Marx On Alienation and Human Nature, Part 2



(NB: This is not a new essay; I have split the old one in two.)

Was Marx Right that People would not be Alienated Under Communism?

Three considerations prefigure an assessment of Marx’s account of workers’ alienation: which particular variants of alienation identified by Marx to focus upon (if any), whether to stress their continuity or discontinuity with Marx’s later work, and the socio-economic context against which to evaluate them. In this essay I shall be defending two particular forms of alienation identified by Marx, taken as consistent with his mature work. These will be considered primarily in relation to the social conditions of his own time and the possible future society which he believed would necessarily arise and ultimately would resolve those conditions. Finally, it will be held that these concepts of alienation are valuable for normative sociology and very practical for Marxist analyses, but the correctness of Marx’s employment of them is dependent not only on their own plausibility but on there being a credible form of his case from economics for the necessity of communist revolution.

A further framing consideration is how to interpret Marx’s case for his conclusions. That is, presuming he had an argument, did he intend his claims as empirically verifiable or more as speculative reasons for why we should want to change society? It is tempting to assume the former in lieu of the scientific nature of his later work, but this does not seem credible: Marx’s writing is here heavily influenced by idealism, and more importantly he doesn’t appeal to empirical evidence to substantiate his claims. It therefore seems that he was grounding his case on what was meant to be an intuitively plausible conception of society and of peoples’ nature, one which he may well have refined in line with his later research.

As explained in Part 1, ‘productive alienation’ is my term for the alienation of workers from the object of their labour, the product. Whereas ‘class Alienation’ is the name I give to the alienation of human beings from each other which is caused by a class system. In what follows 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.

The crucial flaw with Conway’s critique is that most of its force, like many of the critiques that Marx himself rebutted,[1] comes from criticising communist arrangements as if they are meant to function like capitalist ones. More specifically, this reasoning is directed by unfounded presuppositions that industrial society can only be arranged in a capitalistic way and that the only kind of freedom society has to offer is that of the markets.

I contend that the concept of ‘productive alienation’ identifies a process in the capitalist system which directly restricts the fulfilment of human powers, namely natural inclinations to partake in free, purposeful and satisfying labour. This same process, by means of the capitalist’s appropriation of the use value of the worker’s labour, also restricts the fulfilment of natural human needs: adequate food, shelter and leisure time. The concept of ‘class alienation’ identifies a process in the capitalist system which, via aggravated social conflict and ideological distortion, restricts the fulfilment of the natural human needs for knowledge, beauty, free social movement, universal brotherhood and peace. The necessary condition for productive alienation seems to be wage levels which are so low to be completely out of proportion to their use value to the capitalist. But it is much harder to find one for class alienation. Certainly, exploitation of the working class by their capitalist employers is sufficient to realise this process, but that there might also be many other social forms that do so is a problem we will return to later.

The first of Conway’s two major objections is that communism would dramatically reduce the profit motive for production (and thereby the motive for the improving productive technologies also).[2] Conway also says that the only reason that capitalism permits the division of labour to reach levels that Marxists consider alienating is that it is more productive, and therefore one would assume, more profitable for the worker on the whole. This is to say that the worker’s share as a proportion of the whole may be greater under communism, but that whole would be so much smaller than it would be under capitalism that a much smaller share as a proportion of the whole would be more valuable in real terms. This is doubtful. Though it must be conceded that, all other things being equal, production levels would fall without the motives of profit and competition, there is no reason to think this a serious problem for a society.

Firstly, it would be an obvious mistake to censure communism because its industry is arranged in a way that is not profitable because such production is wilfully no longer orientated around either the pursuit of profit or, indirectly, the development of more efficient technology. Indeed, Marx was adamant that communism can only come about when productive technologies have reached their highest possible level.

Secondly, Conway is wrong in thinking that Marx claimed that a necessary condition of communism’s resolution of the problem of alienation was the system’s ability to provide for the needs of everyone equally, or even that its productive capacity will be able to meet the needs of everyone when the revolution occurs. They are not directly linked. Marx is clear that such standards will be reached eventually but that it may take a long time for its organisation to develop properly.

Thirdly, Conway seems (and this is not entirely clear) to assume that Marx thinks that there will be no money and no private exchange under communism, but of course there will. What there will not be is private ownership of public goods such as land, and the reproduction of privileged classes who do not have to work because of their inheritance. But most important is that there will not be large business enterprises owned by individuals or small groups of people. As Marx and Engels say:

You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society. … Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labor of others by means of such appropriations. It has been objected that upon the abolition of private property, all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us. According to this, bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those who acquire anything, do not work. The whole of this objection is but another expression of the tautology: There can no longer be any wage labor when there is no longer any capital.”[3]

Finally, it is not true that individuals would continue to be alienated because they would desire more than they could produce under communism. Conway argues that communism wouldn’t sustain the consumerist lifestyle that workers are by now accustomed to.[4] But this objection fails in the face of a proper account of communism because its workers will no longer be so accumulative and so motivated towards a consumer lifestyle. This is due in part to the subsidence of advertising, with people no longer needing to encourage trade. But more salient is the fact that, one of Marx’s conditions for the occurrence of the communist revolution, is that the great mass of society will have been ‘propertyless’, and thus in the new order they will happy just to have their basic needs met.

Conway claims that this form of retort is defeated by the simple fact that acquisitiveness, self-interest and competition are inexorable features of human nature, and that even though most people are capable of doing good works for others, the ‘others’ in question are usually a narrow sub-set of people.[5] Indeed, according to psychoanalysis from the Freudian tradition, human beings are highly egoistic and working collectively is not the default position in our nature but rather an achievement that requires a degree of sacrifice and suffering to be realised.[6] Moreover, this is a prognosis that has held up to a century of empirical behavioral science. With this there is a good case for there being, contrary to what Marx believed, an intrinsic human nature, and one with strong tendencies towards selfish acts. This does make Marx’s picture look overly optimistic.

Yet while it is likely that the desires of the workers under communism may gradually become more demanding, there is good reason to think that the level of acquisitiveness they display would not be sufficiently lower than under capitalism so as to offset any fall in the level of production. This is because the replacement of conflicting classes with one harmonious populous would inaugurate what G. A. Cohen called an ‘egalitarian ethos’ so that people would no longer be quite so interested in outdoing their neighbours in terms of property, and it would allow much better for the contented fulfilment of man’s key needs in the place of desires for unnecessary amusements. This can be further substantiated by the fact that we see that the non-necessary desires (i.e. those not for food, shelter or love) that tend to develop in a society do so in line its productive relations. Of course which commodities it is that are desired is also function of what is on offer in the market. Because production under communism will be a communal activity and will focus on producing what is necessary for the fulfilment of natural human needs and powers, there is no reason to worry that people’s desires will outstrip what that society can produce. Their desires will be aligned to this system of production, and to the distribution that follows it.

Moving on to his second major criticism of communism –that it reduces rather than increases freedom– Conway is right to claim that organising a society’s production according to a general plan rather than by market forces has nothing to do with the autonomy of the members of that society. In theory a dictator could organise the production just the same and we certainly wouldn’t call that an improvement in the freedom of the average person.[7] But Conway is completely wrong in saying the only way in which freedom could be improved is by giving them a share in the organisation of society, something that he claims would not be possible with a planned economy.[8]

Parenthetically, an economy directed by the market does little to promote peoples’ share in the organisation of society. This is because the market is not itself directed by feedback from real people’s needs, but largely by a number of features higher up the system which only relate to needs in arbitrary ways. The chief drivers of the market are the ideology of hyperconsumerism and the dehumanising ubiquity of advertising.

Contrary to Conway’s remarks, a socialist economic model could give more control over the organisation of society than this by devolving decisions down to the level of  workers’ self-directed enterprises (WSDEs), firms which are under the democratic control of all those who contribute their labour to them.[9]

Conway also says that giving the worker a choice between a larger leisure time and a larger salary is clearly an increase in freedom, not a decrease.[10] This is probably correct but does not draw a damning conclusion against Marxism- surely a more liberating choice for the worker still is that between the dehumanizing work process under capitalism and a comparatively more comfortable system. True, assuming that they will choose the latter is denying them the freedom to make that particular choice but it is a very small reduction in freedom (taking Marx’s thicker sense) compared to those required by the capitalist system.

What is important to understand is that Marx here was not only concerned with the maximisation of freedom, and certainly not that of the same type as is Conway. Freedom, for Marx, principally means the ability of human beings to fully realise their natural needs powers. Nor was Marx concerned with negative political freedoms because under communism the functions of the state will gradually become obsolete and thus the productive organisation of society will not ultimately be a political matter but a technical one to be arranged as is most effective. What Marx is concerned with is freedom from the control of an oppressive class opposed to one’s own. Such oppression takes place when workers are treated as means to the ends of the capitalists in their forced labour. This is the denial of autonomy that is necessary under capitalism, and which is the root of its alienating processes.

Marx was never clear as to the specifics of communist society, but its primary characteristic was the resolution of class conflict. Thus, while communist workers do not have control over the specifics of their production this is not grave because it will be technologically efficient, organised in the interest of society as a whole and, most importantly, humane- treating people as ends in themselves.

We move now to further critical issues. There is strong evidence, as Stephen Lukes points out, that if the social conditions are constituted in the way Marx wanted, people would not only be aware of a beneficial difference, but would value highly value it. This comes from concrete examples of communal living, including the ‘Plain People’ of Pennsylvania, but more notably the Israeli kibbutz.[11] Psycho-sociological studies are also forever showing that the accumulation of material goods above subsistence level adds to happiness very little indeed, while greater social interaction and integration adds to it a great deal. But Lukes also notes that we have no idea how such communal arrangements would be applied to large and technologically highly developed societies.

This raises a critical difficulty which relates especially to our concept of productive alienation: the possibility that workers may be subject to alienated labour as a result of the productive processes of any mass society, not only exploitative capitalist ones. There is also a parallel problem with class alienation: it is implausible that there could be a modern society without significant social conflict because even if all conflict over production were resolved, people could well still be alienated as a result of conflicts of interest on issues such as ethnicity, sexuality, or age. As remarked earlier, we do not know what necessary criteria there are for the realisation of this process, but it seems very likely that social conflict over these issues too would be sufficient to produce alienation.

Lukes also points out that Marx’s claim that life under communism: “is to be judged superior, though it may rest on an appeal to evidence about men’s wants, is ultimately non-empirical, for that evidence has been selected and interpreted in the light of the claim. Which men’s wants and which of their wants has already been decided. Moreover, the claim of superiority does not follow logically from the evidence: one must add the premise that certain wants and satisfactions are more ‘human’ or ‘healthy’ than others. In the end what is required is a perspective and an initial set of evaluations.”[12]

So how exactly we can justify Marx’s anthropological premises, his emphasis on the malleability of man before the powers of the social structure and the specific content of our natural needs and powers, remains controversial. By disputing this, critics like Conway are able to sweep away Marx’s whole theory without themselves relying on any premises that are obviously counterintuitive. But while we can be sure that Marx was far too optimistic about the strength and nobility that could be unleashed from man if he were but liberated, since his diagnoses of the oppressive processes in industrial capitalism holds up, there is no reason to doubt his central claim here: that social developments in the direction of egalitarianism would dramatically improve man’s situation and concurrently transform his relationship with the environment and his fellow man. In consequence, unfortunate as it is, the only test we can have of these anthropological premises will be when such dramatic social developments occur.

Over all, Marx was correct to think that industrial capitalism was necessarily alienating in the respects emphasised above, but his claim that alienation would be abolished under communism seems rather doubtful and is unverifiable at best. This is not only because we have moved into a post-industrial capitalism since his day, but because of the forms of alienation that appear inexorable from highly developed, highly productive societies and the capacity for social conflicts around a variety of areas other than those concerning material well being.

In conclusion then, an interpretation of Marx’s theory can be vindicated today, but in a necessarily less substantive form. That is not to say that it is reducible to a mere platitude about the wrongness of exploiting people and of denying them a decent life, on the contrary, it provides us with a credible conceptual framework for analysing both power relationships in production and more general social conflict. Such a post-Marxian concept of alienation requires only that alienation would be alleviated under a new form of society. This interprets Marx not so much as identifying positive characteristics of communism that make it a society free from alienation, but rather as identifying the alienating characteristics of industrial capitalism as so horribly dehumanising that they could not take place under any more developed mode of production. Indeed, Marx and Engels emphasised that their revolution “is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”[13]

Of course, the other half of the question as to whether Marx was right that people would not be alienated under communism concerns whether communism will ever come about. Thus, we cannot properly assess his claims in isolation from his later arguments for the necessity of a communist revolution, and unless such a revolution does take place we will remain ignorant of the real potential for social change and its consequences.

We live in a dramatically different stage within the capitalist mode of production to that of Marx’s day. So much so that it seems that when Marx thought he was revealing ‘the economic law of motion’ of the capitalist mode of production, he was but revealing that of its manufacturing to industrial stages (albeit with success). But just as we found that there is no reason to think that abolition of the exploitative capitalist class would not pave the way for a transformation in the fulfilment of the human race, neither is there reason to presume that the failure of the ‘Red Fascist’ states with centralised economies exhaust the possibilities for planned economies. As G. A. Cohen was fond of pointing out, we don’t know what can be made to work until we try, and the fact that mankind has always been able to develop new systems of social organisation that improve on the old is a good reason to seek such improvement. In today’s Western democracies, the most promising such line of development that could carry on taking us further from the alienating processes of the industrial stage are those pertaining to grass roots environmental movements and to the devolution of power to local communities. Whether those two elements can form an effective unity and become widely applied, however, is something we citizens of the 21st century world must work through in practice. 


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

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

Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich, [1845-6], (1988), The German Ideology, New York, Prometheus Books

Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich, [1848], (2002), The Communist Manifesto, Harmondsworth (UK), Penguin


[1] Marx & Engels, [1848], pp. 235-40

[2] Conway, (1987), p. 49

[3] Marx & Engels, [1848], pp. 237-8

[4] Conway, (1987), p. 49

[5]  Conway, (1987), p. 50

[6] Craib, (1997), p. 91

[7] Conway, (1987), p. 46

[8] Conway, (1987), p. 46

[9] See the Democracy at Work site. I also mention this is my piece ‘Reason for Happiness’.

[10] Conway, (1987), p. 48, cf. Durkheim, The Division of Labour In Society

[11] Lukes, (1977), p. 92

[12] Lukes, (1977), p. 87

[13] Marx & Engels, [1845-6], p. 57


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