Karl Marx and the Concept of Entfremdung

By Borbone, Giacomo | Review of Contemporary Philosophy, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Karl Marx and the Concept of Entfremdung


Borbone, Giacomo, Review of Contemporary Philosophy


ABSTRACT.

It is a widespread cliche that there is no relationship between Marxian theory of estrangement (Entfremdung) exposed in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the theory of value present in Marxian scientific works like Das Kapital and Grundrisse. In this essay I will try to demonstrate, despite this historical-philosophical cliche, that the concept of Entfremdung is perfectly compatible with Marxian economic theories; furthermore, I will demonstrate that the Marxian theory of estrangement or alienation (Entäusserung), acted as a kind of philosophical premise to the theory of value.

Keywords: alienation, capitalism, economy, estrangement, theory of value

1. Introduction

This quotation in exergue ("As for the individual, everyone is a son of his time; so philosophy also is its time apprehended in thoughts"), taken from G. W. F. Hegel's Philosophy of Right,1 summarizes very well the figure of Karl Marx, for what concerns the relationship between Philosophy and Zeitgeist. The author of Das Kapital was, obviously, a son of his time and as such he tried to catch the essential features of his time through the use of some specific philosophical concepts. One of the essential concepts that Marx used in order to analyze his coeval time was the one of estrangement {Entfremdung - that we will analyze in this essay); thanks to this concept, Karl Marx laid bare a particular situation that can be defined, at the same time, existential and socio-economic. Existential because the situation of estrangement (or alienation - Entäusserung) that the emerging historical subject, that is to say Proletariat, was experiencing, touched every single man in his individual existence; socio-economic because this form of alienation was the result of the capitalistic mode of production and, as it is well known, the working class was subjected to this kind of economic system.

The roots of Marxian concept of alienation can be found in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and it has been variously interpreted in the history of ideas, but in this work I will not analyze the history of this concept, but rather its legacy with our contemporary world just because my aim is to put in evidence the undeniable actuality of Marxian concept of Entfremdung.

2. Philosophy and Economy

Some preliminary elucidations, concerning some historiography stereotypes connected with the Marxian concept of alienation and with its relationship with Karl Marx' scientific works (like Das Kapital or Grundrisse), are necessary.

According to some scholars (like Althusser,2 for instance), Marx used the concept of alienation solely in his youthful works, in order to abandon it "to the gnawing criticism of the mice."3 But this is not the case just because, as I will try to demonstrate, both in Das Kapital and Grundrisse,4 Marx widely applied the concept of alienation (even though in a veiled way) to his critique of political economy (see, for instance, the commodity fetishism and the subject-object inversion). Stephen Edgell, for instance, noticed the strong link existing between the theory of alienation and the theory of value:

One of the most pivotal, if not the central, idea in Marx's sociological critique of work in industrial capitalist societies is his thesis that alienation is built into the nature of work under capitalist mode of production. For Marx, alienation was both inevitable and universal in capitalist societies, but it could be overcome. In fact, de-alienation could be considered as Marx's life project.5

Allen Wood's point of view, in this respect, is instead more skeptical about the relationship between early Marxian writings (more philosophical) and scientific works like Das Kapital, Grundrisse and so on: "Whatever continuity there is between Marx's early and his later writings, there is no evidence that he ever thought of 'alienation' as 'the basic idea of the Marxian system' at anytime after 1844.

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