Mises Daily Articles

Home | Mises Library | Marx and Alienation

Marx and Alienation

Tags War and Foreign PolicyHistory of the Austrian School of Economics

11/04/2021Murray N. Rothbard

"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 14th-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.

This article is excerpted from chapter 11 of volume 2 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.

  • 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

Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.