Nicolás Arenas, Socialism and Democracy

Review of Karl Marx's Writings on Alienation

The concept of alienation is probably one of the most slippery and controversial in Marxian theory. Since the publication of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 in 1932, Marxist intellectuals all over the world have tried to fathom this theoretical category from different perspectives without reaching any consensus about its role in Marx’s thought. In this regard, its labelling as an “individual” or “subjective” condition by authors such as Martin Heidegger, Erich Fromm and the French existentialists has led to a historical misunderstanding of the phenomenon and its implications, dismissing its comprehension as an objective social issue that embodies the very nature of the conflict between capital and labour. Under these precepts, Marcello Musto outlines a concise but rigorous argumentation to introduce a selection of Karl Marx’s writings on alienation, demonstrating that the concept exceeds Marx’s problematisation in the Manuscripts of 1844 and constitutes a key element in later works such as Grundrisse and Capital.
Starting with a short review of the history of the concept, Musto
accounts for how the conceptualisation of alienation has changed
over the centuries. From Hegel’s adoption of the term to Lukács’s elaborations on reification, alienation has been used interchangeably along with the concept of “estrangement” to denote the phenomenon
through which the products of labour confront labour itself “as something alien, as a power independent of the producer” (Marx, quoted in Musto 2021: 6). In this sense, Musto notes the contrast between Hegel’s conception of alienation as an ontological manifestation of labour and Marx’s understanding of it as a historically situated condition that affects workers in the context of capitalist society. These distinctions are paramount to differentiate later conceptualisations made by thinkers related to the Frankfurt School and French existentialism, some of whom conceived of alienation as a subjective condition of the human consciousness, overlooking thus the social foundations and implications of the phenomenon. According to Musto, these misunderstandings around the concept were reinforced by theoretical systematisations such as the so-called “epistemological break” proposed by Socialism and Democracy, 2022Althusser, which establishes a separation between Marx’s Early Works (attributed to a “Young Marx”) and his Later Works (related to a “Mature Marx”). The dissemination of Marxian theory as a totality comprised the association of his early writings with a more philosophical approach that kept a strong filiation with Hegelianism, compared to the political economy perspective that characterised his later reflections including Capital. For Musto, these erroneous categorisations of Marx’s work and its continuity downplayed the theory of alienation, now confined to an early and more philosophical stage of a “young Hegelian Marx who had not yet developed Marxism” (Fetscher, quoted in Musto 2021: 17).
The misconceptions around the concept were reinforced after its
institutionalisation by American sociology, states Musto, which “saw
alienation as a problem linked to the system of industrial production,
whether capitalist or socialist, and mainly affecting human consciousness” (27). The phenomenon was thus related to the individual’s maladjustment to social norms, a conception that led to the “theoretical impoverishment” of the concept due to its scientization and neutralisation under academic research specialisations. According to Musto, these reductive conceptions of Marx’s theory of alienation ignore the complex character of the phenomenon as a social and intellectual condition that cannot be detached from the objective determinations of the opposition between capital and living labour-power. In relation to this, Musto shows that Marx, in the Grundrisse and in Capital vol. 1, treats alienation as an objective condition. In the Grundrisse, Marx refers to the process in which the exchange of labour power and products occurs as something “alien and objective” to the workers, involving their subordination to relations that exist independently of them.
This argument probably comprises the first outlining of the notion of
“commodity fetishism”, a process in which exchange value entails
“the social connection between persons [that] is transformed into a
social relation between things” (Marx, quoted in Musto 2021: 30).
Musto thus shows that the theory of alienation cannot be detached
from Marx’s account of commodity fetishism.
The concept of fetishism plays a crucial role in Musto’s argumentation. As Musto points out, it does not seem a coincidence that Lukács’s
concept of reification was coined based on Capital rather than the Manuscripts (which were not yet published when Lukács wrote History and Class Consciousness), even though reification has been historically
related to the phenomenon of alienation. Accordingly, Musto contends
that the elaborations by Marx on commodity fetishism in the first
chapter of Capital comprise “one of the best accounts of alienation”
2 Socialism and Democracy(33). In this sense, he argues that the displacement of the relation between producers to a relation between things is part of the same process through which the products of labour appear as something external (or “alien”) and independent to their producers. Therefore, what Lukács called reification presented alienation from the perspective of human relations, while the concept of fetishism addressed it in relation to commodities. In other terms, Marx’s elaborations on the processes of commodification are not necessarily separated from his reflections regarding the alien character of the products of labour, as “commodity fetishism did not replace alienation but was only one aspect of it” (34).
This last remark is probably one of the most interesting considerations in Musto’s introduction, as it demonstrates not only how some
of Marx’s categories have been distorted throughout history but also
that his epistemological conceptions are even more consistent than
some intellectuals have affirmed. Regarding this, the distinction
between a Marx more focused on “subjective issues” in his earlier
works, compared to the “materialistic” thinker that addressed the
objective nature of exploitation and the formation of capital in his
later works, leads to conceiving of his theory as entailing an epistemological excision between the subjective and the objective. However, some of the extracts from Grundrisse presented by Musto are clear about how Marx problematised the separation between the objective and subjective conditions in relation to living labour in the context of capitalist production. In this context, the alienation of the objective conditions of living labour capacity appears as a phenomenon determined by both objective and subjective factors, as “[t]he objective conditions of labour attain a subjective existence vis-à-vis living labour capacity” (Marx, quoted in Musto 2021: 30). Hence, the subjective and the objective are not two separate spheres in Marx’s epistemological perspective but two sides of the same coin. Although the author does not address in depth these epistemological aspects, his remarks throughout this book could influence significantly future philosophical discussions related to the supposed binarism between subjectivity and objectivity within the framework of Marxist theory and even to new ontological considerations regarding the dialectic between matter and idea.
In closing, Musto’s book constitutes a ground-breaking – and
necessary – vindication of the comprehensive character of Marx’s
thought and, particularly, of the concept of alienation as an objective
social phenomenon manifested in the historical reality of production.
While the main attraction for readers could be Marx’s writings,
Musto’s introduction reflects a fundamental commitment to delve
Book Review 3into those texts from a critical and renewed perspective. In this way, his compilation and analysis offer not only a rigorous examination but also a political gesture that illuminates the urgency of revisiting those theoretical categories that will enable us to identify the obstacles to constructing a postcapitalist society.

Published in:

Socialism and Democracy

Date Published

29 March, 2022


Nicolás Arenas