‘Marx and Alienation: Essays on Hegelian Themes’ reviewed by Andrew Chitty

Marx and Alienation: Essays on Hegelian Themes

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

Reviewed by Andrew Chitty

About the reviewer

Andrew Chitty is on the organizing group of the Marx and Philosophy Society. He teaches philosophy …


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


  • Hegel, G.W.F. 1971 Hegel's Philosophy of Mind. Being Part Three of the Encyclopædia of the Philosophical Sciences, 1830 Translated by A.V. Miller and W. Wallace (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
  • Hegel, G.W.F. 1975 Logic: Being Part One of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830) Translated by W. Wallace (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
  • Hegel, G.W.F. 1977 Phenomenology of Spirit Translated by A.V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
  • Hegel, G.W.F. 1986 The Philosophical Propaedeutic Translated by A. V. Miller. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).


  1. A perspicacious review! Two comments:

    With the formulation, “relations between persons take the form of relations between things that are autonomous of their owners,” the introduction of the important concept of reification (Verdinglichung) would have been in order. I agree that fetishism is that state of awareness that is taken in by the power of value-things which appear to have this power instrinsically, of themselves, _kath’ auto_. These reified powers (above all, the movement of value through the circuit of capital mediated by an ongioing power-play of market-valuation) move capitalist economic life.

    “…It is unfortunate that in the meantime he [Marx] 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” — Indeed! I call this Marx’s succumbing to the lure of the Cartesian cast of being. Rather, in my re-reading of Marx against wider horizons, I focus on the social interplay of mutual valuation, estimation, esteeming that is always also a power play. ‘Capitalism’ is that social power-play mediated by value-things.

    Alienation (Entfremdung) connotes also ‘der Fremde’ (stranger, foreigner), so that ‘estrangement’ is also a good rendering. Mediated by value-things, strangers can also have interchanges with one another. That circumstance, of course, is two-edged.

  2. Thanks Michael.

    My general thought on reification is that no-one has yet properly investigated Marx’s own use of the terms Verdinglichung and Versachlichung (and his parallel terms dinglich and sachlich, which often get mistranslated as ‘material’ in standard translations), and that Lukacs’s use is extremely vague.

    However I think that by Versachlichung Marx means not a state of awareness of any kind but the process in which persons’ actions become routinised and ‘thinglike’, which is the result of the more fundamental process that I mention in the review in which the relations between those persons become autonomous of them and dominating them.

  3. It is well-known that in Hegel the particular is sacrificed to the general, the concrete to the abstract. It was Marx’s endeavour to use dialectics in such a way that the particular or the concrete – in short what is specific to a historical epoch – did not get obliterated. If we ignore Marx’s attempt to distance himself from Hegelian abstraction (in order to achieve the unity of the abstract and the concrete), we will fail to appreciate the subtle shift in his use of ‘alienation’ in later years.
    I wonder if it is apt to characterise this shift in terms of reductionism, as Andrew Chitty suggests.


  4. You’re right about the different semantic flavours of Verdinglichung and Versachlichung, Andrew. In everyday German one speaks e.g. of a Versachlichung of a discussion that has been running at high emotional levels and is brought back to earth on a matter-of-fact level. Verdinglichung is quite different, referring as it does to ‘making a thing of’. Thus, e.g. Glanz (shine) can be verdinglicht as the polish that makes a piece of furniture shine (e.g. from the Grimm Wörterbuch).

    The Versachlichung of work-processes (a — productive –kind of movement), refers to an organizing of its various component parts — “routines”, as you say — into an organic whole. This involves some kind of command hierarchy, whether it be steep or shallow, but also the intermeshing of working-movements with the technologically controlled movements of the work process. Today, these technological routines are becoming rapidly cybernetically, algorithmically controlled movements, enforcing an adaptation of human labouring to movements of the cyberworld so that they intermesh smoothly. Hence the talk of people becoming mere ‘cogs’ in the ‘system’. Such collective, organized work processes are subsumed under the reified value-forms insofar as they are subjected to criteria of COST-efficiency, especially to drive to lower costs=increase productivity as measured by reified value.

    Sarban, you write, “… in Hegel the particular is sacrificed to the general”. I think this leaves out the third and crucial element. Usually people speak simply of the particular and the universal, thus conflating particularity (Besonderheit) with singularity (Einzelheit). In the Doctrine of the Concept in his Logik (his ontology), Hegel attempts to show how singularity can be mediated with the universal via particularity in a Schuß (con-clusion, a closing-together), and this becomes concrete in the Rechtsphilosophie where an attempt is made to mediate singularity (individual freedom) with universality (the State). I think this attempt fails — there is no con-clusion in which free individuality closes together with and is thus reconciled with its subjection to the political power of the universal. There always remains a gap, and the issue is whether singularity (individual freedom) can find its niche in this in-con-clusive gap.

  5. Michael:

    My point simply is if at one stage Marx began to use the concept of alienation in a more restricted sense as Andrew points out, how do we account for this shift? As I see it, this is because Marx’s interest in grasping the specific structure, processes and contradictions – the dialectic – of the capitalist mode of production became paramount and so his whole conceptual apparatus had to change accordingly. Abstract notions incapable of capturing the specificity of capitalism had to be refashioned or discarded. It is not reductionism. I do not endorse the position that marx gave up the idea of alienation altogether. No. It remains fundamental to his thought. Only, it had to be moade more concrete and specific. I suppose marx disdained indeterminate, trans-historical abstractions.


  6. Sarban, I entirely agree that it’s crucial not to lose the specificity of the capitalist mode of economic life in favour of a trans-historical so-called historical materialism The concept of alienation (Entfremdung) of the 1844 EPM in relation to human being as Gattungswesen (genus-being, not species-being) suffers from this non-specificity. Hence it comes as no surprise in Marx’s critique of capitalist economy that alienation is specified as the Verdinglichung brought about specifically by reified value. He uncovers reified value AS a social relation (_pros ti_) that assumes the appearance of value-things of substance (_ousia_). An important aspect of reified value’s fetishism is that there seems to be such a thing as value-substance. The essence of capitalism is shown by Marx to be the unending augmentative movement of reified value through its various forms=sights=_eidae_, a movement in which human beings become entangled AS players in this play of the validation of substanceless value-in-movement. In that (commodity, money, interest,…) fetishism enables value to appear AS intrinsically substantial to things, it covers up the play of mutual valuation, estimation and validation of living human powers and abilities that is constantly being played out in daily life. Kritik here means undoing the mystifying cover-up of value-fetishism so as to free humankind of its illusions.

  7. Andrew,

    Interesting review. I have not read Sayers’ book.

    Nonetheless, your review sparks the following questions and comments:

    Do you really mean to say that commodity fetishism is a “cognitive error”? If so, do you defend ‘money fetishism’ as cognitive error?


    You write: “…It is unfortunate that in the meantime he [Marx] 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.”

    Marx seems to be at great pains to avoid exactly this. This seems to be the importance of his chapters on value, money and surplus value. These chapters, or parts one and two of volume one of Capital are what provide the institutional physiology of capitalism; providing for Marx ‘law-like social tendencies’ in parts three, four, and especially part seven of volume one of Capital, and constituting all of volume two of Capital.

    This is different than Marx (or contemporary Marxian political economists) claiming Newtonian laws of capitalist society. In spite of no Newtonian laws, there does seem to be structural and macroeconomic dynamics that can be understood.

    If we take Marx in the three volumes of Capital as a whole, it seems to me rather difficult to argue Marx is scientifically reductionist.

    Here is another way to say it. Marx does not “effectively give up on his early efforts to provide a ‘phenomenology’ of capitalism from the standpoint of the worker.” Rather, parts 1 and 2 of Capital, provide the phenomenological basis of Marx’s theory. The structural dynamic is built from this phenomenological basis.

  8. As Editor I have refrained from contributing to the Review, but in this case I can respond as author, and I have sarban to thank for prodding me into doing so.

    I am grateful to Andrew Chitty for his kind words about my book (and I would also like to thank Tony Mckenna for his earlier review of the hardback edition). So many of the points that Andrew makes and the Comments that his review has provoked have focused on the translation of the German terms Entäußerung and Entfremdung that readers could be forgiven for thinking that this is a major topic of my book. It is not. I avoid this discussion almost completely. My view is that Marx uses these terms pretty well interchangeably. I am not convinced that he uses them to denote different concepts, or that distinguishing his uses of them (which none of the existing translations do) helps much in understanding his thought (ix).

    Andrew criticizes me for `focusing almost entirely on alienation in work.’ Certainly, the existing literature on Marx’s concept of alienation does this, but I do not think this criticism applies to my book. Not only do I spend the first Chapter describing the wider post-Hegelian philosophical context of discussion, as Andrew mentions, I also have chapters on social and economic alienation, the division of labour, etc and on the overcoming of alienation in these respects in a future society (Chapters 5, 7-9).

    Andrew argues that in 1845 Marx `shifts from the idea that human products dominate their makers to the idea that human social relations do’, and Despain endorses this point, but it is questionable. As I argue in my book, `at root … these two forms of alienation are the same. For in producing objects we are also producing and reproducing our economic and social relations’ (57). The idea that social and economic relations take an alien form is present in the 1844 Manuscripts in the idea of the alienation of `man from man’, and in the `Notes on James Mill’. It is also the central theme of Engels’ 1844 article, `Outline of a Critique of Political Economy’, whose importance for the development of his thought Marx acknowledges in the Preface to the Manuscripts. Conversely the idea of alienated labour is present in The German Ideology and in many subsequent works by Marx, even if that precise term is rarely used.

    But these terminological points have only a peripheral place in my book. Its main aim is to explain and to defend Marx’s notion of alienation and to show how knowledge of Hegel’s philosophy is essential for understanding it. For a brief outline of the book’s main themes see The Montréal Review, January 2012 (www.themontrealreview.com/2009/Marx-and-Alienation-Essays-on-Hegelian-Themes-Sean-Sayers.php).

  9. Sean,

    Thanks for this. My reading of Andrew’s review is that he does pronounce clearly it is a rather narrow reading of book.

    I don’t have the expertise of Andrew to comment on the distinction between Entäußerung and Entfremdung. However, I do doubt very much that a close reading Marx’s usage is the way to adjudicate difference.

    Finally, I do not believe I endorsed the point that in 1845 Marx `shifts from the idea that human products dominate their makers to the idea that human social relations do.’

    However, this does bring up a very important topic. My focus on Marxian political economy is money. Money as a ‘thing’ does come to dominant, however, ontologically money is also a social relationship. To this I would endorse the idea that Marx’s later theories pivot on money, interest-bearing capital, and value-in-process, whereby the domination underscores more social relationships.

    However, when it comes to commodities, the analytical distinction we can make of money (i.e. as both a ‘thing’ and social relations) begins to become sharper. Furthermore, when it comes to machines and technology it is more the product itself than the relationship.

    But think of the Luddites (USA labor history if filled with continuous mini-episodes of Luddite-like behavior) , they busted up machines, surely in part the ‘thingness’ of these human products was making their lives worse (certainly still true today) However, until the capitalist relationship are changed, the tendency will be for human products to dominate.

    Thus, what I am endorsing is a dialectic between products (thingness) and social relationships they are embedded upon and within.


  10. I know a lot of years has passed since this was written, but why do you say that Entfremdung was abandoned while it was used in Capital (e.g. chapter 2 and at the end of the first section of chapter 3?

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