Sunday, February 01, 2015

Karl Marx on Alienation: Introduction, Part I


 (Suitable reading for students of philosophy,  history of ideas, Marxism)

By Nasir Khan

Notwithstanding all the controversies surrounding Karl Marx and his legacy, one thing which can be said with certainty is that no other figure looms so large in the intellectual and political landscape of world history in this century as he does. His social theory, a synthesis of ideas from philosophy, history and the new social sciences is a unique theoretical construct in the history of nineteenth century. His theoretical work was intended to have a practical effect on the course of social developments in the capitalist society. Sheldon Wolin comments: ‘He founded a new conception of politics, revolutionary in intent, proletarian in concern, and international in scope and organisation’ (quoted in Thomas 1985, 13). Marxist ideas were introduced in various European countries. For instance, in Russia, by the mid-1880s his ideas were advanced by Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich and Akselrod. By the end of 1880s Marxist conceptions had become quite popular with university students and intelligentsia in St. Petersburg. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party founded in 1898 was Marxist. The Marxist ideas had made inroads into the socialist movement in the 1870s in France. In Germany, soon after Marx’s death, the SDP as an explicitly Marxist party came into existence. The emergence of social democratic parties, originally all being Marxists, in Belgium (1885), Austria (1889), Hungary (1890), Bulgaria (1891), Poland (1892), Romania (1892-1900), Holland (1894), etc. show the impact of Marxist thought. In fact, ‘by the 1890s it was no longer possible to dismiss him as just another proletarian agitator: the size of the political parties that recognised him as their prophet and the seriousness of the economic investigations that he had initiated had made him a massive force that demanded to be related in some way or other to the major traditions of European thought. As the decade wore on, a number of “bourgeois” economists and social thinkers of the most varying intellectual orientations found themselves compelled to come to grips with his doctrines’ (Hughes 1977, 67).
     For evaluating the Marxian legacy in our time, it is important to ascertain, and draw the line between what Marx stood for and what he is made out to be by the one-party, authoritarian states. In this context the cleavage we meet is enormous, as Flöistad remarks that ‘when we see for what Marx and Marxism are being used and misused by the totalitarian states world-over’ (Flöistad 1983, 359). We have witnessed during the last few years the collapse of bureaucratic-socialism, the system of nomenklatura in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the USSR. The colossal changes which have occurred so far constitute one of the major turning points in this epoch. One of the far-reaching implications relates to the question of Marxism’s responsibility for the ills of the collapsed regimes. However, the aim of this book precludes any discussion of these momentous contemporary development. My overriding concern here is to explore the rich heritage of Marx’s thought on the problem of alienation in his early writings over a limited period as part of research work in philosophy and the history of ideas.
    One fertile ground of research in Marx studies, and a major attraction for Marx scholars, has been the question whether or not Marx’s works can be regarded as forming a continuous whole ever since the publication of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 in 1932. Most of the writers have defended or expounded the continuity problematic in one form or the other. One notable exception in this debate was the eminent Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. He intervened as a matter of political necessity to combat the French revisionists and their views on the status of Marxism. His refutation of the continuity thesis, therefore, has to be seen in its political context. His writings polemicised the problematic intensely, with the result that it added to an enlivened interest in Marxist philosophy in the European academic world. Alex Callinicos is correct to assess him so highly: ‘It is to Louis Althusser more than to any other individual or group that we owe the current renaissance of Marxist philosophy’ (Callinicos 1985, ‘Preface’, v). The Althusserian school emerged, defending and elaborating the scientific character of Marxism. Among the well-known writers who have defended the continuity thesis are Avineri, Cornu, Garaudy, Howard, Hyppolite, Kamenka, Korsch, McLellan, Maguire, Mandel, Meszaros, Plamenatz, Ollman, Tucker, Lewis, Kolakowski and Cornforth. Whereas the Althusserian school advocates an ‘epistemological break’ in Marx’s writings, the concept of alienation is viewed as falling under the pre-scientific, early period. I mention this only to highlight the proliferation of literature around this controversy. However, in the present work this controversy is only of peripheral interest and there does not seem to be any need to enter into any lengthy discourse on the topic.
    My treatment of Marx is essentially devoid of any attempts at mythicising him. There is no need for that. An over-zealous supporter or opponent of a political, social or religious cause may be a big asset for his respective group, organisation or denomination. But this sort of activity intrinsically is inimical to any meaningful discourse in philosophy or science. What Bacon calls ‘idols’, the idols of the tribe, cave, market and theatre, stand opposed to human reason and mind. Marxism in this respect can specially be singled out. It has and continues to arouse deep passions of devotion and loyalty in some or down-right rejection (and this very often with scanty knowledge of Marxism) and animosity in others. I have tried to present Marx’s views on alienation as dispassionately as possible and have not let my own likes or dislikes dictate the inquiry. In this matter, I have found Bacon’s advice a sound one: ‘Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider’ (Bacon 1972, 150).
    In a number of ways, this study has its own particular features. First of all, I reject any dogmatic approach to Marxism; and instead view Marx ism as a living and developing theory in view of social practice. Marx had articulated the practical requirements of the labour movement in its struggle for emancipation in his lifetime. I have aimed at explaining, analysing and noting the development of Marx’s ideas regarding alienation in religious, political and economic spheres up to 1844, and in this process have taken notice of any shift in the meanings as we pass from one article or essay to the other. Marx presents a comprehensive theory of alienation only in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. I have compared the positions which Marx had previously held against the one he espoused in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. By comparing and contrasting these positions I have en deavoured to show the developmental stages of the concept of alienation in Marx. A concept is regarded as a mental construct. What defines he status of a concept is the nature of essence or content it comes to embody. By comparing and contrasting I have shown how the religious concept of alienation received a definite content and theoretical form in Marx.

    In view of the result, it becomes easy to approach the question of continuity or break in Marx from a new angle. This, while setting aside the either/or positions, focuses on Marx’s ideas as various and interactive phases of his intellectual development. I have maintained that Marx’s ideas regarding humanist perspective and the question of alienation show continuity, but with important differences in the content and form of the concept and theory of alienation in the period under review. This approach enables us to see the vigour and vitality of Marxism as a living theory and not as a collection of sacrosanct dogmas of a closed system.
Marx, above all, advocated the Aufhebung of the existing alienation which shows its dichotomous character in separating between ‘doing and thinking’, between ‘being and having’, ‘between public life and private life’, and between ‘theory and practice’. This dichotomy was to be overcome by a unified ‘science of man’, in place of the reified science and philosophy as Marx suggested in the Manuscripts. This task was achieved by Marx and Engels in formulating the fundamentals of ‘historical materialism’. As Maurice Cornforth writes: ‘Once the scientific intention of Marxism is grasped, the theory of mankind and society, which itself presupposes scientific theory about nature, becomes the premise for which philosophical theory about thinking — about, in Engels’ own phrases, “thought and its laws” and “the relation of thinking and being” — takes off, rather than the conclusion drawn from prior philosophical theory’ (Cornforth 1980, 45). Marx’s contribution in the matter of a scientific theory of man and society ‘marks a new departure in relation to all previous sciences. … It completes the establishment of fundamental theory for the scientific investigation of the whole of living nature, including mankind, it inaugurates a stage in which science be comes equipped to treat scientifically of everything which concerns us in life — not only of “external” nature, but of ourselves and our entire activity in which we each sustain and live a n individual life and relate ourselves with one another and with “nature” ‘ (ibid., 144; see also 145-53).
    Marx deals with the same problems which had occupied earlier philosophers in metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, etc. But at the same time there is an important difference which we should not lose sight of. Flöistad points to it thus: ‘In many ways, he breaks with [that] tradition and infuses something new. Philosophy should not merely be theory but first and foremost it should be a philosophy of action. And as a philosophy of action philosophy should intervene and change the world’ (Flöistad 1983, 359). Thus the old problem of theory and practice achieves a totally new dimension in Marx. From now on, philosophy of action comes to epitomise Marxian programme in its multi-dimensional aspects signifying the unity of theory and practice. The ground work for this view was laid in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.

(To be continued)

Nasir Khan. Development of the Concept and Theory of Alienation in Marx’s Writings March 1843 to August 1844 (1995)

This book can be downloaded here:…/

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