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Daniel Bensaïd (2000): Marx’s Paris Turn

3 October 2023
First International

Daniel Bensaïd (2000), Marx’s Paris Turn

The two articles Marx published while in Paris in 1844 – A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: ‘Introduction’ and On the Jewish Question – did not just announce the death of the god of religions.i They launched a battle against the substitution fetishes and idols of Money and State.

In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach had shown not only that humanity is not god’s creature, but that humanity is its creator. He not only argued that ‘man makes religion, religion does not make man’. He also, wrote Marx, showed that ‘philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought.’ii By ‘making the social relationship of “man to man” the basic principle of the theory’, he thus established ‘true materialism’. For man is not an abstract man, ‘squatting outside the world’iii, but ‘worldly’, a man in society who produces, exchanges, struggles and loves. This is the State, society.

Once we accept that this real man is not the creature of an all-powerful god, we have to understand why he feels the need to invent a life after life, and to imagine a heaven free of earthly miseries:

Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

Like opium, religion both dulls and soothes. Criticism of religion cannot therefore be satisfied, as Masonic anticlericalism and the rationalism of Enlightenment figures was, with dispatching the priest, the imam or the rabbi. Engels took the same approach to the religious question in the aftermath of the Paris Commune. He considered ‘the problem of atheism’ to be outdated and criticized those Parisian exiles who wanted to ‘transform people into atheists par ordre du mufti’iv, instead of drawing the lesson from experience that:

a multitude of things may be ordered on paper without being carried out, and in the second place, that persecutions are the best means of promoting disliked convictions. So much is certain, that the only service, which may still be rendered to God today, is that of declaring atheism an article of faith to be enforced and of outdoing even Bismarck’s anti-Catholic laws by forbidding religion altogether.v

As early as 1844, for Marx it was about attacking the social conditions that gave rise to the need for belief and artificial paradises:

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the

The critique of religion therefore serves a necessary, but limited, objective; to take away man’'s illusions, his illusory consolations, to disillusion him, to make the scales fall from his eyes; ‘'the criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun.’'vii. Once the religious ‘Beyond’ of truth has disappeared, the historical task is to establish ‘the truth of this world’ and to ‘unmask human alienation in its non-sacred forms’:

'Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.'viii


Proclaiming that that for Germany, ‘for Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed’ but that this the ‘the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism’,' the ‘Introduction’ takes on the appearance of a manifesto before the Communist Manifesto, and of a work plan announcing new tasks for critique. The oft-so often misunderstood article On the Jewish Question published in the same, and only, issue of the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher is its extension or first practical application.

The two articles in spring 1844 in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher therefore mark a turning point in the formation of the critical thought of Marx. They form a final goodbye to speculative German philosophy and inaugurated, in contact with the proletariat of Paris, the great construction of critique. The ‘Introduction’ thus marks the striking entry of the proletariat onto the philosophical stage as a condition of ‘'the positive possibility of a German emancipation’:'

'The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat. Philosophy cannot realize itself without the transcendence [Aufhebung] of the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot transcend itself without the realization [Verwirklichung] of philosophy.'ix

This shift from democratic liberalism to communism was the result of the experiences and disappointments of the Young Hegelians. For the German oppositional intelligentsia, 1843 was a terrible year, marked by the increasing authoritarian harshness of Frederick William’'s regime. At the beginning of the year, the Prussian government banned the publication of the Rheinische Zeitung, which Marx had been running since the summer of 18942. The repressive escalation rendered obsolete the reformist strategy of the an enlightened opposition obsolete. The destruction of all space for free expression forced the oppositional intelligentsia to choose between renouncing all public political activity or following Heine’'s example and going into exile.

On 17 March 1843, Marx published a brief resignation in the last issue of the Rheinische Zeitung. He was considering going into exile and a few weeks earlier had written to his correspondent Arnold Ruge:

'It is a bad thing to have to perform menial duties even for the sake of freedom; to fight with pinpricks, instead of with clubs. I have become tired of hypocrisy, stupidity, gross arbitrariness, and of our bowing and scraping, dodging, and hair-splitting over words. […] I can do nothing more in Germany. Here one makes a counterfeit of oneself.'

After his marriage to Jenny, he spent the summer in Kreuznach, where he devoted himself to a critical re-reading of Hegel’s philosophy of law, resulting in the draft known as the Kreuznach manuscripts and the articles in the Jahrbücher. His ‘introduction’ to Contribution to the Critique of the Philosophy of Law is, as Stathis Kouvélakis writes, ‘a text that forms an irrevocable rupture’:

'a veritable anthology of memorable phrases – - many with a long and glorious future ahead of them – - cast in an incisive, carefully chiselled style that is at once speculative and polemical, this ‘'Introduction’' has all the apperances of a first Marxian manifesto.' x

It also formed a kind of introduction to the what are known as the Paris or 1844 Manuscripts. Criticism of a contemplative and abstract atheism led Marx to takes his distance from Feuerbach, who does not see that ‘the “religious sentiment’’ is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual whom he analyses belongs to a particular form of society’.xi

Feuerbach’s materialism remains at the level of bourgeois society. It must be overcome by a ‘'a new materialism’' which places bases itself on the standpoint of ‘human society, or social humanity’: 

…'after the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice'.

This new social materialism, this overcoming of abstract atheism, is nothing other than communism:

…'just as atheism as the supersession of God is the emergence of theoretical humanism, and communism as the supersession of private property the vindication of real human life as man’'s property, the emergence of practical humanism. Atheism is humanism mediated with itself through the supersession of religion; communism is humanism mediated with itself through the supersession of private property.'xii

Still, one must distinguish different moments in the development of the communist idea. In its primitive form, as ‘vulgar communism’, it wants to do away with everything that cannot be possessed by all. The working- class condition is not abolished but extended to everyone. Private generalized property finds it ‘bestial expression’ in the community of women. This ‘crude communism’ would ‘level down on the basis of a preconceived minimum.’xiii 

The abolition of private property is not real social appropriation but

'the abstract negation of the entire world of culture and civilization, and the return to the unnatural simplicity of the poor, unrefined man who has no needs and who has not yet even reached the stage of private property, let along gone beyond it.xiv'

Political or democratic communism aims to abolish the State, overcome human alienation and achieve the ‘return of man into himself’. But ‘since it has not yet comprehended the positive essence of private property, or understood the human nature of need, it is still held captive and contaminated by private property.’ As a positive overcoming of private property, communism 'is the true appropriation of the human essence through and for man; it is the complete restoration of man to himself as a sociali.e., human – being'. It is the

'the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature, and between man and man, the true resolution of the conflict between existence and being, between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species.'

If, to overcome the idea of private property, ‘the idea of communism’ is sufficient, to overcome real private property ‘real communist activity is necessary’, a movement that ‘will in reality undergo a very difficult and protracted process.’xv . In short, whereas atheism is simply the abstract negation of god, communism is its concrete negation. It goes to the root of things and seeks to put a practical end to a world of frustration and misery that gives rise to the need for divine consolation.


i Original title: Les Annales franco-allemandes ou le ‘tournant parisien’ de Marx, published at []. Translation Alex de Jong.

ii Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844: Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General, 1844 [].

iii Marx, A Contribution, op. cit. to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, [].

iv Works of Frederick Engels 1874: The Programme of the Blanquist Fugitives from the Paris Commune [], translation modified. German original: Marx Engels Werke, vol. 18, Programm der blanquistischen Kommuneflüchtlinge, p. 532.

v Engels 1874, The Program of the Blanquist Fugitives [].Idem.

vi Marx, A Contribution, op. cit. to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, [].

vii Idem.

viii Idem.

ix Idem.

x Stathis Kouvélakis, Philosophy and Revolution: From Kant to Marx, Verso, 2018, p. 360.

xi Marx, Theses On Feuerbach, 1845 [].

xii Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts: Third Manuscript. [].

xiii Idem.

xiv Idem.

xv Idem.

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