Alienation as a critical concept

International Critical Thought 1 (3):287-304 (2011)
Authors
Sean Sayers
University of Kent
Abstract
This paper discusses Marx’s concept of alienated (or estranged) labour, focusing mainly on his account in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. This concept is frequently taken to be a moral notion based on a concept of universal human nature. This view is criticized and it is argued that the concept of alienation should rather be interpreted in the light of Hegelian historical ideas. In Hegel, alienation is not a purely negative phenomenon; it is a necessary stage of human development. Marx’s account of alienated labour should be understood in similar terms. It is not a merely subjective discontent with work; it is an objective and historically specific condition, a stage in the process of historical development. Marx usually regards it as specific to capitalism. The criticism of capitalism implied in the concept of alienation, it is argued, does not appeal to universal moral standards; it is historical and relative. Overcoming alienation must also be understood in historical terms, not as the realization of a universal ideal, but as the dialectical supersession of capitalist conditions of labour. Marx’s account of communism as the overcoming of alienation is explained in these terms.
Keywords Marx   Hegel   alienation   labour   morality   social criticism
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