Feeling Alienated with Ludwig Feuerbach
Ludwig Feuerbach with his theory of alienation swept through western Europe’s intellectual circles in the early 1840s like a drag queen with a stack of Dr. Seuss books sweeping through New England kindergarten classes today.
Alienation, in Feuerbach, is the process of assigning our best qualities to God.
We have great qualities and concepts—like wisdom, justice, and love—but then we project them onto a figment of our imagination and call it “God.” We thereby defraud ourselves of these great qualities. We make ourselves poor so we can make God rich. Religion is a vampire-like creature that feeds on the substance of mankind.
If the concept of God is destroyed, Feuerbach taught, we can take these qualities back for ourselves (i.e., stop being alienated from them) and use them to focus on earthly things (i.e., stop being alienated from the fruits of employing those qualities).
This effort would then trigger the great turning point in history and usher in a Socialist paradise.
Marx: Alienation is Everywhere and Must be Eliminated
Karl Marx adored Feuerbach like a pair of gay dads in rainbow t-shirts taking a selfie with the drag queen storyteller. He viewed Feuerbach as a second Martin Luther on the human race’s road to emancipation.
One more such Luther, Marx believed, and humanity would arrive.
He wanted to be that third Martin Luther: a Feuerbach on steroids.
Marx wasn’t the only Feuerbach enthusiast. Young activists throughout Europe in the early 1840s adored him. They wanted to take his ideas to the streets.
But Feuerbach demurred: “We have not got far enough yet to put theory into practice.”
Marx scoffed at caution. Alienation to Marx wasn’t just an academic theory or religious thing. It was a serious problem that was resulting in gross injustice. It had to be addressed—and stopped—immediately.
In Marx’s view, Feuerbach had established spiritual alienation as a fact beyond dispute, doubt, or even discussion. If a person rejected Feuerbach’s explanation of alienation, he was either stupid or evil. (Consider Marx’s treatment of his friend, Proudhon, when Proudhon, for the most part a fan of Feuerbach and a follow-atheist, pointed out legitimate problems with Feuerbach’s system.)
To Marx, spiritual alienation could be taken for granted and any questions of transcendence closed off permanently.
Marx then took Feuerbach’s spiritual alienation and came up with the idea of economic alienation and its intertwined twin, social alienation.
In the Marxist worldview, “alienation” is always the ultimate bugbear.
“Just as in religion man is governed by the products of his own brain, in [capitalism] he is dominated by the products of his own hands” Das Kapital.
That’s Marx’s view of the working man’s economic alienation: the worker makes things for someone else who owns them, who then uses them to further enslave the worker who made them in the first place. That is the core of economic alienation.
But Marx didn’t stop there.
To Marx, economics was everything. It was the substructure on which the superstructure of social, political, and life in general was built. Even a society’s religion and philosophy are formed by the modes of production underlying it.
Marx was a thoroughgoing atheist who embraced Feuerbach’s concept that truth does not come to us from above, so it must arrive from below. It starts, Marx taught, with the economic substructure, which then informs the superstructure.
If economic alienation is “built into” the capitalist system at the ground floor, then everything built on that ground floor is going to suffer from alienation. Alienation will pervade the social, political, and life-in-general. Alienation becomes the dominating feature in the capitalist superstructure.
But Change Comes First
Marx taught that world history was a series of economic stages or social epochs (specifically, the asiatic (pastoral . . . .primitive communism), antiquity (slave-based economy), feudal (serfs and the guild system), and capitalism). Each stage was appropriate to the means of production at the time, with appropriate productive relations.
But as the means of production evolved, they made the existing economic stage outdated and untenable. As this happens, the economic stage should have evolved naturally to the next stage, but existing privileged social forces that relied on the existing economic stage used their power (e.g., laws and other forms of aggression) to stop the evolution from occurring. Those privileged classes thereby became a scourge: a fetter on human development.
To remove the fetter, Marx taught, an agent must be found to challenge the classes privileged by the existing structure and move society to the next stage. The bourgeois, for instance, forced an evolution of the economic stage from feudalism to capitalism by amassing capital and forcing a change of productive relations (such as an elevation of private property rights), which transformed Europe’s economic structure, which then formed the socio-political superstructure that was in place during Marx’s lifetime.
Applied to Capitalism
But capitalism, taught Marx, had become untenable (as evidenced by the vicious economic cycles that included devastating depressions) and its primary productive relationship (private property rights) outdated. Capitalism, therefore, needed to evolve and its primary principle, private property rights, abolished.
It was obvious to Marx that such a change was needed, but the ruling classes currently benefiting from the economic system (the bourgeois) were (as ruling classes always do) suppressing it, so an agent, as always, was needed to force the next stage into existence.
That agent would be the working class as organized in Marxist’s Communist Party. Like the bourgeois used its amassed capital as its tool to change the productive relations which then transformed all of society, the working class/Communist Party would use revolution as its tool.
After the revolution had occurred, a new economic substructure would come into being, which would then change the superstructure. Everything would then change as “[m]an’s political, juristic, religious, artistic, and philosophical consciousness undergoes a revolution.”
And alienation would end.
And with the end of alienation, the general but intense sense of discontent that drives the gnostic (see gnostic trait one) would be gone.
Marxist Theory Captures Gnostic Traits Four and Five
Review again Voegelin’s fourth and fifth gnostic traits:
(4) From this follows the belief that the order of being will have to be changed in an historical process. From a wretched world a good one must evolve historically. This assumption is not altogether self-evident, because the Christian solution might also be considered – namely, that the world throughout history will remain as it is and that man’s salvational fulfillment is brought about through grace in death.
(5) With this fifth point we come to the gnostic trait in the narrower sense – the belief that a change in the order of being lies in the realm of human action, that this salvational act is possible through man’s own action.
This is perfectly captured in the Marxist worldview.
(4) To Marx—a disciple of Hegelian dialects that viewed everything in terms of historical movement—history is everything, and everything is historically inevitable: things will happen. It’s just a matter of them unfolding throughout history as they always have been. Moreover, things would unfold in the manner Marx explained in Kapital.
(5) History, however, should be helped along by human action: the nascent worker movement organized by Marx into the Communist Party.
See Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism (Ignatius, 1995), 28-29.
 Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, VII (Image, 1977), 324.
Photo attribution: OwcaGierka, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons