Karl Marx: Alienation

by | 4 May 2021

Key Concept

The Marxian concept of alienation (Entäußerung)  or estrangement (Entfremdung) is one of the most discussed notions in the history of modern social and political theory. There is a long history of the term before Marx, from the giusnaturalistic and contractualist tradition to its role played in the work of Hegel and the Young Hegelians; but the Marxian formulation is undoubtedly the most influential. While being present in Capital, and recurring in the Grundrisse, it was explicitly theorised in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, published posthumously in 1932. 

Subsequently, alienation became a problematic and deeply divisive concept in Marxist discourse. Some Marxist intellectuals (such as Althusser) disqualifed the notion, attributing it to a “young Marx” who was still too much a philosopher and too little a scientist. Others considered it the ground of Marxism itself, without which the critique of political economy would not be conceivable. I favour the latter position, though I do not hypostatise an alleged “young Marx” against the “mature Marx”. Indeed, I consider alienation a “red thread” running through the entire thinking of the philosopher from Trier, despite important discontinuities that punctuate a very broad research path. In this article I briefly reconstruct the meanings that this category assumes in Marxian discourse, limiting myself to discussing the most illustrative passages from the Manuscripts of 1844 and Capital. I focus on showing how all the determinations disclosed by the concept take on meaning only in the light of an overarching principle of freedom as reflexive self-determination of one’s own ends; a principle which, if reshaped outside of any subject writ large and objective teleology, is still fundamental to the critique of the present.[1] 

Estranged Labour

The so-called Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts are a series of notebooks written in the Spring of 1844 by a 26-year-old Karl Marx. They deal for the first time with the fundamental works of classical political economy. In these study notes, Marx argued that the political economists, Smith and Ricardo in particular, had rightly identified the subjective foundation of private property as human labour. Private property was therefore understood as objectified labour. However, they did not thematise this work as alienated, estranged work (entfremdete Arbeit). On the contrary, they assumed private property as a natural fact, without justifying the inversion of subject and object that takes place in the capitalist appropriation of the means of production. They did not know how to account for the original expropriation of the human subject in relation to the freedom to consciously dispose of the objectivity of his/her work, that freedom by which we can exercise a reflexive control over ways, ends, and results of our actions.

This unavailability and inaccessiblity of one’s objects and actions, this as a loss of freedom, is articulated in four determinations. The first of them concerns the relationship between the worker and the object of work. It appears as “something alien, as a power independent of the producer”.[2] To stand accused is not then the objectification as such, as in Lukacs’ History of Class Consciousness, in the existentialism and in a (wrong) reading of Hegel, but rather a specific historical form of objectification that is loss of the object and object-bondage. The object becomes something autonomous, hostile. This enslavement concerns both the means of production and the means of subsistence. In both cases the subject depends on another person — that is, the capitalist — for the production of itself as a worker as well as for the production of itself as a living being,

The subjects’ inability to dispose of their own creations is analogous to what happens in religious experience. These constant parallels drawn by Marx highlight Feuerbach’s decisive influence on his thought and on the adoption of the very category of alienation. In Feuerbach’s theory of religious alienation, human beings alienate themselves in their own spiritual power, hypostatising them in the figure of a divinity which, from being an artifical object, becomes a creator subject.[3] However, Marxian alienation is above all a material alienation, emerging from within industry, while in Feuerbach and the Hegelian Left, as specified in the Holy Family, the products of estrangement are only ideal phantasmagorias, sheer estrangements of the Self-Consciousness.[4]

Focusing again on Marx’s discourse, this dependence-on, of which the worker is a victim, is better specified in the second determination, that is, the alienation of the worker in the productive activity itself. In fact, this activity (1) does not belong to the being of the worker, not satisfying an internal need; (2) is not voluntary, but done out of necessity, forced labor; (3) is not self-directed, self-managed, as it is owned by another person.[5]

The third determination, in which the first two are merged, is the alienation of the individual from the species-being (Gattungswesen). This is the famous notion used by many critics of the young Marx to demonstrate his not yet being a historical materialist. I believe this notion does not indicate a set of anthropologically predetermined and ahistorical contents, a lost authenticity that must be recovered. On the contrary, it indicates the historically determined set of human abilities (knowledge, techniques, skills) in which the work of generations is objectified and which is given each time in a specific social context. The free conscious activity through which human beings objectify themselves, that is, the practical elaboration of the objective world, allows them to transcend their own particularity, giving rise to a universal heritage: “while the animal produces only itself, the human being reproduces the whole of nature”.[6] Species-being is the result, continuously renewed, in which this process plays out, such that the particular individuals participate in the universal resources of the species, progressively broadening them by their work. In this way, the history of industry is true anthropological nature.[7]

However, the estrangement of the productive activity that feeds this inorganic body determines the estrangement of the species-being itself. Although the latter is co-produced by all workers throughout history, they are denied the possibility of appropriating it in free and collective forms. The common heritage of humanity thus becomes a function of private interest, in the same way that individual life becomes a function of the production of such heritage as something alien. What is at stake is not the realisation of an authentic and good life in terms of already given contents, but the exercise of  collective reflexive freedom. That is, the deliberation by everyone of the ends and ways of social action and its objectifications.

Finally we have the fourth determination, that is, the alienation of the individual from the individual.[8] Since the products of labour are appropriated by an individual whose interests are opposed to those of the workers, this estrangement expresses the antagonistic class relationship between capitalist and worker. Besides this, it could also serve to address the loss of solidarity ties within the working class itself, in which competitive relationships are established that hinder the collective self-determination of shared ends, alienating each worker from one another. In any case, it is precisely that constitutive human faculty that Marx identifies as free conscious activity that is damaged. 

Fethishism of Commodities and Bewitched World 

It seems to me that the same insistence on the idea of collective reflexive autonomy, or rather its loss in capitalism as a key to alienation, is found in well-known passages from Capital, starting with the paragraph on the fetish-character of the commodity in the first chapter of the first volume. The mystery of the commodity lies precisely in restoring the social and productive relationship between human beings in the “fantastic form of a relation between things”.[9] The result of human action becomes “sensible suprasensible”, a “social hieroglyph”[10] fixed in an abstract world, dominated by objective and impersonal laws, evading any reflexive hold and further negotiating possibilities. This is not the mere output of a false representation. On the contrary, it is a matter of a truly operating abstraction, of a real inversion between the subjects and the objective (privatized) conditions of their action, insofar as the latter become opaque and dominate the former. “This I call fetishism”[11] writes Marx, using a term which once again has a religious connotation and which is most likely taken from De Brosses’ work On the cult of the fetish gods.[12] 

An issue arises also in the Unpublished Sixth Chapter, where the rule of the capitalist over the worker is defined as “the rule of the independent conditions of labour over the worker, conditions that have made themselves independent of him”,[13] becoming “fetishes endowed with a will and a soul of their own”.[14] The means of production acquires vampiric features, becoming “leeches drawing off”[15] the living labour, absorbers. The world of Monsieur Le Capital appears as a “bewitched, distorted and upside-down world”[16] (see Capital Vol. 3). A world in which the capitalists themselves, as personified capital, while benefiting materially from it, lose their autonomy as reflexive subjects, becoming a pure function of the objective laws of the market. Indeed, the abstract dynamics of accumulation for accumulation feeds competition and competition subordinates every capitalist individual to the immanent laws of capitalist production, as external, coercive laws. The phenomena of alienation therefore belong to the objective essence of private property, to which even individual capitalists are subjected.

It is almost trivial to dwell on the relevance of such considerations in a contemporary landscape imbued with “capitalist realism”,[17] where markets, finance, and crises become the same as earthquakes, tsunamis and pandemics. Instead of historically contingent and transcendable social objectifications in the context of a rational intersubjective renegotiation, they become unintelligible and unmanageable natural powers, or even personified forces that can worry, get nervous or feel relieved. In this context, it seems possible to rely only on priestly castes of experts and to engage in complacent behaviours, as if towards ancient irascible gods.

From the Realm of Necessity to the Realm of Freedom 

The freedom to consciously dispose of what one does, of the results of what one does, of the relationships in which one does what one does, exercising constant reflexive control together with others, thus appears to be the fundamental normative standard that Marx asserts in the critique of capitalism. Alienation consists precisely in a systematic, socially and historically determined obstruction of this intersubjective self-reflexivity. This emerges clearly even when we consider the reflections that Marx devotes to the future post-capitalist society. The insistence is all on the collective planning of production, in the integration of the different labour-powers in the full self-awareness of one single social labour force. “The practical relations of everyday life” between human beings, and human beings and nature, must have “transparent and rational form. The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process … until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control”.[18] Communism, as the final stage of this path of emancipation, is represented in Capital Vol. 3 as the accomplished transition from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom, where labour determined by necessity and external finality ceases.[19] Here the totality of historical-social determinations seems to become the self-determination of a Humanity capable of setting its own ends by itself, affirming itself as causa sui (cause of itself).

Together with the deep suggestiveness of these passages, it is not difficult to see the utopian (and in many ways dystopian) and problematic nature of this project of a total man. On one hand, the logical priority of the subject is what underlies the possibility to overcome the alienated objective determinations and therefore the perspective of revolutionary transformations. On the other hand, this subject writ large, destined to regain possession of itself in a long but necessary history of alienation, seems to be a neither justified nor justifiable metaphysical hypostasis. However, this does not mean that Marx’s category of alienation and its normative standard of freedom are useless tools to consign to the past. On the contrary, I believe they still have an extraordinary critical and explanatory power for contemporary capitalist society — if reshaped in an explicitly post-metaphysical framework. That is to say, a framework in which freedom is understood as an ever-renewing exercise of collective self-reflection and self-appropriation of life on the part of social actors; in which this process of continuous renegotiation of institutionalised practices deals with the radical openness of history and its fundamental uncertainty, renouncing objective teleologies and definitive syntheses; and in which the struggle to overcome the obstacles that prevent a free and conscious participation by everyone in social life, starting with the struggle against capitalism, can be seen as a proliferation and accumulation of practices within all human relations, not limited to the sphere of production and the conflict between capitalists and workers.

Adriano Lotito is a PhD student in Social and Political Thought at the University of Sussex.

Call for contributions to ‘Key Concepts’.

[1]  For some contributions going in this direction, see Rahel Jaeggi, Alienation (Columbia University Press, 2014), and Rainer Forst, Normativity and Power (Oxford University Press, 2017, pp.121-130). For an overall view about the debates on alienation see the Marcello Musto’s Introduction to his Karl Marx’s Writings on Alienation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
[2]  Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 71.
[3]  Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
[4]  Karl Marx-Friedrich Engels, The Holy Family (Windham Press, 2013).
[5]  Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, p. 74. 
[6]  Ibid., pp. 75-77.
[7]  Ibid., pp. 110-111.
[8]  Ibid., p. 78.
[9]  Karl Marx, The Capital Volume 1 (Penguin, 1992), p. 165.
[10]  Ibid., p. 167.
[11] Ibid., p. 165.
[12] Charles De Brosses, Rosalind C. Morris, Daniel H. Leonard, The Returns of Fetishism. Charles De Brosses and the    Afterlives of an Idea(Chicago University Press, 2017).
[13] Karl Marx, The Capital Volume 1, p. 989.
[14] Ibid., p. 1003.
[15] Ibid., p. 988.
[16] Karl Marx, The Capital Volume 3 (Penguin, 1991), p. 969.
[17] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (Zero Books, 2009).
[18] Karl Marx, The Capital Volume 1, p. 173.
[19]  Karl Marx, The Capital Volume 3 (Penguin, 1991), p. 958-959.


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