‘Marx and Alienation: Essays on Hegelian Themes’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

Marx and Alienation: Essays on Hegelian Themes

Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke and New York, paperback edition 2013. 216pp., £24.99 pb
ISBN 9781137379856

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony is a novelist and philosopher, author of Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist …


Someone once remarked, rather wryly, that Hegel is the doormat on which one wipes their feet before entering the house of Marx. In other words, it is important to relieve ourselves of the speculative, metaphysical and archaic baggage of the Hegelian system in order to be fully availed of a renewed and revolutionary Marxism. The view that the ‘mature’ Marx of Capital implies a complete and utter break with the ‘idealistic Hegelianism’ of his youth has always held a great deal of currency, especially with Marxist thinkers in the continental tradition, the chief of whom being the oblique French structuralist, Louis Althusser.

And yet, the best proponents of our tradition have, almost without exception, acknowledged and explored the deep and intimate connection between the two greatest philosophers the world has ever seen. Sean Sayers’ book, Marx and Alienation, contains a series of essays on the Marxist notion of ‘alienation’ and is written very much in this vein. Sayers does not explore the concept of ‘alienation’ simply in terms of Marx’s own writings but as well in relation to its historical genesis in Hegel’s own account of ‘man’ as a self created process: i.e. active, creative ‘man’ mediated by the ‘work’ that allows him to transform the world, and his own nature thereby. As Sayers says, ‘for both Hegel and Marx work has both a social and a material aspect. Through work the worker relates not only to the object of work and hence to the natural world, but also – and through it – to other human beings.’ (15)

One might wonder why so many Marxists have overlooked such profound parities in the approaches of Hegel and Marx. Sayers argues that this is often a result of a misinterpretation of Hegel, though he recognises it is not only Marxists who have fallen foul of this, but philosophers more broadly. Important and profound thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger, despite the fact that their own thought was, in a large part, shaped as a response to Hegel, nevertheless make crucial mistakes in their estimations of the brilliant nineteenth century master. Kierkegaard, for example, criticises Hegel’s account of Christianity on the grounds that it involves little more than the Christian fulfilling their ‘station and its duties’ (quoted 6). Kierkegaard perceives in the Hegelian approach the social-historical movements which threaten to annihilate the ‘individual’, swallowing him with their all pervasive determinations.

Sayers admits that the moment of ‘free choice’ or ‘selfhood’ is indeed vitally important, but, he argues, Hegel too acknowledges this; indeed the moment of ‘individuality’ forms a necessary component in the sweep of his over arching system – ‘According to Hegel, self-conscious spirit evolves through a series of different historical and social forms. Subjectivity, individuality, and freedom develop through a process in which the self is alienated from itself and then comes to recognise itself in its alienation, so that, at the end of the process, the self eventually comes to be at home with itself.’ (4)

In its historical trajectory such a development proceeds ‘from the immediate unity and harmony of the earliest communities. This initial phase culminates in the ancient Greek polis. With the breakup of the polis, humanity then passes through a long period of division, fragmentation, and alienation. For in and through this process, individuality, subjectivity and freedom grow and develop.’ (4) For Hegel, if one is to borrow a term from Kierkegaard, the personality experiences ‘authenticity’ only when ‘existing objective conditions’ (8) have ripened such as to ‘facilitate’ its full, multiform expression. The initial, unmediated state of grace, the abstract universal, fractures, yielding an equally abstract particularity – the individual – isolated, inward, bereft. It is only when these two moments are drawn into a concrete unity that the individual no longer experiences their self activity as an existence sequestered from themselves; as embodied and petrified in the forms and fixtures of a relentlessly alienating objectivity. Rather they experience in the external world the quality and content of their own being.

And so, though theorists like Heidegger and Kierkegaard claim to be improving on Hegel by raising the individual and sanctifying him, what they in fact do is to absolutise an isolated moment in the Hegelian historical-dialectic, i.e. the moment of abstract individuality, which they then proceed to assert over everything else. As Sayers remarks, ‘they tend to regard authenticity as a subjective and individual affair which resides in the way in which one chooses oneself…. The implication is that it is possible to respond more or less authentically in any situation, regardless of the social circumstances. There are no objective conditions that are in and of themselves alienating, or that prevent or engender authenticity. Any necessary link between the spiritual and the social aspects of alienation are thus severed.’ (9)

For Sayers, therefore, ‘one of Hegel’s greatest achievements’ is his conceiving of ‘alienation’ as an aspect of ‘the historical theory of the self.’ (10) Marx draws upon the historicity of the Hegelian account for his own conception of ‘alienation’ but there are, Sayers insists, fundamental differences. For Hegel ‘alienation’ involves ‘the process by which “finite spirit”, the human self, “doubles” itself , externalises itself, and then confronts its own other being as something separate, distinct, and opposed to it.’ (3) ‘Alienation’ is, consequently, ‘a characteristic feature of spirit’ (25); a property in the self development of humanity more generally – or to use Sayers’ express phrase – ‘alienation’, for Hegel, is ‘historically ontological’.

But with Marx things are somewhat different. It is true, Sayers says, that Marx sometimes ‘appears to maintain that alienation is a more pervasive phenomenon, not confined to capitalism’. (88) Marx sometimes describes labour undergone in class society as ‘alienating’ in as much as it is, in one form or another, a type of ‘forced labour’. However the more systematic Marxist notion of ‘alienation’ belongs to the Capitalist epoch specifically. In the chapter ‘Alienation as a Critical Concept’ Sayers explores Marx’s famous account of the four aspects of alienated labour in the 1844 manuscripts. Like Hegel, Marx ‘regards labour – all labour – as a process in which we objectify ourselves in our products. However, Marx makes a crucial distinction between “objectification” (Vergegenstandlichung) and “alienation”.’ (81) For Hegel the two are more or less synonymous in as much as they are ‘historically ontological’ but for Marx though the former is ‘historically ontological’; the latter is generated by capitalist social relations specifically

in the capitalist system the direct producers no longer control the exchange process. They are dispossessed of everything except their ability to labour. They are now wage labourers who own neither their tools, nor the materials they work on, nor the products of their labour. These now take the form of capital which becomes a power independent of the workers and opposed to them. (90)

For both Marx and Hegel though alienated labour ‘involves suffering and distress’ it is nevertheless ‘not a purely negative phenomenon’ because it constitutes the need ‘which drives us to try and overcome … to look for a “higher unity”’ (85). But for Hegel ‘modern liberal (i.e. capitalist) society’ offers us a potential end ‘to the alienation of individual and community which characterises earlier forms’(85-6) in and through the concrete unity of the individual and state mediated by the ‘corporations’. Yet for Marx, partially because ‘alienation’ is historically specific to capitalism, its ‘overcoming’ can only be achieved by the radical transformation and supersession of the capitalist mode of production – ‘The elimination of the alienation of “man from man” means ending economic fetishism, bringing social and economic relations back under conscious social control. Again this entails a radical transformation that eliminates not only private property in the means of production but commodity production and the market altogether.’ (99)

How viable is the Marxist project for the overcoming of alienation? Sayers is remarkably tentative on this question. Nevertheless he mounts an eloquent refutation of certain post-Marxists in its defence. Hardt and Negri, for example, believe they have improved upon Marx’s theory of labour because, for them, the industry prevalent at the time when Marx was writing has now been supplanted by ‘immaterial’ forms of labour in and through the production of an ‘information economy.’ Sayers describes how ‘Hardt and Negri have taken the concept of ‘immaterial labour’ from Lazzarato and extended it to become central to their account of post-industrial society. Immaterial labour, like all labour, they acknowledge, involves material activity: what makes it ‘immaterial’ is its product.’ (41)

To immediacy such a theorisation seems to be bold and incomparably modern, providing a much needed rejuvenation to a rather old fashioned Marxism. But Sayers patiently deconstructs their conceptions. Hardt and Negri posit two forms of ‘immaterial labour’ – ‘symbolic’ and ‘affective.’ Both ‘symbolic’ and ‘affective’ labour are ‘immaterial’ types in as much as they ‘do not have material products nor are designed to meet material needs.’ But is this really true? ‘Symbolic work is primarily intellectual or artistic. It ‘produces ideas, symbols, codes, texts, linguistic features images.’’ It is true, Sayers argues, that work of this kind does not directly create a material product.’(42) None the less ‘symbolic work’ does have material results and is not, as Hardt and Negri imagine it to be, ‘purely subjective and intangible’ For:

All labour operates by intentionally transforming matter in some way, as Marx maintains. Symbolic labour is no exception: it involves making marks on paper, making sounds, creating electronic impulses in a computer system, or whatever. Only in this way is such activity objectified and realised as labour. In this way, all labour is material. (42)

The analytical Marxist Cohen receives equally short shrift. In the superb essay, ‘Private Property and Communism’, Sayers explores the way in which alienation is overcome in the Marxist vision. Many interpreters of Marx have partaken in a ‘crude communism’ whereby ‘private property’ is taken into common ownership. Cohen, in order to elucidate his account of Communist society, uses the example of a camping trip taken by a group of friends in which ‘equipment is shared collectively and activities are organised cooperatively and by mutual agreement.’ Cohen’s analogy isn’t simply wrong, for it does serve to bring out some ‘essential features of communism’; however it is, in the last analysis, one-sided, in as much as the camping trip is ‘governed by a principle of equality.’(127) Sayers refers to Marx who warned of the dangers of such an account when he wrote – ‘(For Crude Communism) the community is simply a community of labour and equality of wages, which are paid out by the communal capital, the communal capitalist’ (quoted 103)

In other words the principle of formal equality, though it might lead to a more progressive allotment of wages among members of the community, nevertheless leaves the most fundamental structures of social division entirely untouched. This is reflected most clearly in Cohen’s account of the camping trip which is only concerned to ‘achieve an equal distribution according to quantitative principles.’(129)

And such an account inevitably vitiates the true profundity of the Marxian critique. Marx is not simply concerned with the material inequality of working people, though he is certainly morally outraged about this, but more substantially he is dealing with:

their alienation from – their loss of control over – their work and its products which comes with capitalism and wage labour…. Even the most radical welfare measures within capitalism will achieve only a more equal distribution of resources.… Marx is calling for something far more radical. He is arguing for the abolition of private property and wages altogether, and for a new, social form of property which will lead to the re-appropriation by working people of their work and social relations. (114)

This is, of course, all very Hegelian for true communism ‘recognises the real character of these alienated powers, activities and relations. It does not simply repudiate or “abstractly” negate them; rather, it seeks to overcome them dialectically and to re-appropriate them in an unalienated form’ (104) In Capital, Sayers notes, Marx frames this in explicitly Hegelian terms as a ‘negation of the negation’ whereby large capitalists expropriate small producers before being subsequently expropriated themselves by the proletariat. Thus communism should be understood immanently, dialectically, ‘as the projected culmination of real historical processes that are actually occurring’ (105) as opposed to the external imposition of a formal equality.

And herein lies Sayers achievement. This excellent book manages to convey, with compelling clarity, some of the most profound and nuanced philosophical themes; it helps restore the dialecticity of Marxist thought by elaborating its Hegelian origins. It is the best book I have come across on the Marxist concept of ‘alienation.’ However it must be said that some of Sayers’ political observations on what have been more broadly (and incorrectly) described as ‘actually existing’ communist societies such as Cuba, China or Stalinist Russia – seem to stand in flagrant contradiction to the nuance and subtlety of his philosophical approach. Sayers, following Marx, asserts that Communism does not occur automatically and at once, and will in fact pass through an initial stage – ‘the first step towards the overcoming of alienated labour is taken by communism when it abolishes capitalism and takes the means of production into the common ownership. This is the momentous step that was taken by actually existing communist societies such as the Soviet Union, China and Cuba.’ (165)

But, especially with regards to China and Cuba, Sayers is mistaken. He is mistaken because he has misunderstood one of the most fundamental Marxist dictums – that of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ For Sayers, the first stage in moving towards Communism takes place when ‘the capitalist state, which rules in the interests of capital, will be overthrown and replaced by a state which will rule on behalf of working people. This is what Marx calls the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”(158) However, this is a misreading of Marxism on Sayers’ part. The first stage in the movement towards communism involves the realisation of a workers state; that is, a state controlled and directed by workers and orientated toward the active suppression of the bourgeoisie. It is not a state that rules on ‘behalf of the working people’ but is instead the mechanism by which the proletariat mediates and exerts its own class power.

In both the Chinese and the Cuban revolution the working class remained largely passive. There were not created the organs of working class power, the soviets, which proliferated in factories everywhere, and provided the democratic organisations by which the workers might enter the historical field as protagonists. It was not the imminent, historical unfolding of working class power which characterised these revolutions, but rather the formal abolition of capitalist property which necessarily remained external, divorced as it was from working class activity. For this, such states corresponded much more to the externality of Cohen’s position rather than the dialectical immanence of Marx’s. Sayers book is a marvellous work of philosophy. But in regards to the political conclusions he draws about ‘actually existing’ communism, he would do well to remember Hegel’s own definition of freedom as that which is ‘self determined’ rather than ‘other determined’ and its echo in Marx, when the great revolutionary was compelled to observe, ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.’

2 November 2011

One comment

  1. « Though alienated labour ‘involves suffering and distress’, it is nevertheless ‘not a purely negative phenomenon’, because it constitutes the need ‘which drives us to try and overcome … to look for a “higher unity” ‘ »

    It is doubtless that alienated labour (A) ‘involves suffering and distress’; and (B) constitutes the need ‘which drivers us to try and overcome … ‘.

    But why this ‘need’ should meet up with the search for a ‘higher unity’ ?

    [ Note that, in this context, it is assumed, by the reviewer and Prof Sayers, that 1) a society of ‘higher unity’ is a socialist society, and 2) a society of ‘higher unity’ is a value in itself (reviving the classical ideal of Greek polis ?) – Let me remind, just to show how this ideal of a society of ‘higher unity’ in itself, can be less noble than one may think, resulting instead a little bit ambiguous, that Fascism, in Italy, and Nazism, in Germany, both presented themselves as the achievement of a society of ‘higher unity’ (not to mention Stalinism, of course) ]

    The Leninist tradition has historically produced a solid answer to the above question: the link between the need that alienated labour brings about, and the search for a society of ‘higher unity’ ( = socialism) is the party, the communist party, meant as made up of individuals well rooted in their social contexts, whose consensus they actually enjoy, and who have made a strong class choice and are able to keep up with the consequent obligations.

    But individuals, choice, obligation, all these terms fall under the concept of Ethics and give rise to what is its core question: where does this obligation come from ? What’s its source, the source of its strength ?

    Reason, free will, a special sentiment capable to connect us to the Whole/History/Geschichte ….

    Which is the Marxist response ?

    Doesn’t such response entail an ontological discourse about man, nature, man’s nature ?

    I find it significant that the Blackledge’s work on Marxism and Ethics, for instance, which tries to take up on this issue, ends up oscillating between volontarism and teleologism (as Majorbank observes in his review of the book – see his review on this site ).

    We still have a major problem here, and should go deeper in our reflection to get Marxism out of it, I think.

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