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I find abstract concepts difficult to understand, and Entfremdung or Alienation is no exception. I know it’s relevant to Christianity, and I’m very grateful that Chadwick (i) and Wolff (ii) have made Marx’s important writings on this topic slightly more accessible to non-historians, non-philosophers and non-theologians like me.
In common use alienation refers to a feeling, perhaps of extreme dislocation or disorientation. This subjective idea is a part of Marx’s notion of alienation but only a small part. More fundamentally alienation is an objective fact about our lives, and we can be alienated without even realizing it. The basic idea is that two things which belong together come apart.
1/ The idea of alienation was conceived by Jewish and Christian thinkers. It was along the lines of “Men have fallen from grace and are alienated from God. They may redeemed through Christ.”
2/ (of interest to historians only) Hegel, Bruno Bauer, and Feuerbach took the idea and ran with it: in different directions! Oh those old German philosophers, where would we be without them? (joke)
3/ Karl Marx (in spanish that would be ‘Carlos Marcos’) thought ‘man’ (i.e. men and women) were alienated in 4 ways:
- from nature
- from humanity (later abandoned as Marx “ceased to believe in humanity”)
- from other people such as our neighbours. Gregarious man had been made solitary.
- from him or her self. The true individual is made untrue.
4/ The key to it all is LABOUR:-
- In capitalist industries eg manufacturing or milling the average labourer rarely enjoys what he’s doing
- the ‘system’ makes workmen not the masters of the production line but its servants
- the worker always ends up serving the needs of the market rather than the many real needs of man
- likewise men don’t control the goods, the goods control them
- a consequence of this capitalist mode of production is that the gap between rich and poor widens
- this increases the worker’s alienation from nature, from his fellow workers and from his self
- now men and women become things and treat each other like commodities
- all needs are reduced to the basic need to have and to own private property (I’m not saying that this is true, or that I necessarily agree with it; I’m saying that this is roughly what the great man himself said)
5/ Although man’s senses are blunted, he can still be freed to be himself again. The abolition of private property is a step toward restoring human nature. If the barriers between classes came down we could all act more naturally and the world would become a more harmonious place.
Alienation and religion
- Religion is a means of escape from the intolerable reality of a 16 hour day in a Victorian cotton mill.
- Religion may express itself as detachment from reality, or as suppression of natural passions, or as a spirit/flesh dualism
- Religion may imply a divine justification of social evil. It may accept the schism betweeen rich and poor while hoping that the rich will be charitable
- Religion may tell people that their current oppression is a just punishment for their sins
- Religion promises the poor a better life in the hereafter, thus emasculating their longings for real social justice now
- Religion promotes the feeling of resignation: you should accept the remediable as irremediable
- Religion is the opium of the people! (See Zingcreed Post on this.)
Religion and Revolution
- Religion is an integral part of the (capitalist) social structure which a socialist revolution would overthrow
- When man creates a new post-capitalist society, alienation will no longer have any roots, so no one will want religion any more.
When things are totally self sustaining, detached from oneself, one is very close to what Marx meant by alienation. The feeling is captured in Thom Gunn’s poem ‘Waking in a newly built house’ (iii)
The window, a wide pane in the bare
modern wall, is crossed by colourless
peeling trunks of the eucalyptus
recurring against raw sky colour.
It wakes me, and my eyes rest on it,
sharpening, and seeking merely all
of what can be seen, the substantial,
where the things themselves are adequate.
So I observe them, able to see
them as they are, the neutral sections
of trunk, spare, solid, lacking at once
disconnectedness and unity.
There is a tangible remoteness
of the air about me, its clean chill
ordering every room of the hill-
top house, and convoking absences.
Calmly, perception rests on the things,
and is aware of them only in
their precise definition, their fine
lack of even potential meaning.
The psychologist, R.D.Laing (iv) (v) makes creative use of Marx’s ideas in his writing about actual schizophrenic experience. People feel “persecuted by reality itself”, a “dislocation takes place between a man’s authentic self and the self which is present as an object to others in the world.” Interestingly he is drawing on a tradition of existential thought which is also significant for Christian theology.
Related Zingcreed Posts:
Marx’s 3 criticisms of religion
Karl Marx’s personality – a balance sheet
Marx’s Christian roots
Jesus or Marx? A fun quiz for all the family!
The opium of the people
The Christian roots of communism
Similarities between Christianity & socialism
Rosa Luxemburg’s insights into Christianity & socialism
Is communism a religion in its own right
Jesus’s real political message
(i) Chadwick, Owen “The secularization of the European mind” CUP (1975) p.62ff
(ii) Wolff, Jonathan “Why read Marx today?” OUP (2002) p. 28-40
(iii) Eagleton, Terence “The New Left Church” Sheed and Ward (1966) p.46
(iv) Eagleton op.cit. p.154
(v) Laing, R.D. “The Divided self” London (1965) p.80