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

Vladimir Lenin standing and talking

A snapshot of historical self-consciousness

Photograph of a display honoring the
First through the Third International,
with gigantic constructivist arrows (1919)

Honoring the First through Third Internationals (1919), with gigantic constructivist arrows

Outdoor diorama honoring the First through Third Internationals (1919), with gigantic constructivist arrows

Photographic details

Reflections on resistance, reform, and revolution

The problematic forms of
contemporary anticapitalism

Image: Cover to Rosa Luxemburg’s
Sozialreform oder Revolution? (1899)


The following are the prepared remarks to a Platypus panel on “The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance” with 1960s activist Todd Gitlin and WIL organizer Tom Trottier, held last March at NYU. A considerably expanded and improved version of this essay has been published by Upping the Anti (which I encourage everyone interested to buy):

Almost five years have passed since Platypus hosted its first panel on “The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance.” At the time, many of us were trying to come to terms with the profound sense of disorientation we’d felt during our involvement in the antiwar movement, which was then in a process of rapid disintegration. We hoped to explore the relationship between these three categories, both to each other and to the greater project of human freedom, in order to determine whether an emancipatory politics was still even possible. How can the respective political modes of resistance, reform, and revolution be deployed to advance social and individual freedom? How might they reinforce each other on a reciprocal basis? Today, with the recent upsurge in global activism, we stand on the precipice of what promises to herald the rebirth of such a politics. These questions have acquired a renewed sense of urgency in this light. Now more than ever, they demand our attention if we are to forge a way forward without repeating the mistakes of the past.

Reform, revolution, and resistance — each of these concepts exercises a certain hold over the popular imagination of the Left. While they need not be conceived as mutually exclusive, the three have often sat in uneasy tension with one another over the course of the last century, however. The Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg famously counterposed the first two in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution?, written over a hundred years ago. In her view, this ultimately turned out to be a false dichotomy. Nevertheless, Luxemburg was addressing a real dilemma that had emerged along with the formation of the Second International and the development of mass working-class politics in the late nineteenth century. Even if she was able to conclude that reforms could still be pursued within the framework of a revolutionary program — that is, without falling into reformism — this was by no means an obvious position to take.

Still less should we consider the matter done and settled with respect to our current context, simply because a great figure like Luxemburg dealt with it in her own day. We do not have the luxury of resting on the accomplishments or insights of past thinkers. It is unclear whether the solution at which she arrived then holds true any longer. History can help us understand the momentum of the present carried over from the past, as well as possible futures toward which it may be tending. But it offers no prefabricated formulae for interpreting the present, no readymade guides to action. Continue reading

Young Lukács

An interview & photo gallery

Image: Georg Lukács seated in
the darkness of his library


From an interview conducted by the New Left Review, translated 1971:

New Left Review: How do you judge today your writings of the twenties? What is their relationship to your present work?

Georg Lukács: In the twenties, Korsch, Gramsci, and I tried in our different ways to come to grips with the problem of social necessity and the mechanistic interpretation of it that was the heritage of the Second International. We inherited this problem, but none of us — not even Gramsci, who was perhaps the best of us — solved it. We all went wrong, and today it would be quite mistaken to try and revive the works of those times as if they were valid now. In the West, there is a tendency to erect them into “classics of heresy,” but we have no need for that today. The twenties are a past epoch; it is the philosophical problems of the sixties that should concern us. I am now working on an Ontology of Social Being which I hope will solve the problems that were posed quite falsely in my earlier work, particularly History and Class Consciousness. My new work centres on the question of the relationship between necessity and freedom, or as I express it, teleology and causality.

Georg.Lukács and Béla Balázs

Georg Lukács and Béla Balázs

Traditionally, philosophers have always built systems founded on one or the other of these two poles; they have either denied necessity or denied human freedom. My aim is to show the ontological interrelation of the two, and to reject the “either-or” standpoints with which philosophy has traditionally presented man. The concept of labor is the hinge of my analysis. For labor is not biologically determined. If a lion attacks an antelope, its behavior is determined by biological need and by that alone. But if primitive man is confronted with a heap of stones, he must choose between them, by judging which will be most adaptable to his use as a tool; he selects between alternatives. The notion of alternatives is basic to the meaning of human labor, which is thus always teleological — it sets an aim, which is the result of a choice. It thus expresses human freedom. But this freedom only exists by setting in motion objective physical forces, which obey the causal laws of the material universe.

The teleology of labor is thus always co-ordinated with physical causality, and indeed the result of any individual’s labor is a moment of physical causality for the teleological orientation (Setzung) of any other individual. The belief in a teleology of nature was theology, and the belief in an immanent teleology of history was unfounded. But there is teleology in all human labor, inextricably inserted into the causality of the physical world. This position, which is the nucleus from which I am developing my present work, overcomes the classical antinomy of necessity and freedom. But I should emphasize that I am not trying to build an all-inclusive system. The title of my work — which is completed, but I am now revising the first chapters — is Zur Ontologie des Gesellschaftlichen Seins, not Ontologie des Gesellschaftlichen Seins. You will appreciate the difference. The task I am engaged on will need the collective work of many thinkers for its proper development. But I hope it will show the ontological bases for that socialism of everyday life of which I spoke. Continue reading

Karl Korsch's Marxismus und Philosophie

August Thalheimer, “Book Review: Karl Korsch, Marxismus und Philosophie

Leipzig: C. L. Hirschfeld, 1923

Image: Cover to the first edition of Korsch’s
Marxismus und Philosophie (1923)


Platypus Review 48 | July–August 2012

The first English translation of August Thalheimer’s 1924 review of Karl Korsch’s seminal work, Marxism and Philosophy, appears below. The review originally appeared in the Soviet journal Under the Banner of Marxism(Pod Znamenem Marksizma, 4-5 [1924]: 367–373). For an earlier discussion of Korsch’s book, see Chris Cutrone’s review of the 2008 reprint of Marxism and Philosophy released by Monthly Review Press, in Platypus Review 15 (September 2009), and the original translation of Karl Katusky’s review of Korsch that was published in Platypus Review 43 (February 2012).

Reposted from The Platypus Review.

The task that Karl Korsch sets himself in the article comprising the first part of his “Historical-logical Studies on the Question of the Materialist Dialectic,” boils down to the elucidation of the problem of the interrelation of Marxism and philosophy.[1] The article begins by pointing out that the importance of this question has not been recognized until the present day, and that this ignorance characterizes the bourgeois school of philosophy as well as circles of Marxist academics. “For professors of philosophy, Marxism was at best a rather minor sub-section within the history of nineteenth-century philosophy, dismissed as ‘The Decay of Hegelianism’” (52).

As for the Marxist theoreticians, including also the orthodox ones, they too failed to grasp the importance of the “philosophical side” of their own theory. True, they proceeded from different considerations than the professors of bourgeois philosophy, and even assumed that in this they followed exactly the footsteps of Marx and Engels, because ultimately the latter two would sooner “abolish” than create philosophy. But this attitude of the Marxist theoreticians — the leaders of the Second International — to the problem of philosophy can be considered satisfactory from the viewpoint of Marxism precisely insofar as Feuerbach’s attitude to Hegel’s philosophy satisfied Marx and Engels. Shoving philosophy unceremoniously aside, the cultivation of a negative attitude toward its problems did not occur without impunity and resulted in such curiosities as the confession of faith by some Marxists in Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Continue reading

El Lissitzky,Proposal for a monument to Rosa Luxemburg (1919)

A response to Reid Cane’s “Leninism or Luxemburgism?”

IMAGE: El Lissitzky, Monument
to Rosa Luxemburg (1919)


The following is a response to some critical remarks made by Reid Kane on his blog, The Luxemburgist, in an entry entitled “Leninism or Luxemburgism?”.  Reid was responding in this post to some comments I’d made on a different entry, in which I objected to his opposition of Vladimir Lenin’s articulation of a Marxist politics to that of Rosa Luxemburg.  These are, after all, two organizational models that have frequently been held up as antithetical.  I asserted that their split had been grossly exaggerated by both Stalinists seeking to discredit Luxemburg’s former colleagues and anti-authoritarian/anti-Bolshevik tendencies in the New Left, who exalt Luxemburg as an heroic “alternative” to Lenin.  Reid provides a thoroughgoing, reasoned critique of my objection, maintaining that it is not enough to ignore their differences merely because their disagreements have been blown out of proportion.  In this I cannot but agree.  The differences between Luxemburg and Lenin cannot simply be glossed over.  And so, though this topic has been dealt with countless times by writers on the Left, I feel it is not too much to add my own thoughts on the matter here, in response to Reid’s excellent post.

Continue reading