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Alienation in American Society

Fritz Pappenheim received his Ph.D. in Germany in 1929. He then worked in the fields of adult education, lecturing regularly and taking part in panel discussions on the Frankfurt radio. He escaped to Spain after the Nazi’s took over and in 1939, at the end of the Spanish Civil War, he fled to southern France. There, he was interned for some time in a concentration camp. He emigrated to the United States in 1941 and later taught social science at Talladega College in Alabama. In 1952 he moved to Massachusetts and remained there until his death in 1964.

This lecture was presented to a student conference on “Socialism in America” held at Yale University in 1964. It was later issued as a pamphlet by Monthly Review Press, but has been out of print for many years. It may seem odd to reissue it here, since the intervening decades have seen the publication of numerous important works on this same subject, including in the early 1970s such landmark studies as István Mészáros’ Marx’s Theory of Alienation and Bertell Ollman’s Alienation. But Pappenheim’s approach was distinctive, not only because of its accessibility, but because it concentrated from beginning to end on the link between Marx’s concepts of alienation and exploitation. Rather than using Marx’s notion of alienation as the basis for an abstract humanism divorced from concrete struggle, and as a means of avoiding Marx’s more developed political-economic critique of capitalism—as too many have done—Pappenheim stresses the close, indeed inextricable, relationship between a world of alienation and a world of exploitation.

The Editors

Marx’s ideas on alienation, which had been ignored for a long time, have become quite fashionable in recent years. Frequently they are even overemphasized at the expense of other concepts of Marx, in particular, his economic concepts. This trend is sometimes due to the attempt to make Marx respectable and to win new supporters for him, especially in intellectual circles which show some interest in socialism but are still reluctant to accept the Marxian analysis of our society. These people are often told: Don’t worry about the later Marx, who wrote the Critique of Political Economy and Capital, and who was so tactless as to develop the theory of exploitation. Concentrate on the early Marx, whose Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, for instance, were concerned mainly with human values and the sublime things in human life, and who developed the concept of alienation.1

I personally believe it is a mistake to separate Marx’s theory of alienation from his theory of exploitation. Alienation and exploitation condition each other; they are linked to each other. It is the very essence of Marx’s insight not to isolate man’s alienation from economic conditions and trends—as Hegel and the followers of philosophical idealism had done—but to trace alienation to the basic structure and development of capitalist economy and society. In the second part of this lecture, I will attempt to show this. But first I want to examine with you what people mean when they talk about alienation, and in what way the frequent use of this term reflects the American scene at mid-century.

If we want to try to understand alienation, we must ask: Alienation from what?

There are three types of alienation. First, there is man’s alienation from himself. Modern man often finds it hard to be himself; he has become a stranger to himself. At the same time, he has become estranged, or alienated, from his fellow man. And finally, he experiences alienation from the world in which he lives.

These three forms of alienation—from ourselves, from other men, and from our world—are interlinked. They actually represent three phases of one process. Marx particularly emphasized the connections between them. This is the very core of his approach to the problem of alienation.

In my book, I illustrated the links between the various forms of alienation by describing a young amateur photographer.2 He had read about a picture contest sponsored by a popular magazine; always eager to earn some extra money and to see his name in print, he decided to try for the prize. He got it for a photograph of a traffic accident which showed the anguished expression of one of the victims in the throes of death. This action of the photographer symbolized for me the attitude of the alienated man who, possessed by a need to turn every experience into an object, a tool for attaining his ends, can ask only one question when he comes face to face with an event or a human being: “What’s in it for me?” And this spirit of calculation remains even in the very face of death.

Some of you will say: We certainly know people who think and act like this photographer. For them, men and things matter only insofar as they can be utilized for their own purposes. But are they not a small and exceptional minority?

This is a consoling thought, but it is not a very realistic one. The orientation represented by the photographer has grown so strong, has become so nearly universal, that in almost all of us there is a tendency not to relate to the happening as a whole or to the other person as a whole; we tend to isolate that one fraction which is important to us and to remain indifferent observers of the rest. The young man I have been talking about is known as a very decent fellow, ready to help anybody who is suffering. If a person of this kind, when he witnesses the agony of a dying man, can think only of taking a picture, it shows that there is a cleavage between the prize-seeking photographer and the human being in him. He is alienated from the situation in which he is involved and, at the same time, alienated from himself.

It seems to me that this kind of division in thought is typical of all of us. We are almost always interested in only that fraction of reality that can serve our ends; we are indifferent to the remaining realities that do not concern us. The more we advance in this separation, the more we create the split within ourselves.

Let me give you another example. I know a white minister in a small town in Alabama. He is as much opposed to racial discrimination as are most of us in this hall. He has said to friends: “To cling to segregation means to pay merely lip service to the teachings of Christ.” But when he was asked by a young student of theology, “When are you going to implement the Christian gospel and open your church to worshippers of all races?” his sad and resigned answer was, “You know as well as I do that the day I did that I would not have a church left.” Here is a situation analogous to the young photographer. When the minister does not focus on the gospel as a whole, but tries to leave out a part of it, that part which could get him into hot water, he cannot help experiencing an inner split between the minister who is committed to the teachings of Christ and the hired employee of the congregation who surrenders his conviction in order to retain his job. Such a cleavage has become the fate, not only of figures in public life, but of all of us.

In the United States many people hold membership in a church with whose creed or religious tradition they are not necessarily in accord; they belong to the church simply because membership in it provides them with a certain degree of respectability and social prestige. I have known artists dedicated to new and creative ideas, whose work was not generally accepted; they could not find a market. Many of them have given up the life of the isolated, struggling artist in order to work as draftsmen in the art department of some advertising agency. And I also know those women whom we call “corporation wives.” Concerned with their husbands’ careers, they select their friends from among the “right people” rather than from among those they feel really akin to.

There are many tragic manifestations in this country of such alienation and indifference toward human beings. In March, 1964, a man attacked a woman with a knife, first wounding her and then killing her. This happened in a parking place in Kew Gardens, a residential section just outside New York. The attack lasted half an hour, during which 38 persons saw the killing—all respectable, middle-class, law-abiding citizens. Not one of those who watched this cruel drama from the window of his “home,” and who heard the victim’s cries for help thought it necessary to call the police. After seeing this act of violence, most of them went to sleep again.

A few weeks later, in Albany, New York, a 19-year-old boy, afflicted with mental illness, was seen on the corner cornice of the twelfth floor of a hotel, apparently intent on jumping. Some 4,000 people were watching him from below. A few were betting money on the outcome; others shouted, “Jump! Jump! Don’t be a coward!” One well-dressed man said to his companion: “I hope he jumps this way; otherwise, we’ll miss it!” The boy was finally rescued by his 7-year-old nephew, who gave him a hand across the roof of the building. Many spectators complained; they had been deprived of a sensation.

These examples show how far indifference toward others has gone, how alienated the man of our time is. But this alienation does not necessarily enter the individual’s consciousness; people who are aware of their alienation are the exceptions. The alienated man is frequently a successful man. As long as the success continues, it often engenders a certain numbness toward the price the individual is paying, toward the fact that he has become estranged from himself. Only in periods of crisis does he become aware of alienation. Societies, too, often do not feel disturbed by forces of alienation. Only in critical phases of their history do they become alert to the problem.

Our society is in such a crisis today. This may be the reason why the word “alienation” has come so much into vogue. We have not enough time here to study the various manifestations of the crisis: the emptiness and meaninglessness of modern life, the terrible loneliness of the individual, his isolation and drifting, and so on. All of this has been described often enough, not only in sociological works but in such plays as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and After the Fall, and in works by Tennessee Williams, Salinger, Kerouac, Updike, and many others. It has been reflected likewise in some of the basic works on existentialist philosophy which take man, the total stranger, for their central theme and which emphasize that homelessness is man’s fate.

Homelessness, says Heidegger, is now the fate of all, the fate of the world. The existentialists always concentrate on the man who has no relation to anybody or anything else, who is totally lost, floating at the mercy of the waves or abandoned in a wasteland with no signposts. Heidegger treats with disdain the effort to come to a philosophy of values which can serve as a landmark to man in this wilderness.

Several people in the United States have told me: “I have many acquaintances but not a single friend.” And this awareness of being alone and cut off continues unabated, in spite of the tendency toward “togetherness,” and the popularity of words like fellowship, pal, neighbor. Words of this kind do not have much meaning at present. The same is true of the word, “community,” which is used so glibly but which for many people is something abstract, remote, alien. This is perhaps one reason why we hear so much about delinquency, corruption and graft, payola, rigged television shows, college cheating, scandals in public administration. A few years ago, at a period when many television scandals were breaking, John Steinbeck returned from a stay in England. In a letter to Adlai Stevenson, he said that he was not sure whether he had done well to come back, for not only our television shows but our whole system of morality is rigged. These are ugly facts, and I am afraid that we will be faced with them as long as people do not feel themselves a part of the community but are alienated from it and use it for their own ends.

Let me say in this context that many a person senses a split between his existence as a private individual and as a citizen. This often engenders a withdrawal from the realm of politics, a retreat which, until recently, has been characteristic of the present younger generation in general, not only of the beatniks. It is easy to blame the young for their political apathy. But their attitudes are not surprising. To many of them, any talk about the political responsibility of the citizen sounds totally phony. What can we say to those young people who doubt that those who do play a role in our political life are genuinely concerned about great political issues? Political leaders and statesmen are often alienated themselves, and are thus deprived of an authentic relationship to the historical forces which shape our age. They are therefore incapable of coming to grips with the decisive issues of our period. Instead of really understanding historical trends, they try to manipulate them and subject them to their designs and schemes, which often have quite limited purposes. Political “leaders” become more and more like public relations men, like sales managers who are trying to find the right sales pitch. Let me give two illustrations of this tendency to manipulate political issues.

When Richard and Pat Nixon toured Latin America a few years ago, angry masses broke through the cordons of police and spat into the faces of these American “good-will ambassadors.” But this shocking manifestation was not taken as a challenge to try to understand what was going on in South America and to reexamine United States relationships with our neighbors. Instead, the travelers returned from their mission to a hero’s welcome. Every effort was made to present their trip to the American people, not as a stunning defeat but as a triumph.

A few years later, out of the Cuban Revolution, a battle cry was born which was soon echoed by the masses throughout Latin America. It embodies the spirit of the embattled guerrillas of the Sierra Maestra in four simple words: Cuba, si! Yankee, no! President Kennedy tried to offset the revolutionary reality of these words with a slogan of his own. At a reception for 250 diplomats from Latin America and for Congressional leaders and their wives in the White House, on the occasion of the launching of the Alliance for Progress, he proposed the ingenious new motto: Progress, yes! Tyranny, no! A catchy phrase—but what does it have to say about the concrete, deeply-rooted problems of South America?

In general, I believe more attempts are made today not to see the reality than to see it. A few years ago a British sociologist wrote: “British society today exhibits a greater unwillingness to discover, to collect and to face up to the social facts of life than at any time in the last hundred years.”3 This statement, I think, applies to American society even more forcefully, and not only to “the average American” but also to leading intellectuals whose brilliant minds qualify them to become special advisers at the White House. One of these special advisers, the celebrated historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote an article some years ago describing the difficulty of the liberal’s role in a country in which “the major problems of the economic structure seem to be solved.” He started his article by saying: “The present-day liberal is bound to face the America of the 1950’s with dismay. While stretches of poverty remain in our land, we have nonetheless achieved a steadily rising national output and something approaching full employment (as one Democratic politician explained the 1952 election, ‘The trouble is, we ran out of poor people’).”4 What Mr. Schlesinger thinks about his statement today, after the President of the United States has found it necessary to declare a “War on Poverty,” I do not know. It really doesn’t matter much. I have quoted him only to show how divorced and alienated from our historical reality the thinking of some of our historians has become, and how even men of intelligence present interpretations which betray an almost pathetic lack of understanding of the real trends of our period.

Mr. Schlesinger and other historians of a similar outlook do not represent isolated cases. They are in “good company.” For instance, quite a few sociologists, in an understandable revolt against abstract and empty theories and systems, have turned to so-called empiricism. This could be all to the good. But the mere gathering of isolated facts and data in itself is not conducive to the understanding of social reality or of significant trends in society. In the last decades we have collected a huge amount of data and have acquired thorough knowledge about questions which are highly specialized, and at the same time thoroughly irrelevant. I regret that there is no time now to give examples of some of the complicated but trivial problems to which sociologists dedicate their efforts today, with the result that they either look away from the issues of our social reality or fail to grasp their true significance.


So far, I have tried to show how man is separated from himself, from his fellow men, from his political community, and from the forces which shape the trends of our age. The question arises:

Is alienation characteristic of our modern civilization, or has it existed in previous ages? My answer is: Many societies in earlier stages of history have experienced alienation. But I think that both in its forms and in its extent the alienation differed from that of modern times. It has now become much intensified and broader, and has actually turned into a dominant trend.

What are the reasons for this increased alienation? To answer this question we must look at the social and economic structure of modern civilization. Let us look first at the social basis. And let us remember that human associations can be of two kinds. First, there are associations which grow out of calculation. Individuals have figured out that they can pursue their interests more effectively if they are not isolated from each other; they realize that it is advantageous to join together. There are no deep bonds here. The members of such an association can join or leave at will. Secondly, there is a type of association which does not arise out of a conscious design but to which one belongs, as one belongs to one’s home. In this kind of association, persons are strongly tied together. Its members have a feeling of solidarity, they stand together in good times and in bad, and they do not consider the connection terminated the moment it no longer brings advantages.

The differences between these two types of association are crucially important. They were first described about 80 years ago by the German sociologist, Ferdinand Tönnies. He calls the first association, deliberately established to promote the interests of its members, Gesellschaft; the second one, where the members are strongly united, he calls Gemeinschaft. An adequate translation of these words is difficult, and with your permission I want to go on using the German terms.5 If we enter a Gesellschaft, we do so with only a fraction of our being, that part which corresponds to the specific purposes of the organization. Members of a taxpayers’ association, persons who own stock in a company—these are related to one another not as whole persons but only as taxpayers or as stockholders. It is different in the Gemeinschaft, the purest form of which Tönnies saw in the family, especially in the relationship between mother and child, a relationship where unity is the first stage in development, and separation the later phase. The members of a Gemeinschaft are bound to each other as whole persons rather than as fragmented parts of individuals. To sum up: In the Gemeinschaft, members are essentially united in spite of occasional separation—even the separation of death. In the Gesellschaft, members are essentially separated from each other in spite of occasional or even frequent connection.

What has all this to do with alienation, and with the view that alienation has developed strongly in modern society? We must recognize one deplorable but stubborn fact, which cannot be disputed away: The forces of Gesellschaft are much stronger than the forces of Gemeinschaft today, so much so that the victory of Gesellschaft over Gemeinschaft is almost complete. We move every day within a large number of associations shaped by the forces of Gesellschaft. But, in addition, those associations which, according to their nature ought to be Gemeinschaft groups—family, neighborhood, church—have become in reality Gesellschaft associations.

Can this trend be reversed? Can Gesellschaft lead back to Gemeinschaft? Many people, among them distinguished sociologists, think so, and refer to social clubs, fraternal organizations, nationality groups, and the like, which seem to have a Gemeinschaft character. I personally am skeptical about the possibility of traveling the road back to Gemeinschaft; in my opinion the trend toward Gesellschaft is the prevailing trend in our modern society. And now let me examine with you the way in which Gesellschaft, and not Gemeinschaft, corresponds to the basic structure of our economy.

Our economic system is market-centered; it is essentially a system of commodity production. A commodity is characterized by the split between its exchange value and its use value; the exchange value becomes more important than the use value, the intrinsic value.6 We thus produce and sell commodities, not because we have an inner relationship to their intrinsic value but because we are interested in their exchange value. There is a deep affinity between the commodity and the type of association which we call Gesellschaft.As we are related only to one fraction of the commodity, the exchange value, so also in personal associations we are related only to one fraction of other individuals, not to their intrinsic value as human beings. This parallel is more than coincidental. It indicates that an economy based on the dominance of exchange value engenders—we might almost say, demands—human relations which are characterized by the trend toward Gesellschaft and alienation.

This view is often challenged by anti-Marxists. They try to refute Marx and like to lecture him even in his grave, because in his supposed naiveté he overlooked the fact that trade and commodities existed a long time before the rise of capitalism. Such a “correction,” I believe, would not be too upsetting for Marx, since both in his Critique of Political Economy and in Capital (in the first chapter on commodities) he emphasized the fact that the commodity form “makes its appearance at an early date in history.” He adds, however, that it does not make its appearance “in the same dominant, hence characteristic manner as nowadays.”7 A distinction must be made, of course, between societies in which exchange of goods is a more or less sporadic phenomenon and plays only a subordinate role and societies which are primarily and essentially geared to the production of commodities.

This difference is not only one of degree; it takes on a qualitative significance. Once commodity production becomes the universal economic mode, all of man’s activities come to center around it. Its main feature—the paramount role of exchange value—reaches beyond the merely economic realm and penetrates the whole of human existence. What this does to the relationship between human beings was strikingly brought home to me by a statement I read in a daily paper some time ago:

Joseph Brayshaw, former president of the British National Council of Family Relations, commented on a recent visit to the United States. He said the “fantastic material prosperity” of the United States has fostered the assumption that things are expendable “and I had the uneasy feeling that something of this attitude of mind might have tinged the American outlook on personal relations. If they go wrong, you can always find a more up-to-date model in a new wife or husband. I wondered whether, all unconsciously, people as well as things were coming to be regarded as expendable.”8

The comparison of husbands and wives with old and new models, while shocking, is not the only reason why Mr. Brayshaw’s statement is significant. Opponents of socialism often claim that in a socialist society—for reasons within its very structure—the human being will not be recognized as an end in himself but will be used as a tool, and thus will become expendable. While I cannot go into this argument here, I will say that the statement seems to be hypocritical, because—if Mr. Brayshaw is right—we are already, under capitalism, living in a society that has produced human relations which make man an object, and thus expendable.

Exchange value enters not only the relationship between man and man, destroying the possibility for genuine friendship and fellowship. I believe that exchange value, which has long ceased to be merely an economic category, invades almost all realms of our lives: our art and education, our community living, our political struggles.

I will add only a few words concerning its role in the area of political development. I have indicated our tendency to apply Madison Avenue techniques to political controversies, to carry over advertising methods used to sell Coca Cola, deodorants, and laxatives to the realm of politics. This transfer of the sales pitch to political issues is possible only if we consider political issues in the same way that we consider commodities. Decisions of political leaders and groups often do not emanate from a commitment to ideas or from a political vision of the future; they are taken on the basis of an expected quid pro quo. The politician calculates: If I or my group delivers the commodity, the receiver of the merchandise will have to reciprocate and come forth with payment of an equivalent exchange value. This happens frequently in domestic politics—as, for example, in the field of civil rights.

Recently at the request of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin invited a number of Negro intellectuals and artists; among them Kenneth Clark, Lorraine Hansberry, and Jerome Smith, to a meeting at the Justice Department. The President, on Robert Kennedy’s advice, had already sent troops into Mississippi and the federal government had made various declarations in favor of civil rights legislation and had given important posts to a few Negro citizens. It seems that the Attorney General had called the meeting to find out what the Negro intellectuals were going to do in return for favors received. Miss Hansberry said later that he was much astonished when the Negroes present did not come forth with the expected statement that he, the Attorney General, was great, and that the administration was doing a fine job. He was surprised when Baldwin stated, “I would have trouble convincing my nephew to go to Cuba to liberate the Cubans in defense of a government which says it is doing every thing it can and can’t liberate me.”

Robert Kennedy’s lack of understanding seems to me to parallel the lack of understanding of Arthur Schlesinger, to which I referred earlier. But this is not why I mention the meeting at the Justice Department. I mention it because it shows how a high government official, in taking “a good stand” in the civil rights struggle, regards this stand as something done, not for the nation, but for the Negro part of the nation, and in exchange for this he can expect Negroes to do something for him and the government. This dominance of the idea of exchange suggests that the famous slogan, “Do not ask what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country,” impressive though it may sound, is not in line with reality.

I would like now to say a few words about the impact of the commodity form on man’s relationship to his work. It is understandable that the assembly-line worker doesn’t get much inner satisfaction from his work as such. He carries it out mainly in order to get the pay envelope—the exchange value. A similar condition also prevails, I think, in many phases of professional work, although the professional person who enjoys a certain degree of prestige and status may be more likely to fool himself about the real situation. Sometimes he may honestly think that he does his work because he believes in its inner meaning, and that his professional activity has little to do with the commodity structure. This, however, does not seem to be very realistic. Arthur T. Hadley, a former president of Yale, in his book, Economic Problems of Democracy, compared business and the professions, and arrived at the conclusion that “the line between them is somewhat ill-defined and I am afraid the tendency in recent years has been to shift in the wrong direction—to commercialize our medicine and our law and our science rather than to professionalize our business.” I think Hadley could have included in his list the work of many intellectuals—the writer, the artist, and even the minister and the teacher.

The young teacher who joins a faculty may hope to belong to a community of truth-seekers. Soon, however, he will have a rude awakening and realize what Thorstein Veblen saw a long time ago—that there is a strong affinity between the institution of higher learning and the modern business corporation, where competitive attitudes and the orientation of the conformist and the organization man prevail. He will soon become aware how powerless he is to fight against excessive specialization and compartmentalization of the fields of knowledge. He will have to abandon his efforts to lead his students to an integrated way of thinking, to a genuine search for truth. The pressure toward specialization and its impact on college education have been described by Nathan Glazer in his article, “The Wasted Classroom.”9 Glazer’s statements show that it is the impact of exchange value—not necessarily in terms of salaries, but in terms of the considerations of a professional career and job security—which induces teachers to make compromises and to forget about some of their values and goals.

He [the faculty member] may shift schools but scarcely ever will be able to shift departments. His advancement, within his college or from a job in one college to another, will depend not on his virtues as a teacher (who is to judge that?) but on his standing in his discipline….

What this means is that it is much easier for a man to think of himself as a psychologist, a historian, a sociologist, a classicist, a specialist in Elizabethan drama than as someone who is engaged in liberal education. And he is more concerned in communicating his discipline to the students than in educating them….

There is first of all the competition among the departments, for status, for students, for prestige. This means constant bickering over how many courses a student must be required to take in this or that subject. Central concern of such arguments, unfortunately, is not what the student needs for a good education (though certainly such a motivation does play a role), but the interests of the department….

And Glazer concludes:

What has happened is that the emphasis on achievement in the traditional departmental disciplines has become nearly irresistible. In recent years it has been reinforced by the enormous research funds which have been made available to the departments by government, industry, and foundations…. For a young scholar to devote time, thought, and energy to developing general-education programs may well involve risk to his career. Thus, the general-education movement is being crushed, and the plague of departmentalization now grows even in the small progressive colleges.10

In another trend, which shows how much the teacher’s concern about his career and his future affects present-day teaching, many teachers tend to impart primarily factual knowledge. The reason may be that they are reluctant to impose their values on the thinking of their students. Max Weber believed that the professional ethics of a teacher demand that he silence his own values the moment he enters the lecture hall. I have a hunch, however, that there may be still another motive, not necessarily a conscious motive, for this focusing on factual knowledge. The teacher may become aware that it is safer not to get involved in discussing the burning issues of our times; from the point of view of job security it may be wiser to resort to a certain neutrality—often conceived of as “objectivity”—and to confine himself to transmitting a type of factual knowledge which at the same time is uninspiring and stifling to the student’s curiosity.


These illustrations indicate that it is the dominance of exchange value which turns everything and everybody into objects, and which engenders the trends toward Gesellschaft and alienation in general.

This view is rejected by most Western social scientists. Consciously or unconsciously, they are committed to the status quo; where I speak of exchange value and Gesellschaft, they speak of human nature as something unchangeable and eternal. Many of them think that there is nothing new about alienation, that alienation has always existed and always will. This argument, often used as a kind of tranquilizer pill, has an obvious implication: If alienation has existed in all periods in the same way and to the same degree as today, then we might as well abandon hope that we can do anything about it, or that man will ever be able to come to terms with the problem.

My position is a different one. I realize that previous societies have experienced some degree and some forms of alienation. But this awareness need not make us resigned to accepting alienation as it now exists as though it were our inescapable fate. I believe that there is today a greater challenge than ever before to come to grips with the problem.

Due to the tremendous advance in science and technology, especially in recent decades, man has made great strides toward overcoming alienation as far as it is engendered by the forces of nature. He is no longer at their mercy. By understanding them he has come doser to the realization of the Promethean dream—to shape his own life and to become master of his destiny. Thus, in one way he has greater possibilities than ever before of fulfilling man’s age-old yearning for self-realization.11 Yet, for us, this possibility cannot become reality. The reason is that another type of alienation, that engendered by the forces of society, continues unabated and, as I have argued, has even grown stronger.

Thus, a contrast develops between the possibility for self-fulfillment due to the advance of science and technology and the reality of self-frustration which causes man to feel that the human being is reduced to a mere object. To this paradox are added the insecurity and emotional suffering of people who do not feel themselves accepted as persons but only used as the means to an end—as employees at work, as potential voters at election time, as consumers who are enticed by hidden persuaders to make needless purchases which will put them deeper into debt, as soldiers who are sent to fight in wars which they do not understand—even in their family life and in their most personal relationships.

What can be done? My own answer is somewhat pessimistic as far as the immediate future is concerned. We must realize that there is no short-cut in our fight against alienation. Many cures are suggested: to transcend the materialistic spirit of our age, to improve our schools and educational methods, to strengthen neighborhood feeling and grassroots responsibility, to encourage people to join the do-it-yourself movement in order to come into closer contact with tools and materials and thus with life. All these objectives may be worthwhile, and I have no wish to belittle them. But I cannot feel that they are adequate remedies for the illness of alienation.

Two decades ago we heard much about the need to get away from overcrowded cities, from impersonal living within the anonymous mass society. If you want to get hold of yourselves again, we were told, if you don’t want to continually surrender to standards of conformity, you will have to live in small, decentralized communities where your children can grow up in a climate which makes for both physical and emotional health. Today many people have abandoned this hope and have become disillusioned with suburban living. Patterns of pseudo-living continue relentlessly in our suburbs and many suburbs have fallen prey to the very forces of alienation which they set forth to conquer. This is what I have in mind when I reiterate Marx’s view: You cannot overcome alienation within a world of alienation.

We cannot reduce the forces of alienation unless we are ready to build up new and different socio-economic institutions. This does not mean that we need be blind toward the great historical contribution which capitalism has made in the past, which so severe a critic as Marx was the first not only to recognize but to emphasize. But, as the song asks, “Where have all the flowers gone?” Capitalism can no longer play a positive role today. And a system geared to commodity production and based on competition cannot help man to contend with the forces of alienation.

Some critics will want to ask me, “Where have you been, mister? Has nobody ever told you that the days of laissez-faire capitalism are over?” The danger today, they say, is not too much competition between various companies but too many agreements and combinations among them. I have heard all this. I have heard also about many other changes which have occurred in American capitalism since the era of the New Deal. Yet, the core of our living has remained competitive. In our society, to get ahead of the other fellow is considered an important goal, and advertising slogans are still based on the appeal of outdoing the other person—as, for instance, in the kind of commercial which proclaims, “Lady, if you wear this dress, your friends will envy you.” The fact that arousing a feeling of envy is considered a positive appeal in advertising is but one symptom that our society promotes separation between man and man. If our goal is to overcome alienation by fostering bonds between man and man, then we must build up institutions which enable man to identify his ends with those of others, with the direction in which his society is moving. In other words, we must try to reduce the gulf between the realms of the private and the public.

This is an aim hard to reach in any society in the modern world. But I believe that a planned society, a socialist society, has a better chance to approach the objective. I don’t want to belittle the difficulties of socialist societies. I am far from looking upon socialism as a panacea, far from the naive and chiliastic hope: Introduce socialism and automatically alienation will disappear. Great dangers lie in the path of any socialist society, dangers which are often due to the development of new power structures or to the growth of bureaucracies which could stifle the development of the individual. I see these dangers as clearly as many opponents of socialism do. But I am more interested than they are in the question of whether these difficulties are inherent in the nature of socialism or whether they emanate from historical conditions which can be modified by human action. Whatever the answer to this question may be, I am not saying that a socialist society must inevitably succeed in reducing the forces of alienation. But I do say that a socialist society is the prerequisite for achieving this goal. This is one of the reasons why in my university years I became a socialist, and why, in the United States of the 1960’s, I feel even more deeply committed to the ideas of socialism.


  1. There is a growing literature about the difference between Marx’s early writings and his later work. For bibliographical references, see the important Introduction by Dirk J. Struik to the American edition of Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (New York, International Publishers, 1964), especially pages 51 -53.
  2. The Alienation of Modern Man, p. 11.
  3. O. R. McGregor, “Social Facts and the Social Conscience,” The Twentieth Century, vol. 167 (May 1960), p. 390.
  4. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “Where Does the Liberal Go from Here?” New York Times Magazine (August 4, 1957).
  5. The usual dictionary translations are: Gemeinschaft=community, and Gosellschaft=society. These English words, however, do not accurately convey Tönnies’ meaning. In particular, it should be noted that in business terminology Gesellschaft is the German word for “company” or “corporation,” a meaning which the English word “society” does not have.
  6. Since the differentiation between exchange value and use value may seem somewhat abstract, I want to give an example: One day in the early 1930’s I was traveling to South Germany in a compartment with two men who had brought with them a large number of boxes. After some time the conversation touched on the subject of religion, and my traveling companions stated very frankly their atheistic views, arguing that only old women and children stick to religious beliefs. When I later asked them about their destination, they replied that they were on their way to Rome to prepare for the celebration of the Holy Year. Pointing to their boxes of samples, they explained that they were salesmen for a firm producing devotional articles like rosaries, crucifixes, and prayerbooks.
  7. Capital, vol. I (Modern Library Edition, N.D.), pp. 91 and 94. See also Marx’s statement: “The fact that [capitalism] produces commodities does not differentiate it from other modes of production; but rather the fact that being a commodity is the dominant and determining characteristic of its products.” Capital, vol. 3 (Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959), p. 857.
  8. Boston Globe (September 26, 1962).
  9. Harper’s (October, 1961).
  10. That this situation is deeply rooted, both economically and socially, in the basic pattern of our civilization and cannot be changed by well-meaning efforts of dedicated teachers has been recognized by some educators. Harold L. Hodgkinson, Dean of Bard College, writes in his important book, Education in Social and Cultural Perspectives (Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, 1962, p. 101): “The teacher who leads a small discussion group on Plato and Aristotle after school shouldrealize that this activity will not always help him get a principalship. Here again the school is reflecting the dominant values of American culture in the school status system, and it is not clear that the school could set up a system which would contradict the criteria for social status which are used in our culture. The school, like the society, rewards producers more than thinkers.”
    In regard to the function of the school to strengthen the student’s capacity for independent thinking, Hodgkinson observes (p. 107): “In a culture which tends to limit its conception of democracy to free enterprise capitalism, it is difficult to see how the school could ever perform this function, without first declaring war on the culture it is supposed to serve.” (Emphasis added.)
    See also Burton D. Clark, Educating the Expert Society (San Francisco, Chandler Publishing Company, 1962), particularly Chapter 2, “Education, Occupation and Status.”
  11. Marx’s awareness that progress in science and technology gives man the potential for success in his struggle against alienation is shown by the distinction he made between the problem of alienation in the past and in the present. That he was primarily concerned with the trends toward alienation in the modern world is sometimes seen as confirmation that he was au fond a romantic who rejected his own time and looked to the past for the ideal society. Such an interpretation seems erroneous to me. Marx repudiated the notion of reconstructing the past to regain man’s “wholeness” as firmly as he rejected an uncritical acceptance of bourgeois society with all its fragmentation and emptiness of human life. “Ridiculous as it is,” he wrote in 1858, “to long for erstwhile fullness, it is just as ridiculous to believe that we must come to a halt at that total vacuity [of the contemporary world].” Grundrisse der Politischen Okonomie (Rohentwurf), 1857-1858 (Berlin, Dietz Verlag,1953), p. 80. (This work has not been translated into English.)

2000, Volume 52, Issue 02 (June)
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