Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2.: Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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2.: Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History - H.B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed 
The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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© 1962 by H. B. Acton. The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by H.B. Acton’s estate. It is reproduced here by permission and may not be reproduced in any form without written permission.
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Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History
So far my discussion of Marxist ethics has been confined to the Marxist attempt—which, historically considered, is a branch of the nineteenth-century Positivist attempt—to derive principles of right conduct from some alleged science of society. We must now, however, look somewhat more closely at what Marxists say about moral beliefs, remembering that in their view morality is an ideology. In the present section I shall be concerned with the most general aspects of the theory, the account, we might put it, of what morality itself is held to be. In later sections I shall discuss some of the chief Marxist proposals for the reform of morality. For the texts show that, inconsistent as it may appear to be, Marxism is a program for the reform of morality as well as an attempt to reduce it to science. All students of Marxism must at some stage have felt that there is at the very least a difficulty in reconciling the Marxist attack on class divisions and “exploitation” with the view that moral ideals are masks that cover interests. This is a problem to be kept in mind throughout all that follows.
The chief account of the matter is that given by Engels in chapters 9, 10, and 11 of his Anti-Dühring. Here Engels argues that there are no “eternal truths” in morality, but that moral codes must vary with changes in the conditions of human life. Engels held that at the time when he was writing (1877) there were three main moralities being preached, “the christian-feudal morality,” “the modern bourgeois morality,” and “the proletarian morality of the future.” The first of these was based on economic forces that were rapidly dying; the second was the ideological construction of the capitalist ruling class; the third was emerging as capitalism produced the proletariat, and would replace the other two when the proletarian revolution had been effected. Although he does not say what they are, Engels admits that there are likenesses between these three moral systems. These likenesses have two main causes: in the first place, the feudal, capitalist, and emerging proletarian society are different stages of a single economic development; and in the second place, the economic fact of private property requires recognition in all non-communist moral systems, although “Thou shalt not steal” would be quite unnecessary in “a society in which the motive for stealing has been done away with.” Engels argued, furthermore, that as one class has succeeded another in the conflicts of the past “there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge,” and that “a really human morality which transcends class antagonisms and their legacies in thought becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class contradictions, but has even forgotten them in practical life.” It is the proletarian morality that “contains the maximum of durable elements” and “in the present represents the overthrow of the present, represents the future.” The chief element of the morality of the future, it appears, will be equality: “. . . the real content of the proletarian demand for equality is the demand for the abolition of classes. Any demand for equality which goes beyond that of necessity passes into absurdity.”7
When we read that moral codes depend upon conditions of life, that these vary with changes in the economic basis of society, and that each class has its own morality, we are tempted to conclude that Engels was arguing for what is called a relativist view of morality, i.e., a view according to which there are many different groupings of men each with its own standards of moral conduct, but that there is no universal standard of moral conduct in terms of which the manifold particular codes can be rationally assessed. It might seem, furthermore, that the Marxist version of Relativism is somewhat as follows: The differences between human groupings are all, in the last resort, differences between their economic structures; all non-communist societies are class-divided and therefore all moral codes in them will be class codes; when an economic system is firmly established, the generally accepted morality will be that of the exploiting class, and justice will be, as Thrasymachus the Greek Sophist said it was, “the interest of the stronger”; but when a new economic system is in process of development, the rising class whose interests are tied to it will develop a moral outlook that will bolster its own interests as opposed to those of the class that has hitherto ruled supreme, and in this way a conflict of class interests will manifest itself as a clash of moral codes. From all this it would follow that moral fervor is a disguise for class interest, and that, since classes judge one another in terms of incompatible standards, conflict between them can never end by their submitting themselves to some commonly accepted rule; their interests may conceivably bring them to a truce, but they can never submit themselves to the tribunal of an agreed morality. That this is Engels’ view seems to be suggested by his remark that “the proletarian demand for equality” is “an agitational means in order to rouse the workers against the capitalists on the basis of the capitalists’ own assertions.”8 Lenin, too, has let fall a number of phrases which suggest this form of Relativism, as when, in his “Address to the Third Congress of the Russian Young Communist League,” he said: “When people talk to us about morality we say: for the Communist, morality lies entirely in this compact, united discipline and conscious mass struggle against the exploiters. We do not believe in an eternal morality, and we expose all the fables about morality.”9
Nevertheless, however much relativist arguments may be used to confute and discourage those who accept the traditional codes, there is in Marxist ethics a claim to absoluteness. It has already been pointed out that Engels held that there are elements common to the feudal, bourgeois, and proletarian moralities, and that “there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge.” So too Lenin, in the sentence following the passage I have just quoted from his speech to the Russian Young Communist League, said: “Morality serves the purpose of helping human society to rise to a higher level, and to get rid of the exploitation of labour.” Rosenthal and Yudin’s article on “Ethics” in their Handbook of Philosophy concludes with these words: “Communist morality takes the position that only that which contributes to the abolition of human exploitation, poverty, and degradation, and to the building and strengthening of a system of social life from which such inhuman phenomena will be absent is moral and ethical.” And Mr. Shishkin is quoted as having written as follows in an article entitled “The Decay of Anglo-American Ethics” in the Soviet periodical Voprosy Filosofii: “The chief struggle [in Anglo-American ethics] is against Marxist ethics, and its objective and rigorous norms and principles derived from a scientific understanding of society; ethical relativism was important in the thought of Rosenberg and Goebbels.”10 From all this it will be seen that moral standards are not held by Marxists to be merely different from one another, but are said to have progressed as the earlier codes gave way to others that were closer to the Communism of the future. How, then, in view of what has been said in the previous chapter about the nature of ideologies, can we understand the claim that Communist morality is superior to the morality that went before it?
From the passages I have quoted it will be seen that there are four main respects in which Marxist ethics differs from ethical relativism. In the first place it is held that there are elements common to the feudal, bourgeois, and proletarian moralities. Little is said about these common elements, but undoubtedly the view is that no society could survive in which there was no respect for human life or for personal possessions, no loyalty, no courage, no care for the helpless. These “conditions of human peace,” as Hobbes called them, are referred to by Lenin as “the elementary rules of social life that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all school books.”11 To call attention to such principles, however, is not sufficient, on its own, to eliminate ethical relativism, since, although a rule such as “murder is wrong” may be universal in the sense that every society recognizes it as binding within itself, it may not be universal in the sense that every society regards it as applying to its conduct toward foreigners as well as within its own bounds. The universal acceptance of a rule such as “It is wrong to murder fellow-tribesmen” (or “non-backsliding fellow party-members”) is compatible, therefore, with the belief that it is right to kill anyone else. The Marxists’ references to elements common to all moral codes, although they may be meant to constitute a rejection of Relativism, do not conclusively show that they are this.
In the second place, however, it is quite clear that Engels wrote of progress in morality, and that this implies some standard in terms of which the various stages are estimated. He speaks, too, of “a truly human morality which transcends class antagonisms,” and asserts that this will be achieved when classes have been abolished. We should note, too, Lenin’s phrase “helping human society to rise to a higher level” and Rosenthal and Yudin’s talk of getting rid of such “inhuman phenomena” as “human exploitation, poverty, and degradation.” Thus, those societies are the better ones in which there is the least exploitation, the least poverty, the least “degradation.” “Human,” in this context, has two meanings. A “human” morality is, in the first place, one in which religious and theological elements play no part. In the second place, it is a morality which extends to all human beings by requiring the abolition of all poverty and all exploitation. It is “human” in the sense of being both atheistic and applicable to all men.
In the third place, the emerging proletarian morality is held to be superior to all those which preceded it. This is because the proletariat is the class which, exploited as it is in capitalist society, will surely bring capitalist society to an end, and in so doing will abolish classes, exploitation, and poverty. It does not seem that proletarian morality is preferred by Marxists solely because it is the morality of the class that has a future, of the class that will become the ruling class. They also prefer it because it is the morality of the class that will bring classes to an end. They appear to have the picture of a morality that extends the ambit of its respect as it spreads from a few feudal lords to the more numerous bourgeoisie, and thence to the proletarians who will finally be the whole of mankind.
It must be said in the fourth place, however, that the standard of moral assessment is itself held by Marxists to depend upon the level of economic (or technological) development of society. Here we come to the central, and most difficult, aspect of Marxist moral theory. There can be no doubt that capitalist industrial society is much more effective, from an industrial point of view, than any society that has gone before it. The standard of comparison between it and its predecessors in this regard is the quantity and quality of goods producible during any given time, “quality,” of course, being understood in a sense that excludes artistic excellence or moral suitability. It is obvious that a society in which wireless sets and cyclotrons are produced is industrially more advanced than one in which steam power has not yet been employed. Now the Marxists maintain the following theses: (a) that moral codes are parasitic on industrial achievement; (b) that private ownership of the means of production is a hindrance to the industrial progress of modern society; (c) that when this hindrance has been removed by the abolition of capitalism, industrial progress will be vastly accelerated; and (d) that the classless morality of the new society will show a corresponding advance on that of the class-divided societies of the past. The view is summarized in an article in Soviet Studies as follows: “Just as each stage of human development possesses a certain level of consciousness which is the highest attainable in the historical conditions, so it also possesses an understanding of good and evil which is the highest attainable in the same conditions. Since we needs must love the highest when we see it, it is the duty of each individual not to aim lower than the ethical ideals of his society; and a society or social group which falls short in its ethical ideal of those ideals previously established is morally retrogressive. It follows from the general propositions of historical and dialectical materialism that a community in a higher stage of organization will reflect its social attainments in its higher stage of morals; and consequently ethical studies may be closely related to, and based on, the exact knowledge (“science”) which is provided by sociology.”12
What is the relation between (a) and (d) above? Surely it does not follow that, because moral codes depend upon industrial systems, the more advanced the industrial system, the higher the moral code. If “industrial progress” is understood in a sense that is independent of “moral progress,” then no amount of industrial progress can give the slightest ground for supposing that there has been any moral progress whatever. Moral progress must be understood in moral, not in technological, terms. One is tempted to suppose that Marxists, having relinquished the view that morality is strengthened by divine support, have nevertheless felt the need for something else to support it when there is no God to do so, and have picked on technology for the role of substitute deity. The Marxist view must be either that industrial progress is the same thing as moral progress, or else that industrial progress is a sure sign of moral progress. We have rejected the first suggestion, and if there is to be anything in the second it will have to be possible to know what moral progress is independently of knowing what industrial progress is. For to know that changes in one thing are a sure sign of changes in another, both things must have been observed changing. For example, thermometers can only be used to measure the temperature of a room because we have been able to experience both the changes from hotter to colder and colder to hotter, and changes in the height of the column of mercury. The Marxist is rather like a man who, disgusted at the idea of feeling hot or cold, will refer only to the “objective and rigorous norms” on the temperature scale, and asserts that they are what hot and cold really are. Indeed, there is a further analogy between the use of thermometers and the Marxist correlation of industrial with moral progress. Once a scale of temperature has been established, the scale can “register” both discriminations and quantities that no one can have experienced. For example, no one is conscious of a change of temperature of (say) half a degree Fahrenheit, and no one has ever been conscious of a heat of 2000° Fahrenheit. Once the scale has been established it acquires a certain independence and appears to measure things that are quite beyond the range of human experience. The initial correlation between the marks on the scale and what people feel gets lost sight of. The Marxist use of the notion of industrial progress appears to have broken loose in a somewhat similar way from its initial conjunction with moral progress. First it was correlated with a norm, and then it became a norm itself.
According to the French Hegelian scholar M. Jean Hyppolite there is in Marx’s Capital a conflict between two inconsistent points of view, the one Darwinian and the other Hegelian.13 There is a similar conflict, it seems to me, between the ethical implications of the Materialist Conception of History and Engels’ and Lenin’s view that there has been and will be moral progress. For, as I have pointed out, the Materialist Conception of History is held to be “faithfully established in the manner of the natural sciences,” and must therefore, like them, be amoral. It purports to show that the struggle between classes will in fact cease with the victory of the proletariat. Each class has its morality, the victory of the proletariat will be the victory of proletarian morality, and the dissolution of classes will bring the dissolution of class morality. This is the amoral Darwinian theory which is held to explain the genesis of moral standards and their role as weapons in the class war. On this view, the superiority of a moral standard consists in its replacing the standards of vanquished classes, and the superiority of a classless morality consists in its having ousted all others, just as, for Darwin, the fittest are those who succeed in surviving, not those who, in some moral sense, ought to survive. When Marxists talk of moral progress, however, they desert this amoral Darwinism for something not unlike the Hegelian theodicy. Out of the clash of classes, they suppose, superior forms of society are developed which would never have existed at all if the clashes had been mitigated or suppressed. In spite of apparent retrogressions man is progressing. His earliest stage was one of primitive, almost innocent communism. His fall from this state was necessary if he was to advance to a developed, self-conscious (i.e., planned) industrial communism. Industrial civilization, thinks the Marxist when he is in the Hegelian frame of mind, makes possible the mastery of man over himself so that, want and exploitation having been abolished, free men can each develop, without hindrance from others, the latent powers which class-divided societies had inhibited. In the progress of man what, to use Hegelian language, was merely implicit and ideal becomes explicit and real. Such a state of things would not be merely the latest in the succession of social orders, but would be both their consummation and the standard in terms of which their shortcomings would be judged.
We have now seen some of the Marxist attempts at making these inconsistent views go along together. The least Darwinian element in the first amoral theory was the view that the struggle between classes would come to an end through the abolition of classes altogether. (Darwin did not suggest that one species would oust all the rest.) Now the abolition of classes is a conception that readily gives rise to moral judgments. In so far as class differences involve exploitation, that is, the unjust use of power, the disappearance of classes may be supposed, rightly or wrongly, to lead to the disappearance of exploitation. (It is by no means certain that other forms of injustice would not arise after class injustices had been removed.) A classless society, again, is readily conceived as one in which moral respect is given to all men instead of only to some. It is easy, that is, to pass from the amoral conception of a classless society to the moral conception that Kant described as a Kingdom of Ends, i.e., a society in which everyone is an object of moral respect. The link, I suggest, is the notion of universality; it is supposed on the one hand that if classes are abolished all men will belong to a single society, and it is supposed on the other hand that moral progress consists in more and more men being accepted as members of a single moral world. In combining the two views, however, Marxists inconsistently hold both that morality is mere ideology and that it is capable of real improvement.
At this point it will be useful to revert for a moment to the Marxist discussion of phenomenalism. The exponents of phenomenalism, we said, generally deny that they are saying that there are no physical objects. They claim instead to be providing an analysis, in terms of actual and possible sense data, of what it is to be a physical object. Now it might be suggested, at this stage of the argument, that the Marxist account of morals as ideology is really an analysis of what morality is rather than a denial of the validity of moral judgments. It might be said, that is, that the theory of ideologies, as applied to morals, is the view that when people make moral judgments they are really giving expression to their attitudes and endeavoring to get other people to share them. This is a view held today by a number of philosophers who are not Marxists at all. The chief difference between the Marxist analysis of morals, therefore, and these “attitude and persuasion” theories would be that the Marxists have a lot to say about how the attitudes are formed, whereas these philosophers ignore that side of the matter as altogether irrelevant to what they call “philosophy.” On this interpretation, then, when Marxists say that morality is an ideology they are saying (a) that moral judgments are expressions of people’s attitudes and at the same time attempts to get other people to have the same attitudes toward the same things, and (b) that these attitudes arise from class situations, and that these, in their turn, arise out of economic circumstances. Now Marxists object to the phenomenalist analysis of physical objects on the ground that it is idealism in disguise. Might we not have expected them to have objected to the “attitude and persuasion” theory of morals on the ground that it is a disguise for all that is arbitrary and unprincipled in human conduct? (Mr. Shishkin, it will be remembered, seems to have taken this view, though in an inconsistent way.) That is how the Stoics, whom I earlier compared with the Marxists, looked at the matter, but in this regard Marxism is more like ancient skepticism than it is like Stoicism. The reason why they treat ethical subjectivism differently from how they treat perceptual subjectivism is, I suggest, that they think they can find scientific evidence for the existence of men with various wants, but feel that there is no evidence at all for such things as moral values. If this is so, then Marxists think they can “reduce” morality to wants and persuasions in a way in which physical objects cannot be reduced to sense data. Now I criticized phenomenalism on the ground that its view of physical objects was based on such things as reflections in mirrors and the images of dreams and delirium, whereas the status of these last can only be understood in terms of real things that are not reflections, not dreams, not delirium; the phenomenalist assumes, in saying what sense data are, that physical objects are not sense data and his alleged analysis of matter is a hollow, painted substitute for it. Now I suggest that the “interest and persuasion” analysis of morals suffers from an analogous defect. There is the same zeal for immediately perceived ultimates—in the case of morals these are wants, desires, and persuadings. But there is also the same failure to notice that these “ultimates” are not real existences at all, that wants, desires, and persuadings are themselves moral, or are understandable by relation to or in contrast with what is moral. We have seen this sort of false abstraction in another context, when the attempt was made to describe a “material basis” of society that was supposed to have in it none of the features that belonged to the “superstructure.” Phenomenalism, the Materialist Conception of History, and the “attitude and persuasion” analysis of morals are all of them, in their different ways, results of misleading abstraction, a misleading abstraction that fabricates unreal units, sense data, the “material basis” of society, and “wants, desires, and persuadings.” A further point to notice in this connection is that, just as the phenomenalist bases his theory on illusions, hallucinations, images, so the moral subjectivist bases his analysis on moral divergences, and as the realist bases his view on developed and successful perception, so the moral objectivist bases his analysis on developed and successful moral conduct.
It will be remembered that in Chapter I of Part One of this book I called attention to the fact that one of Lenin’s arguments against phenomenalism was that phenomenalism is a form of idealism, that idealism is a disguised form of religion, that religion is dangerous to communism, and that therefore phenomenalism should be rejected. Basic to this argument is the assumption that it is legitimate to reject a philosophical theory on the ground that it appears to be a hindrance to the victory of the proletariat under Communist Party leadership. In still more general terms, Lenin’s argument assumes that it is legitimate to reject a philosophical theory on the ground that it appears to conflict with a political movement supposed to be working for the long-term interests of mankind. Now that we have discussed the Materialist Conception of History and the moral theory that goes with it, we are in a better position to discuss this assumption of Lenin’s than we were when our chief concern was the Marxist view of nature. We can now see that when Lenin dismisses phenomenalism on the ground that it is dangerous to communism, he regards it, as he regards all non-Marxist philosophical theories, as an ideology, i.e., as an expression of some class-interest. His view seems to be that, if the arguments its supporters put forward can be intellectually refuted, well and good, but that if they appear for the time being to be too subtle for this, then Marxists must try to prevent them from being accepted by such means as scorn or moral indignation or expulsion of the heretics. From Lenin’s procedure it can be seen that he regarded it as necessary both to deal with arguments on the intellectual plane, and also to unmask the ideologies that produce them. It will, of course, be remembered that Marxists consider that they themselves are being scientific when they expose the ideologies of other classes. They believe, too, that in doing this they are helping on the ultimate good of all mankind.
It cannot be reasonably denied that beneath the surface of philosophical argumentation there is often the desire to gain acceptance for a way of living and appreciating as well as for a way of thinking. There is no doubt that most of those philosophers who have accepted idealism have sought, in this philosophy, to justify some form of rational religion. Again, it is obvious that most positivists have the practical aim of getting rid of what they consider to be superstition. The idealist endeavors to show that religious hopes are not all in vain, the positivist to show that they are illusory and should be replaced by the clear-cut expectations that he imagines the natural sciences provide. Idealist views, as with Hegel, tend to be respectful of tradition, Positivist views, as during the French Enlightenment, to be contemptuous of it. (Hume and Comte, it is true, are very notable instances to the contrary.) Some realists and materialists, revolted by what seems to them to be irresponsible “cleverness,” aim, like the Stoics, to secure agreement on a set of basic truths that should provide a foundation for common agreement and mutual respect. Most of those who engage in philosophical thought have some such fundamental aims. Their thinking is associated with their meditations on life and death and with their conception of how men ought to conduct themselves. In their philosophizing they often approach near to prophecy or poetry. Philosophers who today talk of philosophical “puzzles” minimize these aspects of philosophical thought, whereas those who talk of “problems” or “predicaments” tend to stress them. But whether minimized or stressed, they are there.
Now it looks very strange when Lenin, in a book where the views of Berkeley, Mach, and Poincaré are under discussion, calls upon his comrades to close the ranks. It is important first to see what justification there could be for these methods. If someone asserts as true something he knows to be false, it is idle to argue with him about the truth of what he is saying, though it may be important to argue with those he might mislead. For he is making the assertion in order to deceive, not in order to add to the sum of knowledge. Again, if someone is carried away by his hopes and interests to enunciate false statements as gestures of faith or defiance, concern with the detail of his falsehoods may lead his opponents to lose sight of the practical reasons for which he uttered them. Such men, in uttering what have the appearance of statements, are chiefly endeavoring to achieve some practical aim. Since intellectual illumination is not their object, argumentative procedures that assumed that it was would be out of place, in the sense that they would not be directed at the main point of what the men were doing. Thus, when Lenin, in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, writes abusively, he is assuming that idealists are conscious or unconscious deceivers, that their arguments are not really concerned with reaching truth, but are a sort of slogan to rally supporters and discourage the enemy. He conceives himself as replying to slogans by slogans, to actions by actions. It is likely that he was all the more ready to behave like this in that he was convinced of the practical bearing of all genuine (Marxist or scientific) thinking. Furthermore, social circumstances or psychological concomitants can be enquired into in the case of any sort of view, whether it be true or false. For example, Marxists consider that the methods of the natural sciences, being based on experience and practice, lead toward truth. But although this is so, there is no reason why sociologists should not investigate the social background of physicists and compare it with that of biologists, nor why psychologists should not enquire whether there is a special type of personality that predisposes men to become scientists. Such enquiries, it will be seen, are quite irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the theories that the scientists put forward. Descartes’s pride no more discredits his scientific discoveries than Darwin’s humility accredits his. Whether a scientific theory is true or false is settled by scientific argument, not by reference to the nature of the propounder’s motives. Suppose, then, that a Marxist admits this but asserts that philosophy is in a different case since it is an ideology. But philosophy proceeds by argument, and whether an argument is acceptable or not depends on how well it has been conducted. Philosophical arguments may be a different sort of argument from scientific ones, but in the one case as in the other sociological and psychological questions about the arguers are quite different from and quite irrelevant to the acceptability of the arguments themselves. It is only when an argument is manifestly bad and yet its expounder sticks to it in the face of annihilating criticism that we begin to feel justified in asking why he should continue arguing in this curious way. That is to say, the unmasking of ideologies, in the sense of showing the class interests that prompt them, is only in place when the belief that is thus unmasked has already been shown to be false. Thus, quite apart from questions of good manners that may differ from place to place and time to time, no controversialist is entitled to refer to his opponent’s motives unless the arguments that his opponent has used have been shown by argument to be untenable. If someone refuses to consider an argument on the ground that the man who put it forward has an axe to grind, this refusal is a political act, not a scientific or philosophical one.
This completes what I have to say about the direct relationship of Marxist ethics with the Materialist Conception of History. I shall now pass on to consider some of the details of Marxist ethics, commencing with a brief account of some important arguments from Marx and Engels’ Holy Family. I have chosen this way of beginning both because the arguments are of considerable intrinsic interest and also because they enable us to see some of the moral considerations that influenced Marx and Engels at the time when their system of ideas had just been formed.
[7. ]This last quotation is from p. 121; the previous passages are from pp. 106–8.
[8. ]Anti-Dühring, p. 121.
[9. ]The Essentials of Lenin (London, 1947), vol. 2, p. 670.
[10. ]Soviet Studies, vol. 1, no. 3, Jan. 1950.
[11. ]State and Revolution (London, 1933), p. 69.
[12. ]Soviet Studies, vol. 1, no. 3, Jan. 1950, p. 227.
[13. ]“La Structure du ‘Capital’ et de quelques présuppositions philosophiques dans l’oeuvre de Marx,” Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie, Oct.–Dec. 1948. Reprinted in Hyppolite’s Etudes sur Marx et Hegel.