Marx on ‘alienation’ and Heidegger on ‘deworlding’

Paul asked:

Are there any similarities between Marx’s theory of ‘alienation’ and Heidegger’s view of technology and the resultant ‘deworlding’ of being?’

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Marx and Alienation

Marx’s writings on alienation appear most significantly in his earlier works such as Comments on James Mill and Estranged Labour both from 1844 and both contained in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Here the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach and his Humanism is explicit. For Feuerbach, human beings have somehow externalised their qualities objectifying them in an entity called God. The human creator became the created of God or the subject becomes the predicate and the predicate the subject in the terminology. Consequently, the human essence or gatungwesen is alienated from itself, reducing itself the more it posits a God. Even Hegel’s philosophy, of which Feuerbach and Marx were initially followers, perpetuated estrangement with its divine Reason subordinating human beings to a non-traditional conception of God. In sum, the human essence is alienated from itself and what it is posited in, becomes a ruling power over human beings.

In the early 1840’s, Marx clearly adopts and generally works within Feuerbachian categories modifying them slightly. With Marx, the same pattern of alienation is discerned. The species-essence of human beings to be social and creative has been alienated into private property and all that supports it: state, law, money; the socio-economic system of Capitalism. Private property, the creation of human beings, becomes a power standing over and against them. The wealth creators are locked out of wealth to endure poverty, exacerbated by economic slumps. Importantly, their essence is denied fulfilment. The products of their labour are taken from them legally and become the private property of the capitalists. Human beings themselves become subsumed in the these relations of production, mere quantitative commodities receiving money in lieu of the expression of their essence; mere employed talking machines employed to operate inanimate machines. In short, they are viewed merely as objectified commodities, defined by and subject to the Capitalist Market relations of Production. Human beings are alienated, estranged from their essence. In place of it, is the quantitative label of the cash nexus and their objectified, alienated essence becomes a power standing against them in the form of Capitalist Private Property.

In abolishing Capitalism, the communist revolution abolishes private property — the objectified and estranged essence of human beings. Social, productive and creative life are restored to human beings and as such, human essence is re-appropriated and alienation banished.

The important point with reference to Heidegger, is that the categories the humanist Marx uses are those inherited from German Idealist Philosophy, namely the famous Subject and Object. The Subject — be it Consciousness for Hegel, Species-essence for Feuerbach, Proletariat for Marx — interacts with the Object. Whether by means of subject-predicate inversion (Feuerbach) or dialectical mediation (Hegel and Marx), the Subject is eventually to become identical with the Object. In other words, we have a super Cartesianism in which the human, anthropos is now, after banishing alienation, identical with the world but, by means of production uses the world and its resources, to procure its means of life. Rather in the same way the dominating and controlling driver, drives the vehicle at its disposal. For Marx, with the Communist revolution Alienation will be overcome and identity will be practised in common, free human creativity: productionism. The basis of all societies including that of communist society is production save that with communism, not a Ruling Class but united humanity is the productive agent. The point being that Productionism obtains, a point which will become clearer above.

Heidegger De-Worlding and Homelessness

Substance, (ousia) the presencing of being in their presence was the building block of metaphysics. With Descartes, substance becomes divorced into Mind (subject) and Body (Object): the nascent Subject-Object problem is announced. Mind, Subject or Subiectum as Heidegger terms it (Hegel and The Greeks) strives to know, comprehend what is confronting it so as to Objectify it. This is the historical thrust of metaphysics, now expressed in natural science and now expressed in the technologist world-view. So objectified, the world and everything in it becomes a ‘standing-reserve’, enframed as a mere resources for instrumental use and exploitation (On Technology). The essence of Technology, expressed in discourse, in attitudes towards our self, others and the world, is the danger that looms over humanity. In other words, the world has been ‘de-worlded’.

Metaphysically, humanity is its essence, his substance; being is the substance of beings, as the subject, as the tyrant of being, he may deign to realise the beingness of beings into an all too loudly bruited ‘objectivity’ as ‘Lord of the World’.

This moving of humanity away from its home in Being and defining itself in being follows from the Destining of Being, a trajectory established with Plato, continued in Aristotle, continued in Christian Theologico-Metaphysics, secularised in Natural Science and operable in the contemporary world as a quantitative, instrumentalist value of beings in economics, in science, in views of ourselves as objective bodies in time and space, in describing ourselves analogously as computers, as human resources, in measuring our ‘happiness’ in material acquisition, in GDP’s, mere statistics and so on. Humanity has been distracted from its home in Being to a homelessness in the Metaphysical/ Technicist paradigm.

In his Letter On Humanism, Heidegger writes that Marx’s recognition of alienation arises from the Homelessness of Humanity although Marx expresses it Metaphysically. As such, Marx and indeed any thinker who remains within Metaphysics, will not be open to the Homelessness of Being for, Metaphysics institutionalises it as normal. Nevertheless, Marx has recognised that something is amiss in modern life. Secondly, Heidegger writes approvingly of the importance of History for Marx. This importance of both History (the original harmony of Primitive Communism perhaps akin to the home of humanity in unconceptualised, unthematised Being?) and its culmination in Alienation under Capitalism makes Marx’s account of History superior to other accounts. In fact, Heidegger concludes that it is because of the dimension of the Historical in Marx that a ‘productive dialogue with Marxism can occur’ (Letter On Humanism).

What could such a dialogue achieve? From Heidegger’s perspective, it could clear up the nature of materialism upon which Marx’s Historical Materialism rests. The essence of materialism necessitates a view that everything is regarded as the ‘material of labour’ (what Michael Zimmerman succinctly calls ‘Productive Metaphysics’). In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the metaphysical essence of labour is the self-establishing process of unconditional production or, the objectification of the actual through humanity experienced as subjectivity. It is no great leap from the essence of materialism to the essence of Technology.

The essence of Technology as written above, is to seize upon beings, to exploit them, to valorise them only insofar as they have use value. Informed by this essence, human activity has, as Heidegger wrote in the 1950’s, produced atomic energy which as both a source of power and warfare, threatens the destruction of humanity. Perhaps similarly in our own times, we face ecological destruction and perhaps human disenchantment with the turbo mode of life.

Any Similarities?

The point with Marx is that insofar as he is a materialist, he remains philosophically, for Heidegger, within the framework of Metaphysics. Metaphysics is blind to the essence of Technology and has indeed been its philosophical midwife.

Marx has recognised Alienation and its Historical development culminating in Capitalism but his solution remains within metaphysics and productionism. Thus Heidegger sees no essential difference between the Capitalist consumerism of the USA and the Socialist 5 year plans of Stalin’s USSR. Marxism continues the Subjectivism of the Subject — Object relation (borne of Hegel, Leibniz, Descartes, Aristotle, Plato). Even if we dismiss the USSR as Marxist, Marxism remains a Subjectivism in which it’s aim of a United humanity standing over and against the world in a relation of Production: the essence of humanity realised and manifested in a way denied under Capitalism. Communist Humanity will become the collective ‘Lord of the Earth’. Alienation from production may have been overcome but, for Heidegger, humanity remains alienated from Being. The onus will still be on production and the supremacy of humanity — Subjectivism.

Heidegger would argue that such Subjectivism will perpetuate de-worlding. Instead of maintaining a philosophy in which essence’s have to be realised (i.e. metaphysics) in a closed schematic; human beings should be open to and receptive to the callings, solicitations of Being which interrupts existing discourses, values, practices particularly that of Technicist Thinking and doing. Such interruptions can allow Thinking to think differently. Thinking differently may lead to acting differently — in a non-technicist way and correspondingly engage. Humanity, for Heidegger, cannot simply be defined in a new Essence, where the definition closes itself off to the solicitations of Being; this merely perpetuates the problem. Humanity must remain open to the callings of Being, must be ‘Ek-Statik’ (Letter on Humanism). Closed structures and concepts of Metaphysics prevents this.

Perhaps Marx would reply that Communist society in overcoming Alienation would simultaneously have overcome the de-worlding of the world and its concomitant instrumentalist view of beings as mere means to increase profit. What of the problem of Productionism? Perhaps a Marxism informed, qualified by political Ecology could move away from Productionism (John Bellamy Foster Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature)? For this to happen, Marxism would first have to abandon the schematic of the human essence and alienation. For Productionism is present in the concept of essence — that it is a ‘doing’, an activity, a performitivity — even in the guise of free, social, creative communist labour. If so, we’re looking at versions of Marxism that do not hold there is such a thing as a human essence which can become alienated or, the answer to your question Paul is, there are no similarities between Marx and Heidegger.

Isn’t Marx’s estranged Human essence the same as Heidegger’s estranged ‘homelessness’ of beings from Being? To paraphrase Heidegger’s response to Sartre: a Metaphysical statement remains a Metaphysical statement even if the terms are modified. Heidegger is not making a Metaphysical statement, he is not talking about an ‘estrangement from an essence’ — structures which pertain only to Metaphysics. To read Heidegger in such terms is to completely misread him. So not any grounds for similarity here.

So what of a Marxism that has abandoned the Metaphysical schema of an Essence? Non-Hegelian Marxism such as that offered by French Marxist Louis Althusser rejects the whole panoply of Essence, Alienation, Subject-Object structured Dialectic as belonging to the ‘early, humanist Marx’; a position the later Marx eschewed. If however, there is no such thing as ‘Alienation’ in mature Marxism, there are no grounds whatsoever for any rapprochement with Heidegger.

In conclusion then Paul, I do not think with either the ‘Early Marx’ nor the later Marx, are there any similarities between Marx and Heidegger. Hope you find this answer has use value.


One thought on “Marx on ‘alienation’ and Heidegger on ‘deworlding’

  1. Thank you very much for your extremely detailed response. It certainly does have ‘use’ value but hopefully there will be some value in further ‘exchange’ with two further questions

    I have tried reading (and rereading) the section on Heidegger’s attitude to metaphysics and find it difficult to say the least. Is Heidegger’s rejection of a distinction between time and eternity part of this? If so I am happier understanding how he can be against the categorization of things and how this relates to his criticism of Aristotle’s influence. But I still find it hard to see how it is possible to be ‘non-metaphysical’. Even Idealists have a metaphysical position (?!)

    Secondly, at times I feel that Marxism and itself strays from strict ‘materialism’

    “…in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realise… the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities. But the more this progresses the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body, such as arose after the decline of classical antiquity in Europe and obtained its highest elaboration in Christianity.” The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man

    Is this a belief that ‘object – subject’ (in the relations between man and nature) is a production of a particular historical stage and that a new stage of history will resolve the conflict?

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