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What if Ilyenkov had known Marx’s transcription of Spinoza?


Al-Farabi Journal, Kazakhstan

№ 1 (45) 2014 ж.



Bill Bowring

What if Ilyenkov had Known Marx’s Transcription of Spinoza?….13

Вниманию наших читателей представляется статья Билла Бауринга, при­уроченная редколлегией журнала к 90-летию со дня рождения выдающегося российского философа Э.В. Ильенкова. Публикацией данной работы журнал продолжает исследовательскую традицию в области диалектической логики, в развитие которой Эвальд Васильевич внес неоценимый вклад.

Автор статьи – Билл Бауринг – живет в Колчестере, самом старом городе Англии, преподает в Университете Лондона, является профессором права и ба­калавром по специальности «Философия». Со студенческих лет он увлекается философией Спинозы и является его поклонником. Знакомство Билла Бауринга с творчеством Э.В. Ильенкова состоялось в 1979 г., когда партия, в которую он входил, осуществляла перевод и публикацию «Ленинской диалектики и мета­физики позитивизма» Э.В. Ильенкова, и все читали его «Диалектику абстрактно­го и конкретного в «Капитале» Маркса». Автор не изменяет своей первой любви – философии и продолжает изучение творческого наследия выдающегося фило­софа, выступая в дискуссиях и научных обсуждениях не только в своей стране, но и за рубежом. В Англии существует круг поклонников творчества Э.В. Ильенко­ва, есть интернет веб-сайт.

УДК 1(091)141

Bill Bowring – Birkbeck College, University of London


 Introduction. My own interest in Spinoza was sparked by reading, in the early 1980s, one of the later works of E.V. Ilyenkov (1924–1979), for me the most interesting of the philosophers working in the USSR, his Dialectical Logic, especially Essay Two, «Thought as an Attribute of Extension».* Ilyenkov also made extensive reference to Spinoza** in the first two sections of Chapter One of the revised version, for translation into German in 1979, of The Dialectics of the Abstract and Concrete in Marx’s Capital (Abstract and Concrete), first published in Russian in 1960, and in English in 1982.*** It is a curious fact, to which I will return, that all Ilyenkov’s references in Dialectical Logic but one are to Spinoza’s Ethics, with one reference to On the Improvement of the Understanding (Improvement), while all the references in Abstract and Concrete are to Spinoza’s Improvement. I wonder whether Ilyenkov only had Volume 1 of the two volume Selected Works.


* E.V. Ilyenkov (1977) Dialectical Logic (Moscow: Progress) – published in Russian by Politicheskaya Literatura in 1974.

** Ilyenkov’s engagement with Spinoza was through the Collected Works in two very handsome volumes, with a variety of translations, published in 1957 (Moscow: Politicheskaya Literatura), in a large edition of 30 000. Vol 1 contained: an introduction by V. V. Sokolov; A Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being (translated by A. I. Rubin); The Principles of Cartesian Philosophy (translated by V. V. Sokolov) ; Appendix on Metaphysical Thought (translated by V. V. Sokolov); On the Improvement of the Understanding (translated by Ya. M. Vorovskiy); Ethics (translated by N. A. Ivantsov). Volume 2 contained: A Theologico-Political Treatise (translated by M. Lopatkina); Political Treatise (translated by S. M. Rogovin and V. V. Chredin); Correspondence (translated by V.K. Brushlinskiy).

*** E.V. Ilyenkov (1982) The Dialectics of the Abstract and Concrete in Marx’s Capital (Moscow: Progress Publishers) revised edition for translation into German 1979, first published in Russia in 1960.

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Ilyenkov was, as far as I know, not aware of the fact that in March to April 1841, at the age of 22, Karl Marx made extensive transcriptions from Spinoza, together with other philosophers as I outline below, as part of his reading for his doctoral thesis The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.* These notebooks were published by Dietz Verlag in the GDR in 1976, a year before Ilyenkov’s death, in two volumes. Volume 1 contains Marx’s transcriptions in Latin and German; Volume II contains translations from Latin into German, and notes, the «Apparat». A translation into French, by Maximilien Rubel, with an Introduction by Rubel, appeared in 1977.**

Marx had a calligrapher to transcribe at length in Latin, using the 1802 edition of Spinoza’s works published in Jena, from the Theologico-Political Treatise, and from the Correspondence, but not at all from Improvement or Ethics.***

The following questions arise for consideration in this paper. Were Marx and Ilyenkov reading, in effect, two quite different Spinozas? Or was each of them reading Spinoza instrumentally, in order further to develop their own ideas?

Ilyenkov and Spinoza

As Sergei Mareev points out****, although Ilyenkov’s views were formed under the influence of Marx and German classical philosophy, both he and L. S. Vygotsky gave tremendous significance to Spinoza’s ideas. Mareev argues that Ilyenkov did not simply continue the «line» of Spinoza in Soviet philosophy; for the first time he «opened» Spinoza to Mareev and his generation. Before Ilyenkov the Soviet philosophical public knew Spinoza as a mechanical determinist, or as Spinoza the atheist. The last Soviet and first post-Soviet textbooks on Spinoza interpreted him in the spirit of Stalin’s «diamat», as a Cartesian dualist.

Nevertheless, in the collection Evald Ilyenkov’s Philosophy Revisited, published in 2000 following a Symposium in 1999*****, Spinoza did not make much of an appearance. An exception was the section «Iljenkow und das zweite Buch der “Ethik”«, in Wolfgang Jantzen’s chapter «Leontjew, Iljenkow und die Meschetscherjakow-Debatte – Methodologische Bemerkungen».****** Nikolai Veresov, in his chapter «Vygotsky, Ilyenkov and Mamardashvili» discussed Ilyenkov’s attitude to A. N. Leontiev’s «psychological theory of activity». He wrote:

«The main role of such a theory comprised the concept of activity (Tätigheit, deiatelnost’). Activity for Ilyenkov was not a super-category or explanatory

* Karl Marx (1976) Marx/Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), IV Vierte Abteilung : Exzerpte Notizen Marginalien Band 1(Berlin: Dietz Verlag).

** Maximilien Rubel (1977) “Marx à la rencontre de Spinoza” and “Karl Marx: Le Traité Théologico-Politique et la Correspondance de Spinoza: trios cahiers d’étude de l’année 1841” Cahiers Spinoza Numéro 1 Éditions Réplique, Paris, pp.7–159.

*** Marx used the edition edited by Henr[-icus] Eberh[ard] Gottlob Paulus (1802) Benedictus de Spinoza: Opera quae supersunt omnia. Iterum dedenda curavit…. Vol 1. Ienae.

**** Sergei Mareev (2007) “Spinoza v sovetskoi filosofii (Spinoza in Soviet philosophy)” 2 (59) Logos 187–200, at, p. 198.

***** Vesa Oittinen (ed) (2000) Evald Ilyenkov’s Philosophy Revisited (Helsinki: Kikimora Publications).

****** Oittinen (2000) p. 85–88.

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principle. On the contrary, and following Spinoza and Marx, activity was treated as a substance from which both subject and object derive».*

  1. G. Novokhatko, of the Spinoza Archive, however, contributed a whole chapter, Ilyenkov i Spinoza (Ilyenkov and Spinoza).** Although much of the chapter concerned Ilyenkov’s relations with Vygotsky and Leontiev, and his critique of Fichte, the author selected the following passage from Dialectical Logic:

Only by proceeding from the idea of substance could the thinking body understand both itself and the reality with and within which it operated and about which it thought… having once understood the mode of its action (i.e. thought), the thinking body just so comprehended substance as the absolutely necessary condition of interaction with the external world.***

The collection ended with the publication for the first time of Ilyenkov’s 1970 «The Science of Logic».**** This did not refer to Spinoza. However, the passage cited by Novokhatko correctly identified Ilyenkov’s main innovation, and his main point of departure from Spinoza, his concept of the «thinking body» (mysliashchee telo).

According to Mareev, for Ilyenkov Spinoza was first and foremost a monist. He cites a famous passage from Dialectical Logic:

«The brilliance of the solution of the problem of the relation of thinking to the world of bodies in space outside thought (i.e. outside the head of man), which Spinoza formulated in the form of the thesis that thought and extension are not two substances, but only two attributes of one and the same substance, can hardly be exaggerated. This solution immediately rejected every possible kind of interpretation and investigation of thought by the logic of spiritualist and dualist constructions…».*****

Ilyenkov’s special contribution was his assertion that

There are not two different and originally contrary objects of investigation – body and thought – but only one single object, which is the thinking body of living, real, man (or other analogous being, if such exists anywhere in the Universe), only considered from two different and even opposing aspects or points of view.******

According to Ilyenkov, this «simple and profoundly true idea», that thought is a property, a mode of existence of the body, the same as its extension, was expressed by Spinoza in the language of his time, as the insistence that thought and extension are two attributes of one and the same substance «real infinite Nature». Ilyenkov’s original assertion was that «It is in man that Nature really performs, in a self-evident way, that very activity that we are accustomed to call ‘thinking’».*******

Later, in the revised edition of Abstract and Concrete, Ilyenkov pointed out what in his view was wrong with Spinoza:

* Oittinen (2000) p. 137.

** Oittinen (2000) p. 293–306.

*** Ilyenkov (1977) p. 60–61.

**** Oittinen (2000) p. 331–372.

***** Ilyenkov (1977) p. 43.

****** Ilyenkov (1977) p. 31.

******* Ilyenkov (1977) p. 32.

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It would hardly be appropriate to discuss here the short-comings of Spinoza’s conception, as they are well known: Spinoza failed to understand the connection between thinking and practical activity with objects, between theory and practice, the role of practice as the only objective criterion of the truth of a concrete concept.*

In other words, Spinoza failed to grasp the concept of the «thinking body», as well as the fact that, according to Ilyenkov, the human intellect comes into being through the co-activity of the hand and the mind.

Ilyenkov in the Marxist context

In his approach to Spinoza, Ilyenkov most certainly departed from Diamat. But he followed an approach to Spinoza which can be traced through Hegel to Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin and Bukharin.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831) was a close reader and critic of Spinoza, but insisted in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy that «It is therefore worthy of note that thought must begin by placing itself at the standpoint of Spinozism; to be a follower of Spinoza is the essential commencement of all Philosophy».** In his The Science of Logic (1812) , in his «Remark; The Philosophy of Spinoza and Leibniz»*** he wrote : «Determinateness is negation – is the absolute principle of Spinoza’s philosophy; this true and simple insight establishes the absolute unity of substance».**** In the chapter on «The Notion in General» he wrote Besides, a standpoint so lofty and so intrinsically rich as the relation of substance, far from ignoring those assumptions even contains them: one of the attributes of Spinoza’s substance is thinking.*****

Ilyenkov was most certainly aware of these passages.

I will return to Marx below; but Plekhanov relayed the following, often-cited conversation between himself and Engels:

«Thus, according to you» I asked «old Spinoza was right when he said that thought and extension are nothing other than two attributes of one and the same substance?» «Of course “answered Engels “old Spinoza was completely right».******

Engels himself very rarely referred to Spinoza directly, but the following passage from the Introduction to his Dialectics of Nature is thoroughly Spinozist in tone and content: «… we have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, also, that with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on the earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else and at another time again produce it».*******

* Ilyenkov (1982) p. 22.

** G.W. F .Hegel (1995) Lectures on the History of Philosophy: Medieval and Modern Philosophy. Volume 3 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), Spinoza 252-289, at p. 257.

*** Hegel’s Science of Logic (1969) Translated by A. V. Miller (London: George Allen & Unwin) p.536-40).

**** Hegel (1969) p. 536.

***** Hegel (1969) pp. 580–581.

****** Conversation Plekhanov and Engels – G.V. Plekahnov Sochineniya Vol.20 p.363; or G. V. Plekhanov “Bernstein and Materialism”. In Sochineniya Vol.XI (Moscow-Petrograd, 1923) p. 22.

******* F. Engels (1964) Dialectics of Nature (1883) Third Revised Edition (Moscow: Progress Publishers) p. 40.

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Plekhanov in turn considered that «contemporary materialism… is more or less based on Spinozism».* And in his 1908 Materialismus Militans (Reply to Mr Bogdanov)** he wrote in a footnote:

According to Spinoza, the thing (res) is the body (corpus) and at the same time the idea of the body (idea corporis). But since he who perceives himself, also has a perception of his own perception, the thing is a body (corpus), the idea of a body (idea corporis) and finally the idea of the idea of the body (idea ideae corporis). It can be seen from this how close Feuerbach’s materialism is to Spinoza’s teaching.

Lenin followed Hegel’s lead. In his «Conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic» he wrote: «Determinateness is negation…» (Spinoza) Omnis determinatio est negatio, «this statement is of immeasurable importance…».***

Nikolai Bukharin was, after Lenin, the most philosophically-minded Bolshevik leader****. In his Philosophical Arabesques, written in prison following his arrest on 27 February 1937, he showed his deep sympathy with Spinoza*****. He referred to «… the totality of everything concrete… All the storms of becoming are played out in it, and it itself “flows” in infinite time and space, which exist merely as forms of its being. This is the great substance of Spinoza’s causu sui; it is natura naturans and natura naturata simultaneously, stripped of their theological baggage.******

Answering critics of Bolshevik «idealism», he wrote: «In the first place our worthy opponents are no doubt aware that Plekhanov defined Marxism (of course with a grain of salt) as a type of Spinozism. And we all know what Spinozism is».******* In a section on «Freedom and Necessity», Bukharin wrote the following in relation to Lenin’s Conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic:

This is precisely the same view that Spinoza presented in his renowned Ethics, a view he «demonstrated» more geometrico, or in an exact «geometric manner».

Spinoza protested in every possible way against the widespread view that «human beings have unlimited strength and depend on nothing apart from themselves». Spinoza seized brilliantly on this fundamental, this abstract vacuity of «pure will» taken «in itself», that is, outside of all relationships. Pure will is in fact a myth, although the sensation associated with an act of will may be one of complete freedom. «A child thus imagines that it freely wants the milk that feeds it; it gets angry, it thinks it freely seeks revenge; if it gets scared, that it freely

* G.V. Plekhanov (1956) Izbranniye filosofskiye proizvedeniyai (Collected philosophical works) Moscow Vol.2, p. 339.

** G.V. Plekhanov (1973) Voinstvuyushchii Materializm (Materialismus Militans (Reply to Mr Bogdanov) (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

*** V.I. Lenin (1963) Collected Works Vol.38 Philosophical Notebooks (London: Lawrence & Wishart), p.108.

**** Burzhuaziya (Baruch Spinoza and the Bourgeoisie) Bibliotek “Ogonyok” Zhurnalno-gazetnoye obyedineniye, Moscow 1933 at – a thoroughly superficial account.

***** Nikolai Bukharin (2005) Philosophical Arabesques (London: Pluto Press).

****** Bukharin (2005) p. 90–91.

******* Bukharin (2005) p. 175.

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wants to run away».* But here, as we see, what is always involved is necessity in Aristotle’s third sense, and it is only about this necessity that we are talking in the present instance. This necessity is the main object, the center of the whole problem; in no way is it the «constraint» mentioned by Aristotle.

Ilyenkov would not have known of these writings; but Bukharin would not have been alone among the Bolsheviks in his enthusiastic interest in Spinoza.

Ilyenkov’s instrumental engagement with Spinoza – Dialectical Logic

I have already indicated that Ilyenkov quoted from two texts of Spinoza only. His use of them was in my view entirely instrumental, in the sense that he took Spinoza as assisting him in working out his own philosophy.

  1. Campbell Creighton, the translator of Dialectical Logic, did not seek to translate the Russian of the translation from Latin by N. A. Ivantsov from which Ilyenkov drew, but instead used that of W. H. White from Great Books of the Western World. A much better translation into English in my view is that of the Spinoza scholar Edwin Curley in the Penguin edition (Penguin).**

In Dialectical Logic, in only the second essay out of eleven, Ilyenkov’s aim was to establish his concept of the «thinking body». In order to do so, his citations from Ethics were selective and in some respects contrary to Spinoza’s own teaching. Not that Ilyenkov should be criticised for this. He was not writing an exposition of Spinoza.***

Andrey Maidanskiy analysed precisely this substantial difference between Ilyenkov and Spinoza in 2002. He wrote.****

In the texts of Spinoza the expression «thinking body» (corpus cogitans) is nowhere to be found. Moreover, Spinoza directly states that the thinking thing is the mind, and not the body: «Part II Definition 3: By idea I understand a concept of the mind which the mind forms because it is a thinking thing».*****

In Spinoza’s Metaphysical Thoughts the term res cogitans is defined precisely:

We have said that the human mind is a thinking thing. From this it follows that, merely from its own nature and considered only in itself (ex sola sua natura, in se sola spectata), it can do something, to wit, think, that is, affirm and deny.******

Thus it is not the body, but the mind which thinks. Ilyenkov without any basis saw in Spinoza’s philosophy a directly contradictory truth: «It is not a special

* Penguin (1996) p. 73.

** Benedict de Spinoza (1996) Ethics translated by Edwin Curley (London: Penguin Books).

*** This point is made by Vesa Oittinen (2005) “Evald Il’enkov as an Interpreter of Spinoza” v.57 n.3 Studies in East European Thought pp. 319–338.

**** Andrey Maidansky (2002) “Ponyatiye myshleniya u Ilyenkova i Spinozy (The concept of thinking in Ilyenkov and Spinoza)” 8 Voprosy filosofii (Problems of Philosophy) pp. 163–173, at. (accessed on 23 January 2013).

***** Penguin (1996) p. 32.

****** Spinoza (2002) Complete Works (translations by Samuel Shirley) (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company) Appendix Containing Metaphysical Thoughts, Part II, Chapter 12, p. 209.

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«soul» that thinks… but the body of man itself».* However, according to Spinoza, the body does not think, it is only the object of some ideas (and by no means all). Maidansky cites Spinoza’s Letter IV, addressed to Henry Oldenburg, a passage transcribed by Marx as I show below: «… you say: perhaps thought is a corporeal action… I by no means grant it…».** In an article published in English a year later***, Maidansky observed that for Ilyenkov, while Spinoza had rightly defined the relation of the ideal to the real in general, he could not solve the riddle of the birth of the human intellect. Ilyenkov’s advance on Spinoza was to hold that the ideal arises from real action, the co-action of a hand with an external thing.****

Having correctly cited several propositions of Spinoza on pages 61 to 68, footnotes 10, 14 and 15, Ilyenkov argued the following:

In other words, an adequate idea is only the conscious state of our body identical in form with the thing outside the body. This can be represented quite clearly. When I describe a circle with my hand on a piece of paper (in real space), my body, according to Spinoza, comes into a state fully identical with the form of the circle outside my body, into a state of real action in the form of a circle. My body (my hand) really describes a circle, and the awareness of this state (i.e. of the form of my own action in the form of the thing) is also the idea, which is, moreover, ‘adequate’.*****

Ilyenkov gave no reference for this, and, indeed, there is none. This passage appears nowhere in Spinoza. Ilyenkov was putting his own philosophy into Spinoza’s mouth. As will be seen, Ilyenkov may well have had in mind a passage from the OIU, but this is not Spinoza. In fact, in Ilyenkov’s thought, Spinoza’s teaching had been transmuted into «action philosophy».

Immediately after this passage, Ilyenkov cited Postulates IV and VI in Part II «Of the Mind» of Ethics******, and the White translation is good enough. He then cited the last sentence of the proof (demonstration) of Proposition 14, out of context. The passage as a whole reads, in the Penguin translation*******:

  1. 14: The human mind is capable of perceiving a great many things, and is the more capable, the more its body can be disposed in a great many ways.

Dem: For the human body is affected in a great many ways by external bodies, and is disposed to affect external bodies in a great many ways. But the human mind must perceive everything which happens in the human body. Therefore, the human mind is capable of perceiving a great many things, and is the more capable [-,NS: as the human body is more capable], q.e.d.

* Ilyenkov (1977) p. 32.

** Elwes Corr (1951) p. 283.

*** Andrey Maidansky (2003) “The Russian Spinozists” 55 Studies in East European Thought pp.199–216.

**** Maidansky (2003) pp. 209–210.

***** Ilyenkov (1977) p. 69.

****** Penguin (1996) p. 44.

******* Penguin (1996) p. 44.

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Ilyenkov continued*:

In other words, the more numerous and varied the means it has to ‘move and arrange external bodies’, the more it has ‘in common’ with other bodies.

But this is not Spinoza’s position at all; Ilyenkov was not simply paraphrasing Spinoza. He was developing his own activity theory.

A page or so later**, Ilyenkov cited Proposition 39 of Spinoza. In the Penguin translation it is as follows:

  1. 39: If something is common to, and peculiar to, the human body and certain external bodies by which the human body is usually affected, and is equally in the part and in the whole of each of them, its idea will also be adequate to the mind.

Ilyenkov did not cite the demonstration.

Cor (corollary).: From this it follows that the mind is the more capable of perceiving many things adequately as its body has many things in common with other bodies.

In the text of Dialectical Logic, this was completely garbled. Ilyenkov returned to Proposition 38, and the following, in the Penguin translation:

From this it follows that there are certain ideas, or notions, common to all men. For all bodies agree in certain things, which must be perceived adequately, or clearly and distinctly, by all.

And then on the same page Ilyenkov went right back to Proposition 26:

  1. 26: The human mind does not perceive any external body as actually existing, except through the ideas of the affections of its own body.***

Thus, Ilyenkov reversed Spinoza’s logical sequence; and then jumped almost to the end of the Ethics to Part V, «Of Human Freedom», Proposition 39:

  1. 39: He who has a body capable of a great many things has a mind whose greatest part is eternal.****

Ilyenkov stated***** that there follows from this Proposition something which in Spinoza’s text precedes it by several pages, and again took a line (shown underlined) out of context, which is part of the proof of Proposition 25 in Part V.

  1. 25: The greatest striving of the mind, and its greatest virtue is understanding things by the third kind of knowledge.

Dem: The third kind of knowledge proceeds from an adequate idea of certain attributes of God to an adequate knowledge of the essence of things, and the more we understand things in this way, the more we understand God. Therefore, the greatest virtue of the mind, that is, the mind’s power, or nature, or its greatest striving, is to understand things by the third kind of knowledge.******

* Ilyenkov (1977) p. 69.

** Ilyenkov (1977) p. 71.

*** Penguin (1996) p. 50.

**** Penguin (1996) p. 178.

***** Ilyenkov (1977) p. 72.

****** Penguin (1996) p. 173.

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From this selective arrangement Ilyenkov extracted the following:

Therefore the real composition of psychic activity (including the logical component of thought) is not in the least determined by the structure and arrangement of the parts of the human body and brain, but by the external conditions of universally human activity in the world of other bodies.*

But this again is Ilyenkov’s «activity philosophy» and has nothing to do with Spinoza’s own teaching.

There is one further citation from Spinoza in Dialectical Logic, although the English translation omits the footnote which is to be found in Ilyenkov’s Russian text. In Essay 8, «The Materialist Conception of Thought as the Subject Matter of Logic», Ilyenkov elaborated on his central concept of the ideal:

Determination of the ideal is thus especially dialectical. It is that which is not, together with that which is, that which does not exist in the form of an external, sensuously perceived thing but at the same time does exist as an active faculty of man.**

For this he quoted not from the Ethics, but from Improvement, as follows:

A definition, if it is to be called perfect, must explain the inmost essence of a thing, and must take care not to substitute for this any of its properties… If a circle is defined as a figure, such that all straight lines drawn from the centre to the circumference are equal, everyone can see that such a definition does not in the least explain the essence of a circle, but solely one of its properties.

  1. If the thing in question be created, the definition must (as we have said) comprehend the proximate cause. For instance, a circle should, according to this rule, be defined as follows: the figure described by any line whereof one end is fixed and the other free. This definition clearly comprehends the proximate cause.***

Once again, it can be seen that Ilyenkov’s appropriation of Spinoza was undertaken not in order to explain Spinoza, but to advance his own philosophical position – which is, of course, not a criticism. Ilyenkov created his own Spinoza, the better to express his original ideas.

Ilyenkov’s instrumental engagement with Spinoza – The Dialectics of the Abstract and Concrete in Marx’s Capital

It would appear that Ilyenkov added to Abstract and Concrete a passage referring to Spinoza in the very last years of his life; Abstract and Concrete was first published in Russia in 1960, but without that passage. The translator of the English version, Sergei Syrovatkin, used the standard Elwes translation of Improvement.

Ilyenkov started**** with the following:

Consistent materialists realised the weakness of the nominalistic view of the concept, its vulnerability to idealist speculations and errors. Spinoza stressed that

* Ilyenkov (1977) p. 72.

** Ilyenkov (1977) p. 264.

*** Spinoza “On the improvement of the understanding” Dover Edition 1955 Volume 2, translated by R. H. M. Elwes, p. 35 – Elwes.

**** Ilyenkov (1982) p. 17.

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the concept of substance, expressing the «first principle of nature», «cannot be conceived abstractedly or universally, and cannot extend further in the understanding than it does in reality».

In fact the passage in question is:

But since the first principle of nature cannot (as we shall see hereafter) be conceived abstractly or universally, and cannot extend further in the understanding than it does in reality, and has no likeness to mutable things, no confusion need be feared in respect to the idea of it, provided (as before shown) that we possess a standard of truth. That is, in fact, a being single and infinite; in other words, it is the sum total of being, beyond which there is no being found.

Ilyenkov therefore omitted the heart of Spinoza’s notion of substance.

On the following page, Ilyenkov attributed to Spinoza a reference to «the mode of ‘chaotic experience’ uncontrolled by reason».* This is not to be found in Spinoza, and the passage cited, jumping back several pages in Improvement, is:

The second mode of perception cannot be said to give us the idea of the proportion of which we are in search. Moreover its results are very uncertain and indefinite, for we shall never discover anything in natural phenomena by its means, except accidental properties, which are never clearly understood, unless the essence of the things in question be known first.**

For a critique of Spinoza, Ilyenkov cited a long passage:

Now that we know what kind of knowledge is necessary for us, we must indicate the way and the method whereby we may gain the said knowledge concerning the things needful to be known. In order to accomplish this, we must first take care not to commit ourselves to a search going back to infinity – that is, in order to discover the best method for finding out the truth, there is no need of another method to discover such a method; nor of a third method for discovering the second, and so on to infinity. By such proceedings, we should never arrive at the knowledge of the truth, or, indeed any knowledge at all. The matter stands on the same footing as the making of material tools, which might be argued about in a similar way. For, in order to work iron, a hammer is needed, and the hammer cannot be forthcoming unless it has been made; but, in order to make it, there was need of another hammer and other tools, and so on to infinity. We might thus vainly endeavour to prove that men have no power of working iron. But as men at first made use of the instruments supplied by nature to accomplish very easy pieces of workmanship, laboriously and imperfectly, and then, when these were finished, wrought other things more difficult with less labour and greater perfection; and so gradually mounted from the simplest operations to the making of tools, and from the making of tools to the making of more complex tools and fresh feats of workmanship, till they arrived at making, with small expenditure of labour, the vast number of complicated mechanisms which they now possess.

* Ilyenkov (1982) p. 18.

** Elwes (1955) p. 11.

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So, in like manner, the intellect, by its native strength, makes for itself intellectual instruments, whereby it acquires strength for performing other intellectual operations, and from these operations gets again fresh instruments or the power of pushing its investigations further, and thus gradually proceeds until it reaches the summit of wisdom.*

Ilyenkov’s gloss was as follows:

Here Spinoza attempts a fundamentally materialist interpretation of the innateness of ‘intellectual instruments’, deducing it from man’s natural organisation rather than from the ‘God’ of Descartes or Leibniz.

What Spinoza failed to understand was the fact that the originally imperfect ‘intellectual instruments’ are products of material labour rather than of nature… that is merely an organic shortcoming of the entire old materialism.**

Finally, Ilyenkov cited the passage we have already seen, concerning the definition of a circle, also cited in Essay 8 of Dialectical Logic.

Spinoza was therefore not, for Ilyenkov, «Marx without the beard»; rather, Spinoza in his hands was an effective weapon, suitably adapted, in the war against Diamat, all the better for carrying the seal of approval of the Marxist and Bolshevik tradition.

Marx and Spinoza

Marx began his philosophical notebooks in 1839, with materials for his doctoral dissertation The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, which he submitted in 1841.*** He made 141 pages of transcripts of Epicurean Philosophy – Diogenes, Epicurus, Sextus Empiricus, Democritus, Epikurus and others, and Seneca to the beginning of 1840. In 1840 he made 27 pages of transcripts from Aristotle’s De Anima (On the Soul); in March 1841 29 pages of transcripts from Leibniz in Latin and French; from January to March 1841 19 pages of transcripts from David Hume in German translation; from March to April 1841 43 pages of transcripts in Latin from Spinoza; during the same period 11 pages of transcripts from Rozencranz’s History of Kantian Philosophy; and from the beginning of April to the end of May 1842 87 pages of transcripts on the History of Art and Religion – the Bonn notebook. The transcriptions from Spinoza were the most substantial.

It will be recalled that in the first half of 1842 Marx was engaged in polemical journalism, in defence of freedom of expression, his «Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction»**** and, in the Rheinische Zeitung, «Debates on Freedom of the Press and Publication of the Proceedings of the Assembly of the

* Ilyenkov (1982) p. 19; Elwes (1955) pp. 11–12.

** Ilyenkov (1982) pp. 19–20.

*** Karl Marx (1975) Marx Engels Collected Works (MECW) Vol.1 (London: Lawrence & Wishart) pp. 32–105.

**** Karl Marx (1975) MECW Vol 1 pp. 109–131 written between 15 January and 10 February 1842.

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Estates».* In September-November 1844 he and Friedrich Engels wrote The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Criticism. Against Bruno Bauer and Company.**

Marx’s Notebook was headed «Spinoza›s Theoligisch-politischer Tractat (written by the calligrapher) von Karl Heinrich Marx. Berlin. 1841 (in Marx’s own handwriting)» – «Spinoza’s Theologico-political Treatise by Karl Heinrich Marx».*** Marx did not start at the beginning of the Treatise. The first transcription was from Chapter 6 of the Treatise, «Of miracles».**** In particular, Marx transcribed the following passage:

Further, as nothing happens in nature which does not follow from her laws, and as her laws embrace everything conceived by the Divine intellect, and lastly, as nature follows a fixed and immutable order; it most clearly follows that miracles are only intelligible as in relation to human opinions, and merely mean events of which the natural cause cannot be explained by a reference to any ordinary occurrence, either by us, or at any rate, by the writer and narrator of the miracle.*****

Marx next turned to Chapter 14, «Definitions of faith»******, especially the following: …philosophy has no end in view save truth: faith, as we have abundantly proved, looks for nothing but obedience and piety. Again, philosophy is based on axioms which must be sought from nature alone: faith is based on history and language, and must be sought for only in Scripture and revelation*******…followed by Chapter 15 «Theology not subservient to reason».********

At this point Marx made an abrupt shift to a later chapter focusing on more political issues: Chapter 20, «Freedom of thought and speech»********, «that in a free state every man may think whatever he likes, and say what he thinks»********, including:

If men’s minds were as easily controlled as their tongues, every king would sit safely on his throne, and government by compulsion would cease… However, we have shown already that no man’s mind can possibly lie wholly at the disposition of another, for no one can willingly transfer his natural right of free reason and judgment, or be compelled to do so And the true aim of government is liberty.

* Karl Marx (1975) first article Rheinische Zeitung No.125 5 May 1842 MECW Vol 1 pp. 132–181.

** Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1975). The book was first published in February 1845, Frankfurt am Main. The work was never translated into English in either man’s lifetime; 1956 English translation by Richard Dixon and Clement Dutts and is taken from the 1845 German edition; MECW Volume 4, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, Moscow).

*** Benedict de Spinoza A Theologico-political Treatise Unabridged Elwes Translation Dover Publications Inc, New York 1951. For a recent fascinating historical contextualisation of this work, see Susan James (2012) Spinoza on Philosophy, Religion and Politics: The Theologico-Political Treatise (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

**** Elwes TPT (1951) pp. 81–97.

***** Elwes TPT (1951) p. 84.

****** Elwes TPT (1951) pp. 182–189.

******* Elwes TPT (1951) p. 189.

******** Elwes TPT (1951) pp. 190–199.

******** Elwes TPT (1951) pp. 257–259.

******** Elwes TPT (1951) p. 257.

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Next, Marx went back one chapter, to Chapter 19, «Of the outward forms of religion» – «It is shown that the right over matters spiritual lies wholly with the sovereign. And that the outward forms of religion should be in accordance with public peace, if we would obey God aright»; to Chapter 18, «Of certain political doctrines» – «From the commonwealth of the Hebrews, and their history, certain political doctrines are deduced», to Chapter 17 «Of the Hebrew theocracy» – «It is shown that no one can, or need, transfer all his rights to the sovereign power», and to Chapter 16, «Of the foundations of a state» – «Of the natural and civil rights of individuals; and of the rights of the sovereign power».

Marx then jumped to Chapters 7 to 13, on the interpretation of scripture; and finally Chapters 1 to 5, on prophecy, prophets, divine law and ceremonial law.

What can we conclude? We have no evidence other than the choices Marx made in his transcription – the directions he gave to his calligrapher. First, therefore, it would appear that he was grappling with religion and sorting out for himself the materialism and indeed substance monism which were the foundation for his and Engels’s work. Second, we know that issues of censorship and freedom of expression were the subject matter of Marx’s first public writings. So those were the sections of the Treatise to which Marx turned first. Maximilian Rubel asks:

Comment expliquer ce curieux regroupement de chapitres?… Tout au plus pourrait-on presume que l’étudiant Marx a voulu retenir les enseignements du Traité dans l’ordre qu’il jugeait plus conforme à l’esprit et aux necessities de l’époque où il vivait, d’où l’inversion des deux grands themes qui font l’objet du Traité, la religion et la politique.

Marx and Spinoza’s Correspondence

As with the Treatise, Marx did not take the Correspondence in order. He went straight to Letter XXXII (XIX) from Spinoza to William de Blyenburgh, December 1664, in which Spinoza explained why «I cannot admit that sin and evil have any positive existence, far less that anything can exist, or come to pass, contrary to the will of God».* From that letter Marx returned to Letter II (II) of August 1661 to Henry Oldenberg, in which Spinoza wrote:

I will begin then by speaking briefly of God, Whom I define as a Being consisting in infinite attributes, whereof each is infinite or supremely perfect after its kind. You must observe that by attribute I mean everything which is conceived through itself and in itself, so that the conception of it does not involve the conception of anything else. For instance, extension is conceived through itself, but motion is not.**

That was followed in his transcription by Letter IV (IV) from Spinoza to Oldenburg, with the following highly significant passage, already referred to by Maidansky, as noted above:

* Elwes Corr (1951) p. 332.

** Elwes Corr (1951) p. 277.

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But you say: perhaps thought is a corporeal action: be it so, though I by no means grant it: you, at any rate, will not deny that extension, in so far as it is extension, is not thought, and this is all that is required for explaining my definition…*

Marx transcribed from letters V, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XIII, XIV and referred to Letter XV, from Spinoza to Henry Oldenburg, which includes:

… I will premise that I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or deformed, ordered or confused.**

Letters XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX are followed by Letter XXI, and XXIII. This contains Spinoza’s careful explanation:

… I should like briefly to explain here, in what sense I assert that a fatal necessity presides over all things and actions. God is in no wise subject to fate: I conceive that all things follow with inevitable necessity from the nature of God, in the same way as еveryone conceives that it follows from God’s nature that God understands himself.***

Letter XXIV is followed by Letter XXV of 7 February 1676, Spinoza to Oldenburg:

When I said in my former letter that we are inexcusable, because we are in the power of God, like clay in the hands of a potter, I meant to be understood in the sense, that no one can bring a complaint against God for having given him a weak nature or infirm spirit.****

Letter XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII (Spinoza to Simon de Vries), XXIX, XXX, and finally LXXIV, a magnificent retort to Albert Burgh, his former pupil, who had recently become a Catholic, and had condemned his former friends:

You cannot possibly deny, unless you have lost your memory as well as your reason, that in every Church there are thoroughly honourable men, who worship God with justice and charity.

… what distinguishes the Romish Church from others must be something entirely superfluous, and therefore founded solely on superstition.

For I do not presume that I have found the best philosophy, I know that I understand the true philosophy. If you ask in what way I know it, I answer: In the same way as you know that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles…

… and also examine the history of the Church (of which I see you are completely ignorant), in order to see how false, in many respects, is Papal tradition, and by what course of events and with what cunning the Pope of Rome six hundred years after Christ obtained supremacy over the Church*****…

* Elwes Corr (1951) p. 283.

** Elwes Corr (1951) p. 290.

*** Elwes Corr (1951) p. 301.

**** Elwes Corr (1951) p. 305.

***** Elwes Corr (1951) p. 414–419.

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Although Marx made no transcription from Ethics or from On the Improvement of the Understanding, his close attention to the Correspondence would have given him more than a competent understanding of Spinoza’s philosophy. However it is highly likely, in my view, that his motivation in selecting these passages was to equip himself for his left-Hegelian critique of religion, and for his pursuit of radical democracy and freedom of expression as against the Prussian authorities.

It has been noted that Marx entitled his transcription «Spinoza’s Theologico-political Treatise by Karl Heinrich Marx». Like Ilyenkov, he in effect constructed his own Spinoza. Alexandre Matheron put it this way:

Ayant éliminé ce qui, du texte de Spinoza, ne l’intéressait pas ou ne pouvait server à son eventual projet, Marx reconstitute un autre texte, qui a sa coherence proper, et dont il semble avoir tenu à faire ressortir toutes les articulations.*

Matheron provided a detailed analysis of Marx’s selections, and the way that Marx through his selection really did produce a Marxian Spinoza. In his view two extreme hypotheses were possible: «… peut-être Marx projette-t-il sur Spinoza ses propres idées, peut-être s’en sert-il au contraire comme d’un repoussoir…».** Matheron’s conclusion was that despite Marx’s radical re-working, Spinoza’s fundamental theses (les theses maîtresses) had not been falsified by him. One thing is certain: the young Marx was a particularly attentive reader.

Spinoza in Marx’s works

It has been pointed out that Marx seldom referred directly to Spinoza in his writings, and commentators such as Perry Anderson regard his few citations as «of the most banal sort». That for me shows a lack of attention by Anderson.*** Indeed, certain citations are of great interest, in showing precisely how Marx deployed Spinoza explicitly.

In his 1842 «Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction», referred to above, Marx wrote the following:

«Verum index sui et falsi» (Truth is the touchstone of itself and of falsehood (Spinoza, Ethics Part II, Prop 43)**** «As the light makes both itself and the darkness plain, so truth is the standard both of itself and of the false».*****

and a few pages later he referred to Kant, Fichte and Spinoza.

In 1844, in The Holy Family, he wrote:

The dispute between Strauss and Bauer over Substance and Self-Consciousness is a dispute within Hegelian speculation. In Hegel there are three elements, Spinoza’s Substance, Fichte’s Self-Consciousness and Hegel’s necessarily antagonistic unity

* Alexandre Matheron (1977) “Le Traité Theologico-Politique vu par le jeune Marx” Cahiers Spinoza Numéro 1 Éditions Réplique, Paris, pp. 159–212, p. 161.

** Matheron (1977) p. 212.

*** Perry Anderson (1976) Considerations on Western Marxism (London: New Left Books) p. 64 fn. 30.

**** Penguin (1996) p. 58.

***** “Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction” MECW Vol 1 pp.109–131 written between 15 January and 10 February 1842, at p. 112.

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of the two, the Absolute Spirit. The first element is metaphysically disguised nature separated from man; the second is metaphysically disguised spirit separated from nature; the third is the metaphysically disguised unity of both, real man and the real human species.

Within the domain of theology, Strauss expounds Hegel from Spinoza’s point of view, and Bauer does so from Fichte’s point of view, both quite consistently. They both criticised Hegel insofar as with him each of the two elements was falsified by the other, whereas they carried each of these elements to its one-sided and hence consistent development. — Both of them therefore go beyond Hegel in their criticism, but both also remain within his speculation and each represents only one side of his system. Feuerbach, who completed and criticised Hegel from Hegel’s point of view by resolving the metaphysical Absolute Spirit into «real man on the basis of nature», was the first to complete the criticism of religion by sketching in a grand and masterly manner the basic features of the criticism of Hegel’s speculation and hence of all metaphysics.*

Finally, in 1858, in the Grundrisse, unpublished until 1939, Marx wrote:

The act of production is therefore in all its moments also an act of consumption. But the economists admit this. Production as directly identical with consumption, and consumption as directly coincident with production, is termed by them productive consumption. This identity of production and consumption amounts to Spinoza’s thesis: determinatio est negatio. – note 11. ‘Determination is negation’, i.e. given the undifferentiated self-identity of the universal world substance, to attempt to introduce particular determinations is to negate this self-identity. (Spinoza, Letters, No.50, to J. Jelles, 2 June 1674.).**

This incidentally shows that Marx was familiar with letters of Spinoza which he had not transcribed.

Although he intended to do so, Marx never wrote a text dealing specifically with philosophy, and instead turned his attention from very early to a critique of political economy.

But strong claims, with which I agree, have been made for Marx’s Spinozism. Yirmiyahu Yovel, in his Spinoza and Other Heretics***, asserted that

Marx used Spinoza’s thought far more than he admitted. Spinoza was above all a counterbalance and corrective to Hegel, restoring the concept of nature and man as a concrete, natural being from what seemed to Marx his immersion in the lofty and semireligious heights of the Hegelian Geist… Marx’s new philosophy of immanence, though strongly influenced by Hegel and his milieu, goes back to Spinoza in more ways than one. Indeed, Spinoza is almost always present in

* Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Criticism.

** Against Bruno Bauer and Company Chapter VI 3) f) The Speculative Cycle of Absolute Criticism and the Philos-ophy of Self-Consciousness at.

*** MECW Volume 4, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1975.

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Marx’s thought. But, we may add, the actual presence of Spinoza in Marx far surpasses his direct mention by name.

In the view of Maximilien Rubel, «Les traces ‘spinoziennes’ dans la correspondence de Marx, sans être fréquentes, témoignent de l’intensité de cette rencontre».* Yovel also confirmed my sense that Marx turned to Spinoza especially for the critique of religion:

Just as the young Marx was ploughing his way through Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise and affixing his own name to the excerpts he diligently copied from it, Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity (1841) was bringing Spinoza’s critique of religion up-to-date. The link between the two books was too timely and apparent for Marx to overlook.**

Yovel further identified correctly the manner in which Marx read in order to equip himself for the struggle with the Prussians:

But Marx, diligent student of the Theologico-Political Treatise, could not fail to see the link it established between theory and practice on the one hand, and between political and religious emancipation on the other.***

Finally, Yovel, without referring to Ilyenkov, identified precisely the manner in which Ilyenkov would, without knowing about Marx’s transcriptions, discover a rich source of inspiration in (his own) Spinoza:

The entity which Marx considers ontologically self-sufficient is not «nature» in the homogenous sense of Spinoza, but a dialectical interaction of nature and man, whereby each affects the other in a practical mode (work, shaping, reproduction). The hyphenated term man-in-nature seems more adequate to express this idea than Marx’s man and nature, since Marx clearly does not have a simple conjunction in mind but a dialectical reciprocity.

This is Ilyenkov’s «thinking body», in the context of his «activity philosophy».


Eugene Holland has summarised**** the return of Spinoza in the 20th century, and his impact on Marxist and critical thinkers in the post-WWII period:

Althusser’s efforts to expunge Hegelianism from Marx’s work involved replacing Hegel with Spinoza in many respects, although the extent of Althusser’s reliance on and confidence in Spinoza remains unclear.***** More dramatically, Antonio Negri has argued in favor of Spinoza’s materialism, suggesting it is an important, early-modern precursor of Marx’s fully modern materialism.******

* Rubel (1977) p. 24.

** Rubel (1977) p. 80.

*** Yovel (1992) p. 83.

**** Eugene Holland (1998) “Spinoza and Marx” Cultural Logic, v.2, n.1, at. m

***** See Louis Althusser (1997) “The Only Materialist Tradition” in Warren Montag and Ted Stolze (eds) The New Spinoza (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), pp. 3–20.

****** Antonio Negri (1999) The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

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Pierre Macherey has staged a direct confrontation between Spinoza and Hegel, stressing the degree to which the former eludes the grasp of the latter’s history of philosophy, and therefore represents an important alternative to Hegelian views.* Gilles Deleuze, finally, has mined the western philosophical tradition for alternatives to Hegel, among which Spinoza must be counted as one of the most important.**

To these should be added Althusser’s co-worker Etienne Balibar, whose Spinoza and Politics is in my view and perhaps his, one of his best works.*** And Vesa Oittinen has analysed Althusser’s «left-voluntarist» reading of Spinoza****, especially in Reading Capital.*****

Recently, the intellectual historian Jonathan Israel has written a series of books seeking to reinstate Spinoza as a philosopher in his own time, and as a key figure of the enlightenment and its intellectual and political explosions.****** Israel has been joined by the almost equally prolific philosopher Steven Nadler.******* I mentioned in my Introduction Moses Hess and the remark attributed to him that Spinoza was the prophet of the French Revolution. The religion-inclined historian Samuel Moyn, a scholar of Emanuel Levinas, who regards the Enlightenment and especially the French Revolution as diversions in human history and the history of ideas********, reprimanded Israel for suggesting, in effect, that Spinoza caused the French Revolution.******** There followed an acerbic exchange in which Israel described Moyn’s review as nonsense, and asked Moyn whether he should be described as a gnat or a vulture********. Connoisseurs of academic sword-play should consult these articles. The more serious point is that Spinoza arouses the same degree of controversy and passion as he did in his own time, in Marx’s time, and in the USSR.

* Pierre Macherey (2012) Hegel or Spinoza (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

** Gilles Deleuze (1992) Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza (New York: Zone Books); and Gilles Deleuze (1988) Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (San Francisco: City of Lights Books).

*** Etienne Balibar (2008) Spinoza and Politics (London: Verso).

**** Vesa Oittinen (1994) “Althussers linksvoluntarische Spinoza-Lektüre”, pp. 19–24 in Vesa Oittinen Spinozistische Dialektik (Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang).

***** Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar (2009) Reading Capital (London, Verso).

****** Jonathan I. Israel (2002) Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (new ed Oxford: OUP); (2008) Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752 (Oxford: OUP); (2011) Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790 (Oxford: OUP); (2011) A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

******* Steven Nadler (2001) Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press);(2006) Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press); (2011) A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Trea-tise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

******** Samuel Moyn (2012) The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

******** Samuel Moyn “Mind the Enlightenment” The Nation 31 May 2010, at. (accessed on 19 January 2013).

******** Jonathan Israel, Samuel Moyn “Spinoza and Vultures and Gnats, Oh My!” The Nation 5 July 2010, at (accessed on 19 January 2013).

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Just as with Marx and Ilyenkov, Spinoza has been deployed in order to serve as a foundation for systems of ideas which Spinoza would never have countenanced. Both Marx and Ilyenkov read Spinoza very closely indeed, and were profoundly influenced by a variety of his works. They both (re)constructed their own Spinozas, for their own purposes. I am sure Ilyenkov would have been delighted to find that Marx was like him excited and confirmed in his outlook by Spinoza; I do not think he would in any way have changed his «action philosophy». In the final analysis, Spinoza is in no way diminished by these very different engagements: his continuing relevance and power are strikingly confirmed.

My response to the open letter on Russia drafted by David Miller and Piers Robinson.

My response to the open letter on Russia drafted by David Miller and Piers Robinson.

Dear David and Piers,

I would not sign this letter.

My attitude to the present Russian regime, a reactionary authoritarian regime on a par with those of Erdogan and Trump, mirrors that of Karl Marx to the Russian Empire, which he characterised as “the gendarme of Europe”. In 1856 he wrote: “ It is in the terrible and abject school of Mongolian slavery that Muscovy was nursed and grew up. It gathered strength only by becoming a virtuoso in the craft of serfdom. Even when emancipated, Muscovy continued to perform its traditional part of the slave as master. At length Peter the Great coupled the political craft of the Mongol slave with the proud aspiration of the Mongol master, to whom Genghis Khan had, by will, bequeathed his conquest of the earth.” Putin, a true heir to the Russian Tsars, whom Marx detested, regards Lenin not only as a German spy but as the spy who destroyed the Russian Empire, and placed an atomic bomb under the USSR leading to its collapse, the greatest tragedy in his view of the 20th century – which is why there was no 1917 commemoration in Russia last year.

Amongst other things I represent at Strasbourg the widow, Marina, of Aleksandr Litvinenko who was murdered with Pollonium radioactive material in 2006 by Russians, one of whom is now a member of the Russian Duma, with consequent immunity. Mrs May has form. As Home Secretary, she blocked a public inquiry into the murder, and Marina only secured an inquiry by going to the Court of Appeal against May’s decision. The Russian regime has ridiculed May’s threats – Russia will not be visited by the Royal family! – and the Kremlin says this morning that the UK’s reaction added at least 10% to Putin’s vote yesterday. Boris Johnson could not avoid yesterday on Marr the fact the Tory Party has received huge sums of money from Russians close to the Kremlin. And a star of British capital, BP, owns 20% of the Russian state oil company Rosneft, making huge profits. The Russian regime does not fear the UK. On the contrary, it laughs at the posturing of May, Johnson and the others.

My colleagues the lawyer Stanislav Markelov, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the human rights activist Natasha Estemirova, and the leading opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, were all murdered in circumstances where operatives have been sentenced, but those who ordered the murders have impunity, with very strong suspicion focused on the Kremlin. The regime is now rounding up and torturing anarchists and anti-fascists. See…/…/sevastopol-anarchist-who-expo…/…/…/call-soli-actions-russian-anarchists.

The Russian regime is also complicit in Turkey’s crimes against Afrin and the Kurdish resistance. Russia had troops in Afrin and was providing air cover. The week before Turkey’s attack, senior Turkish officials visited Moscow and spoke with Mr Shoigu, the Russian Minister of Defence. Russian forces withdrew, and the Russian regime gave a green light to Turkey. See…/russia-helping-turkey-afrin-180……/russia-green-light-turkeys-afri……/sipan-hemo-russia-betrayed-the-kur…. Putin and Erdogan have Kurdish blood on their hands.

Another six years of President Putin is a much greater threat to world peace than the antics of May and Johnson.

Kind regards,


Maria Issaeva – A Nationalized Approach to International Law: the Case of Russia – and my comment


A Nationalized Approach to International Law: the Case of Russia


When a new edition of one of the most authoritative Soviet international law textbooks co-authored by professor Tunkin was published in 1999, most of its chapters repeated the previous 1981 version of the same textbook word-for-word, with references to “bourgeois” science of international law in the 1981 edition simply replaced by global change to “Western” science of international law in the 1999 edition. This is probably the best illustration of the continued – despite the end of the Cold War – ideological split between the “communist” and the “capitalist” systems in the Russian international law mentality. Building upon a legacy of strong Soviet rhetoric, guardians of the closed system of ‘Russian international law’ continue, domestically, to view and present it as the leading ‘science’ of international law in the world – a world that unfairly fails to likewise accord it such status. Yet the ‘outer world’ of international legal profession barely knows of the ‘Russian international law’.

The annexation of Crimea in 2014 has revealed the depth of the abyss that splits apart the ‘old school’ Russian legal commentators and other international lawyers. To an outside observer, justifications offered by Russian doctrine in response to the annexation of Crimea looked like a bizarre, or preconceived, mix of arguments involving the domestic affairs of Ukraine (disguised as issues of its alleged failed statehood), use of force by the ‘West’, and Russia’s self-proclaimed lawful intervention on the basis of the above. Although discussions on Crimea involved matters of general international law and seemingly interpreted the same applicable treaties and rules, structures of argumentation derived from Russian doctrine appeared to be based on entirely different premises when compared to those of all other international legal commentators.

The case of Crimea has conclusively revealed that Russia’s doctrinal community of international lawyers is incapable of resisting the mainstream political will of the day. Indeed, it does not even see such critical engagement as among its principal tasks. Focusing exclusively on reflecting the official Russian line expressed by the Russian President and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including at the UN Security Council, the Russian academia ignored or denounced, often with extreme hostility, not only interpretations of international law by other States, but also interpretations offered by foreign academics, international organizations and even its own prior interpretations, including own positions earlier developed by the same doctrinal authors.

Importantly, this striking unity of perspective among Russian academic international lawyers is not due to the increasing pressure exerted by the Russian government on NGOs and civil society in the recent years. The proximity of these scholars to government has, since the 1990s, been mostly voluntary – such scholars have willingly sought to act as advocates of the government position in the two and a half decades since the end of the USSR, without any pressure from the government itself. Furthermore, it was in fact the Russian international law scholars themselves and the academic system they inherited from the USSR that were responsible for most of the restrictions, self-limitations, and dehumanization in post-Soviet academia well before the current conflict of Russia with Ukraine.

Eastern European mythology speaks of a very dark figure named Koschei the Deathless. Koschei was unable to die because he took his soul out of his body and hid it ‘inside a needle, in an egg, in a duck, in a hare, in an iron chest, buried under an oak tree, on a hidden island’. Metaphorically speaking, Russian international law doctrine may be regarded as one such ‘horcrux’ wherein the soul of Russia’s totalitarian past has been in hiding for the past quarter of a century.

A word, however, should be spoken of the new generation of international lawyers in Russia. In a heated debate on the pages of the Russian newspapers in the course of 2015, Elena Lukyanova, a professor of constitutional law at the Higher School of Economics, clashed with one of the most active proponents of the legality of Crimean annexation, Valery Zorkin, the chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court. Although her main criticism was aimed at the Constitutional Court’s attitude during the Crimean crisis, Lukyanova started the debate by noting the existence of the ‘two worlds’ among Russian international and constitutional lawyers:

[Russia] counts numerous highly professional independent experts in the field of law. However, they are usually barred from decision-making within the government […] because, over twenty years, the state has selected the sort of legal doers it found convenient for itself. The rest, one way or another, were gradually removed beyond the bounds of the state’s legal activities. As a result, two legal communities have evolved; they speak completely different languages and use different legal constructs. One community comprises officials ‘in the field of law,’ judges, parliament members, election commissioners, and law enforcement officers. The other community is made up of lawyers, human rights activists, and some of the independent scholars.

In public international law, the independent thought that was forming in Russia in the course of the twenty-five years following the disintegration of the USSR has had to find its way through (or around) an extremely isolated and self-referential system of the post-Soviet international law tradition of teaching. In the attempt of self-preservation, this system strongly reacts to any critical or simply differing opinions and openly disregards a systemic study of international jurisprudence and international legal scholarship in most of the Russian textbooks and monographs. The notorious lack of English language knowledge often compounds a lack of interest in filling law libraries with legal literature of the XX century – a time when the Soviet Union was a closed territory.

Holders of dissenting opinions on any matter of importance in the post-Soviet academic international law school in Russia put themselves at risk of not being conferred their Russian degree and of ostracism within the system. In the “backstage” of Russian academic life, scholars who express an opinion critical of any actions on the part of the Russian government from the standpoint of international law are now likely to face pointed questions about the sources of funds supposedly paid to them to make such statements (it is generally presumed that the money “comes from the West”), and their works and commentaries are likely to be disparaged as “articles for pay”. Strikingly, a scholar’s previous reputation and integrity apparently has no bearing on these presumptions.

Adding to the above, the Russian educational system is still disdainful of degrees obtained outside Russia, and this becomes a serious obstacle for the younger generation of Russian international law scholars whose chosen career is to teach in Russia and to improve the level of public international law at Russian universities. The diverse nature of the new generation of independent international lawyers in Russia makes it difficult to include them in any study, as they do not represent any formal “school”, possibly yet. Yet the recent intensification of ad hominem attacks against the new generation by the old system suggests that the independently thinking international law scholars and practitioners in Russia are very much in the picture and that their voices may be starting to be heard.

Maria Issaeva is a practicing lawyer from Moscow, Russia. She is managing partner of Threefold Legal Advisors LLC, a company she co-founded in 2011, and in this capacity represents clients at the European Court on Human Rights and domestic courts. Since 2016, Maria is a board member of the European Society of International Law.

Cite as: Maria Issaeva, “A Nationalized Approach to International Law: the Case of Russia”, Völkerrechtsblog, 5 January 2018, doi: 10.17176/20180105-110603.

  1. 5 January, 2018 at 23:21 — Reply

    Thanks to Maria Issaeva for this cogent and timely intervention.

    By way of a footnote, with references, it might be of interest to readers to note that Professor Elena Lukyanova, born in 1958, is the daughter of the last Speaker of the USSR Supreme Soviet, Anatoliy Lukyanov, who studied at Moscow State University (MGU) with Mikhail Gorbachev. Anatoliy Lukyanov spent a year in Matrosskaya Tishina for alleged participation in the August 1991 failed Putsch, but was never prosecuted, and continued as a Communist deputy in the Duma.

    Elena Lukyanova was Professor of Constitutional Law at MGU for many years (I organised two conferences with her in 1990-91), known as a “red professor”, and represented the Communist Party in constitutional cases. But she has become one of the most trenchant and fearless critics of the Kremlin, especially over the illegal annexation of Crimea. She has published a volume of her court speeches and articles, Konstitutsionniye Riski: Uchebno-Metodicheskoye Posobiye (Constitutional Risks: Textbook) (Moscow, Kuchkovo Pole, 2015).

    Maria Issaeva refers to the very public argument between Professor Lukyanova and the Chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court, Valeriy Zorkin. This started with her article in Novaya Gazeta, a 6,000 word forthright critique of the state of Russian law and the Constitutional Court in particular, on the issue of the annexation of Crimea. This was entitled “O Prave Nalevo (About law ‘on the side’)” (

    Zorkin replied, explosively, with a 5,000 word riposte in the official Rossiiskaya Gazeta on 23 March 2015, entitled “The law – and only the law”. He started with personal abuse. He accused “Mrs Lukyanova” of constantly trying to sit on two stools, pseudo-communist and pseudo-liberal, and constantly changing her position according to the conjuncture. His theme was the claim that the skrepy, the clamps holding society together, were the legitimacy of the authorities and the law. He associated Lukyanova with “criminals” such as William Browder (whose lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was murdered in a Russian SIZO, pre-trial detention prison).

    Zorkin declared: “Today we see on the side of the West and its Russian disciples falsifications, yet unseen in scale, of events in Ukraine and their context. We see that all official Western legal interpretations of these events persistently and unanimously identify Russia in the ‘circle of the guilty’… For me this means that today our Russia is living through the latest invasion by Western (and their internal pro-Westerners) ‘civilised barbarians’. (

    Which exactly proves Maria Issaeva’s point.

    Professor Lukyanova has published the two articles and her response, together with comments by other opponents of the Kremlin, with a very provocative title: #KRYMNASH. Spor o prave i o skrepkakh dvukh yuristov i ikh chitatelei (#OURCRIMEA . The dispute about law and about clamps of two lawyers and their readers) (Moscow, Kuchkovo Pole, 2015).

    She is not the only legal heroine of her generation. Two years ago at Mr Kudrin’s All Russian Civic Forum in Moscow she sat on a panel adjudicating a law student competition on “The Court of the Future”. On the panel with her were: Nikolai Gagarin (leading opposition advocate), Sergei Pashin (law reformer, twice dismissed as a judge of the Moscow City Court for excessive leniency), Tamara Morshchakova (formerly Deputy Chairman of the Constitutional Court and redoubtable critic of the regime), Anton Ivanov (sacked as reforming Chairman of the Supreme Commercial Court, now also a Professor at Higher School of Economics), Vladimir Radchenko (retired reforming judge of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation), and the Novaya Gazeta journalist Leonid Nikitinsky. They are all shining examples to the younger generation of progessive Russian lawyers.

David Renton and Bill Bowring – a debate on socialism and human rights

David Renton in Socialist Lawyer Number 64, June 2013, p.32;  and reply in Number 65, October 2013 p.40

Click to access SocialistLawyer64.pdf

Click to access SocialistLawyer65.pdf

Do socialists still have an alternative concept of rights? David Renton

An obvious starting point is Karl Marx’s position on human rights. We can begin with his response in 1844 to Bruno Bauer’s pamphlet The Jewish Question, in which Bauer opposed Jewish demands for political liberation on the grounds that no one in Germany was emancipated and that Jews should fight not for their liberation but for universal liberation. This sparked some caustic remarks from Marx on the limited notion of liberation espoused by Bauer. Political emancipation, Marx observed, took the form of negative liberties such as the right not to be imprisoned or the right not to be prohibited from having a profession. Marx wrote: ‘Liberty … is the right to do everything that harms no one else … [T]he right of man to liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself. The practical application of man’s right to liberty is man’s right to private property.’

Over the next forty years, Marx and Engels were to sharpen this critique of rights and develop a richer sense of how an alternative society might work. But they never wavered from this original scepticism to demands for a universal ‘freedom’. Faced with the proposal that there should be a right to work, Marx’s instinctive answer was to demand what his son-in-law Paul Lafargue nicely formulated as ‘the right to be lazy’, i.e. rather than just demanding that all should be able to work, Marx and his allies wanted everyone to be free from having to work.

Perhaps the best developed example of Marx’s critique of rights was his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme. All universal rights, Marx argued, by their nature, result in unequal treatment: ‘Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal’.

Marx’s Critique is worth bearing in mind when considering, for example, the employer’s duty under section 20 of Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments for a disabled worker. If an employer employs two workers, one of whom is disabled and uses a wheelchair and one of whom does not, and the doors to enter the workplace are beside a short flight of stairs, an equal balance between disabled worker and employer can only be achieved by the employer buying a ramp to the door. The same treatment of both workers would result in the employer discriminating against the disabled worker. An equal outcome depends on unequal treatment. Even contemporary law, at its present limited stage of development, obliges the employer to buy the ramp; although it allows the hegemony of the employer back in by making the purchase necessary only if it would be ‘reasonable’ to require it. What for contemporary law is a heavily-qualified anomaly is in Marx’s hands, the principle under which an entire legal system would be constructed:

‘In a higher phase of communist society’, he wrote, ‘after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!’

This is one of those concentrated passages of careful thought that repays careful re- reading. First of all, it is clear from it that Marx, despite, his rights scepticism, understood the desire for justice that lies behind most rights discourse, whether the rights themselves are virtuous or otherwise. He was not hostile to justice but passionate about going much further in the same direction.

Second, in referring to ‘phases’ of communist society Marx is describing socialism not as a one and for all process, but as a series of steps towards an ideal. Like the novelist who writes and rewrites the same book, or like Marx himself in his decades long struggle to complete Capital, we should not assume that the first draft will be the final version.
Third, long before a just system of ‘rights’ could possibly be practical, all sorts of conditions will have to be encountered and passed: the breaking down of the division of the day between work and non-work, the spread of co-operative forms of production, and the extraordinary increase in human productive capability that we could have if only the whole world had universal access to the very latest technology on the same terms. In contemporary terms, Marx is envisaging a world in which all of Africa and all of Asia had access to the same levels of agriculture and industry as the most developed regions of the West; Marx is asking what law there might be during, and beyond, transitions of this scale.

In these circumstances, the revolutionary fragment buried even in laws such as the present-day Equality Act law could be developed and generalised, i.e. there would be ‘rights’, but unlike the rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, the equality principle would be equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. Everyone should give what they can; everyone must have what they need.
Drawing on Marx, a useful approach to the problem of right in the crisis of the present day, could be to disregard temporarily the search for further and better lists of rights in order to focus on their revolutionary kernel: i.e. the right to a just outcome. Part of establishing a fair outcome depends on a system of expropriation.

There are models, even under contemporary law, of how this could work. In the emerging field of environmental law, there is a developing concept of environmental ‘responsibility’. For example, Section 24 of the South African constitution provides a right of all people to have access:
‘a. to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and
b. to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that
i. prevent pollution and ecological degradation;
ii. promote conservation; and
iii. secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.’
A moment’s thought will show that the idea of a right to prevent ecological degradation is a right that is only capable of enforcement if there are others, i.e. people holding property, who have caused or risk causing that degradation.

Polly Higgins’ Eradicating Ecocide uses interchangeable terms of environmental ‘responsibility’ and ‘stewardship’ and portrays the key task of the moment as being to shift the focus from commodity to responsibility.

Now we are used to hearing ‘responsibility’ as a weasel-word to justify, for example, right-wing arguments that welfare benefits should not be universal, but should be made conditional, e.g. on a person taking up low-paid part-time work, which will contribute to a general lowering of the average wage.

But there are other notions of ‘responsibility’ which point in more interesting directions. When family members ask a court to determine where a child should live, the starting question is whether the applicant has ‘parental responsibility’. The idea is very simply that a child, as a human being, cannot be subject to the ordinary principles of private property, they cannot be owned. Accordingly rather than asking first ‘who has the right to care for the child?’, the court’s first question is ‘who has the duty of care?’ Contrary to the demands of campaigns such as ‘Fathers for Justice’, the answer will not necessarily be ‘the father’, it may not even be either of the parents. Section 3 of the Children Act 1989 defines parental responsibility as ‘all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities which by law a parent of a child has…’

When a local authority’s social workers have reached an interim view that a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm living with their parents (section 31 Children Act), they initiate care proceedings. The initial step in these proceedings is often for the local authority to ask the court if it may share parental responsibility with the parents.

Children Act 1989 proceedings are not by any means ‘model’ instances of the law at its best. In ‘private’ Children Act 1989 proceedings involving disputes between parents there are many examples of the law getting it wrong, whether by disregarding the views of victims of domestic violence, or by reaching the right decisions in the event but doing so slowly. In ‘public’ Children Act 1989 care proceedings, courts are torn between competing instincts including the knowledge that children in care are often bitterly unhappy, and the consciousness also that some families are actually so unsafe that there is no alternative but to remove the child. The positive feature of this litigation is the absence of a ‘parents’ rights’ discourse. A parent who says merely that their child is their child, therefore it is their right that the child should live with them, will not get far; the court will expect a much more serious focus on the true best interests of the child. If only we could learn to treat the ownership of property with the same scepticism with which we already treat the purported ownership of children.

As a conceptual example in considering how a fully developed legal concept of environmental responsibility might work, a person who believes that a polluter risks causing ecological degradation on a piece of land, might petition a court complaining that the polluter has lost the right to environmental responsibility for that piece of land. A court would investigate. It might find that the applicant’s case was made out, in which case, they could listen to proposals that the responsibility for that piece of land should be given to another. They might find that the applicant’s case was hopelessly weak. They might instead find that the land should remain with its present owner, but only on an interim basis, subject to the present owner demonstrating that their custodianship was rapidly improving and they were taking all steps to prevent pollution.

There is no reason of principle why there should not equally be an overriding duty of ‘social responsibility’. In order for someone to exercise any right as an owner of property, or for any contract to be enforced, the owner should be capable of being challenged by anyone – a worker, consumer, anyone – on the grounds that their stewardship of the property was deficient, and should be given to another. Where an employer did not pay the minimum wage or their workplace was unsafe, the ordinary principle should apply that their workplace should be passed to another.
The rule that is proposed is simple and intuitive. Questions of whether a workplace is properly run could easily be determined by juries, to whom we already leave inquests and sometimes very complex questions of criminal law.

There is no political will in Parliament for anything like this model of social responsibility because the large majority of political forces are signed up to a vision of untrammelled corporate power, with all the disasters that has caused, in terms of recession, bankers’ bail outs, and collective austerity. We are not going to see the expropriation of capital without social upheaval.

In working out the next step for the rights discourse, socialists should go further than the majority of rights activists. We have a concept of right in which the highest categories are human need, and agency to answer human need. The next step is a right of expropriation where property ownership limits human potential.

The simplest rebuttal of the present proposal – for an overarching concept of social and/or ecological responsibility which would be capable of taking priority over all other property rights and any contractual agreements – is that class society has been in existence for around 10,000 years without having anything like such a practice. For around a third of that time we have had an idea, through contract law, that property is disbursed in agreements, the terms of which are binding on the contracting parties. No commercial agreement could be attractive if its effect was constantly uncertain. This is exactly the spirit in which socialists should respond to big questions about what the law should be in the future. Socialists should demand what is absolutely incompatible with the conditions of capital and the State: the right not to be exploited. We ask of course in a modest fashion, pointing out in this way the absurdly limited conditions under which capitalism allows billions of people worldwide to live.

David Renton is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers and a member of The Haldane Society’s executive committee.

Socialism and rights

A reply to David Renton’s “Do socialists still have an alternative concept of rights?” Bill Bowring

David Renton’s thoughtful and trenchant article in SL64 has done us all a great service, opening up questions of crucial importance to the Haldane Society. That is because we are socialists, committed to solidarity in resistance to the depredations of capital, and to fighting for its abolition. We are not simply human rights defenders, though many of us are active in a host of human rights organisations, for example the Bar Human Rights Committee and the Solicitors International Human Rights Group.

What then should be our understanding of the discourse of human rights, which has become something like a secular religion or substitute for religion? And the practice of human rights protection often looks worryingly like Eurocentrism; European standards against US power politics or geopolitical mayhem. That was the issue in the notorious Kadi judgment of 2008, in which the European Court of Justice annulled the decision, taken initially by the UN Security Council (as the Sanctions Committee) placing Mr Kadi on the terrorist list. The ECJ did so in the light of “the principles of liberty, democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in Article 6(1) EU as a foundation of the Union.” That is, European principles.

And so far as the UK is concerned, human rights are liberal rights, the right of the individual to dignity. In reality, even the Tories have no problem with the Council of Europe’s “three pillars”; the rule of law, multi-party democracy, and the protection of individual human rights. As Adam Wagner wrote on 3 September 2013 on the UK Human Rights Blog, under the heading “Why we would be mad to leave our European Convention on Human Rights”:

“It cannot be overstated how fundamentally British the ECHR is. The included rights were based largely on those developed by the British common law, reaching back to the 1215 Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights. After the Second World War, imposing traditional British values on foreign legal systems was seen as part of the victor’s spoils. British politicians “made a huge contribution to the drafting”, said Lord Bingham, “reflect[ing] values which we in this country took for granted and which had, we thought, been vindicated by our military triumph”.

British politicians were instrumental in drafting the ECHR, building on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and older British common law liberties. Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, a Conservative politician and lawyer, drafted much of it after he had joined the European Movement on the invitation of Winston Churchill.”
This conception of human rights has no place for collective rights, for example the rights of the working class, or even of trade unions. The UK, like other common law countries, refuses to have anything to do with social and economic rights, refuses to ratify the Council of Europe’s Revised Social Charter with its system of collective (not individual) complaints by trade unions and NGOs to the European Committee of Social Rights, or the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The jurisprudence of the European Committee of Social Rights, with many decided cases, can be found at

David Renton is not a liberal; he is a revolutionary socialist. He has made a fine reputation as a lawyer fighting for workers’ rights, and is well known for his 2012 Struck out: Why Employment Tribunals fail workers and what can be done (Pluto Press).
What does he say? He writes that, drawing on Marx, a useful approach to the problem of rights in the present situation

“… could be to disregard temporarily the search for further and better lists of rights in order to focus on their revolutionary kernel: i.e., the right to a just outcome (my emphasis, BB). Part of establishing a fair outcome depends on a system of

There is no disagreement between David Renton and me as concerns the need for expropriation.

But we differ as to what Marx actually wrote. Indeed, Marx and Engels wrote very little on law, and even less on what a future communist society might look like. David Renton asserts that after Marx’s acerbic critique of the rights contained in the French and American declarations of the late 18th century, essentially the same rights as are contained in the ECHR, in 1844 in his On the Jewish Question:

“Over the next forty years Marx and Engels were to sharpen this critique of rights and develop a richer sense of how an alternative society might work.”

In actual fact, Marx and Engels affirmed the opposite, in 1845 in The German Ideology. They wrote that:

“Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of
productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with communism.”

And continued with one of my favourite passages from their works:

“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” (their emphases)

Thus, they were and remained perfectly clear that communism could only come about once abundance (“the universal development of the productive forces”) had been established all over the world. They refrained from providing any blueprint for future society. Except that is for another famous passage in the same work:

“ For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

Which is very far from being a serious vision of the future, but is instead part of a comment on the present.

Furthermore, their Manifesto of the Communist Party of 1848 says nothing about a future communist society. Instead, the final section, Part IV, begins:

“The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”

Communists, therefore, struggle on the side of the working class in the present day. And Marx and Engels go on to specify their attitude to existing parties in the various European countries. The class struggle has not gone away, far from it, and now intensifies all over the world. In passing, it is of great interest that two recent American block-buster films, Hunger Games and Elysium, both depict bitter and bloody class struggles in the future.

To return to On the Jewish Question, Marx condemned the bourgeois rights of the
Declarations, asserting that “… the so-called rights of man, the droits de l’homme as distinct from the droits du citoyen, are nothing but the rights of a member of civil society – i.e., the rights of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community.” That is, the man who wants to be left alone by the state, principally to make money.

David Renton then, quite properly, turns his attention to Marx’s 1875, thirty years later, Critique of the Gotha Programme – that is, the programme drafted by Lasalle for the new mass workers’ party, the German Social Democratic Party, an explicitly socialist document.

I disagree with David Renton’s interpretation of Marx’s critique.

The provision which attracted Marx’s merciless criticism was

“3. The emancipation of labour demands the promotion of the instruments of labour to the common property of society and the co-operative regulation of the total labour, with a fair distribution of the proceeds of labour.”
For Marx, this necessarily implies “equal right”, that is, bourgeois right. Under capitalism, the worker receives remuneration according to the amount or quality of work done. But, Marx insists, human beings are not equal at all, starting with their “… unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity”, that is, physical and mental endowment. One worker is brighter than another, stronger than another.

And, Marx continues:

“… one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.”

It is not, as David Renton suggests, that for Marx “..all universal rights… result in unequal
treatment”. The point is that human beings are unequally endowed, and have unequal personal lives. As Marx makes clear, his famous slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, can only be realised “… after the productive forces have also increased” and “all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly.” We now know, as Marx and Engels did not, that there are severe ecological barriers to achieving abundance.

To sum up, Marx and Engels insisted that communists fight in the present, we cannot predict the future, and of course there is no certainty that the working class will win.
Marx and Engels both drew deeply from the radical materialist Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), for whom all transcendence, anthropocentrism, and teleology were anathema. In 1841 Marx made extensive transcripts, in Latin, from Spinoza, pages 233 to 276 in Volume IV/1 (1976) of the Marx/Engels Gesamtausgabe, the MEGA which continues in production. And in the Introduction to his Dialectics of Nature, written in 1883, Engels wrote:

“It is an eternal cycle in which matter moves… a cycle in which every finite mode of existence of matter… is equally transient, and wherein nothing is eternal but eternally changing, eternally moving matter and the laws according to which it moves and changes. But however often, and however relentlessly, this cycle is completed in time and space… we have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, also, that with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on the earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else and at another time again produce it.”

This is Spinoza. One can be quite sure that if the earthly paradise were ever achieved, that would be the moment at which a passing asteroid would eliminate the planet and all its inhabitants, workers and capitalists alike. Something like Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia.

To return to the question of rights. I think that a strong case can be made for the proposition that each generation of “human rights” has its origins in revolutionary struggle, and that is why they remain, unlike black-letter law, so powerful and so scandalous. The first generation of civil and political rights, now enshrined in the ECHR, had their origin in the French and American Revolutions, abhorred by Edmund Burke, the father of English conservatism. We should take our stand with Burke’s enemy, Tom Paine, whose Rights of Man and Common Sense still read as a full frontal attack on contemporary English political corruption. The second generation, social and economic rights, were first treated as legal rights in the International Labour Organisation which was created in 1919 as a direct response to the October Revolution of 1917. Haldane’s John Hendy and Keith Ewing have shown how the UK shamelessly violates its ILO obligations. And the key right of the third generation, the right of peoples to self-determination, was first promoted by Marx, Engels and Lenin, and came to fruition in the anti-colonial struggles after WW II. Self-determination struggles continue for the Irish, Basques, Kurds, Palestinians, Tamils ( see SL 53, The right to self- determination)… That, for me, is the “revolutionary kernel” of rights.

Bill Bowring teaches law at Birkbeck College, is a barrister practising at the European Court of Human Rights, and is International Secretary of the Haldane Society.


Marx, the State, and Spinoza: Against Hobbes and Schmitt

Bill Bowring: Marx, the State, and Spinoza: Against Hobbes and Schmitt

Legal Form:  A Forum for Marxist Analysis of Law

In 1859 Marx stated that he intended to examine “the bourgeois economic system in this sequence: capital, landed property, wage-labour; the state, foreign trade, world market“. [1] But he was unable to write his analysis of the state.

This post seeks to answer the following question: which are the sources on which Marx would have drawn in a critique of theories of the state? This question is also of contemporary importance. A significant number of scholars of constitutional law who wish to criticise mainstream liberal theories of the state and constitutionalism are attracted not by Marxist critiques, but by the writings of Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben. A good example is the recently published Political Theology: Demystifying the Universal (2017) by my colleagues Anton Schütz and Marinos Diamantides; and the recent work of Costas Douzinas, for instance Human rights and Empire: The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism (2007). I argue that they are all part of a lineage which commences with Thomas Hobbes.

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) made diametrically opposed claims as to the nature of the state. What they had in common, though, was that they were both materialists, a radical position in an age of “divine right”. They shared their materialism with Karl Marx. But Marx was a follower of Spinoza, not of Hobbes. In 1841, while in Berlin writing his doctoral dissertation, Marx made a substantial transcription in Latin [2] from Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (TTP), especially from Chapter XX (“It is shown that in a Free Republic everyone is permitted to think what he wishes and to say what he thinks”) [3] and Chapter XVI (“On the Foundations of the Republic; on the material and civil right of each person, and on the right of the Supreme Powers”) [4]. These were the fourth and eighth chapters from which Marx transcribed. It is clear that after the three chapters in which Spinoza demolished divine transcendence and intervention (Chapters VI, XIV, and XV), Marx went straight to the passages which interested him most at that time.

Hobbes’ two major works were De Cive (1642) and Leviathan (1651). Spinoza published the TTP in 1670. In his letter of 2 June 1674 to his close friend Jarig Jelles, Spinoza addressed the profound difference between Hobbes and himself: “I always preserve natural right unimpaired, and I maintain that in each State the Supreme Magistrate has no more right over his subjects than it has greater power over them.” [5] In his strongest book, Spinoza and Politics,Etienne Balibar notes that for Hobbes, man’s natural right is unlimited but self-destructive, since every right infringes every other right, leading to a “war of all against all”. [6] In order to establish security, natural rights must be replaced by civil right, by a juridical order. The state of nature must be replaced by the “‘body politic’, in which the will of the many is entirely represented by that of the sovereign (the law)”. [7] Although from a materialist, this is the source from which the conservative Catholic (and erstwhile Nazi) Carl Schmitt drew heavily. [8]

In the TPP, which Balibar rightly described as a “democratic manifesto” [9], Spinoza wrote that “the democratic state” is “the most natural state, and the one which approached most nearly the freedom nature concedes to everyone”. [10] Curley explains that Spinoza “attempts to deduce, from fundamental principles of human nature, both the tendencies to discord which make the state necessary, and the tendencies to harmony which make it possible”. [11] Later, in the Ethics, Spinoza wrote that “[a] man who is guided by reason is more free in a state, where he lives according to a common decision, than in solitude, where he obeys only himself”. [12] In his transcription, Marx highlighted: “So the end of the Republic is really freedom”. [13]

Marx put what he had learned from Spinoza to immediate effect. His first publications, in 1842 and 1843 respectively, were “Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction” [14] and “On the Freedom of the Press” [15]. Marx cites Spinoza just once: “verum index sui et falsi” (“truth is the standard both of itself and of the false”) [16], but his animated rejection of Prussian censorship was Spinozist through and through. Marx wrote in his “Comments”: “Morality recognises only its own universal and rational religion, and religion recognises only its particular positive morality. Hence, according this instruction, the censorship must reject the intellectual heroes of morality, such as Kant, Fichte and Spinoza, as irreligious, as violating propriety, manners and external decorum. All these moralists start out from a contradiction in principle between morality and religion, for morality is based on the autonomy of the human mind, religion on its heteronomy.” [17]

If Marx had been able to examine the state as he had intended, I have no doubt that his elaboration would have had within it the spirit of Spinoza.

[1] “‘Preface’ A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” [1859] in Karl Marx, Later Political Writings, ed. Terrell Carver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 158, at 158 (original emphasis).

[2] Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe [hereinafter MEGA], vol. IV/I (1976), 233–276.

[3] MEGA, vol. IV/I (1976), 5–7.

[4] MEGA, vol. IV/I (1976), 9–11.

[5] Letter 50, in Edwin Curley (ed.), The Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. 2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 406.

[6] Etienne Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, trans. Peter Snowdon (London: Verso, 1998 [1985]), 55.

[7] Ibid. (original emphasis).

[8] See especially Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol, trans. George Schwab and Erna Hilfstein (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996 [1938]). See also Jacob Als Thomsen, “Carl Schmitt–The Hobbesian of the 20th Century?”, 20 (1997) Social Thought & Research 5.

[9] Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, 25.

[10] Curley, Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. 2, 289.

[11] Edwin Curley, Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 119.

[12] Ethics, bk. 4, prop. 73, in Edwin Curley (ed.), The Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 587.

[13] MEGA, vol. IV/I (1976), 237.

[14] This text was first published in Anekdota zur neuesten deutschen Philosophie und Publicistik, Bd. 1. See Marx/Engels Collected Works [hereinafter MECW], vol. 1 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975), 109–131.

[15] This text was first published in the Rheinische Zeitung. See MECW, vol. 1, 132–181.

[16] Ethics, bk. 2, prop. 43, in Curley, Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. 1, 479.

[17] See MECW, vol. 1, 119.

Bill Bowring is Professor of Law at Birkbeck, University of London

Academic Freedom Under Threat from Commodification, Privatisation and Authoritarian Populism

“Academic Freedom”
Friday 22 September 2017
“Academic Freedom Under Threat from Commodification, Privatisation and Authoritarian Populism”
Prof. Bill Bowring / Lawyer
President of the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and World Human Rights (ELDH)

I bring you greetings from the European Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights (ELDH), of which I am the President, and from the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers in England. I am the Joint International Secretary. I am very grateful to Fatma Demirer and Deman Guler for their invitation for me to participate in this important conference in such a beautiful venue. We are very proud that our Turkish members are CHD, a founder member of ELDH, and OHP, who have recently joined. We are in solidarity with all our Turkish colleagues who have been persecuted and prosecuted.

This is my first time in Izmir, but not my first time in Turkey. I began to take cases against Turkey on behalf of Kurdish applicants in 1992, and for the next 10 years helped to win many cases, especially Özgur Gündem v Turkey, on the right to freedom of expression. I appeared as an advocate twice in fact-finding hearings in which the European Court of Human Rights sat for a week in the Supreme Court in Ankara. I have been many times in Istanbul and Ankara.


A few days ago we celebrated 150 years since the first publication of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx. Last week there was a large two day conference in London, with leading scholars from Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the US, and over 100 participants.

The ideas of Karl Marx are very much alive, as is the principle on which with his collaborator Friedrich Engels he insisted: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

Capital has an unceasing drive and imperative, not only to grow faster and faster whatever the human consequences, but also to turn every human activity into commodities for sale. This is because capital cannot live and expand without the realisation of value through the sale of commodities. This is how the Law of Value works itself out, in the process of valorisation. Capitalists are not necessarily motivated by greed or malice: in order to continue for one single days as capitalists, they will whether they like it or not be subject to the Law of Value, which is just as impossible to avoid or ignore as the Law of Gravity.

There is no field of human activity exempt from commodification. A recent book is entitled “Everything is for sale”.


Kishore Singh is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education. He has published two very important reports. The first, in 2014, focused on the protection of education from privatisation; and the second, in 2015 concerned protection of education from commercialisation. He is particularly critical of the UK.

In the UK we have the highest proportion of privately run, for profit, prisons in the world, and my own field of Higher Education has been completely privatised. English Universities receive practically no money from the Government, and instead all of our students pay or borrow £9000 a year. This is the most expensive higher education in Europe. In Germany and Scotland, higher education is free of charge.

In the recent General Election in the UK, the Conservative Party of Theresa May lost its overall majority in Parliament, largely because, contrary to their expectations, so many young people came out and voted Labour, which promised to cancel fees for the future. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is now the largest political party in Europe, with over 600,000 members, many of them in their 20s. Whereas the Conservative Party has less than 100,000 members, and their average age is – 72!

The privatised higher education system in England is shamed by casualisation. 54% of academic staff and 49% of teaching staff are employed on causal contracts, for a particular course, with no guaranteed hours, no sick or holiday pay, and no security. Even academics on “permanent” contracts have no job security (unlike tenure in the US) and can be dismissed at any time.

A few days ago academics at Leeds University published a letter in The Guardian complaining that they are liable to dismissal if their research or writing upsets commercial or government funders.

The privatisation of higher education and the enormous fees paid or borrowed by students have led directly to the obscene spectacle of Vice-Chancellors (Rectors), earning 5 to 6 times as much as professors, as much as £300,000 a year or more.

Most worrying is the fact that the Government’s anti-extremism policy, named “Prevent”, imposes a legal duty on academics to spy on their students and to report their students to the authorities for any behaviour which might be considered to be “extremist” – whatever that means. My colleagues have organised a campaign, and on my office door there is now a poster proclaiming that we are “Educators not Informers”.

Authoritarian Populism

My own country is now divided as never before, with the country split in two over the issue of Brexit, leaving the EU. Most of those who voted to leave were told lies by the Brexit campaign, had no idea what the EU was, and in fact voted against migrants. As Home Secretary (Minister of the Interior) Theresa May was obsessed by the issue of migrants. In reality the Brexit campaign was a right-wing populist movement, whose ideology was xenophobia.
Similar right-wing populist movements are disrupting the politics of France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Austria.

I do a great deal of work in relation to Russia, and since 2000 have represented many Chechens at the European Court of Human Rights, as well as taking environmental cases and cases on freedom of expression and the right to organise in civil society, and to demonstrate. Russia, like Turkey, is suffering under a conservative authoritarian regime, with practically no opposition mass media, no opposition political party with any hope of election, and severe repression of civil society especially human rights activists. In recent days Russia is now effusing to implement judgments of the Strasbourg Court, and there is a real threat – as with the UK – that Russia will leave the Council of Europe and the European Convention.

Academics are being dismissed for opposing the regime in Russia, the European University in St Petersburg is under threat; and the Central European University in Budapest has recently been saved after a vicious and anti-semitic campaign against it by the government.

And here we are in Turkey, with the arrest and detention of hundreds of academics, many of whom are dismissed, arrests and detention of lawyers, prosecutors and judges, the elimination of free mass media, and severe action taken against the HDP – and Amnesty International.

All of us here have a duty to take a stand and to organise to the best of our ability against these dangerous phenomena.

Review of Slavoj Žižek’s “Lenin 2017”

Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating, and Working ThroughLenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through by Slavoj Žižek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What is very good about this book is the presentation of such important texts from the last years of Lenin’s life, working through really intractable problems of Soviet Russia, isolated and weakened after intervention and civil war. Zizek shows that he really understands Lenin’s thoroughly principled insistence that the “waving of little red flags” could not resolve such problems, only a slow and patient inculcation of bourgeois culture and bourgeois management under Soviet political control. Lenin’s image of mountaineers having to retrace their steps, a much more dangerous and difficult task than an ascent is particularly beautiful and apt. The references to and citations from Robespierre and the quotations from Badiou are apt and very helpful. Whether Milner and Lacan are equally good guides is a matter for legitimate discussion.

View all my reviews

Marxism as a Methodology, presentation at Birkbeck Law School Residential Weekend, Cumberland Lodge, 17 September 2017

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Karl Marx and ‘Marxism’

Karl Marx and ‘Marxism’

Bill Bowring

Karl Heinrich Marx was born on 5 May 1818 at 664 Brückergasse in Trier, a town located in what was then the Kingdom of Prussia’s Province of the Lower Rhine. You can visit the house to this day; it is under the protection of the German SPD. His father was a successful lawyer, descended from a family which produced the rabbis of Trier from 1734, but who converted to Lutheranism before Marx’s birth. Karl’s mother was from a Dutch Jewish family. In 1836, Marx became engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, a princess of the Prussian ruling class, and married her in June 1843. From 1836, he became fascinated by Hegel’s philosophy, and was associated with the “Left Hegelians”, in their critique of religion and the ancien régime. He studied law in Bonn and Berlin, but his doctoral thesis was on philosophy. His thesis, “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature”, was finished in 1841, and he was awarded a doctorate by the University of Jena.

Marx did not follow an academic career. Instead, he became a journalist and political activist. In 1842 he moved to Cologne and began writing for the radical newspaper Rheinische Zeitung. Due in part to his increasingly revolutionary writing, the paper was closed by the government in 1843, the same year that he wrote On the Jewish Question (of which more below) published in February 1844 in the socialist Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. He was then 25 years old. Having been obliged to move to Paris, Marx met Friedrich Engels, his lifelong friend, colleague and benefactor, in August 1844. Their joint work, the Communist Manifesto was published in the “year of revolutions”, 1848. Marx moved to London in May 1849, and remained there until his death on 14 March 1883 at the age of 64, devoting himself to research and writing, and intense political activity. His field of study and analysis was the critique of political economy. Very few of his works were published in his lifetime. Despite the support of Engels, he lived for the most part in poverty, and of seven children only three daughters survived to adulthood, Eleanor, Jenny and Laura, all revolutionaries. A maximum of 11 people came to his funeral. Somehow, he has not been forgotten.

Marx did not write any work of philosophy, although he may at one time have intended to do so. Unlike Hegel, he did not leave behind a system. Far less did he write systematically on law, ethics, or morality. Instead, his intellectual life was devoted to uncompromising critique, in particular the immanent critique, critique from the inside, of the work of the great Scottish and English political economists, Adam Smith (1723-1790) and David Ricardo (1772-1823). Marx was especially excited by Ricardo’s labour theory of value, the corner-stone of Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817), published the year before Marx’ birth. Marx radicalised Ricardo’s insight, and the resulting “critique of political economy”, Volume One of which was the only major work published in his lifetime, is rightly named Capital.

For Marx, ‘capital’ and, indeed ‘capitalism’ – are the names of the system driven by capital’s unceasing urge to valorise itself, in which every social relationship, every intellectual creation, and every human appropriation of the material world is reducible to money. Marx’ analysis and critique have lost none of their acuity, and there is unanimous agreement that today we live in the interstices of universal capitalism.

Marx’s writing is full of outrage at the ruthless exploitation and oppression inherent in the capital’s alienation from human beings of the enjoyment of the products of their labour, in the bizarre abstract, dehumanised world of the circulation of commodities and money. But this fury is based not on a moralistic stance or condemnation of evil, but on the denial to human beings of the full realisation of their human potential in society, their species being. There is no transcendence in Marx’s critique, not even redemption.

Marx and Spinoza

That is because Marx was a thorough-going materialist. It should be no surprise that in 1841, as he completed his doctoral thesis, and shortly before he wrote On the Jewish Question, Marx made a close reading of the work of the great Jewish rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), in particular his Theological-Political Treatise, transcribing extensive passages in the original Latin and German translation. Yovel points out (p.79) that “Spinoza is almost always present in Marx’s thought. But, we may add, the actual presence of Spinoza in Marx far surpasses his direct mention by name.” By the way, Yovel makes an heroic but unsuccessful attempt to read religion back into Marx. But in the passage cited he is quite right.

Spinoza radicalised rationalism, determinism, and the principle of sufficient reason, on the basis of a conception of the human being in which “Every man exists by sovereign natural right, and, consequently, by sovereign natural right performs those actions which follow from the necessity of his own nature…” (Ethics, Prop. XXXVII Note II). As does everything in nature. For Spinoza, the most ruthless of all materialists, there is no good or evil in the world (or transcendence or divine intervention): “In the state of nature, therefore, sin is inconceivable; it can only exist in a state, where good and evil are pronounced on by common consent… Sin, then, is nothing but disobedience, which is therefore punished by the right of the State only.” He declares (Prop LXVIII) that “If men were born free, they would, so long as they remained free, form no conception of good and evil”; but (Prop. LXXIII) “The man, who is guided by reason, is more free in a State, where he lives under a general system of law, than in solitude, where he is independent.” This is explained further in the Proof of that Proposition, as follows: “Therefore, the free man, in order to enjoy greater freedom, desires to possess the general rights of citizenship.”

This thought is also to be found in the Theological-Political Treatise which Marx so painstakingly transcribed. In Chapter XVI, entitled “Of the Foundations of a State; Of the Natural and Civil Rights of Individuals; And of the Rights of Sovereign Power”, Spinoza reminds us that

“… the right and ordinance of nature, under which all men are born, and under which they mostly live, only prohibits such things as no one desires and no one can attain: it does not forbid strife, nor hatred, nor deceit, nor, indeed, any of the means suggested by desire.”

This we need not wonder at, for nature is not bounded by the laws of human reason, which aims only at man’s true benefit and preservation; her limits are infinitely wider, and have reference to the eternal order of nature, wherein man is but a speck…”

This is nature which is infinite and eternal, without purpose or teleology save its own deterministic laws which are for the most part necessarily inscrutable to humans, and in which sub specie aeternitatis, from the perspective of the eternal, humans are less than significant. Humans are nothing whatsoever except to themselves. Thus, with absolutely rigorous logic, Spinoza holds that there is no justice or injustice in nature or in the natural behaviour of humans:

“Wrong is conceivable only in an organised community… It can only arise… between private persons, who are bound by law and right not to injure one another. Justice consists in the habitual rendering to every man his lawful due: injustice consists in depriving a man, under the pretence of legality, of what the laws, rightly interpreted, would allow him. These last are also called equity and inequity, because those who administer the laws are bound to show no respect of persons, but to account all men equal, and to defend every man’s right equally, neither envying the rich or despising the poor.”

That is, nature is indifferent to exploitation, and the natural actions of humans naturally seeking to do everything possible to them cannot be described as good or evil in any sense other than that given in organised society. Capital, and capitalism, are human creations, in no sense necessary parts of the natural order, that is, are quite unlike volcanoes, tsunamis, stellar explosions or super-massive black holes. The injustice of capitalism on a Spinozist account is precisely human activity which has, as with the sorcerer’s apprentice, taken on an inhuman, vampiric character, in the process de-humanising human beings in the process.

Spinoza, like Marx, did not prescribe or describe any kind of Utopia, communist or otherwise. Neither of them have any pretension to utopianism. Their ambition is that human beings should be freed to live productively in society, to be truly human.

In Chapter XX Spinoza writes

“… the ultimate aim of government is not to rule, or restrain, by fear, nor to exact obedience, but contrariwise, to free every man from fear, that he may live in all possible security; in other words, to strengthen his natural right to exist and work without injury to himself and others… in fact, the true aim of government is liberty.”

Indeed, Chapter XX is headed “That in a free state every man may think what he likes, and say what he thinks”.

In this, Spinoza was not only far ahead of his time; his concept of democracy was radicalised far beyond the limits of liberalism.

On the Jewish Question

It is in this light that On the Jewish Question should be approached.

The first line of this text is: “The German Jews desire emancipation. What kind of emancipation do they desire? Civic, political emancipation.”

Jay Bernstein has given one of the most nuanced and perceptive readings of this text. Another, from a liberal perspective, is to be found in Jeremy Waldron’s Nonsense Upon Stilts, which also provides the text. In this work the young Marx engaged with the rights set out in the French Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789, and the Constitutions of 1793 and 1795; as well as the revolutionary documents of the American war of independence.

Bernstein correctly points out (p.92) that this work is “… usually read as an attack on the discourse of rights. Such readings are at least partial if not altogether false.” What such readers miss (p.99) “is that its complex dialectical argument deploys two senses of ground or foundation: a sense in which civil society represents the real ground or foundation of society as a whole, and a sense in which the state is the ground or foundation, not the mere ideological front, for civil society.”

Marx has a strong conception of the “species being” of the human, of the life of the human being in community with others. In this sense, Marx is a communitarian. Marx wrote, in answer to the question posed at the start:

“The perfected political state is by its nature the species-life of man in opposition to his material life. All the presuppositions of this egoistic life [ie material life – BB] continue to exist outside the sphere of the state in civil society, but as qualities of civil society… He lives in the political community where he regards himself as a communal being, and in civil society, where he is active as a private individual, regards other men as means, debases himself to a means and becomes a plaything of alien powers…”


“The rights of man are partly political rights, rights which are only exercised in community with others. What constitutes their content in participation in community, in the political community or state. They come under the category of political freedom, of civil rights…”

It is on this basis that Marx noted the fact “that the so-called rights of man, the droits de l’homme as distinct from the droits du citoyen, are nothing but the rights of a member of civil society – i.e., the rights of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community.” And Marx focuses quite correctly on the least political right, the right to private property:

“But, the right of man to liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself. The practical application of man’s right to liberty is man’s right to private property. What constitutes man’s right to private property? The right of man to private property is… the right to enjoy one’s property and to dispose of it at one’s discretion (à son gré), without regard to other men, independently of society, the right of self-interest. This individual liberty and its application form the basis of civil society. It makes every man see in other men not the realization of his own freedom, but the barrier to it.”

That is, the opposite of the purpose of communal living in the state as conceived by Spinoza and by Marx. Marx concludes:

“None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society – that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community. In the rights of man, he is far from being conceived as a species-being; on the contrary, species-like itself, society, appears as a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence. The sole bond holding them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egoistic selves.”

Marx returned to the question of rights much later in his life, in 1875, in a polemical critique of the draft programme of the United Workers’ Party of Germany, known as the Gotha programme. It was published in 1890, after Marx’s death. The draft declared that once the instruments of labour had been converted into common property, there would be a “fair distribution of the proceeds of labour” on the basis that “the proceeds of labour belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society”. Marx pours scorn on such a notion of “equality”. Humans are not equal.

“But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labour in the same time, or can labour for a longer time; and labour, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour… one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal. ”

Marx then attempted one of his very few descriptions of what communist society would be like, ending with a famous slogan:

“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

But this is not exactly an analysis of human rights. But it could be described as Utopian.

Marx and ‘generations of rights’

The rights of man to which Marx refers in On the Jewish Question were the “first generation” of human rights, the civil and political rights, which together with the right to private property, have temporal and geographical origins: they sprang directly from the French Revolution in 1789, and the American Revolution of the same period. Marx’ critique of these “first generation” rights, properly understood, was and remains incisive, indeed definitive.

What Marx could not anticipate was the increasing importance, as a direct result of political events and struggles, of the “second” and “third” generations, namely social and economic rights, and peoples’ rights.

The temporality of the recognition in international law of the “second generation” of human rights, social and economic rights, as human rights can also be located very accurately. These rights achieved the status of legal rights, and, most important, became available as instruments of legitimation and struggle, as a direct consequences of the events of 1917, more specifically in the creation of the International Labour Organisation in 1919. The ILO remains the most important source and mechanism for protection of social and economic rights. These rights have recently become much more concrete, in the context of the collapse of the USSR, by way of the Council of Europe’s 1996 Revised Social Charter, which came into force in 1999, with its mechanism for collective complaints, by Trade Unions and NGOs, to the European Committee of Social Rights.

The “third generation” – the peoples’ rights to self-determination, to development, to a clean environment, to peace – were recognised as rights in international law following the colonial struggles of the 1960s, specifically with the coming into force of the two great UN Covenants on Human Rights in 1976. They have lost none of their relevance in the context of continuing cruel injustice of the global economy.

Marx and self-determination

Self-determination and anti-colonial struggle were also central to Marx’s project from the 1850s onwards, and in this regard he would have found himself in tune with contemporary notions of human rights.

First of all, Marx, having opposed Irish independence, became a firm supporter. In his letter to Engels on 2 November 1867 Marx wrote:

“The Fenian trial in Manchester was exactly as was to be expected. You will have seen what a scandal ‘our people’ have caused in the Reform League. I sought by every means at my disposal to incite the English workers to demonstrate in favour of Fenianism…. I once believed the separation of Ireland from England to be impossible. I now regard it as inevitable, although Federation may follow upon separation.”

The trial in question was that of the ‘Manchester martyrs’ – William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien – who were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The men were executed after having been found guilty of the murder of a police officer during an escape that took place close to Manchester city centre in1867. That is, Marx was, in the words of the contemporary UK Terrorism Act 2006, ‘glorifying terrorism’, and terrorism committed by bourgeois nationalists at that. He would now face a stiff sentence.

Marx himself used the term ‘self-determination’ on at least two occasions, in a political rather than a philosophical context. In his letter of 20 November 1865 to Hermann Jung, Marx referred, under the heading ‘International Politics’, to ‘The need to eliminate Muscovite influence in Europe by applying the right of self-determination of nations, and the re-establishment of Poland upon a democratic and social basis.’ Furthermore, in a speech on Poland delivered on 24 March 1875, he declared:

What are the reasons for this special interest of the workers’ party in the fate of Poland? First of all, of course, sympathy for a subjugated people which, with its incessant and heroic struggle against its oppressors, has proven its historic right to national autonomy and self-determination. It is not in the least a contradiction that the international workers’ party strives for the creation of the Polish nation.

August Nimtz shows how Marx and Engels gave support to religious-led Arab resistance to French imperialism in Algeria in 1857; expressed strong sympathy for the Sepoy Mutiny against Britain in India in 1857-9; and by 1861 wrote, as the US Civil War loomed, that US expansion into Texas and what is now Arizona and New Mexico, brought with it slavery and the rule of the slaveholders. At the same time, they were quite clear that the ‘booty of British imperialism’ had begun to corrupt and compromise the English proletariat. Pranav Jani focuses on Marx’s response to the 1857 revolt in British India. He explains that Marx was transformed from a ‘mere observer’ of the anti-colonial struggle to an active participant in the ideological struggle over the meaning of the Revolt. This enabled him also to refute racist representations of Indian violence in the British press ‘by drawing a sharp division between the violence of the oppressed and that of the oppressor and dialectically linking the two.’ Jani concludes that if Eurocentrism makes Western Europe the centre of the globe, then the Marx he presents is not Eurocentric. (p.82-3)


Karl Marx On the Jewish Question, pp.146-174 at


Karl Marx Critique of the Gotha Programme at

There are two excellent biographies:

Francis Wheen Karl Marx Fourth Estate, 2010

David McLellan Karl Marx  Palgrave McMillan, 4th ed 2006

And the best short introduction to Marx’s thought:

Etienne Balibar The Philosophy of Marx Verso, 2007

For a contemporary set of assessments of Marx’ philosophy:

Andrew Chitty and Martin McIvor (eds) The Philosophy of Karl Marx Palgrave MacMillan, 2009



Kenneth Baynes “Rights as Critique and the Critique of Rights: Karl Marx, Wendy Brown, and the Social Function of Rights” Political Theory  Vol. 28, No. 4 2000, pp. 451-468

Jay Bernstein  “Right, revolution and community: Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question’’, in Peter Osborne (ed.), Socialism and the Limits of Liberalism, London: Verso, 1991.

Bill Bowring “Misunderstanding MacIntyre on Human Rights” in Kelvin Knight and Paul Blackledge (eds) Revolutionary Aristotelianism: Ethics, Resistance and Utopia, special issue of Analyse & Kritik, (2008), v.30 n.1, pp.205-214

Hugh Collins Marxism and Law Oxford, 1982

Bob Fine Democracy and the Rule of Law Blackburn Press, 2002, ch.2 ‘Marx’s critique of classical jurisprudence’ pp. 66‐85 and ch.4 ‘Law, state and capital’ pp. 95‐121

Prinav Jani “Karl Marx, Eurocentrism, and the 1857 Revolt in British India” in Bartolovich, Crystal and Neil Lazarus Marxism, Modernity and Postcolonial Studies Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp.81-100

Philip J. Kain Marx and Ethics Oxford:Clarendon Press 1991

August Nimtz, ‘The Eurocentric Marx and Engels and other related myths’ in Crystal Bartolovich and Neil Lazarus Marxism, Modernity and Postcolonial Studies  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp.65-80

Jeremy Waldron Nonsense Upon Stilts: Bentham, Burke and Marx on the Rights of Man Routledge, 1987

Yirmiyahu Yovel Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Adventures of Immanence Princeton, 1992; especially Chapter 4 “Spinoza and Marx: Man-in-Nature and the Science of Redemption”, pp.78-103



Marxism as a Methodology

Marxism as a Methodology

Bill Bowring, Birkbeck College

Karl Marx – 1818 – 1883

* ruthless radical materialism – derived from Aristotle and Spinoza

* imminent critique – the title of Capital – the critique of political economy

* no doctrine of political organisation, save the above

* no utopian vision of the future

Some quotes:

“But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”[1] (1843)

“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”[2] (1845)

“A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman sermons, a professor compendia and so on. A criminal produces crimes. If we take a closer look at the connection between this latter branch of production and society as a whole, we shall rid ourselves of many prejudices. The criminal produces not only crimes but also criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable compendium in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the general market as “commodities”.”[3] (1861)

“While the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser.”[4]

“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.”[5]



Etienne Balibar (1995) The Philosophy of Marx (Verso) – no index unfortunately

“I would also like to defend a somewhat paradoxical thesis: whatever may have been thought in the past, there is no Marxist philosophy and there never will be; on the other hand, Marx is more important for philosophy than ever before.”

Andrew Collier (2004) Marx (Oneworld Publications)

Peter Osborne (2005) How to read Marx (Granta Books)


Louis Althusser (2005) For Marx (Verso)

Alain Badiou (2007) The Century (Polity)

Alain Badiou (2010) The Communist Hypothesis (Verso)

Boris Groys (2010) The Communist Postscript (Verso)

Susan Marks (2000) The Riddle of all Constitutions: International Law, Democracy, and the Critique of Ideology (Oxford)

Susan Marks (2008) International Law on the Left: Re-examining Marxist Legacies (Cambridge); includes chapters by Martti Koskenniemi, B. S. Chimni; China Miéville; Bill Bowring; Anthony Carty; A. Claire Cutler; Brad R. Roth; Obiora Chinedu Okafor; Susan Marks.

Csaba Varga (ed) (1993) Marxian Legal Theory (New York University Press) – contains many Hungarian scholars, but also Eugene Kamenka “A Marxist Theory of Law?” (1983); Ronnie Warrington “Pashukanis and the Commodity Form Theory” (1981); Eugene Kamenka “Lukacs and Law” (1987); Richard Kinsey “Marxism and the Law: Preliminary Analyses” (1978); Peter Fitzpatrick “Marxism and Legal Pluralism” (1983); Alan Hunt “The Ideology of Law: Advances and Problems in Recent Applications of the Concept of Ideology to the Analysis of Law” (1985); Alan Stone “The Place of Law in the Marxisn strcture – Superstructure Archetype” (1985)

[1] Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, Marx to Ruge, Kreuznach, September 1843, at

[2] Karl Marx. The German Ideology. 1845, Pt I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook A. Idealism and Materialism at

[3] Marx’s Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63, Part 3) Relative Surplus Value, //Digression: (On Productive Labour)//, Volume 30, MECW, p. 306-318 at

[4] Karl Marx. Capital Volume One, Part II: The Transformation of Money into Capital, Chapter Four: The General Formula for Capital, at



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