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The correct place of Karl Marx's early writings within his system as a whole has been a matter of great controversy. Some believe there is a break in Marx's development that divides his thought into two periods: the "Young Marx" is said to be a thinker who deals with the problem of alienation, while the "Mature Marx" is said to aspire to a scientific socialism.[1]

This difficulty centers on the reasons for Marx's transition from philosophy to the analysis of modern capitalist society. The debate arose with the posthumous publication of the works that Marx wrote before 1845[2] — particularly the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844[1] — which had been unavailable to the first generation of Marxist theorists.[3] These writings, first published between 1927 and 1932,[4] provide a philosophical background to the economic, historical and political works that Marx had hitherto been known for.[5] Orthodox Marxism follows a positivist reading that sees Marx as having made a progressive change towards scientific socialism. Marxist humanism, on the other hand, denies there is a break in Marx's development, seeing continuity between the Hegelian philosophical humanism of the early Marx and the work of the later Marx.[6]

Étienne Balibar argues that Marx's works cannot be divided into "economic works" (Das Kapital), "philosophical works" and "historical works" (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon or the 1871 The Civil War in France).[7] Marx's philosophy is inextricably linked to his critique of political economy and to his historical interventions in the workers' movement, such as the 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program. The problematic is also related to Marx's rupture with university and its teachings concerning German idealism and his encounter with the proletariat, leading him to write along with Friedrich Engels The Communist Manifesto a year before the Revolutions of 1848. Marxism's philosophical roots were commonly explained (for example by Vladimir Lenin)[8] as derived from three sources: English political economy; French utopian socialism, republicanism and radicalism; and German idealist philosophy. Although this "three sources" model is an oversimplification, it still has some measure of truth.

The break with German idealism