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Marx's theory of alienation (Entfremdung in German), as expressed in the writings of young Karl Marx, refers to the separation of things that naturally belong together, or to antagonism between things that are properly in harmony. In the concept's most important use, it refers to the alienation of people from aspects of their "human nature" (Gattungswesen, usually translated as 'species-essence' or 'species-being'). Marx believed that alienation is a systematic result of capitalism. His 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 to in The German Ideology (1845).
- 1 Types of alienation - the different ways in which people are alienated
- 2 The significance of alienation in Marx's thought
- 3 Further reading
- 4 See also
- 5 External Links
Types of alienation - the different ways in which people are alienated
Alienation in the labour process
Simply, Marx's Theory of Alienation is based on his observation that in emerging industrial production - under capitalism - workers inevitably lose the chance to control of their lives and selves by not having any control over their work. Workers thus never become autonomous and self-realized beings in any significant sense (except in the way that the "bourgeois" wants the worker to be).
Marx argues that alienation in capitalist societies is due to the fact that in work we each contribute to the common wealth, but can only express this fundamentally social aspect of ourselves through a production system that is not social but privately owned, for which we function as instruments, not as social beings:
- '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)
In this work, written in 1844, Marx attempts to show how alienation arises from private labour, from commodity production:
- 'Let us review the various factors as seen in our supposition: My work would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life. Presupposing private property, my work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life.' (Comment on James Mill)
The significance of alienation in Marx's thought
Alienation - a concept from Hegel and Feuerbach
Alienation can be seen as a foundational claim in Marxist theory. Hegel described a succession of historic stages in the human Geist or 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 (i.e., our triumph over alienation; the establishment of an objectively better society). This teleological reading of Marx, which was supported in particular by Alexandre Kojève before World War II, has been criticized by Louis Althusser, in particular in his latter writings concerning "random materialism" (matérialisme aléatoire). Althusser claimed that this reading of Marx, which made of the proletariat the subject of history (as in Georg Lukacs' famous History and Class Consciousness, published in 1923 after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic), was in fact tainted by Hegel's idealism and, more generally, by the "philosophy of the subject" that had been in force for five centuries, which was criticized as none other than the "bourgeois ideology of philosophy".
Alienation and 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' . 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 immiseration 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.
Alienation and 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 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. (Chapter 4 of The Holy Family- see under Critical Comment No. 2)
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.
- 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.)
- G.A. Cohen (1977) discusses alienation and fetishism in Ch. VI 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 .
- Alienation and Techne in the Thought of Karl Marx, by Kostas Axelos
- Marx's theory of alienation by Istvan Meszaros
- Shlomo Avineri, Hegel's Philosophy of Right and Hegel's Theory of the Modern State
- Lukacs' The Young Hegel and Origins of the Concept of Alienation by Istvan Meszaros.
- Ludwig Feuerbach at www.marxists.org
- The Evolution of Alienation: Trauma, Promise, and the Millenium, edited by Lauren langman abd 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).
- Marx's Theory of Alienation by István Mészáros
- Alienation in American Society by Fritz Pappenheim, Monthly Review Volume 52, Number 2
- Commodity fetishism
- Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1841)
- Georg Lukacs's theory of class consciousness and reification
- es:Teoría de la alienación
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