Jake Gordon

Is Marx's concept of alienation in conflict with his materialism?

[Jan '04 - NOTE: Credit goes to Ben Odams who stumbled across this essay and noticed an inaccuracy. "... you say Marx used the theory of Dialectic Materialism as a basis of Dialectic Historicism (histotical materialism). Unfortunatly that is false. Marx did use a theory of the Dialectic but it was an adaptation of Hegel's work on the passage of time and thought. Dialectic Materialism was the invention of 'marxist' Philosophers in Stalin's USSR, to try and make concrete scientific laws of history." To be honest, this is all way above my current level of Marx knowledge, but bear it in mind when reading.]

[Mar '04 - NOTE: I've had another email from someone (currently anonymous) who's stumbled across this essay and has pointed out some inaccuracies with it. "It seems to me that you crucially misunderstand the concept of 'alienation', which in Marx's thought can be completely divorced from idealism and humanism. For Marx man had to work to survive (particularly the proletariat). Hence, work is the fundamental premise of 'human nature' in capitalist society. When Marx utilises the concept of alienation he is referring to the exploitation for profit of the proletarian within the process of production. Within this 'labour process' man is materially alienated (from the fruits of his labour as you say), and spiritiually alienated. Within capitalism this spiritual alienation stems from man's capacity to work being removed from its conception. Thus, man's labour becomes that of animal labour, 'unconscious' as you call it. In short the execution of work is removed from its conception which in capitalism resides with the firm owner. Man then is simply alienated from the ability to form the conception of his own work, this has nothing to do with 'human nature', merely with man's ability to consciously transform objects to meet the conception or purpose with which he sets out to transform those objects, the means of production." I've read this comment through a few times and just about understand it, but its still a little over my head. I guess classical (Marxist) theory isn't my strongest point.


A key concept used by Marx is that of 'alienation', a concept used to describe ways in which humans become estranged from the products of their labour, the labour process itself, fellow human beings and human nature. Materialism, in the context of Marx, can be split into two aspects: Marxist philosophy, known as dialectic materialism, which lies as a foundation to the second aspect; Marx's interpretation of history, known as historical materialism, which asserts that society is ultimately determined by its material forces of production.

To understand the possibility for conflict between the concept of alienation and Marx's materialism, it is necessary to understand why Marx thought what he did, and the context in which those thoughts were produced and developed. To Marx, location within society's history was important in his materialism, and analogously we can also see Marx himself, his philosophy and his thinking, as being determined by his place in history. That he was born and grew up in Germany during a time when German ideologies were formed is of no coincidence to his thinking. Indeed, as will be discussed, Marx's thinking was greatly influenced by the idealism and dialectics of the german philosopher Hegel, and much of Marx's early thinking was a mirror of Feuerbach's, who extended upon Hegel's concept of alienation in a criticism of religion. Marx's thinking developed over time, as would anyone's, as he picked and chose other people's works, culminating in his own person theories and framework, that of Marx's materialism.

The logical course of Marx's writing through time can be argued to be inconsistent with the inclusion of an 'epistemological rupture' around 1844-5 which separates his early works from his mature works. The foundation of this rupture can be seen to lie in Marx's views on human nature or essence, and it has been argued that he broke with a humanist viewpoint to adopt an anti-humanist one. Herein lies the possibility for conflict between the concept of alienation and Marx's materialism: alienation was a term used by the early Marx (pre 1945) born out of idealist and humanist philosophy and dealing with human nature; materialism was a development of the mature Marx, with his newly coined materialism and possiblly with contradictory new thoughts about human nature.

This essay will now seek to explore whether or not Marx's concept of alienation really does conflict with his materialism, through a discussion of Marx's work and its critiques.

The Early Marx: idealism, dialectics and alienation

Born in 1818, Marx's intellectual youth was greatly influenced by the then recent german ideology of Hegel. Hegel had revolutionised philosophic logic through his process of the dialectic, involving negating opposite theories (a thesis and antithesis) to arrive at a synthesis which is more 'true' than both thesis and antithesis. To Hegel, truth only lies in the totality, and through the process of the dialectic Hegel was able to spiral in towards this whole truth. Hegel was particularly interested in the issues of religion and freedom, and it is with these that he talks of alienation.

"The eternal life of God is to find himself, become aware of himsef, coincide with himself. In this ascent there is an alienation, a disunion, but it is the nature of the spirit, of the idea, to alienate itself in order to find itself again. This movement is just what freedom is; for, even looking at the matter from the outside, we say that the man is free who is not dependent on someone else, not oppressed, not involved with someone else. " (Hegel, Encyclopaedia, Part I: The Logic, written 1817, quoted online)

This passage illustrates key components to Hegel's thought: he was an humanist and idealist, believing in a 'nature of the spirit' and 'the idea'; he also believed in freedom where it implies a future without any forgone conclusions - the freedom of the idea. Marx was particularly interested in the significance of history to Hegel, whose 'freedom of the idea' concept was used to explain the course of human history, in a similar way to how Marx later wrote of the path from feudalism to capitalism and then to communism.

Through a group called the Young Hegelians, of which Feuerbach was also a 'left' member, Marx and others sought to invert Hegel's thought from idealism to materialism. Feuerbach (14 years Marx's elder), expanded upon Hegel's concept of alienation through the theme that God was created by our human thought, yet rules over us, alienating us from ourselves. For this reason, Feuerbach wanted to abolish Christian values from human consciousness so that humans could conceive themselves as natural beings, unalienated from themselves. In the 1844 Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts, in which Marx wrote in length about his concept of alienation, he mirrored Feuerbach's thinking: "...It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself" (Marx quoted in Pierson, 1997: 62). But Marx's thinking went beyond that of Feuerbach, as explained in his 'Theses on Feuerbach', of 1845. In this crucial work he dismissed the 'contemplative' materialism of Feuerbach and others, comparing it with his own newly formed dialectic materialism which considers human or social rather than just civil society.

Perhaps most radical was Marx's eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, which stated that "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it" (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach #11, 1845, italics his). This period in Marx's thought was most certainly a pivotal one: distancing himself from the influence of Hegel, Feuerbach and others; devloping his own theories instead. In 'The German Ideology' of 1845 Marx developed his historical and dialectic materialism through a critique of german ideology, satarizing Young Hegelians for their simple inversion of Hegel's idealism into materialism. He distanced his own materialism from that of the Young Hegelians, and also his form of dialectics from Hegel.

So, until 1945 Marx's work can be seen to be characterised by its influence from german idealist philosophy - particularly that of Hegel and Feuerbach - and it is only in his later work, after this date, that Marx's mature self was personified in his critical analysis of capitalism, his materialist framework and dealings with revolutionary thought. However, as will now be discussed in the next section, there is much debate over Marx's philosophy on an element crucial to the concept of alienation: that of human nature.

Conflict: On Human Nature And Essence Of Man

It is in the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts that Marx talks at most length about alienation and in particular 'estranged labour', and does so in relation to 'essense' and 'human nature'. According to Marx in this works, because man is a species-being, he will have consciousness, and so his activity is free activity. But "[e]stranged labour reverses the relationship so that man, just because he is a conscious being, makes his life activity, his essential being, a mere means for his existence." (Marx in 1844, trans. Milligan, italics theirs, marxists.org). In this way, the essential activity of man rules over him, in the same way that God rules over man in Feuerbach's concept of alienation. Marx continues, writing that an animal is at one with its life activity because it does not have consiousness, something which only man has - an explicitly humanist thought. For man, with consciousness, life activity is therefore a conscious thing, not just something done unconsiously. Conscious activity is what defines man as a species-being, and and "free conscious activity constitutes the species-character of man" (Marx, ibid). In this way, alienated labour is bad because it estranges man from his species, turning his species-life into a means for his individual life.

From this, Althusser asserts that alienation is a concept of the 'humanist' Marx, "[a]n ideological concept used by Marx in his Early Works" (Althusser, 1969: 309 in "Glossary" by Brewster). Althusser sees the concept as being derived from Feuerbach's use of the word in respect to religion which Marx had extended to include labour in a criticism of capitalism and the State. Althusser introduced the idea of an 'epistemological break' in Marx's work when "[i]n 1845, Marx broke radically with every theory that based history and politics on an essence of man" (Althusser, 1969: 227), around and just after writing the 1844 manuscripts. This break is a rupture with Feuerbach's humanism to an anti-humanism, and from an ideological to a more scientific state of mind (Althusser 1969, 1970). Because alienation can be seen to be based upon humanism and idealism, it is hence in direct conflict with Marx's later materialism. Without a concept of human nature, there can be nothing to be alienated from. Further and quite conclusively, Althusser's proposition appears to be that "there is no place within materialism for the concept of a human nature" (Geras, 1983: 19) upon which alienation is founded.

Whilst Althusser is not alone in his theory, there are many critiques who have argued that Marx didn't reject the theory of human essence (Wilde, Geras etc). Wilde wrote that "[t]he evidence for Marx's conception of human essence was the world we had created, and the evidence for his theory of alienation was the misery and poverty which abounded in this world of potential abundance." (Wilde, 1989: 26). He argues that post 1844-5, concepts such as alienation, estrangment and essence didn't become void. Instead, Marx was concerned more with the political economy and revolution, but central to these concerns were his philosophy of method. Whilst the actual words 'alienation' and 'estrangement' didn't appear as as words in his later work (with the exception of 'The Grundrisse" of 1857), phrases such as "which exists apart from and outside the producers" (Marx's Capital Vol. 1) and talk of the 'fetishism of commodities' produce the same meaning and are prevailant throughout.

Geras argues that Marx did believe in a universal human nature, that he "like everyone else - did reject certain ideas of human nature; but he also regarded some as being true." (Geras, 1983: 15). For Geras, Marx's conception of human nature has both universal and historically conditioned aspects: attributes that all human beings possess regardless of the society in which they life; and attributes which are conditioned by the kind of society and mode of production which they live under. Geras makes this postulation regardless of evidence in the sixth thesis on Feuerbach which some, such as Althusser, argue shows that Marx rejects a universal human nature. In his argument, Geras points to continuity between Marx's 'The Holy Family', which pre-dates his historical materialism, and 'The German Ideology' which came after the 'Theses on Feuerbach' and introduces his own materialism. The fact that both these books make virtually identical reference to human nature is "testimony to a continuity of thought exactly where the sixth thesis is alleged to mark a rupture" (Geras, 1983: 63). Marcuse (1955) also writes favourably of the young Marx, suggesting that the theory of alienation requires both philosophical underpinning - in terms of humanist idealism - and also economic theory, but that the philosophy is just a means to get to his concept, and can then be disregarded, making possible conflict inconsequential.


As has been shown, Marx's concept of alienation has been a source of much discussion and controversy. In particular, this controversy is born out of a fundamental ontological question: "what is in agreement with 'human nature' and what constitutes an 'alienation' from the 'human essence'?" (Mészáros, 1970: online, meszaro1.htm). Although Marx saw four different ways in which man becomes alienated, underlying them all is human nature, and the idea that man should be free from all alienation, because it is against the essence of man. For example, man becomes alienated from the products of his labour because they are owned by the capitalists instead. However, this is only 'bad' if one accepts that being alienated from one's products of labour in this way is against the essence of man. Hence, it is not intrinsically 'bad', but only so with this humanist philosophy.

Marx's early thinking was greatly influenced by that of Hegel and Feuerbach, characterised by idealism and humanism. The very concept of alienation came from idealist thought. It was in 1844 that Marx wrote at most length about his concept of alienation in the 'Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts'. It wasn't until 1845, after writing the 1844 manuscripts, that Marx began to fully develop his own framework of historical and dialectic materialsm. At this point, Marx also criticised Feuerbach in his 'Theses on Feuerbach' and philosophy in general in the eleventh thesis. The possibility for conflict here is obvious: alienation was a concept born out of idealist-humanist though, yet Marx himself criticized this very thinking.

But the mature Marx was less philosopher and more revolutionary social economist. Whether or not there was an epistemological rupture in Marx's thinking was perhaps of no great significance to him. In the same way that for Marx capitalism is a necessary stage to prepare society for communism, so to his young philosophy prepared him for his mature thought. In such a way, there can be no conflict between alienation and materialism, because one is a necessary prerequisite of the other.

In sum, whilst Marx's thought certainly changes over time, and there is undoubtedly some conflict between alienation and materialism, the two can still coexist together within Marx's greater framework of thought.

[2,740 words]

Bibliography & References

Acton, H (1967) What Marx Really Said, New York: Schocken Books
Althusser, L (1969, english ed. trans. Brewster, B) For Marx, London: NLB
Althusser, L (1970, english ed. trans. Brewster, B) Reading Capital, London: NLB
Engels, F (1941, 6th print 1970) Ludwig Feuerbach: and the outcome of classical german philosophy, New York: Internation Publishers
Geras, N (1983) Marx and Human Nature: refutation of a legend, London: NLB
Hook, S (1933) Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: a revolutionary interpretation, London: Victor Gollancz
Hook, S (1958) From Hegel to Marx: studies in the intellectual development of Karl Marx, New York: Humanities Press
In Defence of Marxism (updated 2003) Online: marxist.com (accessed 5/5/03)
Laterza, E (1973, trans.) Marxism and Hegel, London: NLB
Marxists Internet Archive (updated 2003) Online: marxists.org (accessed: 5/5/03)
Marcuse, H (1955, 2nd ed.) Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the rise of social theory, London: Routledge
Mészáros, I (1970) Marx's Theory of Alienation, Online: marxists.org/archive/meszaros/works/alien
Pierson, C (1997) The Marx Reader, Oxford: Polity Press
Pippen, R (1989) Hegel's Idealism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Spencer, L and Krauze, A (1996) Hegel: for beginners, Cambridge: Icon Books
Wilde, L (1989) Marx and Contradiction, Aldershot: Avebury
Wyatt, C (updated 2003) Extentialism and Georg W. F. Hegel, Online: tameri.com/csw/exist/hegel.asp (accessed: 1/5/03)
Usenet Archives/Google Groups (groups.google.com): Dozens of discussion threads posted in 'soc.politics.marxism' and other groups. Particular mention to 'Jim F.' for some helpful pointers to help write this essay (groups.google.com/groups?th=2778de7c2cdbd163)

by Jake Gordon, some rights reserved