Alienation and Disalienation
Dr. Franz John Tennyson Lee
University of Port Harcourt
Department of Political Science
(Original Version. See Revised Version of 9th August, 2003 at :
In the Rhine province of Western Germany, around 1842-43 increasingly the poor peasants and other impoverished workers began to steal wood from the estates of the large landowners. The Government intervened violently against these people. The young Dr. Karl Marx who had freshly received the Ph.D. from the University of Jena and who could not obtain a university post, tried journalism as a means of survival. His political writings in the „Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher“ and the „Rheinische Zeitung“ eventually led to his expulsion from Germany and his exile in France. In 1844, Marx came into contact with the first socialist and workers organisation in Paris. Under the influence of the Left Young Hegelians and Feuerbach, Marx had begun his intellectual life as an ardent Hegelian 1840-43. From his studies of philosophy, especially of Hegelianism, in 1843, he undertook the study of political economy, especially of the Adam Smith - Ricardo School. In 1844, Marx made the first attempt to synthesize his philosophical and economic ideas in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), also called the Parisian Manuscripts. In this work, and also those written in co-authorship with Engels, The Holy Family (1845) and The German Ideology (1845-46), the concept of alienation plays a central role. Marx took the concept „alienation“ from Hegel and gave it a new meaning.
In Hegel’s philosophy two main categories are alienation („Entäußerung“) and estrangement („Entfremdung“) - they are extreme expressions of „other-ness“. At the centre (or beginning) of Hegel’s philosophical system is the Absolute - the whole of reality. This Absolute first exists as pure Idea, a mere logical Idea. The Idea, and Hegel does not explain how and why, breaks out of itself to a completely alienated condition - to Nature. In Hegel’s words, the Idea or Spirit resolves to go forth as Nature.
At this point Hegel is not applying his own dialectical method, because for the Spirit to „go forth“ it must already be in unity with the same Nature which it is supposed to create. In the Parisian Manuscripts (1844), Marx had already commented: „the Absolute Idea is nothing in itself, only Nature is something.“ Hegel considered Nature as a lifeless dispersed mode of existence in contradiction with the lively permanent motion and universality of the Absolute Idea. This contradiction - and here begins Hegel’s dialectics - drives the Idea forward, which begins to emancipate itself from its lifeless egg-shell and is born as Mind. Mind their dialectically passes through a series of stages, from crude sensation, across religion, to reach its highest self-realisation in philosophy, thus, eventually the Idea has completed its cycle and ends as Absolute.
Throughout this complex process of the Absolute Idea, alienation plays a positive role. It is the expression of the Negative at work within Hegelian dialectics. The Negative, as alienation, is constantly destroying the existing forms through the conflict of opposites, thus everything is permanently driven on toward a higher form of existence.
Because Mind has become alienated from itself conflicts arise, generalised as a conflict between subject and object. The objective world becomes opposed to man. Human existence is plunged into allembracing contradiction, the conflict of society against nature, of idea against objective reality, of consciousness against material existence. However, in Hegelian dialectics Nature is the antithesis, the Negative, to the Idea, thus Nature, objective reality, Matter, is nothing in and for itself. Nature is merely a concealed and mysterious embodiment of the Absolute Idea.
This meant that Hegel’s Absolute Idealism separated thinking, the thought process, from real active thinking human beings, and converted it into an independent omnipotent Subject which absorbed Nature, the World, Matter, into itself. This idealism, in the last analysis, is a sophisticated ideology, in which the Logical Idea replaced God.
Alienation itself is a very old notion with religious origins. Hegel took over this concept from his predecessors and gave it a new ideological content. In the process of change, everything has an antithetical nature, a unity and contradiction of opposites, it is both itself and becoming something else, its „other.“ But this „other“ is simply a development of the „itself“; the implicit become explicit, the possible become real. All these involve „Entfremdung“ (estrangement) from the original form and the realisation of the essence in a higher form of existence.
Hegel explained that man is alienated because labour is alienated, and he gave two explanations for this general alienation of human labour:
(a) The Dialectics of Need and Labour
Human needs are always one step ahead of the available economic resources. It is impossible to fulfil human needs, because the goal to equalise human needs with the organisation of resources can never be attained.
(b) Hegel’s Concept of „Entäußerung“ (Externalisation)
Every man who works, who produces something, really reproduces in his product an idea which he initially had in his mind. In the first chapter of Capital, Marx expressed a similar idea, but from a materialist point of view. Hegel, however, stated that by producing something, we separate ourselves from the product of our labour. Thus our idea does not continue to live in our mind, we project it out of our body. Such then is the anthropological definition of Hegel of alienated labour. Man is condemned forever to become separated, alienated, from the products of his labour.
In the Parisian Manuscripts, in 1844, Marx, in a youthful attempt, mainly for „self-clarification,“ tried to integrate his ideas about labour in bourgeois society with ideas about man’s fate, his earthly existence and position in history. Marx was not yet a scientific socialist and had just begun studying political economy a year before. But this work represents a major turning point in Marx’s intellectual development.
Marx contradicted both Hegel’s explanation of alienated labour. The discrepancy between needs and material resources is only temporary, conditioned by history. Man’s needs do not develop in an unlimited way, and collective labour’s output needs not to be inferior to these needs. He rejected Hegel’s idea of an identification of externalisation with alienation. He stated that humanity is not condemned to live „by the sweat of its brew,“ under alienated conditions forever. Humanity can become free, its labour can become free, under specific historic conditions.
Marx criticised Hegel for having seen only one side of the process, the alienation of consciousness. Hegel completely neglected the aspect of labour in a class society, the alienation of real man who produces commodities and surplus value.
Feuerbach expressed the view that Hegel’s philosophy was in reality an abstract expression of the alienation of man from himself. The „Absolute Idea“ was nothing but „a thing of thought.“ Thus Feuerbach stated that Hegel’s system has a religious essence, and he reestablished the materialist Truth that Nature, Matter, is the real basis for thought. All ideas, gods, angels and devils are our intellectual creations.
The young Marx was fascinated by Feuerbach’s materialism and humanism. Thus he began to analyse capitalist relations, showing what dehumanises and what is truly human. Marx agreed with Feuerbach that religion reverses the real relations between Man and Nature. Man created the gods in his own image. But to the underdeveloped („primitive“) mind, unaware of sub- or unconscious mental processes, it appeared as if gods had created Nature and Man. Confused by such appearances, and not knowing the essence, and being manipulated ideologicallv by „witch doctors“ and priests, men for thousands of years prostracted themselves before the idol of their ruling classes, the gods manufactured in the minds of men.
The primitive alienation observable in pre- „civilised“ societies in socalled „barbarism“ and „savagery“, had very much to do with ignorance and fear. The low level of consciousness of primitive peoples across the globe did not enable man to penetrate his environment deeply or to understand the forces or laws of Nature.
The sector which primitive man dominated was very limited. Concerning this, he had knowledge; about the rest only ignorance. Outside this field of knowledge, an immense area of enigmatic and unmastered phenomena was explained by a mass of rituals and conceptions commonly known as magic, something which is still being practised in many parts of Africa, Asia, South America, etc., which are not yet penetrated by scientific knowledge or materialism. Where human control of natural forces or technology terminated, magic took over. By trial-and-error, by accident, by observing repetitive processes, man did become aware of some laws or forces of Nature, but not consciously, that is, scientifically. Thus one should not mix up magical „hocus-pocus“ with natural laws discovered by accident, but not yet knowing their scientific operations. Magic of both types, negative ignorance which led to mental enslavement and religion, and positive ignorance which led to a spirit of self-discovery and science, was originally designed to satisfy demands, which social life had awakened, but which it could not guarantee as yet. Hegel would say there was a discrepancy between needs and material resources.
Man began to assume supernatural powers, which had to be counteracted, neutralised or won over. Many imaginary powers were fabricated - ancestors, chiefs, animals, plants, mountains, volcanoes, thunder, rain, sun, etc. Man projected his inner self into these self-created beings giving them super-human properties. Thus the illusion was created that by creating an illusion about reality you could actually control reality.
Thus rudimentary alienation was created, which from magic passed into a higher form, into polytheistic religion, and eventually to monotheism. A beautiful example of how children are tutored in self-alienation today still is the „Our Father.“ The humble child, for example, of a poor African proletarian, in need, and who has no resources to fulfil his desires, begins by addressing the heavenly edition of a patriarch, a Somoza in class society: „Our Father.“ This despot is their elevated far above earthly mortals to divine dimensions above the Universe: „Who art in Heaven“. Then the little Black boy or girl gives the White ruler the reverence due to superior authority: „Hallowed be Thy name.“ Then the helpless petitioner to the Crown does not ask for his needs to be fulfilled, but for those of Mammon, of Capital: „Thy Kingdom come; Thy Will be done.“ And this must not happen later, in heaven only, but immediately, while Vorster or Botha is murdering little children, here and now: „On earth as it is in Heaven.“
As the „Primitive“ African forefathers had demanded a good harvest from the God of Rain, now their Black descendant, the „civilised savage“ begs: „Give us this day our daily bread.“ Meanwhile on the world market grain is being destroyed to keep prices high, South Africa supplies Comecon countries secretly with wheat exports, while the Soviet Union is attacking Apartheid, and millions of children have no bread to eat.
The ignorant „savage“ used to beg to be purified of taboos violated, fearing the wrath of the God of Thunder: „And-forgive us our trespasses.“ This is then supplemented by the moralising influence, gained from Roman Catholicism of the „Dark Ages“, from times of the Spanish Inquisition: „As we forgive those of others.“ All this is then crowned by the weakness, docility, humility, fear and submission of the poor child and his „wretched“ family: „For Thine is the power and glory forever.“ So it shall be, Master, Lord, Sir, Boss, don’t fail us: “Amen.“
All this rudimentary alienation can still be seen today in customs as sending flowers to funerals and putting wreaths on graves, or at the feet of the status of Bolivar, Kruschev or Mao. This rite dates back to primitive times when ignorant man believed in another existence after death. The departed Souls needed similar things as they had on earth the Pharaonic pyramid graves demonstrate this at best. Ancient peoples buried food, tools and weapons with the dead - until today, these have dwindled to a few flowers.
With the development of agriculture craftsmanship and tockbruding, higher forms of alienation were engendered. “Civilised“ man began to control Nature increasingly, but he also began to lose control over the social process of production. After the social division of labour, goods became converted into commodities and were exchanged on the market. The laws of the market began to rule the producers and later men themselves became commodities that could be bought and sold. Thus, slavery was the first organised system of alienated labour historically, wage labour will be the last. Wage labour, under capitalism, according to Marx, is a specail type of alienated labour.
What does it mean when a worker sells his labour power - not labour - to a boss of a factory or a company? He sells his labour power, part of his life energy, part of his life-time, to another, to the capitalist, to live on like a parasite. The worker loses control over a large part of his waking hours, going to work (usually up to 2 hours), 8 hours at work, going home (up to 2 hours), thus 12 hours, half-a-day of his daily life. The time which has been sold to the employer belongs to him, not to the worker. He dictates what you will or will not do during that time. He dictates what the worker will produce, how he will do it, and where he will do it. He is master over the worker’s activity.
In the Parisian Manuscripts of 1844, the young Marx put this as follows:
„Labour is external to the worker, that is, it does not belong to his essential being. Therefore he does not affirm himself in his work but denies himself. He does not feel contented but dissatisfied. He does not develop freely his physical and spiritual energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself to be himself outside his work, and in his work he feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working and when he is working, he is not at home.“
What is even worse, the raw materials which the worker uses, the tools, and even the products of his labour, do not belong to him. The only thing which he gets is the exchange value of his labour-power, which is not equivalent to the selling price of the commodities which he has produced. The wage, the money, which he receives, is specifically calculated only to reproduce his labour power to work tomorrow again. He can forget about saving to become a capitalist. A European wage-worker can forget to become a capitalist today - to be able to compete with „small“ capitalists, he needs US$ 50 million in Western Europe, otherwise, he won’t survive. To work for 50 years, and saving his total „wage“ of US$ 50,000 a year, could not even do it. About 20 workers will have to starve for 50 years to accomplish this. Apart from this, only managers generally earn the above-mentioned salary. A capitalist lives from the „interests“ which he acquires by exploiting labour power, a worker forever lives from the „interests“ of his permanent debts.
The products of labour can become hostile to the worker, can threaten him. This happened with the machines which he had produced. The worker becomes an appendage to the machine. It causes even unemployment of the worker. Monotonous work, shift work, abnormal schedules, all these ruin the workers causing not only physical, but also psychological and nervous disorders.
The modern capitalist worker has become alienated to himself. Work is no longer a means of self-expression. Work is just a means to attain a goal. And that goal is making money. People just talk about how to make money. In Osaka, the main commercial and industrial city of Japan, you don’t address a person whom you meet with „How do you do?“ anymore, but, „How is business?’’ „Are you making money?“
Today, money has the „magical“ power of turning things into their opposites. Shakespeare already said: „Gold: yellow, glittering, precious gold can make black, white; foul, fair; wrong, right; base, noble; old, young; coward, valiant.“ A man’s worth is no more his talents or praiseworthy abilities or actions, but his bank account or his private property. In Germany a Rotschild was loved, where Marx was hated. Love has become a commodity, a flourishing commercial business of prostitution. In America, even Death is commercialised: Morticians seek to induce people to buy more expensive coffins, so that the beloved can rest peacefully on foam mattresses. Here not the corpse’s need is satisfied, but the deepest feelings if the living family members are exploited by ruthless capitalists.
Until now we have dealt with the consequences of alienated labour, and not with the alienation of the wage-worker himself. Already in 1844, Marx painted out that within capitalism a built-in-contradiction of needs exists. Each capitalist tries to limit the human needs of his own workers, in order to keep wages low, and profits high. However, each capitalist considers the work force of other capitalists a potential buyer for its commodities. In the last analysis, capitalism constantly extends the needs of the consumers. Up to a certain limit, real human needs, like healthy feeding, proper housing and necessary clothing, can be fulfilled. However, capitalism must forever create new, artificial needs, has to commercialise everything, love, death, leisure, etc. All kinds of gadgets are sold, a chess-computer with which one can compete, a computer for washing dishes, dolls which speak to the baby, stifling her creative imagination, etc.
Thus alienation becomes social and psychological in nature. Human needs are extended beyond what is rational, permanent dissatisfactions are being created. Capitalism would cease to exist when all human needs are fulfilled - thus „wear-and-tear“ has to be built into the commodities, they have to last only for a while - all rubbish which cannot be sold in the metropoles or is obsolete is being dumped into the „Third World“ at exorbitant prices: Of course, here also artificial needs are created, for example, the use of an electrical tooth-brush, by permanent blackouts or power-cuts. Even in that case, a power-standby machine would do the job. Thus social alienation spreads across the globe.
Systematically, capitalism and neocolonialism are creating frustrations, illusions and discontent. One only needs to study the number and types of crimes in the daily newspapers to verify these facts. Capitalist society breeds juvenile delinquency, antisocial behaviour patterns, rape, murder and insanity. Human activity becomes alienated, beggars are created, mad people, talking to themselves, unable to communicate with others, roam the ghettoes, slums, struts, subways and highways. Workers become overspecialised, prisoners of their trade, they live in shut-in horizons. They become over-specialised, one-track skilled or academic idiots. They know something for a while about a certain branch of human activity and absolutely nothing about totality. Ignorance crowned with diplomas increases, ideology does the rest.
Thus human relations become „thing-relations“, money-relations. About this tendency towards „Verdinglichung“ (reification), in Capital, Marx warned already. Bourgeois economic relations have completely pervaded human relations. Man-Woman relations have become money-relations; friendship flourishes on thing-relations; pure human qualities like politeness, sincerity, consideration, helpfulness, become the exploitative field of touts, crooks and corruption. Everything one urgently needs or wants to do, can only be achieved over the money-nexus - this has become a modus vivendi in most „Third World“ countries. People are dehumanised, lower than animals; workers have a bourgeois mentality, without a cent in their pockets, if they have any.
Bourgeois and worker cannot communicate with each other anymore, they do not understand each other’s language. White South Africans know nothing about Black South Africa or Black Africa for that matter. Communication has broken down. Many people are so isolated, so lonely, that when they meet someone, they just flush down all their thoughts, any theme, whether the other is listening or not. Both conversing partners talk along parallel lines, unburdening themselves of their loneliness of their alienation. Other „sane“ ones call them „mad“, yet they have just reached the extremes, for which the „sane“ worker is heading ultimately. Capitalism is progressively creating morons, idiots and lunatics.
Religion cannot help anymore either. As Marx wrote: The miracles of God become superfluous because of the miracles of industry.“ In metropolitan countries, technology and futurology have taken the place of God, theology and religion. At the University of Frankfurt in West Germany, 88% of the students never go to church, or only at Christmastime to satisfy their parents. 53% of them don’t care about marriage, especially not in church. And this is the general trend in Western Europe or North America and yet the „Third World“ is being flooded by religious cults, Jesus-shouters, who know absolutely nothing about the historical facts surrounding the Jesus-Movement, the Messiah principle, the early christians or the genesis of the „Holy Bible“, especially its censorship in the interest of ruling class ideology. Soon these heavenly-relations, divine-relations will also fade away here into capitalist oblivion, in spite of all the „Hallelujah“ and „Amen“ shouting.
After studying Hegel, Marx first became aware of the alienation of man as a citizen in his relation with the State. This was the real starting point of Marx’s scientific socialist thought. The so-called „social contract“ theory (Rousseau) maintained that in higher developed complex human society, the individual must forfeit a certain number of individual rights to the State as the representative of the collective interest of the community. However, as we have seen, the State, a product of the division of labour, based in private property of the means of production, always represented dominant/ruling class interests. These so-called individual rights were taken by force, by class violence, in fact, by pure robbery. This forced forfeiture of individual rights to the State ended up with alienation.
In the same way as money has become the supreme fetish of bourgeois society, similarly, the State comes to a close second fetish. State coercion; ruling class violence, manifests itself in its penal powers, tax powers, forceful conscription for military service, etc.
The identity of Steve Biko has to be validated by documents stamped by Apartheid State officials. He needed a certificate to vouch for his Black birth, to prove that he graduated from any school, that he is married or single, that he may travel on a tram, that he may leave his Bantustan, that he payed his tax, etc., etc. He needed even a death certificate, to prove that Apartheid South Africa murdered him.
The oppressed worker does not feel that the State defends his interest in any way. Having lost his basic human rights, he becomes a pariah, a slave in the land of his birth.
Even science, whether natural or social, has been placed in the service of labour exploitation. For example, since 1842, nuclear physicists were no more searching for the Truth, in the service of the well-being of humanity, but capitalist militarists constantly were turning their labour into death-causing instruments. „Freedom of Science“ or “Objectivity of Science“ became a mockery, when scientific results were declared as „top-secrets“, and „for reasons of State“ were kept away from the knowledge of the overwhelming part of humanity. These „top-secrets“ fabricated the atomic bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the napalm bombs thrown on the Vietkong or African freedom fighters. Natural scientists are more and more vassalised to the imperialist military machine. Social Science has become a factory for ideology production and anti-socialism, to spread vulgar nationalism and cultural imperialism. Alone the huge text-book multinationals which monopolise presenting of „Third World“ educational literature bear testimony of how social science has become a force of capitalist production; a quick glance in a B.A. syllabus or university subjects’ curriculae will clear the mind of any doubting Thomas.
To say that Africa has the choice between Socialism and Barbarism, is the same as saying, it has, like the whole of humanity, the choice between progressive disalienation through socialist emancipation and inevitable alienation in capitalism. This simply means that the grim situation is not at all without revolutionary hope.
Alienation, like capitalism itself, is not God-made, it is historically produced man-made evil, neither rooted in nature or human nature. Thus alienation and capitalism can be unmade by man, man proudly walking in upright gait, with human worth, and not forever bowing, sprawled at the feet of Mammon, kissing the filth and blood. The Marxist theory of alienation implies and contains a theory of disalienation, part of revolutionary theory-praxis, by means of which the material and intellectual conditions are created for the gradual disappearance of all forms of alienation. Scientific theory-praxis in all disciplines is a conditio sine qua non for the disappearance of human alienation and capitalism. Labour, intellectual and manual, has to be disalienated, the division of labour eradicated, class society destroyed, the State annihilated. Labour must not be a coercive necessity to hunt for money, but a creative self-realisation occupation. The transformation of human labour into all-sided creative human activity is the ultimate aim of scientific socialism on a global scale. Only when World Socialism is attained, and World Capitalism totally destroyed, will alienation disappear from our galaxy.