Some theorists consider Karl Marx's thought to be divided into a "young" period and a "mature" one. There is disagreement to when Marx's thought began to mature and the problem of the idea of a "Young Marx" is the problem of tracking the development of Marx's works and of its possible unity. The problem thus centres on Marx's transition from philosophy to economics, which has been considered by orthodox Marxism as a progressive change towards scientific socialism. However, this positivist reading has been challenged by Marxist theorists as well as members of the New Left. They pointed out the humanist side in Marx's work and how he in his early writings focused on liberation from wage slavery and freedom from alienation, that they claimed was a forgotten element of Marx's writings and central to understanding his later work.
Étienne Balibar argues that Marx's works cannot be divided into "economic works" (Das Kapital), "philosophical works" and "historical works" (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon or the 1871 The Civil War in France). Marx's philosophy is inextricably linked to his critique of political economy and to his historical interventions in the workers' movement, such as the 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program: the problematic is also related to Marx's rupture with university and its teachings concerning German idealism and his encounter with the proletariat, leading him to write along with Friedrich Engels The Communist Manifesto a year before the Revolutions of 1848. Marxism's philosophical roots were commonly explained (for example by Vladimir Lenin) as derived from three sources: English political economy; French utopian socialism, republicanism and radicalism; and German idealist philosophy. Although this "three sources" model is an oversimplification, it still has some measure of truth.
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The Young Marx is usually still considered part of humanist "bourgeois" philosophy, which Marx later criticized along with German idealism on behalf of "social relations" which primed over individual consciousness, a product of ideology according to him. Marxist humanists stressed the humanistic philosophical foundations of Marx's thought by focusing on the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (first published in 1932 and largely suppressed in the Soviet Union until the post-Stalinist "Thaw"). Marx there expounds his theory of alienation, adapted from Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1841).
Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser opposed himself to this movement, arguing that the young Marx could not be read while presupposing "fully-developed Marxism". He thus posed the philosophical problem of Marx's evolution as the question of how may one conceive the transformation of Marx's thought without adopting an idealist perspective which would mark a return to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's spiritualist dialectics and its teleological perspective (the hen is in the egg as mature Marx would be in the young Marx, the "contents" of his dialectical materialist philosophy expressed in his earlier works under the "words" of Feuerbach's idealism).
Vladimir Lenin claimed Marx's first mature work as The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) in his own work State and Revolution (1917). Althusser, who was a champion of this young–mature dichotomy in his criticisms of Marxist humanism (Praxis School, John Lewis and the like) and existential Marxism, claimed in the 1960s that The German Ideology (written in 1845), in which Marx criticized Bruno Bauer, Max Stirner and other Young Hegelians, marked the break with this young Marx. Furthermore, the Trotskyist Ernest Mandel in his The Place of Marxism in History (1986) also broke Marx's intellectual development into several different stages. Althusser presented, in his For Marx (1965), a number of other opinions:
For Jahn, for example, although they 'still' contain 'a whole series of abstract elements' the 1844 Manuscripts mark 'the birth of scientific socialism'. For Pajitnov, these manuscripts 'form the crucial pivot around which Marx reoriented the social sciences. The theoretical premises of Marxism had been laid down.' For Lapine, 'unlike the articles in the Rheinische Zeitung in which certain elements of materialism only appear spontaneously, the 1843 Manuscript witnesses to Marx's conscious passage to materialism', and in fact 'Marx's critique of Hegel starts from materialist positions '(it is true that this 'conscious passage' is called 'implicit' and 'unconscious' in the same article). As for Schaff , he writes squarely 'We know (from later statements of Engels) that Marx became a materialist in 1841'. I am not trying to make an easy argument out of these contradictions (which might at little cost be set aside as signs of an 'open' investigation). But it is legitimate to ask whether this uncertainty about the moment when Marx passed on to materialism, etc., is not related to the spontaneous and implicit use of an analytico-teleological theory.
Althusser popularized the conception of an "epistemological break" between the Young Marx and the mature Marx, that is the point where Marx broke with ideology to enter the domain of science, a point generally considered to consist in his break with Ludwig Feuerbach. However, the epistemological break, a concept which Althusser drew out of Gaston Bachelard, is not to be conceived as a chronological point, but as a "process", thus making the question of the distinction between a "Young Marx" and a "mature Marx" a problematic one.
Althusser noted that the interest in the Young Marx, that is in the 1844 Manuscripts and other early works, was no longer a matter of interest only for Western Marxism, e.g. Palmiro Togliatti, but also of Soviet studies, first of all, that the very discussion of early Marx carries political tones as the Soviet Union's attitude to the subject is not very approving. He also noted that as Jahn had noted that "it was not Marxists who opened the debate on Marx's Early Works", indicating the political stakes surrounding it: "For this attack surprised Marxists on their own ground: that of Marx". Althusser then criticizes the Marxist response to this attack:
To discomfit those who set up against Marx his own youth, the opposite position is resolutely taken up: Marx is reconciled with his youth—Capital is no longer read as On the Jewish Question, On the Jewish Question is read as Capital ; the shadow of the young Marx is no longer projected on to Marx, but that of Marx on to the young Marx; and a pseudo-theory of the history of philosophy in the 'future anterior' is erected to justify this counter-position, without realizing that this pseudo-theory is quite simply Hegelian. A devout fear of a blow to Marx's integrity inspires as its reflex a resolute acceptance of the whole of Marx: Marx is declared to be a whole, ' the young Marx is part of Marxism 'as if we risked losing the whole of Marx if we were to submit his youth to the radical critique of history, not the history he was going to live, but the history he did live, not an immediate history, but the reflected history for which, in his maturity, he gave us, not the ' truth ' in the Hegelian sense, but the principles of its scientific understanding.
Thereby, Althusser warns against any attempts at reading in a teleological way Marx, that is in claiming that the mature Marx was already in the young Marx and necessarily derived from him:
Capital is an ethical theory, the silent philosophy of which is openly spoken in Marx's Early Works. Thus, reduced to two propositions, is the thesis which has had such extraordinary success. And not only in France and in Italy, but also, as these articles from abroad show, in contemporary Germany and Poland. Philosophers, ideologues, theologians have all launched into a gigantic enterprise of criticism and conversion: let Marx be restored to his source, and let him admit at last that in him, the mature man is merely the young man in disguise. Or if he stubbornly insists on his age, let him admit the sins of his maturity, let him recognize that he sacrificed philosophy to economics, ethics to science, man to history. Let him consent to this or refuse it, his truth, everything that will survive him, everything which helps the men that we are to live and think, is contained in these few Early Works. So these good critics leave us with but a single choice: we must admit that Capital (and 'mature Marxism' in general) is either an expression of the Young Marx's philosophy, or its betrayal. In either case, the established interpretation must be totally revised and we must return to the Young Marx, the Marx through whom spoke the Truth. This is the location of the discussion: the Young Marx. Really at stake in it: Marxism. The terms of the discussion : whether the Young Marx was already and wholly Marx.
Althusser then criticizes the "eclectic" reading of Marx's early works, which instead of reading the text as a "whole", discompose it in various "elements" which it then judges as either "materialist" or "idealist" elements. Marx should not be read in a teleological perspective, which would be a return to Hegel's idealist philosophy of history, thus he writes:
From the Hegelian viewpoint, Early Works are as inevitable and as impossible as the singular object displayed by Jarry: "the skull of the child Voltaire". They are as inevitable as all beginnings. They are impossible because it is impossible to choose one's beginnings. Marx did not choose to be born to the thought German history had concentrated in its university education, nor to think its ideological world. He grew up in this world, in it he learned to live and move, with it he 'settled accounts', from it he liberated himself. I shall return to the necessity and contingency of this beginning later. The fact is that there was a beginning, and that to work out the history of Marx's particular thoughts their movement must be grasped at the precise instant when that concrete individual the Young Marx emerged into the thought world of his own time, to think in it in his turn, and to enter into the exchange and debate with the thoughts of his time which was to be his whole life as an ideologue. At this level of the exchanges and conflicts that are the very substance of the texts in which his living thoughts have come down to us, it is as if the authors of these thoughts were themselves absent. The concrete individual who expresses himself in his thoughts and his writings is absent, so is the actual history expressed in the existing ideological field. As the author effaces himself in the presence of his published thoughts, reducing himself to their rigour, so concrete history effaces itself in the presence of its ideological themes, reducing itself to their system. This double absence will also have to be put to the test. But for the moment, everything is in play between the rigour of a single thought and the thematic system of an ideological field. Their relation is this beginning and this beginning has no end. This is the relationship that has to be thought: the relation between the (internal) unity of a single thought (at each moment of its development) and the existing ideological field (at each moment of its development). But if this relationship is to be thought, so, in the same movement, must its terms.
Marxist humanists do not argue that Marx's thought never developed, but criticise the dichotomy presented young and mature as being too rigid and not recognising the continuity in Marx's development. One piece of evidence used by Marxist humanists to highlight the importance of Marx's early works is that Marx himself in 1851 tried to have two volumes of his early writings published.
François Châtelet denied the existence of a rupture in 1857 between the young Marx and a mature Marx who would have discarded his errors and assume "mastery of his thought". Instead, he considered that the tensions in his thought continued on until his death in 1883. This thesis, concentrating itself on the tensions in Marx's thought instead of an alleged maturity of his thought, would also be upheld by Étienne Balibar (1993).
Others contended that Althusser's "epistemological break" between The Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) and The German Ideology (1845), in which some new concepts are forged, is a bit too abrupt, although almost no one contests the radical shifts. In fact, though Althusser steadfastly held onto the claim of its existence, he later asserted that the turning point's occurrence around 1845 was not so clearly defined as traces of humanism, historicism and Hegelianism were to be found in Capital. He even went so far as to state that only Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme and some notes on a book by Adolph Wagner were fully free from humanist ideology. In fact, Althusser considered the epistemological break to be a process instead of a clearly defined event, the product of the incessant struggle against ideology as Althusser believed in the existence of class struggle in theory itself. This struggle marked the division point between those philosophers who contented themselves with providing various ideological "interpretations" of the world and those who endeavoured to "transform" the world as Marx had put it in his Theses on Feuerbach (1845).
Furthermore, other important shifts in Marx's thought have been highlighted (e.g. Étienne Balibar), in particular following the failure of the 1848 revolutions, in particular in France with Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte's December 2, 1851 coup d'état and then after the crush of the 1871 Paris Commune. This would lead him to substitute in the first chapter of Das Kapital (1867) his theory of commodity fetishism for the theory of alienation expounded in the 1844 Manuscripts.