Marx’s theory of alienation – Gajo Petrović


The purpose of this paper is not to give a full acount and analysis of Marx’s theory of alienation; its task is to stimulate discussion about some of the questions which necessarily arise in connection with Marx’s theory of alienation. I think that so far there has not been very much serious discussion among Marxists about the problem of alienation.

Some Marxists think that alienation is not a problem at all and they simply ignore it; those of them who think that it is an important problem usually content themselves with transcribing and commenting on Marx, cautiously avoiding what in this problem is really problematic, controversial. One might think that the raising of controversial questions in the theory of alienation has to be preceded by an entirely objective exposition of the theory such as was advocated by Marx, and an abundant use of quotations from Marx might seem a reliable means for such an exposition. In fact, such a way would be very risky: quotations are often inconsistent – Marx’s opinion about alienation was not always quite the same. Theory of alienation was outlined by Marx in those of his works which were published in German-French Yearbooks, and it was extensively developed in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts; however, already in German Ideology, he and Engels speak very critically about alienation, self alienation, man’s essence, human nature, so that it seems they come to reject the theory. In German Ideology, they maintain that philosophers, in conceiving human history as the process of man’s self-alienation, transformed the whole of history into the process of the development of consciousness. This could mean that the theory of alienation is idealistic. But if we read carefully the “mature” works of Marx, we discover that the “rejected” theory of alienation is present in them not only implicitly but also explicitly, and not only by content but also terminologically. In the third volume of Capital, for example, Marx speaks about alienation and about the “human nature” which ought to be realized in the future rationally organized society.

This shows that in this case too the exposition of the “genuine” Marx is possible only as interpretation, that it is illusory to think that we can give an absolutely objective exposition of Marx’s thought as it is in itself. On the other hand, so far as an objective historical reconstruction of Marx’s views is possible, it cannot settle the question of the value of these views. If it were shown, for example, that the theory of alienation was only temporarily held by Marx, this in itself would be no obstacle to accepting it. And on the contrary, even if it were theory held permanently by Marx, we may find that there are defects in it. In connection with the theory of alienation as expounded in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and in other works of Marx and Engels, two basic questions arise to begin with: first, what do ‘alienation’ and ‘self alienation’ mean, what is it to be a self-alienated or a non self-alienated man, and, secondly, are man’s self-alienation and nonself-alienation historical products, does self-alienation characterize only one stage in the historical development of mankind or is it a permanent (or nontemporal) structural moment of man’s. existence, one of those characteristics which constitute man as man. If, in the second question, we make up our minds that alienation is a characteristic of one stage in man’s development, then to the two essential questions we must add a third: how is self-alienation grounded in the nature of history, how and why does it come to be?

In considering the first question, what do alienation and self-alienation mean, one might first of all ask whether is it the case that man alienates something from himself or that he alienates himself from something. Some Marxists are inclined to reduce the whole problem to the idea that man alienates something from himself, and the solution of the problem – to the description of the concrete forms of this alienation. Thus they enumerate and describe in detail what it is that man alienates and how he does it: he alienates the products of his material activity in the form of commodity and money, he alienates the products of his spiritual activity in the form of religion, morals etc., etc. For consolation some add (for example, G. Lukacs) that one should distinguish between objectification and alienation, and that in the future rational society the first will remain while the second will dissappear. Perhaps they think that conceived in this way the problem becomes easier. But it is merely a seeming alleviation; if we interpret alienation in this way, it is still possible to ask, for example, is it a historical phenomenon and if it is, why and how it emerges? On the other hand, Marx did not intend to conceive the phenomenon of alienation so narrowly.

According to Marx, the essence of self-alienation is that man at the same time alienates something from himself and himself from something; that he alienates himself from himself. That this is the essence of Marx’s thought we can see for ourselves if we analyze his well-known manuscript, Alienated Labor, where he speaks about the four aspects or characteristics of alienation.’ Marx begins with the alienation of the results of man’s labor, alienation of objects produced by man. The realization of labor is its objectification, and this objectification is for the laborer at the same time the loss of object, alienation. To the product of his labor the worker is related as to an alien object. Products of his hands constitute a separate world of objects which is alien to him, which dominates him, and which enslaves him.

The alienation of the results of man’s productive activity is rooted in the alienation of production itself. Man alienates the products of his labor because he alienates his labor activity, because his own activity becomes for him an alien activity, an activity in which he does not affirm but denies himself, an activity which does not free but subjugates him. He is home when he is outside this activity, and he is out when he is in it.  From this characteristic of alienated labor Marx deduces a third: by alienating his own activity from himself, man in fact alienates his essence from himself and he alienates himself from his essence. Man is in essence a creative, practical being, and when he alienates his creative activity from himself, he alienates his human essence from himself. Transforming his generic essence into a means for the maintenance of his individual existence, man alienates himself from his humanity, he ceases to be man.

Finally, as an immediate consequence of the alienation of man from himself, results. the alienation of man from other men. Every relationship in which a man stands to himself, finds expression in his relation to other men. Thus the alienation of man from himself manifests itself as the alienation of man from man. As the worker alienates the products of his labor, his own activity and his generic essence from himself, so he alienates another man as his master from himself. The producer himself produces the power of those who do not produce over production.

Marx thus differentiated in the phenomenon of alienation four “characteristics.” The first and the fourth of them (the alienation of the products and the alienation of man from man) were regarded by him as consequences and forms of expression of the second and the third (the alienation of production and the alienation of man’s essence), where the essence of the phenomenon (the alienation of man from himself) is immediately seen. Instead of four characteristics Marx could have enumerated three of five; the number is not essential. What is essential is the thought that self-alienation means alienation of man from himself, and that alienation may assume different forms. Not only the alienation of productive activity and the alienation of man’s generic essence, but also the alienation of the results of production and the alienation of man from man, are in essence the alienation of man from himself, the alienation of man from his humanity. Accordingly, the self-alienated man is a man who really is not a man; a nonalienated man would be a man who really is a man.


But what does it mean to say that man is man or that man is not man, and generally to say that something is what it is, or that it is not what it is? The answer of Marx would be that man really is man, when there is no split between his essence and his factual existence. Man is not man, on the contrary means: man in fact is not what he, in essence is.  But what does it mean to say that something in fact is not what it in essence is? If man’s essence is conceived as something that is-common to all men, something which must be possessed by everybody who is a man, then somebody alienated from man’s essence cannot be a man in fact either. Accordingly, if alienation of man from his essence is to be possible, this essence must not be conceived as something which all men have in common, as a general part of their factuality. Neither should it be conceived as man’s factual past or future (what he up to now has been or will one day be), nor simply as the future which is present in the present. Why should a past or a future factuality have any advantage over the present one? Neither would it be in accord with Marx’s philosophical conception if the essence of man were conceived as an eternal or nontemporal idea towards which the real man ought to strive.

What then, after all, is man’s essence? I think that in the spirit of Marx’s whole philosophical conception it can be conceived only as his historically created human possibility. Under possibility, one obviously must not think here the impotent “mere possibility,” which is deep under the level of reality, but real possibility, which is above it. That man alienates himself from his nature would mean, then, that man alienates himself from the realization of his historically created human possibilities. ‘Man is not alienated from himself’ would not mean: man has realized all his possibilities; on the contrary, man is at one with himself if he stands on the level of his possibilities, if in realizing his possibilities, he permanently creates new and higher ones. This is not yet the final solution of the problem, but it might be the direction in which one ought to seek it.

On the way to the “definitive” solution there are still many problems. Thus the question emerges how and on what basis do we know that man can be something that he in fact is not (and perhaps will never be). It seems that we can infer this only on the basis of what he in fact is, that in his factuality we have to discover a certain internal structure, structural elements or tendencies of development, which indicate what man can really be and what he in essence is. The pointing to essence must come from factuality, and it is also a question how this pointing comes and how far it goes.

There also arises the question: which of man’s real possibilities are his human possibilities. Man’s essence is not whatever he actually can be, but only what makes his human essence. Man can be a war criminal, and we still will not say that war criminality is man’s essence – we would rather agree that this is man’s inhuman possibility. On what basis do we divide man’s real possibilities into human and inhuman? The question can not be solved by a simple appeal to the future factuality and to its specific presence in the present.


The second important question is: is alienation an essential structural element of man’s existence or is it characteristic only of one historical stage in man’s development? Martin Heidegger in his work Sein und Zeit speaks also about alienation. For him alienation is a structural moment of man’s existence.  Man is alienated from himself in the mode of everyday existence, in the sphere the subject of which is the impersonal one (das Man) and where rumour (das Gerede), curiosity (die Neugier) and ambiguity (die Zweideutigkeit) reign. In this sphere man is addicted to the “world” (an die “Welt” verfallen), which, among other things, means that he is aliented from himself, but his alienation, and, more generally, addiction, according to Heidegger, is neither a consequence of a historical event, of a “fall” from a purer and higher original condition nor a bad ontic property, which on a higher level of culture could be abolished.  For Heidegger, then, man’s alienation is not a historical stage which in the course of further development can be overcome, but a necessary structural moment of man’s existence. Man as man is also necessarilyalienated, beside the authentic existence he leads a noinauthentic one and it is illusory to expect that he will in the future live only authentically. At least on a social plane this problem can not be solved.

Opposed to such a conception of alienation we find another according to which the originally nonalienated man later alienated himself from himself, but will in the future again return to himself. We find this conception in Engels and partly in Marx. Of Marx one cannot maintain that he without qualification advocated the idea of an original nonalienated condition. A careful analysis of his “early” and “later” works would show, I think, that he was more a critic than an adherent of this idea.

The theory of the nonalienated original condition has come to seem familiar in Marxism, thanks to Engels, who develops it at length in his well known work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. After having described the social constitution of the Iroquois, he comments: “And this gentile constitution is wonderful in all its childlike simplicity! Everything runs smoothly without soldiers, gendarmes or police; without nobles, kings, governors, prefects or judges; without prisons; without trials. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole body of those concerned – the gens or the tribe or the individual gentes among themselves… Those concerned decide, and in most cases century-old custom has already regulated everything. There can be no poor and needy  the communistic household and the gens know their obligations towards the aged, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are free and equal – including the women. There is as yet no room for slaves, nor, as a rule, for the subjugation of alien tribes … And the kind of men and women that are produced by such a society is indicated by the admiration felt by all white men who came into contact with uncorrupted Indians, admiration of the personal dignity, straightforwardness, strength of character, and bravery of those barbarians.” 

A similar conception can be found in H. Lefebvre, who enthusiastically writes about the primitive man: “In his reality he lived and realized all his potentialities. With no deep discord in himself he could surrender – in this wonderful equilibrium of the village community – to his spontaneous vitality.”  Thus some Marxists think that man was originally nonself-alienated, “uncorrupted,” that he successfully realized all his possibilities Marx himself thought that man had been thus far always self-alienated,but that he, for this reason, need not always remain so. Like Engels, he thinks that man can and ought to come into his own. In this sense, Marx,in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, speaks about communism as a society which means “the positive supersession of all alienation” and F. Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State  “the return of man from religion, the family, the state, etc., to his human,i.e., social life (existence).”   Such a conception of communism as a negation of alienation forms the basis of the later works, of Marx. Although he always emphasizes that slavery, feudalism, and capitalism are not irrational states, but states which were necessary at a certain stage of man’s development, he never reduces the difference between those states and communism simply to the difference between an earlier and later necessity, and not even to the difference in the degree of realized humanencess. He clearly contrasts the contemporary and the future society as the alienated and the nonalienated one, as the inhumane and the really humane one-All this means that Marx regarded alienation as a historically transient characteristic of man, as a phenomenon, which to be sure is characteristic of all previous history, but for that reason need not also characterize the future.  

In connection with such a conception many further questions naturally emerge. For example: Is history up to the present the history of the gradual elimination of alienation or, on the contrary, the history of its permanent deepening? Perhaps both? Is a full disalienation possible or must man remain partly alienated?


Finally, we come to the question of how and why alienation and disalienation begin to be. Is it a historical accident or a deeper necessity? In their German Ideology, Marx and Engels at one place criticize Stirner, who thinks that thus far men have liberated themselves only to the extent needed to realize their preconceived idea of man. In fact, comment Marx and Engels, men have freed themselves to the extent to which existing productive forces prescribed and allowed them.

According to this, the question of the conditions of man’s freedom is not a philosophical but merely an economic one. In accord with this, one could also say that the question of the conditions of alienation is also an economic one. But, if alienation is not only an economic phenomenon, then the question of its conditions and causes can not be only economic either.

In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx directly poses the philosophical question about the foundations of alienation. In his fragment, Alienated Labor, he writes: “We have taken as a fact and analyzed the alienation of labor. How does it happen, we may ask, that man alienates his labor? How is this alienation founded in the nature of human development? We have already done much to solve the problem in so far as we have transformed the question concerning the origin of private property into a question about the relation between alienated labor and the process of development of mankind. For, in speaking of private property, one believes oneself to be dealing with something external to mankind. But in speaking of labor one deals directly with mankind itself. This new formulation of the problem already contains its solution.”  

In the end of his manuscript, Alienated Labor, Marx raised two questions and this is the second of them. Having raised the questions, he answers the first which I did not quote here. He did not come to the answer to the second. The manuscript is unfinished. The question was left open. He says only that the raising of the question is inclusively its solution already. If we think that alienation is a historically transient phenomenon, how is it founded in the nature of human development, in the essence of history?

First published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 23, No. 3 (March 1963), pp. 419-426

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