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Revisiting Marx on Alienation and Communism

A review of Karl Marx’s Writings on Alienation, edited and introduced by Marcello Musto.

Juan Dal Maso

December 13, 2021
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Natalia Rizzo

This book, published in English this year by Palgrave Macmillan, presents a selection of Marx’s texts on alienation.

The topic is particularly relevant today, when precarious living conditions and the generalization of remote work during the pandemic have once again raised the question of the impact of the production process (not only in an industrial context) on working class life, beginning with its effects on free time. In the United States, the “Great Resignation” is part of this phenomenon, as is the “Striketober” strike wave, and many other expressions of working-class struggles around the world.

The book is organized in two parts. First is an introductory study by the book’s editor, Marcello Musto, titled “Alienation Redux: Marxian Perspectives.” Musto presents Marx’s characterization of alienation, then traces its changes within the broader course of developing Marxist theory, addressing the various interpretations of the question in other traditions and various schools of 20th-century Marxism.

Part two comprises a set of Marx’s original writings, organized into three sections. The “Early Political and Philosophical Writings” section contains texts from 1844 to 1856, with passages from the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, The Holy Family, and The German Ideology, among others. It is followed by excerpts from the Grundrisse, from Marx’s unpublished critique of political economy from 1861–63, and from Theories of Surplus Value. The last section includes draft writings of Capital and passages from Capital itself, including excerpts from the 1863–65 manuscripts, and from the unpublished chapter 6.

The book’s selection of writings provides a clear idea of Marx’s treatment of alienation, and its place in his thought. This article is a review of the main arguments made by Musto in the introduction.

In the Beginning There Was Hegel

As Musto points out, the first systematic treatment of the question of alienation appears in Hegel, especially in Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel’s concept of alienation was built on an idealist theory of the spirit, which was objectified in reality, giving rise to the separation between subject and object, which would later be overcome by the identity of both. But his work also contained certain materialistic aspects: highlighting the importance of work as a form of objectification of human activity. But Hegel lacked a sufficiently clear picture of the specificity of labor under capitalism, and thus identified alienation with objectification (the activity that produces or modifies material objects apart from the subject and ideas).

Ludwig Feuerbach used the category of alienation in reference to  religious phenomena, to explain their materialistic foundations. In Marx’s writings, the term appears only rarely in the works published during his lifetime, and it was generally ignored by Marxists until  György Lukács’ published History and Class Consciousness in 1923.

Rediscoveries and Distortions

In the widely-read History and Class Consciousness, Lukács addressed the question of alienation, using the term “reification” to explain how productive activity confronts workers as something objective and independent of their will. Compared to the definitions found in works of Marx available to Lukács at the time of writing, Lukács tended to address the subject through a more philosophical lens. Under Hegel’s influence, he linked alienation to objectification, and it’s no coincidence that the idea of the proletariat as an “identical subject-object of history” was so central to Lukács’s work. 

Isaak Ilyich Rubin’s works are much more in line with classical Marxism, and therefore far removed from the theory of the identical subject-object. Central to his explanation of the Marxian theory of value was the question of commodity fetishism, which he saw not as a problem of consciousness, but as a necessary social process of the capitalist economy, stemming from the private character of production for the market. But as Musto points out, Rubin’s Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value remained largely unknown outside the USSR until the 1970s, when it was translated into English.

The publication in 1932 of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 sparked new debates on the concept of alienation among those in various schools of philosophy and social sciences with an interest in Marx’s thought, as well as among certain sectors of activists, and in a  new sector of “humanist” reinterpretations of Marx’s thought.

In his Manuscripts, Marx defined alienation in terms of a process by which the product of labor becomes an external object for workers, but also a power that confronts them as something foreign and hostile. He detailed four aspects of alienation experienced by workers in bourgeois society: (1) alienation from the product of their labor; (2) alienation from their labor activity, which they perceive as something directed against them; (3) alienation from their “species being” (from their own body and physical and spiritual faculties); and (4) alienation from other human beings.

While for Hegel, alienation was inherent in objectification, Marx conceived it as a specific characteristic of labor under capitalism. Thus, it was also not consistent to reinterpret the Manuscripts as a critique of human alienation in general, regardless of the class question. Incidentally, it should also be noted that in Hegel, the concept of self-production of human beings through their labor (as in his well-known master-slave dialectic) which was related to his readings of British political economy, and which Marx defended in his Manuscripts. But while he agreed with some aspects of Hegel’s elaborations on the question of labor, Marx pointed out that they were subordinated to an analysis of alienation that was especially focused on the alienation of abstract thought, which would be resolved by overcoming objectivity. For this reason, Marx considered Feuerbach’s materialism more satisfactory, though his interpretation of Hegel was not very sophisticated.

Musto adequately summarizes the scope and limitations of Marx’s text:

To underline the importance of the concept of alienation in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 for a better understanding of Marx’s development cannot involve drawing a veil of silence over the huge limits of this youthful text. Its author had scarcely begun to assimilate the basic concepts of political economy, and his conception of communism was no more than a confused synthesis of the philosophical studies he had undertaken until then. Captivating as they are, especially in the way they combine philosophical ideas of Hegel and Feuerbach with a critique of classical economic theory and a denunciation of working-class alienation, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 are only a very first approximation, as is evident from their vagueness and eclecticism. They shed major light on the course Marx took, but an enormous distance still separates them from the themes and argument not only of the finished 1867 edition of Capital, Volume One, but also of the preparatory manuscripts for Capital, one of them published, that he drafted from the late 1850s on. In contrast to analyses that either play up a distinctive “Young Marx” or try to force a theoretical break in his work, the most incisive readings of the concept of alienation in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 have known how to treat them as an interesting, but only initial, stage in Marx’s critical trajectory. Had he not continued his research but remained with the concepts of the Paris manuscripts, he would probably have been demoted to a place alongside Bruno Bauer (1809–1882) and Feuerbach in the sections of philosophy manuals devoted to the Hegelian Left.1Karl Marx’s Writings on Alienation. Edited and introduced by Marcello Musto, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, p. 21.

Musto later reconstructs and discusses 20th century characterizations of alienation, notably including Heidegger’s “state of falling,” linked to the loss of authenticity of being in the experience of the world, which was far removed from the alienation of Marx. In Marcuse’s work, Musto underlines an identification of alienation and objectification, as well as a shift from the question of liberation from work to that of libido. In Adorno and Horkheimer, alienation appears as an estrangement related to social control and the manipulation of mass culture. Other interpretations, like those of Erich Fromm, influenced by psychoanalysis, addressed the question of alienation as characteristic of the individual subjective experience. In contrast, existentialist and neo-Hegelian interpretations of the question, from Sartre to Jean Hippolyte, presented it as characteristic of the experience of human self-consciousness throughout history.

Existentialist interpretations, as well as others such as Hannah Arendt’s, only addressed the question of the “self-alienation” or alienation of the individual from other human beings, without taking into account the other aspects discussed by Marx in his critique of the capitalist economy.

Musto identifies three broad positions among Marxists on the question of the Manuscripts in the postwar years: (1) those who considered them a transitional text of little importance; (2) those who separate the “Young Marx” from the “Mature Marx,” supporting one or the other based on interpretations that contrast the Manuscripts with Capital; and (3) those who view Marx’s theoretical trajectory as consistent, attributing to him a kind of monographic unity through the question of alienation.

Musto points out the one-sidedness of these three positions, highlighting the importance of stepping on solid ground in the interpretation of Marx’s work. Such an interpretation must base itself on how the question of alienation changes in relation to Marx’s understanding of the capitalist economy and the resulting development of his critique of political economy. It is also necessary to  differentiate it from other positions that emerged in the 1960s, such as those of Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard, or, from a more conservative perspective, U.S. sociology.

Between Disalienation and Autonomy

The question of alienation was addressed in important Marxist debates during the 20th century. I would like to elaborate on two such debates, which, though Musto doesn’t specifically reference them, are particularly illuminating. The first is the appropriation of the theme of alienation by dissident communists in Eastern countries. They sought to use their readings of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (and, more generally, Marx’s critique of alienation and commodity fetishism) to develop a critique of various aspects of Stalinism. In particular, this critique was aimed against the systems of government reliant on bureaucracy and police surveillance, against productivism and the “despotic” methods of factories, and against the promotion of uncritical conceptions of reality. Karel Kosik’s Dialectics of the Concrete, Mihailo Markovic’s Dialectics of Praxis, and Gajo Petrovic’s Marxism versus Stalinism are representative of this breed of interpretation, with their differences and points of convergence. After the end of Stalinism, these reflections may seem anachronistic or too specific, but I believe that to be a mistake. Any discussion about what socialism should look like necessarily involves a balance sheet and a critique of Stalinism. In addition to the theoretical, programmatic, and political legacy of Trotsky and the Left Opposition, we should also consider the contributions of those who confronted Stalinism with a “return to Marx,” which seemed to them at the time to be the only alternative at hand, in the absence of clear political continuity as a result of the repression of the Left Opposition.

Another important theoretical lineage to this story are the schools of operaismo and autonomism. Originally akin to the interpretations of Galvano Della Volpe, this tradition was always against the Hegelianizing interpretations of Marxism, while theorizing a less classically Marxist relationship between class struggle and technological progress. For operaismo, as Mario Tronti explained in Workers and Capital, capitalist development was the result of the struggle of the working class. This point of view relativizes the “foreign and hostile” character of the production process for the worker; instead, it emphasizes the struggle against the capitalist command of labor and for workers’ control of production. Later, these themes were reinterpreted by Antonio Negri, under the influences of poststructuralism and the theories of “cognitive capitalism.” Negri amplified the notion of “general intellect” developed by Marx in his fragment on machines (some passages of which are included in this compilation) to a power that unfolds as affective, communicative, and cognitive labor. Paradoxically, this position results in a defense of the progressiveness of capitalist development, much less critical than that of Marx, who underlined the contradictions between the advances of science and technology and the capitalist mode of production. In Marx, these contradictions are an expression of class contradiction, characterized by the extraction of surplus value and the impossibility of freeing the labor force without changing the system by revolutionary means. Let us go back to Marx to see how he addressed this problem.

Alienation and Capitalist Exploitation

In Capital and its preparatory manuscripts, as well as in the unpublished chapter 6, Marx develops a notion of alienation that is more closely linked to a clearer theory of capitalist exploitation and the extraction of surplus value.

As Musto points out,

Until the late 1850s, there were no more references to the theory of alienation in Marx’s work. Following the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, he was forced to go into exile in London; once there, he concentrated all his energies on the study of political economy and, apart from a few short works with a historical theme, did not publish another book. When he began to write about economics again, however, in the Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (1857–58), better known as the Grundrisse, he more than once used the term “alienation.” This text recalled in many respects the analyses of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, although nearly a decade of studies in the British Library had allowed him to make them considerably more profound.2Ibid, p. 29.

In the Grundrisse, Marx directly associates the question of alienation with commodity exchange, just as, in the unpublished chapter 6 of Capital, he refers to the process of the personification of things and the reification of people. But he goes further, positing that capital subordinates to its own interest not only the worker’s immediate activity, but also the cooperative production process itself, as well as scientific and technological advances in the production,improvement and development of machinery. These matters are also addressed in Capital when Marx defines the phenomenon of commodity fetishism.

Marx explains commodity fetishism as a necessary process of capitalist production:

This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them. As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire, as values, one uniform social status, distinct from their varied forms of existence as objects of utility. This division of a product into a useful thing and a value becomes practically important, only when exchange has acquired such an extension that useful articles are produced for the purpose of being exchanged, and their character as values has therefore to be taken into account, beforehand, during production. From this moment the labour of the individual producer acquires socially a two-fold character. On the one hand, it must, as a definite useful kind of labour, satisfy a definite social want, and thus hold its place as part and parcel of the collective labour of all, as a branch of a social division of labour that has sprung up spontaneously. On the other hand, it can satisfy the manifold wants of the individual producer himself, only in so far as the mutual exchangeability of all kinds of useful private labour is an established social fact, and therefore the private useful labour of each producer ranks on an equality with that of all others. The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator, viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract. The two-fold social character of the labour of the individual appears to him, when reflected in his brain, only under those forms which are impressed upon that labour in every-day practice by the exchange of products. In this way, the character that his own labour possesses of being socially useful takes the form of the condition, that the product must be not only useful, but useful for others, and the social character that his particular labour has of being the equal of all other particular kinds of labour, takes the form that all the physically different articles that are the products of labour, have one common quality, viz., that of having value.

The notion of commodity fetishism addresses the topics discussed by Marx in his previous writings on alienation, but in a more complex manner. In the Manuscripts, Marx focused on the process by which labor, the products of labor, and other people become foreign and hostile to the worker, sharpening his critique of the dehumanization imposed by private property. In Capital, Marx maintains the idea that the labor process and its products appear to the worker as something foreign and independent of his will, just as his relationship with other people is established through commerce, but now ties the idea more concretely to the question of exploitation. The separation of the working class from the means of production causes workers to see the means of production as something foreign and external to themselves. This is the prerequisite for the extraction of surplus value, because “free” workers must sell their labor power to capitalists and, in this process, produce the value necessary to pay their own wages and the surplus value that is the basis of capitalist profit.

Let us return to Musto’s argument:

Two elements in this definition mark a clear dividing line between Marx’s conception of alienation and the one held by most of the other authors we have been discussing. First, Marx conceives of fetishism not as an individual problem but as a social phenomenon, not as an affair of the mind but as a real power, a particular form of domination, which establishes itself in market economy as a result of the transformation of objects into subjects. For this reason, his analysis of alienation does not confine itself to the disquiet of individual women and men, but extends to the social processes and productive activities underlying it. Second, for Marx fetishism manifests itself in a precise historical reality of production, the reality of wage labour; it is not part of the relation between people and things as such, but rather of the relation between man and a particular kind of objectivity: the commodity form.3Ibid, p. 34.

In both the Grundrisse and Capital, Marx has a much more complex view of capitalism and, therefore, a much clearer materialist understanding of the phenomenon of alienation. His vision of society and revolutionary change also becomes more complex. Hence, in Capital, Marx points out that capitalism appropriates the advances of science, technology, and the organization of labor for its own benefit, but at the same time creates conditions for communism, such as cooperation in the labor process, the development and application of technologies, the appropriation of the forces of nature that can be used for production, the creation of machinery that can only be used jointly by several workers, the economization of the means of production, and the tendency to create a world market.

Why Communism Is Necessary

This book is a good introduction to the topic of alienation in Marx that contributes to a clear understanding of the scope and limits of his treatment of the matter. In this regard, Musto’s preliminary study is very effective.

Musto debates both those who minimize the importance of the issue, and those who say that it is the main theme of Marx’s thought. He shows how Marx’s ideas on the problem become much clearer and more solid as he gains a better understanding of  capitalism itself.

But at the same time, Musto makes this argument in order to explain Marx’s revolutionary political thought. Alienation is not a problem of the human being in general, or of the individual conscience, or any form of abstract objectification. Marx’s approach shows the contradictory process between the creation of conditions for the construction of a communist society, which are inherent to capitalist development of the productive forces, and the orientation of production and reproduction toward extracting surplus value and realizing capitalist profit.

Capitalism creates the conditions necessary for the fight for communism, but that is all it does. It must be subverted through socialist revolution, overcoming the resistance of the  exploiting  and oppressing classes, to establish a society based on free cooperation, collective property, and the search for the broadest freedoms for the people.

Originally published in Spanish on November 11, 2021, in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation by Marisela Trevin


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Juan Dal Maso

Juan is a member of the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) from Neuquén, Argentina. He is the author of the books El Marxismo de Gramsci (2016, in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian), Hegemony and Class Struggle (2018, in Spanish and English), and Althusser y Sacristán (2020, in Spanish, together with Ariel Petruccelli).

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