István Mészáros, 1970
Marx’s Theory of Aienation

3. Conceptual Structure of Marx's Theory of Alienation

1. Foundations of the Marxian System

LEGENDS are easily invented and difficult to dispose of. An empty balloon (sheer ignorance of all the relevant evidence) and a lot of hot air (mere wishful thinking) is enough to get them off the ground, while the persistence of wishful thinking amply supplies the necessary fuel of propulsion for their fanciful flight. We shall discuss at some length, in the chapter which deals with The Controversy about Marx, the main legends associated with the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. At this point, however, we have to deal, briefly, with a legend that occupies a less prominent place in the various interpretations in an explicit form, but which has none the less, a major theoretical importance for an adequate assessment of Marx's work as a whole.

The Manuscripts of 1844, as we have seen, lay down the foundations of the Marxian system, centred on the concept of alienation. Now the legend in question claims that Lenin had no awareness of this concept and that it played no part in the elaboration of his own theories. (In the eyes of many dogmatists this alleged fact itself is, of course, ample justification for labelling the concept of alienation “idealist”.)

If Lenin had really missed out Marx's critique of capitalistic alienation and reification – his analysis of “alienation of labour” and its necessary corollaries – he would have missed out the core of Marx's theory: the basic idea of the Marxian system.

Needless to say, nothing could be further from the truth than this alleged fact. Indeed the very opposite is the case: for in Lenin's development as a Marxist his grasp of the concept of alienation in its true significance played a vital role.

It is an irrefutable fact that all of Lenin's important theoretical works – including his critique of Economic Romanticism as well as his book on The Development of Capitalism in Russia – postdate his detailed Conspectus of The Holy Family, written in 1895. The central ideas expressed in this Conspectus in the form of comments remained in the centre of Lenin's ideas in his subsequent writings. Unfortunately there is no space here to follow the development of Lenin's thought in any detail. We must content ourselves with focusing attention on a few points which are directly relevant to the subject of discussion.

It is of the greatest significance in this connection that in his Conspectus of The Holy Family Lenin quotes a long passage from this early work and comments upon it as follows:

“This passage is highly characteristic, for it shows how Marx approached the basic idea of his entire 'system', sit venia verbo, namely the concept of the social relations of production.[134]

Little matters whether or not one puts, half-apologetically, in inverted commas the word “system”. (Lenin, understandably, had to do this because of the customary polemical references to “system-building”, associated, in Marxist literature, with the Hegelian philosophy. Besides, he was writing the Conspectus of a book highly critical of the Hegelian system and of the uses to which it had been put by the members of “The Holy Family”.) What is vitally important in this connection is the fact that “the basic idea of Marx's entire system” – “the concept of the social relations of production” is precisely his concept of alienation, i.e. the Marxian critical demystification of the system of “labour's self-alienation”, of “human self-alienation”, of “the practically alienated relation of man to his objective essence”, etc., as Lenin correctly recognised it. This we can clearly see if we read the passage to which Lenin's comment refers:

“Proudhon's desire to abolish non-owning and the old form of owning is exactly identical to his desire to abolish the practically alienated relation of man to his objective essence, to abolish the political-economic expression of human self-alienation. Since, however, his criticism of political economy is still bound by the premises of political economy, the reappropriation of the objective world is still conceived in the political-economic form of possession. Proudhon indeed does not oppose owning to non-owning, as Critical Criticism makes him do, but possession to the old form of owning, to private property. He declares possession to be a 'social function'. In a function, 'interest' is not directed however toward the 'exclusion' of another, but toward setting into operation and realising my own powers, the powers of my being. Proudhon did not succeed in giving this thought appropriate development. The concept of 'equal possession' is a political-economic one and therefore itself still an alienated expression for the principle that the object as being for man, as the objective being of man, is at the same time the existence of man for other men, his human relation to other men, the social behaviour of man in relation to man. Proudhon abolishes political-economic estrangement within political-economic estrangement.[135]

Those who are sufficiently acquainted with the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 will not fail to recognise that these ideas come from the Paris Manuscripts. In fact not only these pages but many more in addition to them had been transferred by Marx from his 1844 Manuscripts into The Holy Family. The Russian Committee in charge of publishing the collected works of Marx, Engels and Lenin – the same Committee which finds “idealist” the Manuscripts of 1844 – acknowledged in a note to Lenin's Conspectus of The Holy Family that Marx “considerably increased the initially conceived size of the book by incorporating in his chapters parts of his economic and philosophical manuscripts on which he had worked during the spring and summer of 1844.”[136] Lenin could not read, of course, Marx's Manuscripts of 1844, but in his Conspectus of The Holy Family he quoted a number of important passages, in addition to the cane on Proudhon, which originated in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and which deal with the problematics of alienation.[137]

If, then, Marx's Manuscripts of 1844 are idealistic, so must be Lenin's praise of their central concept – incorporated from them into The Holy Family – as “the basic idea of Marx's entire system”. And this is not the worst part of the story yet. For Lenin goes on praising this work (see his article on Engels) not only for containing “the foundations of revolutionary materialist socialism” but also for being written “In the name of a real, human person”. Thus Lenin seems to “capitulate” not only to “idealism”, confounding it with revolutionary materialist socialism”, but – horribile dictu – to “humanism” as well.

Needless to say, this “humanism” of writing “in the name of a real, human person” is simply the expression of the “standpoint of labour” that characterises the Manuscripts of 1844. It expresses – in explicit polemics against the fictitious entities of idealist philosophy – the critically adopted standpoint of “the worker, trampled down by the ruling classes and the state”;... the standpoint of the proletariat in its opposition to the “propertied class” which “feels happy and confirmed in this self-alienation, it recognises as its own power”, whereas “the class of the proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence”.[140] This is what Lenin, and Marx, had in mind when they spoke of the “real, human person”. However, no amount of textual evidence is likely to make an impression on those who, instead of really “reading Marx” (or Lenin, for that matter), prefer reading into the classics of Marxist thought their own legends, representing – under the veil of a high-sounding verbal radicalism – the sterile dogmatism of bureaucratic-conservative wishful thinking.

As Lenin had brilliantly perceived, the central idea of Marx's system is his critique of the capitalistic reification of the social relations of production, the alienation of labour through the reified mediations of Wage Labour, Private Property and Exchange.

Indeed Marx's general conception of the historical genesis and alienation of the social relations of production, together with his analysis of the objective ontological conditions of a necessary supersession of alienation and reification, constitute a system in the best sense of the term. This system is not less but more rigorous than the philosophical systems of his predecessors, including Hegel; which means that any omission of even one of its constituent parts is bound to distort the whole picture, not just one particular aspect of it. Also, the Marxian system is not less but far more complex than the Hegelian one; for it is one thing ingeniously to invent the logically appropriate “mediations” between “thought-entities”, but quite another to identify in reality the complex intermediary links of the multifarious social phenomena, to find the laws that govern their institutionalisations and transformations into one another, the laws that determine their relative “fixity” as well as their “dynamic changes”, to demonstrate all this in reality, at all levels and spheres of human activity. Consequently any attempt at reading Marx not in terms of his own system but in accordance with some preconceived, platitudinous “scientific model” fashionable in our own days, deprives the Marxian system of its revolutionary meaning and “inverts it into a dead butterfly-collection of useless pseudo-scientific concepts.

It goes without saying that Marx's system is radically different from the Hegelian one. Not only as regards the opposition between the actual social phenomena, depicted by Marx, and the Hegelian “thought-entities”, but also in that the Hegelian system – due to its internal contradictions – had been closed and ossified by Hegel himself, whereas the Marxian system remains open-ended. We shall return to the discussion of this vitally important difference between a closed and an open system in the last section of this chapter. But first we have to consider the structure of the Marxian system as a whole, in order to gain a clearer understanding of its manifold complexities.

On the face of it, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 are critical commentaries on Hegel and on the theories of political economists. A closer look, however, reveals much more than that. For the critique of these theories is a vehicle for developing Marx's own ideas on a great variety of closely interconnected problems.

As has been mentioned, the system we can perceive in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 is a system in statu nascendi. This can be recognised, above all, in the fact that the basic ontological dimension of labour's self-alienation does not appear in its universality until the very end of this work, i.e. in the section on money. As a matter of fact this section had been written after Marx's critical examination of the Hegelian philosophy in the same manuscript, although in the published versions the latter is put to the end (in accordance with Marx's wishes). And this is by no means a negligible point of chronological detail. Indeed Marx's profound assessment of the Hegelian philosophy as a whole – made possible by his analysis of political economy which enabled him to recognise that “Hegel's standpoint is that of modern political economy” puts into Marx's hands the key to unlocking the ultimate ontological secret of the “money-system”, thus enabling him to embark on a comprehensive elaboration of a materialist dialectical theory of value. (Compare this part of the Manuscripts of 1844, in concreteness as well as in comprehensiveness notwithstanding its limited size, with a work that tackles the same problematics: Marx's Comments on James Mill's Elements of Political Economy, written shortly before his Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole, probably in May or June 1844.[141]) It is by no means accidental that a substantial part of these pages on The Power of Money had been subsequently incorporated by Marx in his Capital.

But even if this general ontological dimension of labour's self-alienation is not rendered explicit until the very end of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, it is implicitly there, though of course at a lower level of generalisation, almost right from the beginning. At first it is present in this system in statu nascendi only as a vague intuition and, accordingly, Marx's method of analysis is more reactive than positive and self-sustaining: he lets his hand be guided by the problematics of the immediate subject of his criticism, namely the writings of political economists.

As his insights accumulate (through his gradual realisation that the partial aspects: “worker as a commodity”, “abstract labour”, “one-sided, machine-like labour”, “earth estranged from man”, “stored-up human labour = dead capital”, etc. point in the same direction) the originally adopted framework proves to be hopelessly narrow and Marx casts it aside.

From the discussion of Estranged Labour onwards Marx follows a different plan: the centre of reference of every single issue is now the concept of “alienated labour” as the “essential connection” between the whole range of estrangements “and the money-system”. And yet, although this programme is there in the last section of the first manuscript, it is not fully realised until the very end of the third manuscript. In this latter Marx is able at last to demystify the “money-system” – this ultimate mediator of all alienated mediations, this “pimp between man's need and the object, between his life and his means of life”, this “visible divinity” was “the alienated ability of mankind”, as “the external, common medium and faculty of turning an image into reality and reality into a mere image (a faculty not springing from man as man or from human society as society)”, as “the existing and active concept of value ... the general confounding and compounding of all things – the world upside down ... the fraternisation of impossibilities” which “makes contradictions embrace”. And all this in the context of explaining the “truly ontological affirmations of essential being (of nature)”, “the ontological essence of human passion”, and “the existence of essential objects for man, both as objects of enjoyment and as objects of activity”.

Thus Marx's system in statu nascendi is accomplished when he clearly realises that although the money-system reaches its climax with the capitalistic mode of production, its innermost nature cannot be understood in a limited historical context but in the broadest ontological framework of man's development through his labour, i.e. through the ontological self-development of labour via the necessary intermediaries involved in its necessary self-alienation and reification at a determinate stage (or stages) of its process of self-realisation.

2. Conceptual Framework of Marx's Theory of Alienation

The difficulties of Marx's discourse in his Manuscripts of 1844 are not due merely to the fact that this is a system in statu nascendu in which the same problems are taken up over and over again, at an increasingly higher level of complexity, in accordance with the emergence and growing concretisation of Marx's vision as a whole – though of course this is one of the main reasons why people often find this work prohibitively complicated. Some of its major difficulties, however, are inherent in Marx's method in general and in the objective characteristics of his subject of analysis.

Marx investigates both the historical and the systematic-structural aspects of the problematics of alienation in relation to the dual complexities of “real life” and its “resections” in the various forms of thought. Thus he analyses:

1. the manifestations of labour's self-alienation in reality, together with the various institutionalisations, reifications and mediations involved in such a practical self-alienation, i.e. Wage Labour, Private Property, Exchange, Money, Rent, Profit, Value, etc., etc.;

2. the reflections of these alienations through religion, philosophy, law, political economy, art, “abstractly material” science, etc.;

3. the interchanges and reciprocities between (1) and (2); for “the gods in the beginning are not the cause but the effect of man's intellectual confusion.” Later this relationship becomes reciprocal;

4. the inner dynamism of any particular phenomenon, or field of enquiry, in its development from a lesser to a higher complexity;

5. the structural interrelations of the various social phenomena with each other (of which the reciprocity between (1) and (2) is only a specific type) as well as the historical genesis and renewed dialectical transformation of this whole system of manifold interrelations;

6. a further complication is that Marx analyses the particular theories themselves in their concrete historical embeddedness, in addition to investigating their structural relations to each other at a particular time (e.g. Adam Smith the political economist compared to Adam Smith the moral philosopher; at the same time the types of answers given by Adam Smith – both as an economist and as a moralist – are situated historically, in relation to the development of capitalism in general).

As we can see, then, the main difficulties we experience in reading the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, with the exception of those due to their being a system in statu nascendi, are expressions of Marx's efforts directed at adequately dealing with the mystifying complexities of his subject of analysis on the basis of concrete empirical enquiry in place of mere philosophical abstraction.

In the course of his analysis of the various theoretical reflections of actual human self-alienation Marx makes the general point that:

“It stems from the very nature of estrangement that each sphere applies to me a different and opposite yardstick – ethics one and political economy another; for each is a specific estrangement of man and focuses attention on a particular round of estranged essential activity, and each stands in an estranged relation to the other. Thus M. Michel Chevalier reproaches Ricardo with having abstracted from ethics. But Ricardo is allowing political economy to speak its own language, and if it does not speak ethically, this is not Ricardo's fault”.

Thus he emphasises that the contradictions we encounter in these fields are necessarily inherent in the structural relation of the various disciplines of thought to each other and to a common determinant which paradoxically makes them oppose each other. But how is such a paradoxical relationship possible? How does this double alienation come about?

Before we can make an attempt at elucidating Marx's enigmatic answers to these far from easy questions, we have to embark on a journey back to some fundamentals of Marx's discourse.

Marx's immediate problem is: why is there such a gulf between philosophy and the natural sciences? Why does philosophy remain as alien and hostile to them as they remain to philosophy? This opposition is absurd because:

“natural science has invaded and transformed human life all the more practically through the medium of industry; and has prepared human emancipation, however directly and much it had to consummate dehumanisation. Industry is the actual historical relation of nature, and therefore of natural science, to man. If, therefore, industry is conceived as the exoteric revelation of man's essential powers, we also gain an understanding of the human essence of nature or the natural essence of man. In consequence, natural science will lose its abstractly material rather, its idealistic-tendency, and will become the basis of human science, as it has already become the basis of actual human life, albeit in an estranged form. One basis for life and another basis for science is a priori a lie. The nature which comes to be in human history – the genesis of human society – is man's real nature; hence nature as it comes to be through industry, even though in an estranged form, is true anthropological nature”.

From this quotation it becomes clear that in his criticism of philosophy Marx is not led by some misconceived ideal of remodelling philosophy on natural science. Indeed he sharply criticises both philosophy and the natural sciences. The first for being “speculative” and the latter for being “abstractly material” and “idealistic”. In Marx's view both philosophy and the natural sciences are manifestations of the same estrangement. (The terms “abstractly material” and “idealistic” indicate that natural science is now “in an estranged form” the basis of “actual human life”, because of the fact that it is necessarily interconnected with an alienated form of industry, corresponding to an alienated mode of production, to an alienated form of productive activity.) This is why Marx opposes to both “speculative philosophy” and to “abstractly material, idealistic natural science” his ideal of a “human science”.

What Marx means by “human science” is a science of concrete synthesis, integrated with real life. Its standpoint is the ideal of non-alienated man whose actual human – as opposed to both “speculatively invented” and to practically dehumanised, “abstractly material” – needs determine the line of research in every particular field. The achievements of the particular fields – guided right from the beginning by the common frame of reference of a non-fragmented “human science” – are then brought together into a higher synthesis which in its turn determines the subsequent lines of investigations in the various fields.

This conception of “human science”, in its opposition to abstractly material and idealistic” natural science, is obviously directed against the fragmentation and “unconscious”, alienated determination of science. Many instances of the history of science testify that the extent to which certain fundamental lines of research are carried out are greatly determined by factors which lie, strictly speaking, far beyond the boundaries of natural science itself. (To take a topical example: there can be no doubt whatever that automation is at least as fundamentally a social problem as a scientific one.) The lines of research actually followed through in any particular age are necessarily finite whereas the lines of possible research are always virtually infinite. The role of social needs and preferences in scaling down the infinite to the finite is extremely important. However – and this is the point Marx is making – in an alienated society the process of scaling down itself, since it is “unconsciously” determined by a set of alienated needs, is bound to produce further alienation: the subjection of man to increasingly more powerful instruments of his own making. The structure of scientific production is basically the same as that of fundamental productive activity in general (all the more because the two merge into one another to a considerable extent): a lack of control of the productive process as a whole; an “unconscious” and fragmented mode of activity determined by the inertia of the institutionalised framework of the capitalistic mode of production; the functioning of “abstractly material” science as a mere means to predetermined, external, alienated ends. Such an alienated natural science finds itself between the Scylla and Charibdis of its “autonomy” (i.e. the idealisation of its “unconscious”, fragmentary character) and its subordination as a mere means to external, alien ends (i.e. gigantic military and quasi-military programmes, such as lunar flights). Needless to say, the subjection of natural science as a mere means to alien ends is by no means accidental but necessarily connected with its fragmented, “autonomous” character, and, of course, with the structure of alienated productive activity in general. Since science develops in a fragmented, compartmentalised framework, it cannot conceivably have overall aims which, therefore, have to be imposed on it from outside.

Philosophy, on the other hand, expresses a twofold alienation of the sphere of speculative thinking (1) from all practice – including the, however alienated, practice of natural science – and (2) from other theoretical fields, like political economy, for instance. In its speculative “universality” philosophy becomes an “end in itself” and “for itself”, fictitiously opposed to the realm of means: an abstract reflection of the institutionalised alienation of means from ends. As a radical separation from all other modes of activity philosophy appears to its representatives as the only form of “species-activity”, i.e. as the only form of activity worthy of man as a “universal being”. Thus instead of being a universal dimension of all activity, integrated in practice and in its various reflections, it functions as an independent (“verselbständigt”) “alienated universality”, displaying the absurdity of this whole system of alienations by the fact that this fictitious “universality” is realised as the most esoteric of all esoteric specialities, strictly reserved for the alienated “high priests” (the “Eingeweihten”) of this intellectual trade.

If the “abstractly material” character of the particular natural sciences is linked to a productive activity fragmented and devoid of perspectives, the “abstractly contemplative” character of philosophy expresses the radical divorce of theory and practice in its alienated universality. They represent two sides of the same coin: labour's self-alienation manifest in a mode of production characterised by Marx and Engels as “the unconscious condition of mankind”.

This takes us back to our original problem. Why is it that the different theoretical spheres apply “a different and opposite yardstick” to man? How is it possible that though both philosophy and political economy express the same alienation, their “language” is so different that they cannot communicate with each other?

In order to simplify these matters to some extent, let us try and illustrate, however schematically, the structural interrelationship of the principal concepts involved in Marx's theory of alienation. (Schematic illustrations of this kind are always problematical because they have to express in a fixed, “two-dimensional” form the complexity of dynamic interchanges. It must be stressed, therefore, that they are not meant to be substitutes for an adequate conceptual understanding – but merely a visual aid towards it.)

The fundamental terms of reference in Marx's theory of alienation are “man” (M), “nature” (N), and “industry” or “productive activity” (I). For an understanding of “the human essence of nature or the natural essence of man” the concept of “Productive activity” (or “industry”, used from now on for the sake of brevity) is of a crucial importance. “Industry” is both the cause of the growing complexity of human society (by creating new needs while satisfying old ones: “the first historical act is the production of new needs[142]) and the means of asserting the supremacy of man – as “universal being” who is at the same time a unique “specific being” – over nature. In considering Marx's views we have to remember that when he applies the term “actual” (wirklich) to man he either equates it with “historical”, or simply implies historicity as a necessary condition of the human predicament. He wants to account for every aspect of the analysed phenomena in inherently historical terms, which means that nothing can be taken for granted and simply assumed as an ultimate datum. On the contrary, the whole theory hinges on the proof of the historical genesis of all its basic constituents. Accordingly, Marx pictures the relationship between “man” (M), “nature” (N), and “industry” (I) in the form of a threefold interaction between its constituent parts. This can be illustrated as follows:

diagram 1

As we can see, here we have a dialectical reciprocity (indicated by the double-ended arrows) between all three members of this relationship which means that “man” is not only the creator of industry but also its product. (Similarly, of course, he is both product and creator of “truly anthropological nature” – above all in himself, but also outside him, insofar as he leaves his mark on nature. And since man's relation to nature is mediated through an alienated form of productive activity, “anthropological nature” outside man bears the marks of this alienation in an ever-extending form, graphically demonstrated by the intensity of pollution that menaces the very existence of mankind.)

Talking about this process of reciprocal interaction, Marx calls it the “genesis of human society”. At the same time he designates the two main aspects of industry's fundamental (first order) mediating function by the expressions “natural essence of man” and “human essence of nature”. His expression: “man's real nature – as opposed to man's biological or animal nature – is meant to embrace both aspects and thus to define human nature in terms of a necessarily threefold relationship of dialectical reciprocity. Man's biological or animal nature, by contrast, can only be defined in terms of a two-fold relationship, or, to put it the other way round, picturing the basic ontological situation merely in terms of a twofold relationship, between “Man” and “Nature”, would only account for the characteristics of man's biological-animal nature. For human consciousness implies already a specific human relation to “industry” (taken in its most general sense as “productive activity”). One of the basic contradictions of theories which idealise the unmediated reciprocity between “Man” and “Nature” is that they get themselves into the impasse of this animal relationship from which not a single feature of the dynamism of human history can be derived. Then, in an attempt to get rid of this contradiction – in order to be able to account for the specifically human characteristics – they are forced to assume a “ready-made human nature”, with all the a priorism and theological teleologism that necessarily go with such a conception of philosophy.

Rousseau's conception, mutates mutandis, belongs to the latter category, though in a paradoxical way. For in the most generic terms Rousseau is aware of the ludicrous character of idealising nature. He stresses that: “he who wants to preserve, in civil society, the primacy of natural feelings, has no idea of what he wants. Always standing in contradiction to himself, always oscillating between his inclinations and his duties, he will be neither a man nor a citoyen; be will be good neither for himself nor for others. He will be one of those people of our race; a Frenchman, an Englishman, a bourgeois: a nothing.[143] And yet, this insight never induces Rousseau to elaborate a genuinely historical account of man and his relationships. On the contrary, despite his insights he continues to operate with the fictitious notion of “preserving man's original constitution”.[144] (It must be emphasised that his idealisation of a – hierarchical – family as the anthropological model of “natural” relation opposed to the system which produces an “artificial being” – proves to be a major drawback in his analyses.) Even if he recognises the irrevocable remoteness of the “original” direct unity – in Hegelian terms the inherently past character of “Er-innerung” as opposed to the present actuality of “Ent-äusserung” – he continues, unlike Hegel, to postulate it, often in a negative form, in his sentimental negation of “civilisation”. In Rousseau's conception “industry” (civilisation) exercises an essentially disruptive function, by putting an end to a “natural” relationship. Such an interpretation may enable the philosopher to grasp certain contradictions of a given stage of society, but it does not allow him to indicate a solution that could stand the test of actual historical development. “Industry” (civilisation) comes into the picture as something “evil”, even if Rousseau recognises, nostalgically, that it cannot be done away with. Thus his system, at its very foundations, is profoundly ahistorical. It can be illustrated in contrast to Marx's conception as follows:

diagram 2

As we can see, there is a kind of “short circuit” in this account, and the one-sided interaction between man and industry results in the tragic negativity of divorcing or alienating man from nature. (It would be interesting to inquire into the relationship between Rousseau's conception of man and nature and the Kantian notion of das Böse” – “evil” – and in general the Kantian philosophy of history, its tragic vision of man.) Since the fundamental ontological relations are pictured by Rousseau in these terms, his educational ideal of preserving the “original” substance of humanness by cultivating the “naturally good” in man, is bound to remain not only utopian but also tragically hopeless. The “short-circuit” produces a “vicious circle” which cannot be broken except by the unwarranted assumption of a “ready-made” educator. Rousseau himself is conscious of the problematic character of such a construction but, given his fundamental concepts, he cannot do anything against it. “The more we reflect the more we recognise the growing difficulties. For the educator ought to have been educated for his pupil; the servants ought to have been educated for their masters, so that all those who are in the pupil's vicinity would communicate to him the right things; one should go backwards from education to education up to I do not know which point. Otherwise how could one expect the proper education of a child from someone who himself had not been properly educated? Is it impossible to find such a rare mortal? [An adequately educated educator.] I do not know. In this age of moral decadence who knows the height of virtue of which the human soul is still capable? But let us assume that we have found this prodigy. From considering what he ought to do we can find out what he ought to be like.”[145]

Being is thus derived from ought in order to serve as the pivotal point of this whole system of postulates opposed to the actuality of “civilisation”. Since the foundation of all historicity – which is also the only possible ground of an “education of the educator” – is negated, the educator must be fictitiously assumed and assigned the unreal function of protecting the “natural being” from the temptations of civilisation, money, sophistication, etc., thus educationally rescuing him from the perspectives of becoming an “artificial being”. The tragic utopianism of this whole approach is manifest in the all-pervasive contradiction that while Rousseau negates the ontologically fundamental mediation of man and nature through “industry” (not only in his explicit polemics against “civilisation” but primarily by postulating “natural man”) he positively affirms the alienated mediations of this mediation (1) by idealising the alleged anthropological primacy of a rigidly hierarchical family; (2) by postulating an – equally hierarchical – system of education in which “the servant is educated for the master”, and “everyone is educated for his own station” etc., and in which the educator is miraculously “set above” the rest of society; and (3) by asserting the atemporal nature and ideal necessity of the capitalistically institutionalised second order mediations – “fair and advantageous exchange”, the eternal permanence of “meum” and “tuum”, etc. as we have seen already. No wonder, therefore, that the overall impression of Rousseau's conception is a static one, adequately expressed in the tragic pathos of a revolt condemned to inertia and impotence. A pathos expressing the unfavourable configuration of a set of contradictions, perceived and depicted from a specific socio-historical standpoint by this great philosopher and writer.

Marx's approach is radically different. He is not talking simply about man's alienation from “nature” as such, but about man's alienation from his own nature, from “anthropological nature” (both within and outside man). This very concept of “man's own nature” necessarily implies the ontologically fundamental self-mediation of man with nature through his own productive (and self-producing) activity. Consequently “industry” (or “productive activity”) as such, acquires an essentially positive connotation in the Marxian conception, rescuing man from the theological dilemma of “the fall of man”.

If such an essentially positive role is assigned to “industry” in the Marxian conception, how then can we explain “alienation” as “self-alienation”, i.e. as the “alienation of labour”, as the “alienation of human powers from man through his own productive activity”.

To anticipate, briefly, the central topic of the next chapter insofar as is necessary in this connection, let us draw up a comparative diagram. Let (M) stand for “man”, (P) for “private property and its owner”, (L) for “wage labour and the worker”, (AN) for “alienated nature”,[146] and (AI) for “alienated industry” or “alienated productive activity”, then we can illustrate the changed relationships as follows:

diagram 3

Here, as a result of “labour's self-alienation” – the objectification of productive activity in the form of “alienated labour” (or “estranged essential activity”, to use another of Marx's expressions) – we have a multiplicity of basic interrelations

(1) (M) is split into (P) and (L);

(2) (P) and (L) antagonistically oppose each other;

(3) the original (M) ↔ (I) ↔ (N) reciprocity is transformed into the alienated interrelationships between
      (a) (P) ↔ (AI) ↔ (AN) and
      (b) (L) ↔ (AI) ↔ (AN).

Furthermore, since now everything is subordinated to the basic antagonism between (P) and (L), we have the additional alienated interrelations of

(4) (P) ↔ (L) ↔ (AI) and

(5) (P) ↔ (L) ↔ (AN).

In these sets of relationships in which the second order mediations of (P) and (L) have taken the place of “man” (M), the concepts of “man” and “mankind” may appear to be mere philosophical abstractions to all those who cannot see beyond the direct immediacy of the given alienated relations. (And they are indeed abstractions if they are not considered in terms of the socio-historically concrete forms of alienation which they assume.) The disappearance of “man” from the picture, his practical suppression through the second order mediations of (P) and (L) – (we had to omit the other institutionalised second order mediations, e.g. EXCHANGE, MONEY, etc., partly because they are already implied in (P) and (L), and partly in order to simplify the basic interrelations as far as possible) – means not only that there is a split now at every link of these alienated relationships but also that LABOUR can be considered as a mere “material fact”, instead of being appreciated as the human agency of production.

The problem of the reflection of this “reification” in the various theoretical fields is inseparable from this double mediation, i.e. from the “mediation of the mediation”. The political economist gives a “reified”, “fetishistic” account of the actual social relations of production when, from the standpoint of idealised Private Property (P) he treats Labour (L) as a mere material fact of production and fails to relate both (P) and (L) to “man” (M). (When Adam Smith, as Marx observes, starts to take “man” into account, he leaves immediately the ground of political economy and shifts to the speculative viewpoint of ethics.)

Now we are in a better position for understanding Marx's assertion according to which each theoretical sphere applies a different, indeed opposite yardstick to man, and “each stands in an estranged relation to the other”. For if the foundation of theoretical generalisations is not the fundamental ontological relationship of (M) ↔ (I) ↔ (N) but its alienated form: the reified “mediation of the mediation” – i.e. (M) ↔ (P) ↔ (L) ↔ (AI) ↔ (AN) then political economy, for instance, which directly identifies itself with the standpoint of private property, is bound to formulate its discourse in terms of (P) and (L), whereas ethics, in accordance with its own position which coincides only indirectly with “the standpoint of political economy” (i.e. the standpoint of private property), will speculatively oppose the abstract concept of “Man” to (P) and (L). The fact that both disciplines approach, from different – though only methodologically, not socially different – points of view, the same complex phenomenon, remains hidden from the representatives of both speculative, moralising philosophy and empiricist political economy.

We could illustrate the respective positions of Ethics, Political Economy, and the “abstractly material” Natural Sciences in relation to the alienated and reified social relations of production like this:

diagram 4

As we can see, the “language” of Political Economy and Ethics – not to mention the Natural Sciences – cannot be common because their central points of reference are far from being the same.[147] Political Economy's points of reference are (P) ↔ (AN) ↔ (L) and (P) ↔ (AI) ↔ (AN), whereas Ethics (and, mutatis mutandis, speculative philosophy in general) has for its centre of reference abstract “Man” (or its even more abstract versions, like “World Spirit” etc.), depicted in his relations with “Nature” and “Industry” or “Civilisation” more often than not in a Rousseau-like fashion, with all the a priorism and transcendentalism involved in it. (The points of reference of the Natural Sciences are, of course, (AN) and (AI), in their dual orientation towards nature, or “basic research”, on the one hand, and towards productive technology, or “applied science”, on the other. Intensified “alienation of nature” – e.g. pollution – is unthinkable without the most active participation of the Natural Sciences in this process. They receive their tasks from “alienated industry”, in the form of capitalistic “targets of production” – i.e. targets subordinated to the “blind natural laws” of the market – irrespective of the ultimate human implications and repercussions of the realisation of such tasks.)

Moreover, as Marx emphasises, the idealisation of abstract “Man” is nothing but an alienated, speculative expression of the (P) ↔ (L) relationship. The nature of the actual relationships is such that adequately to comprehend them it is necessary to assume a radically critical attitude towards the system of alienations which “externalises” (or “objectifies”) man in the form of “alienated labour” and “reified private property”. “Real man” – the “real, human person” – does not actually exist in a capitalist society except in the alienated and reified form in which we encounter him as “Labour” and “Capital” (Private Property) antagonistically opposing each other. Consequently the “affirmation” of “man” must proceed via the negation of the alienated social relations of production. Speculative philosophy, however, does not negate the (P) ↔ (L) ↔ (AI) ↔ (AN) relationship but merely abstracts from it. And through its abstract concept of “Man” which ignores the basic antagonism of society: the actuality of (P) ↔ (L), speculative philosophy depicts the alienated social relations of production – in accordance with its own specific ideological function – in a “sublimated” fashion, transforming the “palpable reality” of actual social contradictions into a fictitious, and a priori insoluble, opposition between the “realm of here and now” and its “transcendental” counterpart,

It is clear from the Marxian account that the various theoretical spheres reflect – in a necessarily alienated form, corresponding to a set of specific alienated needs – the actual alienation and reification of the social relations of production. They all focus attention “on a particular round of estranged essential activity” (i.e. political economy on the reproduction of the economic cycle of production; speculative philosophy on “spiritual activity” and on the norms regulating human behaviour, in its most general terms; and the c “abstractly material” natural sciences on the conditions of a direct interchange between man and nature) and they stand “in an estranged relation to each other”.

Since neither political economy nor speculative philosophy have a real awareness of the social dynamism inherent in the antagonism between private property and labour – and precisely because they cannot possibly recognise the objective character of this antagonism as one “hastening to its annulment” – their systems must remain static, corresponding to the necessarily ahistorical standpoint of private property which they represent, directly or indirectly. Viewed from such a standpoint they can only perceive – at best – the subjective aspect of this basic contradiction: the direct clash of individuals over “goods” or “property”, but they cannot grasp the social necessity of such clashes. Instead they either interpret them as manifestations of “egoistic human nature” – which amounts to an actual defence of the position of private property under the semblance of a “moral condemnation” of “human egoism” – or, more recently, treat these clashes as problems of a “lack of communication”, as tasks for a “human engineering”, aiming at devising methods for a minimisation of “conflicts about property”, in order to ensure the continued existence of the alienated social relations of production.

Marx, by contrast, grasps this whole complexity of interrelated concepts at their strategic centre: the objective social dynamism of the contradiction between Property and Labour. He recognises that “human life required private property for its realisation” because “only through developed industry – i.e. through the medium of private property – does the ontological essence of human passion come to be both in its totality and in its humanity”. Alienation, relocation, and their alienated reflections are therefore socio-historically necessary forms of expression of a fundamental ontological relationship. This is the “positive aspect” of labour's self-alienation.

At the same time Marx emphasises the negative aspect as well. The latter is directly displayed in the social contradiction between PRIVATE PROPERTY and LABOUR: a contradiction which, however, cannot be perceived from the standpoint of private property, nor from that of a spontaneous identification with labour in its partiality, but only from the critically adopted standpoint of labour in its self-transcending universality. In Marx's eyes the increasing evidence of an irreconcilable social antagonism between private property and labour is a proof of the fact that the ontologically necessary phase of labour's self-alienation and reified self-mediation – “through the medium of private property” etc. – is drawing to its close. The intensification of the social antagonism between private property and given labour demonstrates the inner-most contradiction of the productive system and greatly contributes to its disintegration. Thus human self-objectification in the form of self-alienation loses its relative historical justification and becomes an indefensible social anachronism.

Ontological necessity cannot be realistically opposed except by another ontological necessity. Marx's line of reasoning – in stressing the relative (historical) necessity of self-alienation as well as the disruptive social anachronism of self-objectification as self-alienation at a later stage of development – establishes “Aufhebung” (the transcendence of alienation) as a concept denoting ontological necessity. Marx argues that what is at stake is the necessity of any actual supersession of the earlier indispensable but by now increasingly more paralysing (therefore historically untenable) reification of the social relations of production. In this respect, too, his theory brings a radical break with the views of his predecessors who could picture “transcendence” either as a mere moral postulate (a “Sollen”) or as an abstract logical requirement of a speculative scheme devoid of practical relevance.

As to the transcendence of alienation in the theoretical fields, it must be clear from what has been said so far that Marx's ideal of a “human science” is not meant to be a programme of remodelling philosophy and the humanities on the natural sciences. Not only because the latter are also specific forms of alienation but, above all, because we are concerned here with a practical, not with a theoretical issue. For whatever model we may have in mind as our ideal of philosophical activity, its applicability will depend on the totality of social practice which generates, in any particular socio-historical situation, the practicable intellectual needs not less than the material ones. The realisation of Marx's ideal of a “human science” presupposes, therefore, the “self-sustaining” (“positive”) existence of such – non-alienated – needs in the social body as a whole. Marx's formulation of the ideal itself, by contrast, corresponds to the needs of negating – under their theoretical aspects – the totality of the existing social relations of production. “Human science”, therefore, becomes a reality to the extent to which alienation is practically superseded and thus the totality of social practice loses its fragmented character. (In this fragmentation theory is opposed to practice and the particular fields of “estranged essential activity” – both theoretical and practical – oppose each other.) In other words, in order to realise “human science” philosophy, political economy, the “abstractly material” natural sciences, etc., must be reciprocally integrated among themselves, as well as with the totality of a social practice no longer characterised by the alienation and relocation of the social relations of production. For “human science” is precisely this dual integration - in transcendence of the earlier seen dual alienation of the particular theoretical fields (1) among themselves and (2) with the totality of a non-alienated social practice.

The “übergreifendes Moment” (overriding factor) of this complex is, of course, the supersession of alienation in social practice itself. Since, however, alienated social practice is already integrated, in an “inverted” and alienated form, with “abstractly material” science and speculative philosophy, the actual transcendence of alienation in social practice is inconceivable without superseding at the same time the alienations of the theoretical fields as well. Thus Marx conceives the actual process of “Aufhebung” as a dialectical interchange between these two poles – the theoretical and the practical – in the course of their reciprocal integration.

3. Alienation and Teleology

As we have seen, both “alienation” and its “Aufhebung” denote an ontological necessity in the Marxian system. What we have to consider now is the kind of teleology which is at work in the developments depicted by Marx.

Marx is often accused of “economic determinism”. He is supposed to hold the naive idea according to which economy determines, mechanically, every aspect of development. Such accusations, needless to say, cannot be taken seriously. For – as has been mentioned already – in Marx's view the first historical act of man is the creation of his first new need, and no mechanical determination can conceivably account for that. In Marx's dialectical conception the key concept is “human productive activity” which neither means simply “economic production”. Right from the beginning it is much more complex than that, as Marx's references to ontology in fact, indicate. We are concerned here with an extremely complicated structure and Marx's assertions about the ontological significance of economics become meaningful only if we are able to grasp the Marxian idea of manifold specific mediations, in the most varied fields of human activity, which are not simply “built upon” an economic basis but also actively structure the latter through the immensely intricate and relatively autonomous structure of their own. Only if we succeed in dialectically grasping this multiplicity of specific mediations can we really understand the Marxian notion of economics. For if economics is the “ultimate determinant”, it is also a “determined determinant”: it does not exist outside the always concrete, historically changing complex of concrete mediations, including the most “spiritual” ones. If the “demystification” of capitalistic society, because of the “fetish-character” of its mode of production and exchange, has to start from the analysis of economics, this does not mean in the least that the results of such economic enquiry can be simply transferred to other spheres and levels. Even as regards the culture, politics, law, religion, art, ethics, etc. of capitalistic society one has still to find those complex mediations, at various levels of historico-philosophical generalisation, which enable one to reach reliable conclusions both about the specific ideological forms in question and about the given, historically concrete form of capitalistic society as a whole. And this is even more evident if one tries to transfer the enquiry to a more general level, as becomes in fact necessary in the course of the structural analysis of any particular form of society, or of any specific form of human activity. One cannot grasp the “specific” without identifying its manifold interconnections with a given system of complex mediations. In other words: one must be able to see the “atemporal” (systematic) elements in temporality, and the temporal elements in the systematic factors.

“Economic determinism”, it goes without saying, negates the dialectical interrelationship between temporality and atemporality, discontinuity and continuity, history and structure. It opposes to the Marxian dialectical conception a mechanical model in which an atemporal structure of determinations prevails. (Some so-called “structuralist Marxists”, with their anti-dialectical rejection of “historicism”, are representatives of “vulgar economic determinism”, dressed in a culturally fashionable “structuralist” cloth. It was this old trend of “vulgar economic determinism” which made Marx say a long time ago: “I am not a Marxist”.) The concept of complex mediations is missing from the vision of economic determinists who – however unconsciously – capitulate to “blind economic necessity” which seems to prevail through the fetish-character of capitalism, through the alienation and relocation of the social relations of production under capitalism. (The Geisteswissenschaften [“sciences of the Spirit”] and – mutatis mutandis – their modern structuralist versions are, as regards their fundamental conceptual structure, a mystified form of economic determinism “upside down”, insofar as the crucial concept of mediation is missing from them. They mirror the immediacy of capitalistic reification, even if in an inverted fashion, asserting the same kind of direct mechanical determinations under “spiritualised” names. Consequently they either display a rigid negation of all historicity, or invent a pseudo-history of the “Spirit”, devoid of the objective dialectical transitions and mediations which characterise a genuine historical account. Significantly enough some “Marxist structuralists” can switch with the greatest ease to and fro between the categories of the Geisteswissenschaften and their own pseudo-Marxist – i.e. vulgar economic determinist – concepts.)

Since both “alienation” and “Aufhebung” must be understood, according to Marx, in terms of ontological necessity, a correct historical conception depends on the interpretation of such necessity. Economic determinism as a historical hypothesis is a contradiction in terms because it implies the ultimate negation of history. If history means anything at all, it must be “open-ended”. An adequate historical conception must be, therefore, open to the idea of a break of the chain of – “reified”, “fetishistic”, “blind”, etc. – economic determinations. (Indeed a transcendence of alienation is inconceivable without the break of this chain.) Such an idea is, needless to say, inadmissible from the view point of economic determinism which must therefore negate history, by taking its own ahistorical standpoint for granted and by turning it into an alleged “permanent structure”.

At this point the paradoxical character of Hegel's achievements proves to be particularly instructive. Lukács, in his History and Class Consciousness, emphasises that: “Hegel's tremendous intellectual contribution consisted in the fact that he made theory and history dialectically relative to each other, grasped them in a dialectical, reciprocal penetration.” Ultimately, however, his attempt was a failure. He could never get as far as the genuine unity of theory and practice; all that he could do was either to fill the logical sequence of the categories with rich historical material, or rationalise history, in the shape of a succession of forms, structural changes, epochs, etc., which he raised to the level of categories by sublimating and abstracting them.”[148]

What Lukács could not see at the time of writing History and Class Consciousness was the fact that the Hegelian historical conception as a whole – conceived from the necessarily ahistorical “standpoint of political economy” which carried with it the identification of “alienation” and “objectification” – had to be thoroughly ahistorical or, more exactly, pseudo-historical. For no matter how fine and sensitive were Hegel's particular historical insights, because of his ahistorical assumptions – i.e. “objectification” = “alienation”, etc. – he had to negate history in its totality by assigning to it an “end”, in accordance with an a priori “goal” It was not the case, therefore, that – in order to complete his system – Hegel inconsistently left the ground of his historical conception but right from the beginning his conception was inherently ahistorical. This is why he had to operate with the method of rationalising history and relativising the logical sequence of categories. And this is why he had to “deduce” a sublimated human history from the categories of thought, instead of elucidating the latter in terms of the former. (The recognition of a “humanly natural and naturally human” agent of history – necessarily carrying with it a specific objectivity which can only be grasped in terms of a dialectical social ontology – would have prevented him from conveniently putting an end to history at the point of the “reconciliation of the World Spirit” with capitalistic reality anticipated by the Hegelian system from the very moment of its inception.) Thus – however paradoxical this may sound despite his (abstract) programmatic criticism of “immediacy” Hegel ended up by idealising the immediacy of the fetishism of capitalism manifest in the historically determinate identity of capitalistic objectification and capitalistic alienation.

Human actions are not intelligible outside their socio-historical framework. But human history – in its turn is far from being intelligible without a teleology of some kind. If, however, the latter is of a “closed”, aprioristic kind – i.e. all varieties of theological teleology – the philosophical system which makes use of such a conception of teleology must be itself a “closed system”.

The Marxian system, by contrast, is organised in terms of an inherently historical – “open” – teleology which cannot admit “fixity” at any stage whatsoever. This we can illustrate, briefly anticipating some main points of the subsequent chapters, with reference to two Marxian assertions in particular:

(1) According to Marx all necessity is “historical necessity”, namely “a disappearing necessity” (“eine verschwindende Notwendigkeit[149]). This concept not only makes intelligible the multiple transformations and transitions of social phenomena in terms of historical necessity but at the same time it leaves the doors wide open as regards the future development of human society. (More about this in Chapter VIII.)

(2) The “goal” of human history is defined by Marx in terms of the immanence of human development (as opposed to the a priori transcendentalism of theological teleology), namely as the realisation of the “human essence”, of “humanness”, of the “specifically human” element, of the “universality and freedom of man”, etc. through “man's establishment of himself by practical activity” first in an alienated form, and later in a positive, self-sustaining form of life-activity established as an “inner need”. Man as the “self-mediating being of nature” must develop – through the objective dialectics of an increasingly higher complexity of human needs and aims – in accordance with the most fundamental objective laws of ontology of which – and this is vitally important – man's own active mediatory role is an essential part. Thus the Marxian system remains open because in this account the very “goal” of history is defined in inherently historical terms, and not as a fixed target. In Marx's account history remains open in accordance with the specific ontological necessity of which self-mediating human teleology is an integral part: for there can be no way of predetermining the forms and modalities of human “self-mediation” (whose complex teleological conditions can only be satisfied in the course of this self-mediation itself) except by arbitrarily reducing the complexity of human actions to the crude simplicity of mechanical determinations. Nor can there be a point in history at which we could say: now the human substance has been fully realised”. For such a fixing would deprive the human being of his essential attribute: his power of “self-mediation” and “self-development”.



[134] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 38, p. 30.

[135] Ibid., pp. 29-30.

[136] Ibid., p. 564.

[137] See Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 38, pp. 27, 39, 40 & 48.

[138] Both quotations in this sentence are from Lenin, Coll. Works, Vol. 2, p. 23.

[139] Ibid., p. 23.

[140] Quoted by Lenin in his Conspectus of The Holy Family.

[141] See MEWE, Suppl. Vol. 1, pp. 445-463.

[142] Marx-Engels, The German Ideology, ed. cit., p. 40.

[143] Rousseau, Emile ou de l'Úducation, ed. cit., p. 40.

[144] See, for instance, a few pages after this criticism of the "bourgeois . . . a nothing", p. 51 of the Garnier-Flammarion edition.

[145] Ibid., p. 53.

[146] See Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, ed. cit., pp. 61-3.

[147] Ibid., pp. 118-9.

[148] Lukics, Geschichte and Klassenbewusstsein (Malik Verlag, Berlin, 1923), p. 286. (Quotation translated by G. H. R. Parkinson).

[149] Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Íkonomie, ed. cit., p. 716.

[150] See on these points Chapters VI-X.