Marx and Alienation

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This article
is excerpted from volume 2, chapter 11 of An
Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought

(1995). An MP3 audio file of this chapter, narrated by Jeff Riggenbach,
is available
for download
.

"Alienation,"
to Marx, bears no relation to the fashionable prattle of late-20th-century
Marxoid intellectuals. It did not mean a psychological feeling,
of anxiety or estrangement, which could somehow be blamed on capitalism,
or on cultural or sexual "repression." Alienation, for
Marx, was far more fundamental, more cosmic. It meant, at the very
least, as we have seen, the institutions of money, specialization,
and the division of labor.[1]
The eradication of these evils was necessary to unite the collective
organism or species man "to himself," to heal these splits
within "himself" and between man and "himself"
in the form of man-created nature. But the radical evil of alienation
was yet far more cosmic than that. It was metaphysical, a deep part
of the philosophy and the world-view that Marx picked up from Hegel,
and which, through its allied "dialectic," brought to
Marx the outlines of the engine that would inevitably bring us communism
as a law of history, with the ineluctability of a law of nature.

It all started
with the 3rd-century philosopher Plotinus, a Platonist philosopher
and his followers, and with a theological discipline seemingly remote
from political and economic affairs: creatology, the "science"
of the First Days. We have already seen, in fact, that another allied
and almost equally remote branch of theology – eschatology,
or the science of the Last Days – can have enormous political
and economic consequences and ramifications.

The critical
question of creatology is, Why did God create the universe? The
answer of orthodox Augustinian Christianity, and hence the answer
of Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists alike, is that God, a perfect
being, created the universe out of benevolence and love for his
creatures. Period. And this seems to be the only politically safe
answer as well. The answer given by heretics and mystics from early
Christians on, however, is quite different: God created the universe
not out of perfection and love, but out of felt need and imperfection.
In short, God created the universe out of felt uneasiness, loneliness,
or whatever. In the beginning, before the creation of the universe,
God and man (the collective organic species, of course, not any
particular individual), were united in one, so to speak, cosmic
blob. How we can even speak of "unity" between man and
God before man was even created is a conundrum that will have to
be cleared up by someone more schooled in the divine mysteries than
the present author. At any rate, history then becomes a process,
indeed a pre-ordained process, by which God develops his
potential, and man the collective species develops its (or
his?) potential. But even as this development takes place, and both
God and man develop and render themselves more perfect in and through
history, offsetting this "good" development a terrible
and tragic thing has also taken place: man has been separated, cut
off, "alienated" from God, as well as from other men,
or from nature. Hence the pervasive concept of alienation. Alienation
is cosmic, irremediable, and metaphysical, inherent in the very
process of creation, or rather, irremediable until the great day
inevitably arrives: when man and God, having both fully developed
themselves, finish the process and history itself by remerging,
by uniting once again in the merger of these two great cosmic blobs
into one.

Note, first,
how this great historical process comes about. It is the inevitable,
pre-ordained "dialectical" process of history. There are,
as usual, three stages. Stage one is the original phase: man and
God are in happy and harmonious unity (a unity of pre-creation?),
but things, particularly with the human race, are rather undeveloped.
Then, the magic dialectic does its work, stage two occurs, and God
creates man and the universe, both God and man developing their
potentials, with history a record and a process of such development.
But creation, as in most dialectics, proves to be a two-edged sword,
for man suffers from his cosmic separation and alienation from God.
For Plotinus, for example, the Good is unity, or The One, whereas
Evil is identified as any sort of diversity or multiplicity. In
mankind, evil stems from self-centeredness of individual souls,
"deserter[s] from the All."

But then, finally,
at long last, the development process will be completed, and stage
two develops its own Aufhebung, its own "lifting up,"
its own transcendence into its opposite or negation: the reunion
of God and man into a glorious unity, an "ecstasy of union,"
and end to alienation. In this stage three, the blobs are reunited
on a far higher level than in stage one. History is over. And they
shall all live(?) happily ever after.

But note the
enormous difference between this dialectic of creatology and eschatology,
and that of the orthodox Christian scenario. In the first place,
the alienation, the tragedy of man in the dialectical saga from
Plotinus to Hegel, is metaphysical, inescapable from the act of
creation itself. Whereas the estrangement of man from God in the
Judeo-Christian saga is not metaphysical but only moral. To orthodox
Christians, creation was purely good, and not deeply tainted with
evil; trouble came only with Adam’s fall, a moral failure not a
metaphysical one.[2]
Then, in the orthodox Christian view, through the Incarnation of
Jesus, God provided a route by which this alienation could be eliminated,
and the individual could achieve salvation. But note again: Christianity
is a deeply individualistic creed, since each individual’s salvation
is what matters. Salvation or the lack of it will be attained by
each individual, each individual’s fate is the central concern,
not the fate of the alleged collective blob or organism, man with
a capital M. In the orthodox Christian schema, each individual goes
to heaven or hell.

But in this
allegedly optimistic mystical view (nowadays called "process
theology"), the only salvation, the only happy ending is that
of the collective organism, the species, with each individual member
of that organism being brusquely annihilated along the way.

This dialectical
theology, in particular its creatology, began in full flower with
the Plotinus-influenced 9th-century Christian mystic John Scotus
Erigena (c. 815 – c. 877) an Irish-Scottish philosopher located
in France, and continued through a heretical underground of Christian
mystics, in particular such as the 14-century German, Meister Johannes
Eckhart (1260-1327). The pantheistic outlook of the mystics was
similar to the call of the Buddhist-theosophist-socialist Mrs Annie
Besant: as Chesterton perceptively and wittily noted, not to love
our neighbor but to be our neighbor. Pantheist mystics call
upon each individual to "unite" with God, the One, by
annihilating his individual, separated, and therefore alienated
self. While the means of various mystics may differ from the Joachites,
or the Brethren of the Free Spirit, whether through a process of
history or through an inevitable Armageddon, the goal remains
the same: obliteration of the individual through "reunion"
with God, the One, and the ending of cosmic "alienation,"
at least on the level of each individual.

Particularly
influential for G.W.F. Hegel and other thinkers in this tradition
was the early-17th-century German cobbler and mystic Jakob Böhme
(1575-1624), who added to this heady pantheistic brew the alleged
mechanism, the force that drives this dialectic through its inevitable
course in history. How, Böhme asked, did the world of pre-creation
transcend itself into creation? Before creation, he answered, there
was a primal source, an eternal unity, an undifferentiated, indistinct,
literal Nothing (Ungrund). (It was, by the way, typical of
Hegel and his Idealist followers to think that they add grandeur
and explanation to a lofty but unintelligible concept by capitalizing
it.) Oddly enough, to Böhme, this No-thing possessed within
itself an inner striving, a nisus, a drive for self-realization.
It is this drive which creates a transcending and opposing force,
the will, which creates the universe, transforming the Nothing
into Something.

Notes

[1]
On alienation in Marx as rooted in exchange and the division of
labor, and not simply in the capitalist wage-relation, see Paul
Craig Roberts, Alienation and the Soviet Economy (Albuquerque,
NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1971); and Paul Craig Roberts
and Matthew A. Stephenson, Marx’s Theory of Exchange, Alienation,
and Crisis (2nd ed., New York: Praeger, 1983).

[2]
In extreme variants, such as the gnostic heretics of the early
Christian era, the creation of matter was itself pure evil, an
act by the Devil, or Demiurge, with spirit remaining divine.

Murray
N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer
of the Mises Institute. He
was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary
executor. See
his books.

Copyright
2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.

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Best of Murray Rothbard

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