‘Studies of the Paris Manuscripts: The Turning Point of Marx’ by Linxin Han reviewed by Fei Huang, Shuang Liang

Studies of the Paris Manuscripts: The Turning Point of Marx

Trans. Kaiyuan Hong, Springer, Singapore, 2020. 359 pp., €89.99 hb
ISBN 9789813296169

Reviewed by Fei Huang and Shuang Liang

About the reviewer

Fei Huang is Lecturer at the School of International Studies, Renmin University of China, Beijing. …


About the reviewer

Shuang Liang is Research Fellow at the Center for Marx-Engels-Literature Research and the …


As one of the most prestigious scholars in China who specialize in the study of Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) and Marxist philosophy, Lixin Han, Professor at Tsinghua University, first published Studies of the Paris Manuscripts: The Turning Point of Marx in Chinese in 2014. It brought him several top academic awards. The English edition in 2020 introduces Han’s work on Marx’s Paris Manuscripts to the wider world. In contrast with the position taken by European and Japanese scholars such as Oizerman, Althusser and Hiromatsu, who believe Marx’s thought transition takes place in the German Ideology, Han aims to advance a new explanation of early Marx; namely, that it is in the Paris Manuscripts (Comments on James Mill in particular) that Marx accomplishes a transition from his early to his mature period. The mark thereof is the transition of Marx’s framework from individual to society, so that the explanatory principle of society shifts from man’s intrinsic elements to extrinsic economic relations, and this conversion eventually leads to the advent of historical materialism.

Based on his analysis of the First Paris Manuscript, Han argues that Marx’s concept of alienated labor is logically inconsistent, which shows that his thought is not mature at that time, and the main reason for the inconsistence is Feuerbach’s frame of self-alienation. Indeed, disregarding the moment of the subject’s return to itself in Feuerbach’s alienation framework, alienation leads to the loss of the self. However, its limitations are fully exposed when the concept is used to address social relations including the ‘other’ person or social relations among people. These problems force Marx to realize that Feuerbach’s concept of alienation was not suitable for analyzing the relations of modern civil society, especially those of private property. Hegel’s view of alienation, which Marx criticizes for a long time, implies a possibility to penetrate the deep nature of modern civil society and unlock the mystery of private property. In the following Comments on James Mill and the Third Manuscript, Marx begins his transition from Feuerbach’s to the Hegel’s framework. Thus, he establishes his own theoretical model of alienation by critically absorbing Hegel’s concept of alienation. Han believes that Marx’s main effort in the Paris Manuscripts is to reveal the nature of private property, showing that capitalist private property is ‘private property II’ (137), which refers to labor owned by capital, rather than ‘private property I’ (136), which refers to producer-owned products. The main task of the First Manuscript is to demonstrate the view that capital is the accumulation of other people’s labor. In the conclusion of the First Manuscript, Marx takes on two new assignments: first, to reveal the nature of private property from the perspective of the social relations between the owners of private ownership; second, to uncover the origin of alienated labor and private property from the perspective of history. Therefore, Marx positions the alienated labor theory in the field of commodity economic relations in the horizontal direction, thus opening up a field for the alienation of intercourse theory. At the same time, by guiding his examination of the origins of private property into a vertical, historical domain, Marx enters a theoretical level similar to his later theory of the primitive accumulation of capital.

After exploring Comments on James Mill in the Paris Manuscripts, Han points out a contrast between the First Manuscript and Comments on James Mill. In the First Manuscript, man’s essence is defined as the intrinsic essence of the individual’s living activity, namely free conscious activity, but in Comments on James Mill, man’s essence is construed as that of a communal being or social essence. If the former is to be considered as a bipolar subject-object relation, then the latter is a tripolar structure that includes the intersubjective relation besides the subject-object relation. The transition from the bipolar to the tripolar structure signifies Marx’s change of perspective from isolated individual to social relation. For this reason, Comments on James Mill indicates the ‘transition from early thought to maturity’ (215).  In this sense, Han’s interpretation of Comments on James Mill shows the significance of the alienation of intercourse theory, which not only resolves the theoretical aporia of the First Manuscript and further promote Marx’s horizon to an unprecedented level, but also lays the ground for establishing Marx’s concept of society. It is through constructing the alienation of intercourse theory that Marx makes a deep analysis of civil society, which lays a foundation for the formation of his social concept and the establishment of historical materialism. Therefore, the alienation of intercourse theory is regarded by Han as the turning point of Marx’s thought.

From the Third Manuscript in the Paris Manuscripts, Han concludes that even though starting from praising Feuerbach’s criticism of Hegel, Marx finds the great significance of Hegel’s dialectics as a result, which even surprises Marx himself. Marx reveals the significance of the dialectics of labor in Hegel’s philosophy, reveals the evolution and alienation of the human self. Although Marx does not publicly denounce Feuerbach, the Third Manuscript already contained elements of the Theses on Feuerbach written in 1845. Han does not deny that Marx’s transition to communism is connected with Feuerbach’s materialism or humanism, but he emphasizes the influence of Hegel’s philosophy, especially the alienation-centered dialectics, on the young Marx. Han believes that all these facts show that Marx has already departed from Feuerbach and comprehensively adopted Hegel’s dialectic, and this critical theoretical reconstruction ‘signifies the formation of historical materialist methodology’ (340). That is Han’s conclusion after talking about all the major components of the Paris Manuscripts.

What does Han contribute in his book? The Paris Manuscripts is Marx’s important treatise on private property and civil society, which is Marx’s early attempt to combine political economy, classical German philosophy and the theory of communism. It is difficult to come up with a new interpretive framework for the Paris Manuscripts because previous researchers have offered a variety of different interpretation: for Lukács, the distinction between objectification and alienation; for Althusser, the break between ideology and science; for Hiromatsu, the leap from alienation theory to reification theory; for Mochizuki, civil society and alienation of intercourse. Han tries to establish an interpretation framework and make his own contribution, including putting forward such paradigms as ‘from individual to society, from state to civil society, from Feuerbach to Hegel, from alienated labor to alienation of intercourse, logic of Sache selbst, and from subjective, intrinsic principle to objective, extrinsic principle’ (344). Han critically absorbs the perspectives and methods of Japanese Marxist researchers such as Mochizuki and Hiromatsu, and pays special attention to social relations. He takes the category of social relations as the coordinate system to explain Marx’s thought, and points out that the essence of Marx’s thought transition is the change from isolated individual to social relations, and this change comes from the critical absorption and innovation of Hegel’s thought and method.

How does Han’s work differ from other views? Different from the traditional mainstream view, Han analyzes Marx’s Paris Manuscripts from the perspective of social relations, and finds that the analysis of the First Manuscript is based on the subject-object relation of an isolated individual, while the analysis of Comments on James Mill is based on the social relations between private owners. This is not a whim of Han’s, but based on evidence from philological research over the last decades. In 1969, the Soviet scholar N. Lapin published a paper arguing that Comments on James Mill was of a higher ideological level than the First Manuscript. Japanese scholars at the same time found the same problem, and gradually formed a consensus in the Japanese academic circles on the order of writing: the First ManuscriptComments on James Mill → the Second Manuscript → the Third Manuscript. Han draws on the international achievements of philological research on the Paris Manuscripts, and his interpretation of the manuscripts follows this writing sequence. Han focuses on the argument from the perspective of intercourse alienation, and points out that the turning point of Marx’s thought is Comments on James Mill in the Paris Manuscripts, rather than the German Ideology as traditionally thought, which provides a new perspective for the academic research on Marx’s thought transition.

What are the characteristics of Han’s method? Han’s work embodies the combination of philology and philosophical theory. His argument not only draws on the achievements of philology related to the Paris Manuscripts since the 1960s, but also makes a rigorous argument from philosophical theory. These theoretical arguments include not only studies of Marx’s early works, but also discussions of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Jena Manuscripts. This work critically absorbs Hegel’s dialectics based on political economy and applies it to the study of the Paris Manuscripts, which thus opens up a way to interpret the Paris Manuscripts from the perspective of Hegel’s philosophy. Han’s aim is not to disguise Marx as Hegel, but to explain Marx on his own level, a level based on Hegel’s philosophy. In this book, Han advocates the research path of combining Marx’s philology research with Hegel’s theory research, which is of great significance for improving the traditional paradigm of early Marx research.

What arguments or inspirations might Han’s work cause? Han advances the study of Marx’s thought from both viewpoint and method, and at the same time prompts readers to think further about some questions: Which is of more significance to Marx’s thought transition, ‘practice (subject-object relation)’ or ‘social relations’? What role does the theory of alienation play in the changes in Marx’s thought throughout his life? What are the internal relations between Hegel’s dialectics and the establishment of historical materialism? What is the driving force of Marx’s turning from socialism to communism? It is believed that these questions would be better answered in future with the discovery of more philological evidence and further theoretical debates in the academic world.

5 August 2022

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