‘Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx’ by George C Comninel reviewed by Scott Timcke

Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx

Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2019. 342 pp., £49.99 pb
ISBN 9781349959129

Reviewed by Scott Timcke

About the reviewer

Scott Timcke studies issues of race, class, and social inequality. His second book, Algorithms …


With such balanced prose and precise argumentation there are few words fit for purpose other than to declare that with Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx, George Comninel has produced a simply exquisite book. Without hyperbole, it ranks among some of the finest scholarship I have encountered in the past decade. While the manuscript appears effortless, Comninel admits that it is not. ‘It is always a challenge to write about any significant aspect of Marx’s work,’ he writes (xvi). This challenge arises not only because of Marx’s stature, many intellectual contributions, broad concrete areas of expertise and the like, but because there are so ‘many points of entry into his ideas – political, philosophical, historical, economic, sociological, and so on’ (xvi). But Comninel has more than risen to the task. Much like Marx’s lifelong project to appreciate the ‘historical dimension of unfreedom’ (23), Comninel is able to convey how these elements developed in time, while also generating a reading ‘freed from the dead weight of the past’ (313).

Framing his contribution to the study of Marx’s work, Comninel adheres to Neal Wood and Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Political Marxism, a view that puts texts and their authors into a historical context. Herein, comprehending the ‘issues of historical class analysis’ requires drawing upon a ‘social history of political theory’ (xv). This method seeks to engage the author as embedded in a particular ‘social, political, and economic context’ (xv). While there have been scuffles with this methodology, more generally this view has gained standing, especially so as Comninel treats Marx’s work to this method. For example, Comninel follows Ellen Meiksins Wood’s argument that it was through the critique of political economy that Marx conceptualised how historical development can be understood from the vantage of processes produced by social forms, and that a particular combination of these forms gives rise to capitalist development (17). Herein with capitalism marks ‘a terminal point to the development of class exploitation’ (281), it being the most intense form of class society due to the degree to which exploitation is otherwise disguised as freedom.

Each chapter is an illustration of Political Marxism in action. Starting with the understanding of the French Revolution and its aftermath, Comninel shows how Marx’s topics of concern change as his life progresses, as he encounters and learns more of this or that topic, all the while anchored by a project to understand the character of the unfreedom and class struggle in his lifetime. Accordingly, the book is somewhat chronological, following Marx’s biography, with early chapters focusing on the economic and philosophical manuscripts, the middle chapters on the Communist Manifesto, and later chapters on Capital and the International Working Men’s Association. The final chapter comments upon the task of critical social theory, where current practices thereof can be improved, refined and otherwise avoid bifurcations.

A considerable amount of argumentation traverses Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx. This argumentation covers not only Marx’s various disputes with others, but also deftly navigates the intra-mural debates in Marxist hermeneutics, while conveying how the core elements of Marx’s social project remain relevant for contemporary analysis and political action. Comninel accomplishes all of this with grace. A good example is in the early chapters which trace Marx’s encounter (and break) with the Left Hegelians where his views shift as his lived political experience with the Prussian state. The state’s censorship showed the limitations of doctrines born in the library. Similarly, the economic and philosophical manuscripts outline Marx’s lifelong project. They begin with the view that wages are the by-product class struggle, not the source, and that to see this requires superseding the hereunto existing analysis of political economy. The resultant critique is the attempt to comprehend the role of abstract labour in historical development while stimulatingly expanding the scope of how human emancipation could be considered. Accordingly, the political project goes beyond simply being satisfied with better wages (13). As Comninel demonstrates, Marx’s work starts where others stop.

Similar efforts can be seen on Comninel’s part, particularly as the chief argument of the book unfolds. Here it is argued that a ‘social history of political theory’ is the appropriate method to uncover the relation between the various configurations and intensities of social forms and the society that they produce. This can be best be understood as a ‘continuum’ rather than a sequential historical periodization; it is not appropriate to suggest there is ‘progress’ as changes in these social forms lead to differentiation. Comninel is stark here: ‘Nothing leads necessarily or teleologically towards the capitalist form of social property relations’ (24). Accordingly, it does not follow then that rigid ‘philosophical history’ is apt. Indeed, such an approach is ‘fundamentally and profoundly wrong’ (ibid). Comninel goes one step further, writing that ‘conventional Marxist accounts of history grounded upon it are at odds with both fact and Marx’s truly original ideas’ (ibid).

These remarks are framed as a moment of liberation for social theory, for if ‘capitalism was neither necessary nor inevitable’ (ibid), then its intensity and associated misery can be altered, its harms mitigated and its exploitation reduced. In viewing capitalism as contingent, Comninel seeks to return agency to the oppressed classes pursuing answers to social questions across the whole terrain of politics. Contingency is important to recognise, given the extent to which capitalism stimulatingly colonizes and naturalises. The claims of economists that take this for granted are nothing less than ‘absurd and ahistorical’ (ibid). Of course, to Comninel’s mind, communism does not provide a ‘philosophical guarantee of a future free from alienation and exploitation’ (25). But that should not prohibit efforts to pursue that goal. Such as task is possible because, as Marx saw so clearly, misery is the outcome of the social forms human produce. And these forms could be re-made. Achieving that task, Comninel argues that ‘we must take heart from Marx’s willingness to stray beyond the framework with which he began and learn from his ongoing efforts to advance historical understanding’ (3).

It is in the final chapter that sympathetic readers may find areas of dispute or departures of thought. Here Comninel addresses the need for Marxist social theorists to have a greater appreciation of history and historical materialism. ‘Most Marxists,’ Comninel writes, ‘have been almost exclusively concerned with the political and economic issues of capitalist society, and with the problem of socialist revolution. Very few have given serious consideration to the central importance of a truly historical conception of social development’ (282). He adds that ‘the predominant expressions of Marxist theory remain bound by concepts drawn from specifically capitalist society,’ which are then ‘anachronistically projected into the past, forming the basis for what is then construed to be a historical dimension of analysis’ (283). The exception to this practice, he states, are those that follow Political Marxism precepts. As a practical example may illustrate what Comninel means: ‘Nobles in ancien régime France did not irrationally “squander” fortunes on conspicuous displays at Court – they played to the expectations of a King who dispensed the munificence of enormous state revenue’ (283). Readers who are so inclined may wish to become interlocuters.

One cannot but get the impression that due to the positions Comninel has adopted, he has had as a small but valuable intellectual fellowship. For example, he describes how the intellectual response to the 1968 revolts was the mainstreaming of what came to be known in English universities as structuralist and post-structuralist analysis. These methodologies complicated the correspondence theory of truth upon which Marxism rests. The result was to put Marxists into the wilderness as class analysis fell out of favour. Some Marxists bunkered down into ahistorical orthodoxy, refusing to engage with new evidence or techniques. Others adapted and took the cultural turn but at the cost of de-centering class analysis. Yet either way, it left Comninel with few fellows who retained a core interest in the project of human emancipation from exploitation and a willingness to adapt it to the period in which they lived. But thankfully the there has been be a resurgence of interest in Marxism after 2008, and likely to be another now in the wake of the intensification of social inequality under the global coronavirus crisis. To that end, Comninel so clearly understands the Marxist project. It should hearten us that we can count him among our friends.

12 June 2020

One comment

  1. This review is accurate, and almost entirely admiring. However, Comninel is open to various lines of criticism which do not emerge clearly in the review.

    To start with, Marx saw the French Revolution as a bourgeois revolution, and writers in the Marxist tradition have generally followed this approach. Comninel does not accept this Marxist view. This can be seen most clearly in Comninel, 1991. Whether this is seen as an unacceptable deviation from orthodoxy, or a brilliant innovation, it surely calls for comment. Comninel basically identifies capitalism with developed industrial capitalism, and therefore denies that capitalism significantly developed in France until late in the 19th century. This view ties in with his acceptance – as emerges clearly in the review – of political Marxism. What does not emerge is that political Marxism is very controversial. Political Marxism originates with the ideas of Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. For political Marxism the central concept of historical materialism is that ‘the realisation of human existence over the course of history has corresponded to developments in the social relations of private property, as increasingly significant expressions of the alienation of labour, predicated upon a fundamental and growing antithesis between the propertied and the propertyless’ (100). Hence Comninel’s admiration for Marx’s analysis of pre-capitalist economic formations in the Grundrisse, which get away from the standard Marxist view of a succession of historical epochs; capitalism developed in England for contingent reasons, and ideas of necessary historical progress are simply a projection of the present to the past (24).The second chapter of Comninel’s book offers more detail about the differences between England and France, stating that an essential condition of the capitalist mode of production is that capital ‘controls the process of production through management’, something which was well established in nineteenth century England, but not until very late in the century in France (41). Again this view is based on the work of Brenner, as is the view that capitalist development in the rest of Europe was much slower. Thus the commonly accepted idea of a shared evolution of modern society is false (46). Ideas were, of course, shared across Europe, but interpreted in different contexts. Notably, Hegel’s view of the state as the agent of the universal is set in the context of a pre-capitalist society (51). Similarly, Marx’s early insights into capitalism may come from having approached it without the blinkers which would arise from living in such a society and taking its social relationships for granted (57).
    It needs to be stressed that the central ideas of ‘political Marxism’ and of the Comninel version of it are very controversial (see, for example, Callinicos 1990, Anievas and Nisancioglu, 2014) – in particular, that its stress on the subordination of labour to capital in the process of production, and the origins of this in developments in England, exclude other important features of primitive accumulation, notably imperialism and slavery, together with other intermediate forms of subordination of labour, and the capitalist origins of wars such as the First World War. Moreover, transformation from one mode of production to another arguably requires a combination of a contradiction between the forces and relations of production on the one hand and class struggle on the other, whereas Comninel wants to exclude the former. This is really very important: this dual feature is common to various interpretations of historical materialism, including those based on technological determinism, which Comninel dismisses, determination by the relations of production and economic determinism. There is no attempt here to respond to critics such as the above, nor to the work of Neil Davidson (2014).
    Another important line of criticism is that he is unduly confident about the continuity of Marx’s work. For example, he is very good on the general social context of the 1844 Manuscripts, but less careful with their intellectual background. The concept of alienation derives immediately at least from Feuerbach, and the praise and criticism of Hegel in the Manuscripts almost all accords closely with his ideas. Comninel exaggerates Marx’s originality, for example: ‘… it was in Marx’s earliest writings, specifically in the development of his ideas between the summer of 1843 and the summer of 1844, that precapitalist Europe first confronted the profound new reality of capitalist social relations, through Marx’s critical encounter with the classical political economists.’ (46). So adding alienation to the ideas of Smith, particularly, has this epoch making quality, whereas, for example, Hegel’s early writings, where he expresses similar ideas, do not. This is all the more peculiar when one considers the comment above about blinkers: Marx benefited from living in precapitalist Europe because he did not take capitalist social relationships for granted, whereas being in the same situation was a hindrance to other thinkers.

    The very much reduced use of the term alienation in Marx’s later work, particularly his published later work, also calls for reflection. Why did Marx never publish a straightforward account of this ‘central’ concept? Comninel simply identifies alienation with exploitation (91). Whatever about full-blown capitalism, alienation is a feature of market societies, and thus of continental Europe in Marx’s day: independent artisans work for the market not for their family or friends. The logic of alienation is rather different from that of exploitation – contrast a sweat shop worker who works fourteen hours a day but only generates surplus value in the last hour of the day with a worker who controls a large chemical plant for eight hours a day. The latter has interesting and skilled work, and generates enough to pay for his labour power in the first hour of the week. The worker in the chemical plant is much more exploited but much less alienated, particularly when his affluent and cultivated leisure time is considered. The much more alienated garment worker is actually much less exploited. Comninel has nothing to say about this difference between the two concepts. It is strange that in the time of Lenin and Kautsky Marxism was widely accepted amongst socialists but the concept of alienation was virtually unrecognised in spite of what Comninel sees as its central position.
    Anievas, A. And Nisancioglu, K. ‘The Poverty of Political Marxism’ International Socialist Review, No. 94, Fall 2014.
    Callinicos, A. ‘The Limits of “political Marxism”‘, New Left Review, 1/184, November-December 1990.
    Comninel, G.C., Rethinking the French Revolution (London: Verso, 1991).
    Davidson, N. How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).

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