Back to Materialism. Reflections on Marx’s Conceptionof Labour, Praxis, Cooperatives and Libertarian Socialism

  • Bruno Frère


From Marx to Althusser, the materialist approach has tended to assume that individuals (that is, workers, proletarians and other social actors) unconsciously reproduce the social structures of capitalism that alienate them. It is assumed that individuals accept the conditions forced upon them and no longer seek to rebel against a world that substantially impoverishes their labour, their spirit and their creativity. In this paper, I suggest that by favouring Marx’s concept of alienation almost exclusively, there is a considerable risk that materialist thought will take only a negative path and remain stuck in the very Hegelian idealism that it intends to surpass. Whilst I acknowledge Marx’s significance to materialism, I argue that his stance should be combined with that of the anarchist and libertarian French thinker Proudhon. Proudhon presents a conception of the worker as more than just alienated. Workers can also cooperate and experience a reciprocity seemingly at odds with the character of capitalism. Under Proudhon’s influence materialism takes a positive turn, enabling us to avoid falling into the utopianism that the theory of social economy employs to critique capitalism—a utopianism that renders its critique even less effective than that of Marx. Today, Proudhonian theory also allows us to envisage the end of capitalism without necessarily rejecting the very concept of work. It thus improves on theories of ‘basic income’, for example, which persist in seeing in work nothing but negativity.


Materialism Nineteenth century Proudhon Marx Libertarian socialism Alienation Labour Emancipation Cooperative theory Social economy Utopia Basic income 



I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers whose detailed knowledge of Proudhon proved to be invaluable and whose suggestions helped to improve the text significantly. I would also like thank Josh Booth in particular: Josh helped me in turning my thoughts into palatable English, and his expertise in social theory was remarkable.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.FNRS, University of LiegeLiègeBelgium

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