MARX ON ALIENATION. (Part – 1)
One of the most profound and insightful contributions Marx made to understanding the problems facing the human species was not derived from his detailed economic research in the 1850s and 1860s. It was by delving below the idealised surface categories of bourgeois political economy and after critically appraising Hegel in the early 1840s, that he identified humanity as having been alienated and estranged from living as a fully integrated social species. Moreover, during that early period, he concluded that humanity was a species originally at one with itself and with nature. His initial philosophical and economic analysis of the capitalist mode of production, revealed the following;
1, That most human beings were now alienated or ‘estranged’ from the results and purpose of their own productive labour. That what workers collectively produced no longer belonged to them but to their employer. 2, That land and nature was increasingly owned/controlled by individual land owners. Thus working people were estranged from their direct metabolic connection with nature. Consequently they were alienated from their natural/historic right to live from the land. 3, That instead of cooperating with each other to produce what they needed to live, most working people had now to compete against each other for employment. Thus they were also alienated from each other by this enforced competition.
In short; the original social solidarity of the human species surviving as a natural egalitarian community had been replaced by individual competition for individual survival within a hierarchical political community.
Marx pointed out that to overcome these three forms of historic alienation and estrangement, humanity needed to revolutionise their mode of production in order to 1, regain humanities fundamental social essence by collectively deciding what and how we produce the things we need to survive. 2, return to a positive, symbiotic (sustainable) balanced relationship with nature and 3, to return to the egalitarian social essence of the human species by socially or communally ensuring adequate, integrated and appropriate support for all individuals.
In this regard, we should note, therefore, that Marx was not responsible, either ideologically or practically for the alienated and alienating authoritarian societies set up by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao and their equally misguided supporters. Indeed, revealingly, Marx (in his own words) was also “not a Marxist“. If anything Marx’s views were consistently revolutionary-humanist as can be discovered by studying his 1844 manuscripts and the Grundrisse. When digging deeper into the question of alienation, he started from first principles of a biologically based understanding and used the term generally accepted at the time – ‘man’ – to represent humanity as a whole. In doing so he correctly asserted that;
“Man is directly a ‘natural being’. As a natural being and as a living natural being he is on the one hand endowed with ‘natural powers’, vital powers – he is an ‘active’ natural being..a limited creature, like animals and plants. …But man is not merely a natural human being: he is a human natural being….Therefore, he is a species-being, and has to confirm and manifest himself as such both in his being and in his knowing.” (Marx. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Third Manuscript. Section; ‘Critique of Hegelian Dialectic’.)
In other words being a human natural being meant that humans have the knowledge that they are inter-dependent species beings, made up of societies of social individuals – with limited natural powers. This means humans are dependent upon their collective intellectual and physical powers to survive and function responsibly. Consequently, human beings need to openly acknowledge and confirm this social fact and act and behave (manifest it) in full accordance with it.
And then referring specifically to capitalism, Marx elsewhere wrote the following;
“In this society of free competition, the individual appears detached from the natural bonds etc. which in earlier historical periods make him the accessory of a definite and limited human conglomerate.” (Marx . Grundrisse. Introduction.)
And in another context;
“The view of nature attained under the dominion of private property and money is a real contempt for and practical debasement of nature.” (Marx. On the Jewish Question. )
“To make land an object of huckstering – the land which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence – was the last step toward making oneself an object of huckstering. It was and is to this very day an immorality surpassed only by the the immorality of self-alienation.” (Marx. ‘Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy.)
In other words, from Marx’ revolutionary-humanist perspective, it was immoral to make the first condition of human existence – nature (land and seas) – the object of forcibly buying and selling (huckstering). He considered it was a form of immorality surpassed only by the immorality of one part of the human species fully or partially enslaving the other part, or the species becoming a self-alienating species.
In researching the available writings of political economists at the time, (in the Grundrisse and Theories of Surplus value, around 1861/63) he decided to define the concept of production differently than most bourgeois economists. Not as an aggregate of individual activities but as socially organised and socially determined activity. Thus;
“The object before us, to begin with, material production. …Individuals producing in society – hence socially determined individual production – is, of course, the point of departure” (Marx. Grundrisse, Introduction.).
The results of Marx’’s economic studies finally appeared in nearly finished form in the three volumes on ‘Surplus Value’ and with the those which became known as Das Kapital. He only lived long enough to oversee the publication of the first volume of Kapital and his friend Engels published the second two volumes from Marx’s extensive notes. Having read all the three volumes of Kapital twice, I concluded that Engels was not as accomplished as Marx in economic understanding and saw the revolutionary task for humanity somewhat differently. However, having analysed capitalism in great detail, Marx recognised – among many other things – that mass city living was a serious problem;
“Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility.” (Capital Volume 1, page 505. Emphasis added RR.)
And therefore because of this, the mass feeding of hierarchical mass societies, was a fundamental problem and also because it introduced a class based compulsion to dominate and exploit nature. Consequently;
“…., all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is progress toward ruining the lasting sources of that fertility…..This mode is based upon the dominion of man over Nature.” (Marx, Capital volume 1 page 506 and page 513.)
From these few quotes (and many others) it becomes clear that for Marx, the main subject of his thinking was humanity, and the objective was its internal re-balancing within its own species and an external re-balancing with nature. In other words, for Marx, humanity was the main subject and Nature (ie. ‘life on earth’) was the main object.. Although studying the following categories exhaustively, his main concern was not for economics, politics, history or philosophy. The latter areas of knowledge and practice, were necessary for a comprehensive understanding but the purpose of that understanding was completely different than that of the bourgeoisie. Das Kapital, Grundrisse, 1844 Manuscripts, etc., were the intellectual means for seriously understanding the capitalist mode of production and the need to overcome the historic alienation of the human species from its egalitarian social form and from nature. Thus he remarked that;
“Once society has has succeeded in abolishing the (ie. the current RR) empirical essence…huckstering and it’s precondition..and practical need humanised…the conflict between man’s individual sensuous existence and his species existence has been abolished.” (Marx. On the Jewish Question. Emphasis added. RR.)
In other words, in class divided societies, the conflict between a persons existence precariously experienced individually and the necessary social character of humanity as a species, needs to be abolished. Once individual practical need has become fully humanised and recognised as the essential characteristic of human communities, competition and conflict over resources, will be ended. The existing de-humanised economic system where some human beings have far more than they need and some human beings have less than they need, needed to be abolished. And Marx then adds;;
“Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself, the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being – has become a species being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation – only when man has recognised and organised his ‘forces propres’ as social forces, and consequently no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished.” (ibid)
Marx here points out that human productive forces are not individual forces but social forces which require multiple contributions from hundreds or thousands of individual human beings. That is the actual social content and reality of human production which needs to be recognised. This is a fact which is disguised by the individualised purchase and ownership of the means of production – through the medium of capital – and the individualised ownership of the results of that social production. Only when more of humanity consistently recognise that we are species beings – and act as such – will human emancipation be eventually accomplished.
Therefore, if Marx was correct on the solution to the problem posed by the capitalist mode of production, and I consider he was, then the historic task of modern humanity is to overthrow the the existing system and return humanity to its natural egalitarian internal relationships as social beings and restore its original symbiotic relationship with the rest of ‘life on earth’ or nature. However, the question then (and now) was who was capable and motivated enough among humanity to both advocate and carry out this revolutionary transition? The class that benefited from this alienation, the capitalist class and their supporters, had the power and influence to begin such a process but no direct incentive to even consider it.
However, European Capitalism had by that period created a world market in its own socio-economic image and with it a world proletariat. This world working class, due to their numbers, social position and persistent oppression were the only ones with the motive and means to actively consider this revolutionary transformation. The task of those who understood this need intellectually, therefore was not simply to interpret and understand the world as it was, but to go further and help change it. (as he noted in his ‘Theses on Feuerbach.’ in 1845)
The above noted historic task of ending the estrangement of humanity therefore resolved itself into helping the proletariat, first; by providing the intellectual tools to understand the capitalist mode of production (as in Das Kapital) and, second, how mass societies might be reorganised to produce the necessary metabolic needs naturally and return humanity to being fully socially active as species beings. As explained in the Gotha Programme; Grundrisse, Das Kapital, Civil War in France – Paris Commune etc.). Since workers at the time were congregated in factories, mines and fields by the thousands it was reasoned that they should be able to identify and communicate their common problems and recognise the need to act together to radically change the system. (Hence, the formulation, “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.”)
Using the socially acquired technological and scientific advances made during the capitalist mode of production, humanity could then ensure that adequate food, clothing and shelter was available for everyone working and by only working for a short duration of time. This would be a return of mankind to its social self and to nature. It is obvious that all the other species of ‘life on earth’ do not create elites who become rich whilst others work for them 9 – 5. Most other species simply produce enough to live comfortably. Humans once did so and could do so again. And in view of the earth’s finite resources, a return to a more naturally based economic way of living would not only correct the imbalance within humanity and between humanity and nature .
Moreover, a return to more ecologically balanced productive activities would leave sufficient time and opportunity for people to develop other interests and skills such as culture and knowledge. Proposing this theoretical perspective seemed a rational suggestion at that particular period of time (and even later) and therefore Marx put enormous efforts and many years of his life into analysing and explaining as many aspects of the problem for humanity as he could. He did so in the realms of economics, finance, politics, philosophy and history. However, in the real world of 19th and 20th century practice the actual circumstances did not conspire to cause that form of revolutionary transition to be fully understood or to occur, as was noted at the beginning of this part 1.
Yet the problem of reversing; ‘the supreme practical expression of all human self-estrangement’, (as Marx also described the current system of capital and wage-labour) still needs solving in the 21st century. The illusion that politics, religion, nationality and the state formations, around the world, represents ‘the people’ and thus represents the human species, still holds sway. And that illusion, although weakened, still needs dispelling. The arenas of Politics, Religion, Nationality and the State clearly represent the ‘filtered’ interests of a narrow ruling class based section of human communities and the species. It is a global class of elites whose members are daily instigating economic, financial, political and military measures which result in a war against nature, wars against other communities and class wars against their own citizens. Here again; no other species of ‘life on earth’ does that! No other species of ‘life on earth’ also commits genocide against other members of its own species or other species!
Meanwhile, the rest of suffering humanity is rendered powerless and divided while planetary life on all continents and in all seas, slides or sinks into existential crisis. As the task to end such wars within wars still faces humanity, we need to understand the extent to which this human self-estrangement (alienation) still persists and its knock on effects in the rising physical and mental disease cases among the human family. Furthermore we need to consider whether the actual means suggested by those in the 19th and 20th centuries (such as Marx and others) are still relevant.
MARX ON ALIENATION. (Part – 2.)
So if Marx is essentially correct, in his analysis of ‘estrangement’ and ‘alienation’ (and I consider he was), the task of humanity remains to re-establish a synchrony within our own species and between us (humanity) and the rest of nature (ie. the rest of ‘life on earth’). As a species, we need to assist each other and nature to maintain a self-regulating ecological and environmental balance which is sustainable in the long run. But how to achieve this still remains a problem. The industrial working classes, are no longer congregated in huge factories, offices, warehouses, mines and fields and are no longer organised in huge trade unions. Even when they were, for the masses as a whole, class consciousness, never became much higher than obtaining satisfactory wages or salaries within the existing capitalist system.
The so-called middle-class political vanguards of the 20th century, who wished to change things and lead the exploited to better conditions, never went beyond faith in the ability of science and technology to increase the levels of industrial/automated mass production. To do so they retained the basis of wage-labour exploitation and the domination and exploiting of nature – all within a system ruled by a political hierarchy. Exploited and oppressed humanity, was urged at that time to dispense with one bourgeois political form of mass society alienation and exploitation – capitalism – and campaign for other petite-bourgeois mass society forms, such as communism, socialism and fascism. And of course, the wars within humanity and wars against nature continued. It should be obvious that simply, changing the name of an alienating and estranging economic system, does not eliminate alienation and estrangement. That requires more than a radically sounding name change.
It has been said, in regard to the 19th century, that Marx, was too enamoured by the productive power of scientific and technology allied to industrial methods of production, to anticipate that this same power would endanger the ecological balance of the planet. It is true that globally damaging the atmosphere, soil, water, climate and all life forms by industry and commerce was not then obvious and therefore insufficiently understood. Nor was the fact that the very powers of scientific and technologically driven production could actually undermine the foundations of the capitalist mode of production itself.
But that lack of understanding is still the case in the 21st century, when climate change, ecological damage and widespread pollution is common knowledge. If wide-spread pollution and extinctions were not sufficiently envisaged by Marx, he can hardly be blamed without also condemning ourselves. So the accusation of an excessively high regard for bourgeois inspired science and technology, by Marx is not strictly true. As we saw in part 1 above, after reading Liebig and others he concluded that the capitalist mode of production, would be self-destructive if left to pursue it’s own course.
Nevertheless, he did seem to assume that science and industry in the hands of a fully humane social species would adapt it’s production and methods to a more natural and sustainable relationship with nature. Such an outcome, in theory could solve the problem of exhausting natural resources just to keep forms of industrial ‘progress’ and ‘profits’ ticking along for the better off. But of course, that didn’t happen and such theoretical projections – no matter who makes them – are no guarantee of their practical implementation. Nevertheless, it was certainly the case that Marx was enamoured by the concept and practice of mass society living, because that is where he considered “real development begins”, for humanity. Thus he wrote;
“…mere hunting and fishing peoples lie outside the point where real development begins” (Marx. Grundrisse.; Introduction, section 3. Emphasis added. RR)
“Those ancient social organisms of production are, as compared with bourgeois society, extremely simple and transparent. But they are founded either on the immature development of man individually, who has not yet severed the umbilical chord that unites him with his fellow men in a primitive tribal community, or upon direct relations of subjection.” (Marx. Capital Volume 1 page 79. Emphasis added. RR.)
These two extracts suggest that Marx was not entirely immune to the bourgeois idea that humanity was on an imagined journey of progress from its mythical origins in family based, post-primate pre-history, through ancient city states and countries, on to modern capitalist nations and then even further to;
“…the great transformation to which the century is moving – the reconciliation of mankind with nature and itself.” (Marx . ’Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy’.)
The reconciliation of mankind with itself and nature was still the primary concern for Marx and should be for any really intelligent species, but the actual transformation still alludes us. Overall, these extracts suggest he considered that the ancient pre-agricultural forms of production were not just technologically different from the modern – but socially inferior. Also the term; “the immature development of man individually” seems to contradict his correct categorisation of humanity as an evolved and evolving social-species. Life on earth in the form of Hominids have been a succession of natural and socially evolved species before, during and after the long transitions to Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo sapien. In fact, Hominids were a species of animal life which by their sapien stage had developed tool making, expressive language, intricate facial expressions, art, music and crafts.
By the hunter-gatherer stage of evolution, humans had refined all the above six categories of social life to a considerable degree. So in reading Marx critically and comprehensively we have encountered Marx, expressing something of a glaring contradiction. Capital and the bourgeois system of production were considered by Marx to have been combined in a progressive mode of production compared to previous ones, but at the same time capitalism was utterly destructive of the welfare and well-being of the bulk of humanity and potentially much of life on earth. Although we need to always remember, that Marx was no set-in-stone dogmatist and constantly updated his extensive knowledge as he did further research.
Furthermore, he frequently modified his ideas if new evidence came to light contradicting anything he previously thought and wrote. Plus we need to bear in mind that much of the material later published in the 20th century were unmodified notes of personal summary, clarification and alternative interpretation. They were written by Marx in the 19th century and were not meant to be published. We should therefore be cautious in condemning these provisional contradictions, but we do need at least to openly recognise them when we find them. Even the very best intellectuals are not hero’s or gods, but fallible human beings. Thus, for example, when we read the following extract, even his fervent admirers, I suggest, are required to point out its shortcomings and it’s linguistic links with 19th century bourgeois forms of prejudice.
“Since we may assume that pastoralism , or more generally a migratory form of life, was the first form of the mode of existence, not that the clan settles in a specific site, but that it grazes off what it finds – humankind is not settlement-prone by nature (except possibly in a natural environment so especially fertile that they sit like monkeys on a tree; else roaming like the animals..”) (Marx. Grundrisse. Notebook 4. Emphasis added RR.)
The first few lines are more or less accurate generalisations of hunter-gatherer and pastoral people’s, but the analogy of humans in fertile regions sitting like monkeys in trees or roaming like the animals are typical 18th and 19th century bourgeois inspired forms of exaggerated assumption and prejudice. It is prejudice based upon the fictional creation of imaginary alternative evolutionary categories of humanity called ‘race’. Sadly it is a form of pejorative discrimination against sections of the global human species which survives into the 21st century among some layers of modern society. But it was obvious then, as well as now, that monkeys in trees do not tell stories, create symmetrical flint tools or decorate caves and cliffs with art and of course four legged roaming animals do not light fires, make reed and wicker baskets or dance and sing around camp fires to complex percussive rhythms.
Interestingly, Marx clearly recognised that the prior servitude of the medieval labourer was the starting point for the development of wage-labour and capital, along with the capitalist and the capitalist mode of production. The change from one mode of production to the other he argued was merely a change in the form of the elite and this servitude. This change in the form (and not in substance) is an important observation, but it was certainly not the first case as he seems to imply when he stated:
“The starting point of the development that gave rise to the wage-labourer as well as the capitalist, was the servitude of the labourer.” (Marx. Capital. Volume 1 page 715.)
For the actual historical record indicates that the servitude of labour in Europe and the Mediterranean area dates back to the early forms of agricultural based, hierarchical mass societies of the Near and Middle East. And that was several thousands of years before capitalism, not just a few hundred years previously in feudal medieval times of peasant and serf servitude. Slavery, and other forms of non-free labour were structural parts of the hierarchical mass societies of Summer, Babylon, Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome. The actual embryonic starting points for wage labour and capital as forms of servitude was much further back in time.
Any substantive historical role-call of aggressive, conquering, enslaving city states and regional empires, will require a modification to the historical dating of the process which ended the natural, evolution of humanity as an egalitarian social species, respectful and considerate of each other and ‘mother’ nature. Furthermore, the forced transition between a naturally and socially determined egalitarian wandering hunter-gatherer human species to a settled hierarchical agricultural human species was not fully accomplished in the so-called ‘New Worlds’ of Africa and the Americas, until the 20th century. And there are still 50 or so pockets of intelligent, capable, sophisticated hunter – gatherers in the 21st century. (See for example, the entries in the ‘Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers’.)
So it was not actually the capitalist mode of production which first severed the original natural social bond between the human species and nature or created the existential antagonism between individuals within the human species. That had already been done. It was the formation of hierarchical mass societies throughout the near and middle east, four, five or six thousand years ago which severed these natural bonds for near eastern European humanity.
Indeed, the rest of the globe, with a few exceptions, continued with the traditions of relatively small socio-economic bands and tribes of hunter – gatherers and pastoralists until the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, when European based colonists and capitalists forcibly conquered and dispossessed or exterminated them. These pre-colonial global bands were naturally and socially inter-dependent human beings who were part of an entire and globally spread social species; and one with a wide variety of socially created and perfected skills.
Marx toward the end of his life began to do further research on this question which he recorded in some rare notebooks; (the Ethnological notebooks and the London notebooks,). However, these sources are difficult to obtain; Why? I only managed to borrow a rare copy of the first named before having to return it without being able to make extensive notes from it. Nevertheless, there are enough references to humanity and nature in his easily obtained published works. There is also considerable modern research on climate change, ecological destruction, pollution and poverty for subsequent generations of revolutionary-humanists to outline a clearer picture of the dislocation of humanities natural symbiotic socio-economic species essence and capitalisms destructive relationship with the rest of ‘life on earth’ or nature in general.
Already, there is considerable literature and knowledge with regard to the need for sustainable growth and ecological sustainability, but it must be said this knowledge has produced very few practical results other than tinkering with partial and temporary solutions to pollution and to ameliorate ecological damage. As long as capital, interest and profit are the dominating concerns of the hierarchical elites within modern mass societies all else will be addressed half-heartedly or neglected. Either the current system will need to be overthrown, as previous generations once hoped, or more likely, it will have to collapse around our future heads from its own internal contradictions.
In the meantime, scientific knowledge and technological expertise – even if it’s representatives wanted to – will be unable to prevent further alienation and extinctions. This is because nature and life on earth, from minute viruses and cells, to plants, insects, animals and humans, is far more sophisticated, far more intricate, far more inter-dependent than any human intellect can individually or collectively fully comprehend, let alone repair or replicate when exterminated.
Roy Ratcliffe. (June 2020)
[PS. I am currently at the stage of rough drafting a book looking in more detail at the changes to life on earth in general (and human created extinctions in particular), from the period when European humanity commenced living in hierarchical mass societies.. if any reader would be interested in reading the provisionally entitled chapters (see them below in brackets) and assist in making it suitable for publication and for a generally available and free download in 2023, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org Or leave a means of contact on the comment section of this blog.
(Provisional contents: Introduction; Chapter 1. The non-organic elements; Water; Air and Minerals: Chapter 2, Cells; the living building blocks of all life on earth: Chapter 3. Soil; the roots of most mineral nourishment: Chapter 4. Plants; organic food for most of life on earth: Chapter 5. Insects; pollinators, mini diggers and tiny protein lunches: Chapter 6. Animals; Vegetarians and Carnivores, the latter absolutely needing the former: Chapter 7, Humans; a) pre-mass society symbionts; and b) mass society parasites: Conclusion.) ]