Capitalism, Socialism and Alienated Man
(This speech was given at Wabash College at a conference on the humane economy by Professor Ralph Raico, August 1964. It was found in the Raico Papers in the Mises Institute archives and has never been published before.)
In recent years the concept of “alienation” and the arguments surrounding it have assumed an increasing importance as part of the case against an economic order based on private property in the means of production.1 As the more strictly economic criticisms of capitalism prove, to a greater or lesser degree, to be unfounded or inconclusive, the attention of its opponents has tended to shift to complaints of a more “psychological” nature. Concomitantly, as part of another movement (perhaps of the general eclipse of broad philosophies of history), interest in what have traditionally been regarded as the essential elements of Marxism—the materialist interpretation of history, the class struggle, the inevitability of socialism, etc.—has waned. The two movements—one away from economic criticisms of capitalism, and the other towards a de-emphasis of the elements more traditionally accepted as characteristic of Marxism—have found a common meeting point in the thought of the young Marx: his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), published for the first time in 1932, and only recently available in English, have become the starting point for a vigorous assault on capitalism as the economic system based on and promoting alienation in its essence. Interest in this question is quite wide-spread in the Western countries. If, for instance, it is true, as one writer has said,2 that there is today scarcely a philosophy in France that does not involve itself at least to some degree with Marxism, it is above all Marx’s theory of alienation that interests the French philosophers. Interest in his ideas on the subject is strong also in other countries, especially West Germany, where, as on much of the Continent, Marx’s great concern for the problem leads to his often being looked on as fundamentally a sort of “humanist existentialist.”
In the English-speaking world, the elaboration and dissemination of this aspect of Marx’s thought has so far fallen principally to writers in the field of social science. It appears that, because of his great renown, Erich Fromm is destined to exert the greatest influence in this direction in the near future. It is with Fromm’s neo-Marxism, and specifically with some of his ideas on what he terms the “central issue of the effects of Capitalism on personality: alienation,”3 I propose to deal in this paper.
A precise delimitation of the concept of alienation is hard to come by, but there is wide agreement on the core meaning of the term. The social psychologist Karen Horney, for instance, speaks of the alienated individual as feeling “depersonalized, removed from himself,” as performing all of his activities with the feeling that, “I am driven instead of being the driver … He has the feeling of not being a moving force in his own life.”4 According to Fromm, the alienated person “does not feel strong, he is frightened and inhibited because he does not experience himself as the subject and originator of his own acts and experiences.”5 Commentators are agreed, moreover, that alienation has become a social malaise of alarming proportions in modern society, to the point where it is often taken as characteristic of twentieth century man.
In our discussion of Fromm’s Marxist-oriented theory of alienation, we will not examine the Hegelian underpinnings of Marx’s theory, or his own concrete development of it. The same reasons that make it attractive to existentialist thinkers render it unfamiliar and strange-sounding to persons accustomed to more empirically-based philosophical discourse; and, moreover, it is not certain that a lengthy examination would even be rewarding.
Nor will our chief concern be the general assertion that alienation is a product of a regime of private property in the means of production, (a thesis which would require a much more detailed treatment than is possible here). What I want to deal with instead is the claim that alienation will be greatly diminished, or even eliminated (Marx’s own view) by socialism; to do this, I shall investigate a few of the major ways in which capitalism is alleged to promote alienation, in order to see whether socialism is likely to do away with them.
Before the merits of the Marxist claim can be evaluated, it is necessary of course to have a good idea of how it is imagined that a socialist society would function. This is not as easy to determine as might be thought. It seems to me clear that a critic of a social arrangement is obligated not only to bring evidence that the arrangement has had unfortunate results, but to prove the possibility (where there might be a question of it) of an alternative arrangement which will avoid the undesirable consequences of the first. For otherwise his criticism would amount not to a condemnation of the social institution, but to an assertion that certain social arrangements which are indispensable have, regrettably, undesirable consequences. But when we come to the economic order based on private property, and to its most influential critics—Marx, Engels, and their followers—this rule is largely forgotten. It has been thought that virtually any flaw in capitalism was a good argument against the system, which amounts to the position that capitalism is to be compared, not with other practicable systems of economic organization, but with an ideally perfect standard. A learned and impartial historian of socialist thought has remarked on the curious circumstance that
in the extensive literature on Marxism there is lacking a systematic investigation of the notions that Marx and Engels had of the future social order, after the carrying out of the victorious proletarian revolution. To the unbiased observer it appears that any serious political evaluation of a theory that has made world history must begin with the question of what it was that its founders actually wanted to put in place of the liberal order they so violently attacked.6
It is interesting to note that after a fairly comprehensive examination of the sparse indications given by Marx and Engels themselves as to the structure of the future socialist society, and after indicating various reasons, tactical and otherwise, for their reluctance to discuss the organization of the future society, he concludes:
Not least of all, however, the renunciation of any detailed presentation of their own conception of the [future] social order gave them the advantage of protecting their position against controversies with the defenders of the existing order. Such controversies would have weakened the revolutionary spirit of their [own] supporters, either by casting doubt on the realizability of these [Marxist] proposals, or by indicating what they had in common with the existing order.7
Fromm, too, is rather vague at crucial places as to just how his socialist society would work, and we shall find that we will have to fill out his theory of the future organization of society, in order to be able to come to a conclusion as to the ability of socialism to overcome alienation.
Marx, in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, distinguishes four aspects of alienation, all inter-related: (1) alienation of the worker from the product of his labor; (2) alienation of the worker from the process of his labor; (3) alienation of the worker from his species nature; (4) alienation of the worker from his fellow man.8 Fromm, it ought to be pointed out, has abandoned the narrow class basis of this analysis, and sees alienation as a disease of all classes, with the middle class possibly being more prone to contract it.9 Moreover, he lays little stress on the alienation of the worker from the product of his labor, and the alienation of the worker from the process of his labor; the first is, of course, a corollary of the Marxist labor theory of value, while the second, in Marx’s thinking, follows immediately from the first.10 The reason why these two aspects of the problem do not loom large in Fromm’s thought appears to be that they would throw no light at all on the problem Fromm must give an account of—the increase in the incidence and intensity of alienation in the twentieth century.11 It is this increase that has drawn attention to the issue, and that must be explained. But it is not the case that the worker’s share of his product has diminished; Fromm, in fact, concedes that it has increased.12 Thus, the roots of the problem are to be sought elsewhere.
Much more helpful, it has been thought, is Marx’s notion of the alienation of man from his species nature. He states: “The whole character of a species—its species character [Gattungswesen]—is contained in the character of its life activity; and free conscious activity is man’s species character.”13 Under capitalism, however, “life itself appears as a means to life.”14 What Marx seems to mean by this, and the sense in which Fromm strongly supports the position, is that man’s essential nature—that in virtue of which he is human—consists in freely chosen, rational productive activity. It is likely, as has been suggested, that Marx had in mind here, as a paradigm case of such activity, the life of an artist, which is not (in the best or natural case) dictated by external necessity:
Their [i.e., the artists’] activity is not subordinated to ends outside of the activity. In so far as their motives are artistic, they are not working for reward, or fame, or any other non-artistic end. They are working for the sake of the activity itself. They create, or seek to create, according to the laws of art, not according to laws dictated from outside the activity by non-artistic or anti-artistic motives and ends.15
While this is the form of life activity dictated by man’s nature, Marx contends, in a capitalist system labor is performed under the necessity of survival, is thus a means to a physical end, and is not the free expression of the individual’s creative powers. The most shocking example of the alienation of man from his nature in this regard is the division of labor, which has now made man an appendage of the machine, and turns him, as Marx remarks in Das Kapital, into a “crippled monstrosity.”
And finally the division of labor offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural [i.e., unplanned] society, that is as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily but naturally divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as labor is distributed [i.e., divided], each man has a particular exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if the does not want to lose his means of livelihood …16
In communist society, on the other hand:
where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity, but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind to, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.17
Fromm accepts Marx’s fundamental view of the nature of man, and repeats his criticism of the division of labor. He is particularly indignant at its great refinement in recent decades. We shall postpone the examination of the means Fromm proposes to alleviate this problem, until we come to the general discussion of his guild socialist ideas. What I want to emphasize here is that while Marx had a theory which held out the promise of the elimination of this principal aspect of alienation, Fromm does not.
In Marx’s theory, it is true that the alienation of a man’s nature implied in the division of labor will not be cured immediately upon the abolition of private property in the means of production, in the first phase of socialism (where, for instance, as we shall see, the alienation involved in the lack of control by man of his social environment will come to an end). Its remedy, however, comes with the higher phase of socialism which can “only flourish upon that realm of necessity as its base.” This seems to mean that only after social productivity shall have reached a very high level will it be possible to abolish the division of labor and enter into the realm of true freedom. We need not enter into a discussion of whether Marx provides us with reasonable grounds for supposing that productivity under socialism is likely to reach this level, or likely to do so sooner than under capitalism; no one, I think, would question the fact that he does not. What I want to point out is that Marx, at least, operated in a legitimate fashion. While criticizing the division of labor as a denial of true freedom, as the alienation of man from his nature, he indicated a conceivable way in which (in the distant future, to be sure) the division of labor could be done away with, viz., by the creation of productive forces so efficient that the material basis of life could easily be provided without it. Fromm, on the other hand, cuts the ground from under the Marxist position. While accepting the proposition that “the lifelong submersion of a man in one occupation” is “crippling” and a denial of the “total, universal man,” he provides no long run cure for it.18 On the contrary, he criticizes modern society (capitalistic as well as “authoritarian Communist”) for having as its “goal … ever-increasing economic efficiency and wealth.”19 Thus, within the framework of the Marxist theory, and simply given what seem to be his own views on the subject, Fromm implicitly concedes that the aim of humanistic socialism—the overcoming of alienation—will not be achieved, but that, as it regards the division of labor, will at most be alleviated.
Another basic facet of the alienation of man from his nature under capitalism is “the process of consumption,” which “is as alienated as the process of production.”20 The reason for this is to be found in the use of money, and in this way Fromm associates himself with the famous critique of money by Marx in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Here the essential artificiality and sham of capitalist society, produced by the use of money, is contrasted with the warm genuineness of the environment appropriate to the nature of man:
Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one; then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real-individual life.21
Under a regime of private property, on the other hand, the abstract, dead symbol of labor—money—enters between the human reality—the real desire, capacity, vocation, or whatever—and its fulfillment. Money, moreover, creates a false reality, buying love for the ugly man (and thus, Marx says, making him beautiful), giving the lame man twenty-four feet (by buying him a coach), etc. Fromm does not agree with Marx, evidently, on this latter point, but nevertheless emphasizes the gulf which exists under capitalism between the human reality of the individual and his needs and desires, and the “reality” which money can purchase for him:
Provided I am in the possession of money, no effort or interest of mine is necessary to acquire something. If I have the money, I can acquire an exquisite painting, even though I may not have any appreciation of art …22
and so on.
The first thing to recognize on this issue, I think, is that money is not really the center of the discussion—that it is not money that is responsible for the undesirable conditions which Fromm, following Marx, describes. Money, after all, simply plays the part of a medium of exchange. The same essential conditions which Fromm and Marx here hold responsible for alienation of acquisition and consumption would obtain in the absence of money, provided exchange were present, e.g., in a barter system. A person with four goats could obtain eight bracelets or six drums for them, even if he had no appreciation at all of bracelets or drums, provided only that bracelets, drums and goats were exchanging at the appropriate ratios in his society. Conversely, in such a situation, a person with nothing to exchange would not obtain the desired goods, no matter how worthy of them he was. So the attack on money is a misdirected one.
But even assuming that money is a great source of alienation, in the manner described, the question arises, With what will money be replaced in a socialist society? Here, I think it is fair to say that Fromm is nothing short of irresponsible. He states:
The human way of acquiring would be to make an effort qualitatively commensurate with what I acquire … the acquisition of books and paintings [would depend] on my effort to understand them and my ability to use them. How this principle would be applied practically is not the point to be discussed here. What matters is that the way we acquire things is separated from the way in which we use them.23
But, in fact, nothing could be more evident [than] that the practicability of the “human” way of acquiring must be established before capitalism can be censured for not applying it. For if it turned out that there was no practicable method of implementing the “human” way, then o
Article from Mises Wire