Revisiting Marx’s Conception of Alienation


Nanjing University - Dept of Philosophy

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Alienation was one of the most important and widely debated themes of the 20th century, and Marx’s theorization played a key role in the discussions. Yet, contrary to what one might imagine, the concept itself did not develop in a linear manner, and the publication of previously unknown texts containing Marx’s reflections on alienation defined significant moments in the transformation and dissemination of the theory.

The meaning of the term changed several times over the centuries. In theological discourse it referred to the distance between man and God; in social contract theories, to loss of the individual’s original liberty; and in English political economy, to the transfer of property ownership. The first systematic philosophical account of alienation was in the work of G.W.F. Hegel, who in The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) adopted the terms Entäusserung (literally self-externalization or renunciation) and Entfremdung (estrangement) to denote Spirit’s becoming other than itself in the realm of objectivity. The whole question still featured prominently in the writings of the Hegelian Left, and Ludwig Feuerbach’s theory of religious alienation – that is, of man’s projection of his own essence onto an imaginary deity (in The Essence of Christianity [1841]) – contributed significantly to the development of the concept. Alienation subsequently disappeared from philosophical reflection, and none of the major thinkers of the second half of the 19th century paid it any great attention. Even Marx rarely used the term in the works published during his lifetime, and it was entirely absent from the Marxism of the Second International (1889-1914).

During this period, however, several thinkers developed concepts that were later associated with alienation. In his Division of Labour (1893) and Suicide (1897), Émile Durkheim introduced the term ‘anomie’ to indicate a set of phenomena whereby the norms guaranteeing social cohesion enter into crisis following a major extension of the division of labour. Social trends concomitant with huge changes in the production process also lay at the basis of the thinking of German sociologists: Georg Simmel, in The Philosophy of Money (1900), paid great attention to the dominance of social institutions over individuals and to the growing impersonality of human relations; while Max Weber, in Economy and Society (1922), dwelled on the phenomena of ‘bureaucratization’ in society and ‘rational calculation’ in human relations, considering them to be the essence of capitalism. But these authors 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.

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