Carlos L. Garrido, Midwestern Marx

Review of Karl Marx's Writings on Alienation

Marcello Musto’s anthology of Karl Marx’s Writings on Alienation[1] is both comprehensive and concise, containing within the span of 100 pages the three decades long development of the theory through more than a dozen published works and posthumously published manuscripts. Additionally, Musto’s introduction to the anthology exceptionally captures: 1) the deviations the concept suffered in its 20th century popularization (both by friends and foes of Marxism); and 2) the bifurcation in Marxism which was depicted in the 1960s debate around the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (EPM), which created what Musto rightly depicts as “one of the principal misunderstandings in the history of Marxism: the myth of the ’Young Marx’” (20).[2]

The concept of alienation can be traced back to G.W.F. Hegel’s 1807 text, The Phenomenology of Spirit, where the terms entäusserung (self-externalization) and entfremdung (estrangement) are used to describe the moments wherein spirit’s “essential being is present to it in the form of an ‘other.’”[3] After Hegel’s death, the concept retained vitality through the Young Hegelians, who shifted its focus to the realm of religious alienation.[4] A leading text in this tradition is Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1841), where alienation depicts the process through which the human species essence is projected onto God.[5] While shifting the focus from religion to political economy, it is from this tradition from which Marx and Engels would blossom in the early to mid-1840s.[6]

However, since the concept rarely saw the light of day in their published work, it was “entirely absent from the Marxism of the Second International,” and from general philosophical reflection in the second half of the 19th century (4). In this time, concepts that would later be associated with alienation were developed by Émile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber, but in each instance they “thought they were describing unstoppable tendencies, and their reflections were often guided by a wish to improve the existing social and political order – certainly not to replace it with a different one” (4).[7]
​Stemming primarily from Marx’s analysis of the fetishism of commodities in Capital Vol I, Georg Lükacs’ 1923 text, History and Class Consciousness, reintroduces the theory of alienation into Marxism through his concept of ‘reification’ (verdinglichung, versachlichung). For Lükacs, reification described the “phenomenon whereby labour activity confronts human beings as something objective and independent, dominating them through external autonomous laws” (4-5). However, as Musto notes, and as Lükacs rectifies in the preface to the 1967 French republication of his text, “History and Class Consciousness follows Hegel in that it too equates alienation with objectification” (5).

The equation of alienation and objectification is the central philosophical error which creates the grounds for the ontologizing of alienation. For Marx, objectification is simply “labor’s realization,” the process wherein labor gets “congealed in an object.”[8] When human labor produces an object, we have objectification. Only under certain historically determined conditions does objectification become alienating. As Marx writes in the EPM,

The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object [i.e., objectification] an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him; it means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.[9]

​​This distinction between objectification and alienation is retouched more thoroughly in the Grundrisse, where Marx says that

Social wealth confronts labour in more powerful portions as an alien and dominant power. The emphasis comes to be placed not on the state of being objectified, but on the state of being alienated, dispossessed, sold; on the condition that the monstrous objective power which social labour itself erected opposite itself as one of its moments belongs not to the worker, but to the personified conditions of production, i.e. to capital.[10]

The bourgeois economists are so much cooped up within the notions belonging to a specific historic stage of social development that the necessity of the objectification of the powers of social labour appears to them as inseparable from the necessity of their alienation vis-à-vis living labour… [But] the conditions which allow them to exist in this way in the reproduction of their life, in their productive life’s process, have been posited only by the historic economic process itself… [These] are fundamental conditions of the bourgeois mode of production, in no way accidents irrelevant to it. [11]

As I have argued in relation to the fetishism of commodities, alienation is also not simply a subjective illusion which one can overcome through becoming conscious of it. It isn’t merely a problem of how one observes the world. Instead, in a mode of life wherein the relations of production are necessarily governed by this condition of estrangement, alienation sustains an objective, albeit historically bound, existence. The ontologizing and/or subjectivizing of the theory of alienation purport key philosophical and political deviations from how Marx conceived of the phenomenon. These deviations naturalize the phenomenon and blunt the revolutionary edge in the Marxist analysis of how it can be overcome.

Musto wonderfully shows how the 20th centuries’ popularization of the term resulted in Marxist (Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Fromm, Sartre, Debord, etc.) and Non-Marxist (Baudrillard, Arendt, Melman, Nettler, Seeman, Blauner, etc.) deviations along the lines of an ontologizing or subjectivizing of the phenomenon of alienation. In some instances (e.g., US sociologists), even the critical spirit with which the theory of alienation was formulated was removed and “skillfully dressed up… by defenders of the very social classes against which it had for so long been directed” (28). In the case of the ‘Marxist’ deviations of the theory, these often ended up in a pessimism and utopianism foreign and at times antagonistic to the writings of Marx and Engels. As Adam Schaff argued in Marxism and the Human Individual, these classical forms of revisionism “lead in fact to an elimination of everything known as scientific socialism.”[12]
From this historical and objective understanding of alienation, Marx formulates in the EPM four ways in which alienation occurs in the capitalist form of life: 1) alienation of the product, wherein the object of labor confronts the laborer as something hostile and alien; 2) alienation in the process of production, i.e., in the social relations through which the work takes place; 3) alienation from the ‘species-being’ of man as an animal with the unique ability to consciously, creatively, and socially exert mental and physical labor (as a homo faber and sapien) upon nature to create objects of need and aesthetic enjoyment; and 4) alienation from other humans and their objects of labor. Apart from the Feuerbachian essentialism in the language of number 3 (e.g., species-being, species-essence), the pith of this 1844 formulation of the theory will be enriched in his later work, especially in the Grundrisse, where it is given its most systematic consideration.

Along with what Kaan Kangal has called the ‘Engels debate,’ the 1960s debate around the EPM depicted the great bifurcation that existed in Marxism.[13] On the one hand, the Western humanist tradition “stress[ed] the theoretical pre-eminence” of Marx’s early work. On the other, the Eastern socialist (and Althusserian) tradition downplayed it as the writing of a pre-Marxist Marx, still entrapped by Hegelian idealism or a Feuerbachian problematic (18).[14] Both of these traditions create an “arbitrary and artificial opposition” between an “early Marx” and a “mature Marx” (15). Those who held on to the early writings as containing the ‘key’ to Marxism were, as Musto rightly argues, “so obviously wrong that it demonstrated no more than ignorance of his work” (16). However, those who dismissed these early writings often landed in a “decidedly anti-humanist conception” (e.g., Althusser’s theoretical anti-humanism) (ibid). These two sides mirror one another on the basis of an artificial and arbitrary division of a ‘young’ and ‘mature’ Marx.

Musto rejects this dichotomy, and in line with the Polish Marxist Adam Schaff (along with Iring Fetscher, István Mészáros, and others), provides a third interpretation which identifies a “substantive continuity in Marx’s work” (20). This continuity, however, is not based on a “collection of quotations” pulled indiscriminately from works three decades apart, “as if Marx’s work were a single timeless and undifferentiated text” (ibid). This tendency, which dominated the discourse around the continuum interpretation, is grounded on a metaphysical (in the traditional Marxist sense) and fixated understanding of Marx’s life’s work. It finds itself unable to tarry with a difference mediated understanding of identity, that is, with the understanding that the unity of Marx’s corpus is based on its continuous development, not an artificially foisted textual uniformity. It would be a Quixotic delusion to read the youthful Manuscripts of 44 as identical to the works which were produced as fruits of Marx’s laborious studies of political economy in the 1850-60s. The comprehensive, concrete, and scientific character of Marx’s understanding of political economy and the capitalist mode of life achieved by the 1860s makes the indiscriminate treatment of these works seem all the more foolish.

Instead, the continuity interpretation sees what a careful reading of Musto’s anthology shows, namely, that the theory of alienation constantly develops, sharpens, and concretizes beyond the limitations inherent in the ”vagueness and eclecticism” of its initial stages (21). As Schaff and Musto argued, “if Marx had stopped writing in 1845-46, he would not – in spite of those who hold the young Marx to be the only ‘true’ one – have found a place in history,” and if he did, it would probably be in a demoted “place alongside Bruno Bauer and Feuerbach in the sections of philosophy manuals devoted to the Hegelian Left” (ibid).[15]

It is impossible to stamp out hard and fast ‘stages’ or ‘epistemological breaks’ in Marx’s thought; he was constantly evolving his thinking according to new research and new concrete experiences.[16] Such a stagist approach can only lead to a confused nominalist reading of Marx, for every time he read or wrote something new, a ‘new’ Marx would have to be postulated. Marx’s life work must be understood as a dynamic, evolving unity, wherein, as Schaff argued, “the first period is genetically linked to the later ones.”[17] The same could be said, in my view, of his theory of alienation. As his understanding of political economy and the capitalist mode of life concretizes, his understanding of the phenomenon of alienation does as well.
Concerning the global split in Marxism manifested through these debates on alienation, I would like to add that although some prominent ‘orthodox’ or ‘official’ Soviet thinkers dismissed the theory of alienation, we cannot synecdochally apply the flaws of these on all Marxist thinkers in the Soviet Union, or on Marxism-Leninism in general. For instance, in the Soviet tradition of creative Marxism, the theme of alienation is not so easily dismissed as in Althusser or the more orthodox Soviet Marxists. Evald Ilyenkov, one of the prominent thinkers in this tradition, says in 1966 that he “personally approves” of the EPM’s theory of alienation and sees it as “a healthy and fruitful tendency in Marxist theoretical thought.”[18] In addition, his reading of the EPM and the theory of alienation with respect to the rest of Marx’s life’s work falls in line with Musto’s and Schaff’s continuum interpretation. As Ilyenkov argues,

If anything has been lost in this process, it is only that some parts of the specifically philosophical phraseology of the Manuscripts have been replaced by a more concrete phraseology, and in this sense, a more exact and stronger one. What occurs here is not a loss of concepts but only the loss of a few terms connected with these concepts. For me this is so unquestionable that all the problems of the early works are actually rendered more fully later, and moreover, in a more definitive form. It is quite obvious that the process of the “human alienation” under the conditions of an unhindered development of “private property” (in the course of its becoming private-capitalistic) is viewed here more concretely and in more detail.[19]
Concerning the relation of EPM to Capital Vol I Ilyenkov adds that

The Manuscripts can be a help in the text of Das Kapital itself in scrutinizing those passages that could otherwise be overlooked. If such passages are overlooked, Das Kapital easily appears as an “economic work” only, and in a very narrow meaning of the term. Das Kapital is then seen as a dryly objective economic scheme free from any trace of “humanism” – but this is not Das Kapital, it is only a coarsely shallow interpretation.[20]

​This tendency, however, is not limited to the tradition of Soviet creative Marxism. Even in famous manuals such as the Konstantinov edited Fundamentals of Marxist-Leninist Philosophy, the theory of alienation is treated with great care, and critiques akin to Musto’s and Schaff’s are provided for the 20th century revisionist formulations of the theory.

It is also important to note that Schaff himself was largely aligned politically with Marxism-Leninism, and when criticizing the Soviet dismissals of the theory of alienation he emphasizes his political proximity to those Marxist-Leninists he is arguing against.[21] Additionally, he openly criticizes those in the West which have weaponized the theory of alienation to attack socialism, and which have reduced Marxism, through their interpretation of alienation, to moralistic discourse devoid of its scientific core.[22] There is nothing, in my view, incompatible about a non-dogmatic Marxism-Leninism and the militant humanism of the early Marx’s theory of alienation, or of this theories’ further concretization throughout his life.
​To return to the continuity thesis, Musto’s selection of Marx’s writings eloquently demonstrates the theoretical superiority of this third interpretation. Musto classifies the writings into three key generations: 1) from 1844 to 1856; 2) from 1857 to 1863; and 3) from 1863 to 1875. What becomes clear in these selections, especially in the transition from the first to the second generation, is the immense development in the categories of political economy which would ground Marx’s discourse of the phenomenon of alienation (which, as occurs throughout his work, sometimes takes place without using the term ‘alienation’ itself). By the time the Grundrisse is written (1857-58), it is as if the 1844 EPM’s theory of alienation returned with theoretical steroids, “enriched by a greater understanding of economic categories and by a more rigorous social analysis” (30). In this second generation, the two manuscripts Marx writes after he publishes A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), namely, On the Critique of Political Economy (1861-63) and Theories of Surplus Value (1862-63), will also elaborate and sharpen the understanding of the categories developed in the Grundrisse, subsequently enrichening the theory of alienation as well.

The third generation consists of Capital Vol I, its preparatory manuscripts, and the manuscripts of Capital Vol III which Engels would edit and publish after Marx’s death. Of specific importance here is the famous “Results on the Immediate Process of Production,” also known as the “Unpublished Chapter VI.” This 1863-4 manuscript was omitted from Capital Vol I for largely unknown reasons. Ernest Mandel, who wrote the introduction to the 1976 English publication of Volume one, which included this manuscript as an appendix, said that

​For the time being, it is impossible to give a definitive answer to that question… Possibly the reason lay in Marx’s wish to present Capital as a ‘ dialectically articulated artistic whole’. He may have felt that, in such a totality,’ ‘Chapter Six’ would be out of place, since it had a double didactic function: as a summary of Volume 1 and as a bridge between Volumes 1 and 2.[23]

​Nonetheless, as Musto notes, this manuscript enhances the theory of alienation by “linking [Marx’s] economic and political analysis more closely to each other” (126). Beyond this manuscript, the theory of alienation takes on a new shape in the formulation of the fetishism of commodities in section four of Capital Vol I’s first chapter. The fetishism of commodities is a new term, but not a new concept, it describes a phenomenon which the theory of alienation already explained. For instance, as stated in Capital, the fetishism of commodities describes the conditions wherein “definite social relations between men” assume “ the fantastic form of a relation between things.”[24] This same wording is used in one of the Grundrisse’s formulation of alienation:

The general exchange of activities and products, which has become a vital condition for each individual – their mutual interconnection – here appears as something alien to them, autonomous, as a thing. In exchange value, the social connection between persons is transformed into a social relation between things.[25]

​Besides section four of chapter one, Capital Vol I is scattered with commentary on the inversion of dead and living labor (especially in chapter 11 and 15), a theme which is central to the theory of alienation. These themes are also present in various passages from Capital Vol. III (1864-75), which is the last text Musto pulls from for the third generation of writings on alienation.

Lastly, the theory of alienation has always been inextricably linked with how Marx conceived of communism. As the theory concretizes, the idea of communism does as well. Under a communist mode of life, the conditions which perpetuated an alienated form of objectification would be overcome. Here, the “social character of production is presupposed” and makes the product of labor “not an exchange value,” but “a specific share of the communal production.”[26] The mediational character of commodity production and the exchange value dominated mode of life would be destroyed. Production and the mode of life in general will be aimed at creating the conditions for qualitative human flourishing. As Marx writes in Capital Vol. III,

The realm of freedom really begins only where labour determined by necessity and external expediency ends; it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper. Just as the savage must wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life, so must civilized man, and he must do so in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production. This realm of natural necessity expands with his development, because his needs do too; but the productive forces to satisfy these expand at the same time. Freedom, in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature. But this always remains a realm of necessity. The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis. The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.[27]

If I may add something to Marcello’s superb analysis in the introduction, it would be the ecological dimension the theory of alienation acquires in Marx’s analysis of the metabolism between human society and nature, and subsequently, of the alienating ‘rifts’ capitalist production creates in this metabolic relation. The quote referenced above shows how a rational governance of the human metabolism with nature is central to Marx’s idea of communism.

As John Bellamy Foster has argued, “the concept of metabolism provided Marx with a concrete way of expressing the notion of alienation of nature (and its relation to the alienation of labor) that was central to his critique from his earliest writings on,” and in so doing, it “allowed him to give a more solid and scientific expression of this fundamental relation.”[28] Hence, if the alienation of labor is tied to the alienation of nature, a non-alienated communist mode of life must necessarily seek to overcome this alienation of nature through the aforementioned rational governance of human society’s metabolism with nature.

Although grounded scientifically on Justus von Liebig’s work on the depletion of the soil, this ecological dimension can be traced philosophically to the EPM and the central role nature has in the alienation of labor. Faced with the existential crisis of climate change, this ecological dimension in Marx’s theory of alienation and critique of capitalist production acquires a heightened sense of immediacy.

Additionally, if we consider Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift within the theory of alienation, then its rediscovery did not have to wait until Lükacs’ 1923 History and Class Consciousness, for a part of it could be seen in the ecological dimension of August Bebel’s 1884 text Women Under Socialism, in Karl Kautsky’s 1899 text on The Agrarian Question, in Lenin’s 1901 The Agrarian Question and the “Critics of Marx,” and more directly in the work of Bukharin, Vernadsky, and others in the 1920/30s tradition of Soviet ecology.[29]

In sum, Musto’s anthology is an essential requirement for all interested in Marx’s theory of alienation, and his introduction to the selection displays that great erudition of Marxist history and theory which those that are familiar with his work hold in the highest esteem.

Notes and References

[1] The parenthetical numbers which appear throughout this review refer to pages from Musto’s book.

[2] For a more detailed assessment of this ‘myth’ see: Marcello Musto, “The Myth of the ‘Young Marx’ in the Interpretation of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” Critique 43, no 2 (2015)., pp. 233-60.

[3] G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford University Press, 1977., pp. 114.

[4] For more on the Young Hegelians see: Lawrence S. Stepenlevich, The Young Hegelians: An Anthology, Humanity Books, 1999.

[5] My video for Midwestern Marx, “Alienation – Feuerbach to Marx,” describes the concept’s transition from Feuerbach to Marx’s Manuscripts of 44.

[6] The Feuerbachian influence which the younger Engels was under is usually understated. I would direct the reader to Engels’ 1843 review of Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present (written before The Conditions of the Working Class in England), where this influence is as, or if not more, evident then than in the writings of the younger Marx.

[7] I would add to the list Max Scheler’s 1913 book Ressentiment and Edmund Husserl’s 1936 book, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, which expands on the arguments of his 1935 lectures on “Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man.”

[8] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Great Books in Philosophy, 1988., pp. 71.

[9] Ibid., 72.

[10] The Grundrisse is an unfinished manuscript not intended for publication, in passages like these, where editing could’ve improved what was said, its manuscript character shines forth.

[11] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin Books, 1973., pp. 831-2.

[12] Adam Schaff, Marxism and the Human Individual, McGraw-Hill, 1970., pp. 16. I was excited to see Musto’s frequent usage of Schaff, a thinker far too undervalued in our tradition.

[13] I use ‘depicted’ instead of ‘produced’ because the split originated well before the 1960s debate, the debate simply manifested what was already a previous split. For more on this split see Domenico Losurdo, El Marxismo Occidental, Editorial Trotta, 2019.

[14] ‘Feuerbachian problematic’ is how Althusser describes it in his essay “On the Young Marx.” For more see Louis Althusser, For Marx, Verso, 1979., pp. 66-70.

[15] Schaff, Marxism and the Human Individual., pp. 28.

[16] To see how this was done in his later years see: Marcello Musto, The Last Years of Karl Marx, Stanford, 2020. For a shortened version of some of the points made in this text, my review article might be helpful.

[17] Ibid., pp. 24.

[18] Evald Ilyenkov, “From the Marxist-Leninist Point of View,” In Marx and the Western World, ed. Nicholas Lobkowicz, University of Notre Dame Press, 1967., pp. 401.

[19] Ibid., pp. 402.

[20] Ibid., pp. 404.

[21] Schaff, Marxism and the Human Individual., pp. 21.

[22] Ibid., pp. 15-16.

[23] Marx, Capital Vol 1, Penguin Books, 1982., pp. 944.

[24] Ibid., pp. 165.

[25] Marx, Grundrisse., pp. 157.

[26] Marx, Grundrisse., pp. 172.

[27] Karl Marx, Capital Vol III, Penguin Books, 1981., pp. 958-9.

[28] John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology, Monthly Review, 2000., pp. 158.

[29] For all the flaws Bukharin’s Historical Materialism textbook has, chapter five on “The Equilibrium between Society and Nature” provides a laudable reintroduction of Marx’s concept of metabolism and metabolic rifts.

Published in:

Midwestern Marx

Date Published

9 June, 2022


Carlos L. Garrido
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