1970s >> 1974 >> no-833-january-1974

Where Do We Go From Alienation?

In recent years Marxism has taken on a different look. The existence in German of early philosophical writings of Marx was known since before the war. The English publication in the late nineteen-fifties of The Holy Family and the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 set loose the theory of alienation which Marx formulated as a young man and echoed in his work nearly fifteen years later. Its appearance at first was gratifying enough; here was Marxism come in from the cold, as it were, and revealed as humanism.

From there, however, it has become an academic industry. Preliminary and marginal Marx is turned over in repetition of the thirties’ nonsense-debate as to What he Really Meant. Then, it was about political economy; now, about Man. It’s a sad reflection that Marx and Engels meant their work to make explicit the struggle of the working class, and the academics have obstructed that happening by making it as esoteric as possible. An Inaugural Lecture at the London School of Economics in November dealt with “some theoretical aspects of Marx’s original work” under the heading “The Fundamental Marxian Theorem”. A feeling, no doubt, that so valuable a property cannot be left to the workers’ mucky hands.

But from this scholarship world where theses are hatched to fly in ever-decreasing circles, influences seep down. There is the case of the Left, with leadership increasingly claimed as of right through comprehension of Marxism’s alleged inner mysteries. And there is alienation as not only the vogue-word of the times but one pronounced as substitute for an analysis of practically anything. What is to be said about capitalism in 1974? Alienation. How is the subject-life of millions to be explained? They are alienated. The cry of “alienation” has rendered Marxism as a vague universal humanitarianism instead of the mechanics of the class struggle.

Words and Men

Of course Marx had a conception of the nature of man. He saw man’s distinctive ability to “make his vital activity into an object of his will and consciousness”: his power to create his own environment, to change it and thereby change himself. He saw how capitalism militated against human fulfilment in those terms — productive activity, the “species-life” of man, was appropriated from him. Using Feuerbach’s word, he proposed that man under capitalism was alienated from the product of his labour and the act of production; from other men; and ultimately, therefore, from his own nature.

What does “alienation” mean? The Shorter Oxford Dictionary gives it as “estrange” or, in legal application, “transferring ownership to another”. The first is a stilted but everyday one. Jane Austen in Persuasion has: “What might not eight years do? Events of every description, changes, alienations, removals . . .” The second is found in records of changes in the holding of land, as:

   Further alienation occurred in 1636 to Charles Maynard, one of the Auditors of His Majesties Court of Wards and Liverys, who in 1639 became the purchaser of the manor and the whole of its rights and privileges.
(A Calendar of Deeds, pub. 1923)

It is important that these meanings should not be confused. Up to quite recent years legal actions were occasionally brought by husbands for “alienation of the affections” of their wives. What was envisaged was not estrangement — which had obviously taken place anyway — but the loss of the wife’s services and duties: a matter of property.

The German words Marx used for alienation were “Entfremdung”, “Verausserung” and “Entäusserung” They correspond with the English meanings above, the first two referring to property and the last to personal relations. Marx seems to have used them more or less indistinctly. In the Communist Manifesto “entäusserung des menschlichen wesens” is “alienation of humanity”, and in Vol. I of Capital (p.708, Kerr edn.) the word “entfremden” is used in “estrange him from the intellectual potentialities of the labour process”.

In his book Marx’s Theory of Alienation István Mészáros attempts to explain the difference:

  When the accent is on “externalization’ or “objectification”, Marx uses the term “Entäusserung” (or terms like “Vergegenständlichung”), whereas “Entfremdung” is used when the author’s intention is to emphasize the fact that man is being opposed by a hostile power of his own making, so that he defeats his own purpose.

This explanation is less important than the actual translations into English. Why did Moore and Aveling, who translated Vol. I of Capital, choose and Engels as editor approve “estrange” — and, elsewhere, “divorce”? All three knew Marx and were well placed to render what was in his mind. Yet we know for a certainty that any modern scholar would seize on “alienate”, because the intellectual fashion of the time says so. And with it is conveyed a heavy philosophical package.

Changes of Thinking

The theory of alienation appeared initially as Marx’s first view of the capitalist world, an interim enquiry between the Hegelian philosophy of his youth and his major historical and economic analysis. The academicians will have none of that, however. David McLellan in Marx Before Marxism declares:

  Those who claim to find a break between the ‘young’ and the ‘old’ Marx usually maintain that alienation is a concept that was central to Marx’s early thought but which he abandoned later . . . These statements are, however, inaccurate.

For McLellan, the Grundrisse of 1857-8 is the final word:
The Grundrisse, then, are as Hegelian as the ‘Paris Manuscripts’ and their publication makes it impossible to maintain that only Marx’s early writings are of philosophical interest, and that in the later Marx specialist economic interests have obscured the earlier humanist vision.

Mészáros takes the same standpoint, pouring scorn on those who believe Marx put aside the alienation concept and quoting from The Holy Family, The German Ideology, the Grundrisse and Theories of Surplus-Value. But difficulties immediately arise. Except the Grundrisse these are all early works, and both Marx and Engels wrote deprecatingly of them later. A. Voden in Reminiscences of Marx and Engels recalled a conversation in 1893 in which Engels refused to have an interest in “publishing old manuscripts from publicistic work of the forties”; and Marx spoke of The German Ideology as having been meant mainly for “self-clarification”. Indeed, The German Ideology—only two years after the 1844 Manuscripts—makes ironical references to “the self-estrangement of man”. Likewise the Communist Manifesto (1848) ridicules the German academics:

They wrote their philosophical nonsense beneath the French original. For instance, beneath the French criticism of the economic functions of money, they wrote “Alienation of Humanity”. (SPGB edition, p. 85)

More Reservations

Having claimed that Marx never gave up the alienation theory, Mészáros has to qualify the assertion:

But once it is conceived in its broadest outlines—in the Manuscripts of 1844— it becomes possible to let the general term “recede” in the presentation . . . This is why it is not at all surprising to find that the works which followed the Manuscripts of 1844, up to about 1856—and written for publication—are far less densely populated with the word “alienation” than the first broad synthesis.

This is “special pleading” with a vengeance, and it does not stand up for a moment. If Marx really thought on those lines, that having stated a theory there was no need to go on reiterating it, he did not act accordingly over the labour theory of value and the materialist conception of history; these, once begun, never “recede” in his work. To look at this another way, Marx’s main works have been extant for generations. In them the words “alienate” and “estrange”, and statements on the condition of man, have been perfectly comprehensible as part of his economic analysis. It is only the early and preparatory works which put them in the context of a philosophical theory belonging, at that, to Marx’s intercourse with the Hegelians and Feuerbach.

But what about Engels? According to both Mészáros and McLellan, Marx was first influenced towards the alienation concept by Engels’s Outline of a Critique of Political Economy (1843-44); and there is Engels’s own work on Feuerbach. Mészáros and McLellan both lay stress on Marx’s unfulfilled intention to produce an enormous work on mankind, of which Capital was the first “brochure”. It should be taken for granted that Engels, as the lifelong collaborator of Marx, would share the pursuit of the alienation theory and seek to complete what Marx allegedly left unfinished. But not only did Engels dismiss their early philosophical work and describe its “semi-Hegelian language” as “not only untranslatable, but has lost the greater part of its meaning even in German” (letter to Mrs. F. K. Wischnewetsky, 1886); the theory is — despite the wide range of his social investigation — entirely absent from his own post-juvenile writings.

A Sterile Concept

It is possible, of course, to brush off Engels on the grounds that he was not Marx. That is what Kamenka. in The Ethical Foundations of Marxism, attempts to do. However, in the Introduction to Marx and Engels : Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, Lewis S. Feuer argues and offers evidence that for Marx the alienation theory was a youthful aberration which he shared Engel’s wish to forget. He points out that Marx’s last published writing, A Workers’ Enquiry (1880), showed him preoccupied with further economic research “into the deeds and misdeeds of capitalist exploitation” (Marx’s own words):

It consisted of a hundred questions directed to workers as to their conditions, their treatment by their employers and governmental agencies, their conditions at home, their diet, their children, the frequency and duration of strikes, the workingmen’s societies, and so on.

And in 1881 Marx wrote to a Russian correspondent about his friend Ray Lankester’s essay Degeneration. Of Marx’s interest in it, Feuer says: “Evidently it was related to an even more basic questioning of his philosophical standpoint which he never articulated.”

What then are we left with? A theory which Marx may or may not have retained; which Engels apparently discarded altogether; of uncertain terminology; and in the absence of which, Marxism has existed as a lucid, coherent and not-at-all-deficient body. Its being put in the fore of left-wing Marxism has damaged that coherence, despite claims that it gives “a fuller view”. Bertell Oilman in his book Alienation presents value, appropriation, the money-system etc. as facets of alienation; Mészáros asserts the importance of economics to be as

  a vital link in the programme of gaining mastery over the various causal factors involved, serving the purpose of practically superseding alienation in all spheres of life.

This does not expand the existing view of Marxism: it diminishes it. If a working man understands (in fact, he already does) that he is estranged from life’s potentialities by being exploited, that is proper consciousness. But if he is to be asked to say he is first and foremost alienated, and exploited as part of it, that is futile.

Meaning and Purpose

This brings us to the question: where does the theory of alienation lead? Any theory is going to be reduced in frequent usage to the common-or-garden, and at this level it has already become sheer do-gooding with a highfalutin name. Four years ago a TV programme on political dissent showed a member of a well-known left-wing group expounding alienation: “There — on the other side of that wall — you could die, and nobody would know about it!” Of course there is an appeal in this kind of “theorizing”, and being able to invoke the pre-scientific Marx for it. It is not only more romantic but easier than learning the economics of capitalism.

At the academic level, however, there is not much improvement. Oilman gives a clear and readable account of the alienation theory, but seems conscious at the end of the problem of not knowing what to do with it: his critical summary turns out to be chiefly a criticism of Marx’s economic categories after all. And Mészáros, after attacking the “hot air”, “falsifications” and “grotesque ideas” of misinterpreters of Marx, emerges as a supporter of the regimes in Cuba, China and Eastern Europe and a believer that the critical breakdown of capitalism is almost upon us. Since this is merely the old rubbish of the Left, the alienation theory looks to have been brought forward as a convoluted support for it.

Only one conclusion is possible. The Marxian Socialism which makes sense is founded on the economic theory of Marx about which there is no surmise. It does not at all exclude “human” considerations; on the contrary, it has no meaning if it does not begin from indignation at what capitalism does to the great majority of people. But nor can it have meaning unless it is understood to be rooted in the class struggle. The way to Marx’s “human society” is not through contemplating “freedom as essence” (Oilman’s phrase) but by consciousness aimed at abolishing exploitation.

Robert Barltrop