The theory of alienation is Karl Marx’s account of how capitalist society distorts human relationships – both between people and between themselves and the world around them.
Istvan Meszaros’s classic work on the subject is now into its fifth edition. First published in May 1969, it has exerted an influence on left wing thinkers across the world. Meszaros told Socialist Worker, “Marx’s Theory Of Alienation has been published so far in 11 languages, and the 12th, Urdu, is forthcoming in Pakistan.”
Throughout history humans have laboured on nature to create what they need to survive, entering into cooperative relationships to do so. This labour process is fundamental to human life.
But in capitalist society, Marx argued, our labour is controlled by an alien force, the capitalist. Marx wrote that, in a world free from class division, “my work would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life”.
But under capitalism, “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.”
That which should be most essential to our lives, labour, becomes a burden we must endure. Workers don’t just lose control of the labour process through alienation, the products of their labour also take on alien properties. The commodities we make are not our property, but that of the capitalist who employs us. They no longer meet our direct needs, only the needs of an impersonal market.
Marx argued that alienation also affects the way humans relate to each other, as the productive relationships they enter into are subjected to capitalist domination. Finally, humans are alienated from their very nature as humans, what Marx called their “species being”.
But Meszaros’s book is not simply a useful restatement of Marx’s theory. It was an intervention in two debates.
The first was about the use of concepts such as alienation in Marx’s later works. For much of the 20th century the dominant version of Marxism was that popularised by Communist Parties which had long-since ceased to argue for revolutionary change. They emphasised Marxism as a theory of the development of the forces of production. This fitted with the rapid industrialisation of societies such as Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China.
This distorted version of Marxism took its most sophisticated form in the works of the French Communist Louis Althusser, who argued that there had been a break in Marx’s writings. The early work, he said, which dealt with the problems of alienation and the possibility of human liberation through revolution, was rejected by Marx at some point in the 1840s. Only his later works had a scientific status. Meszaros’s book powerfully countered this view, arguing that Marx’s early concept of alienation runs through his later writings.
The second debate revolved around the use to which the concept of alienation was put. Many of those interested in alienation were academics who stressed the negative elements of the theory. Alienation was seen as a prison for the mind – making it impossible for workers to achieve real liberation through their struggles. In contrast, Meszaros states, “The critique of alienation has acquired a new urgency,” because the new struggles breaking out posed the possibility of the “transcendence of labour’s self-alienation”.
Alienation can help explain why workers sometimes accept reactionary ideas, such as racism or sexism, that run against their interests. But these ideas are always in tension with other ideas – the need to unite across racial lines, the need to show solidarity against the bosses, and so on – which break through when workers begin to fight back.
Meszaros, now in his 70s, wrote his new preface at a time when new rebellions, in the shape of the global movements against capitalism and war, have once more posed the question of the “transcendence of alienation” and real human liberation.
Meszaros’s preface to the fifth edition
Toward the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s the unfolding events and developments dramatically underlined the intensification of the global structural crisis of capital.
What was at stake already then with regard to the qualitatively different – i.e. no longer partial and localisable – structural crisis of our social order, and remains more so today, is that “in the contemporary world situation it is no longer possible to conceive even the immediate tasks of socialist movements in terms of the political conquest of power… but in terms of strategic socio-economic alternatives, with far-reaching global implications… involving all existing social systems”.
Accordingly, “the self-evidently global character of the socio-economic crisis of our time requires global remedies: i.e. the ‘positive transcendence of labour’s self-alienation’ in all its many-sidedly conditioning complexity”.
Today, 35 years later, when there is so much talk about “globalisation”, no one would wish to deny the global character of our predicament.
However, the believers in capitalist globalisation uncritically assume it as the permanent solution to all our problems, wishfully projecting also a “global government” as its unproblematical corollary.
Naturally, they reject the very idea of a serious crisis with its inextricable links to the grave condition of alienation.
Yet, the uncomfortable truth of the matter is that the structural crisis of the capital system... shows absolutely no sign of lifting. On the contrary, it deepens as time goes by, bringing with it destructiveness in every vital domain. Such as the revealing shift from capital’s once real, even if unhistorically idealised, “productive destruction” to ever more wasteful destructive production, and from the most irresponsible encroachment on nature – the irreplaceable basis of human existence itself – to the ultimately suicidal unleashing of the most destructive course of action in the form of unlimitable “preventive” and “pre-emptive” wars, now aggressively imposed under blatantly false pretences, in a vain attempt to secure the system’s survival at any cost.
The alienation of humankind, in the fundamental sense of the term, means the loss of control: its embodiment in an alien force which confronts the individuals as a hostile and potentially destructive power. When Marx analysed alienation in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he indicated four principal aspects of it: (1) the alienation of human beings from nature; (2) from their own productive activity; (3) from their “species being”, as members of the human species; and (4) from each other.
He forcefully underlined that all this is not some “fatality of nature” – as indeed the structural antagonisms of capital are characteristically misrepresented, so as to leave them in their place – but a form of self-alienation. In other words, not the deed of an all-powerful outside agency, natural or metaphysical, but the outcome of a determinate type of historical development which can be positively altered by a conscious intervention in the historical process, in order to “transcend labour’s self-alienation”.
In the ascending phase of the system’s development the control of the social metabolism by capital resulted in a formerly unimaginable increase in the powers of production. But the other side of all such increase in productive powers is the dangerous multiplication of the powers of destruction, unless a conscious control of the whole process prevails in the service of a positive human design. The trouble is that capital is incompatible with an alternative mode of control, no matter how devastating the consequences of imposing its own fetishistic design of uncontrollable capital-expansion.
In the course of the last century in which we suffered the destructiveness of two world wars, the once productively beneficial alienation of control has become overwhelmingly negative, due to the end of the system’s historical ascendancy. So much so, in fact, that today – as the conceivably most extreme form of self?imposed alienation – nothing less than the very survival of humankind is at stake.
This is why it is imperative to face up to the great challenge of capital’s global uncontrollability in our time, before it becomes too late to do so. The historical urgency of the critique of alienation, in the Marxian spirit, could not be greater than it is today.
Rochester, Kent, June 2004
Reprinted with kind permission of Istvan Meszaros and Merlin Press
Books on alienation
Marx’s Theory of Alienation, Istvan Meszaros (Merlin Press), £18.95. Get the fifth edition of this classic work.
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx (Central), £8.99.
The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx, Alex Callinicos (Bookmarks), £5.99.
The Algebra of Revolution, John Rees (Routledge), £20.99.
All available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com
Much of this material is available online.
Go to www.marxists.org
An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation, by Judy Cox. http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj79/cox.htm