Alienation in Karl Marx’s early writing

Daniel Lopez

[Daniel Lopez’s essay on “Alienation in Karl Marx’s early writing” was recently republished on Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. In my opinion, it’s an excellent and fairly self-explanatory piece. As such, it doesn’t require much commentary on my end. Still, I’d like to note just a few things about the essay as well as the subject it concerns, not only to personalize it for my blog, but to set it in broader context. These won’t be included here, however, but will have to wait for a subsequent post. Just one thing, really: I find the notion of a Marxist “ontology,” like an “epistemology,” quite problematic, and characteristic of the later Lukács, and not the early one.

Please do, if you’re interested, check out Bertell Ollman’s classic Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (1971). Long before he started announcing every economic upheaval as “the terminal crisis of capitalism,” and talking about robotization, Ollman wrote what was probably the definitive text on the subject of alienation.]

As Karl Korsch noted in Marxism and Philosophy, the philosophical foundation of Marx’s works has often been neglected. The Second International had, in Korsch’s view, pushed aside philosophy as an ideology, preferring “science.” This, he charged, tended to reduce Marxism to a positivistic sociology, and in so doing, it internalized and replicated the theoretical logic of capitalism. [1] In place of this, Korsch called for a revitalization of Marxism that would view philosophy not simply as false consciousness but as a necessary part of the social totality.[2]

Following Marx, we should understand that philosophy could be, at best, its own period comprehended in thought, and that “philosophy cannot be abolished without being realised”.[3] Korsch was not alone in this. Georg Lukács’ major work, History and Class Consciousness, appeared almost simultaneously. Lukács, too, sought to lead a renewal of Marxism via a return to its philosophical roots, specifically in Hegel.[4] Unknown to them at the time, there was a greater basis for this in Marx’s writing than they could have imagined. In 1927, Marx’s The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 was released; this was followed in 1932 by The German Ideology. These two texts joined other works by Marx, including The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), On the Jewish Question (1843), The Holy Family (1845, co-authored with Engels), Theses on Feuerbach (1845) and The Poverty of Philosophy(1847). Together, these illustrate a vast and penetrating critical engagement with Hegelian philosophy.

This essay will engage with this body of work in order to shed light on Marx’s early period and specifically, the concept of alienation.[5] The central contention here is that alienation is vital to the ontological bedrock of Marx’s early viewpoint. This will help to elucidate a number of related issues. Specifically, his concept of labor as species-being, his argument that material reality is always formed by and through social relations and his application of alienation to the critique of philosophy and history will be explored. In order to do this, this essay will be divided into four subsections which deal with the concept of alienation as Marx developed it. It will begin with his Hegelian inheritance and will then move to his political critique of Hegel. Following the development of Marx’s thought, the essay will discuss the economic production of alienation. Marx’s theory of the overcoming of alienation will then be considered, with reference to the Young Hegelian movement, against which he formulated his views. This will necessitate a short discussion of alienation in history and Marx’s theory of revolution. It is hoped that out of this, an understanding of Marx’s early period will be reached that emphasizes his radical humanism and his basic affinity with thinkers like Korsch, Lukács, and Rubin. Finally, this essay seeks to present a Marx who is simultaneously deeply indebted to and critical of Hegel.


German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1772-1831)

Marx’s Hegelian roots

Alienation is a theme fundamental to Hegel’s thought. To give an in-depth account of this would be a vast undertaking. This essay will therefore limit itself to one clear example — the emergence of Reason out of Self-Consciousness in Section B of The Phenomenology of Spirit.[6] Continue reading