory of labor follows this seemingly reverse
schema: having developed his concept of alienated labor first, it was sub
sequently necessary to provide an analysis of that from which labor was
alienated. The presentation of the relationship between labor and its proper
object makes it possible to claim that alienated labor is a derived and not an
originary concept of labor. Hence, political economy which merely assumes
the necessity of private property can be said to have a false, secondary
However, Marx's original analysis can be said to have been developed at
some risk. Why is it the case that the proper relationship between labor and
its object results in the objectification of the species? Later, in the text on
Hegel in the 1844 Manuscripts,10 Marx will again have occasion to reflect on
the relationship between human beings and nature. In the text he argues that
human beings are natural beings in two senses: first, human beings have certain
forces or powers which can be called tendencies and abilities existing as
instincts, and, second, the human being is a limited, deficient, or suffering
being whose objects exist outside her/himself. The human being is a combina
tion of instinct and need. Consequently, to be human is to require a nature
existing outside the self. The text provides interesting analogies. Hunger
requires for its fulfillment a nature existing outside itself. As the sun is the
object for the plant, the plant, at the same time, is the object for the sun.
Therefore, to be objective is to have one's need fulfilled by the nature of
another. From this analysis Marx derives a double proposition: positively, a
being which does not have an object outside itself is not an 'objective being',
while negatively, a being which is not an object for another being is not a
This double-edged proposition enables one to understand, somewhat
better, the often misconstrued and occasionally vague concept of species
being. To be a species being is to be one who has an object outside oneself, an
external object which is necessary for the fulfillment ofthat being. Hence, on
the basis of the theory of need and instinct, one can assume that the process
of becoming human requires for its completion another human being. One
could generalize this proposition in the following manner: inasmuch as the
labor of the species constitutes the object of the species, species interaction is
the condition for the possibility for the emergence of an object. Negatively,

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without species interaction there could be no generation of an object and,

consequently, no emergence of a being which could be described as human.
As I have developed the positive and negative poles of Marx's position on
labor, it would appear that his primary concern in this early development of
his theory of labor revolves around one fundamental question, namely, how
are objects generated? This could appear to be a purely logical question, a
restatement of the general schema of Hegel's logic. If this were the case,
would it not be subject to the same criticism he made against Hegel, i. e., that
history is a mere mask for the development of logical categories? Marx, of
course, struggles with this problem in the 1844 text particularly through his
attempt to address Hegel by way of a twofold criticism. The first criticism
focuses essentially upon Hegel's construction of thought entities in his Pheno
menology of Mind. Marx contends that, for Hegel, the history of alienation is
a purely cognitive process which results in absolute knowledge through the
alienation of cognitive objects and their retrieval. The result is merely the
opposition of in-itself and for-itself, of consciousness and self-consciousness,
of cognitive subjects and objects. As such, alienation is not only a cognitive
process, its overcoming is merely an act of appropriation for cognition. Marx
concludes that although Hegel's analysis appears to be critical, it has latent
within it an undisclosed uncritical positivism. The criticism is intended both
for the Phenomenology and for the later work. Marx intends by this criticism
that the cognitive dissolution of an object of reflection results ultimately in
its restoration. Actually, in the empirical world nothing really changes. The
consequence of this position, and here Marx develops his second criticism, is
that the institutional forms which are created by human beings appear as
mere thought entities which dissolve in absolute knowledge.
In opposition to Hegel, Marx's view is that the condition for the possibility
of the generation of the object of labor is not reflection perse, rather nature.
Nature is both the condition of sensuous need and the condition of objectifi
cation. The appropriation of sensuous nature, in Marx's view, makes it possible
to overcome the limitations of Hegel, and, at the same time, provides a theory
of history. In general, the positive element in Marx's theory of labor, in con
junction with the theory of the generation of the object, leads to the necessity
for an historical praxis. Through the fulfillment of human need history must
be made ? a history in which the artifacts of the species are created.
In 1846 the early theory of labor reached its full expression. By this time
the formula had taken on a more systematic form. The formula, labor in

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relationship to its object, is replaced by the more general category, 'produc

tion'. Production is perceived as the premise of all history, in the sense that
human beings must be, at the outset of their existence, in a position to satisfy
basic needs, sexual needs and the new needs that are generated through the
interactions of the species. The combination of this interaction of need and
fulfillment under the rubric of labor creates the combination of natural and
social forms of interaction leading to the result that a certain fulfillment of
human need is correlative with a certain modality of social interaction, the
latter also being a productive force. From this Marx is able to make his famous
conclusion, i.e., the history of humanity can be disclosed and studied through
this interaction.


I have deliberately refrained from an extensive discussion of Marx's concept

of praxis in the prior discussion because of the difficulties associated with
the concept. Indeed, praxis is often a confusing term in the early Marx,
not only because of its possible misinterpretation, but also because Marx
seldom attempted to give it a systematic formulation. Further complications
are added by the very usage of the term 'praxis', because in its original form,
in Aristotle's thought, praxis is distinguished from production. Marx, as we
saw a moment ago in the formulation of 1846, sought to link the concept of
labor with production. If production is conceived instrumentally, then Marx
inadvertently falls into the formulation of the theory of labor that he had
sought to critique. Aristotle's distinction may or may not be important in this
discussion; however, it is worthy of note that by distinguishing theoretical
from practical wisdom and production Aristotle was able to secure the realm
of politics and political action from an instrumental theory. If production
were conceived under the rubrics of scientific theoretical control, Marx may
be guilty of subsuming the concept of labor under a theoretical formulation
which would make praxis, in his view, nothing other than a purely scientific
concept. With this in mind I turn again to the concept of labor in the early
Marx does incorporate a notion of praxis in his reflections as early as the
Fall of 1843 when, in the Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of
Right, Introduction, he joins the notion of practice with the notion of a
German revolution which will not only bring Germany to the level of the

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other modern nations, but will also go beyond them to a new 'level of hu
manity'. In this concept of praxis we have a notion of revolutionary practical
activity which can account for the future, but which defies, at the same time,
any systematic formulation. The program for that concept of praxis is first
presented in somewhat less schematic fashion (than the one proposed in the
Introduction) in Marx's first proposal for a new Communist society in the
discussion of 'Private Property and Communism' in the 1844 Manuscripts.
Later, that same proposal will appear in a more elaborate fashion in The
German Ideology. In order to discover the theoretical foundation for the
concept of praxis in the early manuscripts, however, it is necessary to consider
again Marx's early formulation regarding labor.
As had been suggested, if it is possible to get to the core of Marx's early
philosophical development in the 1843?46 period, it revolves around a single
question: not how is revolution possible, not merely what is criticism, rather
the question is simply this: how are objects generated? As we have seen, this
question is central to every moment in the development of the theory of
labor. In its original negative formulation in the Comments on James Mill,
Marx's theory of labor requires no concept of praxis since it relies upon no
real systematic formulation, with the possible exception that there is an
undisclosed assumption regarding the association between labor and its proper
object. Under conditions of alienation, the object of labor is generated by an
economic system which functions in such a manner that the society of human
laboring activity, though produced by that activity, is independent of the
creative exercise of the generation and the bringing to completion of that
object. Both the generation of objects and their subsequent completion is left
to the activity of an economic system which functions totally independently
of labor. Here, no practical activity is involved. One could generalize this
negative side of the theory to suggest that labor is disassociated from its
object, i.e., labor instrumentally defined, is labor devoid of praxis, labor
separated from human practical activity. At the same time, however, it must
be admitted that this does not define either labor or praxis.
When Marx decided to define labor systematically, however, it can be
argued that the concept of praxis is necessary for its adequate explication. In
the critical text on Hegel in the Paris Manuscripts, Marx attempts, for the first
time, systematically to formulate a concept of labor which requires, for its
completion, a notion of praxis. Inadvertently, he does so in such a manner
that the Greek distinction between labor and praxis is abolished but, in

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contrast to modern social and political thought, in such a manner that labor is
freed from its original instrumental defintion. The definition of a human
being as a being whose nature exists outside itself, as a being whose need
constitutes the objects of its desire, requires for its completion (simultaneously
for the creation and the consummation of the object) an act of labor which
can, at the same time, be said to be an activity of praxis. Both the constitu
tion and the consummation of the object can be said to be an activity of
praxis because the fulfillment of need must occur independent of force.
Hence, in contrast to Hegel, the example of the human being in relationship
to the object is not cognition, but rather hunger and sexuality, because need
is defined both physically and instinctually. The association of labor with
praxis requires for its fulfillment a situation of freedom.
By so conceiving labor in relationship to praxis, Marx is able to free him
self from a purely logical definition of the generation of the object on the one
hand and, he is able to develop both historical and social categories for the
constitution of objects on the other. Objects cannot be logically generated
because the object of labor, conjoined with praxis, is not a purely cognitive
object; rather it is the consequence of physical and instinctual properties.
Equally, according to the theory of instinctual need, social interaction is
necessary for the origination of the objects of human activity. Inasmuch as
the object is robbed of its Hegelian cognitive dependence, history will replace
logic as the sphere for its practical development. One can conclude that Marx
does provide a systematic basis for the concept of praxis which, in conjunc
tion with labor, is required for the generation of objects. Negatively, when
labor is robbed of its association with praxis, it becomes instrumental.
One may surmise that prior to 1845 Marx had two concepts of praxis. The
first concept associates praxis with revolution. As a concept it is essentially
unsystematic, programmatic and suggestive, designating a sphere for future
human activity as revolutionary activity. The second concept, in conjunction
with labor and the constitution of the object, is systematic and foundational.
In 1845 the two concepts unite in the Theses on Feuerbach. There the
concept of praxis dominates, being mentioned in all but four of the eleven
theses. The first thesis is the most central to our discussion because it unites
the notion of praxis both with the constitution of the object and with revolu
tionary activity. When Marx suggests that

the chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that

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the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of con
templation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectivity,11

he combines the notion of praxis with that of the constitution of the object.
In accord with the text on Hegel, the object or thing is not an object of
contemplation, it is rather an object which owes its being to praxis. This
systematic notion can be combined with the revolutionary notion of praxis
because, if human activity is itself a form of praxis, historical human activity
can be revolutionary activity, activity which can abolish prior objects in accord
with human need. In a later thesis Marx states: "The coincidence of the
changing of circumstances and of human activity or self changing can be con
ceived and rationally understood as revolutionary practice".12
We can now turn to the concept of production, the category which , in
1846, is used to account for labor in relationship to the object in conjunction
with the concept of praxis. There production is said to be the basis of human
activity because human beings always find themselves in a situation where
they must fulfill or satisfy basic human needs on an instinctual or sexual and
physical level. In accord with this theory, the study of human production is
also the study of praxis, i.e., human history. From this Marx assumes that the
fulfillment of need, originally dictated by nature, is also basic to sociality and
social organization, leading to the so-called non-ideological interpretation and
study of history. From these basic assumptions it seems to follow that as
Marx collapses the distinction between labor and praxis, he also collapses
the Greek distinction between production and praxis. However, as praxis,
according to Greek thought, could not be conceived in relationship to labor
because labor was confined to the realm of necessity ? essentially slavery in
the economy of the household - so production has changed its meaning in
the modern tradition not only in conjunction with the modern development
of the concept of labor but also in association with the eighteenth and nine
teenth century developments within aesthetics. Production, in the context of
Marx's early development, has a double meaning. Since the history of the
phenomenon of production is linked to the forms of domination and instru
mental control associated with the various modalities of human production,
it may appear that production is an instrumental form. Yet this is to confuse
Marx's analysis with his theory. As we have seen, the category itself is con
structed on the basis of the early theory of labor in conjunction with its
object, the generation of objects and the theory of praxis. One concludes that

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it is only when production is devoid of its moment of praxis that it can be

conceived instrumentally. Whether or not Marx had Aristotle in mind when
he collapsed the distinctions between praxis, labor and production is, of
course, unknown. However, it is much more probable that he had in mind the
discussions of aesthetics of the German enlightenment in Kant, Fichte, Schiller
and Hegel in which artistic production was the primary example of free
activity. The model for production is not at all an instrumental model; rather
it is more likely the one described in the 1844 Manuscripts which concludes
in a discourse, the subject of which is estranged labor, on the distinction
between animals and human beings in relationship to the productive activity
of the species.

An animal forms objects only in accordance with the standard and the need of the species
to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard
of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object.
Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty.13


I have argued that Marx's theory of labor, when studied in the context of its
genesis from 1843 to 1846, is, in principle, the contrary of an instrumental
theory. Instead, the critical component of the theory functions as the very
opposite, as a critique of instrumental theory, while the positive component
of the theory conceives the conjoining of labor with its object in the context
of a free and on-going historical and social praxis. To me it is not surprising
that this originary position, outlined above, finds its reformulation in Marx's
mature work. Contrary to abandoning this position, one may argue that Capi
tal is inconceivable without the development of this early position. Certainly,
the original discussion in Part III of Capital has the familiar connotation of
the early manuscripts, even though it is placed in the more elaborate context
of a mature and complex analysis of capitalism. When Marx decides to con
sider the "labor process independently of the particular form it assumes
under given social conditions",14 it is not surprising that he should return to
a theme first developed in the 1844 Manuscripts, namely, the relationship
between nature and natural beings. This interaction is conceived here as in the
earlier context as the arena in which labor, or the labor process, will and does
take place. Human beings oppose themselves "to nature as one of her own
forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, ... in order to

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appropriate Nature's productions in a form adapted to (their) own wants".15

Here, as in the earlier texts, the activity of labor is juxtaposed to an instru
mental reading. In an example reminiscent of the one cited a moment ago
from the early manuscripts, Marx states:

We presuppose labor in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts

operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect
in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best
of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in
reality. At the end of every labor-process, we get a result that already existed in the
imagination of the laborer at its commencement,16

One can conclude that the labor process, in its originary form as Marx con
ceives it, is the free interaction between human beings and nature correlative
with his original theory of need and fulfillment. Nature exists as the precon
dition for human fulfillment.
If it is the case that Marx retains in Capital the basic theory of labor in
relationship to nature reminiscent of the early manuscripts, it is also the case
that he retains the same preoccupation with the generation of the object in
relationship to labor. Marx's strategy in Capital is to conceive labor, or the
labor process, as a process consisting of three basic components; labor, its
objects and instruments. So conceived, labor can be separated from the system
of which it is a part. The precondition for this assumption is that labor,
considered independently from any particular social system, manifests itself
as a universal producer of use-value.

The labor process, resolved as above into its simply elementary factors, is human action
with a view to the production of use-values, appropriation of natural substances to
human requirements; it is the necessary condition for effecting exchange of matter
between man and nature, it is the everlasting nature imposed condition of human exist
ence, and therefore is independent of every social phase of that existence, or rather is
common to every such phase.17

Here we encounter a dilemma similar to the one encountered in the early

manuscripts, i.e., the general inability of a negative theory to provide an
adequate foundation for the scope of the critique. The negative analysis
requires for its foundation a positive theoretical structure capable of sustain
ing both the force and direction of a critical orientation. In Capital it is
through the analysis of labor as use-value that the object of labor is generated.
Interspersed between labor and its object is the instrument of labor, i.e., tools,
one's body or the machine. Initially, it could appear that the machine, or the

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tool is the basis for mediation between the subject, labor, and its object.
From this appearance the instrumental reading of Marx draws the conclusion
that Marx has constructed a non-reflexive theory of mediation which is, in
essence, mechanical. But this is true if and only if the mediation of the object
is conceived independently of the constitution of the object. If one extra
polates from the positive theory of labor, i.e., the theory of constitution of
the object as use-value, the object of labor is, indeed, mediated by the tool,
the body or the machine, but the precondition for that mediation is, in terms
of labor as use-value, the constitution of that object by the activity of labor.
It follows, even when the commodity is the subject of analysis, that the
constitution of the object will occur in the context of a theory of need and

So far as it is value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it
from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or
from the point that those properties are the product of human labor. It is clear as noon
day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by nature,
in such a way as to make them useful to him.18

Marx, quite frankly presumes that there is nothing mysterious about the
creation and generation of use-values. The notion of use-value is the result of
his attempt to overcome both the limitations of idealism with its notion of
the constituting subject and materialism with its notion of the pregivenness of
the natural object. Consciousness does not merely reflect the objects given
by nature, i.e., as in a copy theory of knowledge, neither does it simply or
formally account for the conditions of possibility of the world of possible
objects. Labor creates use-value as a social subject whose possibilities are
limited by nature as it is historically mediated. Hence, the interchange between
human beings and nature in the process of the creation of use-values provides
the possibility for the constitution of the objects of experience.
The theory of labor as it is developed in Capital is quite clearly a non
instrumental theory. In the production of use-value the precondition for the
generation of the object is given through the interaction between nature and
human beings. The means for that interaction are given through the instru
ments of labor, one's body, the tool or the machine. The object as generated
through the activity of labor as subject is use-value. Use-value as object is the
product of a creative act, a certain act of labor as a social subject characterized
by an intentional orientation. The comparison between the bee and the

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architect is apt. The architect must construct his or her object in imagination
before it can exist in reality.
However, as in the early manuscripts, that is not the whole story. In modern
industrial society labor as the producer of use-value can be transformed under
the historical development of social systems of interaction, for other purposes.
At this point one must move from the quasi-ontological analysis of labor to
the question of the development of social systems of labor. In Marx's view,
although production for purposes of use-value is that which is common to all
social systems, the transformation of use-value into something other than use
value provides the occasion for an historically specific issue. Precisely here the
question of an instrumental theory of labor emerges again. The transformation
of use-value into exchange value is the historical occasion for the emergence
of an instrumental concept of labor. After all, according to Marx, it is the
concept of exchange, rather than production, which dominates the conceptual
orientation of political economy.

Political economy has indeed analysed, however incompletely, value and its magnitude,
and discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question
why labor is represented by the value of its products and labor time by the magnitude of
that value. These formulae, which bear stamped upon them in unmistakable letters, that
they belong to a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery over
man, instead of being controlled by him, such formulae appear to the bourgeois intellect
to be as much a self-evident necessity imposed by nature as productive labor itself.19

The instrumental theory of labor is then derived from the bourgeois concept
of production, i.e., the quantitative transformation of the labor process as
object. One may characterize the rationality of political economy as an instru
ment rationality because it functions for purposes of social control. But that
instrumental rationality can be perceived only when juxtaposed to a non
instrumental theory of labor, labor for the production of use-value.
We can surmise that the strategy of Capital, not unlike that of the early
manuscripts, is to develop a foundational theory of labor which provides the
justification for a critical analysis of labor. The former is a concept of the
labor process which conceives the mediation between the laboring subject
and the object of labor praxiologically. The latter, the critique, confronts a
concept of labor separated from historical praxis, a concept of labor in which
praxis has been replaced by instrumental control. But alas, the interpreter
arrives to late on the scene. 'The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with
the failing of the dusk.'

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In the labor process, therefore, man's activity, with the help of the instruments of labor,
effects an alteration designed from the commencement, in the material worked upon.
The process disappears in the product; the latter is a use-value. Nature is material adapted
by a change of form to the wants of man. Labor has incorporated itself with its (object):
the former is materialized, the latter is transformed. That which in the laborer appeared
as movement, now appears in the product as a fixed quality without motion.20

Here is the curious dilemma which Marx sought to overcome. If one begins
the analysis of labor from the perspective of the already completed object,
one must accept the set of social assumptions that account for that object,
namely, that it is merely an object for exchange, ultimately for the extraction
of surplus-value. Marx's particular genius was to have sought the meaning of
the object not as product but as process, in its genetic and not merely in its
objectified form. Indeed, this was a distinctly philosophical preoccupation.

Boston College


By instrumental reason I mean the kind of rationality that has social control as its end
and aim. The problem has been raised by J?rgen Habermas and others.
2 Macpherson, C. B., The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford Univer
sity Press, New York, 1962), p. 177.
3 Ibid., p. 106.
4 Ibid., p. 221.
5 Hegel, G. W. F. The Philosophy of Right (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1942), p. 41.
6 Ibid., p. 51.
7 Ibid., p. 156.
8 Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3 (International Publishers,
New York, 1975), pp. 211-228.
9 Ibid., pp. 231-246.
10 Ibid., pp. 326-346.
11 Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology (Lawrence and Wishart,
London, 1970), p. 121.
12 Ibid., p. 122.
13 Op. cit., p. 277.
14 Marx, Karl, Capital, Vol. 1, (Random House, New York, 1906), p. 197.
15 Ibid., pp. 19-98.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid., p. 205.
18 Ibid., p. 83.
19 Ibid., pp. 92-93.
20 Ibid., p. 201.

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