Palinurus: Engaging Political Philosophy

Bertell Ollman: The Theory of Alienation

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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' [1]. 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 [2]. 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’ [3]. 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 [4].*

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' [5]. 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 [6]. 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 [7]. (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.


The distortion 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' [8]. 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.


Alienated man 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' [9]. 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' [10]. (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 [11]. The ideas which encompass this reality share all its shortcomings [12]. 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.


If alienation 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' [13]. 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 [14].



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.