Reviewed by Andrew Chitty
Sean Sayers’ book is about much more than alienation. In fact by the end it has become a refreshingly broad account of the descriptive and normative dimensions of Marx’s vision of capitalism, communism and historical development as a whole. It is an account that consistently aims to free Marx from the frameworks of contemporary academic thought, and especially from the attempts by ‘analytical Marxists’ to understand his critique of capitalism and advocacy of communism as a matter of judging them each by transcendent moral principles. It represents an important contribution to the project of resurrecting a Hegel-inspired understanding of Marx’s thought as a whole. However here, rather than address these larger themes, I will limit myself to some comments on Sayers’s discussion of alienation, the core topic of the book.
My first comment is that Sayers’ account of Marxian alienation focuses almost entirely on alienation in work. But as he shows in his first chapter, philosophers like Kierkegaard and Heidegger have articulated something that has a lot in common with Marx’s idea of alienation in work – let us say, a general notion of being cut off from one’s own authentic self, and/or from other people, that is widespread in modern life. We can add Simmel on ‘external culture’, Tönnies on Gesellschaft, Durkheim on anomie, sociological studies like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, and artistic descriptions like Camus’s L’Etranger or even Lily Allen’s song ‘Smile’, as attempts to describe this condition. In one sense Sayers is right to focus on alienation in work, in that this was Marx’s focus too, and in that for him the shape of the economic life of a society is determinative of every other aspect of it. But it would have been good to explore how Marx’s account of the capitalist economy as a system of alienated economic activity could be extended to explain the different forms of alienation outside work.
My second is a comment about the terminology of Entäusserung and Entfremdung, the two words that Marx uses that get translated into English as ‘alienation’. I agree with Sayers that Marx does not systematically distinguish between the two, but in reading him I think it is nevertheless important to be attentive to which word he is using in any particular passage. For even if he uses the two words to refer to exactly the same phenomenon, so that they have the same reference, still in nineteenth century German they have very different connotations (just as the terms ‘The Morning Star’ and ‘Venus’ refer to the same entity but have very different connotations). To focus on Entäusserung, in the everyday German of Marx’s time this means ‘relinquishing ownership of’, as when one sells or gives something away. For example this is how Hegel uses the term in the Philosophy of Right. This is equivalent to the legal sense of the English word ‘alienation’, as when we speak of ‘inalienable rights’. Entäusserung also literally means ‘externalisation’. And finally the word has a history of philosophical usage prior to Marx, for example by Luther, Fichte and most obviously Hegel and Feuerbach. To take just the example of Hegel, he uses the term to describe God’s incarnation in Jesus (Phenomenology, 324-325, 457-458, 470-472); the transition from the Logical Idea to nature (Encyclopedia Logic, §18; Philosophical Propaedeutic, 125); and the process in which the atomized persons of the post-Roman world renounce their singularity, give themselves a universal character, and thereby at once give objectivity to, and achieve a new kind of unity with, their own ethical substance (Phenomenology, 294-299, cf. Philosophy of Mind, §435). By contrast Entfremdung in everyday German means ‘becoming (or being) cut off’. This is equivalent to the interpersonal sense of the English word ‘alienation’, as when we speak of someone being alienated from their friends or family.
Marx is quite aware of all this and like every writer he often uses the connotations of his words to make his points. Unfortunately there is no systematic way of translating the German words that preserves the connotations. If we translate Entäusserung as ‘alienation’ (as do the Penguin Early Writings and the Collected Works) most English readers will hear the connotation of ‘becoming or being cut off’, since this is the commonest meaning of ‘alienation’ in modern English; but the German word does not have this connotation. Meanwhile few or none will hear the connotations of ‘relinquishing ownership’ or ‘externalisation’, since the legal sense of ‘alienate’ in English is now quite archaic, and the word has never been used to mean externalisation; but the German word does have these connotations. Marx often plays on these connotations of Entäusserung in describing the Entäusserung of labour or the selbst-Entäusserung of human beings. So to pick up Marx’s meaning we have to be alert to when he is using that word, and also to teach ourselves to ‘hear’ the connotations of the word, rather than those of the English word that is used to translate it.
My sense is that, in 1844, in talking about the process in which human products come to assume a life of their own and to dominate their own makers, Marx uses Entfremdung (translated Penguin Early Writings and the Collected Works as ‘estrangement’) in a fairly uncomplicated way to describe a psychological experience of becoming or being ‘cut off’: cut off from our own products, from our own productive activity, from our own essence as species beings and from other human beings. By contrast he uses Entäusserung to describe an underlying process of humans producing in such a way that they come to be dominated by their products, which gives rise to this experience. He uses the word so as to suggest a philosophical understanding of this underlying process, by drawing on the resources of Fichte’s and Hegel’s concepts of Entäusserung. Accordingly the difference between Entäusserung and Entfremdung is a difference between essence and appearance, and Entäusserung is the key term. Eliding the two concepts, as Sayers does, makes it impossible to see this difference.
This leads me to my third comment, which is on the fate of the ideas of Entäusserung and Entfremdung in Marx’s later work. By 1845 he has given up on the ambition to use Entäusserung to provide a philosophical understanding of the underlying process, and accordingly he stops using Entäusserung altogether, except in the everyday sense of ‘relinquishing ownership’. He shifts from the idea that human products dominate their makers to the idea that human social relations do, and he changes his terminology. In the German Ideology he talks of the Verselbständigung – literally the ‘becoming independent’ – of social relations, and in Capital of the way that relations between persons take the form of relations between things that are autonomous of their owners. (Incidentally I must differ with Sayers when he describes this process as ‘commodity fetishism’; for Marx commodity fetishism is the cognitive error of naturalising what are in fact social properties that results from the process in which social relations between persons take the form of relations between things.) it looks as if this process of terminological substitution reflects a determined effort on Marx’s part to replace a vague philosophical characterisation of the process he initially calls Entäusserung by a more precise ‘scientific’ (in the best sense of the word) account of it. It is unfortunate that in the meantime he tends to misrepresent his own ‘science’ of capitalism in reductionist terms, as if it was a matter of discovering ‘laws of motion’ of capitalist society parallel to Newton’s laws of motion for the physical world, and at the same time that he effectively gives up on his early efforts to provide a ‘phenomenology’ of capitalism from the standpoint of the worker (so that in effect he also abandons the term Entfremdung). In the light of these two developments it is very tempting to go back over and again to Marx’s early works for enlightenment about the sources of the multiple experiences of being ‘cut off’ in modern life mentioned above. But surely the way forward here is rather to see what can be developed from Marx’s later efforts to give a more exact account of the process of whereby relations between persons become autonomised relations between things. I say this not so much as a criticism of Sayers’ book, whose aim is to reconstruct Marx’s own thought, but as an indication of where we should be going next.
My fourth comment is on the Hegelian heritage in Marx’s thought on the alienation of work. Sayers’ second chapter presents some valuable new discoveries of ways in which Hegel’s thought about alienation from nature and work that anticipates things that the early Marx says about these matters. He also quite rightly points out that for Hegel Entfremdung is characteristically a necessary stage in a development that begins with undifferentiated identity and ends with internally differentiated identity, so that it has a positive dimension, and that Marx follows him in this. But he says almost nothing about the main places in which Hegel discusses Entfremdung as a historical phenomenon, namely in the section on the Roman World in the Philosophy of History and in the corresponding sections on ‘The Unhappy Consciousness’ in the Phenomenology. It seems to me that we can learn a lot from these sections about the philosophical baggage that Marx implicitly took on from Hegel when he adopted the terminology of Entäusserung and Entfremdung in 1844 – even if he subsequently gave up using this terminology.
However, as I said at the start, there is much more to Sayers’ book than a discussion of the concept of alienation. In particular the account of communism and of the ‘necessity’ whereby for Marx capitalism must give way to it, deserves a discussion in its own right, for which there is no space here. All in all, this is a provocative and timely book, which shows how much of Marx’s thought can be illuminated by looking at it from a Hegelian perspective. It deserves a wide readership.
(Based on a paper presented at Symposium on Sean Sayers, Marx and Alienation: Essays on Hegelian Themes, Marx and Philosophy Society, London, 4 February 2012. A review of the hardback edition by Tony Mckenna appeared on 2 November 2011.)
16 February 2014
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