Part 1: What Is Alienation?

To know what Marx meant by ‘alienation’ is not straightforward because there is no single phenomena that he identified as alienating. Our colloquial usage of ‘alienation’ often refers to a feeling, but for Marx it need not be felt at all. Concepts of alienation were important in the idealist tradition contemporaneous to Marx, and were conceived of as the coming apart of something, the separation of essence from existence. But this is not the simple removal of one from the other, because the other remains present, albeit in an estranged form. For Marx, the oppression of workers involves the alienation of their human essence from their material condition or well being.

In his 1844 Manuscripts Marx identified four ways in which workers are alienated. Capitalistic industry alienates them from (i) the product of their labour and from (ii) the process of production. Capitalistic society alienates them from (iii) the essence, and (iv) the other members of their species. The first of these pairs focuses more on economic exploitation and the second on the repression of mans’ ‘species-being’; as a result the former is less speculative and more readily monitored in society. Additionally, the second form in each of these pairs pertains to an unnatural division of labour- in the workplace and in society respectively. In Part 2 concepts (i) and (iv) will be analysed in depth and defended below under the respective terms ‘productive alienation’ and ‘class alienation’.

In regard to alienation (i), Marx claims that the object which labour produces, the product, stands both outside and above the worker: not only are they exploited by those who sell that which they have produced, but are also devalued as commodities themselves by comparison to that product.[1] The workers are exploited by giving their labour to produce a profit for their employer without themselves receiving a benefit fitting to the value of their labour. Further, they are reduced by the classical economists (not to mention by the capitalists) to simple units of labour power- it is forgotten that this is not a pure commodity but the function of a fully dignified human person. This is to say that they are treated as commodities rather than as fellow people, and at that as commodities which become cheaper and cheaper –and more exploited– the more that they produce.[2] This means that even during a period of growth for the capitalist they work for they will still be worse off on the whole, yet when the market suffers it the capitalists again transfer the cost to the workers who are in no position to argue.

In Marx’s time this problem ran deeper: workers’ wages levels were able to be kept too low to provide for a comfortable existence because the workers could not (legally) gain any bargaining power, and with a surplus of workers they had either to work for the capitalist or perish.[3] ‘Wage slavery’, this exploitation of being confined to the life of a wage labourer, is a further part of alienation from one’s product- the worker loses control of both the fruit of his labour and of his freedom to use it how he wants.[4] Marx claims that this productive alienation will be alleviated by the economic changes under a communist system.[5]

It is crucial that we understand this as pertaining not merely to individuals but to the class of workers at once, as their collective alienation from their collective production. Taking this holistic view it is easy to see that these conditions of production also function to reproduce the social structure of capitalism. Each new generation of workers reproduced will be unable to ascend the social scale by acquiring their own means of production.

Alienation (ii) is directly related to the first but is more about the quality of the working day for the labourer rather than the end result. Here the act of production (as distinct from the product itself) dehumanises the worker because the increasing mechanisation and division of labour reduces him to a mere appendage of the machine, incessantly repeating a single menial task.[6] Not only is such slavery intolerable but it is made all the worse by being divorced from any sort of purpose for the worker- he is not making a sacrifice to achieve some good for himself, or even for his class, but rather for his very tormentors, the capitalists.[7]

In his later work, Marx appears to shift from the idea of communism bringing freedom in work, to freedom from work. The emphasis is less that communism will provide a new and extra fulfilling work environment, but more that it will increase freedom by increasing leisure time away from work.[8] In this shift there we have an implicit recognition that alienation (ii) is a less important concept. Alienation (ii) appears less important because it is derivative as one set of consequences of the process described by alienation (i) for the worker. It is also less plausible than alienation (i) because in most cases the division of labour will not be so high that conditions will be intolerable, and most accept that work cannot always be pleasant.

Marx’s later view was not only more realistic but also more coherent with other parts of his work. This is both with the requirement of all able-bodied people work under communism (a proportion of whom would have made-up the non-working bourgeois class previously)[9] and secondly, with the supposed superior economic efficiency of communism over capitalism. This superiority would be realised through the abolition of all occupations that serve only a particular class interest, and from an economy designed just so as to meet social needs. By contrast to the natural tendency of competitive markets towards over-production (often justified by desire-creation via aggressive advertising).[10]

Because alienation (iii) reveals a vision of human nature, it is often regarded as the centre of Marx’s thought on alienation, but that can be quite misleading when we come to consider him today as the value of his work as a whole is far less from what he thought humans are, than it is with what happens to them and whose interests it serves. A crude way of seeing this would be that you are what you do- your job defines you, and to a large extent this what Marx thought. This was because he considered humans to be highly malleable. Our wants and powers are largely a function of the epochal social organisation (‘mode of production’) we happen to live under.

We are, however, ‘species-beings’ with an essential core of potentialities and inclinations derived from our natural constitution.[11] These potentialities include the ability to perform acts of great altruism, the building of rich relationships and attaining high levels of education. The inclinations include the desire for beauty and for truth, to be generous rather than excessively acquisitive, and for a high level of social engagement as a member of community. Capitalism has truly turned things upside down: we should feel most free when we exercise our human faculties of rationality, creativity, etc. in our work, but it is these in which we feel least free. Instead “we only really feel free in the functions we share with animals- sex, drinking, eating, pleasure.”[12] This illuminates the force of alienation (ii). Marx also says that “Individual human life and species-life are not different things”.[13] Of course he did not deny that people were sociable under capitalism, but claimed that their sociality is not genuine because it is based on the means-ends relationship of mutual self-interest rather than treating others as ends in themselves.[14]

The social environment which humans collectively create over time always acts back to control the behaviour of individuals. This process of ‘objectification’ has been distorted so as to reverse our relationship to the environment from one of control to one of controlled, preventing us from realising our true potential as human beings.[15] An important example is the system of money, which disrupts and supplants natural human relations: “Through this alien mediator man gazes at his will, his activity, his relation to others as at a power independent of them and of himself- instead of man himself being the mediator for man. His slavery then reaches a climax. It is obvious that this mediator [money,] must become a veritable God since the mediator is the real power over that with which he mediates me.’”[16]

The prime example of objectification, however, is the worker himself, trapped in wage slavery. This is because he is working in a way neither for himself nor as himself, but rather as is required of him by the capitalist system.[17] Marx says that part of this process is that the worker has becomes assimilated into his product –the commoditisation of man– therefore perpetuating alienation (i). Indeed, it is this constraining power of capitalistic industry on society and its members that is the fundamental presence behind both productive and class alienation, and not any idealistic view of man as innocent and deserving of an easy life.

Marx’s form of communism (as opposed to the popular but utopian socialism of the time) proclaimed itself to be scientific because it had a theory of how the end state of society would be reached- it was inevitable and proceeded according to laws of historical progress. At the time of his writing the manuscripts Marx’s theory of just how this was inevitable was underdeveloped and, in hindsight, we might ask why it was necessary to say that it was inevitable at all- for it would still be scientific if it was merely shown to be probable. One might also speculate that Marx’s stress upon the need for revolution rather than reform was influenced by his study of Germany, a country which proved very resilient to political reform throughout his lifetime and beyond.

So if alienation (iii) details the implications of capitalistic labour on mans’ true nature, (iv) deals likewise with the wider implications of the capitalist mode of production in society- the effects of the social rather than productive division of labour. This distinction is itself indicative of capitalism’s pathology. By separating the economic and social spheres of life capitalism breaks the community bonds between producers and consumers. People no-longer produce things for the benefits they bring to others and to themselves, but instead a specific class controls the productive process solely for their own gain. It is not only the latter which is damaging to the welfare of society (through overproduction and environmental degradation) but this separation also destroys the main mechanism for the integration of individuals into society. This deficit in socialisation fosters a pandemic of inner isolation which is unnatural for human beings, and legitimises the egoistic behaviour of the capitalists. It is for this reason that the bourgeois economists and philosophers are so determined to brand individualism and competitiveness as the natural basis of human life.

Crucially, each individual is estranged not only from himself, but from the other members of society also. Marx contended that capitalism, like all modes of production, requires a superstructure of ideas which lend support to its economic foundations (the dominant ideology cannot be one that contradicts the productive relations, the forms of ownership that typify that mode of production). Because ideologies tend to obscure from us our true nature,[18] so too do they obscure the unnatural ways in which we treat others and our society is organised.

Examples of this are the prevalence among workers of the attitude that ultimately they should be in competition with one another,[19] and that “since every self-interested person seeks to outdo the other, we must necessarily strive to deceive the other.”[20] This fosters an atmosphere of envy and distrust. Furthermore, the workers are led to despise their employers because of the unpleasant nature of the work that the latter force upon them, while the employers come to think of the workers as subhuman, because of the servile functions they perform for them.[21] This antipathy towards others is most strongly directed against the capitalists,[22] but its most important effect is to divide the working class against themselves, thus preventing the development of a unifying ‘class consciousness’- an awareness of their shared situation.[23] Such a development would conduce to revolution and thereby threatens the security of capitalism.

A revolution will be necessary because progress within capitalism –improvements in living and working conditions– only alleviate the problem of poverty, whereas the problem of alienation is inextricable from the capitalist mode of production.[24] Marx claimed that under communism humans would at last be able to fully develop their gregarious and altruistic nature due to the end of class antagonisms and the (eventual) universal meeting of needs.[25] This may well sound overly idealistic but it is plausible that, all things being equal, people who have opportunities to co-operate and to help each other will do so. Consequently, it is likely that the transcendence of those features of capitalist society that so profoundly remove and discourage these opportunities would allow for a great transformation of society and its values.

Along with productive alienation, class alienation seems to be the most applicable of the concepts –both for Marx and in general– because social conflict is based in the more concrete setting of people’s relationships and treatment of others. This has significant ramifications for the social system, by comparison to the less tangible concept of a species essence. It may well also be more the case today because workers roles are more diversified and competition has become more ingrained as a valued characteristic of our culture.

Some have argued that the concept of alienation becomes transformed into the concept of unpaid labour/surplus value. Alienation is the expression of what happens in the labour process, but the objectification also takes on a concrete form, that of surplus value. This can best be seen in the Grundrisse, Marx’s outlines for what was to become CapitalHere we find and early form of the theory of surplus value described in terms of the alienation of use value (worker’s labour) from exchange value (the capitalist’s revenues).[26] Nicolas Lash goes as far as to say “It is clear… that the first two aspects of alienation, as Marx sketched it in the Paris Manuscripts, have survived in Capital. The third aspect– man’s alienation from ‘his spiritual essence, his human essence’, appears in passages which treat of the division of labour”.[27]

There are also parallels between the concept of alienation and that of commodity fetishism, which Marx elaborated in Capital. Kant had defined ‘fetishism’ as an improper mysticism imbued in profane things, a projection of the divine onto ordinary objects. According to Marx humans similarly attach fetishistic magic to commodities, which serves to camouflage their true originas products of the unpaid labour of the working classes.[28] This also functions to make products more desirable. What relates this to the concept of alienation is that under capitalism relations between people are reduced to commodity relations- workers are used as means to the capitalists’ ends, while products are treated as being removed from, or somehow greater than people.[29] Georg Lukacs (a Hungarian Marxist, not the Star Wars guy) went on to identify fetishistic social forms as a major source of alienation in society.[30]

In Part 2 I defend a charitable reading of Marx’s concepts of productive and class alienation from a systematic critique by David Conway and further criticisms from Stephen Lukes.


Conway, David, (1987), A Farewell To Marx: An Outline and Appraisal of His Theories, Harmondsworth (UK), Penguin

Craib, Ian, (1997), Classical Social Theory, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Giddens, Anthony, (1971), Capitalism and Modern Social Theory, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Lash, Nicholas, (1981), A Matter of Hope, London, Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd.

Lukes, Stephen, (1977), ‘Alienation and Anomie’, In Essays In Social Theory, London, Macmillan, pp.74-95

Marx, Karl, [1844], Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, In Early Writings, (1975), Livingstone, Rodney, & Benton, Gregor (eds. & tr.), Harmondsworth (UK), Penguin

Marx, Karl, (1973), Marx’s Grundrisse, McLellan, David (ed. & tr.), St. Albans (UK), Granada Publishing Ltd.

Woodfin, Rupert, (2004), Introducing Marxism, London, Icon Publishing


[1] Marx, [1844], p. 324

[2] Marx, (1964), Early Writings, Bottomore, T. B. (ed.), New York, p. 121; Quoted in: Giddens, (1971), p. 11

[3] Marx, [1844], pp. 282-6

[4] Giddens, (1971), p. 12

[5] Conway, (1987), p. 41

[6] Marx, [1844], p. 326

[7] Marx, [1844], p. 286

[8] Conway, (1987), p. 43; cf. Marx, [1894], (1981), Capital Vol. 3, Harmondsworth (UK), Penguin, p. 959

[9] Conway, (1987), p. 43

[10] Conway, (1987), p. 44

[11]  Conway, (1987), p. 30

[12] Woodfin, (2004), p. 64

[13] Marx, Karl, (1964), Early Writings, Bottomore, T. B. (ed.), New York, p. 158; Quoted in: Giddens, (1971), p. 13

[14] Conway, (1987), p. 38

[15] Craib, (1997), p. 89

[16] Marx, (1975), Early Writings, Colletti, L. (ed.), London, Penguin, p. 260, Quoted by: Lash, (1981), p. 177

[17] Conway, (1987), p. 36

[18] Sometimes called the ‘dominant ideology thesis’, cf. Marx & Engels, [1845-6], p. 67

[19] Woodfin, (2004), p. 63

[20] Marx, Karl, [1844], Excerpts From ‘James Mill’s ‘Elements of Political Economy’’, In Early Writings, (1975), Harmondsworth (UK), Penguin, p. 275; Quoted in: Conway, (1987), pp. 38-9

[21] Conway, (1987), p. 39

[22] Marx, [1844], p. 330

[23] Conway, (1987), p. 39

[24] Marx, [1844], pp. 332-3

[25] Conway, (1987), p. 44

[26] Marx, (1973), pp. 74 & 70

[27] Lash, (1981), p. 175

[28] Woodfin, (2004), p. 65

[29] Woodfin, (2004), p. 65

[30] Lukes, (1977), p. 75

Marx On Alienation and Human Nature, Part 1


3 responses »

  1. I love the way,this topic was been treated,especially on the side of marxian,and capitalist mode of production.infact it pointed to every aspect of man’s life.kudos

  2. Pingback: Philosotips: Intro + Marx’s Falling Rate of Profit & Games Consoles | Vibrant Bliss

  3. Pingback: Against Employment | Vibrant Bliss

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