The theory of alienation is the intellectual
construct in which Marx displays the devastating effect of capitalist production on human beings, on their physical and mental
states and on the social processes of which they are a part. Centered on the acting individual, it is Marx's way of seeing
his contemporaries and their conditions (a set of forms for comprehending their interaction) as well as what he sees there
(the content poured into these forms). Brought under the same rubric are the links between one man, his activity and products,
his fellows, inanimate nature and the species. Hence, as a grand summing up, as Marx's conception of man in capitalist society,
the theory of alienation could only be set out after its constituent elements had been accounted for.
For purposes of discussing alienation,
the following points, made early in Part I and illustrated in subsequent chapters, will serve as my philosophical character:
Marx's subject matter comprises an organic whole; the various factors he treats are facets of this whole; internal relations
exist between all such factors; reciprocal effect predominates and has logical priority over causality; laws are concerned
with patterns of reciprocal effect; the concepts Marx uses to refer to factors convey their internal relations; this makes
it possible to speak of each factor as an 'expression' of the whole (or some large part of it) or as a 'form' of some other
factor; finally, Marx's view that factors are internally related, together with his practice of incorporating such relations
as part of the meanings of the covering concepts, allows him to transfer qualities which are associated in the popular mind
with one factor to another to register some significant alteration in their reciprocal effect. In attempting to construct
a coherent account of Marx's theory of alienation within this framework, this framework itself will be put to test.
Perhaps the most significant form into
which the theory of alienation is cast—most significant because it chiefly determines the theory's application—is
the internal relation it underscores between the present and the future. Alienation can only be grasped as the absence of
unalienation, each state serving as a point of reference for the other. And, for Marx, unalienation is the life man leads
in communism. Without some knowledge of the future millennium, alienation remains a reproach that can never be clarified.
An approach to grasping the 'logical geography' involved may be made by contrasting the expressions 'health' and disease':
we only know what it is to have a particular disease because we know what it is not to. If we did not have a conception of
health, the situation covered by the symptoms would appear 'normal' . Furthermore, when we declare that someone is ill
we consider this a statement of 'fact' and not an evaluation based on an outside standard. This is because we ordinarily conceive
of health and disease as internally related, the absence of one being a necessary element in the measuring of the other. Similarly,
it is because Marx posits an internal relation between the states of alienation and unalienation that we cannot regard his
remarks as evaluations. There is no 'outside' standard from which to judge.
'Alienation', then, is used by Marx
to refer to any state of human existence which is 'away from' or 'less than' unalienation, though, admittedly, he generally
reserves this reproach for the more extreme instances . It is in this sense and on this scale, however, that Marx refers
to alienation as 'a mistake, a defect, which ought not to be’ . Both the individual and his way of life can be spoken
of as 'alienated', and in the latter case the tag 'realm of estrangement' is applied to the most infected areas .*
Moreover, it follows from the acceptance
of communism as the relevant measure that all classes are considered alienated in the ways and to the degree that their members
fall short of the communist ideal. Accordingly, Marx claims that one of the manifestations of alienation is that 'all is under
the sway of inhuman power' and adds, 'this applies also to the capitalist' . The forms of alienation differ for each class
because their position and style of life differ, and, as expected, the proletariat's affliction is the most severe. Marx dwells
far more, too, on the fate of the producers, and usually has them in mind when he makes general statements about 'man's alienation'.
In such cases, other classes are included in the reference in so far as they share with the proletariat the qualities or conditions
which are being commented on. I have adopted the same practice in relating Marx's views. By adding a special chapter on the
peculiar alienation of capitalists, I hope to dispel whatever confusion this may cause.
The theory of alienation, however,
is more than a mere summary of what has already been said regarding Marx's conception of man. It is also a new focal point
from which to view human beings and hence to speak of them, one which stresses the fact of segmentation or practical breakdown
of the interconnected elements in their definition. All those traits, grasped by Marx as relations, which mark man out from
other living creatures have altered, have become something else . In one statement of his task, Marx declares:
What requires explanation is not the unity of living and active human beings
with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolism, with nature, and therefore their appropriation of nature; nor
is this the result of a historical process. What we must explain is the separation of these inorganic conditions of
human existence from this active existence, a separation which is only fully completed in the relation between wage-labor
and capital . (Marx's emphasis.)
Given the particular unity between man and nature with Marx—abetted by his conception of internal
relations—grasps as human nature, any significant alteration in these relations which diminishes the individual's role
as initiator is seen as rendering them apart. From evident expressions of his distinctive character, the relations between
man and the external world have become means to dissimulate this character behind each of the various elements over which
he has lost control. The theory of alienation focuses on the presumed independence of these elements.
in what Marx takes to be human nature is generally referred to in language which suggests that an essential tie has been cut
in the middle. Man is spoken of as being separated from his work (he plays no part in deciding what to do or how to do it)—a
break between the individual and his life activity. Man is said to be separated from his own products (he has no control over
what he makes or what becomes of it afterwards)—a break between the individual and the material world. He is also said
to be separated from his fellow men (competition and class hostility has rendered most forms of cooperation impossible)—a
break between man and man. In each instance, a relation that distinguishes the human species has disappeared and its constituent
elements have been reorganized to appear as something else.
What is left of
the individual after all these cleavages have occurred is a mere rump, a lowest common denominator attained by lopping off
all those qualities on which is based his claim to recognition as a man. Thus denuded, the alienated person has become an
'abstraction'. As we saw, this is a broader term Marx uses to refer to any factor which appears isolated from the social whole.
It is in this sense that estranged labor and capital are spoken of as 'abstractions' . At its simplest, 'abstraction' refers
to the type of purity that is achieved in emptiness. Its opposite is a set of meaningful particulars by which people know
something to be one of a kind. Given that these particulars involve internal relations with other factors, any factor is recognized
as one of a kind to the degree that the social whole finds expression in it. It is because we do not grasp the ways in which
the social whole is present in any factor (which is to say, the full range of its particular qualities in their internal relations)
that this factor seems to be independent of the social whole, that it becomes an 'abstraction'. As an abstraction, what is
unique about it (which—again—is the particular ways in which it is linked to others, conceived as part of what
it is) is lost sight of behind its superficial similarities with other abstractions. And it is on the basis of these similarities,
generalized as classes of one sort or another, that alienated men set out to understand their world. In this manner is intelligence
misdirected into classification.
is an abstraction because he has lost touch with all human specificity. He has been reduced to performing undifferentiated
work on humanly indistinguishable objects among people deprived of their human variety and compassion. There is little that
remains of his relations to his activity, product and fellows which enables us to grasp the peculiar qualities of his species.
Consequently, Marx feels he can speak of this life as 'the abstract existence of man as a mere workman who may therefore fall
from his filled void into the absolute void' . Though Marx clearly overstates his case in calling alienated man a hole
in the air, it is in such an extreme notion that the term 'abstraction' is rooted.
At the same time
that the individual is degenerating into an abstraction, those parts of his being which have been split off (which are no
longer under his control) are undergoing their own transformation. Three end products of this development are property, industry
and religion, which Marx calls man's 'alienated life elements' . (This list is by no means complete, but the point does
not require further examples.) In each instance, the other half of a severed relation, carried by a social dynamic of its
own, progresses through a series of forms in a direction away from its beginning in man. Eventually, it attains an independent
life, that is, takes on 'needs' which the individual is then forced to satisfy, and the original connection is all but obliterated.
It is this process which largely accounts for the power that money has in capitalist societies, the buying of objects which
could never have been sold had they remained integral components of their producer.
What occurs in
the real world is reflected in people's minds: essential elements of what it means to be a man are grasped as independent
and, in some cases, all powerful entities, whose links with him appear other than what they really are . The ideas which
encompass this reality share all its shortcomings . The whole has broken up into numerous parts whose interrelation in
whole can no longer be ascertained. This is the essence of alienation, whether the part under examination is man, his activity,
his product or his ideas. The same separation and distortion is evident in each.
is the splintering of human nature into a number of misbegotten parts, we would expect communism to be presented as a kind
of reunification. And this is just what we find. On one occasion, Marx asserts that communism is 'the complete return of man
to himself as a social (i.e. human) being—a return become conscious, and accomplished with the entire wealth of previous
development.' It is 'the positive transcendence of all estrangement—that is to say, the return of man from religion,
family, state, etc., to his human, i.e. social mode of existence' . In communism the breach is healed, and all the elements
which constitute a human being for Marx are reunited. Many of the characteristics ascribed to full communism, such as the
end of the division of labor (each person is engaged in a variety of tasks) and the erasure of social classes, are clear instances
of this unification process at work. In the remainder of this study, I will be mainly concerned to show the evidence of segmentation
that required such a remedy .
1. We see the same 'logical geography' in the whole host of 'double-headed' adjectives
with which Marx showered his contemporaries. How can he describe the laborer's plight as 'degradation', 'dehumanization' and
'fragmentation', and the laborer himself as 'stunted', 'thwarted' and 'broken'? Only because he is aware, however imprecisely,
of their opposites.
2. That communism is the yardstick by which Marx ascribes alienation in the present
emerges clearly from the following: 'the community from which the worker is isolated is a community of quite other dimensions
than the political community. The community from which his own labor separates him, is life itself, physical and intellectual
life, human morality, human activity, human enjoyment, human essence.' 'Kritische Randglossen', Werke, I, 408. 'Human',
we will recall, is an adjective that Marx usually reserves for describing communism.
3. 1844 Manuscripts, p. 170. He states too that 'the existence of religion is
the existence of a defect'. 'Zur Judenfrage', Werke, I, 352.
4. 1844 Manuscripts, p. 109. On the broadest possible canvas, and keeping communism
clearly in mind, Lichtheim is justified in defining 'alienation' as 'failure to attain this self-realization'. George Lichtheim,
Marxism (London, 1965), p. 44.
*For most purposes, 'alienation' (Entäusserung) and 'estrangement' (Entfremdung)
may be taken as synonymous. The difference in emphasis which is sometimes suggested by these terms will only become clearer
in the course of the following discussion.
5. 1844 Manuscripts, p. 126.
6. On one occasion, Marx says, alienation is manifested 'in the fact that everything
is in itself something different from itself—that my activity is something else...' Ibid.
7. Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, pp. 86-7.
8. 1844 Manuscripts, p.75; ibid. p. 91.
9. Ibid. p. 86. Elsewhere, Marx refers to the proletariat as 'abstract individuals'
because the forces of production have been wrested away from them. He claims that, as a result, they have been robbed of 'all
real life content'. The German Ideology, p. 66.
10. The Holy Family, p. 157.
11. 1844 Manuscripts, pp. 169-70.
12. Marx claims, 'The man estranged from himself is also the thinker estranged from
his essence—that is, from the natural and human essence. His thoughts are therefore fixed mental shapes or ghosts dwelling
outside nature and man.' Ibid. p. 168.
13. Ibid. pp. 103-3. See too, 'Zur Judenfrage', Werke, I, 370.
14. Of the many recent works dealing with Marx's theory of alienation, three of the
most competent are Calvez's la Pensée de Karl Marx, Kostas Axelos' Marx penseur de la technique (Paris, 1961),
and Ivan Mészáros' Marx's Theory of Alienation (London, 1970). The latter book contains probably the best discussion
of the origins of the concept 'alienation'. In virtually all such works, however, readers are given little help in comprehending
Marx's vocabulary, and the theory of alienation is used to help explain communism rather than the reverse. The account which
follows is chiefly distinguished by the central role accorded Marx's conception of human nature (as constructed earlier),
the use of Marx's vision of communism as an aid to understanding alienation and, most of all, by my emphasis on the internal
relations between all components of the theory, including its major concepts.
Excerpt from Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), ch. 18.