Karl Marx: Alienation

For Marx, the history of mankind had a double aspect: It was a history of increasing control of man over nature at the same time as it was a history of the increasing alienation of man. Alienation may be described as a condition in which men are dominated by forces of their own creation, which confront them as alien powers. The notion is central to all of Marx's earlier philosophical writings and still informs his later work, although no longer as a philosophical issue but as a social phenomenon. The young Marx asks: In what circumstances do men project their own powers, their own values, upon objects that escape their control? What are the social causes of this phenomenon?

To Marx, all major institutional spheres in capitalist society, such as religion, the state, and political economy, were marked by a condition of alienation. Moreover, these various aspects of alienation were interdependent. "Objectification is the practice of alienation. Just as man, so long as he is engrossed in religion, can only objectify his essence by an alien and fantastic being; so under the sway of egoistic need, he can only affirm himself and produce objects in practice by subordinating his products and his own activity to the domination of an alien entity, and by attributing to them the significance of an alien entity, namely money." "Money is the alienated essence of man's work and existence; the essence dominates him and he worships it." "The state is the intermediary between men and human liberty. Just as Christ is the intermediary to whom man attributes al his own divinity and all his religious bonds, so the state is the intermediary to which man confides all his non-divinity and all his human freedom." Alienation hence confronts man in the whole world of institutions in which he is enmeshed. But alienation in the workplace assumes for Marx an overriding importance, because to hi man was above all Homo Faber, Man the Maker. "The outstanding achievement of Hegel's Phenomenology . . . is that Hegel grasps the self-creation of man as a process. . . and that he, therefore, grasps the nature of labor and conceives objective man. . .as the result of his own labor."

Economic alienation under capitalism is involved in men's daily activities and not only in their minds, as other forms of alienation might be. "Religious alienation as such occurs only in the sphere of consciousness, in the inner life of man, but economic alienation is that of real life. . . . It therefore affects both aspects."

Alienation in the domain of work has a fourfold aspect: Man is alienated from the object he produces, from the process of production, from himself, and from the community of his fellows.

"The object produced by labor, its product, now stands opposed to it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer. . . .The more the worker expends himself in work the more powerful becomes the world of objects which he creates in face of himself, the poorer he becomes in his inner life, and the less he belongs to himself."

"However, alienation appears not merely in the result but also in the process of production, within productive activity itself. . . . If the product of labor is alienation, production itself must be active alienation. . . . The alienation of the object of labor merely summarizes the alienation in the work activity itself."

Being alienated from the objects of his labor and from the process of production, man is also alienated from himself--he cannot fully develop the many sides of his personality. "Work is external to the worker. . . . It is not part of his nature; consequently he does not fulfill himself in his work but denies himself. . . . The worker therefore feels himself at home only during his leisure time, whereas at work he feels homeless." "In work [the worker] does not belong to himself but to another person." "This is the relationship of the worker to his own activity as something alien, not belonging to him activity as suffering (passivity), strength as powerlessness, creation as emasculation, the personal physical and mental energy of the worker, his personal life. . . . as an activity which is directed against himself, independent of him and not belonging to him."

Finally, alienated man is also alienated from the human community, from his "species- being." "Man is alienated from other men. When man confronts himself he also confronts other men. What is true of man's relationship to his work, to the product of his work and to himself, is also true of his relationship to other men. . . . Each man is alienated from others . . . each of the others is likewise alienated from human life." Marx would have liked the lines of the poet, A.E. Housman, "I, a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made." Only Marx would have replaced the poet's I with We.

The term alienation cannot be found in the later writings of Marx, but modern commentators are in error when they contend that Marx abandoned the idea. It informs his later writings, more particularly Das Kapital. In the notion of the "fetishism of commodities," which is central to his economic analysis, Marx repeatedly applies the concept of alienation. Commodities are alienated products of the labor of man, crystallized manifestations, which in Frankenstein fashion now dominate their creators. "The commodity form," writes Marx in Das Kapital,

and the value relation between the products of labor which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. It is simply a definite relation between men, that assumes in their eyes the fantastic form of a relation between things. To find an analogy, we must have recourse to the nebulous regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities, with the products of men's hands. This I call the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor, as soon as they are produced as commodities.

Explicitly stated or tacitly assumed, the notion of alienation remained central to Marx's social and economic analysis. In an alienated society, the whole mind-set of men, their consciousness, is to a large extent only the reflection of the conditions in which they find themselves and of the position in the process of production in which they are variously placed. This is the subject matter of Marx's sociology of knowledge, to which we now turn.

From Coser, 1977:50-53.