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Book review – The alienation of modern man: an interpretation based on Marx and Tonnies (Farshad A. Araghi)

Book review – The alienation of modern man: an interpretation based on Marx and Tonnies.

Farshad A. Araghi


The Alienation of Modern Man: An Interpretation Based no Marx and Tonnies

by Fritz Pappenheim. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1968. 189 pp., $7.00.


Though it has been in print for many years, this lucid exposition of the roots of alienation in capitalist societies still remains an important contribution to radical sociology. The book is a concise analysis of the forces of alienation and their rise to dominance in our era; more importantly, it is an attempt to relate this development to the social structure of capitalism. This, as Fritz Pappenheim writes in an absorbing introduction, is the aim of the book, and he is largely successful in demonstrating the relation through theoretical analysis and a careful criticism of numerous counterarguments.

Examining briefly existential philosophy (Heidegger, Sartre), phenomenology (Edmund Husserl), and the sociological writings of Georg Simmel, and utilizing some pertinent examples from the realm of art and literature (Kafka, Rilke, Phyllis McGinley, and Arthur Miller), Pappenheim first attempts to show that coming to grips with alienation helps to illuminate one of the decisive forces in modern thinking. “After resting in academic obscurity for nearly a century,’ as Bowles and Gintis also point out, “the term has been elevated to a central position in social criticsm.’1 This for Pappenheim is only an expression of existing reality, of the fact that “the forces of alienation have gained greatly in intensity and significance in the modern world.’

From the outset Pappenheim presses the point that the social correlates of alienation must be distinguished from its causes. “The condition of an event,’ as Pappenheim warns throughout the text, “is not identical with its cause.’ To ignore this not only leads to an ahistorical characterization of social phenomena, but it also tends unduly to limit the scope of inquiry. Thus many social scientists today understand alienation in direct relationship with technology, and advance the argument that technological forces are in and of themselves the cause of alienation. If at one point according to Calvinist ethics every effort of humans to enhance technological progress was to be explained as a way of worshipping God, now technological advancement has itself become the main source of human alienation, his/her estrangement from himself/herself, nature, God, etc. Today social scientists argue the economic effects of rapid industrialization govern every aspect of human life. Alienation, in a word, appears as a painful necessity. The Durkheimian and the Weberian traditions are prime examples of this point of view. In rejecting this standpoint Pappenheim draws on the fact that technology is essentially neutral and indifferent with respect to the ends it serves, that this alienation is associated with a specific use of the machine, and that in order to understand why something which is by its very nature neutral is put to such uses, one has to look into the circumstances under which it is being utilized.

Unfortunately, Pappenheim does not go further in demonstrating that it is only in the most immediate and superficial sense that one may see alienation as resulting from the structure of technology. In an interest analysis, for example, Bowles and Gintis show that the form technological development takes is strongly influenced by the structure of economic institutions. These authors carefully demonstrate that under capitalism profit is the determinant of social division of labor, and that technological innovations are largely geared to forms compatible with capitalist production.2

The next chapter examines the relationship between politics and alienation. Is alienation a result of an individual’s estrangement from his/her political community? Pappenheim considers much evidence which prima facie suggest that this is the case. “We have only to remember the connotations inherent in terms like “politics’ and “politicians’ to realize how deeply many individuals feel themselves apart from the ways of thinking and acting of their political representatives.’ Thus the common observation that people feel powerless vis-a-vis the political establishment, that their thoughts and actions have become the objects of manipulation, that they have lost the purpose that should stand behind their decisions and actions, etc. These of course do constitute a link between alienation and politics, but they do not, in Pappenheim’s view, establish a causal relationship. Rather than resulting from it, alienation only makes itself felt in the political life of today.

Once again the condition in which Pappenheim leaves the concept of alienation–and here its relationship with politics–is incomplete. His analysis would have been more convincing had he tried to demonstrate the class basis of contemporary politics and the way in which the latter functions as the medium through which the alienating effects of bourgeois politics manifest themselves. This kind of analysis, which, for example, can be found in C. Wright Mills, would have been quite illuminating for Pappenheim’s discussion. Mills’ analysis of the transformation of the “public’ to the “mass’ society under advanced capitalism, and his discussion of the role of mass media in manipulating individuals’ behavior through mixing of information and values represents a type of study which attempts to disclose the material roots of political alienation by locating it in the process of capitalist production.3

Pappenheim finally turns to examine the cause of human alienation, that is, the capitalist organization of social life. He does this by a close examination of Tonnies and Marx.

Tonnies’ concepts of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, Pappenheim argues, are sociological concepts which focus on society as an historical process, and are thus of great value to one who wants to explain the relationship between society and the forces of alienation. Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (loosely translated as “community’ and “society’) represent for Tonnies two polar types of social relationships, two types of social psychological texture, or two different types of condition of social life. The relationships within a Gemeinschaft are family type relationships; it is the social unit that individuals find themselves belonging to as they belong to a family. Intimate relations, free play of emotions, a sense of “we’ feeling, are among the basic characteristics of a Gemeinschaft. This type of social group–and according to Tonnies all social relationships within social groups are willed relationships– is based upon a type of human will which is “natural’, “organic’, and “impulsive’ (called Wesenwille). Put in other words, individuals create Gemeinschaft-type relations not by their intentional will and determination, but by their Wesenville, i.e. their natural and instinctive will. Gesellschaft, on the other hand, comes into being by a conscious design. The will behind this type of social unit is purposive and deliberate, called Kurwille. All bureaucracies and bureaucratized relations, for examples, are based on Kurwille. Thus contrary to a Gemeinschaft, in which individuals work for the sake of work itself, in a Gesellschaft, they work for an external end. In a Gesellschaft, according to Tonnies, everything becomes a means to an end. Gesellschaft is thus a social unit dominated by the forces of alienation. Moreover, Gesellschuaft is the predominant force in the of humanity, since Tonnies sees history as leading from an age of Gemeinschaft toward an age of Gesellschaft, i.e. from communal group to institutionalized society. But the change from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft is also accompanied with a characterological shift, since for Tonnies this change is connected with the transition from Wesenwille to Kurwille. This is an important recognition; it strongly anticipates, for example, Mills’ concepts of “personality market’ and “mass society’ with their emphasis on alienation.


Tonnies’ Gesellschaft, Pappenheim argues, is in many ways the archetype of the social framework of advanced capitalist nations analyzed by Marx. While this is true, and while Tonnies’ introduction of a typology of social groups is suggestive, I think Pappenheim overemphasizes the similarity between Marx and Tonnies. Marx also parted ways with Tonnies of which Pappenheim says nothing. Tonnies, for example, does not grasp the importance of Marx’s break with Feuerbach; his reading of Marx’s work is in this respect distorted. Thus the fact that neither his “pure’ nor “applied’ sociology has, despite his attempt to incorporate Marxian notions, anything to do with the philosophy of praxis. Hence in diametric opposition to a structural determinist who sees human actions as the consequence and one-way reflection of the objective conditions, Tonnies’ voluntarist approach views social entities and material conditions as the consequence of human volition. Both perspectives, needless to say, are strange to Marx (if not Marxism). Hence it is not surprising that for the determinist, as well as the voluntarist, the eradication of alienation has no relationship with revolutionary practice; for the former this is postponed to the realization of its material conditions (a task of “history’, of course), for Tonnies, who never fails to reject revolution and revolutionary change, the answer lies in increasingly adapting reformist measures. In this respect, I think Pappenheim’s lack of distinction between Marx and Tonnies and the socio-political implication of their works, serves more to obscure than clarify the class basis of the concept of alienation.

Pappenheim nevertheless does offer a very good discussion of Marx’s view of alienation. For Marx, Pappenheim shows, alienation is always seen as an historically created phenomenon; thus the predominance of the forces of alienation in our era is in direct relationship with the rise of capital as a social relation, with the rise to dominance of commodity exchange and exchange value thereof. I do not intend here to summarize Pappenheim’s excellent discussion of Marx’s standpoint, but there are two shortcomings in his presentation that should be noted. First, Marx’s theory of alienation can best be grasped in relationship with Hegel’s. It was Hegel, after all, who transformed the vague anthropological and philosophical basis of the concept into a social one.4 Pappenheim however, except for a short paragraph, does not attempt to develop the Hegelian perspective. Second, Pappenheim does not attempt to examine the evolution of the concept in Marx’s writings from its first systematic exposition in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 to Capital. In fact, he moves back and forth between the 1844 Manuscripts and Capital without pointing out that in the former alienated labor itself is the central concept (Marx even derives the concept of private property from the concept of alienated labor), while in the latter commodity is the central concept.5

All in all, Pappenheim has written a remarkably good book, one whose service will be all the more important in the new Cold War era. Any critical-minded instructor should be sure to look at this book.

1. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, “Class Power and Alienated Labor,’ Monthly Review (March 1975): 9.

2. Ibid., p. 20.

3. C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953).

4. Ernest Mandel, “The Causes of Alienation,’ in Ernest Mandel and George Novack, The Marxist Theory of Alienation (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), p. 15.

5. George Novack, “The Problem of Alienation,’ in ibid., p. 61.

[Monthly Review,  Jan, 1987 ]


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