There have been a few recent calls for a return to Marx, or openness to the thought that he “got it right.” To be sure, Marx got a lot — a lot — right, but simply peering into his writing desk — as if setting things right for all time were possible — won’t provide the theories or conclusions we need. This is not because our time is in any way post-capitalist, but because Marx’s convictions did not spring ready-made from the absolute validity of his mind. In other words, we need to do a bit more than open our mouths and wait for the roast pigeons of Marx’s knowledge to fly in. Marx refined and improved his positions throughout his life, so we would do well to track the intellectual and social conditions Marx critically participated in and emerged from. Here I want to suggest that a surprising number of the social problems the young Marx had to confront in the 1840s are strikingly familiar to us today, among them: reactionary political leadership stripping what had been a thin veneer of liberalism, scarce and precarious academic opportunities, state silencing of dissent, ideological and theoretical confusion among those who pretend to offer critical theories, a hyper-charged but politically empty atheism, and a general lack of careful, detailed social analysis in the midst of growing social unrest. In tracking Marx’s radicalization in the midst of these issues, we not only gain a window onto his own development, but gain insights into the promise of our own contemporary social environment.

In the space of a few short years in the early 1840s, Marx transitioned from writing a dissertation on ancient philosophy — in an attempt to secure a teaching position at the University of Bonn with his friend and mentor Bruno Bauer — to writing intentionally incendiary polemics against Bauer as well as the Prussian establishment responsible for revoking the latter’s teaching license. Marx’s transition began when he was immersed in local conditions, as a contributing editor at minor, left-leaning (but certainly non-radical) newspapers. With a burgeoning political consciousness — romantic and idealist, but not yet revolutionary or communist — and the unfulfillable dreams of an academic-in-waiting, Marx looked to make a name for himself among the publicly engaged intellectual leaders he respected.

On one extreme there was Bauer, a staunch supporter of Marx’s for years (Bauer once wrote to Marx demanding that he finish his dissertation since doing so was merely a formality towards credentialing such an obviously talented student). Bauer was a member of the close-knit “young Hegelians” who dominated Marx’s intellectual scene. As readers of Hegel committed to further developing his system with cultural and political critique, they pointed to the ways liberal commitments were far from being actualized. Bauer in particular advanced republican ideals by criticizing theology, showing how it promoted existing conservative arrangements.

On the other extreme was Ludwig Feuerbach. Although Bauer had wanted to collaborate with Marx and Feuerbach on a journal, Bauer and Feuerbach diverged in a few important ways and this distance likely prevented the journal project from coming to fruition. Feuerbach’s criticism of theology rested on a different strategy from Bauer’s. While initially drawn to the Young Hegelian approach, Feuerbach later found that the focus on consciousness and ideas was itself fundamentally “theological” because, like theology proper, the Young Hegelian approach was idealistically removed from the sensuous essence of humanity. For Marx, Feuerbach’s critique was a positive step, but Feuerbach was content with attacking both young Hegelianism and state power with his theoretical humanism, which itself was just another abstract idea. While pointing to a better foundation for thinking the humane essence, Feuerbach’s critique was indirect, academic, and its critical force was anemic. Whereas Bauer’s critique was explicitly political, Feuerbach intentionally avoided any provocation of the censors with his philosophical critique of “legitimate” institutions.

We are thus presented with two academics, one whose politics conflicted so overtly with official power that his polemics forfeited his career, and the other for whom consistently straightforward polemics were out of the question. In the context of scarce academic opportunities and a state that policed speech, Marx’s alternatives seemed to be state silencing or self-censorship. The young Marx, however, was constitutively incapable of abiding by either form of academic quietism. We know that Marx was likely incapable of the restraint Feuerbach showed, given his violent reaction to what Feuerbach called “prudence and moderation.” In an 1842 critique of Prussian state censorship, Marx wrote:

Truth is as little modest as it is light, and towards whom should it be so? Towards itself?… If modesty is the characteristic feature of the investigation, then it is a sign that truth is feared rather than falsehood…The law permits me to write, only I must write in a style that is not mine![1]

At this stage, Marx didn’t think Feuerbach’s critique was wrong, so much as he thought it could be weaponized in a more powerful manner. Oppressive conditions demanded opposition in a far more determinate, material register, and Marx saw quite clearly that Feuerbach’s restrained, coded position was a recipe for neutering any political power his writing itself might otherwise have. At this early stage, Marx was still a thinker and writer concerned with the force of ideas, as opposed to material praxis, precisely because he thought ideas uniquely forceful: “We are firmly convinced,” he wrote in October of 1842,

[T]hat the real danger lies not in practical attempts, but in the theoretical elaboration of communist ideas, for practical attempts, even mass attempts, can be answered by cannon as soon as they become dangerous, whereas ideas, which have conquered our intellect and taken possession of our minds, ideas to which reason has fettered our conscience, are chains from which one cannot free oneself without a broken heart; they are demons which human beings can vanquish only by submitting to them.[2]

While no less idealist than Feuerbach, Marx’s commitments were already more forceful in two ways: first, beyond mere principle, there were the rudiments of a psychology by which ideas could prove motivating; and second, Marx clearly appreciated the need to confront state violence.

With academic work out of the picture, state power held little self-censoring pull for Marx. Prior to Bauer’s firing, in a February 1842 letter to Arnold Ruge, Marx’s co-editor of the Deutsch-Französiche Jahrbücher, Marx had insisted on anonymity, signing only “By a Rhinelander,” and asking that Ruge “not … mention my name to anyone.”[3] In a March letter of the same year, Marx informed Ruge of Bauer’s dismissal, opening with “I… think it would be better to include my name among the others,” while in another letter, fifteen days later, Marx even insists that a certain “fanaticism” in tone is necessary.[4] Marx’s increasingly radical critique is tied to the way his social-political environment conditioned the possibilities of his own work. Marx sought to fashion his own prose as a humanist weapon against powers that restrained his freedom, and in precisely this way, Marx’s earliest Feuerbachianism is already beyond Feuerbach’s basic problematic.

In 1843 Marx wanted to distance himself from a group — “the Free” — who construed freedom in a dilettante and merely ideal manner. He insisted that analysis pay “more definiteness, more attention to the actual state of affairs, more expert knowledge.”[5] In another letter, again to Ruge, Marx developed a similar critique of Feuerbach, holding that he “refers too much to nature and too little to politics. That, however, is the only alliance by which present-day philosophy can become truth.”[6] The standards for philosophical truth were, for Marx, deeply tied to “the actual state of affairs,” which, because it is neither transparently revealed in everyday experience nor grasped immediately via philosophy, itself requires “more expert knowledge.” Philosophical truth is neither independent of politics nor merely the rhetorically-charged criticism of existing political conditions. Rather, in a modified Hegelianism: the critique and its object must coincide. Hegel’s dictum, that the real is rational and the rational is real, becomes, in Marx’s hands, the truth lying at the conjuncture of a critically-charged philosophy and informed intervention into the actual state of affairs. Marx’s critique of Feuerbach is that philosophical criticism that is not rooted in such a conjuncture is not only barren, but false. Marx’s critique of “the Free” was that social realities required careful empirical investigation rather than armchair sociology or critical phrase-mongering. A philosophical or rhetorical approach that left existing conditions unchanged couldn’t even be considered true. And the actualization of philosophical truth was impossible in Prussia because of social and political conditions, including the conservative re-centering of religion and the censor’s suppression of dissent.

Philosophical work had to find an explicit ground in, or alliance with, interventions into the actual state of affairs if it was to accomplish its truth. Although many are familiar with Marx’s famous 11th Thesis on Feuerbach from 1845 — that the point of philosophy is not merely to interpret the world, but to change it — these letters to Ruge, at least two years earlier, show Marx’s commitment to an even more radical idea. Marx’s innovative development from 1842 to 1843 was to insist that the truth of philosophy required substantive interventions into the institutions and practices that regulated philosophy’s relations to its environment.

By late 1843, Marx had articulated a critique of both the philosophy practiced by his peers and mentors, and the actual state of the world. Marx found a way to weld together Feuerbach’s philosophical humanism and Bauer’s political relevance. Feuerbach’s formal, writerly, and political quietism could not straightforwardly be alloyed with Bauer’s boldness, and Bauer’s abstraction could not be mediated with Feuerbach’s insistence on this-worldliness. To overcome the problematic elements of each, a new grounding was required. Marx’s earliest attempt at this, in March of 1842, is romantic and imprecise:

Writers with this earthly position – for, after all, a position on ploughland is surely earthly – would be desirable, and even more so if in the future the plough were to think and write instead of the pen, while the pen, on the other hand, were to perform serf labour in return. Perhaps, in view of the present uniformity of the German governments, this will come to pass, but the more uniform the governments, the more multiform nowadays are the philosophers, and it is to be hoped that the multiform army will conquer the uniform one.[7]

By August, a robust change is apparent in Marx’s approach:

In any case we arouse the resentment of many, indeed the majority, of the free-thinking practical people who have undertaken the laborious task of winning freedom step by step, within the constitutional framework, while we, from our comfortable armchair of abstractions, show them their contradictions. True, the author of the Juste-Milieu article invites criticism; but 1) we all know how governments respond to such challenges; 2) it is not enough for someone to express readiness to hear criticism, for which in any case his permission will not be asked; the question is whether he has selected the appropriate arena. Newspapers only begin to be the appropriate arena for such questions when these have become questions of the real state, practical questions.[8]

The early emphasis on the “earthly” held promise but was ultimately mystifying. This later emphasis on the ground, on varyingly fertile arenas and conditions — not yet economic ones, but the concrete possibilities for practical questions and political resistance — would prompt Marx’s break with Bauer. While his polemics were indeed politically charged, Bauer attacked abstract entities like religious consciousness, spirit, or the German people, and sought to enthrone universal self-consciousness rather than investigate the specific conditions of alienation. Marx replaced these abstractions with practical questions of the state and an insistence on locating individuals and their possibilities of consciousness within social organization.

Bauer’s unmoored abstraction risked detracting from careful investigation of the actual state of affairs. Marx increasingly came to think of Bauer as engaged not so much in good philosophy or politics, but in post-Hegelian shadow-boxing. Marx’s subsequent work with Engels on their German Ideology made this charge in the vituperative, biting tone that would come to characterize all of Marx’s polemics against those who — in myriad ways — failed to take into account the existing state of affairs and its underlying social dynamics. Analysis and critique had to remain in the present juncture, determine its contradictory dynamics, confront them unshrinkingly, and use the resulting tensions to motivate the actualization of new truths.

By recognizing how Marx situated himself between his two mentors, borrowing and rejecting parts of each in turn so as to deal with his academic unemployment and the insufficiency of Hegelianism in the face of a repressive society, we are better able to appreciate the intellectual cul-de-sacs Marx broke through in his subsequent intellectual developments.

Two of these developments should be highlighted. The first was Marx’s keen and growing interest in responding to the historical determinants of social reality. The second was his growing commitment to empirical social analysis. Following Marx’s critique of Feuerbach, there is no sensuous and needy human, but there are sensuous and needy individuals — beings whose specific conditions and lived experience condition the activity, potency, consciousness, and needs of their humanity, and thus their possibilities for contributing to or challenging a state of affairs. Marx consistently sought to trace these conditions in the midst of their unfolding. His goal was to gain expert knowledge of the landscape in which activity challenging the logic of this unfolding could be developed. Feuerbach’s philosophical approach could be described as operating a-historically in the air of political ideology, whereas Marx went a step further and made philosophy gain its truth by developing accounts of what moves social conditions. Making this move committed Marx to developing both meta-sociological and normative commitments. He turned to the latter in his famous 1844 Manuscripts, and would subsequently fill in these frames with the sociological work which would become the focus of so much of the rest of his life.

But what made these crucial developments possible after the August 1842 centering of practical questions? The best way to mark these shifts is to follow the conditions underlying Marx’s changing position on “communism.” Whereas in October of 1842, Marx responded to the “red-baiting” of his Rheinische Zeitung by insisting that the reality of communism was to be found, if at all, as a platonic idea,[9] a month later he demanded that this idea of communism be handled with full and straightforward discussion.[10]

When the life of a state-supported intellectual seemed possible, Marx was highly idealist. In the following year, when an academic life was impossible, Marx rejected any possible communism insofar as its idealism lacked a practical basis,[11] and in short order he began his own development of just this practical basis.[12] Once Marx related philosophical goals to concretely analyzing historically determined possibilities for resisting oppressive social systems, the stage was set for his movement from idealism, to abstract materialism, and ultimately to revolutionary communism.

The earliest result of this increasingly radical commitment was Marx and Ruge’s short-lived (because repressed), Deutsch-Französiche Jahrbücher. The brief life of this journal marked a series of radical turns which would further refine Marx’s political commitments. Indeed, a review of the Jahrbücher in the Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung held: “The criticism to which the new Paris journal resorts knows no mercy, in its polemics it disregards all aesthetic standards, and its satirical tone, though it does not stab like a dagger, punches like a huge fist.”[13] The draft program of the Jahrbücher explicitly listed public institutions, the political regime, and the servility of most critics as its special objects of critique. After the Jahrbücher was silenced, Marx had little patience for even active critics who thought of themselves as realizing the truth of philosophy abstractly or theoretically, and instead moved to a broad study of economics so as to reveal the contours of social organization in its actual development.

Marx’s radicalization stemmed from personal conditions familiar to those experienced by many today: academic unemployment or self-censorship, abstract atheism, state repression, the loss of liberal hopes, the rise of political reaction, and the unproductive dead-ends of ungrounded and non-confrontational critical theories. This radicalization also occurred in the midst of growing social unrest, the emergence of new forms of labor and labor resistance, and a growing contradiction between purported political ideals and bankrupt political institutions. With the courage to soberly confront the actual conditions of his life, the early 1840s marked Marx’s rapid development toward the ruthless criticism of existing conditions. In doing so, Marx insisted that the critical theory of his day shy away neither from its theoretical results, nor from conflict with the powers implicated in its conclusions. The truth of philosophy could only be gained by concretely grounding analysis in existing social conditions so as first to identify, and then, crucially, to organize effective responses to the structures and logics of oppression. In the process of developing this project Marx certainly got a lot “right.” The problem, however, is that such a way of thinking about Marx risks ignoring his, as well as our own, socio-historical conditions of aligning what is right or true with what is actual. Both Marx’s own trajectory, his development in and through social conditions, as well as contemporary conditions need to be appreciated for their capacity to engender interventions into future structures and directions of development. A clear-sighted, expert analysis of actual conditions required developing or refining the existing stock of both sociological and theoretical tools and, in this way, so much of Marx’s work can be seen as propaedeutic and motivation to actualize philosophy’s truth as freedom. As academics, journalists, critics, and activists pass through so many similar social conditions today, we would do well to remember that Marx’s project is right or achieves its truth in and through the ways the tools it develops participate in the re-organization of conditions through which society could actually foster freedom.


[1] Marx, MECW v. 1, p. 112.

[2] Marx, MECW v. 1, p. 220.

[3] Marx, Letter to Ruge, February 10, 1842, MECW v. 1, p. 381 for Marx’s request to remain anonymous. Attached to the letter was the essay “Comments on Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction,” MECW, v. 1, pp. 109-131: for the signature, p. 131.

[4] Marx, Letter to Ruge, March 5, 1842 and Letter to Ruge, March 20, 1842: MECW v. 1, p. 382, p. 384 respectively.

[5] Marx, Letter to Ruge, Nov. 30, 1842, MECW v. 1, p. 394.

[6] Marx, Letter to Ruge, March 13, 1843: MECW v. 1, p. 400.

[7] Marx, Letter to Ruge, March 20, 1842: MECW v. 1, p. 385.

[8] Marx, Letter to Oppenheim, Approximately August 25, 1842: MECW v. 1, p. 392.

[9] Marx, “Communism and the Augsberg Allgemeine Zeitung,” in MECW v. 1, p. 220.

[10] Marx, Letter to Ruge, Nov 30, 1842: MECW v. 1, p. 394.

[11] Marx, “Letters from the Deutsch-Französicher Jahrbücher” in MECW v. 3, pp. 142-143.

[12] This is clearest in the “Private Property and Communism” section of his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 in MECW v. 3, pp. 296 ff.

[13] Editor’s note 18 in MECW v. 3, p. 591.