Josep Recasens Subias, Marx & Philosophy. Review of Books

Review of Karl Marx’s Writings on Alienation

The publication in 1933 of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 originated a debate around what place this text had in the work of Marx. The usage of ‘alienation’ that has a minor role in Capital rapidly established the belief of a split between the early and the late Marx. This split was defended by those who considered the early writings to be more essential than the late ones as they allegedly constitute the philosophical basis of Marxism. On the opposite camp, Althusser regarded the early writings as a residue of ‘Hegelianism’ that Marx had to get rid of before developing his relevant, ‘scientific’ thought on capitalist societies. A third position denied the existence of such a break and argued that there is a continuity in Marx’s thought, specifically on that of alienation. Nonetheless, this position was usually defended with a poor philological analysis of texts and quotations, mixing Marx’s early and late writings without caution.

In Karl Marx’s Writings on Alienation, Marcello Musto distinguishes these three positions and embraces the last one, trying to pay its pending debt, and gives a very complete selection of Marx’s writings on alienation from his main works. Musto’s central thesis is that Marx developed a theory of alienation that has a continuity in all his writings, from the Manuscripts of 1844 to Capital. This is true regardless of its progression and use of different expressions such as ‘alienation’, ‘dead (or objectified) labour over living labour’, and ‘reification’ or ‘fetishism’ (4) to explain the same phenomenon, or at least some aspects of it.

The book comprises two parts: the first is an introduction by Musto to the last century debates around alienation and the second consists of his careful selection of Marx’s writings on alienation. The latter is chronologically ordered and divided into three chapters (not treated as three different positions or stages Marx passed through), starting with the Manuscripts of 1844 and other early writings up until 1856. The second chapter contains the relevant passages from the Grundrisse (1857) and the Theories of Surplus Value (1861-63). The third chapter includes some parts of Capital and its preparatory notes (1863-1875). Each selected writings has an important introductory note by the editor that explains when and with what intention it was written, but also when it was published, by Marx or posthumously.

Musto’s introduction (almost a third of the book) has a twofold function. On the one hand, it sketches an interpretation of what Marx meant by alienation, giving indications on how to approach his work. On the other hand, Musto contrasts Marx’s theory of alienation to other philosophical theories that are supposed to treat the same phenomenon (French existentialists, Heidegger, Debord, American sociology, etc.), and also to other interpretations of Marx’s texts that were developed during the last century (Lukács, Althusser, Marcuse, etc.).

Musto reminds us that, contra Hegel’s transhistorical-ontological notion of alienation as objectification, alienation for Marx is not an ‘ontological’ conception of human beings or the condition of human labour in general. Rather, it is a phenomenon specific to the ‘capitalist, epoch of production’ (7). Central to Marx’s theory of alienation is the alienation of labour, which has a priority over the alienation from political or religious spheres. That is the reason why there are no fragments in this selection of the philosophical writings on alienation written before Marx started to study political economy. Marx accepts that ‘Labour’s realisation is its objectification’, but also adds that, ‘in the conditions dealt with by political economy this realisation of labour appears as loss of reality for the workers […] as alienation’ (52). Given that Marx ‘always discussed alienation from a historical, not a natural, point of view’ (7), his theory is not only different from Hegel’s, but also those who embraced Hegel’s conception of alienation as a phenomenon related to labour (e.g. Marcuse) and the French existentialists like Sartre who treat alienation as a kind of general human condition and not specifically in relation to labour.

Marx’s theory of alienation can be read in two different but related ways. The first emphasises the alienation of the worker from her conditions of production. Under capitalist conditions, labour takes the form of wage labour. The worker has no control over the products of her labour. Thus, ‘objectified labour, value as such, confronts him as an entity in its own right, as capital’ (102), as Marx notes. In this exchange between labour and capital, the capitalist appropriates surplus-value and invest it as capital again. If the worker is alien to the object of labour, then she becomes also alienated from the activity of labour, her species-being, and other human beings. Musto shows that Arendt and Fromm’s readings of Marx focused only on this type of self-alienation, developed in the early writings. Nonetheless, Musto correctly indicates that this subjective side of alienation is inseparable from the objective one that Marx fully developed later as the fetish-character of the commodity. With this Marx focuses on how the products of labour under capitalism dominate social relations between individuals. The editor concludes that ‘commodity fetishism did not replace alienation but was one aspect of it’ (34).

While Musto subscribes to the continuity thesis, nonetheless, he does not accept that there is a strict continuity in Marx’s theoretical position on alienation. The late works, compared with the earlier ones, offer ‘greater understanding of economic categories’ and ‘more rigorous social analysis’ (30). For example, they establish the link ‘between alienation and exchange value’ and provide critical insights on the ‘opposition between capital and ‘living labour-power’’ (ibid). The late works also demonstrate the emancipatory potentialities of the theory of alienation where ‘the path to a society free of alienation’ becomes ‘much more complicated in Capital’ (35), whereas in the early writings the philosophical conception of unalienated society remains to a large extent indeterminate and vague.

The second part of the book contains Marx’s well-known passages on alienation that are often discussed by the interpreters, including that of the Manuscripts of 1844. However, the major innovation of this editorial work lies in selecting the texts that are given less attention when the question of alienation is considered, despite some of them being the most extensive. Specifically, this omission usually excluded some late texts. One example is the Economic Manuscripts (1863-1865), written as preparatory manuscripts for Capital, whose selected paragraphs are translated by Patrick Camiller into English for the first time.

One of the main points of contestation in the debates around the theory of alienation is the apparent incompatibility or tension between Marx’s idea of workers being alienated from their ‘species-being’ and his thesis of not assuming a certain transhistorical conception of human essence. This incompatibility would raise two problems. The first, internal to Marx’s theory, relates to the incoherence of its premises. It seems inconsistent to deny the existence of a human essence but at the same time assume that workers are alienated from their ‘species-being’ (the term that can be regarded as another name for ‘human essence’). The second is ‘external’ and argues that, if one does not share Marx’s conception of human essence, then the critique of alienation cannot be accepted. This incompatibility could be solved by denying the continuation thesis and establishing that the later Marx abandoned the idea of species-being. As we have seen, Musto proposes another solution to the problem. He argues that Marx does not approach alienation from an ontological point of view, not even in the early writings, because Marx always discusses alienation in relation to a historical specific form of production. This idea allows Musto to shift the debate from the confusing philosophical and terminological debates of what human essence or ontology are, to the understanding of the specific functioning of capitalist mode of production. Nevertheless, Musto does not critically engage with the category of ‘species-being’ and its relation, if any, to Capital. Nor does Musto accept that discussing alienation in relation to a specific form of production could be compatible with the ontological point of view. The analysis of the relationship between alienation and ontology, marked with tensions and contradictions, requires further elucidation in the book.

The fact that the term ‘alienation’ is dropped altogether by Marx in his late writings could potentially call into question Musto’s thesis that the fetish-character of the commodity is an integral aspect of the theory of alienation. However, the usage of ‘alienation’ in the Grundrisse and other preparatory writings of Capital may confirm Musto’s idea that this absence was just to avoid unnecessary philosophical words in a work published for the public. Furthermore, Musto’s selection of Marx’s writings on commodity fetishism in chapter four helps us to elucidate the importance Marx gave to the theory of alienation in his magnum opus. It is true that there is no specific chapter allocated to the question of fetishism in Capital, but only a section that is considered by many as ‘unessential’ to the rest of the book. This led to the idea that fetishism, even if it is part of the theory of alienation, is not relevant to the understanding of the late Marx. Nonetheless, the so-called ‘drafts’ of Capital from 1857 onwards, mainly included in chapter three (the largest chapter of the selection and maybe the most elucidating one, despite being partially repetitive), demonstrate well that fetishism is viewed as an essential phenomenon of capitalist production and, thus, that of the critique of capitalism.

To conclude, Marx never wrote a developed account of his theory of alienation. This makes it difficult to say if there is a complete theory of alienation in Marx or just some fragmentary sketches of a possible theory that needs to be critically reconstructed. In any case, Musto’s editorial work offers an exhaustive collection of writings that allow the reader to form her own opinion without having to read the seemingly endless works of Marx. Musto does not offer a systematic exposition of Marx’s theory of alienation. Nonetheless, this is not his intention in editing this book. As he brilliantly shows in his introduction, the debate around Marx’s notion of alienation has been so distorted that it almost had nothing to do anymore with what Marx wrote. Karl Marx’s Writings on Alienation is one of the best resources we have to overcome past misinterpretations and to keep the ongoing debates on alienation close to Marx’s true emancipatory thought.

Published in:

Marx & Philosophy. Review of Books

Date Published

20 June, 2022


Josep Recasens Subias