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Alienation is the process whereby people become foreign to the world they are living in.

The concept of alienation is deeply embedded in all the great religions and social and political theories of the civilised epoch, namely, the idea that some time in the past people lived in harmony, and then there was some kind of rupture which left people feeling like foreigners in the world, but some time in the future this alienation would be overcome and humanity would again live in harmony with itself and Nature.

Alienation in Hegel

Alienation in Feuerbach

Alienation in Marxism

Karl Marx had a specific understanding of the very sharp experience of alienation which is found in modern bourgeois society. Marx developed this understanding through his critique of Hegel.

According to Hegel, through their activity, people created a culture which then confronted them as an alien force. But for Hegel human activity was itself but the expression of the Spirit (or Zeitgeist) which acted through people.

In the first place, Marx insisted that it was human labour which created culture and history, not the other way around; in other words spirit was a human product.

“Subjectivity is a characteristic of subjects and personality a characteristic of the person. Instead of considering them to be predicates of their subjects, Hegel makes the predicates independent and then lets them be subsequently and mysteriously converted into their subjects. “The existence of the predicate is the subject; thus the subject is the existence of subjectivity, etc. Hegel makes the predicates, the object, independent, but independent as separated from their real independence, their subject. Subsequently, and because of this, the real subject appears to be the result; whereas one has to start from the real subject and examine its objectification. The mystical substance becomes the real subject and the real subject appears to be something else, namely a moment of the mystical substance. Precisely because Hegel starts from the predicates of universal determination instead of from the real subject, and because there must be a bearer of this determination, the mystical idea becomes this bearer.” [Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right]

But secondly, practice changes the material world, practice was therefore objective; the labour process was therefore an objectification of human powers. But if the workers related to their product as an expression of their own essence and recognised themselves in their product and were recognised by others in their work, then this was not the basis for alienation; on the contrary, this was the only genuinely human relation.

“Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. ... Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.” [Comment on James Mill]

In this work, written in 1844, Marx shows how alienation arises from private labour, from commodity production:

“Let us review the various factors as seen in our supposition: My work would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life. Presupposing private property, my work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life.” [Comment on James Mill]

Marx went on to show that the specific form of labour characteristic of bourgeois society, wage labour, corresponds to the most profound form of alienation. Since wage workers sell their labour power to earn a living, and the capitalist owns the labour process, the product of the workers’ labour is in a very real sense alien to the worker. It is not her product but the product of the capitalist. The worker makes a rod for her own back.

Once a product enters the market, no-one has any control of it, and it sets off on a course which appears to be governed by supra-human laws.

“... with commodities. ... it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped 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 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 labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. 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.” [Capital, Chapter 1]

Alienation, and commodity fetishism, are therefore related to the concept of reification, in which social relations are conceived as relations between things. Alienation can be overcome by restoring the truly human relationship to the labour process, by people working in order to meet people's needs, working as an expression of their own human nature, not just to earn a living.

Further reading


Marxists Internet Archive Encyclopedia
This page was originally adapted from an MIA Encyclopedia entry written by Brian Baggins and/or Andy Blunden.

It is subject to CC BY-SA 2.0.