In his early writing, Karl Marx analyzes the concept of alienation. Marx adopts a Hegelian methodology in his analysis. To both Hegel and Marx, history is a dynamic dialectical process. A dialectical stage begins with a negation, a contradiction, and then proceeds to a resolution of the contradiction, i.e. the sublation, transcendence, or, from Feuerbach, “the negation of the negation” (Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” 108). The original negation is not erased, but instead transformed (Tucker, Notes xli). Marx theorizes that alienation, especially the alienation of the worker (and capitalist) from the social activity of production, constitutes a negation, one which Marx believes will be sublated or transcended by the advent of communism. In his analysis, Marx claims, contra Hegel and others, the material basis of alienation, explores the specific material character of alienation, and locates the potential sublation of alienation in the sphere of practice.
Marx argues that Hegel’s account of the dialectical process must be transformed from an idealistic basis to a materialistic basis. Marx holds that Hegel has the dialectic “standing on its head [and] must be turned right side up again” (Marx, Afterword 302). Marx reads Hegel as saying that an actual idea creates the material reality of, e.g., family and civil society. Instead, Marx argues that Hegel inverts subject and object: actual material human beings create the ideas of family and civil society (“Contribution” 17-18). Marx holds that our social relations are not fundamentally in the human mind but in the material world. Dialectical contradictions arise when the material economic conditions conflict with the social institutions apropos to earlier economic conditions (“Marx on the History” 2). Although Marx follows Feuerbach’s lead in inverting this reading of Hegel, Marx extends Feuerbach’s materialism. In “Theses on Feuerbach,” of Marx claims that Feuerbach does not conceive of human activity itself as material (143). Marx argues instead that human activities, including thought and social relations, are also material (145). Richard J. Bernstein argues that Hegel unifies the material and the ideal in Geist (29-30), so too does Marx unify the physical and the ideal in the material.
After locating the dialectic in the material, Marx characterizes the specific nature of alienation in the material social relations of production under capitalism. In “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” Marx argues that capitalism inverts the relationship of humanity to labor, from the existence of worker for his or her fulfillment in labor, to the use of labor for the existence of the worker. Because of this inversion, labor under capitalism becomes institutionally alienated in four distinct ways. First, the product of labor becomes not merely objectified – Marx argues that it is humanity’s intrinsic nature, our species being, to produce objects, to exert our will on the natural world (75-76) – and not only expropriated, but taken to become actively hostile to the worker, not fulfilling but diminishing her- or himself, sometimes to the point of loss of reality, literal starvation, and death (71-72, 74). Second, capitalism alienates the worker from the labor process itself. Not just the product but the activity of producing no longer belongs to the worker; the worker becomes essentially a machine programmed by those who have purchased his or her labor power (75). Third, because, as mentioned above, it is our species being to be active, engaged, producers, Marx argues that by alienating workers from their product and process of production, capitalism thus alienates workers from their species being (76-77). Finally, capitalism alienates individual people from each other (77). When producing for a wage, the workers and the consumers of the workers’ products no longer interact with each other – they no longer create a social relationship. Marx argues that if labor were not alienated, one who produces for another would have “the direct and conscious satisfaction that [his or her] work satisfied a human need” (qtd. in Bernstein 48). By alienating labor, capitalism transforms production, the most intimate and personal relationship between human beings and nature, other human beings, and humanity itself, into an impersonal, bestial activity.
Marx argues that alienation must be resolved in the material, practical world, not merely the world of ideas. Marx asserts that “Social life is essentially practical,” not ideal, and that labor’s alienation, the contradiction between humanity’s actual practice of production under capitalism and production’s essential human purpose, must be resolved in practice (“Theses” 145). Marx opposes his views specifically to those of Proudhon: in “Society and Economy in History,” Marx condemns Proudhon for invoking mystical, nonsensical phrases to explain history and its development (136). Instead, Marx asserts that our ideas follow, not precede, our actual social relations: the “whole inner organization of nations [and] their international relations” are just “the expression of a particular division of labor” (139-140). Marx argues that our ideas are not eternal; they are always tied to material reality: “economic categories are only abstract expressions of . . . actual relations” (140). Marx concludes that Proudhon believes that only the categories, the “isolated thoughts,” need be changed to revolutionize society (140-141). In his condemnation of Proudhon, Marx implies that the opposite must be true: to change our ideas, we must change the physical reality. As Marx describes in “The German Ideology,” we must proceed from the “first premise of human history,” which is not the existence of eternal categories or ideas in the mind of God, but “the existence of living human individuals” and their physical, material nature. According to Tucker, Marx does not condemn ideas per se, but believes that ideas, theory, can “assist” changes in practice (Introduction xxxii). But, for Marx, physical existence and physical practice, what we actually do, remains primary. It is therefore practice – guided by theory – that must change to sublate the alienation of labor, to negate the negation constituted by alienation.
The focus on the alienation of labor makes clear that the conflict between capitalism and communism is not one of pragmatic efficiency but of the essential nature of humanity. Marx is not arguing here that communism or socialism is a way to produce more stuff than capitalism. Instead, Marx proceeds from a radically different view of the essence of humanity than does capitalism. Capitalism proceeds from the view of humanity as isolated individuals, whose relations are necessarily hostile, e.g. Hobbes’ “war of all against all,” or
fundamental “precondition of civilized society” as the “right to self-defense”
(qtd. in “Civilization”) which can only blunt natural human hostility. Marx
instead proceeds from the view of humanity as still individuals, but as social individuals, whose relations are
ideally communal and mutually beneficial. The isolated
individual is the negation of social humanity; the negation of negation will
happen only when the negation of isolation is sublated into social production.
“Civilization.” The Ayn Rand Lexicon. The Ayn Rand Institute. 2014. Web. 17 Sep. 2014.
Bernstein, Richard J. “Praxis: Marx and the Hegelian Background.” Praxis and Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Activity.
Press, 1971. 11-83. Print. University of Philadelphia
Marx, Karl. Afterword to the Second German Edition. Capital. Vol. 1. By Marx. Tucker 299-302.
---. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” Tucker 16-25.
---. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1877.” Tucker 66-125.
---. “Marx on the History of His Opinions.” Tucker 3-5.
---. “Society and Economy in History.” Tucker 136-142.
---. “Theses on Feuerbach.” Tucker 143-145.
Tucker, Robert C. Ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed.
New York: W. W. Norton,
---. Note on Text and Terminology. Tucker xxxix-xlii.