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From Karl Marx’s approach towards degeneration to the phenomena of degeneration inVietnam nowadays

(LLCT) - Previously, Karl Marx presented a historical materialism approach to the nature of degeneration: “Degeneration is a social phenomenon originating from humans and human society; it is deterioration of labour; consequently, humans are gradually losing their human characteristics; human beings are not themselves anymore and they turn back to rule and enslave human beings and human society”. From Karl Marx’s approach to degeneration, the author confirms  that degeneration is a popular social phenomenon in Vietnam nowadays. It exists in many fields of social life, which specifically include degeneration in production behaviours (or labour morphology) and labour products; degeneration in social relations; degeneration in systems of social values; deteriorated power; degeneration in belief behaviour and religious faith.

1. Karl Marx's approach toward degeneration

When Karl Marx started his career as a philosopher, he was considerably influenced by Hegel’s philosophy. Like other young Hegelians, Karl Marx began studying the category of degeneration, which was the most prominent and central category of German philosophy in the late 18th century and early 19th centuries. Through study in depth, Karl Marx found that the starting point of the degeneration category of Hegel contained something wrong and nonsensical. It was built and canvassed on the foundation of consciousness. “Degeneration of self-consciousness is where objectivity is born”, wrote Karl Marx, “in that degeneration, self-consciousness presupposes that the self is object or presupposes that the object is self. On the other hand, that process also includes another element, which is self-consciousness simultaneously removed degeneration and its objectivity and attract it back to itself... That is the movement of consciousness”(1).

Karl Marx affirmed that degeneration is a real phenomenon, a social practical situation with its economic foundation. “We started from an economic event – degeneration of workers and their products. We raised the concept of this reality: degenerated labour. We analysed that concept. That means we analysed an economic event”(2). According to Marx, in order to explain and study degeneration “it is impossible to use another concept or re-use “self-consciousness” or similar nonsensical terms, but we have to start from the whole existing production method and communications that do not depend on pure concepts, just as the invention of the automatic weaving machine and the use of railway do not depend on Hegel’s philosophy”(3).

Therefore, Marx’s approach towards degeneration is based on a real foundation, in other words, the concept of degeneration is thoroughly adherent and applied to historical materialism.

Thus, how is the approach towards studying real degeneration or the nature of degeneration presented by Karl Marx? According to Marx, the nature of degeneration can be indicated as follows:

Firstly, degeneration is a process by which human beings are estranged from themselves.

This is demonstrated by Marx’s arguments and interpretations. Due to many different reasons in given conditions, the degeneration of humans as individuals in society takes place as a process. “That personal relations shift to their opposite aspects”, wrote Marx, “or purely subjective relations and that an individual distinguishes personality and haphazardness, as we clearly showed, is a historical process with different forms, which becomes increasingly critical and popular at different stages of development. In the current age, the domination of subjective relations over individuals and the control of haphazardness over personality carry the most critical and popular form, thus setting a totally clear task to existing individuals. That domination charges them with the following task: establishing the domination of individuals over haphazardness and other relations to replace the domination of subjective relations and haphazardness over individuals”(4). On criticizing Proudhon on this topic, Marx analyses more clearly: “Proudhon cannot express his ideology properly. “Equal possession” is a political and economic concept, thus demonstrating the degeneration of a fact - object. It acts on the capacity of existence for a man and the capacity of objective existence of a man, then it is simultaneously the current existence of a man and current existence of a man for others as well as his human relations with others and human-to-human social relations”(5).

Secondly, degeneration is a social phenomenon: Hegel argues that degeneration is a popular attribute and a popular process of nature, society and thinking.

For religious theorists, degeneration is a purely ideological relation. In Proudhon’s view, degeneration is simply a purely political and economic category (pure theory). In Ludwig Feuerbach’s view, degeneration is the dissolution process of human nature and religious nature (more precisely the Catholicisation of human nature). In Marx’s view, degeneration is just a social relation. It only exists in humans and human society. In other words, the content of the category of degeneration only reflects and represents things, phenomena and processes relating to humans and human society.

Degeneration as a capacity of social relation is a “dual relation”. On one hand, it is the relation between a labourer and his own labour; on the other hand, it is the relation between labour behaviour and his labour products. Marx reasons “We reviewed one aspect of degenerated labour in its relation with the citizen himself, which means labour relation is degenerated within itself. We found human possession relation between non-workers and workers and labour as a product or natural result of that relation. Private possession, as a generalized material product of degenerated labour, consists of two relations: the relation between workers and labour, their labour product, and non-workers and the relation between non-workers and workers and labour product of workers”(6).

The ideology regarding degeneration as a social relation is much appreciated and recognized as excellent and unique by Vladimir I. Lenin: “Because it clearly points out how Marx closely reaches to the ideology of his whole “system”, sit venia verbo, or the ideology of social production relations”(7).

Thirdly, degeneration is what originates from humans and human society, which, due to many reasons, becomes what is different and strange above humans and human society. It comes back to rule and enslave humans and human society.

“Degeneration is expressed in such ways, wrote Marx, as my living materials belong to others, my wanted subjects are others’ possessed objects that I cannot reach out, just like each object itself turns out to be something different from itself, or my activities turn out to be some different things and eventually, it is true with capitalists - the non-human force that generally rules everything”(8).

Therefore, degeneration is what originates from humans and human society. However, in favourable conditions and situations, it becomes strange and turns back to rule and govern humans and human society. Obviously, Marx’s understanding of degeneration is different in nature from the way of understanding of other religious theorists such as Feuerbach, Proudhon and even Hegel, although in the initial stage of his philosophical career, Marx used the term “materialization” several times - a term often used by Hegel to interpret degeneration.

Fourthly, as for degeneration of labour: This is the most fundamental, exhaustive and inclusive content in the whole theory of Karl Marx on degeneration.

In fact, degeneration of labour is a phenomenon that appeared long before capitalism. It is a phenomenon associated with societies where humans create living conditions mainly for societies but receive too little from living conditions produced by themselves. “The character of degeneration and independence, wrote Marx, in which that connection exists with individuals, only proves that humans are still in the process of creating conditions for their own social lives but not living their social lives, starting from those conditions”(9).

However, according to Marx, only when capitalism appears does degeneration of labour in humans and human society become the most popular and obvious with the fullest demonstrations. Marx indicates: “In that contradiction, the faculties of politics and economics only tell of the nature of capitalist production, or if we want to, they only tell of the nature of hired labour or labour degenerated from itself, in which produced properties are opposite to themselves like others’ properties, their own capacity of production is opposite to themselves like the production capacity of its products, their enriching is opposite to themselves like making themselves poorer and their social force opposite to themselves like social power ruling itself”(10). In capitalism, degenerated labour products are not only inevitable but degenerated behaviours (morphologies) of labour are too: “Social morphologies of workers’ own labour, wrote Marx, or morphologies of social labour of themselves, are relations established independently from workers if each one is separated. Workers depending on capitalism become elements of those social structures and those social structures do not belong to workers. Therefore, social structures opposite to workers are like methods used by capitalists or combinations attributed to capitalism (which is different from the labour capacity of each worker separately), originating from capitalism and being added to components of capitalism”(11).

Also according to Karl Marx, degeneration of labour products and degeneration of labour morphologies share a cause-and-effect relationship: degeneration of labour morphologies is the cause; degeneration of labour products is the effect, the inevitable result of degeneration of production behaviours. Marx analyses: “Up to now, we have considered degeneration of workers in only one aspect of its relation with its labour products. But degeneration appears not only in the final result of production but also in production behaviours themselves and production itself. Could a worker stand in opposition to products of his activities like something strange if he did not degenerate from himself in production behaviours themselves? In reality, products are only the result of activities and production. So, if products of labour were degeneration, production itself should be degeneration by action, degeneration of activities and activities of degeneration. Degeneration of labour subjects is only the result of summarizing degeneration in activities of labour itself”(12).

Fifthly, effect of labour degeneration - humans are losing their species character

In the analysis and interpretation of degenerated labour process in capitalism, Marx concludes:

“So, degeneration of labour leads to the following results:

+ Human’s nature of species character–natural circle (human body) - like human’s spiritual asset of species character, is changed into a strange nature to humans, into a means of maintaining humans’ personal existence. Degenerated labour makes human body itself, like natural circle outside humans or spiritual nature of humans or humankind nature of humans, become strange to humans.

+ Direct result of a person degenerated from his own labour products, his own living activities, his own species nature, is human-to-human degeneration. When a man is opposite to himself, another man is opposite to him...

In general, the argument that human nature character is degenerated from humans means that a man is degenerated from another man and every man is degenerated from human nature”(13).

Karl Marx further explains that during the existence and living associated with the change of the material world, the human being is “a conscious creature, which means the life of a man is a subject to himself just because humans are a creature of species character. For that reason, human activities are free activities. Degenerated labour reverses that relation, making human beings, as conscious creatures, only changing their living activities and their nature into a means of maintaining their existence”(14).

Therefore, humans who naturally have the nature of species (social nature) are gradually particularized during the process of degeneration, leading to an inevitable result of gradually lost and annulled species nature.

2. Degeneration in Vietnam today

From Marx’s approach towards degeneration and based on the practical situation of our country nowadays, it can be said that degeneration in Vietnam is a fairly popular social phenomenon that appears in many fields of social life, specifically:

Firstly,degeneration in production behaviours (labour morphologies) and labour products

Currently, labour is considered as a means of earning a living, a method of ensuring daily life’s demand. Humans tend to find well-paid jobs rather than jobs that are suitable with their own capacities and aspirations. Therefore, for many people, labour is purely to satisfy other material needs but not to demonstrate the need for working and contribution. Labour cannot become a free activity or joy for humans. First, due to slow economic growth, ensuring basic needs still find much difficulty, thus individuals have to solve their own problems. For that reason, that individuals have to voluntarily work, though it is a burden and compulsory way of earning a living, means it is easy to understand production behaviours have to be degenerated(15).

Besides degeneration of labour morphologies, many phenomena of degeneration in labour products still exist. The Vietnamese economy is operating according to the rules of commodity production, that is, according to Engels, “like many other forms of production, have its own inherent and inseparable rules... These rules reflect the only remaining form of social relation, namely in form of exchange, and they affect separate producers in the capacity as coerced rules of competition. Therefore, the producers themselves do not know these rules first and they just gradually discover them through long-term experiences. Thus, these rules are not observed by producers and they are against producers in the manner of their production forms’ blindly affected natural rules. Products govern producers”(16).

In reality, humans’ labour products should be their pride and joy but due to the control of exchange relation and trade, labour products become the “concern” of labourers: can products be sold or exchanged? And here, degeneration of labour products is “exposed”.

Secondly, degeneration in social relations

Injustice still exists in some social fields in our country nowadays: obtained achievements do not correspond to labour products; those who live for society and social equity are not adequately paid. “Because of collision with these phenomena every day, people (especially youngsters) have to find their own world, their own interest that is not identical with social interest. They live and are concerned about their personal lives while the outside society is like something strange or something containing unjust elements that a single person is helpless about. Thus, people no longer have social positiveness; they ignore and avoid social work and social interest. People’s positiveness, as the real master of society, will definitely and gradually decrease because positiveness could not interest them. In contrast, ignoring and avoiding social work as well as taking care of themselves can satisfy their own interest. There is no longer consensus between the individuals’ world and social world”(17).

In addition, bureaucracy, corruption and waste gradually become common in society. Many keystone rules to build a steadily strong institution and play a role of controlling society have been deformed, which weakens the power of institution and organization. In some cases, the rule of democratic concentration is replaced with bureaucratic concentration; as a result, these organizations and institutions become strange forces which separate from people or stand above people.

Many social relations have been penetrated and monopolized by money, or solved through money. As a matter of fact, these social relations also implicitly contain a type of public money. However, that type of public money is “only the inevitable consequence of labour degeneration: because in public money, exposed labour is not a purpose itself but a subordinate of public money”(18).

Thirdly, degeneration of systems of social values

Many social values and standards associated with cultural traditions of the nation and nature of socialism such as: compassion and love of people, listening to reason and fighting evil, the spirit of fighting to protect rightness against bad, sacrifice and sharing, etc are fading away. This “off-the-standard” has brought bad and unintended effects, which are deterioration and degeneration of ethics and lifestyle - an increasingly urgent phenomenon in society. In reality, nowadays “many cadres and party members including leaders have not shown their leading and exemplary role while remaining bureaucratic, authoritarian and not really practical to the grassroots. Degradation of political ideology, ethics and lifestyle of not a small portion of cadres and party members has not been reversed. It has even developed in a more sophisticated and complicated manner in some aspects and in some parts. Corruption, waste and negativeness are still serious with focus on the number of party members who are officials in the state apparatus”(19). This is an alarming phenomenon in our society nowadays.

Fourthly, power deterioration

Regarding nature and origin, power in human society is of people and of people communities. In primitive society, power was evenly divided and implemented by all classes of people. In other words, the power then was common asset of the community. As society develops, especially when private ownership appears, the power of each individual tends to separate from or even oppose and annul the power of others. From here, society needs to connect and combine the strength of all people and the system appears to satisfy that need. The system inherently has no power but people authorize and empower the system and thus the system becomes powerful. During its operation, due to many different reasons, people in the system gradually change the power they are granted with their own power and people who grant power and empower them gradually lose their own power. From what is their inherent thing, people’s power is removed and separated by people working in the system who evenly come back to govern people.

In Vietnam, degeneration of power has become existent and even the main reason for corruption and deterioration of social ethics nowadays. According to researcher Vũ Ngọc Hoàng: “The reverse side of the economy regime has bad impact on social ethics but is not the chief culprit. So who is the chief culprit? Most notably, it is degenerated power, which is the degeneration of those who are allowed to use their power or abuse of it, over those empowered using their power not to protect and serve people or construct and administer national development but who consider it a means towards their personal purposes, trampling on justice, oppressing people and cheating for themselves”(20).

Fifthly, degeneration in belief behaviours and religious faith

Over the past time, the exercise of disguished and off-the-standard belief and religious behaviours has boomed, causing many pressing issues in social life. The development of religions and beliefs occurs in a very complex manner with the appearance of a blind worship phenomenon that is “beyond the normal level” of spiritual activities. Western researchers have even uttered: “Vietnamese people seem to be bathing in a religious atmosphere. They can worship everything and believe in everything. Everything seems very sacred if they are content when they have what they pray for and their spirit is satisfied...”(21). Naturally, belief and creed are inherently what people rely on to rise up and feel comforted in their life. However, in some cases, they become the ruling and decisive element of all thoughts and activities of people. This is degeneration of belief and religious behaviours, which requires timely and appropriate handling and correction.

The phenomenon of degeneration in Vietnamese society nowadays poses big challenges to the development of the country. It is time to have a “fight” against “degeneration” in a serious and thorough manner with a high spirit of determination in order to promote the strength of the entire nation in the construction and development of the country.


(1), (5) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Complete works, Vol. 2, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 1995, p.214, 65.

(2), (6), (8), (12), (13), (14), (18) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Complete works, Vol. 42, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2000, p.139, 144-145, 196, 132, 138-139, 136, 143.

(3), (4) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: op.cit., Vol.3, p. 214-215, 643.

(7) Vladimir.I.Lenin: Complete works, Vol. 29. Progressive Publishing House, Moscow, 1981, p.17.

(9) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Complete works, Vol. 46, Part 1, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 1998, p.174.

(10) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: op.cit., Vol.26, Part 3, p.358-359.

(11) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: op.cit., t.26, Part1, p.555.

(15), (17) Ho Ngoc Huong: “Degeneration and socialism”, Journal of Philosophy, Issue No. 3/1989, p.32-36, 36.

(16) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Complete works, Vol. 20, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 1994, p.378.

(19) Resolution of the 4th Plenum of the 12th Party Central Committee on “strenghthening Party building and rectification; preventing and reversing degradation of political ideology, ethics and lifestyle, manifestation of “self-evolution” and internal “self-transformation”.

(20) Vu Ngoc Hoang: “Let’s listen to people and Party members who are not officials speak about degradation”, http://vietnamnet.vn.

(21) See: Religious issues nowadays. The religious situation in Vietnam: Questions to be raised, Scientific and Social Publishing House, Hanoi, 1994, p.57.


Assoc. Prof., Dr. Ngo Dinh Xay

Academy of Journalism and Communication

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