Book review by Jay Raskin: Development of the Concept and Theory of Alienation in Marx’s Writings

Canadian Philosophical Review, xv no. 6-xvi. 2 December. 1995-April 1996

Book review by Jay Raskin

Nasir Khan, Development of the Concept and Theory of Alienation in Marx’s Writings, Oslo: Solum Publishers, 1995

Pp. 294
at Amazon.co.uk,  £41.93

[NOTE: This book can be downloaded here ]

 This is a good book for Marxist scholars to review some important basic concepts and a good book to include in a graduate course on the early writings of Marx. It increases the understanding of Marx in two important areas. First, it clarifies the logical development that took place in Marx’s thinking as he crossed the boundary from democrat to communist. Second, it gives a precise description of the relationship between Marx’s fundamental worldview and those of Hegel and Feuerbach.

Not that others have not covered this territory before, it is just that Nasir Khan does it as well or better. Khan accomplishes this by vigorously focusing his research. He examines the period from March 1843 to August 1844, concentrating on three works by Marx: ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, ‘On the Jewish Question’, and ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844’. He further delimits his work by examining only the basic topic of alienation.

Khan demonstrates that at the time of writing the ‘Critique’, (in March through September of 1843, at the age of 25) Marx still thought that full political rights for all people and democracy would solve the problem of human alienation. In the ‘Critique’, Marx calls for the full democratization of the state (130). A month or two later, writing in ‘On the Jewish Question’ and his ‘Introduction to the Critique’, Marx rejects such a partial, purely political solution to the problem. Marx now calls for the abolition of the state (131).

This clarification alone makes the book important to Marxist scholars. The transition of Marx from democrat to communist is so swift that it is easy to miss or forget. It often appears that historical materialism just emerges full blown from the head of Marx. Khan carefully refutes this by tracing the progressive steps in Marx’s thinking from the ‘Critique’ to the ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’. He shows that Marx goes from criticism of religion to criticism of philosophy, from criticism of philosophy to criticism of the state; from criticism of the state to criticism of society; and finally from criticism of society to criticism of political economy and private property (145).

Khan’s second clarification involving the Hegel-Feuerbach-Marx relationship also merits study. George Plekhanov in his chief work Fundamental Problems of Marxism (1908), spent the first 20 pages complaining that the Marxists of his day were unfamiliar with the works of Hegel and Feuerbach, and thus had a distorted picture of what Marx was all about. This complaint still rings true today. Khan gives a clear, demystified model of the relationship.

This is not an easy thing to do. In works about Marx, one often reads how Marx turned Hegel on his head, or how he criticized Feuerbach for only conceiving of man abstractly and not as an historical and sensuous being. Yet the exact relationship among Marx’s concepts and those of Hegel and Feuerbach’s are more interesting.

Khan examines how Hegel had thought he had overcome alienation by showing that ultimately man was God (absolute spirit) in self-alienation (52). Feuerbach reversed this formula and turned Hegel upside down to show that the concept of God was really man in self-alienation. Marx deeply appreciated Feuerbach for this, but realized he had only challenged the top of the Hegelian system. Feuerbach had correctly criticized humanity’s alienation from in its holy form—religion, but not in its unholy forms—the state and private property. Marx attacked Feuerbach for not taking this next obviously necessary step. Marx himself took this step in his later writings. What Feuerbach had done to the crowning religious part of Hegel’s system, Marx did to the rest of it. Marx appreciated Hegel, on the other hand, for his introduction of the historical method into philosophy; i.e., for showing spirit as historically evolving through dialectical conflict. Marx simply replaced Hegel’s Alienated God-Spirit by actual historical man as the true subject of history and ran Hegel’s film backward to reveal that far from having overcome alienation through Hegel’s philosophy, actual man was more alienated than ever by his real socio-economic conditions. This set the stage for Marx’s later works when he delved ever deeper into the exact nature of those alienating conditions and came up with solutions for them.

In the shadowy background of Khan’s book stands Louis Althusser’s anti-humanist theory, as presented in ‘For Marx’ and ‘Reading Capital’. Althusser put forward the theory of an epistemological break in Marx’s works that turned them from reflecting a humanist ideology into a new science of society. Khan refers to this theory obliquely several times and firmly rejects it. Khan maintains ‘Marx’s ideas regarding humanist perspective and the question of alienation show continuity, but with important differences in the content and form of the concept and theory of alienation in the period under review’ (19). Khan’s work will give comfort to those who oppose Althusser’s theory, but because it concentrates so strongly on the early works, it really cannot be considered a strong refutation. Althusser would certainly grant Khan’s thesis that Marx’s early works are strongly influenced by humanism. It is the later works that Khan does not really examine that Althusser would contend go beyond humanism.

Khan writes in an easy, clear and thoughtful style. His writing is pleasantly non-polemical. Khan declares, ‘I have tried to present Marx’s views on alienation as dispassionately as possible and have not let my own likes and dislikes dictate the inquiry’ (18). It is to his credit that he presents conflicting views on many issues quite fairly.

One hears common talk of Marxism being dead as a result of the Marxist parties in Eastern Europe losing state power. Yet, Khan’s book proposes that the essence of Marxism is the overcoming of alienation, and holding state power is only a small part of that. He suggests that Marx thought of Communism in three stages. In the crude stage, equal distribution and consumption are emphasized without an understanding of the mechanism of production. In the second stage, the proletariat controls state power and thinks of society in terms of pure politics. The third stage is the positive appropriation of the human essence by and for man (246-52). If Khan is right, events in the early 1990s in Eastern Europe should have about as much effect on Marxist Philosophy as the Fall of the Roman Empire had on Christianity.

Jay Raskin
 University of South Florida

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