István Mészáros, 1970
Marx’s Theory of Aienation

1. Origins of the Concept of Alienation

As is well known, Feuerbach, Hegel and English Political Economy exercised the most direct influence on the formation of Marx's theory of alienation. But we are concerned here with much more than simple intellectual influences. The concept of alienation belongs to a vast and complex problematics, with a long history of its own. Preoccupations with this problematics – in forms ranging from the Bible to literary works as well as treatises on Law, Economy and Philosophy – reflect objective trends of European development, from slavery to the age of transition from capitalism to socialism. Intellectual influences, revealing important continuities across the transformations of social structures, acquire their real significance only if they are considered in this objective framework of development. If so assessed, their importance – far from being exhausted in mere historical curiosity – cannot be stressed enough: precisely because they indicate the deep-rootedness of certain problematics as well as the relative autonomy of the forms of thought in which they are reflected.

It must be made equally clear, however, that such influences are exercised in the dialectical sense of “continuity in discontinuity”. Whether the element of continuity predominates over discontinuity or the other way round, and in what precise form and correlation, is a matter for concrete historical analysis. As we shall see, in the case of Marx's thought in its relation to antecedent theories discontinuity is the “übergreifendes Moment”, but some elements of continuity are also very important.

Some of the principal themes of modern theories of alienation appeared in European thought, in one form or another, many centuries ago. To follow their development in detail would require copious volumes. In the few pages at our disposal we cannot attempt more than an outline of the general trends of this development, describing their main characteristics insofar as they link up with Marx's theory of alienation and help to throw light on it.

1. The Judeo-Christian Approach

The first aspect we have to consider is the lament about being “alienated from God” (or having “fallen from Grace”) which belongs to the common heritage of Judeo-Christian mythology. The divine order, it is said, has been violated; man has alienated himself from “the ways of God”, whether simply by “the fall of man” or later by “the dark idolatries of alienated Judah”, or later again by the behaviour of “Christians alienated from the life of God”. The messianic mission consists in rescuing man from this state of self-alienation which he had brought upon himself.

But this is as far as the similarities go in the Judeo-Christian problematics; and far-reaching differences prevail in other respects. For the form in which the messianic transcendence of alienation is envisaged is not a matter of indifference. “Remember” – says Paul the Apostle – “that ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenant of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made High by the blood of Christ.... Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.” Christianity thus, in its universality, announces the imaginary solution of human self-alienation in the form of “the mystery of Christ.” This mystery postulates the reconciliation of the contradictions which made groups of people oppose each other as “strangers”, “foreigners”, “enemies”. This is not only a reflection of a specific form of social struggle but at the same time also its mystical “resolution” which induced Marx to write: “It was only in appearance that Christianity overcame real Judaism. It was too refined, too spiritual to eliminate the crudeness of practical need except by raising it into the ethereal realm. Christianity is the sublime thought of Judaism. Judaism is the vulgar practical application of Christianity. But this practical application could only become universal when Christianity as perfected religion had accomplished, in a theoretical fashion, the alienation of man from himself and from nature.” [Marx, On the Jewish Question]

Judaism in its “crude” realism reflects with a much greater immediacy the actual state of affairs, advocating a virtually endless continuation of the extension of its worldly powers – i.e. settling for a “quasi-messianic” solution on earth: this is why it is in no hurry whatsoever about the arrival of its Messiah – in the form of two, complementary, postulates:

1. the softening of internal class conflicts, in the interest of the cohesion of the national community in its confrontation with the outside world of the “strangers”: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thy hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.”

2. the promise of readmission into the grace of God is partly fulfilled in the form of granting the power of domination over the “strangers” to Judah: “And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and the sons of the alien shall be your ploughmen and your vinedressers.”

The formidable practical vehicle of this expanding domination was the weapon of “usury” which needed, however, in order to become really effective, its suitable counterpart which offered an unlimited outlet for the power of this weapon: i.e. the metamorphosis of Judaism into Christianity. For “Judaism attains its apogee with the perfection of civil society; but civil society only reaches perfection in the Christian world. Only under the sway of Christianity, which objectifies a national, natural, moral and theoretical relationships, could civil society separate itself completely from the life of the state, sever all the species-bonds of man, establish egoism and selfish need in their place, and dissolve the human world into a world of atomistic, antagonistic individuals.”

The ethos of Judaism which stimulated this development was not confined to the general assertion of the God-willed superiority of the “chosen people” in its confrontation with the world of strangers, issuing in commands like this: “Ye shall not eat any thing that dieth of itself: thou shalt give it unto the stranger that is in thy gates, that he may eat it; or thou mayest sell it unto an alien: for thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God.” Far more important was in the practical sense the absolute prohibition imposed on the exploitation of the sons of Judah through usury: “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.” Usury was only allowed in dealings with strangers, but not with “brethren”.

Christianity, by contrast, which refused to retain this discrimination between “any of my people” and “strangers” (or “aliens”) postulating in its place the “universal brotherhood of mankind”, not only deprived itself of the powerful weapon of “usury” (i.e. of “interest” and the accumulation of capital coupled with it) as the most important vehicle of early economic expansion but at the same time also became an easy prey to the triumphant advance of the “spirit of Judaism”. The “crude and vulgar practical principle of Judaism” discussed by Marx – i.e. the effectively self-centred, internally cohesive, practical-empirical partiality could easily triumph over the abstract theoretical universality of Christianity established as a set of “purely formal rites with which the world of self-interest encircles itself”. (On the importance of “usury” and the controversies related to it at the time of the rise of early capitalism)

It is very important to emphasise here that the issue at stake is not simply the empirical reality of Jewish communities in Europe but “the spirit of Judaism”; i.e. the internal principle of European social developments culminating in the emergence and stabilisation of capitalistic society. “The spirit of Judaism”, therefore, must be understood, in the last analysis, to mean “the spirit of capitalism”. For an early realisation of the latter Judaism as an empirical reality only provided a suitable vehicle. Ignoring this distinction, for one reason or another, could lead – as it did throughout the ages – to scapegoat-hunting anti-Semitism. The objective conditions of European social development, from the dissolution of pre-feudal society to the Universal triumph of capitalism over feudalism, must be assessed in their comprehensive complexity of which Judaism as a sociological phenomenon is a part only, however important a part it may have been at certain stages of this development.

Judaism and Christianity are complementary aspects of society's efforts to cope with its internal contradictions. They both represent attempts at an imaginary transcendence of these contradictions, at an illusory “reappropriation” of the “human essence” through a fictitious supersession of the state of alienation. Judaism and Christianity express the contradictions of “partiality versus universality” and “competition versus monopoly”: i.e. internal contradictions of what has become known as “the spirit of capitalism”. In this framework the success of partiality can only be conceived in contradiction to and at the expense of universality – just as this “universality” can only prevail on the basis of the suppression of partiality – and vice versa. Similarly with the relationship between competition and monopoly: the condition of success of “competition” is the negation of monopoly just as for monopoly the condition of extending its power is the suppression of competition. The partiality of Judaism, the “chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the trader, and above all of the financier” – writes Marx, repeatedly emphasising that “the social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism”, i.e. from the partiality of the financier's “nationality”, or, expressed in more general terms, from “the Jewish narrowness of society”. “Jewish narrowness” could triumph in “civil society” because the latter required the dynamism of the “supremely practical Jewish spirit” for its full development. The metamorphosis of Judaism into Christianity carried with it a later metamorphosis of Christianity into a more evolved, less crudely partial form of – secularised – Judaism: “The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only by acquiring the power of money, but also because money had become, through him and also apart from him, a world power, while the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves in so far as the Christians have become Jews. Protestant modifications of earlier established Christianity, in various national settings, had accomplished a relatively early metamorphosis of “abstract-theoretical” Christianity into “practical-Christian-Judaism” as a significant step in the direction of the complete secularisation of the whole problematics of alienation. Parallel to the expanding domination of the spirit of capitalism in the practical sphere, the ideological forms have become more and more secular as well; from the various versions of “deism” through “humanistic atheism” to the famous declaration stating that “God is dead”. By the time of the latter even the illusions of “universality” with which “the world of self-interest encircles itself” – retained and at times even intensified by deism and humanistic atheism – have become acutely embarrassing for the bourgeoisie and a sudden, often cynical, transition had to be made to the open cult of partiality.

As has been mentioned, under the conditions of class society because of the inherent contradiction between the “part” and the “whole”, due to the fact that partial interest dominates the whole of society – the principle of partiality stands in an insoluble contradiction to that of Universality. Consequently it is the crude relation of forces that elevates the prevailing form of partiality into a bogus universality, whereas the ideal-oriented negation of this partiality, e.g. the abstract-theoretical universality of Christianity, before its metamorphosis into “practical-Christian-Judaism” – must remain illusory, fictitious, impotent. For “partiality” and “universality” in their reciprocal opposition to each other are two facets of the same, alienated, state of affairs. Egoistic partiality must be elevated to “universality” for its fulfilment: the underlying socioeconomic dynamism is both “self-centred” and “outer-directed”, “nationalist” and “cosmopolitan”, “protectionist-isolationist” and “imperialist” at the same time. This is why there can be no room for genuine universality, only for the bogus universalisation of the crudest partiality, coupled with an illusory, abstract-theoretical postulate of universality as the – merely ideological – negation of effective, practically prevailing partiality. Thus the “chimerical nationality of the Jew” is all the more chimerical because – insofar as it is “the nationality of the trader and of the financier” – it is in reality the only effective universality: partiality turned into operative universality, into the fundamental organising principle of the society in question. (The mystifications of anti-Semitism become obvious if one realises that it turns against the mere sociological phenomenon of Jewish partiality, and not against “the Jewish narrowness of society”; it attacks partiality in its limited immediacy, and thus not only does it not face the real problem: the partiality of capitalist self-interest turned into the ruling universal principle of society, but actively supports its own object of attack by means of this disorienting mystification.)

For Marx, in his reflections on the Judeo-Christian approach to the problems of alienation, the matter of central concern was to find a solution that could indicate a way out of the apparently perennial impasse: the renewed reproduction, in different forms, of the same contradiction between partiality and universality which characterised the entire historical development and its ideological reflections. His answer was not simply the double negation of crude partiality and abstract universality. Such a solution would have remained an abstract conceptual opposition and no more. The historical novelty of Marx's solution consisted in defining the problem in terms of the concrete dialectical concept of “partiality prevailing as universality”, in opposition to genuine universality which alone could embrace the manifold interests of society as a whole and of man as a “species-being” (Gattungswesen - i.e. man liberated from the domination of crude, individualistic self-interest). It was this specific, socially concrete concept which enabled Marx to grasp the problematics of capitalist society in its full contradictoriness and to formulate the programme of a practical transcendence of alienation by means of a genuinely universalising fusion of ideal and reality, theory and practice.

Also, we have to emphasise in this context that Marx had nothing to do with abstract “humanism” because he opposed right from the outset – as we have seen in the quotations taken from On the Jewish Question, written in 1843 – the illusions of abstract universality as a mere postulate, an impotent “ought”, a fictitious “reappropriation of non-alienated humanness”. There is no trace, therefore, of what might be termed “ideological concepts” in the thought of the young Marx who writes On the Jewish Question, let alone in the socioeconomically far more concrete reflections contained in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

2. Alienation as “Universal Saleability”

The secularisation of the religious concept of alienation had been accomplished in the concrete assertions concerning “saleability”. In the first place this secularisation progressed within the religious shell. Nothing could withstand this trend of converting everything into a saleable object, no matter how “sacred” it may have been considered at some stage in its “inalienability” sanctioned by an alleged divine command. (Balzac's Melmoth is a masterfully ironical reflection on the state of a totally secularised society in which “even the Holy Spirit has its quotation on the Stock Exchange”.) Even the doctrine of the “fall of man” had to be challenged – as it had been done by Luther, for instance – in the name of man's “liberty”. This advocacy of “liberty”, however, in reality turned out to be nothing more than the religious glorification of the secular principle of “universal saleability”. It was this latter which found its – however utopian – adversary in Thomas Münzer who complained in his pamphlet against Luther, saying that it was intolerable “that every creature should be transformed into property – the fishes in the water, the birds of the air, the plants of the earth”. Insights like this, no matter how profoundly and truthfully they reflected the inner nature of the transformations in course, had to remain mere utopias, ineffective protests conceived from the perspective of a hopeless anticipation of a possible future negation of commodity-society. At the time of the triumphant emergence of capitalism the prevalent ideological conceptions had to be those which assumed an affirmative attitude towards the objective trends of this development.

In the conditions of feudal society the hindrances which resisted the advance of “the spirit of capitalism” were, for instance, that “the vassal could not alienate without the consent of his superior (Adam Smith) or that “the bourgeois cannot alienate the things of the community without the permission of the king” (thirteenth century). The supreme ideal was that everyone should be able “to give and to alienate that which belongs to him” (thirteenth century). Obviously, however, the social order which confined to “The Lord” the power to “sell his Servant, or alienate him by Testament” (Hobbes) fell hopelessly short of the requirements of “free alienability” of everything – including one's person – by means of some contractual arrangement to which the person concerned would be a party. Land too, one of the sacred pillars of the outdated social order, had to become “alienable” so that the self-development of commodity society should go on unhampered.

That alienation as universal saleability involved reification has been recognised well before the whole social order which operated on this basis could be subjected to a radical and effective criticism. The mystifying glorification of “liberty” as “contractually safeguarded freedom” (in fact the contractual abdication of human freedom) played an important part in delaying the recognition of the underlying contradictions. Saying this does not alter, however, the fact that the connection between alienation and relocation has been recognised – even though in an uncritical form – by some philosophers who far from questioning the contractual foundations of society idealised it. Kant, for instance, made the point that “such a contract is not a mere reification [or “conversion into a thing” – Verdingung] but the transference – by means of hiring it out of one's person into the property of the Lord of the house. All object, a piece of dead property could be simply alienated from the original owner and transferred into the property of someone else without undue complications: “the transference of one's property to someone else is its alienation” (Kant).” (The complications, at an earlier stage, were of an “external”, political nature, manifest in the taboos and prohibitions of feudal society which declared certain things to be “inalienable”; with the successful abolition of such taboos the complications vanished automatically.) The living person, however, first had to be reified – converted into a thing, into a mere piece of property for the duration of the contract – before it could be mastered by its new owner. Reified in the same sense of “verdingen” in which Kant's younger contemporary Wieland uses the word in translating a line from Homer's Odyssey: “Stranger, will you become my thing, my servant?” (The current English translation, by contrast, characteristically reads like this: “Stranger,” he said, “I wonder how you'd like to work for me if I took you on as my man, somewhere on an upland farm, at a proper wage of course.)

The principal function of the much glorified “contract” was, therefore, the introduction – in place of the rigidly fixed feudal relations – of a new form of “fixity” which guaranteed the right of the new master to manipulate the allegedly “free” human beings as things, as objects without will, once they have “freely elected” to enter into the contract in question by “alienating at will that which belonged to them”.

Thus human alienation was accomplished through turning everything “into alienable, saleable objects in thrall to egoistic need and huckstering. Selling is the practice of alienation. Just as man, so long as he is engrossed in religion, can only objectify his essence by an alien and fantastic being; so under the sway of egoistic need, he can only affirm himself and produce objects in practice by subordinating his products and his own activity to the domination of an alien entity, and by attributing to them the significance of an alien entity, namely money.” [Marx, On the Jewish Question] Reification of one's person and thus the “freely chosen” acceptance of a new servitude – in place of the old feudal, politically established and regulated form of servitude – could advance on the basis of a “civil society” characterised by the rule of money that opened the floodgates for the universal “servitude to egoistic need” (Knechtschaft des egoistischen Bedürfnisses).

Alienation is therefore characterised by the universal extension of “saleability” (i.e. the transformation of everything into commodity); by the conversion of human beings into “things” so that they could appear as commodities on the market (in other words: the “reification” of human relations), and by the fragmentation of the social body into “isolated individuals” (vereinzelte Einzelnen) who pursued their own limited, particularistic aims “in servitude to egoistic need”, making a virtue out of their selfishness in their cult of privacy. No wonder that Goethe protested “alles vereinzelte ist verwerflich”, “all isolated particularity is to be rejected”, advocating in opposition to “selfish isolationism” some form of “community with others like oneself” in order to be able to make a common “front against the world.” Equally no wonder that in the circumstances Goethe's recommendations had to remain utopian postulates. For the social order of “civil society” could sustain itself only on the basis of the conversion of the various areas of human experience into “saleable commodities”, and it could follow relatively undisturbed its course of development only so long as this universal marketing of all facets of human life, including the most private ones, did not reach its point of saturation.

3. Historicity and the Rise of Anthropology

“Alienation” is an eminently historical concept. If man is alienated, he must be alienated from something, as a result of certain causes – the interplay of events and circumstances in relation to man as the subject of this alienation – which manifest themselves in a historical framework. Similarly, the “transcendence of alienation” is an inherently historical concept which envisages the successful accomplishment of a process leading to a qualitatively different state of affairs.

Needless to say, the historical character of certain concepts is no guarantee whatsoever that the intellectual edifices which make use of them are historical. Often, as a matter of fact, mystifications set in at one stage or another of the analysis. Indeed, if the concept of alienation is abstracted form the concrete socio-economical process, a mere semblance of historicity may be substituted for a genuine understanding of the complex factors involved in the historical process. (It is an essential function of mythologies to transfer the fundamental socio-historical problems of human development to an atemporal plane, and the Judeo-Christian treatment of the problematics of alienation is no exception to the general rule. Ideologically more topical is the case of some twentieth century theories of alienation in which concepts like “world-alienation” fulfil the function of negating the genuine historical categories and of replacing them by sheer mystification.)

Nevertheless it is an important characteristic of intellectual history that those philosophers achieved the greatest results in grasping the manifold complexities of alienation – before Marx: Hegel above all the others – who approached this problematics in an adequate historical manner. This correlation is even more significant in view of the fact that the point holds the other way round as well: namely those philosophers succeeded in elaborating a historical approach to the problems of philosophy who were aware of the problematics of alienation, and to the extent to which they were so. (It is by no means accidental that the greatest representative of the Scottish “historical school”, Adam Ferguson had at the centre of his thought the concept of “civil society” which was absolutely crucial for a socio-historically concrete understanding of the problematics of alienation.) The ontological determinants of this intellectual interrelationship need to retain our attention here for a moment.

It goes without saying, the development in question is by no means a simple linear one. At certain points of crisis in history when the possible socio-historical alternatives are still relatively open – a relative openness which creates a temporary “ideological vacuum” that favours the appearance of utopian ideologies – it is relatively easier to identify the objective characteristics of the emerging social order than at a later stage by which time the needs that bring into life in the field of ideology the “uncritical positivism” we are all too familiar with have produced a self-perpetuating uniformity. We have seen the profound but hopelessly “premature” insights of a Thomas Münzer into the nature of developments hardly perceivable on the horizon, and he did not stand alone, of course, in this respect. Similarly, at a much earlier age, Aristotle gave a surprisingly concrete historical analysis of the inherent interconnection between religious beliefs and politico-social as well as family relations: “The family is the association established by nature for the supply of man's every day wants, and the members of it are called by Charondas 'companions of the cupboard', and by Epimenides the Cretan, 'companions of the manger'. But when several families are united, and the association aims at something more than the supply of daily needs, the first society to be formed is the village. And the most natural form of the village appears to be that of a colony from the family, composed of the children and grandchildren, who are said to be 'sucked with the same milk'. And this is the reason why Hellenic states were originally governed by kings; because the Hellenes were under royal rule before they came together, as the barbarians still are. Every family is ruled by the eldest and therefore in the colonies of the family the kingly form of government prevailed because they were of the same blood. As Homer says: 'Each one gives law to his children and to his wives.'

For they lived dispersedly, as was the manner in ancient times. Wherefore men say that the Gods have a king, because they themselves either are or were in ancient times under the rule of a king. For they imagine, not only the forms of the Gods, but their ways of life to be like their own.

Many hundreds of years had to pass by before philosophers could reach again a similar degree of concreteness and historical insight. And yet, Aristotle's insight remained an isolated one: it could not become the cornerstone of a coherent philosophy of history. In Aristotle's thought the concrete historical insights were embedded in a thoroughly ahistorical general conception. The main reason for this was an overriding ideological need which prevented Aristotle from applying a historical principle to the analysis of society as a whole. In accordance with this ideological need it had to be “proved” that slavery was a social order in complete conformity with nature itself. Such a conception – formulated by Aristotle in opposition to those who challenged the established social relations carried with it bogus concepts like “freedom by nature” and “slavery by nature”. For, according to Aristotle, “there is a great difference between the rule over freemen and the rule over slaves, as there is between slavery by nature and freedom by nature”.

The introduction of the concept of “slavery by nature” has far-reaching consequences for Aristotle's philosophy. History in it is confined to the sphere of “freedom” which is, however, restricted by the concept of “freedom by nature”. Indeed, since slavery must be fixed eternally – a need adequately reflected in the concept of slavery “by nature” – there can be no question of a genuine historical conception. The concept of “slavery by nature” carries with it its counterpart: “freedom by nature”, and thus the fiction of slavery determined by nature destroys the historicity of the sphere of “freedom” as well. The partiality of the ruling class prevails, postulating its own rule as a hierarchial-structural superiority determined (and sanctioned) by nature. (The partiality of Judaism – the mythology of the “chosen people” etc. – expresses the same kind of negation of history as regards the fundamental structural relations of class society.) The principle of historicity is therefore inevitably degraded into pseudo-historicity. The model of a repetitive cycle is projected upon society as a whole: no matter what happens, the fundamental structural relations determined by “nature” are said to be always reproduced, not as a matter of empirical fact, but as that of an a priori necessity. Movement, accordingly, is confined to an increase in “size” and “complexity” of the communities analysed by Aristotle, and changes in both “size” and “complexity” are circumscribed by the concepts of “freedom by nature” and “slavery by nature”, i.e. by the postulated a priori necessity of reproducing the same structure of society. Thus the insoluble social contradictions of his days lead even a great philosopher like Aristotle to operate with self-contradictory concepts like “freedom by nature”, imposed on him by the entirely fictitious concept of “slavery by nature”, in direct agreement with the prevailing ideological need. And when he makes a further attempt at rescuing the historicity of the sphere of “freedom by nature”, declaring that the slave is not a man but a mere thing, a “talking tool”, he finds himself right in the middle of another contradiction: for the tools of man have a historical character, and certainly not one fixed by nature. Because of the partiality of his position, the dynamic, dialectically changing laws of social totality must remain a mystery to Aristotle. His postulate of a natural “duality” directly rooted, as we have seen, in the ideological need of turning partiality into universality – make it impossible for him to perceive the manifold varieties of social phenomena as specific manifestations of an inherently interconnected, dynamically changing socio-historical totality.

The interrelationship between an awareness of alienation and the historicity of a philosopher's conception is a necessary one because a fundamental ontological question: the “nature of man” (“human essence”, etc.) is the common point of reference of both. This fundamental ontological question is: what is in agreement with “human nature” and what constitutes an “alienation” from the “human essence”? Such a question cannot be answered ahistorically without being turned into an irrational mystification of some kind. On the other hand, a historical approach to the question of “human nature” inevitably carries with it some diagnosis of “alienation” or “reification”, related to the standard or “ideal” by which the whole issue is being assessed.

The point of central importance is, however, whether or not the question of “human nature” is assessed within an implicitly or explicitly “egalitarian” framework of explanation. If for some reason the fundamental equality of all men is not recognised, that is ipso facto tantamount to negating historicity, for in that case it becomes necessary to rely on the magic device of “nature” (or, in religious conceptions, “divine order” etc.) in the philosopher's explanation of historically established inequalities. (This issue is quite distinct from the question of the ideological justification of existing inequalities. The latter is essential for explaining the socio-historical determinants of a philosopher's system but quite irrelevant to the logically necessary interrelationship of a set of concepts of a particular system. Here we are dealing with the structural relations of concepts which prevail within the general framework of a system already in existence. This is why the “structural” and the “historical” principles cannot be reduced into one another except by vulgarisers – but constitute a dialectical unity.) The philosopher's specific approach to the problem of equality, the particular limitations and shortcomings of his concept of “human nature”, determine the intensity of his historical conception as well as the character of his insight into the real nature of alienation. This goes not only for those thinkers who – for reasons already seen – failed to produce significant achievements in this regard but also for positive examples, from the representatives of the Scottish “historical school” to Hegel and Feuerbach.

“Anthropological orientation” without genuine historicity well as the necessary conditions of the latter, of course – amounts to nothing more than mystification, whatever socio-historical determinants might have brought it into existence. The “organic” conception of society, for instance, according to which every element of the social complex must fulfil its “proper function” i.e. a function predetermined by “nature” or by “divine providence” in accordance with some rigid hierarchial pattern – is a totally ahistorical and inverted projection of the characteristics of an established social order upon an alleged “organism” (the human body, for instance) which is supposed to be the “natural model” of all society. (A great deal of modern “functionalism” is, mutatis mutandis, an attempt at liquidating historicity. But we cannot enter here into the discussion of that matter.) In this regard it is doubly significant that in the development of modern thought the concept of alienation acquired an increasing importance parallel to the rise of a genuine, historically founded philosophical anthropology. On the one hand this trend represented a radical opposition to the mystifications of medieval pseudo-anthropology, and on the other it provided the positive organising centre of an incomparably more dynamic understanding of the social processes than had been possible before.

Well before Feuerbach recognised the distinction between “true: that is anthropological and false: that is the theological essence of religion” [Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity] religion was conceived as a historical phenomenon and the assessment of its nature was subordinated to the question of the historicity of man. In such a conception it became possible to envisage the supersession of religion insofar as mythology and religion were assigned only to a particular stage – though a necessary one – of the universal history of mankind, conceived on the model of man progressing from childhood to maturity. Vico distinguished three stages in the development of humanity (of humanity making its own history): (1) the age of Gods; (2) the age of heroes; and (3) “the age of men in which all men recognised themselves as equal in human nature”. Herder, at a later stage, defined mythology as “personified nature or dressed-up wisdom” and spoke of the “childhood”, “adolescence” and “manhood” of mankind, limiting even in poetry the possibilities of myth-creation under the circumstances of the third stage.

But it was Diderot who spelled out the socio-political secret of the whole trend by emphasising that once man succeeded in his critique of “the majesty of heaven” he will not shy away for long from an assault on the other oppressor of mankind: “the worldly sovereignty”, for these two stand or fall together. And it was by no means accidental that it was Diderot who reached this degree of clarity in political radicalism. For he did not stop at Vico's remarkable but rather abstract statement according to which “all men are equal in human nature”. He went on asserting, with the highest degree of social radicalism known among the great figures of French Enlightenment, that “if the day-worker is miserable, the nation is miserable”. Not surprisingly, therefore, it was Diderot who succeeded to the highest degree in grasping the problematics of alienation, well ahead of his contemporaries, indicating as basic contradictions “the distinction of yours and mine”, the opposition between “one's own particular utility and the general good” and the subordination of the “general good to one's own particular good.” And he went even further, emphasising that these contradictions result in the production of “superfluous wants”, “imaginary goods” and “artificial needs” – almost the same terms as those used by Marx in describing the “artificial needs and imaginary appetites” produced by capitalism. The fundamental difference was, however, that while Marx could refer to a specific social movement as the “material force” behind his philosophical programme, Diderot had to content himself – because of his “premature situation” – with the viewpoint of a far-away utopian community in which such contradictions as well as their consequences are unknown. And, of course, in accordance with his utopian standpoint related to the wretched working conditions of his day, Diderot could not see any solution except the limitation of needs which should enable man to liberate himself from the crippling tedium of work, allowing him to stop, to rest and to finish working . Thus an appeal is made to the utopian fiction of a “natural” limitation of wants because the type of labour which predominates in the given form of society is inherently anti-human, and “fulfilment” appears as an absence of activity, not as enriched and enriching, humanly fulfilling activity, not as self-fulfilment in activity. That which is supposed to be “natural” and “human” appears as something idyllic and fixed (by nature) and consequently as something to be jealously protected against corruption from “outside”, under the enlightening guidance of “reason”. Since the “material force” that could turn theory into social practice is missing, theory must convert itself into its own solution: into an utopian advocacy of the power of reason. At this point we can clearly see that even a Diderot's remedy is a far cry from the solutions advocated and envisaged by Marx.

Marx's radical superiority to all who preceded him is evident in the coherent dialectical historicity of his theory, in contrast to the weaknesses of his predecessors who at one point or another were all forced to abandon the actual ground of history for the sake of some imaginary solution to the contradictions they may have perceived but could not master ideologically and intellectually. In this context Marx's profound insight into the true relationship between anthropology and ontology is of the greatest importance. For there is one way only of producing an all-embracing and in every respect consistent historical theory, namely by positively situating anthropology within an adequate general ontological framework. If, however, ontology is subsumed under anthropology – as often happened not only in the distant past but in our own time as well in that case one-sidedly grasped anthropological principles which should be historically explained become self-sustaining axioms of the system in question and undermine its historicity. In this respect Feuerbach represents a retrogression in relation to Hegel whose philosophical approach avoided on the whole the pitfall of dissolving ontology within anthropology. Consequently Hegel anticipated to a much greater extent than Feuerbach the Marxian grasp of history, although even Hegel could only find “the abstract, logical, speculative expression for the movement of history”.

In contrast to both the Hegelian abstractness and the Feuerbachian retrogression in historicity Marx discovered the dialectical relationship between materialist ontology and anthropology, emphasising that “man's feelings, passions, etc., are not merely anthropological phenomena in the [narrower] sense, but truly ontological affirmations of essential being (of nature). . . . Only through developed industry i.e. through the medium of private property – does the ontological essence of human passion come to be both in its totality and in its humanity; the science of man is therefore itself a product of man's establishment of himself by practical activity. The meaning of private property – liberated from its estrangement – is the existence of essential objects for man, both as objects of enjoyment and as objects of activity”. We shall discuss some aspects of this complex of problems later in this chapter, as well as in chapter IV, VI, and VII. What is particularly important to stress at this point is that the specific anthropological factor (“humanity”) cannot be grasped in its dialectical historicity unless it is conceived on the basis of the historically developing ontological totality (“nature”) to which it ultimately belongs. A failure to identify the adequate dialectical relationship between ontological totality and anthropological specificity carries with it insoluble contradictions. In the first place it leads to postulating some fixed “human essence” as the philosopher's “original datum”, and consequently to the ultimate liquidation of all historicity (from Feuerbach to some recent theories of “structuralism”). Equally damaging is another contradiction which means that pseudo-historical and “anthropological” considerations are applied to the analysis of certain social phenomena whose comprehension would require a non-anthropomorphic – but of course dialectical – concept of causality. To give an example: no conceivable “anthropological hypothesis” could in the least help to understand the “natural laws” which govern the productive processes of capitalism in their long historical development; on the contrary, they could only lead to sheer mystifications. It might seem to be inconsistent with Marx's historical materialism when we are told in Capital that “The nature of capital is the same in its developed as in its undeveloped form”. (Some people might even use this passage in support of their interpretation of Marx's as a “structuralist” thinker.) A more careful reading would, however, reveal that, far from being inconsistent, Marx indicates here the ontological ground of a coherent historical theory. A later passage, in which he analyses capitalist production, makes this clearer:

“The principle which it [capitalism] pursued, of resolving each process into its constituent movements, without any regard to their possible execution by the hand of man, created the new modern science of technology. The varied, apparently unconnected, and petrified forms of the industrial processes now resolved themselves into so many conscious and systematic applications of natural science to the attainment of given useful effects. Technology also discovered the few main fundamental forms of motion, which, despite the diversity of the instruments used, are necessarily taken by every productive action of the human body...”

As we can see, the whole issue turns on understanding the natural basis (the general laws of causality, etc.) of specifically human historicity. Without an adequate grasp of this natural basis the “science of man” is simply inconceivable because everything gets ultimately dissolved into relativism. The “anthropological principle”, therefore, must be put in its proper place, within the general framework of a comprehensive historical ontology. In more precise terms, any such principle must be transcended in the direction of a complex dialectical social ontology.

If this is not achieved – if, that is, the anthropological principle remains narrowly anthropological – there can be no hope whatsoever of understanding a process, for instance, which is determined by its own laws of movement and imposes on human beings its own patterns of productive procedure “without any regard to their possible execution by the hand of man”. Similarly, nothing can be understood about the alienating “nature of capital” in terms of the fictitious postulates of an “egoistic human nature” so dear to the heart of the political economists. For the “sameness” of capital in both its “undeveloped” and “developed form” – a sameness which applies only to its “nature” and not to its form and mode of existence – must be explained in terms of the most comprehensive laws of a historical ontology founded on nature. The socially dominating role of capital in modern history is self-evident. But only the fundamental laws of social ontology can explain how it is possible that under certain conditions a given “nature” (the nature of capital) should unfold and fully realise itself – in accordance with its objective nature – by following its own inner laws of development, from its undeveloped form to its form of maturity, “without any regard to man”. Anthropological hypotheses, no matter how subtle, are a priori non-starters in this respect. Equally, a simple socio-historical hypothesis is of no use. For the issue at stake is precisely to explain what lies at the roots of historical development as its ultimate ground of determination, and therefore it would be sheer circularity to indicate the changing historical circumstances as the fundamental cause of development of capital itself. Capital, as everything else in existence, has – it goes without saying – its historical dimension. But this historical dimension is categorically different from an ontological substance.

What is absolutely essential is not to confound ontological continuity with some imaginary anthropological fixity. The ultimate ground of persistence of the problematics of alienation in the history of ideas, from its Judeo-Christian beginnings to its formulations by Marx's immediate predecessors, is the relative ontological continuity inherent in the unfolding of capital in accordance with its inner laws of growth from its “undeveloped” to its “developed form”. To turn this relative ontological continuity into some fictitious characteristic of “human nature” means that an elucidation of the actual processes which underlie these developments is a priori impossible. If, however, one realises that the ontological continuity in question concerns the “nature of capital”, it becomes possible to envisage a transcendence (Aufhebung) of alienation, provided that the issue is formulated as a radical ontological transformation of the social structure as a whole, and not confined to the partial measure of a political expropriation of capital (which is simply a necessary first step in the direction of the Marxian transcendence of alienation). Only if some basic conditions of an ontological transcendence are satisfied and to the extent to which they are so – i.e. insofar as there is an effective break in the objective ontological continuity of capital in its broadest Marxian sense – can we speak of a qualitatively new phase of development: the beginning of the “true history of mankind”. Without this ontological frame of reference there can be no consistent historical theory; only some form of historical relativism instead, devoid of an objective measure of advance and consequently prone to subjectivism and voluntarism, to the formulation of “Messianic programmes” coupled with an arbitrary anticipation of their realisation in the form of idealistic postulates.

Here we can clearly see the historical importance of the young Marx's discovery concerning the dialectical relationship between ontology and anthropology: it opened up the road to the elaboration of Marx's great theoretical synthesis and to the practical realisation of the revolutionary programmes based on it. His predecessors, as a rule, turned their limited ontological insights into elements of a curious mixture of anthropological-moral-ideological preaching. Henry Home (Lord Kames), for instance – not a negligible figure but one of the greatest representatives of the Scottish historical school of Enlightenment – wrote the following lines: “Activity is essential to a social being: to a selfish being it is of no use, after procuring the means of living. A selfish man, who by his opulence has all the luxuries of life at command, and dependents without number, has no occasion for activity. Hence it may fairly be inferred, that were man destined by providence to be entirely selfish, he would be disposed by his constitution to rest, and never would be active when he could avoid it. The natural activity of man, therefore, is to me evidence, that his Maker did not intend him to be purely a selfish being.” Since the social grounds of this criticism cannot be spelled out – because of the contradiction inherent in it, i.e. because of the “selfishness” necessarily associated with the social class represented by Henry Home – everything must remain abstract-anthropological; worse: even this abstract criticism in the end must be watered down by the terms “entirely” and “purely selfish”. A new form of conservatism appears on the horizon to take the place of the old one, appealing to the anthropological model of “Enlightened Man”: this “natural” realisation of Triumphant Reason. “Even those who are most prone to persecution, begin to hesitate. Reason, resuming her sovereign authority, will banish it [i.e. persecution] altogether . . . within the next century it will be thought strange, that persecution should have prevailed among social beings. It will perhaps even be doubted, whether it ever was seriously put into practice.” And again: “Reason at last prevailed, after much opposition: the absurdity of a whole nation being slaves to a weak mortal, remarkable perhaps for no valuable qualification, became apparent to all.” But the unhistorical and categorical criteria of “rational” and “absurd” rebound on this approach when it has to face some new problems. This is when its conservatism comes to the fore: “It was not difficult to foresee the consequences [of the general assault on the old order]: down fell the whole fabric, the sound parts with the infirm. And man now laugh currently at the absurd notions of their forefathers, without thinking either of being patriots, or of being good subjects." So just as much as one's own selfishness had to be distinguished from the “purely selfish” and “entirely selfish” behaviour of one's opponents, now the “legitimately” used criterion of “absurdity” has to be opposed to its “abuse” by those who carry it “too far”, endangering the “sound parts” of the “social fabric”. “Reason” is turned into a blank cheque, valid not only retrospectively but timelessly, sustaining the partial interest of its bearers, and destroying the earlier historical achievements. The insoluble dilemma of the whole movement of the Enlightenment is expressed in this mode of arguing, well before it assumes a dramatic political form in Burke's violent attacks on the French Revolution in the name of the continuity of the “sound social fabric”. A dilemma determined by the objective contradiction of subordinating the general interest to the partial interest of a social class.

Thus no sooner are the achievements of the Enlightenment realised than they are liquidated. Everything must fit the narrowly and ambiguously defined model of “Rational Man”. Only those aspects of alienation are recognised which can be classified as “alien to Reason”, with all the actual and potential arbitrariness involved in such an abstract criterion. Historicity reaches only as far as is compatible with the social position that requires these vague and abstract criteria as its ground of criticism, for the acknowledgment of human equality is, on the whole, confined to the abstract legal sphere. The same goes for the achievements in anthropology: old taboos are successfully attacked in the name of reason, but the understanding of the objective laws of movement, situating the specifically human factor within a dialectically grasped comprehensive natural framework, is hampered by the preconceived ideas expressed in the self-idealising model of “Rational Man”.

The reasons for this ultimate failure were very complex. Its ideological determinants, rooted in a social position dense with social contradictions that had to remain veiled from the thinkers concerned, have been mentioned already. Equally important was the fact that the underlying economic trends were still far from their point of maturity, which made it virtually impossible to gain an adequate insight into their real nature. (Marx could conceive his theory from the position of a qualitatively higher historical vantage point.) But the crucial point was that the philosophers of the Enlightenment could only take – at best – some tentative first steps in the direction of the elaboration of a dialectical method but were unable to grasp the fundamental laws of a materialist dialectic: their social and historical position prevented them from doing so. (On the other hand Hegel succeeded later in identifying the central concepts of dialectics, but in an “abstract, speculative, idealist fashion”.) This meant that they could not solve the dilemma inherent in historicised anthropology and anthropologically oriented history. For, paradoxically, history and anthropology helped one another up to a point, but turned into fetters for each other beyond that critical point. Only a materialist dialectic could have shown a way out of the impasse of this rigid opposition. For the want of such a dialectic, however, the historical principle was either dissolved into the pseudo-historicity of some repetitive cycle, or tended towards its own absolutisation in the form of historical relativism. The only possible solution which could have transcended both the “anthropological principle” and relativistic “historicism” would have been a synthesis of history and anthropology in the form of a comprehensive, materialist, dialectical ontology – having the concept of “self-developing human labour” (or “man's establishment of himself by practical activity”) for its centre of reference. The revolutionising idea of such a synthesis, however, did not appear in the history of human thought before the sketching of Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

4. The End of “Uncritical Positivism”

The middle of the eighteenth century marked a turning point in the various approaches to the problems of alienation. As the contradictions of the emerging new society started to become more visible, the earlier “uncritical positivism” that characterised not only the school of “Natural Law” but also the first classics of Political Economy, ran into insurmountable difficulties. In the previous period the concept of alienation has been used in regard to socio-economic and political phenomena in a thoroughly positive sense, insisting on the desirability of the alienation of land, political power, etc., on the positivity of “profit upon alienation”, on the rightfulness of procuring interest without alienating capital, on selling one's labour, on reifying one's person, and so on. This one-sided positivism could not be maintained, however, once the crippling effects of the capitalistic mode of production based on the general diffusion of alienation started to erupt also in the form of social unrest that did not shy away from the violent destruction of the much glorified and idealised “rational” machinery of increasingly larger scale manufacture.

The crisis in the middle of the eighteenth century which brought into life the various critical theories was not, it goes without saying, an internal crisis of rising capitalism. It was, rather, a social crisis caused by a drastic transition from the antiquated feudal-artisan mode of production to a new one which was very far indeed from reaching the limits of its productive capabilities. This explains the essentially uncritical attitude towards the central categories of the new economic system even in the writings of those who criticised the social and cultural aspects of capitalistic alienation. Later on, when the inherent connection between the social and cultural manifestations of alienation and the economic system became more evident, criticism tended to diminish, instead of being intensified. The bourgeoisie which in the writings of its best representatives subjected some vital aspects of its own society to a devastating criticism, could not go, of course, as far as extending this criticism to the totality of capitalistic society. The social standpoint of criticism had to be radically changed first for that and, as we all know, a century had to elapse before this radical reorientation of social criticism could be accomplished.

There is no space here for a detailed systematic survey of the rise of social criticism. Our attention, again, must be confined to a few central figures who played an important role in identifying the problematics of alienation before Marx. We have already seen Diderot's achievements in this respect. His contemporary, Rousseau was equally important, though in a very different way. Rousseau's system is dense with contradictions, more so perhaps than any other in the whole movement of the Enlightenment. He himself warns us often enough that we should not draw premature conclusions from his statements, before carefully considering, that is, all the facets of his complex arguments. Indeed an attentive reading amply confirms that he did not exaggerate about the complexities. But this is not the full story. His complaints about being systematically misunderstood were only partially justified. One-sided though his critics may have been in their reading of his texts (containing as they did numerous qualifications that were often ignored), the fact remains that no reading whatsoever, however careful and sympathetic, could eliminate the inherent contradictions of his system. (Needless to say; we are not talking about logical contradictions. The formal consistency of Rousseau's thought is as impeccable as that of any great philosopher's, considering the non-abstract character of his terms of analysis. The contradictions are in the social substance of his thought, as we shall see in a moment. In other words, they are necessary contradictions, inherent in the very nature of a great philosopher's socially and historically limited standpoint.)

There are very few philosophers before Marx who would stand a comparison with Rousseau in social radicalism. He writes in his Discourse on Political Economy – in a passage he later repeats, stressing its central importance, in one of his Dialogues – that the advantages of the “social confederacy” are heavily weighed down on the side of the rich, against the poor:

“for this [the social confederacy] provides a powerful protection for the immense possessions of the rich, and hardly leaves the poor man in quiet possession of the cottage he builds with his own hands. Are not all the advantages of society for the rich and powerful? Are not all lucrative posts in their hands? Are not all privileges and exemptions reserved for them alone? Is not the public authority always on their side? If a man of eminence robs his creditors, or is guilty of other knaveries, is he not always assured of impunity? Are not the assaults, acts of violence, assassinations, and even murders committed by the great, matters that are hushed up in a few months, and of which nothing more is thought? But if a great man himself is robbed or insulted, the whole police force is immediately in motion, and woe even to innocent persons who chance to be suspected. If he has to pass through any dangerous road, the country is up in arms to escort him. If the axle-tree of his chaise breaks, everybody flies to his assistance. If there is a noise at his door, he speaks but a word, and all is silent. . . . Yet all this respect costs him not a farthing: it is the rich man's right, and not what he buys with his wealth. How different is the case of the poor man! The more humanity owes him, the more society denies him ... he always bears the burden which his richer neighbour has influence enough to get exempted from . . . all gratuitous assistance is denied to the poor when they need it, just because they cannot pay for it. I look upon any poor man as totally undone, if he has the misfortune to have an honest heart, a fine daughter and a powerful neighbour. Another no less important fact is that the losses of the poor are much harder to repair than these of the rich, and that the difficulty of acquisition is always greater in proportion as there is more need for it. 'Nothing comes out of nothing', is as true of life as in physics: money is the seed of money, and the first guinea is sometimes more difficult to acquire than the second million.... The terms of the social compact between these two estates of man may be summed up in a few words: 'You have need of me, because I am rich and you are poor. We will therefore come to an agreement. I will permit you to have the honour of serving me, on condition that you bestow on me the little you have left, in return for the pains I shall take to command you.'

If this is the case, it cannot be surprising that the menacing shadow of an inevitable revolution appears in Rousseau's thought:

“Most peoples, like most men, are docile only in youth; as they grow old they become incorrigible. When once customs have become established and prejudices inveterate, it is dangerous and useless to attempt their reformation; the people, like the foolish and cowardly patients who rave at sight of the doctor, can no longer bear that any one should lay hands on its faults to remedy them. There are indeed times in the history of States when, just as some kinds of illness turn men's heads and make them forget the past, periods of violence and revolutions do to people what these crises do to individuals: horror of the past takes the place of forgetfulness, and the State, set on fire by civil wars, was born again, so to speak, from its ashes, and takes on anew, fresh from the jaws of death, the vigour of youth. .. The empire of Russia will aspire to conquer Europe, and will itself be conquered. The Tartars, its subjects or neighbours, will become its masters and ours, by a revolution which I regard as inevitable. Indeed, all the kings of Europe are working in concert to hasten its coming.

Yet the same Rousseau also asserts, talking about himself, in his Third Dialogue, that “he always insisted on the preservation of the existing institutions”. And when he sets out the terms of his educational experiment, he writes: “The poor man has no need of education. The education of his own station is forced upon him, he can have no other; the education received by the rich man from his own station is least fitted for himself and for society. Moreover, a natural education should fit a man for any position. ... Let us choose our scholar among the rich; we shall at least have made another man; the poor may come to manhood without our help. (Accordingly, in the utopian community of his Nouvelle Héloîse there is no education for the poor.) The idealisation of nature thus, paradoxically, turned into an idealisation of the poor man's wretched conditions: the established order is left unchallenged; the poor man's subjection to the well-to-do is maintained, even if the mode of “commanding” becomes more “enlightened”. Thus in the end Rousseau is justified in his assertion about his insistence “on the preservation of the existing institutions”, notwithstanding his statements about social injustice and on the inevitability of a violent revolution.

But this idealisation of nature is not some intellectual “original cause. It is the expression of a contradiction unknown to the philosopher himself, carrying with it a stalemate, a static conception in the last analysis: a purely imaginary transference of the problems perceived in society onto the plane of the moral “ought” which envisages their solution in terms of a “moral education” of men. The fundamental contradiction in Rousseau's thought lies in his incommensurably sharp perception of the phenomena of alienation and the glorification of their ultimate cause. This is what turns his philosophy in the end into a monumental moral sermon that reconciles all contradictions in the ideality of the moral sphere. (Indeed the more drastic the cleavage between ideality and reality, the more evident it becomes to the philosopher that moral “ought” is the only way of coping with it. In this respect – as in so many others as well – Rousseau exercises the greatest influence on Kant, anticipating, not in words but in general conception, Kant's principle of the “primacy of Practical Reason”.)

Rousseau denounces alienation in many of its manifestations:

(1) He insists – in opposition to the traditional approaches to the “Social Contract” – that man cannot alienate his freedom. For “to alienate is to give or to sell . . . but for what does a people sell itself? ... Even if each man could alienate himself, he could not alienate his children: they are born man and free; their liberty belongs to them, and no one but they has the right to dispose of it.” (Moreover, he qualifies this statement by adding that there can be only one rightful way of disposing of one's inalienable right to liberty: “each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody” and therefore “in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains voters, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life, and its will”. Which means, in Rousseau's eyes, that the individual has not lost anything by contracting out of his “natural liberty”; on the contrary, he gains “civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses”. Furthermore, man also “acquires in the civil state, moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself; for the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.” As we can see, the argument progresses from reality to morality. By the time we reach the point of the Social Contract, we are confronted in the shape of the much idealised “assembly” – with a “moral construction.” The collective “moral body”, its “unity and common identity” etc., are moral postulates of a would-be legitimation of the bourgeois system. The moral construction of the “assembly” is necessary precisely because Rousseau cannot envisage any real (i.e. effective material) solution to the underlying contradictions, apart from appealing to the idea of an “obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves” in the general political framework of the “assembly” which radically transcends, in an ideal fashion, the “bad reality” of the established order while leaving it intact in reality.

(2) A corollary of the previous point is the insistence on the inalienability and indivisibility of Sovereignty. According to Rousseau Sovereignty “being nothing less than the exercise of the general will, can never be alienated, and the Sovereign, who is no less than a collective being, cannot be represented except by himself”. Again it is clear that we are confronted with a moral postulate generated in Rousseau's system by the recognition that “the particular will tends, by its very nature, to partiality, while the general will tends to equality”, and by the philosopher's inability to envisage a solution in any other terms than those of a moral “ought”. For while the particular will's tendency towards partiality is an ontological reality, the “general will's tendency to equality” is, in the given historical situation, a mere postulate. And only a further moral postulate can “transcend” the contradiction between the actual, ontological “is” and the moral “ought” of an equality inherent in the “general will”. (Of course in Rousseau's structure of thought this insoluble contradiction is hidden beneath the self-evidence of a dual tautology, namely that “the particular will is partial” and “the general will is universal”. Rousseau's greatness, however, breaks through the crust of this dual tautology paradoxically by defining “universality” – in an apparently inconsistent form – as “equality”. The same “inconsistency” is retained by Kant, mutatis mutandis, in his criterion of moral universality.)

(3) A constantly recurring theme of Rousseau's thought is man's alienation from nature. This is a fundamental synthesising idea in Rousseau's system, a focal point of his social criticism, and has many aspects. Let us briefly sum up its crucial points.

(a) “Everything is good when it leaves the hands of the Creator of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man” writes Rousseau in the opening sentence of Emile. It is civilisation which corrupts man, separating him from nature, and introducing “from outside” all the vices which are “alien to man's constitution”. The result is the destruction of the “original goodness of man”.

(b) In this development – away from nature by means of the vehicle of civilisation – we can see a “rapid march towards the perfection of society and towards the deterioration of the species,” i.e. this alienated form of development is characterised by the grave contradiction between society and the human species.

(c) Man is dominated by his institutions to such an extent that the sort of life he leads under the conditions of institutionalisation cannot be called by any other name than slavery : “Civilised man is born into slavery and he lives and dies in it: ... he is in the chains of our institutions.

(d) Vice and evil flourish in large towns and the only possible antidote to this alienation, country life, is increasingly under the dominion of the big towns: “industry and commerce draw all the money from the country into the capitals ... the richer the city the poorer the country.” Thus the dynamic vehicles of capitalistic alienation – industry and commerce – bring under their spell nature and country life, ever intensifying the contradiction between town and country.

(e) The acquisition of artificial needs and the forced growth of “useless desires” characterises the life of both the individuals and the modern State. “If we ask how the needs of a State grow, we shall find they generally arise, like the wants of individuals, less from any real necessity than from the increase of useless desires.” Corruption in this sense starts at an early age. The natural impulses and passions of the child are suppressed and replaced by artificial modes of behaviour. The result is the production of an “artificial being” in place of the natural, “original” human being.

As we can see, in all these points the penetrating diagnosis of prevailing social trends is mixed with an idealisation of nature as the necessary premise of the Rousseauian form of criticism. We shall return to the complex determinants of this approach in a moment.

(4) In his denunciation of the roots of alienation, Rousseau attributes to money and wealth the principal responsibility “in this century of calculators”. He insists that one should not alienate oneself by selling oneself, because this means turning the human person into a mercenary. We have already seen that according to Rousseau “to alienate is to give or to sell”. Under certain special conditions – e.g. in a patriotic war when one is involved in defending one's own country – it is permissible to alienate oneself in the form of giving one's life for a noble purpose, but it is absolutely forbidden to alienate oneself in the form of selling oneself: “for all the victories of the early Romans, like those of Alexander, had been won by brave citizens, who were ready, at need, to give their blood in the service of their country, but would never sell it.” In accordance with this principle Rousseau insists that the first and absolute condition of an adequate form of education is that the laws of the market should not apply to it. The good tutor is someone who is “not a man for sale” and he is opposed to the prevailing practice that assigns the vitally important function of education “to mercenaries”. Human relations at all levels, including the intercourse of nations with each other, are subordinated to the only criterion of deriving profit from the other, and consequently they are impoverished beyond recognition: “Once they know the profit they can derive from each other, what else would they be interested in?”

As we can see even from this inevitably summary account, Rousseau's eye for the manifold phenomena of alienation and dehumanisation is as sharp as no one else's before Marx. The same cannot be said, however, of his understanding of the causes of alienation. In order to explain this paradox we have now to turn our attention. To questions that directly concern the historical novelty of his philosophical answers as well as their limitations. In other words, we have to ask what made possible Rousseau's great positive achievements and which factors determined the illusory character of many of his answers and suggestions.

As we have seen in the previous section, the philosophers' concept of equality was indicative, in the age of the Enlightenment, of the measure of their achievements as regards both a greater historical concreteness and a more adequate understanding of the problematics of alienation. The validity of this general point is clearly displayed in Rousseau's writing. His concept of equality is uncompromisingly radical for his age. He writes in a footnote to The Social Contract: “Under bad governments, this equality is only apparent and illusory; it serves only to keep the pauper in his poverty and the rich man in the position he has usurped. In fact, laws are always of use to those who possess and harmful to those who have nothing: from which it follows that the social state is advantageous to men only when all have something and none too much.

Since, however, the actual social relations stand, as Rousseau himself recognises, in a hostile opposition to his principle of equality, the latter has to be turned into a mere moral postulate “on which the whole social system should rest”. In a categorical opposition to the actual state of affairs Rousseau stipulates that “the fundamental compact substitutes, for such physical inequality as nature may have set up between men, an equality that is moral and legitimate, and that men, who may be unequal in strength or intelligence, become every one equal by convention and legal right”. Thus the terms of transcendence are abstract. There does not appear on the horizon a material force capable of superseding the relations in which the pauper is kept “in his poverty and the rich man in the position he has usurped”. Only a vague reference is made to the desirability of a system in which “all have something and none too much”, but Rousseau has no idea how it could be brought into being. This is why everything must be left to the power of ideas, to “education” above all: “moral education” – and to the advocacy of a legal system which presupposes in fact the effective diffusion of Rousseau's moral ideals. And when Rousseau, being the great philosopher he is who does not evade the fundamental issues even if they underline the problematic character of his whole approach, asks the question “how can one adequately educate the educator”, he confesses in all sincerity that he does not know the answer. But he emphasises that the characteristics of the good educator ought to be determined by the nature of the functions he ought to fulfil. Thus, again and again, Rousseau's analysis turns out to be an uncompromising reassertion of his radical moral postulates.

However uncompromising is Rousseau's moral radicalism, the fact that his concept of equality is basically a moral-legal concept, devoid of references to a clearly identifiable system of social relations as its material counterpart (the vision of a system in which “all have something and none too much” is not only hopelessly vague but also far from being egalitarian) carries with it the abstract and often rhetorical character of his denunciation of alienation. Thus we can see that while his grasp of the necessity of equality enables him to open many a door that remained closed before him, the limitations of his concept of equality prevent him from pursuing his enquiry to a conclusion that would carry with it the most radical social negation of the whole system of inequalities and dehumanising alienations, in place of the abstract moral radicalism expressed in his postulates.

The same point applies to the role of anthropological references in Rousseau's system. As we have seen, his conception of “healthy man” as a model of social development enables him to treat revolution as the only possible “reinvigorating force” of society under certain conditions. But such an idea is totally inadequate to explain the complexities of the historical situations in which revolutions occur. This we can see from the continuation of Rousseau's analysis of revolutions: “But such events are rare; they are exceptions, the cause of which is always to be found in the particular constitution of the State concerned. They cannot even happen twice to the same people, for it can make itself free as long as it remains barbarous, but not when the civic impulse has lost its vigour. Then disturbances may destroy it, but revolutions cannot mend it: it needs a master, not a liberator. Free peoples, be mindful of this maxim: 'Liberty may be gained, but can never be recovered'.” The anthropological model, therefore, paradoxically helps to nullify Rousseau's insight into the nature of social development, by confining revolutions in the analogy of man's cycle of life – to a non-repeatable historical phase. Again it is clear that the ultimate reference is to the sphere of the moral “ought”: the whole point about violence and revolutions is made in order to shake men out of their callous indifference so that (“by becoming mindful of his maxim”) they can save themselves from the fate of “disturbances and destruction”.

But all this does not quite explain Rousseau's system of ideas. It simply shows why – given his concept of equality as well as his anthropological model of social development – Rousseau cannot go beyond a certain point in his understanding of the problematics of alienation. The ultimate premises of his system are: his assumption of private property as the sacred foundation of civil society on the one hand, and the “middle condition” as the only adequate form of distribution of property on the other. He writes: “It is certain that the right of property is the most sacred of all the rights of citizenship, and even more important in some respects than liberty itself; . . . property is the true foundation of civil society, and the real guarantee of the undertakings of citizens: for if property were not answerable for personal actions, nothing would be easier than to evade duties and laugh at the laws.” And again: “the general administration is established only to secure individual property, which is antecedent to it.” As to the “middle condition”, according to Rousseau it “constitutes the genuine strength of the State.” (Also, we ought to remember in this connection his insistence that “all ought to have something and none too much”, as well as his thundering against the “big towns” which undermine the type of property relations he idealises in many of his writings.) His justification for maintaining this type of private property is that “nothing is more fatal to morality and to the Republic than the continual shifting of rank and fortune among the citizens: such changes are both the proof and the source of a thousand disorders, and overturn and confound everything; for those who were brought up to one thing find themselves destined for another”. And he dismisses in a most passionate tone of voice the very idea of abolishing “mine” and “yours”: “Must meum and tuum be annihilated, and must we return again to the forests to live among bears? This is a deduction in the manner of my adversaries, which I would as soon anticipate as let them have the shame of drawing.”

These ultimate premises of Rousseau's thought determine the concrete articulation of his system and set the limits to his understanding of the problematics of alienation. He recognises that law is made for the protection of private property and that everything else in the order of “civil society” – including “civil liberty” – rests on such foundation. Since, however, he cannot go beyond the horizon of this idealised civil society, he must maintain not only that law is made for the benefit of private property but also that private property is made for the benefit of the law as its sole guarantee. Thus the circle is irrevocably closed; there can be no escape from it. Only those features of alienation can be noticed which are in agreement with the ultimate premises of Rousseau's system. Since private property is taken for granted as the absolute condition of civilised life, only its form of distribution is allowed to be queried, the complex problematics of alienation cannot be grasped at its roots but only in some of its manifestations. As to the question: which of the multifarious manifestations of alienation are identified by Rousseau, the answer is to be sought in the specific form of private property he idealises.

Thus he denounces, for instance, the corruption, dehumanisation, and alienation involved in the cult of money and wealth, but he grasps only the subjective side of the problem. He insists, rather naively, that the wealth which is being produced is “apparent and illusory; a lot of money and little effect”. Thus he displays no real understanding of the immense objective power of money in the “civil society” of expanding capitalism. His dissent from the alienated manifestations of this power is confined to noticing its subjective effects which he believes to be able to neutralise or counteract by means of the moral education he passionately advocates. The same goes for his conception of the “social contract”. He repeatedly stresses the importance of offering a “fair exchange” and an “advantageous exchange” to the people involved. The fact that human relations in a society based on the institution of “exchange” cannot conceivably be “fair” and “advantageous” to all, must remain hidden from Rousseau. In the end what is considered to be “fair” is the maintenance of a hierarchical system, a “social order” in which “all places are marked for some people, and every man must be educated for his own place. If a particular person, educated for a certain place, leaves it, he is good for nothing.”

What Rousseau opposes is not the alienating power of money and property as such, but a particular mode of their realisation in the form of the concentration of wealth and all that goes with social mobility produced by the dynamism of expanding and concentrating capital. He rejects the effects but gives his full support, even if unknowingly, to their causes. Since his discourse, because of the ultimate premises of his system, must be confined to the sphere of effects and manifestations, it must become sentimental, rhetorical and, above all, moralising. The various manifestations of alienation he perceives must be opposed in such a discourse – which necessarily abstracts from the investigation of the ultimate causal determinants – at the level of mere moral postulates: the acceptance of the system of “meum and tuum” together with its corollaries leaves no alternative to this. And precisely because he is operating from the standpoint of the same material base of society whose manifestations he denounces – the social order of private property and “fair and advantageous exchange” – the terms of his social criticism must be intensely and abstractly moralising. Capitalistic alienation as perceived by Rousseau in its particular manifestations – those, that is, which are harmful to the “middle condition” – is considered by him contingent, not necessary, and his radical moral discourse is supposed to provide, the non-contingent alternative so that the people, enlightened by his unmasking of all that is merely “apparent and illusory”, would turn their back on the artificial and alienated practices of social life.

These moralising illusions of Rousseau's system, rooted in the idealisation of a way of life allegedly appropriate to the “middle condition” in opposition to the actuality of dynamically advancing and universally alienating large-scale capitalistic production, are necessary illusions. For if the critical enquiry is confined to devising alternatives to the dehumanising effects of a given system of production while leaving its basic premises unchallenged, there remains nothing but the weapon of a moralising-“educational” appeal to individuals. Such an appeal directly invites them to oppose the trends denounced, to resist “corruption”, to give up “calculating”, to show “moderation”, to resist the temptations of “illusory wealth”, to follow the “natural course”, to restrict their “useless desires”, to stop “chasing profit”, to refuse “selling themselves”, etc., etc. Whether or not they can do all this, is a different matter; in any case they ought to do it. (Kant is truer to the spirit of Rousseau's philosophy than anyone else when he “resolves” its contradictions by asserting with abstract but bold moral radicalism: “ought implies can”.) To free the critique of alienation from its abstract and “ought-ridden” character, to grasp these trends in their objective ontological reality and not merely in their subjective reflections in the psychology of individuals, would have required a new social standpoint: one free from the paralysing weight of Rousseau's ultimate premises. Such a radically new socio-historical standpoint was, however, clearly unthinkable in Rousseau's time.

But no matter how problematic are Rousseau's solutions, his approach dramatically announces the inevitable end of the earlier generally prevailing “uncritical positivism”. Helped by his standpoint rooted in the rapidly disintegrating “middle condition” at a time of great historical transformation, he powerfully highlights the various manifestations of capitalistic alienation, raising alarm about their extension over all spheres of human life, even if he is unable to identify their causes. Those who come after him cannot ignore or sidestep his diagnoses, though their attitude is often very different from his. Both for his own achievements in grasping many facets of the problematics of alienation and for the great influence of his views on subsequent thinkers Rousseau's historical importance cannot be sufficiently stressed.

There is no space here to follow in any detail the intellectual history of the concept of alienation after Rousseau. We must confine ourselves to a very brief survey of the main phases of development leading to Marx.

The historical succession of these phases can be described as follows:

1. The formulation of a critique of alienation within the framework of general moral postulates (from Rousseau to Schiller).

2. The assertion of a necessary supersession of capitalistic alienation, accomplished speculatively (“Aufhebung” = “a second alienation of human existence = an alienation of alienated existence”) i.e. a merely imaginary transcendence of alienation), maintaining an uncritical attitude towards the actual material foundations of society (Hegel).

3. The assertion of the historical supersession of capitalism by socialism expressed in the form of moral postulates intermingled with elements of a realistic critical assessment of the specific contradictions of the established social order (the Utopian Socialists).

The moralising approach to the dehumanising effects of alienation seen in Rousseau persists, on the whole, throughout the eighteenth century. Rousseau's idea of “moral education” is taken up by Kant and is carried, with great consistency, to its logical conclusion and to its highest point of generalisation. Towards the end of the century, however, the sharpening of social contradictions, coupled with the irresistible advancement of capitalistic “rationality”, bring out into the open the problematic character of a direct appeal to the “voice of conscience” advocated by the propounders of “moral education”. Schiller's efforts at formulating his principles of an “aesthetic education” – which is supposed to be more effective as a floodgate against the rising tide of alienation than a direct moral appeal – reflect this new situation, with its ever intensifying human crisis.

Hegel represents a qualitatively different approach, insofar as he displays a profound insight into the fundamental laws of capitalistic society. We shall discuss Hegel's philosophy and its relation to Marx's achievements in various contexts. At this point let us briefly deal with the central paradox of the Hegelian approach. Namely that while an understanding of the necessity of a supersession of the capitalistic processes is in the foreground of Hegel's thought, Marx finds it imperative to condemn his “uncritical positivism”, with full justification, needless to say. The moralising criticism of alienation is fully superseded in Hegel. He approaches the question of a transcendence of alienation not as a matter of moral “ought” but as that of an inner necessity. In other words the idea of an “Aufhebung” of alienation ceases to be a moral postulate: it is considered as a necessity inherent in the dialectical process as such. (In accordance with this feature of Hegel's philosophy we find that his conception of equality has for its centre of reference the realm of “is”, not that of a moral-legal “ought”. His “epistemological democratism” – i.e. his assertion according to which all men are actually capable of achieving true knowledge, provided that they approach the task in terms of the categories of the Hegelian dialectic, is an essential constituent of his inherently historical conception of philosophy. No wonder, therefore, that later the radically ahistorical Kierkegaard denounces, with aristocratic contempt, this “omnibus” of a philosophical understanding of the historical processes.) However, since the socio-economic contradictions themselves are turned by Hegel into “thought-entities”, the necessary “Aufhebung” of the contradictions manifest in the dialectical process is in the last analysis nothing but a merely conceptual (“abstract, logical, speculative”) supersession of these contradictions which leaves the actuality of capitalist alienation completely unchallenged. This is why Marx has to speak of Hegel's “uncritical positivism”. Hegel's standpoint always remains a bourgeois standpoint. But it is far from being an unproblematical one. On the contrary, the Hegelian philosophy as a whole displays in the most graphic way the gravely problematic character of the world to which the philosopher himself belongs. The contradictions of that world transpire through his categories, despite their “abstract, logical speculative” character, and the message of the necessity of a transcendence counteracts the illusory terms in which such a transcendence is envisaged by Hegel himself. In this sense his philosophy as a whole is a vital step in the direction of a proper understanding of the roots of capitalistic alienation.

In the writings of the Utopian Socialists there is an attempt at changing the social standpoint of criticism. With the working class a new social force appears on the horizon and the Utopian Socialists as critics of capitalistic alienation try to reassess the relation of forces from a viewpoint which allows them to take into account the existence of this new social force. And yet, their approach objectively remains, on the whole, within the limits of the bourgeois horizon, though of course subjectively the representatives of Utopian Socialism negate some essential features of capitalism. They can only project a supersession of the established order of society by a socialist system of relations in the form of a largely imaginary model, or as a moral postulate, rather than an ontological necessity inherent in the contradictions of the existing structure of society. (Characteristically enough: educational utopias, oriented towards the “workman”, form an essential part of the conception of Utopian Socialists.) What makes their work of an enormous value is the fact that their criticism is directed towards clearly identifiable material factors of social life. Although they do not have a comprehensive assessment of the established social structures, their criticism of some vitally important social phenomena – from a critique of the modern State to the analysis of commodity production and of the role of money greatly contributes to a radical reorientation of the critique of alienation. This criticism, however, remains partial. Even when it is oriented towards the “workman”, the proletarian social position appears in it only as a directly given sociological immediacy and as a mere negation. Thus the Utopian critique of capitalist alienation remains – however paradoxical this may sound – within the orbit of capitalistic partiality which it negates from a partial standpoint. Because of the inescapable partiality of the critical standpoint the element of “ought”, again, assumes the function of constructing “totalities” both negatively – i.e. by producing the overall object of criticism in want of an adequate comprehension of the structures of capitalism – and positively, by providing the utopian counter examples to the negative denunciations.

And this is the point where we come to Marx. For the central feature of Marx's theory of alienation is the assertion of the historically necessary supersession of capitalism by socialism freed from all the abstract moral postulates which we can find in the writings of his immediate predecessors. The ground of his assertion was not simply the recognition of the unbearable dehumanising effects of alienation – though of course subjectively that played a very important part in the formation of Marx's thought – but the profound understanding of the objective ontological foundation of the processes that remained veiled from his predecessors. The “secret” of this elaboration of the Marxian theory of alienation was spelled out by Marx himself when he wrote in his Grundrisse:

“this process of objectification appears in fact as a process of alienation from the standpoint of labour and as appropriation of alien labour from the standpoint of capital.

The fundamental determinants of capitalistic alienation, then, had to remain hidden from all those who associated themselves knowingly or unconsciously, in one form or in another – with “the standpoint of capital”.

A radical shift of the standpoint of social criticism was a necessary condition of success in this respect. Such a shift involved the critical adoption of the standpoint of labour from which the capitalistic process of objectification could appear as a process of alienation. (In the writings of thinkers before Marx, by contrast, “objectification” and “alienation” remained hopelessly entangled with one another.)

But it is vitally important to stress that this adoption of labour's standpoint had to be a critical one. For a simple, uncritical identification with the standpoint of labour – one that saw alienation only, ignoring both the objectification involved in it, as well as the fact that this form of alienating-objectification was a necessary phase in the historical development of the objective ontological conditions of labour – would have meant hopeless subjectivity and partiality.

The universality of Marx's vision became possible because he succeeded in identifying the problematics of alienation, from a critically adopted standpoint of labour, in its complex ontological totality characterised by the terms “objectification”, “alienation”, and “appropriation”. This critical adoption of the standpoint of labour meant a conception of the proletariat not simply as a sociological force diametrically opposed to the standpoint of capital – and thus remaining in the latter's orbit – but as a self-transcending historical force which cannot help superseding alienation (i.e. the historically given form of objectification) in the process of realising its own immediate ends that happen to coincide with the “reappropriation of the human essence”.

Thus the historical novelty of Marx's theory of alienation in relation to the conceptions of his predecessors can be summed up in a preliminary way as follows:

1. the terms of reference of his theory are not the categories of “Sollen” (ought), but those of necessity (“is”) inherent in the objective ontological foundations of human life;

2. its point of view is not that of some utopian partiality but the universality of the critically adopted standpoint of labour;

3. its framework of criticism is not some abstract (Hegelian) “speculative totality”, but the concrete totality of dynamically developing society perceived from the material basis of the proletariat as a necessarily self-transcending (“universal”) historical force.

Contents | 2. Genesis of Marx's Theory of Alienation
Marx On the Jewish Question