Marx's 1844 Manuscripts as a Work of Art:
a hypertextual re-interpretation

by Gary Tedman
The 'Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844' (also known as the 'Paris Manuscripts' or '1844 Notebooks', originally they were untitled, for brevity here the 'EPM') are well known as representing the first concerted attempt by Marx to clarify and synthesize his thinking. It, or they, combine/s philosophy and political economy through what shall here be argued is the simultaneous elaboration of a radical new method of immanent dialectical and materialist critique.

Marx wrote the EPM between April and August 1844 while he was staying in Paris. On his way back to Germany at the end of August Engels visited Paris and stayed for ten days. Apparently this was the first proper meeting of Marx and Engels. Engels probably refers to the writing of the EPM in his first known letter to Marx written on his return at the beginning of October 1844, wherein he says Marx should 'see to it that the material...collected is launched into the world as soon as possible'. At this time Marx was editing and contributing to the German newspaper 'Vorwarts!' which was published in Paris from January to December 1844. In the autumn of 1844 the French government at the request of the Prussian authorities sued one of its editors, Karl Bernays, who was sentenced to imprisonment and fined for his criticism of the reactionary system in Prussia. In January 1845 the Guizot Ministry then expelled Marx and a few other members of the staff of the paper, also at the request of the Prussian government. This effectively silenced the publication. Nevertheless during this period, on February 1, 1845 Marx signed a contract with Carl Leske, a publisher of Darmstadt, for publication of a work entitled 'A Critique of Politics and of Political Economy', which was apparently to be based on the EPM. However, the contract with the publisher was canceled in September 1846. It is usually stated that the reason for this cancellation was the publisher's concerns at giving voice to a dangerous revolutionary.

After Marx's death in 1883 his papers, including the EPM, were kept by Engels. After Engels died in 1898 Laura Lafargue in Draveil held them. On Laura's death in 1911 they were included in the SPD party archives in Berlin, where Engels' papers were also stored. In the 1930s these papers and other files were brought abroad. In 1938 they were sold to a Dutch insurance company, and they placed the materials at the disposal of the International Institute of Social Research (IISH). Currently the MS is archived here. In short, as a result of the decision to cancel publication in 1846 the text was only first published in 1932, and it was not until 1959 that an English translation became available.

The intention is to return to this famous text once again in the belief that in earlier interpretations certain elements have been left out of the account. But before going any further some (albeit schematic for the moment) description is necessary of the unusual physical design of the EPM.

The MS, which is in the form of three interrelated notebooks, is divided into side-by-side columns of writing, which sometimes alter radically in the number of columns. The binding, which is hand sewn by Marx, lies along the top of the document (as opposed to the traditional Western left hand edge) with the columns arranged in parallel succession at right angles below it. Reading demands 'flipping over' the pages, and the task of following the pagination sequence is not 'normal' and requires the user to periodically turn over the entire notebook. Different columns may have different text headings. Pages are numbered with roman numerals. To fully appreciate the paper MS, at least of the first/core notebook, you can follow a DIY recipe in Margaret Fay's article in 'Science & Society' (see bibliography). If you are reading this in the online version hyperlinks from this essay ought to help to reveal the uniqueness of the layout, and I suggest provide compelling evidence for the substance of the argument.1

Since its availability, the EPM has stood as the most enigmatic of Marx's works, indeed, it is probably the most talked about and cited philosophical text in existence. Partly this must be due to the mystery of its unusual structure, partly to the sometimes passionate and poetic writing style of its famous author, partly to its 'air' of the 'eureka' of discovery and synthesis, and partly due to the difficulty that it still presents to the interpreter, as it always seems to remain, in the end, unfathomable. However, it is also true to say that, probably because of its oft cited status, it can also arouse a kind of 'oh no, not that again' response from certain world weary academics when students become attracted to it, so, like Margaret Fay, I apologize in advance for yet another interpretation!

The EPM has of course also been theoretically controversial because its late publication provoked the intensification of the debate concerning a 'split' in Marx's work, i.e., the division between an early 'humanist' and a late 'formalist' Marx. As a result of this the EPM has been broadly interpreted by both sides, for and against, as a humanist (and thus essentialist) text. They have also been damned as such, primarily because of the use Marx made of the concepts of alienation and alienated labor, essence and human nature or 'species being'. Among other things, this essay will attempt to show that some of the main tenets of such interpretations are only really feasible when the design structure of the original document is not given the consideration it deserves, and when this is not seen to reflect back upon the subject matter of the written text. The physical features of the document shall be referred to here, which in the online version are reproduced (as well as can be expected) with the help of web pages and hyperlinked maps.

To interpret Marx correctly it is necessary, especially with the EPM, to understand his method. But to describe Marx's method, we are obliged to discuss it as if it exists separately from the theme that he was elaborating, or in other words as if he were wielding an external principle against a recalcitrant theoretical object. This impression would be wrong because, as will be argued, the subject matter presented in the EPM in fact simultaneously 'calls up' the method that Marx here is setting to work. By this it is not being suggested that Marx discovers his method in a kind of 'spontaneous outburst' while writing. Indeed, much of this contention rests on the fact that the EPM was planned beforehand. What is being suggested is that the composition itself is actually intended to reveal not only a 'content' to the reader but also, at the same time, something of its artistic process, its form and facture. In fact its method, as a part of its objective. With the EPM, it is suggested, Marx has already altered his mode of production of theory. So on this basis this essay will argue that Marxs critique called forth a new mode of production of the textual object, which in turn, necessitated a new textual design aesthetic. If this thesis is difficult to grasp here, as it is bound to be when simply announced in this way, it should, I hope, become clearer as we progress and provide evidence for it.

As far as I am currently aware Margaret Fay was, and still is, one of the very few interpreters of the EPM to take into serious account these physical features of the notebooks,
2 so she deserves some introduction as she is a relatively unknown figure.3 Fay began her research at Oxford, England, where, during the late nineteen-sixties she became interested in Marx through a reading of Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man, later at Syracuse University, New York, while studying for an MA in Sociology she found Marx's 1844 notebooks to be the source of their inspiration. She continued her study of Marx at Syracuse, then took this further at Berkeley. There followed a visit to the IISH in Amsterdam, to see Marxs original MS. Finally, in order to gain the German language skills to be able to read Marx in the original, she attended as a student of Philosophy at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. Sadly, at some point, following on from her own doubts about her interpretations of the EPM, she apparently became depressed about the critical reception of her research and took her own life. She received a doctorate from Berkeley for her dissertation posthumously. Subsequently a brief but concise account of her research was published in the US journal Science & Society. This tends to focus, however, upon the use of Adam Smith in the EPM, which is important, but may work to the detriment of her analysis and interpretation of the artistic design.4

Fay, in her unpublished doctoral dissertation, says that her reason for rejecting the taken-for-granted assumptions on which other scholars have based their assessment of the written content of the EPM, is simply because they are not supported by the document itself. The fallacy of these conjectures becomes clear, she says, if we take into account not only the written text, but also the physical design of the document. For example, one physical design feature that she reports was the fact that the columnar dividing lines were obviously drawn before the text was written into them. This proved that Marx planned the document beforehand. Devoting a section of her thesis to uncovering Marx's methodology, and the relations between this and the design structure, Fay demonstrates two main processes at work in the document. The first is how Marx interprets and analyses the 'thought material' that he works upon, the second is how he acts on the basis of what the results of this analysis 'tells him to do' in practice; that is, how it supplies his 'mode of proceeding', his method.


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The Hypertext Manuscripts of Karl Marx, Paris 1844
Copyright Gary Tedman 2001
last modified: 10/8/01 10:52:44 PM