Extract Marx on Alienation

July 5, 2018
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Marx’s Theory of Alienation

Chris Arthur

‘Objectification’ is an important category for Marx because in and through its objectification in the world humanity comes to be what it essentially is. This process is, of course, for Marx, primarily a question of labour, of material
production, and its result is a product. ‘The product of labour’ says Marx, ‘is the objectification of labour.’ [3]

Through this process the labourer realizes his potential as a producer; but it is important to stress here that this is possible because there exists external material with which to work. Marx says:

Karl Marx (1818-1883) argued that objectification of human beings resulted from economic relations of workers/capitalists.

‘the worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world.’

It is the material in which his labour realises itself and, in the absence of any distortion of the relationship, this material production is the mediation in which the unity of man with nature is established.

‘It is therefore in his fashioning of the objective world that man really proves himself. Through it nature appears as his work and his reality and he can therefore contemplate himself in a world he himself created.’ Karl Marx

However, this happy result is hardly the lot of the modern wage-labourer. In the conditions dealt with by political economy – that is to say where labour is separated (through ‘second order mediations’) from its objective conditions of realisation (the material and the instruments of production) – the objectification of labour is accomplished through its alienation, and the outcome is the estrangement of the worker from his product, his work, and his world, that is, from the material basis of his existence and life-activity [7].

The wage-labourer is related to his labour-power as to an external object. He is forced to alienate it to the capitalist simply to maintain himself as a labourer.

Hence the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labour is therefore not voluntary but forced, it is forced labour …. In it he belongs not to himself but to another. [8]

Since, for Marx, human labour is the central determinant of human being (for ‘as individuals
express their life, so they are’), the subjection of labour to the dictates of capital (an alien power labour itself sustains) adds up to nothing less than self-estrangement.

Overcoming estrangement through communism means the reappropriation of the ontological essence of humanity which has constituted itself, through the mediation of private property, objectively as an external alien power. Marx stresses that this estrangement is, nevertheless, a historically necessary stage.

What is alienation?

In contemporary psychology and sociology, it is often used to name “individual’s feeling of alienness toward society, nature, other people, or herself.”

For sociologists and philosophers such as Marx, alienation is the same as reification: “the act, or result of the act of transforming human properties, relations, and actions into properties and actions of things which are independent of man and which govern his life.” For other philosophers such as Hegel, “alienation” means “self-alienation” (self-estrangement): “the process, or result of process, by which a “self” (God or man) through itself that is through its own action becomes alien to itself that is to its own nature”.

We can see manifestations of alienation itself in

“Multiple disorders such as loss of self, anxiety states, anomie, depersonalization, rootlessness, and meaninglessness, isolation, and lack of community” (Bernard Murchland, The Age of Alienation, Random House: New York, 1971, p. 4)

In contemporary literature, Kafka’s achievement, especially his work of The Castle, is an important instance and expression of alienation concerning this understanding. Murchland considers The Castle as a significant composition which explains how somebody is alienated from her/his society, from reality and from her/himself. In this novel, Kafka mentions about a man who is unsuccessful in coping with his society. Moreover Kafka explains the failure of the novel’s hero K. for not to being able to attain a satisfactory self-realization.

It can be summarised by Bernard Murchland’s words,

“In this world, calls are never returned, petitions always reach the wrong official, and relevant documents are lost, so that things finally become so muddled that even the simplest requirement of justice cannot be met.” (Bernard Murchland)

The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet claims that

“At the present time, in all the social science, the various synonyms of alienation have a foremost place in the studies of human relations. Investigation of the ‘unattached, the  ‘marginal’, the ‘obsessive’, the ‘normless’ and the ‘isolated’ individual all testify to the central place occupied by the hypothesis of alienation in contemporary social science.” (Robert Nisbet)

We may link to the concept of the outcast in the Bible.

Marx analyzes alienation as something that causes the control to be lost from hands. According to Marx alienation is an outcome resulting from political and economic conditions. Besides, he considers it a function of society and in particular of capitalistic society. Marx sees alienation as the reduction of human essence to the status of a commodity.

Alienation requires a subject and its relations with other subjects or objects. It occurs when there is a gap between the self and the other. This other may be somebody else or it can be something in the empirical world. In other words, alienation is possible if a conflictual relation occurs between the self and the other. Hegel and Marx mention in particular the conflictual relation between subject and object or the individual and his/her (social) environment. Alienation is found where a subject transforms something into another thing.

Did Hegel (1770-1831) adapt the Christian idea of alienation through sin? Marx adopts Hegel – but changes Hegel’s idea by linking it to economic relations.

Bernard Murchland emphasizes that its origin is much earlier than then the concept of alienation in Hegelian and Marxian philosophy. According to him, some thinkers claim that the Christian doctrine of sin is an early paradigm for the modern doctrine of alienation. Moreover, he adds that other thinkers say that the Old Testament is the earliest expression of alienation and still others focus on Plato’s view of alienation (from God) that maintains the physical world as a faint picture of the perfect world of ideas. According to this view, Hegel’s view of nature as self-alienated from Absolute mind is found in Plato’s view of the natural world which is an imperfect picture of the perfect world of Ideas.

Bernard Murchland argues that the late Middle Ages and Renaissance era were the first source of our modern experience of alienation:

“I have been led to detect the distinctive modern flavour of our experience of alienation in the transitional period of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. A key is to be found in the rise of atomistic nominalism and the subsequent pulverization of being.” (Bernard Murchland)

Alienation and Augustine

Murchland claims that the experience of alienation began to take shape from the point of view of Augustinian Christianity with “its negation of life instincts institutionalized guilt and delayed hope.” (Bernard Murchland, The Age of Alienation, Random House: New York, 1971, p. 51.)

Hegel considers alienation only at the level of consciousness (stages of consciousness); as Marx points out, he ignores its external dimension. For Hegel, the problem of alienation is important only as a stage of consciousness. Therefore, in contrast to the modern use of the term ‘alienation’, for Hegel, it has a positive meaning. In this sense, even though Marx took the concept of alienation from Hegel, there is a significant difference between the Hegelian understanding of alienation and Marx’s conception of alienation.

The reason why I want to focus on the term ‘Geist’ and dialectic in terms of alienation is that the whole aim of Hegel’s philosophy is to manifest and examine the development of Geist in its historical process through a dialectic process, that is, alienation process. The whole history of human being is in fact the alienation of Geist. In the next part, the relation between ‘Geist’ and the overcoming of alienation is examined through giving an example of alienation or experience of Geist in the ethical world in order to explore how it is possible to ‘feel at home’.

Alienation and God

Feuerbach uses the concept of alienation to criticize religion. According to him religion is a kind of alienation that leads human beings to be alienated and severed from themselves. For him the idea of God is really no more than our idea of our own human essence. In other words religion is the “self-alienation of the human being, the division  of the human being from himself”.

Feuerbach criticizes Hegel’s philosophy as non-material being, that is, Absolute Being, or God. In the Principle of the Philosophy of the Future, Feuerbach claims that Hegel’s philosophy is the realization and culmination of modern philosophy, because according to him, the departing point of modern philosophy is the same as “the hitherto philosophy” due to being in relation to theology. Feuerbach points out the contradiction of modern philosophy. The contradiction is “the negation of theology from the standpoint of theology.” In other words, for Feuerbach, the negation of theology which is again theology is especially characteristic of Hegel’s philosophy.

Marx claims that for Feuerbach, god is self-alienation of human being whereas in Hegel’s philosophy, human being is defined as self-alienation of God. Marx criticizes Feuerbach for not mentioning and being aware of social and economic circumstances while mentioning I-thou relations.

There are four forms of alienation in Marx’ philosophy:

(1) Alienation from the product of labour,

(2) Alienation from the labour process,

(3) Alienation from human nature, from ‘species being’,

(4) Alienation from fellow human beings.

All this study shows us that for Hegel, alienation is self-discovery of Spirit, for Marx, it is loss of reality. Moreover, while Hegel does not make any difference between objectification, alienation and externalization, Marx claims that objectification is a characteristic of labour or work but alienation is inevitably the result or conclusion of the system—capitalistic society or system.

I believe that the best way to proceed to present a clear overview of the Phenomenology is to get clear on what Hegel means by ‘Spirit’ (Geist) and by ‘dialectic’. Solomon, like many others, has claimed that the Phenomenology is a kind of history of Geist and added that it is “the autobiography of God.” It is this idea that forces me to investigate what Hegel means by the term ‘Geist’. I need to study the terms ‘Geist’ and ‘dialectic’ to clarify what Hegel understands by alienation in his philosophical project. Let us now start with what Hegel means by the term ‘Geist’.

In the Hegel and Christian Theology, Peter Hodgson mentions that the German term ‘Geist’ takes its roots from

“The idea of being moved powerfully, as in fear or amazement, a movement associated with the sudden drawing in or expelling of breath.” (Peter C. Hodgson, Hegel and Christian Theology: A Reading of the Lectures on the Philosophy of religion, Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York, 2005, p. 19.)

In this sense, he said that it is connected with the word coming from Hebrew, Greek and Latin language, ‘spirit’ which refers to the meaning of breath or wind. According to him, the other meaning of Geist as mind has a more restrictive sense than ‘spirit’. Hodgson defines Geist as spirit “in the sense of energy, movement, life, revelation, differentiation, and reconciliation.” According to him, spirit is manifestation of God and God without spirit is absolute idea but with it absolute spirit because he said that “spirit presupposes the sensuous but transfigures it, raises it to pure thought, which is the most concentrated form of energy.

Thus, the term ‘spirit’ evokes not only religion (not only the Absolute) but also the unity of all human activity and its aim. Hegel insists that the manifestation of Geist or actualization of Geist is the activities of a people, their products. That is, their physical activities in the physical world provide the expression of Geist.

“It is only spirit in its entirety that is in time, and the shapes assumed, which are specific embodiments of the whole of spirit as such, present themselves in a sequence one after the other. For it is only the whole which properly has reality, and hence the form of pure freedom relatively to anything else, the form which takes expression as time. But the moments of the whole, consciousness, reason and spirit, have, because they are moments, no existence separate from one other.” (G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, § 679, trans. J. B. Baillie, Harper & Row Publishers: New York, 1967, p. 689).


There are two conflicting approaches to dialectic: the Platonic approach, which sees dialectic as a kind of confrontation of conflicting points of view, that is, it is a means to discover the truth (this truth is the truth behind the appearances); the second approach is the Kantian notion of dialectic, saying that “dialectical contradiction is proof (by way of a reduction ad absurdum) that the truth is not to be found beyond the world of ‘phenomena’”. Now the question is how Hegel approaches these opposite notions and uses the term ‘dialectic.’

Kant differentiates the Understanding and Reason. While Understanding “can know only particular objects and finite sets of objects” by applying its concepts to the data of experience, Reason “applies these same concepts beyond the data of experience to the universe as a whole, to the self as a metaphysical entity, and God.” (Robert C. Solomon, In the Spirit of Hegel: A Study of G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford University Press: New York, 1983, p. 23).

Fichte put his own understanding of dialectic into the formulation ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis,’ which many mistakenly believe to be also Hegel’s formulation. This formulation, however, misrepresents Hegel’s understanding of dialectic and his philosophical system. The concept of the “dialectic” goes back to the time of the Greeks and leads us to think of the dialectic of Socrates’ dialogues. In the Greeks, the term ‘dialectic’ referred to ‘discussion’. In Socratic dialogues, the discovery of truth was possible through different and competing points of view in discussion. According to Plato, it is the “supreme science”. In other words, the term for Plato is a kind of way to discover the truth. On the other hand, in the 18th century, the term ‘dialectic’ had more negative connotations and Kant mentioned also the ‘illusion of dialectic’.

Hegel’s proclamation in the “Preface” of the Phenomenology that “the true is the whole”44 is a kind of expression of his understanding of dialectic because Hegel thinks that the unity of contradictions or opposites is achieved in the whole. Hegel claims that dialectic “is in general the principle of all motion, of all life, and of all activation in the actual world. Equally, the dialectical is also the soul of all genuinely scientific cognition.”45 Hegel defines his term ‘dialectic’ with the terms negativity, sublation or negation. ‘To sublate’ (Aufhebung) means ‘to assimilate ( a smaller entity) into a larger one’ and its origin is: ‘‘C.19 (earlier (C.16) as sublation): from Latin (sublatus) sublat- ‘taken away’, from sub- ‘from below’ + lat- (from the stem of tollere ‘take away’)”.

Moreover, Hegel makes clear that there is not any external thing leading to sublation or something coming from outside to sublate or negate the other. This sublation is explained as follows; They (being and nothing) are not reciprocally sublated – the one does not sublate the other externally – but each sublates itself in itself and is in its own self the opposite of itself.51 Hegel explains that the concept of being and its opposite nothing is the unity of becoming. That is, becoming is the unity of being and nothing. This unity is not the abstract form of becoming but the determinate unity of being and nothing.

Being —– Nothing —–Becoming

In Cohen’s words, many processes in which subject and object are implicated in changing relation are well conceived as transitions from undifferentiated unity, through differentiated disunity, to differentiated unity. (G. A. Cohen, “Marx’s Dialectic of Labour”, Philosophy of Public Affairs, Vol:3, Spring 1974, p. 237.)

Hegel aims to show how true knowledge – philosophy – gradually and necessarily appears or ‘come on the scene’. On the other hand, Hegel demonstrates the necessity of philosophy by considering, not what natural consciousness is, but what natural consciousness takes itself and its objects to be, that is, the way consciousness and its objects appear to consciousness itself.

It is a kind of self-movement. Dialectical movement is a way of attaining Absolute knowledge or Geist. Self-actualisation.

“The mind’s immediate existence, conscious life, has two aspects – cognition and objectivity which is opposed to or negative of the subjective function of knowing. Since it is in the medium of consciousness that mind is developed and brings out its various moments, this opposition between the factors of conscious life is found at each stage in the evolution of mind, and all the various moments appear as modes or forms (Gestalten) of consciousness.” (G.W.F. Hegel, “The Phenomenology of Spirit”, Preface, § 36, from The Hegel Reader, edited by Stephen Houlgate, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1998, p. 60).

Geist is actual as embodied through its own activity—i.e., Geist can also be defined as self-actualization. The embodiment of Geist is a kind of determination because now Geist is alienated from its own self and relates itself to its opposites, such as Nature, or human being’s products.

Therefore, Geist actualizes itself into its othering and embodies itself through alienation movement or dialectical process.

The movement of Geist can also be defined as self-externalization. In other words, “Geist actualizes itself by expressing its self-conception in an objective (spatiotemporal) medium.”

Hegel also uses term externalization which “comes to be synonymous with ‘objectivity” in the Preface of Phenomenology as follows; The scientific statement of the course of this development is a science of the experience through which consciousness passes; the substance and its process are considered as the object of consciousness. Consciousness knows and comprehends nothing but what falls within its experience; for what is found in experiences is merely spiritual substance, and, moreover, object of its self. Mind, however, becomes object, for it consists in the process of becoming an other to itself, i.e. an object for its own self, and in transcending this otherness. (G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, § 36, trans: J. B. Baillie, Harper & Row Publishers: New York, 1967, p. 96).

Editor’s note – we can link with integrating principle in the OCR specification of History, and how culture affects our view of ourselves and of God. PB


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