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  • The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics, and Human Flourishing
  • John McMurtry
David Leopold . The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics, and Human Flourishing. Ideas in Context, 81. Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xii + 315. Cloth, $105.00

David Leopold positions this work as "for a new generation of readers who no longer feel obliged to swallow (or spew out) Marx whole." He does not mention the more powerful and widespread pressure—to ignore or distort Marx. This is an antidotally meticulous, if somewhat Talmudic, study of the young Marx. Its first chapter is a historical introduction to the corpus of Marx's early work and its complex history of posthumous publication. Its second and third chapters situate his ideas within the German philosophy of the period, spelling out its differences from Hegel and Bruno Bauer (with perhaps disproportionate preoccupation with the anti-Semitism of Bauer). The fourth chapter entitled "Human flourishing" is very much the most interesting. No concept is so widely incanted by contemporary philosophers and so lacking in principled ground, while no work is more suggestive here than the early Marx's. The fifth and final chapter is Leopold's "Epilogue," which usefully reviews the book's general argument.

The young Marx has long inspired interest because his critique of capitalism and political economy is so dynamically emancipatory in its naturalist humanism. Leopold is not moved. To give a paradigmatic taste of his treatment, he excoriates a very famous passage of the young Marx—"Communism . . . is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature, and between man and man . . . the riddle of history solved"—as "opaque," "isolated and contested," "patently implausible," and with "no textual support elsewhere" (244–45). As contemporary philosophers in general, he does not relate to Marx's deepest unifying ideas. Connective horizons and transformative social vision are beyond the ken—to use Marx's own phrase for the fate of an early work—of "the gnawing criticism of mice." The given syntax of philosophical acceptability blocks them.

Consider another turning-point of dismissal in this study. Here Marx's identification of the defining principle of human work as "raising a project in the head before erecting it in reality," the architect's construction versus the bee's, is repudiated as saying nothing about a "human essence." The reason for this, argues Leopold, is that such projective consciousness could be possessed by an extra-terrestrial species too (225–26). The essential connections here are overridden by appeal to a non-fact. Yet the differentia specifica of human being that Leopold dismisses is the defining human ontology of "foresight" that distinguishes men from slaves in Marx's favorite ancient philosopher, Aristotle, and of Marx's own regulating principle of human freedom that explains why he regards the working class in capitalism as dehumanized into "wage slavery." Marx's vision of a communist society cannot therefore be understood as what it is at the existential level—a human project in macro form, a social plan of the associated producers that enables their self-governing freedom in place of their external subjugation by the life-blind capitalist mechanism.

Regrettably, Leopold consistently condescends to or fails to recognize the integrating onto-ethical logos of Marx's philosophy. Early on, he dismisses without argument Marx's epistemology as unqualified for "philosophical interest" (47–48), although Bertrand Russell regarded it (e.g., the young Marx's Theses on Feuerbach) as the first ever "activist epistemology." Russell elsewhere tartly commented that "originality is the one thing unoriginal minds cannot see use of." Analytic condescension here as elsewhere is apt to hollow out philosophical substance in the name of it. [End Page 479]

On the other hand, this work's focus on the meaning of 'the State' for Marx makes a signal contribution to citing and dismantling the theoretical caricatures which have long dominated—most tellingly, Leszek Kowalkowski's (and many others') "totalitarian" reading, but also opposite anarchist versions (260–61). Yet even here, Leopold does not connect. His citations indicate an exegetical ground for understanding Marx's communist state as the institutional adoption of the collective material interests of society as the...


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