Reviewed by Anita Lunić
Mehmet Tabak’s Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution and Freedom: A Critical Reconstruction provides a coherent interpretation of what is left once we bracket out the ‘scientific’ Marx. The book consists of eight compact chapters forming an elaborate interpretation of Marx’s theory of human nature, freedom, alienation, the state and communism. Some insight into the author’s position is revealed already in the title, but the book offers much more. The main attempt of the book is to critically reconstruct ‘Marx’s practical philosophy of freedom, to illustrate that a humanist ethics grounds it […] at the expense of his ‘historical-materialist’ or ‘scientific’ doctrine“ (viii). It means that Tabak refuses the Althusserian reading of Marx, including the assumption that a so-called ‘mature Marx’ abandoned the theory of alienation. For Tabak, preserving the theory of alienation is an important step in defending the humanist-ethical reading of Marx. Opposing anti-essentialist readings of alienation presupposes an idea of unalienated existence and a concept of human nature. Moreover, interpreting not only the critique of social relations concerning alienation but also recognizing the state as a dominating reflection of unfreedom provides a reading that advocates both individual and group actions at the level of the state.
The first chapter focuses on Marx’s understanding of human nature with emphasis on the interrelation of human nature and freedom. Tabak argues that Marx conceived individuals as social beings and understood an essential human nature as freedom. To reconcile this with Marx’s insight that human beings are individualized through history (Marx 1986: 25, 420), Tabak turns to interpretations of human nature that differentiate between a permanent, transhistorical human nature and the contingent characteristics of individual human beings. In that sense, Tabak follows a middle way in a debate on Marx’s theory of human nature, similar to Norman Geras (Geras 1983). He sees it as having permanent, stable and universal core and historically contingent manifestations. The first chapter also includes an interpretation of needs, as seen as fundamental to Marx’s theory of human nature. Needs are, similar to human beings, also understood as containing both permanent and historically contingent elements. As human essence is freedom, ‘free objective activity’ is recognized as the highest human need and a defining aspect of human nature. It is ‘the kind of activity needed to convert productive activity into a process of self-realization and development (flourishing)’. Therefore, it presupposes self-given purpose and its satisfaction depends upon its coincidence with activity. Put simply, it is not a particular ‘need for something that is distinctively human but the activity by which humans may satisfy it.’ (10) In addition to recognizing freedom as human nature or essence (Tabak uses those terms interchangeably), and defining free (objective) activity as the highest need, human specificity may be defined also in terms of the human capacity for self-development.
The author perhaps ought to have elaborated here on the difference between alienated work and de-alienated activity (or production and praxis), as well as the relationship between human activity, human capacities and human nature. Not less important, the closing section of the first chapter discusses a famous critique of Bentham in Capital. It remains unclear however if Tabak adheres to Marx’s commitment to the concept of human nature in his mature work (as the author sees it), or if, in his view, Marx only uses the concept of human nature for criticizing Bentham’s theory.
In the second and third chapters, Tabak focuses on Marx’s theory of alienation. He outlines Marx’s criticism of alienation in capitalist society and develops connections with Marx’s understanding of the state (or, more precisely, between alienation and a class theory of the state). The state is seen as antithetical to freedom with socio-economic alienation as an expression of dehumanization. Developing connections between freedom as human essence and Marx’s critique of alienation and the state helps Tabak develop a coherent theory of the state as both a reflection of unfreedom entailed in structural relations and an entity preserving and dominating society. Moreover, it helps Tabak justify the argument that the critique of capitalism and alienation is ethically grounded, as both are seen as suppressing basic human need and negating human essence.
The fourth chapter concerns the position and evaluation of ethics in Marx’s work (from The German Ideology, Manifesto of the Communist Party and Critique of the Gotha Program, to The Poverty of Philosophy, Capital and Marx’s correspondences). Although acknowledging Marx’s critique of ethics and moral discourse, Tabak provocatively argues that his criticism of alienation is morally grounded, as well as his criticism of capitalism as a system that perpetuates alienation. Tabak argues that, if we accept the base-superstructure nexus to explain why Marx does not call alienation or slavery unjust, we arrive at a sort of paradox because ‘Marx adopts both the bourgeois standpoint (which justifies the existing state of affairs) and the critical-revolutionary one (which seeks to abolish them).’ (53). As Tabak seeks to preserve the critical-revolutionary Marx, but without so-called scientific Marxism, he argues that Marx’s criticism of both slavery and capitalism should be grounded on moral reasons. Simply put, to resolve this paradox, Tabak refuses the first part, that is, the acceptance of a bourgeois morality.
Based on his previous insights, Tabak retains two strategies. He could argue that Marx is critical of capitalism, slavery and alienation from the position of some future morality or because capitalism, slavery and alienation negate human essence (freedom) and basic human need (free activity). The first strategy requires explanations about how this alternative morality is possible, on what is it grounded, and if it can be argued without rejecting the base-superstructure schema. The second line of argument requires a discussion about whether the critique requires a moral theory and ethical justification at all. It would have been very much valuable if Tabak had opened this discussion slightly at this point, as it would’ve helped clarify his positions, especially his understanding of morality.
In the subsequent chapter Tabak, argues that Marx’s justification of revolution (as a necessary strategy for abolishing alienation) is also morally grounded. The chapter provides an overview of Marx’s understanding of revolution. Beginning with sources supporting the so-called inevitability claim (according to which revolution is historically necessary and inevitable), Tabak moves to the Manifesto of the Communist Party and The German Ideology, arguing that there is an understanding of revolution as a deliberative act. Additional support for the recognition of individual action is found in Marx’s castigation of socialists who disregard or oppose political struggles aimed at improving living and working conditions, as well as those indifferent towards human suffering. As revolution is understood as a willful act and not a necessity, Tabak is required to explain why it ought to be done. That question takes us back to ethical grounds. Revolution is therefore ethically justified as it is necessary to abolish alienation and ensure free human activity and human flourishing. It comes as no surprise that this line of thought leads Tabak to the understanding of revolution as a gradual process of de-alienation (positively expressed as self-emancipation), as argued in chapter 6.
Relying on earlier conclusions, the seventh chapter explores the relationship between revolution and self-emancipation (previously identified with de-alienation or the ability to practice free human activity). This exploration leads to the difference between two understandings of revolution: 1.) revolution as a political act of instant or rapid seizing of political power (an insurrection, an upheaval); and 2.) revolution as a revolutionary practice of de-alienating activity (including both the changes of an individual and social change). Tabak is inclined towards the second understanding. This implies revolution not as a one-time act but rather as a process of de-alienation manifested in (spontaneous) activity and organized political and economic struggles of the working class (more precisely, in unions, communes and workers’ cooperatives). It is a constant revolt against inhumanity and de-alienating activity. This understanding allows Tabak to establish a strong connection between the concepts of revolution, de-alienation and human nature. More importantly, it allows for an argument that establishes the sprouts of a future society within capitalism.
In the last chapter, the author discusses Marx’s concept of communism. Tabak starts by confronting Marx’s anti-utopianism with his understanding of appropriate forms of political organization, economic organization and human behavior in a future society (basically, the grounds for a utopian vision of future society). Faced with those contrary positions (explicit anti-utopianism and utopian vision), Tabak brackets out his anti-utopianism to further develop an interpretation of Marx’s philosophy of revolution and to argue for the understanding of communism as a realm of de-alienation, i.e. freedom.
The important part of this chapter revolves around discussion of the principle of distribution. Following Marx’s views on distribution (as expressed in the Critique of the Gotha Program, Capital, Manifesto of the Communist Party and The German Ideology), Tabak argues that Marx’s understanding of a distributive principle has clear ethical grounding. Moreover, he argues that it provides an additional indirect argument for refusing the moral positivist interpretation of the Marxist theory. In the closing part of both this chapter and the book as a whole, Tabak discusses the relationship between self-realization and freedom by turning back to the concepts of human nature and free activity. It functions as a rounding up, built upon the points developed earlier in the book. Special focus in the closing part is on a freedom-principle understood as maximization of both free time and free activity as an essential prerequisite to human flourishing (or self-development). It, therefore, comes as no surprise that the transition to communism is understood as a de-alienating process while communism is defined as the realm of freedom or the realm which makes human flourishing overall possible.
This study, sketched rather narrowly in this review, is a consistent interpretation of what remains if we bracket our ‘scientific’ Marx. The main goal is to affirm Marx’s theory as a philosophy of revolution and freedom (i.e. de-alienation, self-realization, human flourishing and emancipation). Left now without its positivist contours, communism is advocated on ethical grounds, as a realm of freedom and human flourishing. This is not the first attempt to develop a consistent interpretation of what remains after both the scientific and Hegelian hangover, nor the first turning to (normative) ethics in contemporary Marxist theory. It is nevertheless an interesting and valuable one. It provides a provocative interpretation of concepts of human nature, alienation, distribution, production and revolution.
Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution and Freedom is generally well written and well-structured. Tabak presents his positions and explains connections between different chapters clearly. While we might not always agree with the author’s arguments, Tabak provides clear arguments and regularly discusses opposing sources from Marx’s oeuvre. However, despite general clarity, some positions may have been further elaborated or developed (e.g. understanding Marx’s concept of species-being; the principles for differentiating human and inhuman free activity; the relationship between Marx’s refusal of moral discourse and understanding of moral motivation, etc). It would have also been valuable to read more about Tabak’s analysis of intersections and overlaps between Aristotle and Marx, to which he turns only sporadically.
It is also important to note that, in both analyzing and defending his positions, Tabak turns equally to Marx’s early and later works. Therefore, besides its main focus, the book also functions as a sort of argument against the hypothesis that there are ‘two Marxs’ (early and humanistic Marx, and mature and scientific Marx). It is a point that might spark some debate, alongside some of his other points, such as the defense of revolutionary gradualism and the rejection of the inevitability claim. However, this is hardly detrimental: on contrary, any study that provokes us to further our discussions is a good step forward in both understanding Marx’s theory as well as its needed adjustments.
18 March 2021
- 1983 Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend London: Verso.
- 1986 Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 28 Moscow: Progress Publishers.