Paul Vignaux – Introduction to Marxism (1937)

[Paul Vignaux was a Catholic trade unionist and medievalist, and philosopher (Scotist), who played a major role in the deconfessionalization of the CFTC. He helped to manage the publication known as the Cahiers Reconstruction: pour un socialisme démocratique, pour une culture sociale. For more information about him, see James Chappel’s Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church. For information on the dispute between him and Maritain, see So What’s New About Scholasticism?: How Neo-Thomism Helped Shape the Twentieth Century, specifically Wim Weymans’ chapter, Religion, human rights and democracy in post-1940 France in theory and practice: from Maritain’s Thomism to Vignaux’s secular realism.]

[Originally published as Introduction au marxisme in the 1937 issue of the Dominican La Vie intellectuelle.]

Let us look at the writings of the young Karl Marx — those before the Manifesto of 1847 — for an introduction to Marxism. The fragments of 1844, notably on political economy and philosophy, show us a mind at work discovering a new point of view on contemporary reality and ideas. We place ourselves in this perspective (1).

An idea appears central: that of alienation (Entaüsserung, Entfremdung), which comes from Hegel. Marx discovered that it applied to industrial work. If being, for us, consists in doing, man becomes other than himself, exterior, a stranger to himself, in a certain condition of his activity: when he finds himself dependent on what he produces, when [activity] feels compulsory, constrained, to the point of not even appearing to come from him, but from another. Marx expressed with these abstract terms the condition of the worker such as he saw it, as described by investigators (2): as productivity increases, the worker sees himself detached from the product which he produces; work loses all spontaneity, all interior élan. Coming from the outside, from necessity, the worker cannot attribute these independent products to himself, he must attribute them to another [who] does not partake in his condition, and is a non-worker (Nicht-Arbeiter). The idea of the power of the capitalist thus expressed the abasement of the laboring mass. The writings of 1844 sketch a phenomenology of work in the language of The Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel treats the activity of consciousness, in the abstract, from a speculative point of view; this was, thinks Marx, only a transposition of the concrete, practical, material, action of man. When we return from the idea to the real, when we pass from idealism to “materialism”, we do not change pace: the dialectic is here constitutive of facts, or rather of acts. Having been lost, the essential task always consists of finding oneself: hence the theme of alienation.  

What of the application of this idea to industrial work? We are at the point where Marx’s thought communicates with the social reality of our epoch. His analysis exhibits certain aspects; it neglects others; it has not been able to factor in experiences [and] studies which we have at our disposal today (3). It would be necessary to assemble all this data before expressing them in more or less new notions.

To consider the state of the industrial worker as alienation is to suppose a nature of man, who finds himself prevented from realizing the ideal character of labor[.] … The character of man in labor must be mastery over the object, vital expansion, appropriation. Let us observe, says Marx, this labor which is enslaved to the object, which finds itself imposed, which makes the worker the thing of someone else. We cannot avoid the question; the terms must be clarified. Confronted with the very reality which denies it, what does the affirmation of an ideal, of a nature outside of which we can not make any sense of the term alienation, consist in?

Having made these reservations, having evoked these tasks, we admit that the Marxism — of Marx — makes us attentive to a reality and to a problem. Political economy had just exposed to men the laws of a constantly expanding world. By putting himself in the point of view of the worker finding his life crushed, Marx made us aware of the frightening objectivity of the economic world. But in regarding it from that same point of view, starting from labor, he made us see that all these things, however exterior, come from our acts, that all these alien forces amount to the activity of men. The laws of the economists lose their aspect of eternity, no longer leaving the proletariat without hope. A question found to be theoretically resolved which we pose to ourselves again: will we remain in the same situation in the face of economic realities; will we have to, in the same manner, undergo them in dependence? It is about our products: it would suffice that, conscious of this fact, the act recovers dominion over the object which originates from it. Here, the act is not individual, but collective: its force or weakness expresses the state of the human mass. The power of things is born from the powerlessness of men. We must conceive of a recovery, a redress of all workers; the relationship of humanity to its economy will find itself transformed. Without defining this new form of social life, we can have the certitude of its possibility. The idea of alienation includes the chance of escaping it. To put his ideas simply, Marx cited a formula from 1789:

The great appear great 
because we are on our knees.
Let us rise!

Let us retain only the metaphor; let us avoid simplifying the meaning. The grandeur which it is a question of is not above all the power of the capitalist over the proletariat, but the power of capital over the entirety of society. Marx saw both of them enslaved, alienated; the one, however, satisfied with his alienation, the other in revolt. Why is the struggle against capitalism, the dominion of things over man, conflated with the struggle of proletarians against capitalists? We see born here, in its originality, the Marxist doctrine of the class struggle. The “bourgeois” is content, thus unconscious; the worker constitutes social restlessness itself, hence the awareness of the problem, the possibility of resolving it. According to the genius of Hegelian dialectic, these antithetical figures represent vital attitudes, sentiments, before forming a logical game. Between these opposed characters, there is no harmony, a contradiction. When he discovered the historic mission of the proletariat, Marx made his collective hero play the role of the negation in front of the capitalist position. As an authority on Hegel, he knew that “negativity” constituted the resilience of the dialectic; a principle that denies. The working class does not only oppose its opposite, but also the society which they formed together; it is not about suppressing the condition of the capitalist, but equally that of the proletariat; the true revolution corresponds to the negation of the negation. When a Marxist desires the absolute opposition between management and salariat, he remains faithful to the logical origins of his doctrine.

A Christian does not fail to react here; how does he accept seeing humanity divided in two fractions whose role consists of acting irreconcilably? However imperfect a society, however difficult it appears to realize this thought, men form by their nature a community, and in all cases support relationships of justice and fraternity, and have to exchange rights and duties: this remains true in war; it is also true in labor conflicts, in social struggles.

Having refused this on principle, we can append a historical analysis of recent history. Hegelian negativity has not been without influence on the worker movement. Henri de Man has remarked that the principal weakness of Marxism consists in its indifference in regard to the motives of proletarian action: the quality of the intention matters little, when acting signifies denying, what only matters is the intensity of negation, the force which knocks over the established order. Hence the appeal to whichever principle of action, to the very principles which will pull us away from the end goal. Hence the strictly economic, immediate, interest, which has led to a reformism without élan or horizon, to the “embourgeoisement” of syndicalists and politicians. It suffices to evoke the decadence of social democracy and its final collapse. Another case, more important still: to turn over, to deny, nothing is equal to ressentiment, hatred. For masses delivered to these passions, it can hardly result in anything else than a totalitarian regime, which cultivates the collective sentiment beneficial to a personal dictator. In both cases, does not the worker movement miss its goal: the access of a whole class, a whole society, to a more conscious life, freed from certain conditions which determined it, that currently determine it?

It seems that Marx demands very little of the proletariat which he expects everything from; we should not, he says, make proletarians gods. How does he see these men? He writes with emotion of Parisian workers: “[The brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies.]” [Vignaux seems to have botched Marx’s quote in the original article — which is from a famous line in Marx’s Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.] This concrete, positive aspect, meanwhile, does not take part in the dialectic where solely the “bad side”, “the abstraction of all humanity” acts: a future privation conscious of itself in an abstract proletariat (4).

When we have recognized this excess of negativity, what remains of the idea of alienation applied to the modern economy? The feeling of a solidarity among the interplay of economic things, the way in which their laws appear, on the one hand, [and] on the other hand, a certain condition of the mass of men: without economic transformation we will not raise up humanity; but if men do not react against their abasement, the economy will continue to dominate them. This appeal is not addressed to a few souls or a few elite spirits; but to the entirety of workers. That is the fundamental role of the worker movement, understood as an elevation of consciousness, of liberty in the masses.

We have compared the idea of alienation with the economic reality which it wants to explain. Let us examine this idea in itself, before its use. When he describes alienated labor, Marx refers to, as a model,  a conception of religion: alienation of consciousness. This is the place to recall that the Left Hegelianism to which [Marx] belonged had as its essential task the critique of religion, which Hegel had seen in religion — even realized in Christ — the state of the divided, unhappy consciousness, never victorious nor satisfied. The Phenomenology of Spirit admits of many interpretations; we can definitely learn that religion constitutes the type of alienation of man in his being, in his action (5). Hence its adoption into a phenomenology of work: the idea of transcendental divinity is a product of consciousness which opposes it and dominates it. A believer in grace, the religious man, sees in his own activity the work of a foreign force; what he produces and his very acts. Nothing concerns him, all belongs to his God. [Thus], a proportion regulates religious life here: the more we give to the divinity, the less we have as men. In their critique of religion, the Marxists can use all sorts of arguments they often have not invented. By refuting them one by one, we do not reach the essential part of their doctrine: the idea that all religious life expresses man’s abasement[.] If Christianity appears as the enemy of the worker movement, it is by a simple application of this view in the social attitude of Christians: “The social principles of Christianity,” wrote Marx in 1847, ‘preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submission, humility, in a word, all the qualities of the rabble; and the proletariat which will not allow itself to be treated as rabble, needs courage, self- confidence, pride, a sense of personal dignity and independence, even more than it needs daily bread.” We state that the better response to Marxism, is a socially active faith, putting in practice the dignity of our nature, precisely as Christianity has revealed it to us. […] We find ourselves facing a doctrine which proceeds from Hegel, perhaps an unbeliever, but a theologian by formation. Such thoughts do not simply deny Christianity [so as to devolve] into a vulgar paganism; [rather] it is their intention to go beyond it, to surpass it. One can, I think, respond by showing that one only poses the question of surpassing the Christian religion by having ignored it. Religious sentiment can only be interpreted as alienation after describing it, [a description] whose universal value can [then] be discussed. One must recover here the analyses of The Phenomenology of Spirit and ask history which conception of Christianity realizes Hegelian consciousness. Following Hegel, one can without a doubt catch sight of Luther: in the division of spirit, the opposition, the extreme tension between the divine transcendence and the powerlessness of men, a polluted nature, so radically diminished that it can do nothing to restore itself, do nothing within its restoration. From such a point of view, how can cooperation, a reconciliation, be conceived between the divine and the human? Christian consciousness appears as the field of their competition, of their enmity. […] In this Christianity, man would lose himself, without finding himself.

Regarding any conflict between the divine and the human, it appears that the solution is given in principle, from creation itself even: when the transcendent God of Genesis conferred to the first humans a nature in his image. From model to image as such, how can competition, jealousy, be conceived? According to one of the most profound thoughts of the Catholic Middle Ages, it is a God of liberality who donates to his creature his resemblance. And the gift glorifies the donor. Put in this manner, the dignity of human nature would not be offended by the divine transcendence. The opposition to God appears solely when man is divided with himself: when he becomes “dissimilar” to himself, when he is abased. Conscious of this state of abasement, humility does not prevent, but includes, the sense of the dignity of our nature. There is, in the life of the Christian, a moment of division, of alienation, but it does not present itself as linked to divine transcendence. 

We have the right to not hold the end of all alienation, the reconciliation of man with his real being, to be linked to the elimination of all transcendence: why shouldn’t the transcendence that Catholic Christianity knows be the one which precisely would not abase our nature[?] […] If a relationship with the transcendental does not suffice to alienate man, the end of alienation may not be defined in terms of perfect immanence. The social order is linked here with the religious order; the most serious of contemporary questions must be clarified. Is it by chance that what the Hegelian consciousness loses in religion it finds in the State, which the citizen identifies with; that Marxist man, having traversed the same alienation, achieves his odyssey in a society which does not know the opposition between the individual and the collective? In either case, the totalitarian idea appears. For us, on the contrary, it is the individual who is the image of God. This transcendent relation makes him exceed all social order, and confers to him a liberty opposable to any temporal collectivity. Before recovering, if possible, in the economic order, Marx’s notion of alienation, we must separate [it] not only [from] the simplifications of his dialectic, but also the illusion of his religious critique: a link with transcendence does not constitute an unhappy consciousness, but, in society itself, a principle of liberation.


(1) We present here, in a synthetic and simplified way, the results of an analysis of the texts, which we have given, with more development, in Politique, November 1935, pp. 900-912, under the title: Retour à Marx. Attached to articles by Marcel Moré in Esprit, this article has been the subject of a very sympathetic study by Pierre Boivin in L’Homme Réel, n° 28, pp. n-19: Les catholiques découvrent Marx. The author agrees with me about the interpretation of the of Marx, distinguished from vulgar Marxism. Why translate this agreement in an effort of intelligence in formulas such as “adhere even partial, to Marxism”? I do not believe that a philosophy can be divided into parts that can be separated in this way, but that with the instructive experience of certain connections of ideas, it can bring us a sense of realities that are also problematic for us; once these data have been reached, everything has to be taken up again, through a personal reaction, a new construction. This is the point of view of this article.
The writings of 1844, not yet translated, can be found either in the fragments edited by Landshut and Mayer: Karl Marx, Der historische Materialismus, Die Frühschripten, 1. Band, pp. 282-375, or in Marx-Engels Gesamtausgube, 1. Ahteilung, Band 3, Berlin, 1932: Œkonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte.
(2) Cf. Hilde Rigaudias Weiss, Les enquêtes ouvrières en France entre 1830 et 1848, Alcan, 1936.
(3) We are thinking in particular of Henri de Man’s book La joie au travail.
(4) This idea has been presented in the admirable small work of Spenlé, La pensée allemande, pp. 129-139.
(5) Cf. the work of Jean Wahl, Le malheur de la conscience dans la philosophie de Hegel.