Howard Engelskirchen, Science & Society

Review of Karl Marx’s Writings on Alienation

I was in Paris a year and a little more after May 1968 and found myself within the swirl of effects generated by Althusser and Balibar’s Reading Capital. I met with Poulantzas to discuss law and studied with Bettelheim at the Sorbonne. Certainly, I was influenced by the book, but I was new to Marxism, and, in any event, the proposal of an ‘epistemological break’ between the young Marx and his younger self’s scientific successor did not hold my attention. In addition to the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, the Results of the Immediate Process of Production (Capital’s unpublished Chapter 6) was available as well as the Grundrisse, and it was all too new, too interesting, and too far-reaching to justify quarantining any of it. Thus, more than a half-century later, it is a pleasure to read the resource Marcello Musto has provided in Karl Marx’s Writings on Alienation. On this topic, it confirms the impressive continuity of Marx’s thought. One sees consistent themes developed from the first excerpts of the 1844 Manuscripts to the last sections of Capital I and III. In the book’s Introduction, “Alienation Redux” (available at his website: http://www.marcellomusto .org; see a shorter review for the Jacobin also there available), Professor Musto identifies three lines of debate triggered by the 1844 Manuscripts among Marxists: (1) the idea that this text represents the preeminent core of his thought, (2) the idea of a split between the young left-Hegelian or humanist Marx and mature scientific iterations of him, and (3) a third approach that sees a continuity in his development. Musto places himself in the latter camp, and the materials gathered reflect this: excerpts are collected from the 1844 Manuscripts, “Comments on James Mill,” The Holy Family, The German Ideology, Wage Labour and Capital, the “Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper,” the Grundrisse, the original text of a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, On the Critique of Political Economy (Manuscript 1861–63), the Theories of Surplus Value, the Economic Manuscripts of 1863–1865, the Results of the Immediate Process of Production, as well as from volumes I and III of Capital. Continuity underscores a methodological lesson for us all: In the rigor and persistence of his work, Marx’s early themes were developed not just as science but with a truly breathtaking penetration and vision. Rather than leaving the insights of his youth behind, they became a provocation for transforming classical political economy — involving precisely an ‘epistemological break’ — and in the process (as I argued in Capital as a Social Kind) foreshadowing contemporary scientific realism as a philosophy for science. Tools to elaborate his early ideas were not at hand, so he went about crafting them. Thus, in notebooks for his Doctoral Dissertation (in volume 1 of Marx Engels Collected Works), Marx wrote, “Every separation is separation of a unity” (493), and, indeed, alienation can be understood as a separation severed from the unity to which it belongs. But then we notice in the generality of this aphorism a seed of what is worked out in Chapter 26 of Capital I as the very basis of capitalist production; primitive accumulation there means the separation of the producer from the land, the expropriation of the peasant. Plainly, if the worker is separated from the conditions of production, there can be no production at all. Yet, as Musto’s excerpts abundantly show, for capital, the joining required reproduces the alienation of the starting point: separation is perpetuated in the labor process (e.g., 54, 64–65, 88–91, 150) and reproduced in the result (e.g., 52, 83, 103, 149–50).
In his “Introduction,” Musto offers a critique not only of those who emphasize the early writings at the expense of the scope of Marx’s scientific achievements to come but extends this critique to those who “[pass] backward and forward from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 to Capital, as if Marx’s work were a single timeless and undifferentiated text” (20). It is not hard to find misinterpretations of Marx of all sorts, but in my view there is room to push back here. For sure, an undifferentiated reading of anything, including a single text, can only loosely be called a reading at all, and without doubt, attention must be paid to the trajectory of scientific growth and maturation of Marx’s thought. However, reading Marx’s texts whole seems important — there tend to be always new provocations to gain a fuller grasp of what he is about, and fresh confrontation with the early writings can raise questions till then unsuspected or clarify puzzles long ago put on hold. Indeed, Musto’s small collection gives us precisely a chance to read as a rough whole the concept of alienation as a focal motif in Marx’s thought. For example, conflicts over the Young Marx/Mature Marx led, as Professor Musto recounts, to counterposing the rigor of Marx’s analysis of exploitation with a humanist emphasis on alienation (20). However, a more philosophically grounded understanding of Marx’s science recognizes alienation and exploitation as a unity — as I argue in “Karl Marx and the Riddle of the Nicomachean Ethics 5.5” (forthcoming), the separation of the worker from the conditions of production provides the structural possibility of exploitation such that these are the same thing grasped from two different perspectives; alienation’s exploitative potential as structure is realized in the actual appropriation of laboring activity and the alienating separation it reproduces (see the Grundrisse excerpt quoted at 96: “the same relation from opposite poles”). The texts excerpted are organized chronologically, and the different works from which they are taken are each introduced by a brief paragraph suggesting points of significance. Actually, it can be helpful to read these paragraphs one after another for the overview doing so provides. Professor Musto’s “Introduction” is organized into nine parts: (1) the origin of the concept, (2) the rediscovery of alienation, (3) other concepts of alienation, (4) the debate on the conception of alienation in Marx’s early writings, (5) the irresistible fascination of the theory of alienation, (6) alienation theory in north American sociology, (7) the concept of alienation in Capital and its preparatory manuscripts, (8) commodity fetishism, and, importantly, (9) communism, emancipation, and freedom. The introductory paragraph of this last section is an unusually succinct gathering of a half dozen quotations from Marx, all too rarely emphasized; taken together, they provide an impressively compelling frame for our revolutionary path. Finally, there is a significant omission: while the excerpts are organized from first to later pages according to the text from which they are taken, they are not cited to their source, so it becomes a challenge for the reader to follow up on any particular passage. Professor Musto informs me that this is not true of the Italian edition and assures me also that he will have a reference list on his website connecting each excerpt to the page where it may be found. In sum, thanks to Marcello Musto for revisiting the concept of alienation and highlighting the importance of interrogating this theme today.

Published in:

Science & Society

Date Published

18 November, 2023


Howard Engelskirchen