Issue: 133

Dan Swain

Sean Sayers, Marx and Alienation: Essays on Hegelian Themes (Palgrave, 2011), £50

Marx’s theory of alienation has been somewhat out of fashion in the past few decades. This is, in part, because of the degree to which his theory is seen as influenced by the philosophy of Hegel. Marx’s relationship with Hegel has been the source of a great deal of controversy. Both analytical Marxists and structural Marxists have, for their different reasons, sought to remove the Hegelian influences from Marx. For the analytic Marxist tradition Hegel’s ideas represented the kind of obscure philosophical language and method they were trying to move away from, while structuralist Marxists influenced by Louis Althusser saw Hegel as a negative, idealist influence.

Sean Sayers’s book is an impressive attempt to offer a defence of the Hegelian dimension of Marx’s thought, and through it to defend Marx’s theory of alienation. Sayers argues that Marx’s account of alienation was central to his analysis and criticism of capitalism, and that it can only be understood through recognising Hegel’s influence.

Sayers describes how Marx takes on Hegel’s account of how human beings come to recognise themselves as individuals in the world. Humans create their identities through their active creative engagement with others and the world around them. This activity separates humans from the natural world, makes it clear that they are different from it; but at the same time it is through this active engagement that humans can come to feel at home in the world. Through shaping the world according to our own conscious plan we can “recognise” ourselves in it and overcome this separation.

Hegel believed that this was possible in modern society, but Marx argued that it was not. Capitalism places creative activity outside of the control of the majority, turning it into waged labour, and thus makes it impossible for people to recognise themselves through it. Capitalism was thus a system of alienation, in which people were unable to realise themselves through their activity. Capitalism had created the possibility for this realisation, but also persistently denied it.

Sayers defends and develops this account against a number of different critics, from within and outside of the Marxist tradition. He deals with those who believe that this form of alienation is an inevitable feature of the human condition, as well as those who believe that changes in capitalism have made Marx’s theory redundant or inadequate. He also defends Marx against various charges of inconsistency, and he rightly contends that alienation is a critical concept, something used to criticise capitalism, but denies that it relies on some kind of universal, transhistorical idea of human nature or “the good life”.

This book has clearly been put together from several different articles and papers, and occasionally it shows. There is a frustrating sense of repetition, and occasionally moments that feel like inconsistencies from one chapter to the next. It does not always feel like there is an argument developing from chapter to chapter. There is also a frustrating feeling that Hegel is the solution to all of Marx’s problems, that if only we understood Hegel correctly we would understand Marx. This means that Sayers doesn’t address the question of how Marx’s rejection of some of Hegel’s ideas might affect others. So, for example, he points out that Marx rejects Hegel’s
idealism, but he doesn’t fully address how this might change other Hegelian concepts, like creative activity. In rejecting idealism, and privileging human labour rather than intellectual activity, Marx was doing more than tweaking Hegel’s system, and Sayers doesn’t adequately address this.

The biggest problem with this book, however, is Sayers’s attempts to offer an account of the overcoming of alienation. He rightly focuses on the need for collective control of the labour process as the means for overcoming alienation. He describes how “the first step towards the overcoming of alienated labour is taken by communism when it abolishes capitalism and takes the means of production into common ownership” (p165). He defends the idea that this is both possible and desirable against those, even Marxists, who are more sceptical or pessimistic. However, he also asserts that examples of this first step can be found in “actually existing communist societies such as the Soviet Union, China and Cuba” (p165). As Tony McKenna points out, this reflects both an unwarranted faith in these societies and a confusion of state ownership with genuine collective control.1

More significantly, it also points to another weakness. Sayers ignores the importance of Marx’s analysis of revolution. Indeed, despite the wealth of quotations from Marx, one is conspicuously absent. That is the following passage from the German Ideology:

“Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”.2

Here Marx describes the way in which a revolutionary process involves not just actively asserting control over our social lives, but also in the process transforming ourselves. This means that overcoming alienation is not just about collective control, but also about the process by which that control is taken. This is a process “from below”, in which people actively overcome the conditions of their alienation themselves. This is not an optional extra in transcending alienation, but an essential part of Marx’s theory.


1Tony McKenna, Review in Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, 2011, http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2011/422

2Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/