The concept of alienation
plays a significant role in Marx’s early political writing, especially in the
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1848, but it is rarely mentioned in
his later works. This implies that while Marx found alienation useful in
investigating certain basic aspects of the development of capitalist society,
it is less useful in putting forward the predictions of the collapse of
capitalism. The aim of this essay is to explain alienation, and show how it
fits into the pattern of Marx’s thought. It will be concluded that alienation
is a useful tool in explaining the affect of capitalism on human existence. In
Marx’s thought, however, the usefulness of alienation it is limited to
explanation. It does not help in either predicting the downfall of capitalism,
or the creation of communism.
Marx takes his idea of alienation from Feuerbach, who shows the alienation of
man from God. Briefly, Feuerbach’s argument is that God is created by man as
the ‘projection of man’s species-essence, the totality of his powers and
attributes raised to the level of infinity’.1 Religion
alienates man by reversing the relationship between the subject and predicate –
the Deity is supreme over man, even though it is created by man. Leszek
Kolakowski suggests that the clearest material example of religious alienation
is blood sacrifice. In general, therefore, alienation of man is the process
that separates man from part of himself. In Feuerbach, the separation is
between man and the god created in man’s image. In Marx, as shall be seen,
alienation is the separation between man and his life-activity, his product,
society and the species. Each of these four relations can be seen as one aspect
of man being separated from himself.
A man’s life-activity is his work. In a capitalist society, the worker is alienated
from his labour – ‘he plays no part in deciding what to do or how to do it’.2 The
division of labour ensures that each worker only does one job, and the labour
market decides which job any particular worker will do. During labour, the
worker uses capital not under his own control. The capital available determines
the nature of the work. On top of all this, the worker has no choice but to
work, as wages are needed to provide the worker’s means to life. Work is seen
to be ‘not voluntary, but forced’.3 This shows
that in a capitalist society, the worker is separated from the decisions of
whether or not to work, what the work will be, and what form the work will
take. This alienation of labour is the separation of man from his
Not only is the worker alienated from his labour, but he is also separated from
the result of his labour – the product. This is the most obvious manifestation
of the alienation of the worker; he has no power over what he produces. The
wage contract ensures that the products of labour are surrendered to the
capitalist, who then sells them on the market, and pays the worker a wage. Marx
points out that the alienation of the product is double – not only is the
worker separate from his own product, but that product, as increasing the power
of capital, actually weakens the worker’s position.4 Marx refers
to the product of labour as ‘the objectification of labour’. The worker’s
labour objectified is used against him in a capitalist society.
Capitalism also alienates man from other men. Firstly, and most clearly, there
is the class antagonism separating workers from capitalists. As well as this
antagonism, the labour market ensures that man will constantly be opposed to
other men through competition and conflicts of self-interests. This means that
any form of community is impossible, ‘…the enslavement of the collectivity to
its own products entails the mutual isolation of individuals’.5 This shows
that the alienation of society and alienation of the product of labour are
closely linked. The links between the aspects of alienation will be further
Marx also sees capitalism as alienating man from his ‘species-being’. A
species-being is what defines a man, in other words, his humanity. Marx sees
labour under capitalism as removing from man’s humanity. He says, ‘he is at
home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home’.6 This shows
again the alienation of labour, but also illustrates the fact that work is
unpleasant for man. He is a ‘living appendage of the machine’, and that ‘when
the compulsion to work is gone, he avoids work like the plague’. The alienation
of a man’s life-activity leaves a man with only ‘animal pursuits’, such as
eating, drinking and procreating, to fulfil his humanity. Man has become animal
in his work, and so the only area where he can be human, is in those pursuits
common with animals. This is referred to as the ‘animalization’ of man.
All these four aspects of alienation of man under capitalism are inter-linked.
The alienation of labour implies the alienation of man from man through class
conflict and competition. This is also strengthened by the alienation of the
products of labour, as mentioned above. The alienation of man from his
species-being is contributed to by all the other three aspects. Indeed, this
final form of alienation is very general, but is useful in helping show the
alienation of man at work. All four are related aspects of alienation of man
under capitalism. ‘The theory of alienation is the intellectual constraint in
which Marx displays the devastating effect of capitalist production on human
beings, on their physical and mental states and on the social process of which
they are a part’.7 All aspects
of alienation, therefore, can be explained in terms of the links between the
mode of production, and the actors involved.
Marx explores the historical development of alienation in relation to the
division of labour. As society forms into tribes and villages, labour becomes
divided and exchange must occur for society to survive. As exchange increases,
the difference between ‘exchange-value’ and ‘use-value’ emerges. Use-value is
the amount an object is useful to someone, an indication of the demand for the
good. Exchange-value, on the other hand, is the amount of other objects which
can be exchanged for that object. In a capitalist society with a standard
exchange commodity, money, greater emphasis is placed on ‘exchange-value’. This
is due to the fact that acquisition of money has gained a value of its own,
through ‘commodity fetishism’. This also shows itself in the fact that ‘…men
labour because their products have value, whereas in fact they have value
because labour has bestowed it on them’.8
This is a form of ‘reification’, defined as ‘…the process through which
capitalist society makes all personal relations between men take the form of
objective relations between things’.9
Commodity fetishism in the Marxian sense is the attribution an objective value
into a commodity, whereas the value actually stems from the social relations
underlying the production of that object. The idea of fetishism permeates
throughout the investigation of the alienation of man in capitalist society.
This concept helps show how the capitalist, as well as the worker, may be
alienated in a money-dominated society.
Capitalists are alienated through the dominance of money and exchange-value.
The rich owner of capital can effectively ‘buy’ attributes, rather than pursue
his own natural ones. Marx says ‘I may be bad, dishonest, ruthless and
narrow-minded, but money ensures respect for itself and its possessor. Money is
the supreme good, and a man who has it must be good also’.10
Thus the capitalist is also alienated, in the sense that he is separated from
his true self by the illusory power of money. This is the clearest example of
the link between fetishism and alienation. It is the perceived power of money
which enables him to take on or ‘change’ attributes.
The concept of alienation is useful is pointing out the differences of a
capitalist and communist society. ‘Work in communism is the affirmation of
human nature, while capitalist labour is its denial’.11
Alienation, or the lack of it, shows the affect of the mode of production on
the spiritual, mental and physical lives of the people within that society. It
also helps to predict the downfall of capitalism, to an extent.12
The workers will be alienated under capitalism, and they will be unhappy and
unfulfilled through that alienation. The capitalists, through the power of
money and commodity fetishism, will prosper through their alienation. If this
difference becomes sufficient, and the workers become aware of their position
and how to change it, there will be calls for revolution.
The move from alienation to revolution, however, is more difficult than it
seems. It requires several factors which are separate from alienation. This is
most likely the reason why Marx stayed away from the ideas of alienation in his
later work, preferring to use tension between the forces and relations of
production, and the concept of exploitation as the cause of revolution. One way
of linking alienation with the relations of production is put forward by Leszek
Kolakowski. He suggests that alienation is the cause of private property. He
uses a broad definition of alienation, so that the division of labour appears
as a particular form of alienation. It can then be seen that alienation is
primary to the division of labour and private property relations, and so plays
a very fundamental role in Marx’s thought.
Finally, it is possible to clarify Kolakowski’s definition so that it is
possible to use alienation as a fundamental concept in Marx’s formation of
capitalist society. The division of labour creates commodity fetishism due to
the necessity for exchange. Fetishism is a form of alienation, in that the
value invested by man into an object is removed from him, and he is made
subservient to it. From this, Marx’s view of capitalist society follows. It is
important to note, however, that alienation will only give rise to the downfall
of capitalism in accordance with two other premises, as pointed out in The
German Ideology. These are that conditions become ‘intolerable’, and that man
exists as a ‘world-historical’ (rather than local) being.13
Thus, although alienation provides an understanding of the problems of
capitalism, it does not provide a means of escaping it.
Emancipation and overcoming
has a deep political significance for modernity and liberalism. Marx explains
that there are three faces of his theory of alienation: God, the state, and
money. As a theorist of modernity, Marx explains what role religion has in
political society. He believes that God and religion is the primary form of
alienation. Since God is the essence of human condition, we enrich God by
imposing external rules over ourselves. God acts as an alien power within our
lives, dictating our actions. This is one of the problems that Marx addresses
in “On the Jewish Question.” He says, “Emancipation of the Jews is the
emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” Once mankind has gotten rid of these
religions, humans would be able to be free. Nietzsche has a similar view; he
believes that religion is the response of the slave morality to implement power
over the noble morality. In return, their creation has imposed more
restrictions onto their lives. Nietzsche believes that we have judged ourselves
based on our creation. The slave morality identifies that we suffer in life,
but their creation of an omnipotent and benevolent God cannot be responsible
for this suffering. The creation of the moral sense of good and evil
establishes someone being responsible for the suffering in the world, but since
someone must be punished for this suffering, more suffering is created. It must
follow that we are responsible for our suffering since God cannot be
responsible, for if he would be, then he would be evil. Once these religions
are overcome, man becomes much like the superman and is able to remain to think
more without judgment. To Marx, the state is another way that alienation
presents itself. Marx believes that the state “consecrate liberation, creating
a fantasy where human capacities are abstracted.” (Frank) Marx sees a problem
with the private/public dualism that the state creates within the individual.
He believes that civil society further enslaves us and that rights are not a
method of emancipating, but rather a way of the state to enslave us. This is a
primary reason why he explains that the state must whither away at the end of
history. In his communist society, the state must relinquish its power for the
sake of ensuring that the rights of man cannot be used to enforce inequality
and social differences. Though Nietzsche does not explain much about the state,
he believes that it “emerged as a terrible tyranny.” The state would represent
the difference between the noble morality and the slave morality. Those who were
powerful and noble were the people who were considered good. This idea created
a sense of resentment within those with less power. This resentment drives the
slave morality and causes the slaves to create a set of morals to overcome the
nobles. The key in Nietzsche is that power is primary and morality is
secondary. These two concepts are significant to the Marx and Nietzsche’s
modern political theory. They both believe that the individual has a
significant role within society. The individual is more autonomous, than being
ruled by an external power. In retrospect, the theorists bring modernity to an
end by asking the questions that Machiavelli posed, more specifically, “What is
distinctive about the political realm and how do we understand its relationship
1 L. Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, pp 115.
2 Ibid, pp 115.
3 B. Ollman, Alienation, pp 133.
4 S. Avineri, Karl Marx: Social and Political Thought.
5 This point is also put forward by Herbert Marcuse.
6 L. Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism.
7 K. Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.
8 B. Ollman, Alienation, pp131.
9 G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A defence.
10 H. Marcuse, Reason and Revolution.
11 K. Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.
12 B. Ollman, Alienation, pp138.
13 K. Marx, The German Ideology, pp56.