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The Problem of the Individual in the Modern State

This paper was presented at Telos in Europe: The L’Aquila Conference, held on September 7-9, 2012, in L’Aquila, Italy.

The argument of this paper is inspired by the actual problem of the individual in the modern state, in other words, the relationship between the political life and the individual, or the relation of the individual with politics. The thesis would claim that the individual as one of the fundamental features of modern times does not exist—or is not considered—as political agent although the modern political institution is based on the existence of the individual with its economic, social, and political rights. In this context, the individual exists only as consumer both for him/herself and for another (capitalist) and as a producer for another (capitalist) but not as a creator for him/herself. Marx talks about the production and consumption dialectic in the “Introduction” to Grundrisse (1858, published 1939). In this context a brief survey is presented here of some well-known early writings of Marx in an effort to outline how this dialectic is revealed for the difference between Marx’s and Hegel’s philosophical perspectives of the individual existence. The statement claiming that Marx does not discuss the concept of individual as Hegel does is a delusion.

First of all, I strictly believe that nowadays we certainly and inevitably need to analyze, criticize, and thus re-identify and re-define all the concepts, without exception, in relation to Marx’s own definitions. The first reason is that the capitalist system changes every day, maybe every hour, and thus transforms itself continuously without our awareness. The second reason, as we will also see throughout this paper, is that all the concepts from the simplest to the more complicated—sophisticated—(for example, the concept of “individual,” from our basic feeling of “love” to the concepts of “capital,” “money,” “market,” “nature,” “society,” etc.) are abstract, so to speak, they are not concrete because of the fact that all these concepts lose their proper relationships. For this reason we have to search out their true relationships. The task is again to work out what the truth is! In order to achieve this we have to demonstrate that the appearance which we suppose the truth is not real. With these remarks I am trying to indicate the possibility of an interpretation of the concept of the individual through the method of Marx that is based on the critique (in other words, by way of dialectic).

How do we define the concept of the individual? It goes without saying that by Marx the individual is defined as an alienated, separated, and finally lonely being. But this definition of Marx is the real, true definition of the individual. Well, then how is the concept of the individual suggested and exposed? To be sure, according to the fake definition, the individual is free, independent, and essential being. No doubt the individual is essential as a means for the existence of the political state. According to this view, the individual is defined by their inwardness. They can discover themselves through their inwardness.

Let us turn our attention to history, the great teachers of mankind. As we take a glance at the history of philosophy, we see that from the seventeenth century onward much attention was given to the problem of the “freedom of the individual.” The philosophy from this century onward claimed that freedom is inherent in the individual as a “natural right.” (But it is basically an isolated, alienated, and separated individual, and thus the individual remains unrelated, that is, without relationships.) To be sure, this kind of understanding would fail to explain the true relationship of the individual to liberty. To claim that freedom is inherent in the individual means to ignore their true realization of liberty, which is possible just through relationship to another individual as social being. This kind of claim reduces the individual and their liberty into abstract form. It explains nothing. No longer does it seek the origin of liberty.

The Ontological Existence of the Individual

Colletti (one of the Italian ex-Marxian philosophers) claims that when Marx talks about the human nature in his Manuscripts of 1844 he does not mention human nature as “a ‘nature’ or ‘essence’ of the sort found in natural-right philosophy but as a series of relationships.”[1] In respect to this, first the individual must be analyzed in the context of “relationship.” This relationship is expounded by Marx in the Manuscripts through the critique of political economy which failed to reveal the relation between “capital” and “labor,” “labor” and “wage.”

Therefore the problem of the individual in the Manuscripts of 1844 is analyzed and treated in terms of the following aspects: (a) the relationship of the individual to object; (b) the relationship between the individual and his society; (c) the fundamental relationship of the individual to labor (with this relationship Marx explains how man becomes an estranged being with regard to his estranged labor). In sum one can say that Marx displays the relationship of the individual to economy in these crucial manuscripts. With these three remarks we can begin to seek the origin of these relationships. It is about the origin of private property, which is the result of estranged labor. Marx therefore begins to explain real and essential connection between capital and labor, land and labor, wages and capital, etc., through actual economic fact.

Within the context of estranged labor there is just one form of alienation that is related to and includes other forms of alienation, as mentioned above: “alienation or estrangement of man,” “alienation of species being [Gattungswesen]”, that is, “estrangement of the individual.” Man can alienate without estranging his labor, in the sense that the individual can alienate from society or other individuals even within his direct relation to his labor. It is possible that the individual still becomes estranged from himself and society due to the fact that the individual cannot involve themselves in politics. Let me put it more clearly: if the participation of the individual in politics is somehow prevented, it implies that the individual is still alien to the society in which they live.

As a result of this point of view and concerning Marx’s critique of Hegel’s dialectic, the thesis will claim that the individual reduces to “the self-consciousness being” due to their loss of relationship statuses. For the individual has already been defined as mere self-consciousness being or merely rational being. By definition, the existence of the individual consists of separated being, single being, being separated from others, etc. The self-consciousness being is another form of existence of the individual. However, the self-conscious being is not considered as being aware of the real, sensuous, external world through their senses but on the other hand, it is merely a definition; for this reason it is just an abstraction. As a consequence, the individual remains an abstract being within their loss of relation status. Now at this point it is important to state that the individual is at the moment an imaginary being. By the concept of imaginary being I intend to claim that the individual lives only through his imaginary capacity. In other words he is able to just image his essential requirements. In reality he could not realize his wills. However I do not mean that the physical individual is unreal, delusive, or phantasmal being, but rather the individual necessarily must be very much real because of the fact that the capitalist system requires his physical reality and his very livingness. What makes him imaginary being is that the individual is not able to realize and recognize his proper reality.

Let us turn our attention to the relationship of this imaginary individual to the political state in the light of Marx’s writing On the Jewish Question (1844).

The Political Existence of the Individual

The political state paradoxically assumes that the individual and their freedom are ensured and advanced by capitalism and states that the individual is a political being. Here Marx demonstrates that the individual is just real individual as long as he realizes himself within politics; particularly in the Communist Manifesto (1848), he emphasizes the indispensability of the political victory of the working class.

However, we have to keep in mind that the political emancipation is not the complete development of man’s emancipation. Marx particularly makes this point in On the Jewish Question in which he distinguishes the political emancipation from human emancipation. Therefore true emancipation or completed emancipation is human emancipation. In this part the existence of the individual in political sphere is related to the division between civil society (which appeared after the collapse of the feudalism) and the political state.

Thus the relationship of the individual to the political state exists in its abstract form, which separates the individual from their reality. With regard to this, just as there is subject-predication reversion concerning thought-subject relation, there is the subject-predication reversion regarding the relationship between the individual and the state. What does this reversion mean for the individual existence? The subject-predication reversion is related to the means-end relationship. It means that the individual in reality is not independent being but it is an instrument for the existence of the political state. Whereas the political state is an end, the individual is just a means to realize the state’s existence. It signifies that the state is considered a creation of the individual but it is not the individual who creates the political state for the organization of society as a means.

The “individual” that was created by modernism, that is to say, which was the symbol of the so-called modern period, is just an illusion. In this sense, the Ego as a concept is a creation of the modern idea or time. By underscoring the existence of the individual, the aim is to isolate the individual as a subject into their lonely life. Furthermore, in doing so the individual is separated from its relations to others, its relation to social life, to politics, etc. It leads to a great problem not only for the individual themselves but also for the others, for the society because of the fact that the “individual” loses their respect towards others. They simply forget how to live with others as being aware of or being conscious of the existence of others within society. It is related to the concept of recognition, in the sense that the “individual” lives in the greatest illusion, which leads them to recognize just their own existence.

In On the Jewish Question Marx speaks of the individual being as “illusory phenomenon“[2] in the political state. In other words, the argument is as following; nowadays the individual as a single being in society is an imaginary being and their relation to the political state is illusory. Thus the individual in this sense is an illusory being. “What does imaginary and illusory being mean? ” Within the framework of this question and Marx’s determination in writing this, the claim is as such: Due to the dualism of the individual’s life, namely, the dualism of life within civil society and the life of politics, and more importantly the dualism of private individual life and species-life, the individual is not able to realize what the truth is. The individual is not able to realize themselves neither in their individual life nor in their species-life. The reason is that both life in civil society and political life are unreal and illusory, and therefore the individual is an imaginary and illusory being as well.


1. Lucio Colletti, “Introduction,” in Early Writings of Marx, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregory Benton (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), p. 52.

2. Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), p. 34.

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