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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Although its roots lie far back in the Judeo-Christian
tradition, the concept of alienation first gained promi-
nence in the philosophy of Hegel, and particularly in
his mature writings. There are signs of the idea in his
earlier works, but it is not until the Phenomenology
(1808), thought by many to be Hegel's most important
work, that alienation occupies a central place in his

In the opening sections of the Phenomenology Hegel
attacked the views of common sense and simplified
natural science that the world consisted of discrete
objects independent of man's consciousness. Truth, for
Hegel, was not to be found in knowledge that was
purified of any influence from man's own desires and
feelings. Ultimately Hegel considered that there could
be no truth that was not intimately linked with the
ongoing process of human beings as thinking subjects;
truth was their truth. The supposed objectivity of the
world of nature was in fact an alienation, for man's
task was to discover, behind these appearances, his own
essential life and finally to view everything as a facet
of his own self-consciousness. The same principle ap-
plied to the world of culture in which such spheres
as art and religion, if viewed as independent of man,
constituted so many alienations to be overcome by
integration into the final understanding and recapitula-
tion which was Absolute Knowledge.

The central actor in this process for Hegel was Spirit.
Hegel thought that reality was Spirit developing itself.
In this process Spirit produced a world that it thought
at first was external; only later did it realize that this
world was its own production. Spirit was not something
separated from this productive activity; it only existed
in and through this activity. At the beginning of this
process Spirit was not aware that it was externalizing
or alienating itself. Only gradually did Spirit realize
that the world was not external to it. It was the failure
to realize this that constituted, for Hegel, alienation.
This alienation would cease when men became fully
self-conscious and understood their environment and
their culture to be emanations of Spirit. Freedom con-
sisted in this understanding, and freedom was the aim
of history.

Hegel had created a system; and all his disciples
agreed that it was the final one. However, when it came
to applying the system to particular problems, they
conceived their Master's system to be ambivalent. The
fact that alienation seemed to them to be a challenge,
something to be overcome, led them to put the em-
phasis on the concepts of dialectic and negativity in
Hegel's system; and thus they challenged, first in reli-
gion and then in politics, the Master's view that the
problem of alienation had, at least in principle, been
solved. The foremost among these radical disciples of
Hegel, Bruno Bauer, applied the concept of alienation
to the religious field. Bauer, who lectured in theology
and made his name as a Gospel critic, considered that
religious beliefs, and in particular Christianity, caused
a division in man's consciousness by becoming opposed
to this consciousness as a separate power. Thus religion
was an attitude towards the essence of self-conscious-
ness that had become estranged from itself. In this
context, Bauer promoted the use of the expression
“self-alienation” that soon became current among the
Young Hegelians.

Like Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach was also fas-
cinated by the problem of religious alienation, but his
concept of it was much simpler. Whereas Bauer con-
sidered that men's religious creations eventually
adopted an inhuman form, Feuerbach saw in religion
simply the projection of man's essential desires and
capacities. Since what was ascribed to God were really
attributes of man, man was separated from himself, and
thus alienated. This idea was elaborated in Feuerbach's
best known book The Essence of Christianity, published
in 1841. Feuerbach described the “fundamental idea”
of his book thus: “The objective essence of religion,
particularly the Christian religion, is nothing but the
essence of human, and particularly Christian, feeling.
The secret of theology is therefore anthropology....
The foundation of a new science is laid here in that


the philosophy of religion is conceived of and pre-
sented as esoteric or secret anthropology or psychol-
ogy” (McLellan [1969], p. 88).

Feuerbach made an even greater impact through his
Preliminary Theses for the Reform of Philosophy and
his Foundations of the Philosophy of the Future, both
published in 1843. Their major purpose was to point
out that Hegel's philosophy was just as alienating a
force as religion and needed to be reabsorbed in the
same manner. Feuerbach began his Theses with the
statement “the secret of theology is anthropology, but
the secret of speculative philosophy is theology” (ibid.,
p. 98). In Feuerbach's view, the great deficiency in
Hegel's philosophy was its negation of theology “from
the standpoint of theology.” Thus Hegel—the German
Proclus—never managed to break out of the circle of
ideas and could not realize the true relationship of
thought to being: “being is the subject, thought the
predicate.” As a philosopher in his own right, Feuer-
bach was only of the second rank: basically he had
one idea that he expounded in many different ways.
As Marx said later: “Compared with Hegel, Feuerbach
is very poor. Nevertheless, after Hegel he was epoch-
making because he put the emphasis on certain points,
uncomfortable for the Christian consciousness and im-
portant for the progress of criticism, which Hegel had
left in a sort of mystical twilight between clarity and
obscurity” (ibid., p. 113).

It was in this atmosphere of rapid secularization that
Marx evolved his own concept of alienation. Bruno
Bauer had talked of alienation in religion; Feuerbach
had carried this further by pointing out that Hegel's
philosophy was itself the last bastion of theology;
finally Moses Hess—nicknamed “the communist
rabbi”—had transferred Feuerbach's ideas to the realm
of economics, by analyzing, in his essay On the Essence
of Money
(1844), money as the alienated essence of
man. Marx accepted all these accounts of alienation,
considering economics to be fundamental inasmuch as
work was man's basic activity. In all these fields Marx's
common idea was that man had alienated to someone
or something what was essential to his nature—
principally, to be in control of his own activities, to
be the subject and initiator of the historical process.
In the different forms of alienation some other entity
had obtained what was proper to man: in religion it
was God, in politics the State, in economics the market
process and cash nexus. (A note is necessary on the
German originals of the term “alienation.” Marx uses
two words to express the concept of alienation:
Entfremdung and Entäusserung. His distinction be-
tween these two words is by no means as precise as
that of Hegel. Often they appear to be synonymous
and are used together for rhetorical effect. If anything,
Entfremdung conveys the sense of alienation in which
two people are said to be alienated from each other;
while Entässerung has more the sense of “making
external to oneself” with legal and commercial over-
tones. Neither of these words is to be confused with
Vergegenständlichung, that is, “objectification,” which,
in Marx as opposed to Hegel, is a neutral process that
can be either good or bad according to the partic-
ular circumstances.)

Marx first worked out his ideas in detail with regard
to political alienation in his Critique of Hegel's Philos-
ophy of Right.
Here Marx examined paragraph by
paragraph Hegel's Philosophy of Right and claimed
that the state, described by Hegel as productive of,
and superior to, its own elements, constituted an aliena-
tion of man's essence. Applying to Hegel Feuerbach's
reversal of subject and predicate, Marx wrote: “The
Idea is made subjective and the true relationship of
the family and civil society to the state is conceived
of as their imaginary activity. The family and civil
society are the presuppositions of the state; they are
its properly active elements. But in speculation the
relationship is inverted. When the Idea is made a
subject, the civil society, the family, 'circumstances,
caprice' etc. become unreal objective phrases of the
Idea and have a completely different significance”
(Early Texts, p. 62).

The place where Marx wrote at greatst length on
his concept of alienation and his debt to Hegel are
two passages in the Paris Manuscripts. In the passage
on “alienated labour” (ibid., pp. 133ff.), Marx deals
with the relationship of the worker to his product. The
fact that the worker is related to the product of his
labor as to an alien object means that the more the
worker produces the more he approaches loss of work
and starvation. Marx goes on to detail four types of
alienated labor: the alienation of the product from the
producer; the alienation of the act of production; the
alienation of nature from men; and finally of man from
his species-being (a term borrowed from Feuerbach
meaning the common factors making up man's nature).
This negative picture is complemented by the descrip-
tion that Marx gives of unalienated man in the notes
that he made on James Mill at the same time as the
writing of the Manuscripts. Put rather roughly, what
Marx means when he talks of alienation is this: it is
man's nature to be his own creator; he forms and
develops himself by working on and transforming the
world outside him in cooperation with his fellow men.
In this progressive interchange between man and the
world, it is man's nature to be in control of this process,
to be the initiator, the subject in which the process
originates. However, this nature has become alien to
man; that is, it is no longer his and belongs to another
person or thing. In religion, for example, it is God who
is the subject of the historical process and man is in


a state of dependence on His grace. In economics,
according to Marx, it is money and the processes of
the market that maneuver men around instead of being
controlled by them. The central point is that man has
lost control of his own evolution and has seen this
control invested in other entities. What is proper to
man has become the attribute of something else, and
thus alien to him.

The second passage of importance in the Paris Man-
is the final section entitled Critique of Hegel's
(ibid., pp. 157ff.). Here Marx began by de-
scribing Feuerbach's “great achievement” which was
to have demonstrated that Hegel's philosophy was
merely a different form of the alienation of man's
nature; Feuerbach had reestablished the primacy of
man's social relationship to man. Marx readily ac-
knowledged his own debt to Hegel. “Therefore the
greatness of Hegel's Phenomenology,” he wrote, “and
its final product, the dialectic of negativity as the
moving and creating principle, is that Hegel conceived
of the self-creation of man as a process, objectification
as loss of the object, as externalisation and the tran-
scendence of this externalisation. This means, therefore,
that he grasps the nature of labour and understands
objective man, true, because real man, as the result
of his own labour” (ibid., p. 164). Nevertheless, Hegel's
conception of labor was of abstract, mental labor and
he only succeeded in overcoming alienation in the
realm of consciousness.

Although Hegel said that man suffered from eco-
nomic and political alienation, it was only the thought
of economics and politics in which Hegel was inter-
ested. The whole process ended in Absolute Knowl-
edge, with the result that it was the philosopher who
judged the world. In other words, Hegel had confused
alienation and objectivity. Thus, according to Hegel,
“What is supposed to be the essence of alienation that
needs to be transcended is not that man's being ob-
jectifies itself in an inhuman way in opposition to itself,
but that it objectifies itself in distinction from and in
opposition to, abstract thought. The appropriation of
man's objectified and alienated faculties is thus firstly
only an appropriation that occurs in the mind, in pure
thought, i.e. in abstraction” (ibid., pp. 162f.). Marx's
central criticism of Hegel, therefore, was that aliena-
tion would not cease with the supposed abolition of
the external world. The external world, according to
Marx, was part of man's nature and the point was to
establish the right relationship between man and his
environment. Marx therefore rejected Hegel's notion
of Spirit and replaced its supposed antithesis to the
external world by the antithesis between man and his
social being.

In his early writings, therefore, Marx sketched a
notion of alienation which, taking the analyses in reli
gion and politics of his contemporary Young Hegelians
as models, had its roots in the socioeconomic situation
of the worker in capitalist society. Yet in the 1930's
and '40's, alienation did not play any part in the many
discussions of Marx's thought. In the 1960's, however,
it was accepted that it is the major theme running
through the whole of his writings. Those who wish to
maintain that there is a break between the “young”
and the “old” Marx usually maintain that alienation
is a concept that was entirely restricted to Marx's early
thought and later abandoned. However, these state-
ments can be shown to be incorrect.

The term itself occurs much more frequently, even
in Capital, than is commonly realized. In Capital Marx
writes, for example: “The character of independence
and estrangement which the capitalist modes of pro-
duction as a whole give to the instruments of labour
and the product, as against the workman, is developed
by means of machinery into a thorough antagonism”
(I, 432). Yet it is not only a question of terminology:
the content, too, of Capital is a continuation of Marx's
early thoughts. The main discussion of Volume One
of Capital rests on the equation of work and value that
goes back to the conception of man as a being who
creates himself and the conditions of his life—a con-
ception outlined in the Paris Manuscripts. It is man's
nature, according to the Marx of the Paris Manuscripts,
to be constantly developing, in cooperation with other
men, himself and the world about him. What Marx
in Capital is describing is how this fundamental role
of man, to be the initiator and controller of the histori-
cal process, has been transferred, or alienated, and how
it belongs to the inhuman power of Capital.

The counterpart of alienated man, the unalienated
or “total” man of the Manuscripts, also appears in
Capital. In the chapter of Volume One on “Machinery
and Modern Industry” Marx makes the same contrast
between the effects of alienated and unalienated modes
of production on the development of human poten-
tiality. He writes: “Modern industry, indeed, compels
society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-
worker of today, crippled by the life-long repetition
of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced
to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed
individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face
any change of production, and to whom the different
social functions he performs, are but so many modes
of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired
powers.” The fact that, in Capital, the conclusion is
supported by a detailed analysis of the effects of ad-
vanced technology, should not obscure the continuity.

The section of Capital that most recalls the early
writings, is the final section of Chapter One, entitled
“Fetishism of Commodities.” The whole section is
reminiscent of the passage on alienated labor in the


Paris Manuscripts and of the notes on James Mill that
Marx composed in 1844. Marx writes:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because
in it the social character of man's labour appears to them
as an objective character stamped upon that labour; because
the relation of the producers to the sum total of their labour,
is presented to them as a social relation, existing not be-
tween themselves, but between the products of their labour

(I, 488).

However, the writing that best shows the centrality
of the concept of alienation to Marx's thought is the
Grundrisse. This manuscript is the thousand-page draft
that served Marx as a basis for Capital but remained
unpublished until 1941. The Grundrisse, of which the
Critique of Political Economy and Capital are only
partial elaborations, is the centerpiece of Marx's work.
It is the basic work which permitted the generaliza-
tions in the famous Preface to the Critique of Political
For Capital is only the first of the six volumes
in which Marx wished to develop his Economics, the
title by which he referred to his magnum opus on the
alienation of man through Capital and the State.

The scope of the Grundrisse being wider than that
of Capital, Marx's thought is best viewed as a con-
tinuing meditation on themes begun in 1844, the high
point in which meditation occurred in 1857-58. The continuity
between the Manuscripts and the Grundrisse
is evident. Marx himself talked of the Grundrisse as
“the result of fifteen years of research, thus the best
period of my life.” This latter was written in November
1858, exactly fifteen years after Marx's arrival in Paris
in November 1843. He also says, in the Preface of 1859:
“the total material lies before me in the form of mono-
graphs, which were written at widely separated pe-
riods, for self-clarification, not for publication, and
whose coherent elaboration according to the plan indi-
cated will depend on external circumstances.” This can
only refer to the Paris Manuscripts of 1844 and the
London notebooks of 1850-52. Marx constantly used,
and at the same time revised, material from an earlier
date: for instance, he used his notebooks of 1843-45
while writing Capital.

The content of the Grundrisse only serves to confirm
what is plain from the external evidence: the beginning
of the chapter on Capital reproduces almost word for
word the passages in the Manuscripts on human need,
man as a species-being, the individual as a social being,
the idea of nature as, in a sense, man's body, the paral-
lels between religious and economic alienation, the
utopian and almost millennial elements, etc. One point
in particular emphasizes this continuity: the Grundrisse
are as Hegelian as the Paris Manuscripts and the central
concept of both of them is alienation.

Aided by the publication of Marx's early writings,
the increasing complexity and anonymity of capitalist
society, and the gap between ideology and reality in
many socialist ones, the concept of alienation has be-
come very topical. Its very topicality, however, is in
danger of rendering the concept of alienation vacuous;
for often it seems merely to be used to designate any
state of affairs that is considered unsatisfactory. How-
ever, Marx's description of alienation, particularly as
contained in the Paris Manuscripts, is by no means as
vacuous as many of its contemporary interpretations.
For it contains both an account of the relationship
between socioeconomic conditions and psychological
states that is, to some extent at least, testable, and also
a far from vague view of human nature. Because it
contains both of these it is also a concept in which
facts and values are inextricably bound together, and
so one which runs counter to the prevailing demand
for a sharp distinction between evaluative and descrip-
tive statements. Thus, although Marx was always writ-
ing with certain initial value judgments presupposed,
empirical criteria are, up to a point, applicable to his
hypotheses. Marx's concept can be further clarified by
asking what he would consider as nonalienation. This
positive side of Marx's critique is less well-known. But
the passage on “alienated labour” in the Paris Manu-
should be read in close conjunction with his
description of “production in a human manner” con-
tained in his notes on James Mill, and with the concep-
tion of the future communist society outlined in the
Grundrisse. The metaphysical and ethical elements of
the concept of alienation that originated with Hegel
and Feuerbach still persist to some extent in Marx, but
they are given a socioeconomic context that makes
them all the more interesting to the modern mind.


H. Arvon, Ludwig Feuerbach, ou la tranformation du
(Paris, 1957). S. Avineri, The Social and Political
Thought of Karl Marx
(Cambridge, 1968). H. Barth, Wahr-
heit und Ideologie
(Zurich, 1945). J.-Y. Calvez, La Pensée
de Karl Marx
(Paris, 1956). L. Dupré, The Philosophical
Foundations of Marxism
(New York, 1966). L. Feuerbach,
The Essence of Christianity (London, 1853). J. Findlay,
Hegel: A Re-examination (London, 1958). previous hit E next hit. Fromm, Marx's
Concept of Man
(New York, 1961). G. Hegel, Phenomenology
of Mind
(London and New York, 1910). J. Hyppolite, Genèse
et Structure da la phénoménologie de l'esprit de Hegel
1947). previous hit E next hit. Kamenka, The Ethical Foundations of Marxism
(London, 1962). W. Kaufmann, Hegel (New York, 1965). A.
Kojève, Introduction à la lecture de Hegel (Paris, 1947). J.
Loewenberg, Hegel's Phenomenology (La Salle, 1965). H.
Marcuse, Reason and Revolution (London, 1941). K. Marx,
Capital, 3 vols. (Moscow, 1961-62); idem, Selected Writings
in Sociology and Social Philosophy,
ed. T. Bottomore and
M. Rubel (London, 1956); idem, The Early Texts, ed. D.


McLellan (Oxford, 1971); idem, Writings of the Young Marx
on Philosophy and Society,
ed. L. Easton and K. Guddat
(New York, 1967). D. McLellan, Marx before Marxism (New
York, 1970), with extensive bibliography on the early Marx;
idem, Marx's Grundrisse (New York, 1971); idem, The
Thought of Karl Marx
(New York, 1971), with extensive
bibliography on Marxist thought as a whole; idem, The
Young Hegelians and Karl Marx
(London, 1969). B. Ollman,
Alienation: Marx's Concept of Man in Capitalist Society
(Cambridge, 1971). J. Plamenatz, Man and Society, Vol. 2
(London, 1963). S. Rawidowicz, Ludwig Feuerbachs Philo-
(Berlin, 1931). R. Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in
Karl Marx
(Cambridge, 1961).


[See also Alienation in Western Theology; Economic His-
tory; Economic Theory of Natural Liberty; Hegelian Politi-
cal and Religious Ideas; Historical and Dialectical Materi-
alism; Marxism;