Alienation in Karl Marx’s early writing

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Young Marx.

By Daniel Lopez

October 15, 2013 -- Links international Journal of Socialist Renewal -- As Karl Korsh noted in Marxism and Philosophy, the philosophical foundation of Marx’s works has often been neglected. The Second International had, in Korsch’s view, pushed aside philosophy as an ideology, preferring “science”. This, he charged, tended to reduce Marxism to a positivistic sociology, and in so doing, it internalised and replicated the theoretical logic of capitalism. [1] In place of this, Korsch called for a revitalisation of Marxism that would view philosophy not simply as false consciousness but as a necessary part of the social totality.[2]

Following Marx, we should understand that philosophy could be, at best, its own period comprehended in thought, and that “philosophy cannot be abolished without being realised”.[3] Korsh was not alone in this. Georg Lukács’ major work, History and Class Consciousness, appeared almost simultaneously. Lukács, too, sought to lead a renewal of Marxism via a return to its philosophical roots, specifically in Hegel.[4] Unknown to them at the time, there was a greater basis for this in Marx’s writing than they could have imagined. In 1927, Marx’s The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 was released; this was followed in 1932 by The German Ideology. These two texts joined other works by Marx, including The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), On the Jewish Question (1843), The Holy Family (1845, co-authored with Engels), Theses on Feuerbach (1845) and The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). Together, these illustrate a vast and penetrating critical engagement with Hegelian philosophy.

This essay will engage with this body of work in order to shed light on Marx’s early period and specifically, the concept of alienation.[5] The central contention here is that alienation is vital to the ontological bedrock of Marx’s early viewpoint. This will help to elucidate a number of related issues. Specifically, his concept of labour as species-being, his argument that material reality is always formed by and through social relations and his application of alienation to the critique of philosophy and history will be explored. In order to do this, this essay will be divided into four subsections which deal with the concept of alienation as Marx developed it. It will begin with his Hegelian inheritance and will then move to his political critique of Hegel. Following the development of Marx’s thought, the essay will discuss the economic production of alienation. Marx’s theory of the overcoming of alienation will then be considered, with reference to the Young Hegelian movement, against which he formulated his views. This will necessitate a short discussion of alienation in history and Marx’s theory of revolution. It is hoped that out of this, an understanding of Marx’s early period will be reached that emphasises his radical humanism and his basic affinity with thinkers like Korsh, Lukács and Rubin. Finally, this essay seeks to present a Marx who is simultaneously deeply indebted to and critical of Hegel.

Marx’s Hegelian roots

Alienation is a theme fundamental to Hegel’s thought. To give an in-depth account of this would be a vast undertaking. This essay will therefore limit itself to one clear example – the emergence of Reason out of Self-Consciousness in Section B of The Phenomenology of Spirit.[6] In Section A, Hegelgives an account of the emergence of consciousness – always the “protagonist” in The Phenomenology – from the figure of the Understanding.[7] In its first appearance, however, Consciousness does not exist as its Concept, or in its fully self-aware, self-reflexive form. Consciousness is not yet conscious of its own movement: it is not the Concept “for itself”, it is only implicitly this Concept “in itself”. In other words, Consciousness makes its first appearance in a pre-rational, estranged form. It does not know itself and has not mastered itself, opening the way to self-reflexive Reason. Crucially, it appears divided from its object (and in this, from itself). Therefore:

Consciousness, as self-consciousness, henceforth has a double object: one is the immediate object, that of sense-certainty and perception, which however, for self-consciousness has the character of a negative; and the second, viz. itself, which is the true essence, and is present in the first instance only as opposed to the first object. In this sphere, self-consciousness exhibits itself as the movement in which the antithesis is removed, and the identity of itself with itself becomes explicit for it.[8]

This is to say, consciousness may only take possession of itself – to become for itself – by appropriating its object, the object of sense-certainty. The first stage in this journey is the production of Life. Even Hegel concedes that Consciousness gets hungry and must reproduce. Hence, Consciousness is first produced via the mediation of Desire. In its attempts to satisfy desire, Consciousness meets another Consciousness, or the We. In this encounter, Consciousness becomes aware of itself as more than a singular I, but one that is always conditioned by Others.[9] This gives rise to the famous dialectic of lordship and bondage.[10] In this, the master is initially assumed to be in possession of Consciousness for itself. Yet, he only gains his independence via the mediation of the bondsman whose labour satiates his desire. Hence the lord is dependent, whereas the bondsman is capable of mediating desire and obtaining real independence and mastery over the satisfaction of life’s needs and objective being.[11] The achievement of this stage is effectively to leave the world of subsistence behind; consciousness is now self-consciousness and may appropriate its spiritual world.

Despite self-consciousness having won independence, it is still subject to vast Otherness that appears as hostile to self-consciousness. Therefore it must traverse three attitudes towards the Other. These are Stoicism, Scepticism and the Unhappy Consciousness. In the first two of these stages, Consciousness attempts to convince itself of the goodness and truth of its subjugation. In the second stage, Consciousness attempts to deny the Other. In the third, Consciousness is forced to recognise and traverse its unequal relationship with the Other, which is now termed “the Unchangeable”. It is important to note that this section is a discussion of the evolution of human thought in the Middle Ages, via religious thinking. The Unchangeable is, of course, God. This aside, Consciousness proceeds in a series of stages in its struggle to regain the Unchangeable as part of itself, to gain autonomy with respect to its own product. These stages need not be detailed exactly; suffice it to say, consciousness recognises both a moment of itself in the individuation of the Unchangeable (i.e., Jesus) and that the Unchangeable must operate via individuals (i.e. divine providence). This faith in the providence of the Unchangeable pushes Consciousness to surrender itself apparently to the Unchangeable; as the satisfaction of desire is attributed to the Unchangeable, thanks are given for all satisfaction, which is seen as a gift. Work, too, is dedicated to the Unchangeable.[12] Yet, Hegel points out, in this apparent renunciation, there is in actual fact an extreme affirmation of individuality: “Consciousness feels itself therein as this particular individual, and does not let itself be deceived by its own seeming renunciation, for the truth of the matter is that it has not renounced itself”.[13] Consciousness, knowing this in its heart, turns further against itself, and becomes more abject:

Its actual doing thus becomes a doing of nothing, its enjoyment a feeling of its wretchedness … Consciousness is aware of itself as this actual individual in the animal functions. These are no longer performed naturally and without embarrassment, as matters trifling in themselves … instead, since it is in them that the enemy reveals himself in his characteristic shape, they are rather the object of serious endeavour, and become precisely matters of the utmost importance. This enemy, however, renews himself in his defeat, and consciousness, in fixing its attention on him, far from freeing itself from him, really remains ever in contact with him, and for ever sees itself as defiled; [consciousness] is the merest particular, we have here only a personality confined to its own self and its own petty actions, a personality brooding over itself, as wretched as it is impoverished.[14]

This descent into shame and self-negation can easily be read as a metaphor for Catholicism. Yet, as with all such negation, in Hegel, there is a potential for a passage to a higher stage in its depths. Via this alienation, Consciousness prostrates its will utterly to the Unchanging, (via the mediation of a priest or minister). In so doing, it ceases to be for itself and obtains an objective existence; consciousness overcomes particularity and obtains a universal character. So, Hegel finishes the section, writing:

But for itself [consciousness], action and its own actual doing remain pitiable, its enjoyment remains pain, and the overcoming of these in a positive sense remains a beyond. But in this object, in which it finds that its own action and being, as being of this particular consciousness, are being and action in themselves, there has arisen for consciousness the idea of Reason, of that certainty that, in this particular individuality it has being absolutely in itself, or is all reality.[15]

This is a quintessential illustration of the overcoming the – aufhebung – of alienation in the Hegelian sense. It is clear that the historical referent here is the emergence of the first comprehensive, monistic rationalism out of religious consciousness, namely in the form of Spinoza’s philosophy. Citing this dialectic also foreshadows common ground and sharp divergences between Marx and Hegel. Marx acknowledged the considerable common ground in the final section of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 when he wrote: “The outstanding achievement of Hegel's Phänomenologie and of its final outcome, the dialectic of negativity as the moving and generating principle, is thus first that Hegel conceives the self-creation of man as a process, conceives objectification as loss of the object, as alienation and as transcendence of this alienation …”[16] Yet in the same space, Marx raises what he sees as Hegel’s greatest error. This deserves to be quoted at length as it forms the basis of Marx’s entire critique of Hegel. Moreover, it foreshadows themes that will appear below:

There is a double error in Hegel … When, for instance, wealth, state-power, etc., are understood by Hegel as entities estranged from the human being, this only happens in their form as thoughts ... They are thought-entities, and therefore merely an estrangement of pure, i.e., abstract, philosophical thinking. The whole process therefore ends with absolute knowledge. It is precisely abstract thought from which these objects are estranged and which they confront with their presumption of reality. The philosopher – who is himself an abstract form of estranged man – takes himself as the criterion of the estranged world. The whole history of the alienation process and the whole process of the retraction of the alienation is therefore nothing but the history of the production of abstract (i.e., absolute) thought – of logical, speculative thought. The estrangement, which therefore forms the real interest of the transcendence of this alienation is the opposition of in itself and for itself, of consciousness and self-consciousness, of object and subject – that is to say, it is the opposition between abstract thinking and sensuous reality or real sensuousness within thought itself. All other oppositions and movements of these oppositions are but the semblance, the cloak, the exoteric shape of these oppositions which alone matter, and which constitute the meaning of these other, profane oppositions. It is not the fact that the human being objectifies himself inhumanly, in opposition to himself, but the fact that he objectifies himself in distinction from and in opposition to abstract thinking, that constitutes the posited essence of the estrangement and the thing to be superseded.[17]

We can see clearly here that where Hegel takes Spirit, via Consciousness, to be the creator its entire world, Marx takes humanity – as will become clear below, via labour – as the creator of its world. In Hegel, Spirit returns to itself through an essentially philosophical journey. Marx rejects this teleology as speculative, arguing that it is effectively a dialectical-rationalist version of theism.[18] He replaces Hegel’s subject – Spirit – with a humanity that can construct itself as the master of its world by overcoming its state of debasement and alienation. Therefore, Marx does not posit the primary difference between himself and Hegel as one of idealism vs. materialism, but of theism vs. humanism. Finally, there are other themes raised here, such as Marx’s critique of philosophy as an instance of alienation that will reappear in his critique of Young Hegelianism. However, for the moment, we will take a step back from the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, to discuss Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and On the Jewish Question.

Political alienation

Given Marx’s commitment to radical democracy, notwithstanding his debt to Hegel, he necessarily ran up against the latter’s conservatism. This was clearly expressed in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, which was a rationalisation of the Prussian model of constitutional absolutism.Hegel’s essential mistake in this work, Marx contends, is an extension and a magnification of his previous philosophy. If, in The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel captures something of real human relationships, despite its speculative-idealist underpinning, Hegel does not even manage this in The Philosophy of Right. This is because, in addition to retaining the abstract speculative foundation, it attempts to deduce politics from philosophy. It regards the world upside down. So, Marx writes:

The Idea is given the status of a subject, and the actual relationship of family and civil society to the state is conceived to be its inner imaginary activity. Family and civil society are the presuppositions of the state; they are the really active things; but in speculative philosophy it is reversed. But if the Idea is made subject, then the real subjects -- civil society, family, circumstances, caprice, etc. -- become unreal, and take on the different meaning of objective moments of the Idea.[19]

So, on this basis, Marx accuses Hegel of having written a philosophical apology for a deeply undemocratic, anti-human politics. Just as Marx views Hegel’s substitution of Spirit for humanity as a philosophical expression of human alienation, Marx argued that the State’s power and agency could only come about as a result of the political disempowerment and atomisation of humanity. So we see the first major extension of the concept of alienation -- into politics.

The central contradiction of modern politics, in Marx’s view, is the separation between the state and civil society. In this relationship, the state – comprised of multiple elements – is produced by civil society, but appears as the true expression of universalism, the repository of morality, truth, justice and so on, in comparison to the ‘crass materialism’ of civil society. The state is invested with human values, while the sphere of human activity – civil society – is subordinated. Hegel, Marx contends, perceives the contradiction between civil society and the state, but hypostatises or naturalises it; he accepts the state as the bearer of the universal interest. He sees the bureaucracy as the universal class; as the bearer of “knowing spirit”.[20] Hegel, too dialectical to allow a contradiction to go unresolved but not humanist enough to understand its genuine resolution or overcoming, has civil society – which is unofficial and private – obtain entry into the universal, the state via the Estates (here Marx refers to a form of delegated representation such as that which led the Great French Revolution of 1789), which are formalised as a legislature that is moderated and restricted by the sovereign, who represents the general agency, or general decision making.[21] Marx is flatly appalled by all of this.[22]

To begin with, the bureaucracy is founded on the principle of general ignorance; it only exists as a result of the exclusion from power and knowledge of the mass. Marx writes:

The bureaucracy is a circle from which no one can escape. Its hierarchy is a hierarchy of knowledge. The highest point entrusts the understanding of particulars to the lower echelons, whereas these, on the other hand, credit the highest with an understanding in regard to the universal; and thus they deceive one another… The general spirit of the bureaucracy is the secret, the mystery, preserved inwardly by means of the hierarchy and externally as a closed corporation. To make public the mind and the disposition of the state appears therefore to the bureaucracy as a betrayal of its mystery. Accordingly authority is the principle of its knowledge and being, and the deification of authority is its mentality.[23]

Marx scorns Hegel’s insistence that bureaucratic impartiality is guaranteed by meritocratic admission and the detachment of bureaucratic office from personal property; behind the bureaucracy’s aloofness lies “crass materialism”. “As far as the individual bureaucrat is concerned, the end of the state becomes his private end: a pursuit of higher posts, the building of a career. In the first place, he considers real life to be purely material, for the spirit of this life has its separate existence in the bureaucracy”.[24] So, the bureaucracy finds its real life expression in the state and has an interest in colonising civil society with its logic. Marx labels this “bureaucratic Jesuitism”; the bureaucrats regard humans only formally, only in the abstract, as a means, while regarding themselves as the active elements in society.[25] Corporations (meant not in the commercial sense, but in the sense of civil-associations) must satisfy the bureaucracy to obtain recognition, and so the spirit of bureaucracy colonises civil society.[26] This leads to the next point: insofar as civil society obtains representation in the state, via the Estates, this too is based on the atomised, formal logic of the state. In other words, the preservation of the state’s universality depends on the fragmentation and denial of the universality of the mass of humanity. So, the Estates are reduced to a formal expression – in them, the will of the people is only formally recognised:

… for the Estates as an element of the legislative power have precisely the character of rendering the unofficial class, civil society, non-existent. The separation of civil society and the political state appears necessarily to be a separation of the political citizen, the citizen of the state, from civil society, i.e., from his own actual, empirical reality; for as a state-idealist he is a being who is completely other, distinct, different from and opposed to his own actuality.[27]

And this, therefore, brings us to the expression of political alienation for the individual: humans are divided between the empirical, real, active humans of civil society and the citizen, who is the political man, cut off from real-life activity. This is a specifically modern condition: under feudalism, human activity was immediately political and had no universal status. That is to say, different castes and strata in society obtained a political existence, including rights, privileges and duties, on the basis of their life activity – say, as nobility, artisans, peasants and so on. Modernity replaces this with abstract equality and with it the diremption between empirical, qualitatively different humans and citizens, the abstractly equal bearers of rights.[28] This is, of course, the foundation of the Marxist critique of the political and legal forms of the enlightenment. But Marx is clear: this is not a product of a constitution: “Just as it is not religion that creates man but man who creates religion, so it is not the constitution that creates the people but the people which creates the constitution”.[29] Rather, the secret to this political alienation is to be found in civil society itself, in the social institution of private property. Marx makes this clear via a deconstruction of what was then the most radical modern political constitution, that of 1793:

The right of man to private property is, therefore, the right to enjoy one’s property and to dispose of it at one’s discretion without regard to other men, independently of society, the right of self-interest. This individual liberty and its application form the basis of civil society. It makes every man see in other men not the realization of his own freedom, but the barrier to it. …None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society – that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community. In the rights of man, he is far from being conceived as a species-being; on the contrary, species-like itself, society, appears as a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence. The sole bond holding them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egoistic selves.[30]

So, the state is a hypostatisation of this atomistic condition of man. Just as a business contract is not the reconciliation of two hostile commercial parties but a treaty for the temporary cessation of mutual hostility, the state, also in its ideal existence, is a necessary institution of a society predicated on unlimited egotism and accumulation.[31] And given that man is reduced to mutual hostility in civil society and is, therefore, incapable of finding universal human solidarity there, man vests the state with universality. And so, having discovered the secret of political alienation in the self-constitution of civil society, based as it is on private property and atomised self-interest, Marx re-orients towards a critique of political economy. Finally, however, it is worth noting a few themes related to the concept of alienation that continue and develop through Marx’s early writing: alienation is an atomized, egotistical state. It is also a state in which humanity’s essence, our universal quality, our species being, expressed qualitatively through our products (be these prosaic objects, relationships or values), is removed from humanity and invested in an other that is apparently external to us. In turn, this quantifies and reduces humanity to a hollow abstraction. The only universalism we can obtain under these conditions is the flat, formal, alienated, legal equality of humans who treat each other as means. These themes will be elaborated upon, concretised and explained in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

The economic production of alienation

In his preface to The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx states his rationale for delving into political economy. He had intended to write a political work, on the basis of his critique of Hegel, but in order to do this without arbitrary systematisation, it was necessary to situate it in terms of the proper core of the modern constitution, political economy.[32] Once more, he demonstrated his Hegelian inheritance by insisting on an immanent critique. In his words, he “Proceeded from the premises of political economy”.[33] Hence terms that would become crucial to Marx’s critique of political economy are appropriated and understood in their interaction: wages, labour, capital, exchange value and competition are all discussed in order to give rise to a crucial result. The worker is made a commodity, to be exchanged according to its exchange value. Yet this specific commodity – labour – is responsible for the profits of capital, without which capital could not exist.[34] Indeed, he is at pains to stress labour and capital exist in inverse proportions; the enrichment of capital is the immiseration of labour.[35] So Marx writes: “the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production … The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates”.[36] Marx is able to argue that labour is therefore the essence of capital. It creates capital which in turn is nought but dead labour presiding over living. This represents a further extension and modification of the concept of alienation and has disastrous consequences for the worker who is produced, in this process, as an alienated labourer. Marx writes:

The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity -- and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general … This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces -- labor's product -- confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. … Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.[37]

This is crucial as it is the foundation of Marx’s entire social ontology of capitalism. Indeed, the rest of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 can be seen as an elaboration on the thesis that alienated labour is world-producing, in the social-ontological sense.

How is this the case? First, alienated labour, because it produces an object – capital – which is estranged from labour, is an activity that produces alienation:“But the estrangement is manifested not only in the result but in the act of production, within the producing activity, itself ... If then the product of labor is alienation, production itself must be active alienation”[38] Second, nature exists for us as a result of labour – our entire interaction with nature is conditioned by our conscious labour on it. Thus Marx terms nature our “inorganic body”.[39] Our continuous interaction with this inorganic body is the indispensable condition for life, and yet we work on nature in a way that is divorced from our control. While this has important connotations for the way modern civilisation has instrumentalised nature, Marx does not dwell on this. Rather, he argues that it is our conscious interaction with nature that produces human species-being as a universal quality, one distinct from animals. This is, in other words, how we produce both ourselves and the objective world as it exists for us. He writes:

The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it … Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity … It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man's species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created.[40]

This begins to give us a sense of the importance of labour and alienated labour for Marx. Our activity creates every object which populates our world, including us, social objects, natural objects and so on. Marx is, therefore, a profoundly anti-naturalistic and anti-positivistic thinker. In this he remains deeply loyal to Hegel.[41] Indeed, it could be argued that this puts Marx on a similar footing to a theorist like Castoriadis, for whom imaginative activity plays the role of creating a social institution whose signifiers fluidly organise literally everything, from the most basic logical activity, to the activity of self-reflexivity.[42] Moreover, this allows us to redefine “material reality” and materialism. Marx makes this clear in numbers I and V of his famous Theses on Feuerbach:

The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such … Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, wants contemplation; but he does not conceive sensuousness as practical, human-sensuous activity.[43]

Marx adds detail to this later in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. He argues that even our senses are constructed through labour:

For not only the five senses but also the so-called mental senses, the practical senses (will, love, etc.), in a word, human sense, the human nature of the senses, comes to be by virtue of its object, by virtue of humanized nature. The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present. The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a restricted sense. For the starving man, it is not the human form of food that exists, but only its abstract existence as food. It could just as well be there in its crudest form, and it would be impossible to say wherein this feeding activity differs from that of animals. The care-burdened, poverty-stricken man has no sense for the finest play; the dealer in minerals sees only the commercial value but not the beauty and the specific character of the mineral: he has no mineralogical sense.[44]

This clarified, it is finally possible to turn to the consequences of the fact that our sensuous human activity is conducted under the condition of alienation. First, alienation produces a debased human subject. The worker is reduced to an animal existence, feeling at home only outside of work and in the fulfilment of the functions of eating, sleeping and reproducing.[45] Second, while under the compulsion of accumulation, a new and dazzling array of needs is created, ever greater numbers of humans are denied satisfaction of these needs.[46] And insofar as we may satisfy the needs generated by capitalism, it is via the medium of money which becomes the alienated object par excellence. Indeed, anticipating the work of Simmel and Lukács, Marx’s discussion of money explains its vast and contradictory power in capitalist society:

If money is the bond binding me to human life, binding society to me, connecting me with nature and man, is not money the bond of all bonds? Can it not dissolve and bind all ties? Is it not, therefore, also the universal agent of separation? … it [money] converts my wishes from something in the realm of imagination, translates them from their meditated, imagined or desired existence into their sensuous, actual existence – from imagination to life, from imagined being into real being. In effecting this mediation, [money] is the truly creative power … As money is not exchanged for any one specific quality, for any one specific thing, or for any particular human essential power, but for the entire objective world of man and nature, from the standpoint of its possessor it therefore serves to exchange every quality for every other, even contradictory, quality and object: it is the fraternization of impossibilities. It makes contradictions embrace.[47]

This raises a final point about Marx’s theory of alienation: it allows him to understand the dynamism and agency of social institutions like capital, the market, money and so on. These institutions are, at their core, relationships. But they are relationships produced under alienated conditions, and as such, while humans still make history, they do so under burden of a vast world of dead, estranged human labour which appears to determine events. This philosophical underpinning is crucial, amongst other things, for Marx’s theory of economic crisis.

Overcoming alienation

Marx’s theory of alienation already implies a non-alienated condition that is the overcoming of alienation. Indeed, the overcoming of alienation – a powerful humanist ethical impulse – can be seen as Marx’s main motivator. Of course, he was not the only thinker seeking to overcome the human degradation of capitalism. So, Marx carried his search for emancipation out via a critique of other thinkers. Politically, this meant an engagement that was both friendly and critical, with what he would term Utopian Socialism.[48] Economically, as has been mentioned, this meant a critique of political economy. Philosophically, this meant a sharp break with the Young Hegelian movement. His sharpest words – and there are many of them – were reserved for these radical philosophers. They bear the full brunt of the extensive criticism he develops in The Holy Family and The German Ideology.

His explicit starting point is not to counterpose his materialism with their idealism. Rather, he regularly and persistently opposed their speculative idealism to his own humanism.[49] As we have seen, his philosophy posits humans as the creators of their world, of materiality and of meaning. This view effectively renders the antinomy between materialism and idealism void; Marx’s materialism is an active materialism that regards human subjectivity – labour – as not just the product of but also the creator of its world. This view directly informs his main attack on “Critical Criticism” (as Marx termed the Young Hegelian project); he sees in the Young Hegelian philosophy the highest theoretical expression of alienation. Philosophy, in Marx’s critique, is furthest from life, and produces only abstractions – still, dead, schematic reproductions of life.[50] This critique is close to what Castoriadis would describe as heteronomy; that is, deriving human institutions and relations from a force outside humanity – be it God, Reason, History or whatever.[51] Indeed, Marx charges Hegel with epitomising this philosophical disposition, which results in elitism:

Hegel's conception of history assumes an Abstract or Absolute Spirit which develops in such a way that mankind is a mere mass bearing it with a varying degree of consciousness or unconsciousness. Within empiric, exoteric history he therefore has a speculative, esoteric history develop. The history of mankind becomes the history of the abstract spirit of mankind, a spirit beyond all man … If the activity of real mankind is nothing but the activity of a mass of human individuals then abstract generality, Reason, the Spirit must contrariwise have an abstract expression restricted to a few individuals. It then depends on the situation and imaginative power of each individual whether he will pass for a representative of that “spirit”.[52]

This, Marx contends, has conservative consequences:

As Hegel here puts self-consciousness in the place of man, the most varied human reality appears only as a definite form, as a determination of self-consciousness. But a mere determination of self-consciousness is a “pure category”, a mere “thought” which I can consequently also abolish in ‘pure’ thought and overcome through pure thought. In Hegel's Phenomenology the material, perceptible, objective bases of the various estranged forms of human self-consciousness are left as they are. Thus the whole destructive work results in the most conservative philosophy because it thinks it has overcome the objective world, the sensuously real world, by merely transforming it into a “thing of thought”, a mere determination of self-consciousness and can therefore dissolve its opponent, which has become ethereal, in the “ether of pure thought”.[53]

In The German Ideology, Marx argues that this abstract, ideological view of the world is born of alienation. Most importantly, he extends the concept back into history, to human society’s first premise, the production and satisfaction of human needs.[54] So, labour creates language, culture and society. And as it satisfies needs, it creates new, more advanced ones, which demand a sophistication of the labour process – the creation of a division of labour.[55] This division of labour and the attendant relationships of production, confront new generations as a natural fact and the product of an external will. So we see the first historical development of alienation. Moreover, this division of labour implies a division into classes, exploiter and exploited, and between manual and intellectual labour. Thus ideology -- which is consciousness divorced from its human origin and therefore false and one-sided -- is born. Alienation under generalised commodity production is simply the purest historical instance of this phenomenon and therefore the one that allows us to understand retrospectively its genesis. This allows Marx to positively transcend the Young Hegelians: “Where speculation ends – in real life – there real, positive science begins: the representation of the practical activity, of the practical process of development of men. Empty talk about consciousness ceases, and real knowledge has to take its place. When reality is depicted, philosophy as an independent branch of knowledge loses its medium of existence”.[56]

Yet if social relations become “naturalised” and take on the solidity of a materially experienced reality, what tendency or force can overcome alienation? Marx’s answer is that the dynamic of alienation itself achieves this. Precisely because productive forces appear, and for all intents and purposes are beyond our control, they determine our lives in a chaotic way. Ultimately, this provides – as mentioned above – a theoretical basis for a theory of crisis. The reproduction of society is organised pre-reflexively and therefore cannot sustain indefinite expansion. The specific dynamics of this crisis are the object of Marx’s critique of political economy. For now, what matters is his view that: “Thus all collisions in history have their origin, according to our view, in the contradiction between the productive forces and the form of intercourse”.[57] This, he says, means that despite appearing more free than ever in capitalist society, we are more than ever before subjected to the “violence of things”.[58] Our overcoming of this state can only be achieved by the substitution of a community for egotistical humanity.[59] And this, in his view, is the essential task of the proletariat, the class with “radical chains”, for whom alienation is the total loss of self and whose life’s activity is the production of alienation.[60] The proletariat, in forming itself as a class, in emancipating labour, necessarily asserts the essence of humanity. This, Marx makes clear, means a revolutionary overcoming of political alienation, the overcoming of the antagonism at the heart of civil society:

The condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class, just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders. The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society.[61]

So the key to the abolition of alienation is to overcome the contradiction on which it is premised; not to reconcile either side of the contradiction but to make this contradiction impossible. On the level of politics, in On the Jewish Question Marx writes:

Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his “own powers” as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished.[62]

And, more essentially, economically, the overcoming of alienation is the creation of a society whose relationships are socially, reflexively organised, so that labour is not commodified and therefore, not directed towards an external, alienated end. This is, of course, Communism. He writes:

Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being – a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. … It is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife … between objectification and self-confirmation … between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.[63]


One could rather obviously say that in 1844, Marx was overly optimistic about the immediate prospects for a communist revolution. He would later spend years trying to understand how capitalism could reproduce itself economically. Moreover, he would develop his views on politics based on his experience in, and study of, revolutionary movements. Hence, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and The Civil War in France are key texts to understanding Marx’s developed political theory. This said, as this essay has sought to illustrate the centrality of alienation to Marx’s early work, these issues are not relevant. Similarly, whether or not Marx ever broke with his earlier dialectical-humanist social ontology is also not in question. Rather, this essay has sought to establish seven interrelated points.

Firstly, Marx’s theory of alienation is a humanist reworking of a concept that already exists in Hegel, most clearly in The Phenomenology of Spirit. In place of Spirit, Marx nominates humanity. And instead of undertaking a conceptual/philosophical journey, Marx argues that humanity traverses its real world, of which philosophy is only one side. This already pushes towards the idea of labour as world-creating. Secondly, Marx’s critique of Hegel’s political views is premised on a similar approach: instead of seeing the state as the realisation of Spirit, he sees it as a political embodiment of alienated and fragmented humanity. The state can only exist as the hypostatisation of the contradiction in civil society, which is premised on ruthless egotism. Therefore, Marx’s critique of politics leads him to a critique of political economy. This helps him clarify his view that alienated, commodified labour is the creator of society and the totality of social institutions that confront us, including capital, wages and so on. This posits a deep and radical social ontology where all the aspects of human existence, even down to our sense-perception, are created by social relations, albeit in a way that debases humanity and divorces it from its own products. Marx’s search for an agency that can overcome alienation leads to the next two points. First of these is his critique of philosophy as an instance on alienation. It is a fetishisation of concepts that are always human, but which appear independent of humanity. Second of these is his examination of history. He posits alienation as a trans-historical relationship which reaches its highest form under capitalism. This is not to pose a teleology; rather it is to posit the progressive, immanent self-definition of humanity through our own activity. Finally, from this, Marx attempts to define how humanity may refigure itself from within an alienated society – primarily via the breakdown in the reproduction of society and by the assertion of a new, collective humanity in the form of the proletarian movement. And so, for Marx, the revolutionary emancipation of labour is the overcoming of alienation.

Why is all this significant? A full discussion of this is beyond the scope of this essay. But suffice it to say, this side of Marx is one that was lost for two generations. It is, however, a side of Marx that has a great deal in common with Georg Lukács who in the 1920s theorised a very similar social ontology. This body of work proved enormously rich, and importantly, it re-asserted the radical humanism of Marxism. This would become a key theme in 20th-century Western Marxism and critical theory. So, in a world still dominated by the inhuman logic of capital, this side of Marx should be re-asserted as a starting point for emancipatory social and political theory.

[Daniel Lopez is a Socialist Alternative activist in Melbourne.]


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Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish, Second Vintage Books Edition, USA, 1995.

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[] on 13/06/2013.

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- "Lukács' History and Class Consciousness, Half a Century Later", Telos, no.4, 1969, St. Louis.

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[1] Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, p. 50.

[2] Ibid, p. 72.

[3] This is to say, simultaneously, that the conditions which give rise to philosophy as such must be abolished, and that a philosophical understanding of those conditions is a necessary component of this. Ibid, pp. 43 & 75.

[4] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness.

[5] For this reason, this essay is limited to a discussion of the above texts and excludes works published after 1847. It has been contended, most famously by Louis Althusser, that Marx broke sharply with his earlier views. Whether or not this is the case is outside the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that no claim is made here regarding the continuity or otherwise of the theory of alienation in Marx’s later work. Similarly, Wage-Labour and Capital, Marx’s doctoral dissertation and a few other minor works, although they are from his early period, have been excluded as they do not bear directly on the subject matter.

[6] G.F.W. Hegel, “B. Self-Consciousness”, The Phenomenology of Spirit, pp. 104-139.

At this stage, it is necessary to apologise to the reader. Discussing Hegel is next to impossible without resort to at least some of the terminology he employs. Key terms in the Hegelian system tend to be capitalised. I have attempted to define these succinctly where their definition isn’t at least somewhat self-evident. Replicating the often intricate detail of Hegel’s writing is not the point; rather a faithful account of the main movement in Hegel is what is aimed at.

[7] The Understanding is nature understood, not just in itself, but also for us and therefore, for itself. This is to say, by traversing Sense-Certainty, Perception and Force and the Understanding, Consciousness realises that it is simultaneously the creator and product of nature, and is nature (or Being, or Substance) made self-conscious. Otherness, the external world, is not denied, but is made a moment of self-consciousness. G.F.W. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit §166.

[8] Ibid, §167.

[9] Ibid, §175-177.

[10] This dialectic is often assumed to be of central importance for Marxism on account of it detailing a highly metaphorical sort of class struggle. Yet Chris Arthur has convincingly demonstrated that Marx did not significantly draw upon it. After all, at the end of the dialectic of Lordship and Bondage, Hegel quite explicitly discards work (which can easily be read as labour) as a principle upon which a universal understanding can be built. Chris Arthur, “Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic and a Myth of Marxology”, New Left Review, no. 142, Nov-Dec, 1983.

[11] G.F.W. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit §190-196.

[12] The above summary is based on Ibid. §206-222.

[13] Ibid. p. 134.

[14] Ibid, pp. 135 & 136.

[15] Ibid, p. 138.

[16] Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, pp. 66 & 67.

[17] Ibid, p. 66.

[18] Ibid, p. 72.

[19] Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, p. 14.

[20] Ibid, p. 66.

[21] Ibid, pp. 66 & 67.

[22] Of course, Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is rich in detail and polemical flare. Therefore, only a few points that Marx raises that best illustrate his understanding of political alienation will be considered here.

[23] Ibid, p. 45.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid, p. 44.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid, p. 69.

[28] This establishes a clear parallel between Marx and the Foucault of Discipline and Punish who argued for the deep penetration of this quantitative logic to the criminal justice and education systems.

[29] Ibid, p. 30.

[30] Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question, pp. 12 & 13.

[31] Ibid, pp. 11 & 12. Marx extends this critique in The Holy Family, writing: "The modern ‘public system,’ the developed modern state, is not based, as Criticism thinks, on a society of privileges, but on a society in which privileges are abolished and dissolved; on developed civil society based on the vital elements which were still politically fettered in the privilege system and have been set free. Here ‘no privileged exclusivity’ stands opposed either to any other exclusivity or to the public system. Free industry and free trade abolish privileged exclusivity and thereby the struggle between the privileged exclusivities. In its place they set man free from privilege — which isolates from the social whole but at the same time joins in a narrower exclusivity — man, no longer bound to other men even by the semblance of common ties. Thus they produce the universal struggle of man against man, individual against individual. In the same way civil society as a whole is this war among themselves of all those individuals no longer isolated from the others by anything else but their individuality, and the universal uncurbed movement of the elementary forces of life freed from the fetters of privilege. The contradiction between the democratic representative state and civil society is the perfection of the classic contradiction between public commonwealth and slavedom. In the modern world each one is at the same time a member of slavedom and of the public commonwealth. Precisely the slavery of civil society is in appearance the greatest freedom because it is in appearance the perfect independence of the individual. Indeed, the individual considers as his own freedom the movement, no longer curbed or fettered by a common tie or by man, the movement of his alienated life elements, like property, industry, religion, etc.; in reality, this is the perfection of his slavery and his inhumanity. Right has here taken the place of privilege."
Karl Marx, The Holy Family, p. 156.

[32] Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, p. 1.

[33] Ibid, p. 28.

[34] Ibid, pp. 9-17.

[35] It is important to note that Marx would later clarify his theory to distinguish more precisely between price and value. This is important to note because Marx’s developed critique of political economy is not a theory of perpetually declining living standards – which is the impression one would be left with on the basis of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Indeed, in developed economies where labour sets into motion vast accumulations of capital, the relative proportion of value allotted back to labour in the form of wages is a tiny fraction of the overall value it produces. This, however, bears little on the price that the worker receives in exchange for his or her labour time and the price of commodities necessary for sustenance. So, a skilled worker in the first world may enjoy a relatively high living standard while technically being more exploited than an unskilled worker in the third world.

[36] Ibid, p. 28.

[37] Ibid. It is, however, important to make one brief note: Marx’s discovery here is of the conceptual genesis of capitalism, not its historical genesis. The historical picture is distorted as labour, in its essential form, is only a product of developed capitalism; indeed, the commodity relationship, itself the product of a historical development, precedes labour, in its pure form. Hence, we can say of pre-capitalist societies that labour as we understand it today produced the wealth of those societies, albeit not in a way that produced the category of labour. The specific categories under which production occurred in pre-capitalist society is a matter for historical anthropology. Marx explains this point, writing: “Private property is thus the product, the result, the necessary consequence, of alienated labor, of the external relation of the worker to nature and to himself. Private property thus results by analysis from the concept of alienated labor, i.e., of alienated man, of estranged labor, of estranged life, of estranged man. True, it is as a result of the movement of private property that we have obtained the concept of alienated labor (of alienated life) in political economy. But on analysis of this concept it becomes clear that though private property appears to be the reason, the cause of alienated labor, it is rather its consequence, just as the gods are originally not the cause but the effect of man's intellectual confusion.Later this relationship becomes reciprocal.Only at the culmination of the development of private property does this, its secret, appear again, namely, that on the one hand it is the product of alienated labor, and that on the other it is the means by which labor alienates itself, the realization of this alienation." Ibid, p. 32.

[38] Ibid, p. 30.

[39] Ibid, p. 31.

[40] Ibid, pp. 31 & 32.

[41] Incidentally, this also clarifies Marx’s relationship to Hegel. Being (nature) is made for itself and for us as consciousness intellectually or philosophically wins its independence from it, via dialectical interrogation. So it is still basically a contemplative relationship. Marx does not deny the theoretical aspect of this process but does away with its one-sidedness. Labour is a holistic concept of human activity, in which theory and practice are not divorced.

[42] Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society.

[43] Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.

[44] Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, p. 41.
Marx expands on this extremely important idea, derived from his critique of Feuerbach in The German Ideology: “He [Feuerbach] does not see how the sensuous world around him is not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of society; and, indeed, in the sense that it is an historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations, each standing on the shoulders of the preceding one, developing its industry and its intercourse, modifying its social system according to the changed needs. Even the objects of the simplest ‘sensuous certainty’ are only given him through social development, industry and commercial intercourse. The cherry-tree, like almost all fruit-trees, was, as is well known, only a few centuries ago transplanted by commerce into our zone, and therefore only by this action of a definite society in a definite age it has become ‘sensuous certainty’ for Feuerbach … Feuerbach speaks in particular of the perception of natural science; he mentions secrets which are disclosed only to the eye of the physicist and chemist; but where would natural science be without industry and commerce? Even this pure natural science is provided with an aim, as with its material, only through trade and industry, through the sensuous activity of men. So much is this activity, this unceasing sensuous labour and creation, this production, the basis of the whole sensuous world as it now exists, that, were it interrupted only for a year, Feuerbach would not only find an enormous change in the natural world, but would very soon find that the whole world of men and his own perceptive faculty, nay his own existence, were missing. Of course, in all this the priority of external nature remains unassailed, and all this has no application to the original men produced by generatio aequivoca; but this differentiation has meaning only insofar as man is considered to be distinct from nature. For that matter, nature, the nature that preceded human history, is not by any means the nature in which Feuerbach lives, it is nature which today no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral-islands of recent origin) and which, therefore, does not exist for Feuerbach.”
Karl Marx, The German Ideology, pp. 19 & 20.

[45] Ibid, p. 31.

[46] Ibid, pp. 49 & 50.

[47] Ibid, pp. 60 & 61.

[48] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Ch. IV.

[49] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Holy Family, p. 30.

[50] In The Holy Family, this critique is often taken to hilarious and bizarre extremes – for example, Marx spends five pages developing a parody of the Hegelian speculative method as applied to fruit. Apples, pears, almonds and so on, Marx declares, are only appearances of the Concept of “the Fruit”. Fruit – the Universal – only obtains its actuality via instantiation in particular fruits. Thus Fruit contains a subjective and objective moment; the self-activity of Fruit produces concrete fruits as vanishing moments of itself. This motion taken in its unity is “Absolute Fruit”. Unfortunately for us all, most greengrocers are not versed in Hegelian speculative idealism, and do not sell Absolute Fruit. Ibid, pp. 78-83.

[51] Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, p. 372.

[52] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Holy Family, p. 113.

[53] He continues: “… [therefore] the Critical Critic -- the theologian ex professo -- cannot hit upon the thought that there is a world in which consciousness and being are distinct; a world which continues to exist when I do away with its existence in thought ... That is why Criticism is so vexed with practice when it wishes to be something distinct from theory, and with theory when it wishes to be something else than the dissolution of a definite category in the 'boundless generality of self-consciousness.’” Ibid, pp. 253 & 254.

[54] Karl Marx, The German Ideology, p. 6.

[55] Ibid, p. 8.

[56] Ibid, p .9.

[57] Ibid, p. 39.

[58] Ibid, p. 35.

[59] Karl Marx, The German Ideology, p. 35.

[60] Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, p. 10.

Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, pp. 30-34.

[61] Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 79.

[62] Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question, p. 21.

[63] Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, p. 43.