Alienation, reification, and the fetish form: Traces of the Hegelian legacy in Marx and Marxism

Everyone remembers Althusser’s numerous objections to the overemphasis placed on the concept of “alienation” amongst Marxists, and in general the fascination with the young, “humanistic” Marx at the expense of the old, “scientific” Marx. What is less often remembered, however, is that even many who stressed the Hegelian underpinnings of Marxism had grown tired of the all the talk of “alienation” by the 1960s. In his Introduction to Sociology lecture series delivered in 1961, no less a dialectician than Theodor Adorno remarked:

One hears much talk about the concept of alienation — so much that I myself have put a kind of moratorium on it, as I believe that the emphasis it places on a spiritual feeling of strangeness and isolation conceals something that is really founded on material conditions. (Introduction to Sociology, pg. 3).

Since the word “alienation” is used ad nauseum today, I try to dispense with it as far as I can. Nevertheless, it does impinge on the subject under discussion, and I shall mention it at least as a general heading for what I mean. We live within a totality which binds people together only by virtue of their alienation from each other. (Ibid., pg. 43)

Clearly, Adorno is not objecting to the concept of alienation as such, but rather a pernicious effect resulting from its overuse. Two years later, he linked this tendentious usage of the young Marx’s terminology to a rekindled communitarianism enchanted by the memory of “community” [Gemeinschaft] and distraught over the reality of “society” [Gesellschaft]. In one of his lectures on History and Freedom (1963), he maintained:

Infected by an irrational cult of community, the term “alienation” has recently become fashionable in both East and West, thanks to the veneration of the young Marx at the expense of the old one, and thanks to the regression of objective dialectics to anthropology. This term takes an ambivalent view of a repressive society; it is as ambivalent as genuine suffering under the rule of alienation itself. (History and Freedom, pg. 265)

As has already been mentioned above, the French Marxist Louis Althusser was likewise exhausted with the jargon of “alienation” being bandied about in the universities. Unlike Adorno, however, this led him to reject the entire philosophical apparatus of the young Marx root and branch. Furthermore, adopting the rather hazy distinction made by the humanist Marxists — he had in mind here Jean-Paul Sartre, Erich Fromm, and Roger Garaudy rather than Raya Dunayevskaya — Althusser posited a decisive, unequivocal “epistemic break” between the young Marx and the old Marx supposedly taking place around 1845. (Though, for the curious, Dunayevskaya had this to say about Althusser: “Althusser really goes backward. Compared to him, [Eduard] Bernstein was practically a revolutionary. Althusser wants to ‘drive Hegel back into the night’.”)

George Tooker, Lunch

Rejecting the earlier category of “alienation,” Althusser now railed against the theory of “reification” proposed by Marxist Hegelians influenced by Georg Lukács and Isaak Rubin during the 1920s. In a lengthy footnote in his book For Marx (1962), he wrote:

The whole, fashionable, theory of “reification” depends on a projection of the theory of alienation found in the early texts, particularly the Paris Manuscripts, onto the theory of “fetishism” in Capital. In the Paris Manuscripts of 1844, the objectification of human essence is claimed as the indispensable preliminary to the reappropriation of the human essence by man. Throughout the process of objectification, man only exists in the form of an objectivity in which he meets his own essence in the appearance of a foreign, non-human, essence. But this “objectification” is not called “reification,” even though it is called inhuman. Inhumanity is not represented par excellence by the model of a “thing”: but sometimes by the model of animality (or even preanimality, the man who no longer even has simple animal relations with nature), sometimes by the model of the omnipotence and fascination of transcendence (God, the State) and of money, which is, of course, a “thing.” In Capital the only social relation that is presented in the form of a thing (this piece of metal) is money. But the conception of money as a thing (that is, the confusion of value with use-value in money) does not correspond to the reality of this “thing”: it is not the brutality of a simple “thing” that man is faced with when he is in direct relation with money; it is a power (or a lack of it) over things and men. An ideology of reification that sees “things” everywhere in human relations confuses in this category “thing” (a category more foreign to Marx cannot be imagined) every social relation, conceived according to the model of a money-thing ideology. (For Marx, pg. 230)

Of course, this could not have ever been the case. To begin with, Althusser confuses the chronology of these writings by alleging that the early works of Rubin, Korsch, and Lukács, were a result of the direct influence of Marx’s Paris Manuscripts (1844). According to Althusser, the immature theory of alienation from this text was overhastily equated with Marx’s mature exposition of commodity fetishism in Capital (1867). He somehow neglects to mention the fact that these exegeses of Capital by Rubin and Lukács were written and released in 1926 and 1918-1923, respectively, while the 1844 Manuscripts would not be discovered or published until 1927! The German Ideology, another work in which the concept of alienation could be found, was not known to the wider public until 1932.

Certainly, some of the language of alienation — which admittedly did occur with much greater frequency in Marx’s juvenilia — also appeared in works like The Holy Family, one chapter of which was scavenged for The German Ideology. Isaak Rubin himself cites this as an instance where the genesis of the later theory of commodity fetishism in Capital from the earlier theory of alienation. Fetishism would then serve as inspiration for Rubin’s own reflections on “reification”:

[I]n that work [The Holy Family] we find the embryo of the theory of fetishism in the form of a contrast between “social,” or “human” relations, and their “alienated,” materialized form. The source of this contrast was the widespread conception of Utopian Socialists on the character of the capitalist system. According to the Utopian Socialists, this system is characterized by the fact that the worker is forced to “self-alienate” his personality, and that he “alienates” the product of his labor from himself. The domination of “things,” of capital over man, over the worker, is expressed through this alienation. (“Marx’s Development of the Theory of Fetishism,” Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, pg. 56)

Rubin continues in that same essay to spell out the precise changes undergone in Marx’s thought that led from alienation to fetishism:

Marx’s transition from Utopian to Scientific Socialism introduced an essential change into the above-mentioned theory of “alienation.” If the opposition which he had earlier described between human relations and their “material” form meant an opposition between what should be and what is, now both opposing factors are transferred to the world as it is, to social being. The economic life of contemporary society is on the one hand the totality of social production relations, and on the other a series of “material” categories in which these relations are manifested. Production relations among people and their “material” form is the content of a new opposition, which originated in the earlier opposition between the “human” element in the economy and its “alienated” forms. The formula of commodity fetishism was found in this way. But several stages were still necessary before Marx gave this theory its final formulation. (Ibid., pg. 58)

Similarly, besides its primary derivation from the commodity fetishism chapter in Capital, Lukács also derives his concept of “reification” from a few lines in Marx’s The Holy Family and The Poverty of Philosophy:

[T]he ossifying quality of reified thought with its tendency to oust the process is exemplified even more clearly In the facts than In the “laws” that would order them. In the latter it is still possible to detect a trace of human activity even though it often appears in a reified and false subjectivity. But in the “facts” we find the crystallization of the essence of capitalist development into an ossified, impenetrable thing alienated from man. And the form assumed by this ossification and this alienation converts it into a foundation of reality and of philosophy that is perfectly self-evident and immune from every doubt. When confronted by the rigidity of these “facts” every movement seems like a movement impinging on them, while every tendency to change them appears to be a merely subjective principle (a wish, a value judgement, an ought). (“Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, pg. 183)

Not only was Althusser mistaken about the source Korsch, Lukács, and Rubin relied upon for the “young” Marx’s theory of alienation; he was also wrong to imply that these thinkers ham-fistedly mapped the one onto the other. Rubin even consciously extrapolated the category of fetishism from the earlier category of alienation, while underscoring the shift in Marx’s thought that distinguished the two. Indeed, Adorno remark in passing decades later that “what we call reification and what we call alienation [are] two concepts…which are far from identical” (Introduction to Sociology, pg. 304).


“Reification” was not a terminological invention of these authors, either. The term appeared in Capital itself, where Marx wrote of “the conversion of things into persons and conversion of persons into things [Personifizierung der Sachen und Versachlichung der Personen, or ‘Personification of things and reification of persons’]” (Capital, pg. 209).

And then later, in the book’s appendix, more expansively:

Even if we consider just the formal relation, the general form of capitalist production, which is common to both its more and its less advanced forms, we see that the means of production, the material conditions of labor, are not subject to the worker, but he to them. Capital employs labor. This in itself exhibits the relationship in its simple form and entails the personification of things and the reification [Versachlichung] of persons.

The relationship becomes more complicated, however, and apparently more mysterious, with the emergence of a specifically capitalist mode of production. Here we find that it is not only such things — the products of labor, both use-values and exchange­ values — that rise up on their hind legs and face the worker and confront him as “Capital.” But even the social form of labor appears as a form of development of capital, and hence the productive forces of social labor so developed appear as the productive forces of capitalism. Vis-à-vis labor such social forces are in fact “capitalized.” In fact collective unity in co-operation, combination in the division of labor, the use of the forces of nature and the sciences, of the products of labor, as machinery — all these con­front the individual workers as alien, objective, readymade, existing without their intervention, frequently even hostile to them. (Ibid., pg. 1054).

Rubin’s discussion of reification in his brilliant essay, “Reification of Productive Relations among People, Personification of Things,” takes up these passages directly:

Vulgar economists who do not grasp that the process of “personification of things” can only be understood as a result of the process of “reification of production relations among people,” consider the social characteristics of things (value, money, capital, etc.) as natural characteristics which belong to the things themselves. Value, money, and so on, are not considered as expressions of human relations “tied” to things, but as the direct characteristics of the things themselves, characteristics which are directly intertwined with the natural-technical characteristics of the things. This is the cause of the commodity fetishism which is characteristic of vulgar economics and of the commonplace thinking of the participants in production who are limited by the horizon of the capitalist economy. (“Reification of Productive Relations among People, Personification of Things,” Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, pg. 27)

Incidentally, in tracing out Marx’s materialization of the Hegelian dialectic and the Hegelian-Feuerbachian concept of alienation, the Marxist and phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty roughly paraphrased this double-inversion of the “reification of persons, personification of things.” Leaning throughout on Lukács’ concept of reification, Merleau-Ponty explained in his essay on “Western Marxism” (1955):

“Capital,” says Marx in a famous line, is “not a thing, but a social relationship between persons mediated by things.” Historical materialism is not the reduction of history to one of its sectors. It states a kinship between the person and the exterior, between the subject and the object, which is at the bottom of the alienation of the subject in the object and, if the movement is reversed, will be the basis for the reintegration of the world with, man.

Marx’s innovation is that he takes this fact as fundamental, whereas for Hegel alienation is still an operation of the spirit on itself and thus already overcome when it manifests itself. When Marx says that he has put the dialectic back on its feet or that his dialectic is the “contrary” of Hegel’s, this cannot be simply a matter of exchanging the roles of the spirit and the “matter” of history, giving to the “matter” of history the very functions Hegel accorded to the spirit. As it becomes material, the dialectic must grow heavy. In Marx spirit now becomes a thing [reification of persons]. Meanwhile, things become saturated with spirit [personification of things]. (“Western Marxism,” Adventures of the Dialectic. Pg. 33).

Merleau-Ponty gets at something important when he writes that “alienation is still an operation of the spirit on itself and thus is already overcome when it manifests itself.” In other words, the alienation written about by the Marx of Capital is no longer self-alienation, as it was in his earlier manuscripts. Adorno raised this same point later in his 1966 book, Negative Dialectics:

[T]alk of “self-alienation” is untenable. Despite — or perhaps on account of — the better days it has seen under Hegel and Marx, that talk has become the stock in trade of apologists who will suggest in paternal tones that man has apostatized, that he has lapsed from a being-in-itself which he had always been. Whereas, in fact, he never was that being-in-itself, and what he can expect from recourses to his is therefore nothing but submission to authority, the very thing that is alien to him. It is not only due to the economic themes of Das Kapital that the concept of self-alienation plays no part in it any more; it makes philosophical sense.

Perhaps in this sense there is something to Althusser’s point that the difference between Hegel and Marx is that for Hegel the starting point is a simple, undifferentiated unity, a simplicity to which consciousness returns after a long journey. Alienation is not posited by the self, and is not simply an operation performed on itself. Workers experience alienation as an external power imposed upon them by the productive process. From Capital, in this case:

[B]efore [the worker] enters the [production] process, his own labor has already been alienated [entfremdet] from him, appropriated by the capitalist, and incorporated with capital, it now, in the course of the process, constantly objectifies itself so that it becomes a pro­duct alien to him [fremder ProduktJ. Since the process of production is also the process of the consumption of labor-power by the capitalist, the worker’s product is not only constantly converted into commodities, but also into capital, i.e. into value that sucks up the worker’s value-creating power, means of subsistence that actually purchase human beings, and means of production that employ the people who are doing the producing. Therefore the worker himself constantly produces objective wealth, in the form of capital, an alien power that dominates and exploits him; and the capitalist just as constantly produces labor-power, in the form of a subjective source of wealth which is abstract, exists merely in the physical body of the worker, and is separated from its own means of objectification and realization; in short, the capitalist produces the worker as a wage-laborer. (Capital, pg. 716)

So we can see even here that Marx never fully abandons the language of alienation, even in his late magnum opus Capital. In concluding, without having really resolved all these threads of inquiry, I would simply like to propose that the concept of “alienation” for Marx does not come solely from Hegel, or even from Hegel mediated by Feuerbach.

George Tooker, Waiting Room

Though the term does not possess the same philosophical richness as it does for Hegel or Feuerbach, “alienation” also plays a central role in classical bourgeois political economy. Adam Smith, the bourgeois economist par excellence, will suffice as an example. Speaking of stock lent at interest, already for Smith a form of capital (Marx would have called it moneylending or usurers’ capital), he wrote in The Wealth of Nations (1775): “If he uses it as a capital, he employs it in the maintenance of productive laborers, who reproduce the value with a profit. He can, in this case, both restore the capital and pay the interest without alienating or encroaching upon any other source of revenue” (The Wealth of Nations, pg. 372).

Moreover, I would like to also stress that even for the young Marx it was not a question of his being a “humanist,” nor someone interested in erecting a “social ontology.” Humanism was not contrasted with anti-humanism, as it would be for Althusser and the structuralist Marxists. Its antinomical opposite was naturalism. Communism, as Marx put it somewhere, would not only be a perfect or completed humanism, but also a perfect or completed naturalism. Ontology tends to freeze historically transient phenomena into transhistorical categories of “Being.” Here I would probably take some issue with Daniel Lopez’s characterizations.

“The fact remains, however, that the Althusserian criticism ·of the concept of alienation is partly valid. Alienation is too vast to be able to constitute an operative scientific concept, whereas reification is more precise.” (Lucien Goldmann, Lukács and Heidegger: Towards a New Philosophy, pg. 90)

10 thoughts on “Alienation, reification, and the fetish form: Traces of the Hegelian legacy in Marx and Marxism

  1. I think you’re not going far enough around the edges. Of course we can go to Plato and Aristotle too, but I think it suffices to go to modernity.

    It comes from Locke Hobbes and Rousseau*, you have to look into the reason Hegel started history, qua process. He started it because of the idea of a state of nature. The end of that solopsistic, if you like, I speak loosely, state is the master slave dialectic. That is the start of the period off history, acquired class structure or relations, which coincides completely with the period of alienation. For Marx this means the acquisition of needs, like, not just sitting, in the archaic enjoyment of the sunlight, but I want my MTV, OK then you will work and become labour power!

    There’s a fundamental disagreement because Adorno doesn’t believe in that, some ideal state of the sweetness of just being, but rather in an indefinite series of ‘Enlightenments’ or transformations of some, if you like, I speak very loosely, “being” sans essence.

    *’These clauses, properly understood, may be reduced to one—the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.’

    • Thanks for your input.

      Philosophically, the theorists of natural right (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, a couple minor figures) certainly were significant for Hegel. He went so far as to claim that Rousseau “discovered” freedom in the eighteenth century. But as a mode of explaining the derivation of Recht, right or law, in modern society, Hegel clearly found it lacking. This comes through most clearly in his lectures on The Philosophy of Right. Hegel rejects the idea of a state of nature in favor of historical development, which is probably why Nietzsche would later echo him in writing that Hegel “discovered” history in the nineteenth century.

      Of course, it could be argued that the natural law theorists did not believe in the literal reality of the states of nature they described. The believed them to be necessary heuristic fictions for the sake of argument. Rousseau was fairly explicit about the speculative character of his state of nature in the Second Discourse. Engels even argues in Anti-Dühring (1877) that Rousseau’s philosophy already employed a rudimentary mode of dialectical argumentation, in the sense that Hegel would give to it.

      Also, I think there are some important bits about the relation of “history” to “prehistory” in both Hegel and Marx that are worth discussing but I’ll wait to see how you respond.

  2. Natural Right means rights are based in common sense (and the concept is as old as the hills), State of Nature is a different concept. It basically means the same as existentialism. It is proto-existentialist. And has its inception properly with Hobbes.

    The ‘discovery of freedom’ in Rousseau means man as man precedes the city, and so can claim to have rights, rather then obligations to the city, he is a creator and founder, in contradistinction to the Greek idea (i.e., ‘man is organism of the polis’ and thus indebted to his nurturer). His essence is thought as a modified form of Christian freewill. But thought through Machiavelli and Hobbes (because these guys think, for the first time, that terrible low impulse, Thomistic self-preservation, as the founding principle of morality) and so they pushed towards existentialism proper, which we get only with, or speaking crudely, for a fleeting moment in the backwater of, Heidegger (because Heidegger repudiates existentialism, as a total understanding of ‘Being’, as soon as it is thought properly, I mean its just a component for him).

    ‘ heuristic fictions’

    Yea, but you know it has somthing to do with what you wrote today. A lot of theory becomes very vague, and therefore nobody really understands it. That wasn’t the case in former generations, you know Hobbes really was writing something intended for practical use. And even Hegel, sic. Someone comes and challenges someone else to a fight, in former times elite males had for their primary activity fighting and killing, and one man may admit, you are superior, I submit. Then that relation is passed on in the next generation. I mean that is not fanciful. But that shows why alienation is if you like, a meme, an acquired characteristic, and so it seems history (in a way history in Hegel means, the history of common sense, which changes when man does, and when his/her situation does, so that is why it is connected to Natural Right) could end, no more passing on of the bad fruit of that encounter. I mean that is the very crude outline of the idea. Only of course this relation develops and spreads into the very essence of man, until it is present everywhere and so impossible to see, or too visible to critique, it constitutes that essence, and that is why Marx points not to a return to nature, but to the arising of a universal man, one who has a part in everything, and is neither simple slave or master and etc with regard to roles under capitalism, one who has overcome history, not thrown it aside.

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  4. Yes. But why, after recognising the teleological import of alienation and rejecting the naturalism/humanism dichotomy do you balk at ontology and the amorphous category ‘being’? Why seek security in the ‘scientific’ as precise and utilitarian conceptual abstraction? Goldmann is employing Althusser’s scientific and it’s a cartesian straightjacket. Althusser does it, Adorno does it, Goldmann does it – in the fact of proliferation of meaning, they all demand precise conceptual abstraction to expediate rational, ‘scientific’ critique. It’s valid only on its own terms. Dialectical/historical materialism is a form of reasoning, scientific reasoning; but it resists that form of irrational, ahistorical and alienating rationality that posits reified categories and fixed relations.
    The problem (for criticism) seems to be one of language and meaning, and I think it will come down not to concept, but to method.

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