Alienation is a pervasive but puzzling feature of modern life. It is one of the few theoretical terms from Marxism that has entered into ordinary language. There it usually denotes a vague feeling of malaise or meaninglessness. In Marx, however, it has a precise meaning derived from Hegel's philosophy, and it plays a central role in Marx's critique of capitalism and his conception of an alternative form of society.
For Marx, alienation is a paradoxical phenomenon. We are alienated when our own activities or products take on a form that is independent of us and act against us. It exists in many areas of life, including religion, work and social and economic relations. In Marx's earliest work, religion is the central example. `Man makes religion, religion does not make man', says Marx. And yet the gods that we have created appear to be independent beings, often judgemental and hostile.
The main focus of Marx's interests soon turns towards economics. Here, our own products and activities also become independent powers that act against us. `The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things.' (Marx) Similarly, our social and economic relations take on a life of their own. The market becomes an independent power that often works against us, threatening the well-being of individuals, groups and even of whole nations.
These are not the ways in which we must or should relate to our own work or economic relations. For Marx's account of alienation is based on a theory of human nature and social life according to which we can and should be able to realize ourselves through our work and social relations. Capitalism, Marx shows, thwarts these possibilities - and that is an important basis for his critique of it.
Alienation is a concept that Marx inherits from Hegel and the young Hegelians. It figures most prominently in Marx's early writings where the influence of these writers is most evident, but it is present throughout his work. I go out of my way in the book to show how knowledge of Hegel's philosophy is essential for a proper understanding of Marx's thought. This might seem so obvious as to need no emphasis, but it has been disputed by the most influential recent schools of Marxist philosophy.
One of the main things that Marx inherits from Hegel is the historical and dialectical approach. It is in the light of this that the concept of alienation must be understood. Alienation is not an unalterable feature of the human condition, nor should it be regarded simply as a moral and social ill. It is a historical phenomenon.
Both Hegel and Marx conceive of human development as occurring through a process of alienation and its overcoming. A stage of alienation is a necessary part of the process. Thus alienation is not a purely negative notion, there is a positive aspect to it. Likewise, the overcoming of alienation in a future society is not a mere moral ideal.
This does not mean that Marx is not profoundly critical of capitalism and its impact. Indeed, a central purpose of the concept of alienation is to express that criticism. However, it does affect the form that critique takes. This is historical in character. The concept is used to understand capitalism and its development, not simply to condemn it: alienation is not the mere moral evil it is often taken to be. Marx is not just saying that capitalism and the alienation it involves ought to be superseded by a different, unalienated, form of society, but rather that it will be. The contradictory forces that are inherent in capitalism will eventually lead to its supersession.
Marx is unclear about whether alienation is specific to capitalism or whether it has a longer history. In any case, it can be overcome. Like capitalism, it comes into being at a certain time, it goes through a process of development, and it will eventually be superseded and pass away as new historical forms come into being.
This will involve a far reaching and radical transformation of existing society, the replacement of capitalism by communism. I explain and discuss Marx's account of this in the final part of the book. It requires a highly developed society governed by the principle, `from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.' Money and wages will be eliminated, goods and services will be produced voluntarily and distributed freely, according to `need' (a crucial and controversial concept discussed in the book). In order to abolish alienated labour, moreover, the enforced division of labour must also be overcome and a free cooperative community created.
These are radical and visionary ideas, but they are not as impossible as is sometimes assumed. Indeed, in some important respects they are already being realized in present society. There are important elements of `distribution according to need', for example, in the National Health Service in Britain, in free public transport for the elderly, and in other such welfare provisions.
The crisis that capitalism is currently going through confirms Marx's analysis in many respects. This has led to renewed interest in his ideas and in the concept of alienation. However, a word of caution is in order. Crisis is a purely negative phenomenon. Radical change will occur only when positive forces for change exist. Marx believed that these would arise as capitalism develops but there is little sign of this at present. If such forces never do emerge, then Marx's account will be refuted. But I doubt that. I believe that Marx will eventually be vindicated. This is what I argue in book.