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Sève and Alienation – A Biographical Preface

In: Historical Materialism
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Julian Roche Researcher, Centre for Theology and Public Issues, University of Edinburgh Edinburgh UK

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Abstract

Lucien Sève devoted his life to the development of a Marxist theory of the personality. In so doing, and as part of a theoretical debate with both Marxist humanists and structural Marxists within the Parti Communiste Français, he was inevitably drawn to analyse alienation as a category of Marxist analysis. His conclusion was that although Althusser had been right to argue for the ‘epistemological break’ in Marx’s thought, it was wrong to suggest that Marx abandoned the concept of alienation in his later work. Far from it: a transformed conception of alienation derived from historical materialism remains the key to understanding Marxism.

A Biographical Preface

Lucien Sève conceived of his life’s work as involving the design, development, and defence of a Marxist theory of the individual, and in so doing he intended to take on the task of preventing Marxism from degenerating into an inhuman anthropology, the fate that one of its leading constructive critics had already warned would inevitably await should it fail to reintegrate Man into itself as its foundation,1 yet without issuing Marxism with a merely revisionist and wholly inadequate anthropology instead.

Sève’s theory, originally advanced in his master work Marxism and the Theory of the Human Personality,2 therefore steered a course between two opposite poles. On the one hand, the structural Marxism of Louis Althusser and his adherents, who came close, at least, to denying the need for a theory of the individual altogether. On the other, Marxist humanism – for a time the official line of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) despite the close association of humanism with revisionism – whose defenders, such as Adam Schaff and Roger Garaudy, insisted on the importance of freedom, choice and subjectivity within Marxism,3 and promoted the role of the individual personality in the eventual disintegration of capitalism. Because the issue provoked such controversy, he became embroiled in a prolonged debate with Althusser, Garaudy and their respective supporters during the heady days of the 1966 Argenteuil Conference of the PCF.

Any middle course might smack of compromise in the name of Party discipline, an accusation that has indeed been levelled against him.4 In this view, with the experience of the awkward response of the PCF to ‘les événements’ of May 1968 in France a recent and raw memory for the Party leadership, the leadership faced what eventually became an impossible dilemma. On the one hand, the vocabulary of Marxist humanism could not be left to those inside the Party who might follow Garaudy into what suspiciously resembled social democracy, complete with a rapprochement with the Catholic Church. On the other, Althusser’s promulgation of structural Marxism provided a route to rebellion that might derail even the tactical political alliance of the Left that the PCF was seeking.5 Sève’s contribution, from this perspective, should therefore be seen entirely as a search for a suitable fire blanket which could be thrown over both ends of the political spectrum aflame within the PCF.

Sève’s view of his own efforts was, however, quite the opposite: he believed that his view, rising above an unproductive debate, ought to have been uncontentious for Marxists to adopt.6 It is worth pointing out that he continued arguing against both positions long after the original participants had departed the scene, right up until the time that he finally left the PCF in 2010, a departure fuelled more by political disagreements than ideological ones, and even thereafter.7 In his view, hardly anything was more important philosophically within Marxism.

The Rejection of Marxist Humanism

Sève agreed with Althusser’s adoption of the term ‘epistemological break’, in that the materialism of Das Kapital was evidence of a fundamental divergence from Marx’s earlier work. For Sève, the personality, the human essence, must be envisaged not as merely relational, as the humanists argued, but fundamentally located in the economic relations of individual societies. He argued that the views of Schaff, Garaudy and fellow Marxist humanists such as Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Bertell Ollman, the latter of whom was caricatured as suggesting that ‘Marx’s thirty years of mature work was a matter of gathering “supporting material” for his early works’,8 represented such a distortion of Marxism that it could reasonably be argued they had failed to understand the Marxist project properly and stopped being Marxists altogether.

On the other hand, Sève viewed the complete rejection of the concept of personality by structural Marxists as alarming, not only because of its theoretical incorrectness and the resultant distortions it introduced,9 but also because it virtually conceded the entire ground of psychology to the opponents of Marxism. The concept of personality, and with it the analysis of individual biographies, was an essential yet neglected component of the future successful development of Marxist theory, for which Sève argued he was laying the groundwork: predictably, the role of labour in individual lives was where Sève as a Marxist placed the centrality of the development of the personality.

Yet whilst his denunciation of the notion of the biological determination of individuality was strongly and coherently argued, Sève’s original theory ended up resting on undoubtedly awkward formulations, such as the ‘juxtastructure’ of individuals and society,10 and he was accused, in turn, of neglecting the social, gender, and other determinants of the individual personality that could not easily be directly explained by economics. In response, Sève did give ground to his critics as the decades wore on, especially in respect of conceding that biographical realities comprise even more socio-historical variables than his original formulation had envisaged,11 but even his later work demonstrated both his continued firm opposition to both Marxist humanism and structural Marxism, and his belief that an accurate Marxist approach to personality was not only possible, but necessary.

Sève’s View on Alienation in Marx

‘Alienation is a pervasive feature of modern life. It is one of the few theoretical terms from Marxism that has found a place in ordinary language.’12 A no-doubt true assertion: any Marxist, and perhaps especially a theorist concerned with the human personality and its biography, might therefore be expected to dwell on the matter of alienation, especially if writing at the time when attention to alienation peaked, during the late twentieth century.13 Sève was no exception. His original work14 contained the genesis of his views, which were developed in a specific article originally written in 1973,15 which is published alongside the present article in a translation by Carl Shames. Much later, he combined that article with others of his own and numerous quotations from Marx concerning alienation in one volume: Aliénation et Émancipation.16 From this and other writing, it is possible to understand how Sève himself conceptualised alienation, an understanding which bears comparison to those of his ideological competitors in structural Marxism and Marxist humanism.

The text reproduced here as an accompanying article, ‘Marxist Analysis of Alienation’, was written, so Sève explained, as a contribution to the debate over the Marxist-humanist conception of alienated labour as being at the heart of Marxism philosophically and at the centre of de-Stalinisation politically, and in particular as a rebuttal of Garaudy’s view that the 1844 Manuscripts represented the birth of genuine Marxism.17 Sève’s complaint was that the concept of alienation was being pressed into service to crumple Marxism into just another variety of humanism, entirely reliant on an abstract, speculative concept of ‘Man’, a criticism wholeheartedly shared by Althusser, whose famous text Pour Marx18 Sève considered as another part of the same extended debate.19

Sève’s focus on Marx’s comments regarding religion in On the Jewish Question20 in his introduction of Marx’s conception of alienation in the 1973 text is logical enough. But it should also be remembered that at the time of writing, the principal target of his criticism, Garaudy, had after his expulsion from the PCF broken cover and was edging ever closer to declaring himself a Christian, which he eventually did in 1975.21 Sève’s analysis may also from a contemporary standpoint appear serendipitous, given the post-secular turn by the Left in recent decades.

In fact, however, Sève’s summary of Marx’s intent in the 1844 Manuscripts itself is little different from that of the Marxist humanists, frequently, like Garaudy, sympathetic to religion, who he intended to criticise. ‘Man’ is isolated from his ‘essence’ through ‘work’. Alienation is a loss of self that happens as a result, and which is the cause rather than the effect of private property.22 The generalisations of the 1844 Manuscripts with regard to what subsequently became the highly detailed Marxist concept of labour paralleled the adoption of an equally abstract notion of alienation, which metamorphoses into a further abstraction, that of a human essence inherent in each individual, none of which in Sève’s view can be incorporated into actual Marxism. The absence of economic categories, explained in Sève’s view by Marx’s own inadequate knowledge of economics when he wrote the 1844 Manuscripts, entails an equivalent lacuna in their potentially valuable explication of alienation. As a direct result, Sève contended that for the early Marx, the worker is not only the object of alienation but also the subject – even in a sense the author of their own misfortune.23 Marx even comes close, Sève suggested, to ascribing the cause of alienation to work itself. Sève reflects, in language no doubt shaped by decades of criticism24 of his own original direct derivation of personality from labour, that what Marx missed were all the ways in which labour does not alienate: professional pride, and workers’ comradeship.25 A more subtle explication is evidently required.

For both Sève and Althusser, the 1844 Manuscripts were still hidebound by idealist philosophy, and a far-from-mature Marxism. The concept of alienation found there, far from being a central facet of Marxist thought about history, was carried over from Hegelian and Feuerbachian thought, subsequently demoted and eventually sliding into the background in Das Kapital.26 But from this point on, Sève parts company27 with Althusser: far from denying alienation a place in Marx’s mature thought, or conceding that it takes second place to the concept of commodity fetishism,28 Sève’s view is that it forms an essential part, and he was determined to refute the Althusserian argument that alienation is absent from Marx’s later work.29 Althusser’s mistake, Sève argued, was to compare only two works, which are situated at the beginning and the end of Marx’s career, and to ignore the contribution of intermediate works, the Grundrisse30 in particular, as well as to rely on inadequate translations into French of Das Kapital.31 His method of refutation, in Aliénation et Émancipation, was to present a mass of textual references to the contrary as conclusive evidence of its tenacity and significance. His analysis suggested that, completely contrary to what he regarded as a prevalent myth that alienation is a concept Marx gradually abandoned, references actually proliferate in his later work – but not in the same way.

Selbstentfremdung No Longer

To retain both the concept of a break in Marx’s thought and the concept of alienation, Sève was inevitably committed to adopting the position that the concept of alienation in Marx’s later work is not only identifiably ‘very different’,32 not just ‘an important evolution’,33 ‘a development and extension of ideas first sketched out in his early works under the heading of “estranged labour”’,34 nor merely ‘enriched by a greater understanding of economic categories and by more rigorous social analysis’,35 but qualitatively distinct from that of the 1844 Manuscripts.

Sève would have us believe that between these words from the 1844 Manuscripts:

What applies to man’s relation to his work, to the product of his labour and to himself, also holds of a man’s relation to other men, and to the other man’s labour and object of labour.36

and those of Das Kapital, that considering:

… a relation between owners of commodities in which they appropriate the produce of the labour of others by alienating [entfremden] the produce of their own labour …37

… To that extent the worker stands on a higher plane than the capitalist from the outset, since the latter has his roots in the process of alienation and finds absolute satisfaction in it whereas right from the start the worker is a victim who confronts it as a rebel and experiences it as a process of enslavement …38

there is a huge, unbridgeable distinction: between the speculative concept of the early Marx, which slips all too easily into a Feuerbachian concept of abstract human nature,39 and the mature, economic view of the later Marx, in which it is now capital that is the cause of alienation, not any abstract concept of labour. In the Grundrisse, Sève argued, Marx insists that bourgeois economists are incapable of understanding how the objectification of the social forces of labour is not, in fact, inseparable from their alienation in relation to actual, living labour.40 No worker alienates themselves through their work: on the contrary, the relations of production themselves are the force that creates alienation. And in turn therefore, private property is not caused by alienation, an argument that Sève viewed as incomprehensible.

In sharp distinction to the earlier, idealist conception of the 1844 Manuscripts, Sève again agreed with Althusser in viewing alienation in the later Marx as being derived from historical materialism: an historical divorce between productive work and social wealth, caused by capital, an implacable force that crushes and subjugates humanity, which is for Sève and others unsurprisingly an idea of the strongest possible force.41 If alienation can still be described as self-determined, it can no longer ever be explained in such an idealist fashion.

Do we lose anything of anthropological significance in this transformation? Not in Sève’s view: Marx’s humanity is even more on display in his exposition of the pitiless deprivation of individuals caused by capital than in his earlier work. Nor are there are two ontologically distinct forms of alienation, the one operating at the level of social relations and the other at the individual level,42 merely two different perspectives, the former economic and the latter biographical.43 Rather, although alienation itself – as with the human essence – is situated in social relations, its manifestations, which correspond quite closely to the many familiar uses of the French word ‘aliénation’, are for Sève predictably multidimensional: cultural, ideological, and historical. Everyone is alienated under capitalism: through both the reification that Marx intended Entäusserung to convey, and the depersonalisation encompassed by Entfremdung.44

Though Sève insists that alienation is situated in social relations, he is ready to acknowledge that alienation is experienced by everyone, not only as members of a class or a group, but individually. Not only as frustration and the curtailment of individual development,45 but also as illusion, for example erroneous perceptions of abstract ‘human nature’, for example in relation to allegedly biological causes of individual characteristics that are in fact determined by capital: most obviously, allegations of innate human intelligence, illusions in respect of which Sève campaigned against all his adult life.46 Becoming a stranger to oneself, detached from the product of one’s own labour, objectified, dehumanised and thrust into inevitable resistance, Marx’s materialist conception of alienation in Sève’s hands is claimed to demonstrate inescapable psychological disturbance under capitalism. What distanced Sève from the New Left approach to alienation of the kind advanced by Fromm or Marcuse47 is therefore not how alienation is experienced at the level of the individual, but the more focused identification of its cause in labour and therefore its remedy.

In Sève’s later work, however, alienation is curiously now detached from his previous criticism of lack of nuance, whilst being reflected in a lightly sketched idea of ‘de-alienation’48 drawn up as a deliberate riposte to the eternal life of ideology intimated by Althusser,49 that fortuitously seemed to correlate with the political preoccupations of the contemporary Left. There must be a lingering concern that alienation here has been packaged to suit the occasion, almost in a familiar move50 defined by what communism will remove,51 rather than by the experience of individuals that Sève so wanted to incorporate into Marxism. It is after all noteworthy that his dramatic depiction of alienation and its cure is by the turn of the century scarcely different from the typology of alienation employed by his Marxist-humanist opponents of a generation earlier.52 Apparently, turning alienation upside-down did not cause its contents to spill.

With such a view of the development of alienation in Marx’s thought, it is little surprise that Sève tasked himself with admonishing contemporary French authors53 for returning to the 1844 Manuscripts rather than to Das Kapital as their inspiration for creating further, merely interpersonal categories of alienation bereft of economic grounding, insisting that in so doing they were merely continuing and amplifying the reformist errors of humanism, rather than making useful contributions to Marxism. Any failure to place economics at the centre of the cause of alienation, and its solution, was destined to undermine any effective critique of neoliberalism.54 As late as 2012, therefore, Sève took the view that his 1973 article would make useful reading for those who wish to utilise the concept of alienation in their analysis of contemporary capitalism.

The Career of a Concept

If as David McLellan said, ideology is ‘the most elusive concept in the whole of social science’,55 alienation, first identified as possessing a ‘career’ by Lewis Feuer,56 must bid fair to run it a close second. So, whereas in justifying the disinterment of his debate with Garaudy and Althusser half a century later, Sève lamented that what he argued had been hard-fought theoretical ground had been abandoned, in reality criticism of Sève’s position could and has come in three different forms. With the two outlined above, the enthusiastic co-option of Marx’s early promulgation of alienation by Marxist humanists and the equally enthusiastic denial by Marxist structuralists of any need for a theory of alienation applicable to individuals or their biographies, Sève was entirely familiar. Indeed, however much he believed in it himself, his analysis of alienation was clearly intended as a third way between them.

The same cannot be said of the development of the concept of alienation more widely, despite its being ‘one of the most important and widely debated themes of the twentieth century’.57 We may grant Sève licence to avoid the institutionalisation of the concept by bourgeois sociology, reducing it to a phenomenon of individual maladjustment to social forms,58 or even the attempted taming of the concept by repeated contributions from those tangential to, or even outside Marxism, such as the Frankfurt School or Herbert Marcuse.59 All were ultimately anxious to question the firm causal relationship between capital and alienation upon which Sève, as a Marxist first and foremost, always insisted. We may however be slightly less forgiving of his neglect of notable contemporary theorists of alienation such as Shlomo Avineri,60 István Mészáros,61 Ollman,62 Mandel,63 and McLellan himself,64 all of whom rejected Althusserian structural Marxism, and who traversed similar ground in respect of an insistence in varying ways on the importance as well as the overarching unity of the concept in Marx’s work. This even though they frequently sought to harmonise Marx’s earlier concept of alienation with that in Das Kapital,65 despite lacking the particular focus on the individual and on psychology that distinguishes Sève’s own work.

But does the debate over alienation within Marx’s own thought matter as much as its protagonists agree it does? For all Sève’s contribution in demonstrating how, far from being relegated to the background, alienation is transformed in the work of the later Marx to become a fundamental category of historical materialism, we are surely entitled to ask: what is the real significance of the allegedly vital theoretical distinction that he is so keen to make? Even if we agree with Sève in assigning the direction of causality firmly from capital to alienation, an historical perspective with which Marxists will surely be largely sympathetic, what can we actually do with this information?

Conclusion: Pointers to the Future

Sève remained optimistic: he insisted that capitalism is essentially transitory, an exemplary repository of what Garaudy would have called Marxist hope; and so for Sève alienation, for all its multifaceted grim ferocity, can be recognised as not an inevitable fate for humanity but rather an essential rite of passage – something much better awaits us when we reach a truly free society.66 On that at least, Sève and all his Marxist critics would surely agree.

But we may therefore have cause to regret that for all his expressed interest in a Marxist perspective on the individual Sève never once tried, whether in 1973 or at any time subsequently, to explain how we might detect alienation, analyse it, or even how to use it once we did. The furthest he was prepared to go was to suggest that although ‘the concrete personality first presents itself as an ensemble of personal, indeed inter-personal, non-alienated activities, unfolding as self-expression’,67 individuals whose work involves mainly abstract activity will be more alienated. We might also note in this regard that whilst Marxist humanists such as Garaudy identified and openly denounced the continuation and even amplification of alienation within state-socialist societies in the early 1960s,68 it took Sève much longer to come to the same agonised conclusion.69

We may also therefore wish for Sève to have developed his later, more nuanced, conception of alienation in much more depth, for example to investigate the difference between alienation experienced individually and collectively, or to explore the dimensions of alienation, for example in relation to the built environment as does David Harvey,70 or the natural world as does Kohei Saito,71 but unfortunately Sève never did so. He never moved beyond the criticism that in relation to a definition of alienation as ‘the loss of man’s being which has become an estranged power in the world of private property, communism meaning the elimination of this alienation – psychology has created nothing worthy of note’.72 However justified this criticism, the response to Sève in respect of his endorsement of a Marxist perspective on anthropology and psychology was equally curt: ‘What has the new psychology yielded so far? Not much, as yet.’73 The explanation for his reticence to move onto empirical ground that Sève himself so frequently gave was that he was a philosopher, not a psychologist,74 let alone a social scientist – that he could only ‘sketch out’ the significance of Marxism for psychology or alienation for Marxism itself.

Sève’s readers today might not be so reticent. His work could serve at the very least as inspiration to combat the ideological diminution of interest in researching the realities of alienation that arguably commenced in the early 1970s but which certainly became more widespread thereafter.75 To return instead, in fact, as Marxists, to the task of analysing the experience of alienation by real, living people, and not to abandon alienation to the category of an existential fate. In short, to ‘get on with it’,76 as Marxists were urged to do decades ago precisely in respect of the empirical analysis of alienation. That would surely please Lucien Sève.

References

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1

Sartre 1963, p. 250.

2

Sève 1978.

3

Schaff 1980, p. 214; Garaudy 1970, p. 102.

4

O’Donnell 1986, p. 10.

5

Baudouin 1984, p. 801.

6

Sève 2008, p. 396.

7

Sève 2018b.

8

Dunayevskaya 1972, p. 5.

9

Sève 2008, p. 123.

10

Sève 1978, p. 144.

11

Sève 2018a, p. 150.

12

Sayers 2016, p. 49.

13

Lee 1972, p. 121.

14

Sève 1978.

15

Sève 1974.

16

Sève 2012.

17

Sève 2012, p. 2.

18

Althusser 1965.

19

Sève 2012, p. 4.

20

Marx 1978.

21

Garaudy 1975, p. 265.

22

Sève 2012, p. 22.

23

Sève 2012, p. 10.

24

For example: Clot 2008, Oddone 1981.

25

Sève 2012, p. 13.

26

Sève 2012, p. 5.

27

Sève 2004, p. 27.

28

Sève 2012, p. 27.

29

Sève 2004, p. 29.

30

Marx 1973.

31

Sève 2004, pp. 29–30; Sève 2012, p. 16.

32

Mészáros 1970, p. 36.

33

Mandel 1970, p. 18.

34

Sayers 2016, p. 51.

35

Musto 2018, p. 39, footnote.

36

Marx 1964, p. 77.

37

Marx 1990, p. 203.

38

Marx 1990, p. 990.

39

Sève 1999, p. 90.

40

Marx 1973, p. 716; Sève 2008, p. 40.

41

Sève 2012, p. 23; Cowling 2006, p. 321.

42

Bidet 2008, p. 56.

43

Sève 2012, p. 26.

44

Sève 2012, p. 19.

45

Sève 2008, p. 504.

46

Sève 1964, 1976, 2009.

47

Koechlin 2015, p. 183.

48

Sève 1999, p. 93.

49

Sève 1999, p. 193.

50

Ollman 1976, p. 132.

51

Sève 2013.

52

For example: Girardi 1968, p. 23.

53

Amongst those he singled out were Haber 2007, Renault 2008, and Fischbach 2009.

54

Sève 2012, p. 38.

55

McLellan 1995, p. 1.

56

Feuer 1962, p. 117.

57

Musto 2021, p. 3.

58

Musto 2021, p. 27.

59

Marcuse 1955.

60

Avineri 1968.

61

Mészáros 1970.

62

Ollman 1976.

63

Mandel 1970.

64

McLellan 1970.

65

For example: McLellan 1970, Borbone 2013, and Musto 2018.

66

Sève 2012, p. 29.

67

Sève 1978, p. 341.

68

Garaudy 1963, p. 18.

69

Sève 1999, p. 51.

70

Harvey 2014.

71

Saito 2017.

72

Sève 1978, p. 64

73

Levitin 1980, p. 48.

74

Sève 2018a, p. 151.

75

Yuill 2011, p. 115.

76

Archibald 1978, p. 130.

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