Marx's theory of alienation

Marx's theory of alienation (Entfremdung in German), as expressed in the writings of the young Karl Marx (in particular the Manuscripts of 1844), refers to the separation of things that naturally belong together, or to put antagonism between things that are properly in harmony. In the concept's most important use, it refers to the social alienation of people from aspects of their "human nature" (Gattungswesen, usually translated as 'species-essence' or 'species-being'). He believed that alienation is a systematic result of capitalism.

Marx's theory relies on Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1841), which argues that the idea of God has alienated the characteristics of the human being. Stirner would take the analysis further in The Ego and Its Own (1844), declaring that even 'humanity' is an alienating ideal for the individual, to which Marx and Engels responded in The German Ideology (1845).


[edit] Types

[edit] In the labour process

According to Karl Marx, alienation is a systemic result of capitalism. Marx's Theory of Alienation is founded upon his observation that in emerging industrial production under capitalism, workers inevitably lose control over their lives and destinies by being deprived of control over their actions. Workers never become autonomous, self-realized human beings, but are directed, diverted, into the ways in which the bourgeois want workers to behave. Alienation in capitalist societies occurs because in work each contributes to the common wealth, but can only express this fundamentally social aspect of individuality through a production system that is not publicly (socially), but privately owned, and for which each individual functions, not as a social being, but as an instrument:

'Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man–s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man–s essential nature. ... Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.'" (Comment on James Mill)

Marx identifies four types of alienation in labour under capitalism.[1] These include:

  • Alienation of the worker from his or her –species essence– as a human being; not a cog in a machine.
  • Alienation among workers; capitalism reduces labour to a commercial commodity to be traded on the market, rather than a social relationship
  • Alienation of the worker from the product; its design and production are appropriated by the capitalist class and escape the worker's control.
  • Alienation from the act of production itself; that work boils down to an endless sequence of discrete, repetitive, trivial, and meaningless motions, offering little, if any, intrinsic value.

Marx also put emphasis on the role of religion in the alienation process, independently from his famous quotation on the opiate of the masses.[2]

[edit] Significance in Marx's thought

[edit] Influence from Hegel and Feuerbach

Alienation is a foundational claim in Marxist theory. Hegel described a succession of historic stages in the human Geist (Spirit), by which that Spirit progresses towards perfect self-understanding, and away from ignorance. In Marx's reaction to Hegel, these two, idealist poles are replaced with materialist categories: spiritual ignorance becomes alienation, and the transcendent end of history becomes man's realisation of his species-being; triumph over alienation and establishment of an objectively better society.

This teleological (goal-oriented) reading of Marx, particularly supported by Alexandre Kojve before World War II, is criticized by Louis Althusser in his writings about "random materialism" (matrialisme alatoire). Althusser claimed that said reading made the proletariat the subject of history (i.e. Georg Luk¡cs' History and Class Consciousness [1923] published at the Hungarian Soviet Republic's fall), was tainted with Hegelian idealism, the "philosophy of the subject" that had been in force for five centuries, which was criticized as the "bourgeois ideology of philosophy".

[edit] Relation to Marx's theory of history

In The German Ideology Marx writes that 'things have now come to such a pass that the individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces, not only to achieve self-activity, but, also, merely to safeguard their very existence'[3]. In other words, Marx seems to think that, while humans do have a need for self-activity (self-actualisation, the opposite of alienation), this will be of secondary historical relevance. This is because he thinks that capitalism will increase the economic impoverishment of the proletariat so rapidly that they will be forced to make the social revolution just to stay alive - they probably wouldn't even get to the point of worrying that much about self-activity. This doesn't mean, though, that tendencies against alienation only manifest themselves once other needs are amply met, only that they are of reduced importance. The work of Raya Dunayevskaya and others in the tradition of Marxist humanism drew attention to manifestations of the desire for self-activity even among workers struggling for more basic goals.

[edit] Class

In this passage, from The Holy Family, Marx says that capitalists and proletarians are equally alienated, but experience their alienation in different ways:

The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated, this means that they cease to exist in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence. It is, to use an expression of Hegel, in its abasement the indignation at that abasement, an indignation to which it is necessarily driven by the contradiction between its human nature and its condition of life, which is the outright, resolute and comprehensive negation of that nature. Within this antithesis the private property-owner is therefore the conservative side, the proletarian the destructive side. From the former arises the action of preserving the antithesis, from the latter the action of annihilating it.[4]

[edit] Further reading

"I am not interested in dry economic socialism. We are fighting against misery, but we are also fighting against alienation. One of the fundamental objectives of Marxism is to remove interest, the factor of individual interest, and gain, from people–s psychological motivations. Marx was preoccupied both with economic factors and with their repercussions on the spirit. If communism isn–t interested in this too, it may be a method of distributing goods, but it will never be a revolutionary way of life."

Alienation is a theme in Marx's writing that runs right throughout his work, from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, to Capital - especially the unpublished sections entitled Results of the Immediate Process of Production. An online archive of almost everything written by Marx can be found at the Marxists Internet Archive- at which you can search for 'alienation'. Another good way to approach Marx's original writing is through a good collection - Karl Marx: selected writings (second edition), edited by David Mclellan clearly indicates sections on alienation in its contents. Key works on alienation include the Comment on James Mill and The German Ideology. An example of characterisation of alienation in Marx's later work (which differs strongly in emphasis, if not in actual content from earlier presentations) can be found in the Grundrisse. Marx's work can sometimes be daunting - many people would recommend reading a short introduction (such as one of those indicated below) to the concept first.

[edit] Secondary literature

  • Introductory article on alienation - from the Encyclopaedia of the Marxists Internet Archive.
  • Short article on alienation - drawing mainly on the earlier works (from Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 50-53.)
  • Paul Blackledge (2008) Marxism and Ethics from International Socialism
  • G.A. Cohen (1977) discusses alienation and fetishism in Ch. V of Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence.
  • Althusser, For Marx, Verso
  • Marcuse, Herbert, Reason & Revolution, Beacon
  • Part I: Alienation of Karl Marx by Allen W. Wood in the Arguments of the Philosophers series provides a good introduction to this concept.
  • Why Read Marx Today? by Jonathan Wolff provides a simple introduction to the concept. It is especially clear differentiating the various types of alienation which Marx discusses.
  • Marx and human nature: refutation of a legend by Norman Geras, a brief book, contains much of relevance to alienation by studying the closely related concept of human nature.
  • Alienation: Marx's conception of man in capitalist society by Bertell Ollman. Selected chapters can be read online [1].
  • Alienation and Techne in the Thought of Karl Marx, by Kostas Axelos
  • Shlomo Avineri, Hegel's Philosophy of Right and Hegel's Theory of the Modern State
  • Luk¡cs' The Young Hegel and Origins of the Concept of Alienation by Istv¡n Msz¡ros
  • Marx's Theory of Alienation by Istv¡n Msz¡ros
  • Ludwig Feuerbach at
  • The Evolution of Alienation: Trauma, Promise, and the Millennium, edited by Lauren Langman and Devorah K. Fishman. Lanham, 2006.
  • "Does Alienation Have a Future? Recapturing the Core of Critical Theory," by Harry Dahms (in Langman and Fishman, The Evolution of Alienation, 2006).
  • Alienation in American Society by Fritz Pappenheim, Monthly Review Volume 52, Number 2
  • Karl Marx's Philosophy of Man (1975) by John Plamenatz
  • Alienation (1970) by Richard Schacht
  • Making Sense of Marx (1994) by Jon Elster

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ A Dictionary of Sociology, Article: Alienation
  2. ^ Marx on Alienation
  3. ^ Marx, Karl (Fall 1845 to mid-1846). ["Part I: Feuerbach.Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook". The German Ideology. [ 
  4. ^ Chapter 4 of The Holy Family- see under Critical Comment No. 2
  5. ^ The Many Faces of Socialism: Comparative Sociology and Politics, 1983, by Paul Hollander, Transaction Pub, ISBN 0-88738-740-3, Pg. 224

[edit] External links

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