Alienation

For Marx, the history of mankind had a double aspect: It was ahistory of increasing control of man over nature at the same timeas it was a history of the increasing alienation of man.Alienation may be described as a condition in which men aredominated by forces of their own creation, which confront them asalien powers. The notion is central to all of Marx's earlierphilosophical writings and still informs his later work, althoughno longer as a philosophical issue but as a social phenomenon.The young Marx asks: In what circumstances do men project theirown powers, their own values, upon objects that escape theircontrol? What are the social causes of this phenomenon?

To Marx, all major institutional spheres in capitalistsociety, such as religion, the state, and political economy, weremarked by a condition of alienation. Moreover, these variousaspects of alienation were interdependent. "Objectificationis the practice of alienation. Just as man, so long as he isengrossed in religion, can only objectify his essence by an alienand fantastic being; so under the sway of egoistic need, he canonly affirm himself and produce objects in practice bysubordinating his products and his own activity to the dominationof an alien entity, and by attributing to them the significanceof an alien entity, namely money."24 "Moneyis the alienated essence of man's work and existence; the essencedominates him and he worships it."25 "Thestate is the intermediary between men and human liberty. Just asChrist is the intermediary to whom man attributes all his owndivinity and all his religious bonds, so the state is theintermediary to which man confides all his non-divinity and allhis human freedom."26 Alienation hence confrontsman in the whole world of institutions in which he is enmeshed.But alienation in the workplace assumes for Marx an overridingimportance, 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 andconceives objective man. . .as the result of his own labor."27

Economic alienation under capitalism is involved in men'sdaily activities and not only in their minds, as other forms ofalienation might be. "Religious alienation as such occursonly in the sphere of consciousness, in the inner life ofman, but economic alienation is that of real life. . . .It therefore affects both aspects."28

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

"The object produced by labor, its product, now standsopposed to it as an alien being, as a power independent of theproducer. . . .The more the worker expends himself in work themore powerful becomes the world of objects which he creates inface of himself, the poorer he becomes in his inner life, and theless he belongs to himself."29

"However, alienation appears not merely in the result butalso in the process of production, within productiveactivity itself. . . . If the product of labor is alienation,production itself must be active alienation. . . . The alienationof the object of labor merely summarizes the alienation in thework activity itself."30

Being alienated from the objects of his labor and from theprocess of production, man is also alienated from himself--hecannot fully develop the many sides of his personality."Work is external to the worker. . . . It is not partof his nature; consequently he does not fulfill himself in hiswork but denies himself. . . . The worker therefore feels himselfat home only during his leisure time, whereas at work he feelshomeless."31 "In work [the worker] does notbelong to himself but to another person."32"This is the relationship of the worker to his own activityas 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, hispersonal life. . . . as an activity which is directed againsthimself, independent of him and not belonging to him."33

Finally, alienated man is also alienated from the humancommunity, from his "species- being." "Man is alienatedfrom other men. When man confronts himself he alsoconfronts other men. What is true of man's relationship to hiswork, to the product of his work and to himself, is also true ofhis relationship to other men. . . . Each man is alienated fromothers . . . each of the others is likewise alienated from humanlife."34 Marx would have liked the lines of thepoet, A.E. Housman, "I, a stranger and afraid/In a world Inever made." Only Marx would have replaced the poet's Iwith We.

The term alienation cannot be found in the later writings ofMarx, but modern commentators are in error when they contend thatMarx abandoned the idea. It informs his later writings, moreparticularly Das Kapital. In the notion of the"fetishism of commodities," which is central to hiseconomic analysis, Marx repeatedly applies the concept ofalienation. Commodities are alienated products of the labor ofman, crystallized manifestations, which in Frankenstein fashionnow 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.35

Explicitly stated or tacitly assumed, the notion of alienationremained central to Marx's social and economic analysis. In analienated society, the whole mind-set of men, theirconsciousness, is to a large extent only the reflection of theconditions in which they find themselves and of the position inthe process of production in which they are variously placed.This is the subject matter of Marx's sociology of knowledge, towhich we now turn.

From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideasin Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 50-53.

ENDNOTES

 

  1. Karl Marx: Early Writings, trans. and ed. by T. B. Bottomore (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 39.
  2. Ibid., p. 37.
  3. Ibid., p. 11
  4. Ibid., p. 202.
  5. Ibid., p. 156.
  6. Ibid., p. 122.
  7. Ibid., p. 124.
  8. Ibid., pp. 124-25.
  9. Ibid., p. 125.
  10. Ibid., p. 126.
  11. Ibid., p. 129.
  12. Selected Writings, pp. 175-76.


Forward to"The Sociology of Knowledge"
Back to "ClassTheory"
Back to the Index