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In scholarship on Karl Marx it is a commonplace to draw a distinction between the “early Marx” or “young Marx” on one hand, and the “late Marx” (or “mature Marx”) on the other. There is considerable debate about whether Marx changed his opinions from the early phase or the late phase; many argue that they were constant. But there is little doubt that he changed his emphasis. The young Marx – the Marx of the Paris Manuscripts and Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right – writes a great deal about Hegelian philosophy and the criticism of “religion”. For whatever reason, the late Marx – the Marx of Capital – largely leaves that topic behind, at least in what he says explicitly. He turns his attention instead to economics and politics, to the details of capitalism’s functioning.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to find that I much prefer the writings of the young Marx. (It is humbling to realize that I am now older than he was.) And indeed I recently had a chance to go further: to the works of the very young Marx. More precisely, his doctoral dissertation, which he wrote at the tender age of 22. (In those days a doctorate could be had rather more quickly than today.) The dissertation was unabashedly about philosophy, classical Greek philosophy no less. But the big dogs, Plato and Aristotle, play a relatively minor role; Marx turns his focus to two lesser-known figures, Epicurus and Democritus.

Marx’s dissertation has often been a little hard to get a hold of, typically found only in large “Marx-Engels Collected Works” volumes – because its subject is presumed so obscure, of limited interest to those concerned with the urgent task of smashing capitalism. Happily, a few years ago Louisiana professor named Paul Schafer undertook the task of getting it published in its own slim volume, entitled The First Writings of Karl Marx. The book is well worth a read, not only for the dissertation itself but for Schafer’s excellent introduction, almost as long as the dissertation itself, which helps tease out at length the relationship between this early work and the later work to come.

The publication of Marx’s dissertation is as welcome as that of John Rawls’s undergraduate thesis, written at a similar age and a similarly fascinating predecessor of the more famous work to come. The parallels between the two are worth noting as well. The older Marx and Rawls would come to be famous for their technical works of egalitarian political economy. The very young Marx, like the very young Rawls, turned his attention instead to philosophy and to “religion”. The difference is that where the young Rawls was steeped in the Protestantism he would later renounce, the young Marx was already arguing for atheism.

That atheism is at the heart of Marx’s dissertation. It needs to be understood in the context of Marx’s contemporaries: the Young Hegelians. Marx’s Germany was full of admiration for Hegel’s historical philosophy, which pulled together the ideas of the world in a way that few had managed before — or since. But Hegel also considered himself to be an orthodox Christian. The greatest minds of the following generations – Ludwig Feuerbach, David Strauss, Marx – did not. They considered themselves Hegelian, yet they were against the gods.

But Hegel’s philosophy is nothing if not conscious of the history of the Western tradition. It might well inspire a young atheist mind to search for historical roots within that tradition – and to look specifically at a philosopher whose Hegel’s history tends to neglect. That, I suspect, is the most helpful way to read Marx’s dissertation.

The dissertation’s title, “On the difference between the natural philosophies of Democritus and Epicurus”, is quite misleading. The title strongly suggests a neutral comparison between the two thinkers, highlighting their similarities and differences, and perhaps their strengths and weaknesses. The dissertation is not that. Marx has a preference and he is not shy about announcing it. The topic of his dissertation is Epicurus; Democritus’s role is merely to illustrate why Epicurus is so great. The comparison Marx makes is what Charles Tilly called an individualizing comparison: there is one phenomenon, in this case Epicurus, which one wishes to illuminate, and the other phenomena are there purely to provide that illumination.

It may be little surprise that Marx admired and wrote on Epicurus, who rejected the worship of the traditional gods. What is more of a surprise is the aspect of Epicurus’s thought that the very young Marx chose to explore: not his ethics or his theology, but his philosophy of nature, what Epicurus himself would have called his physics. In particular, ancient atomic theory – which is what the comparison with Democritus helps to illuminate in the dissertation.

So why would a brash, passionate, politically active, modern young man have cared about ancient atomic theory? Because throughout his life, Marx was, in a word, a materialist. Not in the modern pejorative sense (“he who dies with the most toys wins”) nor the negative philosophical sense, in which ideas and mind are treated as somehow unreal. Rather, for Marx it was always the case that matter matters. The physical world sets the terms on which we human beings can exist, and so to understand human life both as it is and as it should be, we must understand that physical world. Marx lived at a time when the modern scientific revolution was hitting full steam (and that is not only a metaphor). The discoveries of Charles Darwin, above all, were an inspiration to Marx’s inspiration. Friedrich Engels said at Marx’s funeral that Marx had done for human history what Darwin had done for organic nature. For it was Darwin who made it intellectually feasible to explain the biological world without reference to a god. The gods are just as distant in Epicurus’s explanations; he can look like a precursor of Darwin. And so it was to Epicurus that Marx turned as an inspiration for his still-developing atheist Hegelianism.