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Karl Marx

Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1843

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Summary and Study Guide


The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, also known as the 1844 Manuscripts or the Paris Manuscripts (the term used henceforth), is a collection of essays by the German philosopher Karl Marx, which were later compiled and published by Soviet researchers in 1932. The text represents the earliest formulation of the distinctive features of Marxist theory, which are elaborated most succinctly in his 1848 pamphlet The Communist Manifesto and most thoroughly in his 1867 book Das Kapital (Capital).

This summary is based on the translation by Martin Milligan, edited with an introduction by Dirk J. Struik (New York: International Publishers, 1964).


The Paris Manuscripts were written at a crossroads in Marx’s career. After completing his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Jena in 1841, Marx considered a career in academia, but his university years had drawn him to a radical circle known as the “Young Hegelians” who were most famous for publishing philosophical critiques of Christianity, thus infuriating a Prussian monarchy that claimed to rule by divine right. Too politically suspect to earn a teaching position, Marx sought work as a journalist and became sympathetic with the socialists and communists who deplored the system of industrial capitalism that had taken hold in Europe. After his newspaper was shut down by government censors, Marx became an itinerant freelance writer, eventually settling in Paris and developing his views on both philosophy and political economy.

For Marx, the Young Hegelians were too abstract and removed from the concerns of daily life, while the socialists had a program for action but no solid intellectual foundations. Marx attempted to reconcile philosophy with radical politics by utilizing the Hegelian concept of dialectic, or fusing opposing concepts into a rational synthesis. The Paris Manuscripts attempt to create a union between philosophy and political economy as the focus shifts from an examination of labor, money, and property to inquiries regarding the nature of human worth and purpose. Marx frames political economy as a clash between labor and capital and proposes that the only way to satisfy the underlying needs of mankind is for the class struggle to culminate in the common ownership of all property under communism.

The Paris Manuscripts begin with the distinction between labor (i.e., workers) and capital (i.e., the corporations that employ workers). Marx posits this relationship as fundamentally unequal since the laborer has to work to live whereas the owners of large capital assets such as farms or factories can always hire or lay off people to keep profits high under different economic conditions. Employment contracts are thus not true contracts because the employer can always choose not to hire but the employee cannot choose not to work.

While capitalists promise that a larger pie will increase everyone’s share, Marx predicts that greater wealth will generate greater inequality. More innovative industries will find ways to reduce labor costs and thus the cost of their final product thereby weakening the position of workers and also bankrupting smaller firms that cannot achieve the same economies of scale. In the meantime, the landowners who represent the traditional form of economic power are fast on their way to dying out. For centuries, landowners earned money by charging rents to tenant farmers, but the profits necessarily depend on the fertility of the soil and the relative availability of workers in rural areas. The productive techniques of capitalism will soon enter agriculture, paring down the labor force and driving the surplus into the cities to find industrial work. In the end, industry will triumph over agriculture, and money will triumph over industry since money is the sole asset that needs no specific physical location and is convertible into any conceivable good.

The looming triumph of finance capitalism will leave all but a tiny few in a state of destitution. The root of the problem, in Marx’s analysis, is the institution of private property. Profits should be distributed according to the labor that produced it, but capitalism has separated the worker’s wages from the value of the product. It treats the owner of the means of production as the owner of all aggregate labor even though they do not labor at all. Marx argues that communism is necessary to reestablish the organic connection between a worker and the fruit of their labors, and more importantly, their connections with other human beings. Money has corrupted all of human society by making itself the mediator between every person and everything they might want or need. The person with the most money then becomes the most influential regardless of their other qualities. Restoring the centrality of labor makes for both an equal society and a moral one, where people are evaluated based squarely on their contributions.