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"The Post-History of Alienation" by Jensen Suther (Keywords: Marx; Capitalism; Eudaimonia; Freedom)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 ("Where is Philosophy Going?").

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In 1844, Edgar Allen Poe published a short detective story entitled “The Purloined Letter,” which centres on the theft of an important letter and the underlying “logic” of the subsequent attempts to reclaim it. Poe’s unusual story was read by the post-structuralists in the 1960s as a kind of allegory of meaning, in which the letter represents one’s intention or meaning, its theft the determination of one’s “true” intention by another. The thief himself is implicated in the process, his own intention having been “purloined” by yet another thief. For the post-structuralists, the idea of the “purloined letter” came to symbolize the inescapable contingency of meaning and the illusoriness of the self-possessed, autonomous subject. Yet there is another way to read Poe’s story – not as an allegory of our inevitable failure to say what we mean but as an allegory of the historical alienation of meaning. In this author’s view, it is no coincidence that Poe’s story was published the same year that Marx wrote his seminal treatise on alienation, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. I want to suggest that Poe’s allegory can help us to understand the tortuous reception of Marx’s posthumously discovered manuscript as well as its significance for the future of philosophy.

There is perhaps no greater “purloined letter” in the history of modern thought than the young Marx’s theory of alienation in this early text. The Manuscripts were written during Marx’s period of political radicalization, when he graduated from a liberal advocating workers’ rights to a communist struggling for the “self-abolition” of the working class. The fragmentary Manuscripts represent Marx’s earliest attempt to articulate a critique of political economy and, most famously, contain his only systematic account of alienation. Marx’s text was arguably first “purloined” by none other than history itself, as the Manuscripts lay hidden in a Soviet archive until the 1930s, when they were first brought to light by Georg Lukács. The second purloining came shortly after: Marx’s understanding of alienation was dismissed as an expression of his unreformed Hegelianism by Althusser, as the humanist juvenilia the mature, scientific Marx would leave behind through the writing of The German Ideology. If the first purloining was contingent, a mere accident of history, then the second raised this contingency to the level of necessity and tried to actively suppress and forget Marx’s theoretical breakthrough once and for all. Here I would like to sketch not just the intellectual history of Marx’s manuscript – a history of its most influential readings – but something more akin to the history of human intellect (the “general intellect,” if you will) as refracted through its reception. To bring the stakes of this enterprise fully into view, we will take it a step further and claim exception to Hegel’s dictum that the “Owl of Minerva always takes flight at dusk”: we will attempt to write the post-history of Marx’s manuscript and identify the “recipient” to whom this letter – twice lost – was originally addressed. We will thus examine the 1844 manuscripts in three contexts: the 20th century, the 21st century, and – speculatively – the 22nd century.

20th Century

In his 1965 work Pour Marx, Althusser advances the wildly influential argument that, in the late 1840s, Marx accomplished an “epistemological break” with his youthful Hegelianism – in particular with the theory of “alienation” (Entfremdung) from the 1844 manuscripts. According to this view, the young Marx had followed Ludwig Feuerbach in attempting to “invert” Hegel. Whereas Hegel had “hypostasized” the human mind (Geist)as the autonomous, supranatural cause of social and historical change, Feuerbach had unmasked Geist as an “alienated,” mystified projection of our own “human” circumstances. In contrast to Feuerbach’s static and “idealist” conception of such circumstances, Marx sought to develop a historically dynamic image of human life, constituted by its own labour.

What Feuerbach misses, according to Marx, is the historically specific basis of alienation in material production.

What Feuerbach misses, according to Marx, is the historically specific basis of alienation in material production. For Althusser, such alienation lies in humanity’s falling away from its “original” social essence through its “objectification” (Entäußerung) in private property. The proletariat, as the “universal class,” is said to embody in its degraded state mankind’s alienation from its original unity. Humanity’s social essence is to be “realized” through the negation of the proletariat’s “negativity” (its abject, propertyless condition), via the revolutionary reappropriation of its chief objectification: property.

This has come to function as the bog-standard account of alienation in the young Marx, to which Althusser would proceed to oppose Marx’s mature scientific socialism, finally free of any philosophical anthropology or humanism. For Althusser, Marx remains trapped, in the 1844 manuscripts, within the “Feuerbachian problematic,” having simply subsumed the history of human labour under the Hegelian schema of objectification-alienation. As Althusser argues, this confines Marx to a conception of history as the ideal unfolding of the essence of the human. But this precisely “loads the dice” and deprives history of what makes it genuinely historical: the fits and starts of struggle in diverse concrete contexts that, in rare instances, ignite into something new. In his important defence of Althusser in The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson theorizes that the true target of the critique of “Marx’s Hegelianism” was ultimately Stalinism, which likewise employed a schematic conception of history as a series of “automatic” stages. The point was to rediscover the fulgurations of the embodied social subject responsible for the historically “new.”

Thus was the concept of alienation relegated to the “dustbin of history” – a casualty of Althusser’s proxy battle with the Stalinist elements in the French Communist Party. But what if, instead of marking the redemption of the best parts of Marx, the Althusserian project embodied the final obfuscation of the deepest insights of Marxism? What if, with the “purloining” of Marx’s theory of alienation, what was lost was the very possibility of “critical philosophy” itself?

21st Century

Now, what I want to suggest is that, in the aftermath of 1989, Hegelianism was emancipated from Marxism, for both good and ill. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed – in a Hegelian key – liberal democracy as the “end of history,” and analytic philosophers, following in the footsteps of Wilfrid Sellars, utilized Hegelian insights to combat reductive forms of naturalism and empiricism. The inward, liberalizing turn of Hegelianism and the rise of a new golden age of German Idealism scholarship – represented by thinkers like Robert Pippin and Christine Korsgaard – has shed new light on the notions of reason, freedom, and consciousness underpinning the writings of the young Marx. As we have come to learn, history for Hegel is not the self-unfolding of a metaphysical substance called “Spirit” but the process by which we attempt to realize the overriding value of autonomy, without which there could be neither intentional action nor belief. For Hegel, to act at all is to act on reasons for acting, as if in answer to the question “why?” But I cannot be said to truly be the “author” of my acts, the agent of my deeds, unless the reasons I give in acting can themselves be understood as “mine.” That is, a worker in a textile mill can tell us why he presses this button and not that one, and ultimately why he is operating a machine and coming into work (“to have the means to live my life”), but the overarching purpose of the process (capital accumulation) is not his purpose, an end with which he can truly identify.

History for Hegel is not the self-unfolding of a metaphysical substance called “Spirit” but the process by which we attempt to realize the overriding value of autonomy.

In respectful disagreement with Althusser, I think we should understand Marx’s theory of alienation in these Hegelian terms and as part and parcel of Marx’s modernism. In effect, what Marx grasps is that the modern emergence of the “private individual” through the emancipation of labour from feudal bondage and the rise of a bourgeois class institutes a new shared norm for flourishing: the ideal of freedom, a self-determined life. It is against this backdrop that Marx advances the fourfold account of alienation in the 1844 manuscripts, in which the modern promise of autonomy is shown to founder on the rocks of production for the sake of surplus value. Indeed, as Marx argues in a pivotal passage in the Grundrisse, the ancient ideal of eudaimonia (or “happiness”) appeared to many in the nineteenth century to represent a “lost satisfaction,” no longer attainable in the present. Yet this is a function, Marx continues, of the alienation of the private individual from her own deskilled and fragmented labour in modernity. The point, for Marx, is that the satisfaction of the ancient subject was a “parochial” satisfaction only achievable within the narrow horizon of an agrarian society premised on slave labour. Such eudaimonia would no more befit the modern, bourgeois individual than ancient methods of production would suffice to fulfil modern needs. The longing for a restoration of an original satisfaction is thus a distorted recognition of the inadequacy of modern institutions to the individual aspiration to a truly self-determined life. What this will turn out to require, Marx insists, is rationally reflective participation in the social structures that furnish the substantive rules for living with others.

22nd Century

In the 1844 manuscripts, Marx enumerates four forms of alienation, which might be formulated as follows:

(1) Alienation from the products of labour (the commodity)

(2) Alienation from labour itself (wage labour)

(3) Alienation from others (capitalists versus labourers)

(4) Alienation from the Other (Capital)

We pointed out above that, only now, in the 21st century, are we beginning to actually understand what Marx was trying to tell us and to develop Marx’s non-anthropological notion of “rational life.”

It is my speculative hypothesis here that the task of the philosophy of the 22nd century will be to elaborate the four forms of post-modern eudaimonia corresponding to Marx’s four forms of alienation. I invoke the “post-modern” here in the imaginative, heterodox sense the term has recently been given by Robert Brandom: the epoch beyond ours, beyond modernity. Marx does of course emphasize that realizing such ideals in practice would mean “abolishing philosophy,” but only in the sense that philosophy could no longer be what, hitherto, it has been: the privileged dominion of an intellectual elite, tasked with justifying the world as it is. Put in a slogan, such a post-modern philosophy would consist in a shared mode of deliberation over the justifiability of our principles of eudaimonia and what those principles themselves demand from us in practice. This concern with “self-satisfaction” and the “demand for reasons” might seem utterly out of touch and wilfully blind to the most pressing contemporary problems, such as the climate and migration crises. Yet the Marxian wager is that our unconscious domination by the “law of value” (production for the sake of surplus value) must be supplanted by a self-conscious commitment to ensuring our shared freedom, if we are to take responsibility for our relation to nature and end the international vassalage system fuelling the migrant crisis.

In his well-known reading of Poe’s story, Jacques Derrida avers that the meaning of the purloined letter is that “a letter never truly arrives [at its destination].” For Derrida, the story demonstrates the meta-linguistic point that we act and speak under contingent conditions beyond our control that ensure that we never do or say what we take ourselves to. Yet there is another, better model of a letter adrift: Theodor Adorno’s image of Marxism as a “message in a bottle,” yet to be recovered. On this view, Marx’s purloined letter can find its intended recipient – not, as the Stalinists thought, if we simply subject ourselves to the historical process and passively await the letter’s arrival but if we constitute ourselves anew as the subjects of history and thereby as agents of change. I will conclude here with an annotated list of this speculative letter’s contents, the post-modern principles of eudaimonia already implicit in the young Marx’s critique:

(1) Satisfaction in the products of one’s labour (artefacts)

What we produce would no longer assume the private form of commodities that necessitate the exchange of labour for a wage but the social form of articles of consumption meant for human self-development.

(2) Satisfaction in labour itself (work)

We would reflexively utilize the scientific and technological advances made possible by capital to remake the labour process in our own rational image: rather than labouring simply to survive, we would innovate a form of work worth pursuing in its own right. This would not mean higher wages and a shorter working week – liberal aims that remain this-side of the capitalism-communism divide. It would rather mean work no one must do just to survive but that one finds worth doing because it is no longer monotonous and empty (one-sidedly intellectual) or back-breaking and arduous (one-sidedly manual).

(3) Satisfaction in others (the rational association of producers)

We would mutually acknowledge one another not just as formal rights-bearers but as substantive ends deserving of material and spiritual fulfilment. To take an example, whereas overproduction under capitalism is an “anarchic element” that results from a systemic indifference to human need, beyond capitalism we would practice rational overproduction as an insurance against the forsaking of such need.

(4) Satisfaction in the Other (“species being”)

We would mutually recognize one another as recognizers entitled to a say as to the form of our shared life. We would thereby recognize our mutual responsibility for our form of the good. What appeared in modernity as the alien source of its own normative authority (the law of value) would become in post-modernity the self-legislating power of rational life itself. This would not mark the end of politics so much as the true beginning of politics, untainted by class interest. No one has made this point with more power and political imagination than Leon Trotsky, who is worth quoting at length:

All forms of life, such as the cultivation of land, the planning of human habitations, the building of theaters, the methods of socially educating children, the solution of scientific problems, the creation of new styles, will vitally engross all and everybody. People will divide into “parties” over the question of a new gigantic canal, or the distribution of oases in the Sahara (such a question will exist too), over the regulation of the weather and the climate, over a new theater, over chemical hypotheses, over two competing tendencies in music, and over a best system of sports. Such parties will not be poisoned by the greed of class or caste. All will be equally interested in the success of the whole.

Under capitalism, politics consists in debating the general interest as a means to surreptitiously advancing one’s own special interest. Under communism, instead of subordinating the general interest of society to one’s own special interest, one’s individual interest would genuinely lie in the good of the whole – precisely for the classic Hegelian reason that no one can be free unless all are.

Jensen Suther received his PhD from Yale University and is currently a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. His writing has appeared in a range of academic and public-facing venues, including Representations, Modernism/modernity, b2o, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is currently completing his first book, Spirit Disfigured: The Persistence of Freedom in the Modernist Novel. Twitter: @jensensuther


From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 ("Where is Philosophy Going?").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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