The alienation of labour is the premise for its emancipation

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The alienation of labour is the premise for its emancipation

In the first two articles in this series (IR 68 and 69), we began our refutation of the claim that communism is no more than the invention of a few "would-be universal reformers" by examining the historical development of communist ideas and showing them to be the product of profoundly material forces in society - above all, of the rebellion of the oppressed and exploited classes against the conditions of class domination. In the second article in particular we showed that the marxist conception of communism, far from being a schema hatched out in Marx's brain, only became possible when the proletariat won over men like Marx and Engels to its struggle for emancipation.

The next two articles in this series deal with Marx's first definitions of communist society, and in particular with his vision of communism as the overcoming of man's alienation. The article that follows therefore pays particular attention to the concept of alienation. At first sight this might appear to be a detour from the main argument in the series: i.e., that communism is a material necessity imposed by the inner contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. Superficially, the question of alienation would seem to be a purely subjective factor, something that concerns ideas and feelings rather than the solid material bases of society. But as we argue in the columns below, it was precisely the merit and strength of Marx's conception of alienation that he took it down from the clouds of woolly speculation and located its roots in the fundamental social relationships between human beings. And, by the same token, Marx made it perfectly clear that the communist society that would allow man to overcome his alienation could only come about through a thorough-going transformation of these social relationships; in sum, through the revolutionary struggle of the working class. 


Concerning the higher goals of communism

It is often said that Marx was never interested in drawing up blueprints for the future communist society. This is true inso­far as, unlike the utopian socialists, who saw communism as the pure invention of enlightened minds, Marx realised that it was fruitless to draw up detailed plans of the structure and mode of operation of communist society, since the latter could only be the creation of a massive social movement which would have to find practical solutions to the unprece­dented task of constructing a social order qualitatively supe­rior to any that had gone before it.

But this perfectly valid opposition to any attempt to cram the real movement of history into the straitjacket of ready-made schemas did not at all mean that Marx, or the marxist tradi­tion in general, had no interest in defining the ultimate goals of the movement. On the contrary: this is one of the distin­guishing functions of the communist minority, that "they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement" (Communist Manifesto). What separates marxism from all brands of utopianism is not that the former has no vision of the "ultimate general results", but that it draws out the real connection between these results and the "conditions" and the "line of march" which lead towards them. In other words, it bases its vision of the future society on a thorough analysis of the concrete conditions of the existing society; so that, for example, the demand for the abolition of the market economy is not derived from a purely moral objection to buying and selling, but from the recognition that a society founded on generalised commodity production is doomed to break down under the weight of its own inner contradictions, thus posing the necessity for a higher form of social organisation, founded on production for use. At the same time, marxism takes its conception of the path, the line of march towards this higher form from the actual experiences of the prole­tariat's struggle against capitalism. Hence while the call for the dictatorship of the proletariat appeared at the very begin­ning of the marxist movement, the shape that this dictatorship would have to assume was made much more precise by the great revolutionary events of working class history, in partic­ular the Paris Commune and the October revolution.

Without a general vision of the kind of society it is aiming for, the communist movement would be blind. Instead of being the highest embodiment of that unique human capacity to plan ahead, to "raise his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality" [1], communism would be no more than an instinctive reaction against capitalist misery. In its perma­nent battle against the domination of bourgeois ideology, it would have no power to convince workers and all the other oppressed strata of society that their only hope lies in the communist revolution, that the apparently insoluble problems posed by capitalist society can find practical solutions in a communist one. And, once the revolutionary transformation had actually got underway, it would have no yardstick by which to measure the progress being made towards its final goals.

And yet we must not forget that there is a distinction between these final goals, the "ultimate general results", and the "line of march towards them". As we have already said, the latter is subject to constant clarification by the practical experience of the class movement: the Paris Commune made it clear to Marx and Engels that the proletariat had to destroy the old state machine before erecting its own apparatus of power; the appearance of the soviets in 1905 and 1917 convinced Trot­sky and Lenin that they were the finally discovered form of the proletarian dictatorship, and so on. With regard to the higher goals of communism, on the other hand, they must remain very general conclusions based on a critique of capi­talist society until such point as the real movement has begun to put them on the practical agenda. This is all the more true in that the proletarian revolution is by definition a political revolution first, a social and economic transformation sec­ond. Since the authentic instances of working class revolution have, hitherto, gone no further than the conquest of political power in a given county, the lessons they have bequeathed to us relate fundamentally to the political problems of the forms and methods of the proletarian dictatorship (relations between party, class, and state, etc); only to a limited extent have they left us any definite guidance about the social and economic measures that need to be taken to lay the foundations of communist production and distribution, and these are largely negative ones (for example, that statification does not equal socialisation). Concerning the fully-fledged communist soci­ety that will only emerge after a more or less long period of transition, the historical experience of the working class has not and could not have brought about any qualitative break-throughs in the communists' own portrayal of such a society.

It is thus no accident that the most inspired and inspiring de­scriptions of the higher goals of communism occur at the be­ginning of Marx's political life, coinciding with his adhesion to the cause of the proletariat, with his explicit identification of himself as a communist in 1844 [2]. These first pictures of what humanity could be like once the shackles of capitalism and of preceding class societies had been thrown off were rarely improved upon in Marx's later writings. We will shortly be replying to the argument that Marx abandoned these early definitions as mere youthful folly. But for the moment we simply want to say that Marx's approach to this problem is entirely consistent with his overall method: on the basis of a profound critique of the impoverishment and de­formation of human activity under the prevailing social con­ditions, he deduced what was required to negate and over­come this impoverishment. But once he had sketched out the ultimate goals of communism, what was essential was to plunge into the emerging proletarian movement, into the grime and din of its political and economic struggles, which alone had the capacity to make these distant goals a reality.

The economic and philosophical manuscripts and the continuity in marx's thought

In the summer of 1844, Marx was living in Paris, surrounded by the numerous communist groupings which had been such an important element in winning him to the communist cause. It was here that he wrote the now famous Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which he later referred to as the groundwork both for the Grundrisse and Capital itself. Here he attempted to come to grips with political economy from the standpoint of the exploited class, making his first forays into such questions as wages, profits, ground rent and the ac­cumulation of capital, questions which were to occupy such an immense part of his later work; even though, in his intro­ductory remarks to the Manuscripts, he announces his plan for a monumental series of 'brochures' of which the sections on economics were only the beginning. In the same note­books there is also Marx's most thorough attempt to settle scores with the idealistic Hegelian philosophy which had now outgrown its usefulness, having been 'put the right way up' by the emergence of a materialist theory of historical evolu­tion. But the Manuscripts are certainly best known for their treatment of the problem of alienated labour, and (though perhaps less so) for their efforts to define the kind of human activity that would replace it in the future communist society.

The EPM were not published until 1927: in other words, they were not known about during the most crucial, revolu­tionary period in the history of the workers' movement; their publication coincided with the last gasps of the revolutionary wave that shook the capitalist world in the decade after 1917. 1927 was the year which saw the defeat both of the Chinese revolution and of the left opposition within the Communist Parties; one year later the Communist International was to announce its own demise by adopting the infamous theory of 'socialism in one country'. As a result of this irony of his­tory, it is the bourgeoisie rather than the workers' movement which has had the most to say about the EPM and their sig­nificance. In particular, there has been a great controversy in the sterile halls of academic and left-bourgeois 'theory' over the alleged break between the 'Young Marx' and the 'Old Marx'. Since Marx never published the EPM himself, and since he covered areas in them which were seemingly unde­veloped in later writings, it is alleged by some that the EPM represent an immature, Feuerbachian, even Hegelian Marx which the later, more mature and scientific Marx decisively rejected. The main proponents of this view are ... the Stalin­ists, and above all that arch-obscurantist Althusser. Accord­ing to them, what Marx abandoned above all was the con­ception of human nature found in the EPM, and in particular the notion of alienation.

It should be obvious that such views can't be separated from the class nature of Stalinism. The critique of alienated labour in the EPM is intimately linked to a critique of 'barracks communism', a communism in which the community became an abstract, wage-paying capitalist - the vision of commu­nism propounded by the genuinely immature proletarian cur­rents of the day, such as the Blanquists [3]. Marx roundly condemned such visions of communism in the EPM because for him communism only made sense if it put an end to the suppression of man's creative capacities and transformed the drudgery of labour into joyful, free activity. The Stalinists, on the other hand, are defined by the notion that socialism is consistent with a regime of destitution and back-breaking ex­ploitation, typified by the conditions in the factories and labour camps of the so-called 'socialist' countries. Here how­ever we are no longer dealing with an immature expression of the proletarian movement, but a full blown apologia for the capitalist counter-revolution. Since alienated labour clearly existed in spades in the 'really existing socialism' of the east, it is hardly surprising that the Stalinists should feel somewhat uncomfortable with the whole notion. We could continue here: for example, Marx's vision of the proper relationship between man and nature in the EPM does not sit too well alongside the ecological catastrophe brought about by Stalin­ism's 'interpretation' of this question. But in any case this boils down to the same point: the vision of communism elab­orated in the EPM undermines the fraud of Stalinist 'socialism' because the two start from alien class standpoints.

At the opposite end of the bourgeois political spectrum, vari­ous strands of liberal humanism, including Protestant theolo­gians and a whole gaggle of sociologists, have also made an attempt to separate the 'two Marx's'. Only this time they definitely prefer the warm-hearted, romantic idealist young Marx to the cold, materialistic author of Capital. But at least such interpretations don't usually claim to be marxist ...

Bordiga, writing in the 50s, is one of the few elements in the proletarian movement to have attempted to make a commen­tary on the EPM, and he clearly rejected this artificial divi­sion: "Another very vulgar commonplace is that Marx was a Hegelian in his youthful writings and it was only afterwards that he was a theoretician of historical materialism, and that, when he was older, he ended up a vulgar opportunist" [4]. Against such clichés, Bordiga rightly defended the continuity of Marx's thought from the point that he first joined the pro­letarian cause. But in doing so, and in reaction against the various theories of the day, which either proclaimed the ob­solescence of marxism or tried to spice it up with various ad­ditions, such as existentialism, Bordiga mistook this continu­ity for "the monolithism of the whole system from its birth to the death of Marx and even afterwards (the fundamental con­cept of invariance, the fundamental rejection of the enriching evolution of the party doctrine)" [5]. This conception reduces marxism to a static dogma, like Islam - for the true Muslim, the Koran is the word of God precisely because not a jot or a comma has been changed since it was first 'dictated'. It is a dangerous notion which has made the Bordigists forget the real 'enrichments' made by the very current from which they are descended - the Italian Left Fraction - and return to posi­tions made obsolete by the onset of the epoch of capitalist de­cay. In relation to the matter at hand, the EPM, it also makes no sense. If we compare the EPM to the Grundrisse, which was if you like the second draft of the same great work, the continuity is absolutely clear: against the idea that Marx abandoned the concept of alienation, both the word and the concept appear again and again throughout this work of the 'mature' Marx, just as they do in Capital itself. But there is no doubt that the Grundrisse represents an enrichment with regard to the EPM. For example, it clarifies certain funda­mental questions such as the distinction between labour and labour power, and is thus able to uncover the secret of sur­plus value. In its analysis of the phenomenon of alienation, it is able to pose the problem more historically than the earlier work, because it draws on a deep study of the modes of pro­duction that preceded capitalism. For us, the correct way of looking at this problem is to affirm both the continuity and the progressive enrichment of the 'party doctrine', because marxism is both a deeply historical tradition and a living method.

We remain convinced that the concept of alienation is essen­tial to the elaboration of a communist critique of the present social order. Without a thorough-going examination of the problem we are trying to solve, without a grasp of how deep the problem is, there can be no question of formulating a so­lution. We will therefore follow Marx's method in the EPM: in order to define the final goals of the communist transfor­mation, in order, that is to say, to draw the outlines of a re­ally human society, we must first establish how far man has strayed from his own humanity.

The concept of alienation: from myth to science

The notion that man has become estranged or alienated from his own true powers is very old. But in all the societies that preceded capitalism, the concept was bound to be enveloped in mythical or religious forms - above all in the myth of man's fall from a primordial paradise in which he enjoyed godlike powers.

This myth predates class society and is indeed central to the beliefs and practises of the primitive communist societies. The Australian aborigines, for example, believed that their ancestors were the prodigiously creative beings of the pri­mordial 'dreamtime', and that since the closing of this mythi­cal epoch, human beings have greatly diminished in power and knowledge.

Like religion, which descends from it, myth is both a protest against alienation and an expression of it. In both, man pro­jects powers that are really his own onto supernatural beings outside himself. But myth is the characteristic ideology of so­ciety prior to the emergence of class divisions. In this im­mensely long historical epoch, alienation only exists in an embryonic form: the harsh conditions of the struggle for sur­vival impose the harsh domination of the tribe over the indi­vidual, via the unchanging customs and traditions laid down by the mythical ancestors. But this is not yet a relationship of class domination. Ideologically, this situation is reflected in a second aspect of the dreamtime beliefs: the dreamtime can be periodically restored through the collective festivals, and each member of the tribe retains a secret identity with the dreamtime ancestors. In short, man does not yet feel totally divorced from his own creative powers.

With the dissolution of the primitive community and the de­velopment of class society, the onset of alienation properly speaking is mirrored in the emergence of the strictly reli­gious outlook. In societies like ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the outward form of the old cyclical festivals of renewal is retained; but now the masses are mere specta­tors of an elaborate ritual performed by the priests with the aim of glorifying a divinised despot. A gulf has opened up between man and the gods, reflecting the growing gulf be­tween man and man.

In the Judaeo-Christian religions, the deeply conservative cyclical conceptions of primitive and Asiatic society are re­placed by the revolutionary idea that the drama of man's fall and redemption is a historical progression through time. But parallel to this development, the gulf between man and God becomes almost unbridgeable: God orders Adam to depart from Eden precisely for the sin of trying to raise himself to the divine level.

Within the western religious traditions, however, there emerged a number of esoteric and mystical currents which saw the Fall not so much as man's punishment for disobeying a distant Father figure, but as a dynamic cosmic process in which the original Mind 'forgot' itself and plunged into the world of division and apparent reality. In this conception, the estrangement between the created world and the ultimate ground of being was not absolute: the possibility remained for the properly trained initiate to 'remember' his underlying unity with the supreme Mind. Such views were held, for ex­ample, by the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition and its numerous Christian, alchemical and hermetic offshoots. It is significant that such currents - which frequently tipped over into the heresies of pantheism and atheism - became more and more influential with the breakdown of feudal-Catholic orthodoxy and were, as Engels points out in The Peasant War in Ger­many, often associated with subversive social movements in the period of nascent capitalism.

There is a definite, though seldom explored, link between the thinking of Hegel and some of these esoteric traditions, par­ticularly through the works of a radical Protestant, visionary artisan whom Marx himself once referred to as "the inspired Jakob Boehme" [6]. But Hegel was also the most advanced theoretician of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, and conse­quently an heir to the rationalising philosophy of the Ancient Greeks. As such he made a grandiose attempt to take the whole problem of alienation away from the terrain of myth and of mysticism, and to pose it scientifically. For Hegel this meant that what had once been esoteric, locked up in the se­cret mental recesses of a privileged few, had to be grasped consciously, clearly and collectively: "Only what is perfectly determinate in form is at the same time exoteric, comprehen­sible, and capable of being learned and possessed by every­body. Intelligibility is the form in which science is offered to everyone, and is the open road to it made plain for all" [7]. With Hegel, therefore, there is the attempt to grasp man's estrangement from a consciously dialectical and historical standpoint, and Marx even credits him with having achieved certain insights into the key role of labour in man's self-gen­esis. And yet, as Marx, following Feuerbach, pointed out, the Hegelian system takes only one or two steps towards sci­ence before falling back into mysticism. It can be readily seen that Hegel's notion of history as the 'alienation of the Absolute Idea' is a restatement of the Kabbalistic version of the original cosmic fall. Whereas for Marx, the issue was not God's history, but the history of "nature developing into man" [8]; not the descent from a primordial Consciousness into the vulgar realms of matter, but the material ascent from unconscious being to conscious being.

In so far as Hegel dealt with alienation as an aspect of con­crete human experience, here again it became timeless and ahistorical, in that it was posed as an absolute category of man's relationship to the external world: in Marx's terms, Hegel confused objectification - the human capacity to sepa­rate subject from object - with alienation. Consequently, if this estrangement between man and the world could be over­come at all, it could only be done so in the abstract realm of thought - the philosopher's own realm, which for Marx was itself no more than a reflection of alienation.

But Marx did not abandon the concept of alienation to the Hegelians. Instead he attempted to restore it to its material foundations by locating its origins in human society. Feuer­bach had explained that Hegel's Absolute Idea, like all previ­ous manifestations of God, was really the projection of man unable to realise his own powers, of man alienated from him­self. But Marx went further, recognising that the fact that "the secular basis detaches itself from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be ex­plained by the cleavages and self-contradictions within this secular basis" (Theses on Feuerbach). The concept of alien­ation remained vital to Marx because it became a weapon in his assault on the "secular basis", i.e. on bourgeois society, and above all on bourgeois political economy.

Confronted with the triumphant march of bourgeois society, with all the 'miracles of progress' that it had brought about, Marx utilised the concept of alienation to show what all this progress meant for the real producers of wealth, the prole­tarians. He showed that the increasing wealth of capitalist so­ciety meant the increasing impoverishment of the worker. Not only his physical impoverishment, but also the impover­ishment of his inner life:

" ...the more the worker exerts himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and  against himself, the poorer he himself - his inner world - be­comes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the greater is the worker's lack of ob­jects. Whatever the product of his labour is, he is not; there­fore the greater this product, the less he is himself. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the ob­ject confronts him as something hostile and alien" [9].

Here Marx's approach is plain: against the abstractions of Hegel (which took on a caricatural form in the work of the Young Hegelians around Bruno Bauer), Marx roots his con­cept of alienation in "present day-economic facts " [10]. He shows that alienation is an irreducible element of the wage labour system, which can only mean that the more the worker produces, the more he enriches not himself, but capital, this alien power standing over him.

Thus alienation ceases to be a mere state of mind, an inherent aspect of man's relationship to the world (in which case it could never be overcome) and becomes a particular product of man's historical evolution. It did not begin with capital­ism: wage labour, as Marx points out in the Grundrisse, is merely the final and highest form of alienation. But because it is its most advanced form, it provides the key to under­standing the history of alienation in general, just as the ap­pearance of bourgeois political economy made it possible to examine the economic foundations of previous modes of pro­duction. Under bourgeois conditions of production, the roots of alienation are laid bare: they lie not in the clouds, not in man's head alone, but in the labour process, in the concrete and practical relations between man and man and man and nature. Having made this theoretical break-through, it then becomes possible to show how man's alienation in the act of labour extends outwards to all his other activities; by the same token, it opens up the possibility of investigating the historical origins of alienation and its evolution through pre­vious human societies - although it must be said that Marx and the marxist movement have done no more than lay down the premises for such an investigation, since other tasks nec­essarily took precedence over this one.

The four faces of alienation

Although Marx's theory of alienation is far from complete, his treatment of it in the EPM shows how concerned he was that it should be far removed from any vagueness and uncer­tainty. In the chapter on 'Estranged labour' he therefore ex­amines the problem in a very precise manner, identifying four distinct but interconnected aspects of alienation.

The first aspect is the one dealt with in the previous citation from the EPM and briefly summarised in another passage: "The relation of the worker to the product of labour as an alien object exercising power over him. This relation is at the same time the relation to the sensuous external world, to the objects of nature, as an alien world inimically opposed to him". Under conditions of alienation, the products of men's own hands turn against them, and though this applies to pre­vious modes of class exploitation, it reaches its peak under capitalism which is a completely impersonal, inhuman power, created by men's labour but utterly escaping their control, and periodically plunging the whole of society into catastrophic crises. This definition obviously applies to the immediate act of production: capital, in the form of machin­ery and technology, dominates the worker, and instead of in­creasing his leisure, intensifies his exhaustion. Furthermore, the critique of wage labour as by definition alienated labour defies all the bourgeoisie's attempts to separate the two: for example, the fraudulent schemes popular in the 1960s, which aimed at creating 'job satisfaction' by reducing the extreme specialisation characteristic of factory work, by instituting work teams, 'workers' participation' and all the rest. From the marxist point of view, none of this alters the fact that the workers are creating objects over which they have no control and which serve only to enrich others at their expense - and this remains true no matter how 'well paid' the workers are judged to be. But this whole problematic can also be given a much wider application than the immediate process of pro­duction. It is increasingly apparent, for example, especially in the period of capitalism's decadence, that the entire politi­cal, bureaucratic and military machinery of capital has taken on a bloated life of its own, that it crushes human beings like a vast juggernaut. The nuclear bomb typifies this tendency: in a society regulated by inhuman forces, the forces of the market and capitalist competition, what man produces has so far escaped his control that it threatens him with extinction. The same can be said about the relation between man and nature in capitalism: the latter did not in itself produce the alienation between man and nature, which has a far older history, but it takes it to its ultimate point. By 'perfecting' the hostility between man and nature, by reducing the whole natural world to the status of a commodity, the development of capitalist production is now threatening to destroy the very fabric of planetary life [11].

The second dimension of alienation traced by Marx is "the relation of labour to the act of production within the labour process ... here we have self-estrangement, as previously we had the estrangement of the thing". In this process, labour "does not belong to (the worker's) essential being ... in his work, therefore he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home. His labour is therefore not voluntary but coerced; it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labour is shunned like the plague."

Anyone who has had a 'normal' job in the day-to-day life of capitalist society, but above all anyone who has ever worked in a factory, can recognise himself and his feelings in these words. In a capitalist society that has long established its domination over the world, the fact that work should be a hateful experience for the vast majority of mankind is pre­sented almost as a law of nature. But for Marx and marxism there was and is nothing natural about this. Previous forms of production (for example, primitive communal labour, artisan labour) had not completed this divorce between the act of production and sensuous enjoyment; this in itself was proof that the total separation achieved by capital was a historical and not a natural product. Armed with this knowledge, Marx was able to expose the truly scandalous quality of the situa­tion brought about by wage labour. And this leads on to the next aspect of alienation: alienation from the life of the species.

This third aspect of Marx's theory of alienation is almost certainly the most complex, profound, and little understood. In this section of the same chapter, Marx asserts that man has become estranged from his human nature. For Althusser and other critics of the 'Young Marx', such ideas are proof that the 1844 Manuscripts do not represent a decisive break with Feuerbach and radical philosophy in general. We disagree. What Marx rejected in Feuerbach was the notion of a fixed and unchanging human nature. Since nature itself is not fixed and unchanging, this would clearly be a theoretical dead-end, a form of idolatry in fact. Marx's conception of human nature was not this. It was dialectical: man was still a part of nature, nature was "man's inorganic body" as he put it in one passage in the EPM; man was still a creature of in­stincts, as he put it elsewhere in the same work[12]. But man distinguished himself from all the other natural creatures by his capacity to transform this body through conscious cre­ative activity. Man's most essential nature, his species being, as Marx put it, was that of the creator, the transformer of nature.

Vulgar critics of marxism sometimes claim that Marx re­duced man to 'homo faber', a mere drudge, an economic cat­egory. But these critics are blinded by the proximity of wage labour, by the conditions of capitalist production. In defining man as the conscious producer, Marx was actually elevating him to the gates of heaven: for who is God but the estranged image of man when truly man - of man the creator? For Marx, man was only truly man when he was producing in a state of freedom. Whereas the animal "produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom from it" [13].

This is certainly one of the most radical statements that Marx ever made. While capitalist ideology pretends that is an eter­nal fact of nature that work should be a form of mental and physical torture, Marx says that man is only man, not simply when he is producing, but when he produces for the sheer joy of producing, when he is free of the whip of immediate physical need. Otherwise, man is living a purely animal ex­istence. Engels made the same point many years later, in the conclusion to Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, when he said that man won't really mark himself off from the rest of ani­mal kind until he has entered the realm of freedom, the high­est stages of communist society.

It could even be said that alienated labour reduces man to a level below that of the animals: "In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labour tears from him his species life, his real objectivity as a mem­ber of the species and transforms his advantage over the animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, na­ture, is taken away from him. Similarly in degrading sponta­neous, free, activity, to a means, estranged labour make's man's species life a means to his physical existence" [14].

In other words: man's capacity for conscious labour is what makes him human, what separated him from all the other creatures. But under conditions of alienation this advance be­comes a disadvance: man's capacity to separate subject from object, which is a fundamental element in the specifically human consciousness, is perverted into a relation of hostility to nature, to the sensuous 'objective' world. At the same time, alienated labour, above all capitalist wage labour, has turned man's most essential and most exalted characteristic  - his spontaneous, free, conscious life activity - into a mere means of survival, has in fact turned it into something to be bought and sold on the market place. In sum, the 'normality' of working under capitalism is the most refined insult to man's "species being".

The fourth facet of alienation flows directly from the previ­ous three:

"An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labour, from his life activity, from his species being is the estrangement of man from man. When man confronts himself, he confronts the other man."

The alienation of labour in its fully fledged form implies a relationship of exploitation: the appropriation of surplus labour by a ruling class. In the first class societies (in this chapter Marx mentions Egypt, India, Peru, examples of what he later called the Asiatic mode of production), although this surplus was formally consecrated to the gods, the real alien power ruling over the labour of the exploited was not the gods but other men: "The alien being, to whom labour and the product of labour belongs, in whose service labour is done and for whose benefit the product of labour is provided, can only be man himself" (15).

This fundamental cleavage at the heart of social life in­evitably creates a fundamental estrangement between human beings. From the point of view of the ruling class in any class society, the producers of wealth, the exploited, are so many things, mere chattel who only exist for their benefit (although here again it must be said that only under capital­ism is this alienation complete, since in this mode of produc­tion relations of exploitation lose all personal character and become utterly inhuman and mechanical). From the point of view of the exploited class, the rulers of society are also hid­den behind a fog of mystification, appearing now as gods, now as devils according to circumstance; it is not until the emergence of proletarian class consciousness, which is the negation of all ideological forms of perception, that it be­comes possible for an exploited class to see its exploiters in the clear light of day, as the mere product of social and his­torical relationships [15].

But this cleavage is not restricted to the direct relationship between exploiter and exploited. For Marx, man's species being is not an isolated essence locked up in each individual; it is the 'Gemeinwesen' a key term implying that man's na­ture is social, that communal existence is the only really hu­man form of existence. Man is not the isolated, individual producer. He is by definition the social labourer, the collec­tive producer. And yet - and this element is developed in the pages of the Grundrisse in particular - man's history since tribal times can be seen as the continuous dissolution of the original communal bonds which held the first human soci­eties together. This process is intimately linked to the devel­opment of commodity relations, since these above all are the dissolving agent of community-existence. This could already be seen in classical society, where the unprecedented growth of mercantile relations had profoundly undermined the old gentile ties and were already tending to make society a 'war of each against all ' a fact noted by Marx as early as his doctoral thesis on Greek philosophy. But the domination of commodity relations of course reached its apogee under cap­italism, the first society to generalise commodity relations to the very heart of the social organism, the productive process itself. This aspect of capitalism society as the society of uni­versal egoism, in which competition and separation set all men at war with each other, was emphasised particularly in the article 'On the Jewish Question', where Marx makes his first critique of the bourgeois conception of a purely political emancipation.

" ... not one of the so-called rights of man goes beyond ego­istic man, man as a member of civil society, namely an indi­vidual withdrawn into himself, his private interest and his private desires and separated from the community. In the rights of man it is not man who appears as a species being; on the contrary, species life itself, society, appears as a framework extraneous to the individuals, as a limitation of their original independence ..."

This atomisation of man in civil, i.e. bourgeois society, is an indispensable key for analysing all the social questions that lie outside the immediate process of production: the relations between the sexes and the institution of the family; the phe­nomenon of 'mass loneliness' which has so intrigued the so­ciologists and which seems so characteristic of 20th century civilisation; and in general the whole sphere of interpersonal relations. But it also has a more direct meaning for the strug­gle of the proletariat, since it relates to the way in which capitalism divides the proletariat itself and makes each worker a competitor with his fellow worker, thus inhibiting the proletariat's inherent tendency to unite in defence of common interests against capitalist exploitation.

The phenomenon of atomisation is particularly acute today, in the final phase of capitalist decadence, the phase of the generalised break-up and decomposition of social relations. As we have said in numerous texts[16], this phase is above all typified by the flight into individualism and 'every man for himself', by despair, suicide, drug addiction and mental illness on a scale never before seen in history. It is the phase whose motto could be Thatcher's claim that "there's no such thing as society, only individuals and their families"; it is, as the bloody events unfolding in the ex-USSR confirm, a phase of universal cannibalism, in which masses of human beings are being driven into the most irrational and murderous con­flicts, into pogroms, fratricides, and wars that pose a dire threat to the very future of the human race. It goes without saying that the roots of this irrationality lie in the fundamen­tal alienations at the centre of bourgeois society; and that their solution lies solely at this centre, in a radical change in the social relations of production.

The alienation of labour is the premise for its emancipation

For it must not be forgotten that Marx did not elaborate the theory of alienation in order to bewail the misery that he saw around him, or to present, as did the various brands of 'true' and feudal socialism, human history as nothing but a regret­table fall from an original state of fullness. For Marx the alienation of man was the necessary product of human evolu­tion, and as such contained the seeds of its own supercession: "The human being had to be reduced to this absolute poverty in order that he might yield his inner wealth to the outer world" [17]. But the creation of this vast "outer wealth", this wealth estranged from those who have created it, also finally makes it possible for human beings to emerge from alienation into freedom. As Marx puts it in the Grundrisse:

"It will be shown ...that the most extreme form of alien­ation, wherein labour appears in the relation of capital and wage labour, and labour, productive activity, appears in re­lation to its own conditions and its own product, is a neces­sary point of transition - and therefore contains in itself, in a still only inverted from, turned on its head, the dissolution of all limited presuppositions of production, and moreover cre­ates and produces the unconditional presuppositions of pro­duction, and therewith the full material conditions for the total, universal development of the productive forces of the individual" [18].

There are two aspects to this: in the first place, because of the unprecedented productivity of labour achieved under the capitalist mode of production, the old dream of a society of abundance, where all human beings, and not just a privileged few, have the leisure to devote themselves to the "total, uni­versal development" of their creative powers, can cease to be a dream and become a reality. But the possibility of commu­nism is not simply a matter of technological possibility. It is above a social possibility linked to the existence of a class which has a material interest in bringing it about. And here again Marx's theory of alienation shows how both in spite and because of the alienation it suffers in bourgeois society, the proletariat will be driven to rebel against its conditions of existence:

"The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this estrangement, it recognises estrangement as its own power and has in it the semblance of human existence. The latter feels annihilated in estrange­ment; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence. It is, to use an expression of Hegel, in its abasement the indignation at that abasement, an indignation to which it is necessarily driven by the contradictions be­tween its human nature and its conditions of life, which is the outright, resolute and comprehensive negation of that na­ture" [19].

The theory of alienation is thus nothing if it is not a theory of class revolt, a theory of revolution, a theory of the historic struggle for communism. In the next chapter we will look at the first sketches of communist society that Marx 'deduced' from his critique of capitalist alienation.  CDW


[1] Marx, Capital, Chapter seven, Section one. In this passage the 'mature' Marx develops a fundamental question addressed in the EPM: the distinc­tion between human labour and the "life-activity" of other animals.

[2]  See the previous article in this series, 'How the proletariat won Marx to communism', IR 69

[3] On Marx's criticisms of 'crude communism', see the first article in this series, in IR 68.

[4] Bordiga, 'Commentary on the 1844 Manuscripts'. In Bordiga et le pas­sion du communisme, compiled by Jacques Camatte, Spartacus Editions, 1974

[5] Ibid

[6] Marx, 'The leading article of no. 179 of Kolnische Zeitung', published in the Rheinische Zeitung, 1842

[7] Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, 1807, Preface; p. 76 in the Harper Colophon edition

[8] EPM, chapter on 'Private property and communism'

[9] EPM, chapter on 'Estranged labour'

[10]  ibid

[11] See 'It's capitalism that's poisoning the Earth', in IR 63

[12] EPM: the phrase cited is from the chapter on 'Estranged Labour'. The reference to man's instincts occurs in the chapter called 'Critique of Hegelian philosophy'

[13] ibid, chapter on 'Estranged labour'

[14] ibid

[15] On the specificities of proletarian consciousness, see in particular Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness; and the ICC pamphlet, Class Consciousness and Communist Organisations

[16] See especially, 'Decomposition, final phase of the decadence of capi­talism', in IR 62

[17] EPM, chapter on 'Private property and communism'

[18] Grundrisse (Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, Rough Draft, written in the winter of 1857-8), Section 2, 'The circulation process of capital'; sub-heading 'Exchange of labour for labour rests on worker's propertylessness'

[19] Marx and Engels, The Holy Family, 1844, chapter IV