Sociology 250

January 27, 2003


Marx on Alienation


Quotes noted below are quotes from the January 22, 2003 handout “Selected quotes on alienation from Marx.”


1.  Background


In his university studies in Germany, Marx was primarily concerned with philosophical issues, specifically the philosophy of Hegel and his followers.  In his early journalism he had discussed the plight of the Moselle wine growers, and the problem of Prussian wood thefts.  In the latter, Marx came to the view that the state was serving the interests of private property owners, rather than the general interest.  He had not yet developed the idea that the state is the instrument expressing the power of the dominant social class.  While Marx also began to consider the proletariat as an important class, with communism as a goal, his approach was more philosophical than political.


In Paris, industry and the working class were more fully developed in economic and political terms than they were in Germany.  Socialist ideas were commonly discussed in workers' clubs and meeting groups.  In addition, Engels had written Outline of a Critique of Political Economy in late 1843, and this began to acquaint Marx with political economy.  Engels' analysis spurred Marx on to study political economy, especially Smith and Ricardo. Engels also provided a study of working class life, The Condition of the Working-class in England in 1844.  Marx began to critique the political economists, and this led to his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844  (referred to as Manuscripts in these notes).  In the Manuscripts, Marx drew parallels between Hegelian philosophy and classical political economy, especially with respect to labour, and its importance in the analysis of society.   Both systems of thought argued that the exercise of human labour was an essential aspect of defining what was unique to humans or the essence of humanity.


The Manuscripts were especially important in developing Marx's thought beyond the Hegelian approach.  The Manuscripts are composed of three sections: (i) the alienation or estrangement of labour, (ii) an analysis of private property and communism, and (iii) a critique of Hegel's dialectic. (McLellan, p. 24).  These themes, the concepts discussed, and the method of analysis, all foreshadow Marx's later work, and in some senses, Capital can be seen as a working out of these themes.  The Manuscripts were not published in German until 1932, and were not available in English until the 1960s.  They have since become an essential part of Marxian analysis, connecting the earlier Marxian ideas with his later writing.




2. Meanings of Alienation.  


The first major topic of the Manuscripts is alienation, a term that has many interpretations.  Alienation has a technical and legal meaning, and we often use it to describe how we are or feel separated from activities or situations which we do not like.  A dictionary definition is “withdrawing or separation of a person or his affections from an object or position of former attachment” or, in the case of property, “a conveyance of property to another.”  The notions of separation or transferring something to a new owner are one way of considering alienation, and this is the way that Marx develops the term.  For Marx, the main aspect of alienation is the separation of work or labour from the worker, and separation of the products of labour from the worker.  Both end up being taken by employers and controlled by them, dominating the worker.


Marx uses alienation in several ways.  Initially, and as part of his historical and philosophical concerns, Marx referred to religion whereby “God ... had usurped man's own position.” (McLellan, p. 106).  In Manuscripts, Marx notes (quote 1)


Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human hear, operates independently of the individual–that is, operates on him as an alien, divine or diabolical activity—so is the worker's activity not his spontaneous activity.  It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self.  (Marx, 1964, p. 111).

For Marx, as for Feuerbach, religion was illusion and while religion claimed to create happiness, the solution to human suffering and problems was not to improve the religious illusion (as Hegel had claimed) but to remove the cause of the human suffering in the material world.  Tucker notes how Marx viewed the sacred and God as beliefs that have human origins – “these moral and dividne beliefes are of human origin, so that images of God and morality take on a universal and seemingly natural existence.” (Tucker, p. 98)  For Marx then, “the idea of God controls haw people adt in the world, rather than people realizeing thet they themselves have fabricated the notion of God” (Tucker, p. 98)


Marx claimed that philosophy could be just as alienating as religion by putting “the Idea in place of God” (McLellan, p. 106), and so long as philosophy viewed the development of ideas as the sole history, this was an alienation of human history.  He further developed the concept of alienation “from a critique of religion to a critique of the state” (Tucker, p. 98).  Marx's great contribution in the Manuscripts was to show how alienation is rooted in human labour and the material world.  That is, it is not initially an individual problem or state of mind, but is an objective, observable feature of the manner in which human labour is organized and exercised.


Weber and Durkheim did not make much, if any, use of alienation, although their discussions of modern society, with the growth of large scale organizations and the division of labour, led to the development of similar concepts.  Weber discussed the bureaucratic organization of social institutions, and in some ways his analysis of bureaucratic domination parallels Marx's analysis of labour.  Durkheim, being more concerned with integrative forces, developed concepts of solidarity and integration.  However, when these were inadequate of failed, Durkheim recognized that there could be crises of solidarity.  One of the effects of this was to create anomie, a concept that has some parallels with alienation.


In contemporary sociology, alienation has been used in a variety of ways.  In the sociology of labour, some writers use alienation in the Marxian sense, as the way in which private property and capitalism alienate the worker from what they create.  Other writers consider alienation to have a more social-psychological interpretation, with interpretations such as of powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, self-estrangement and social isolation (Krahn and Lowe, p. 358).  There may be various causes of these forms of alienation, with  bureaucracy and organizational structures, lack of ownership, social disorganization or poor management, or technology being among the common explanations.   Most of these approaches refer to alienation as loss of control over work, the lack of meaning in work, and the difficulty of self-expression in work.  Some authors consider assembly line workers to have the greatest sense of alienation, with workers such as physicians, teachers, or other professionals to have the least alienation.  “Alienation is likely to be lowest in organizational setting where members have control, meaning, and opportunities for self-fulfilment in their roles.” (Hagedorn, pp. 213).   This latter use of alienation is somewhat different than that of Marx, in that the solution to this form of alienation is to make work more meaningful.  This is a more reformist view, whereas Marx considered it necessary to abolish private property and change social and economic structures


Finally alienation is sometimes used in a political sense with Western Canadian alienation from Central Canada and Ottawa or alienation of the electorate as reasons for disaffection with political parties or policies.


3.  The Importance of Human Labour


In the Manuscripts, Marx is referring to alienated labour, or economic alienation.  Alienated labour forms an important basis for Marx's later analysis of the labour process and surplus value.  Marx drew on the importance of labour in Hegel's writings, labour as the source of value in much of British political economy, and combined these with ideas on human potential from the Enlightenment thinkers and early socialists.  The result is an analysis where human labour and the labour process is always a key component of Marx's analysis.


Marx looks on human labour as one of the chief ways in which humans are distinguished from non-human animals.  Non-human animals have a life activity in that they produce, but only for survival, and only in an instinctual manner.  In contrast, humans are creative and make their life activity and labour the object of their own wills and consciousness.  Tucker notes how “Capitalism crushes our particularly human experience.  It destroys the pleasure associated with labor, the distinctively human capacity to make and remake the world, and the major distinguishing characteristic of humans from animals” (Tucker, p. 98).  Also see last two sentences in Quote 7 .  Part of this is mental activity, in that humans do not just act on instinct, but construct the task or object in their mind before undertaking the activity.  Marx looks on the integration of mental and manual labour as desirable and as the essence of human labour in its complete form. 


Humans reproduce the whole of nature and make nature reappear as the work of humans.  Humans are also social and since they are creative, can create a better society.  Human potential is very great, and the social and economic forces of the past and present have limited humans in being able to achieve this potential.  For Marx, capitalism is an economic and social system whereby the productive forces have been greater than ever before in human history, and this creates the possibility for a better society.  While labour is much more productive in capitalism than in earlier economic systems, the problem with capitalism is it thwarts, distorts, and limits human potential. 


Contemporary sociologists would not generally give labour the same importance that Marx did.  Features of human society such as culture and values, human creativity, and language are often considered to be what distinguishes humans from non-human animals.  This will become evident in the other sociological approaches later in the semester.


In the first paragraph of the Manuscripts, Marx contrasts political economy's positive descriptions of capitalism with the actual state of the working population in capitalism.  This leads Marx to the conclusion that the state of (quote 2)


the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities; that the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production; that the necessary result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands, and thus the restoration of monopoly in a more terrible form ...  (Marx, 1964, p. 106)..


4.  Alienated Labour


Marx begins his analysis of alienated labour by noting what happens to workers under capitalism.  As the worker creates wealth, this wealth is created for the capitalist and not for the worker or direct producer, and the condition of the worker deteriorates.  The worker produces commodities, out of these commodities capital is created, and capital comes to dominate the worker.  The worker him or her self becomes devalued (worth less – lower wages) as a result.  In quote 3, Marx notes:


We shall being from a contemporary economic fact.  The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces and the more his production increases in power and extent.  The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more goods he creates.  The devaluation of the human world increases in direct relation to the increase in value of the world of things.  Labour does not only create goods; it also produces itself and the worker as a commodity, and indeed in the same proportion as it produces goods. (Marx, 1964, p. 13)


Note from this quote:  (i) relevance to today;  (ii) the contradictory or dialectical nature of the argument, that the worker creates the conditions that worsen the worker's condition and position;  (iii) labour itself and the worker become commodities, to be bought and sold;  (iv) analysis is concerned with  (a) observed economic conditions,  (b) historical analysis,  (c) involves abstraction and  (d) is humanistic.   Quote 4:


This fact simply implies that the object produced by labour, its product, now stands opposed to it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labour is labour which has been embodied in an object and turned into a physical thing; this product is an objectification of labour.  ...  So much does the performance of work appear as devaluation (dehumanization is the term used by the Josephsons in Man Alone, Giddens used vitiation) that the worker is devalued (or reduced) to the point of starvation.  So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is deprived of the most essential things not only of life but also of work.  Labour itself becomes an object which he can acquire only with the greatest effort and with unpredictable interruptions.  ... the more objects the worker produces the fewer he can possess and the more he falls under the domination of his product, of capital. (Marx, 1964, p. 13)


The object produced by labour is a good or service and this product becomes an alien being and becomes a power independent of producer.  Performance of work is its objectification.  Note the Hegelian approach, for example, on p. 12 of Manuscripts, Marx refers to “objectification as loss of object.”   It is simultaneously production of the product and vitiation (debasing or spoiling) of worker, objectification as servitude to object, and alienation.


The results of work include the loss of essential aspects of life and work, work itself (unemployment, irregular employment, etc.) and the domination of capital, labour's product, becomes greater.  The potential is turned into its opposite.  Work and religion are similar in that as more is put into the object, the less there is of the self.  This is not just a bad feeling or meaninglessness, but an actual separation and domination.


5.  Four Aspects of Alienation or Estrangement


In the Manuscripts, there are four aspects to alienation (Adams and Sydie, p. 128).  These are as follows.


a. From Products of own Labour.  The first aspect of alienated labour is the separation of the worker from the products of the worker's labour.  Quote 5:


All these consequences follow from the fact that the worker is related to the product of his labour as to an alien object.  For it is clear on this presupposition that the more the worker expends himself in work the more powerful becomes the world of objects which he creates in face of himself, the poorer he becomes in his inner life, and the less he belongs to himself.  ...  The worker puts his life into the object, and his life then belongs no longer to himself but to the object.  The greater his activity, therefore, the less he possesses.  What is embodied in the product of his labour is no longer his own. The greater this product is, therefore, the more he is diminished.  The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, assumes an external existence, but that it exists independently, outside himself, and alien to him, and that it stands opposed to him as an autonomous power.  The life which he has given to the object sets itself against him as an alien and hostile force. (Marx, 1964, pp. 13-14)


Under capitalism, the worker created products or objects.  Commodities produced by labour are taken away from the worker and sold, and labour itself becomes a commodity.  This produces wealth for the capitalist, but poverty for the worker.  This alienation produces riches and power for some but enslaves and degrades workers.  The product of labour belongs to the capitalist, who uses it to create profits. Workers have no control over the product, or over what they are producing and the products workers create end up dominating workers.  


b. From the Process of Production or from Work Itself.  Quote 6:


... he does not fulfil himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased.  The worker, therefore, feels himself at home only during his leisure time, whereas at work he feels homeless.  His work is not voluntary but imposed, forced labour.  It is not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying other needs. (Marx, 1964, p. 15)


This is alienation in the process of production, within productive activity itself.  Since the product is separated from the worker, the act of production is active alienation.  Behind this critique stands Marx's view of the possibility of a more integrated form of labour, whereby the labour process is controlled by workers, where there is a unity between mental and manual labour, and whereby workers together determine what and how production takes place.  The market and capitalists do not dominate and control production in this alternative view.


Under capitalism, work is controlled by employers and is external to the worker and is not part of the worker's nature.  The worker is not fulfilled, but has a feeling of misery, is exhausted and debased.  This is how social-psychological aspects of alienation emerge – such as the unsatisfying aspects of work.  This also creates a division of time into labour time (negative) and leisure time (positive).  Work at a job becomes only a means of earning enough money to buy food and other necessities.  Instead of work being an exercise of human creativity, workers feel free only in their animal functions (eating, sleeping, etc.) and not in their human function (creative work).  The potentially creative nature of human labour, that which distinguishes humans from non-human animals, is denied to workers.


c. From Species-Being or from Humanity and Human Potential.  While this aspect of alienation is implicit in the first two aspects, Marx argues that this creates an alienation of workers from their own human potential.  Individuals perform and act less and less like human beings, and more and more like machines.  Quote 7:


Since alienated labour: (1) alienates nature from man; and (2) alienates man from himself, from his own active function, his life activity; so it alienates him from the species.  ...  For labour, life activity, productive life, now appear to man only as means for the satisfaction of a need, the need to maintain physical existence.  ...  In the type of life activity resides the whole character of a species, its species-character; and free, conscious activity is the species-character of human beings. ... Conscious life activity distinguishes man from the life activity of animals. (Marx, 1964, p. 16).


Humans, unlike animals, have a consciousness and a will.  They have a conscious life activity, and in this activity, humans express free activity.  Humans, because they are self-conscious, make their own life activity, and this part of the essence of humanity.  Humans produce when free from physical need, reproduce the whole of nature, and construct in accordance with beauty.  This is the essence of species-being.  But in doing this, alienated labour takes away the object of production, thus taking away species-being.  Nature is taken from humans, and this turns humans' advantages into a disadvantage.  Consciousness becomes only a means, and alienated labour turns the species-life into an alien being.  “It alienates from man his own body, external nature, his mental life and his human life.”


Giddens (p. 13) notes that alienation means human labour adapts to nature (and products of nature produced by human labour), rather than exercising a mastery of nature.  The worker becomes a slave of the object, and the worker's physical subject becomes identified with working and as a worker.  The individual becomes identified as a worker, and only in being a worker is the individual important, at least from the viewpoint of political economy.


d. From Other Persons.  Humans are also alienated from other human beings and in capitalism, human relations are reduced to market or exchange relationships.  Marx argues that excahnge relationships are social relationships, even though they appear to become only money relationships.  Quote 8:


A direct consequence of the alienation of man from the product of his labour, from his life activity and from his species-life, is that man is alienated from other men. ... man is alienated from his species-life means that each man is alienated from others, and that each of the others is likewise alienated from human life.  (Marx, 1964, p. 17).


6. Summary and Conclusions concerning Alienation.  


Labour is a cooperative venture, in that work in society involves both past human labour and the labour of many workers in the labour process.  But in capitalism, production is organized to produce commodities, and because of specialization and the division of labour, it appears as if capital and labour are separate and individual sources of production.  This results in isolation of the worker. (paragraph based on Ritzer (p. 52).


Some results of alienation are given by Ritzer, third edition, p. 60.  These are some of what are often regarded as dehumanizing conditions of work under capitalism.

            (i) workers must do detail work and are crippled monstrosities.

            (ii) separation of mental and manual labour.

            (iii) monotony of repeated tasks.

            (iv) labour not creative but merely concerned with possession.

Note that some of these effects are social-psycholigical types of effects that may be associated more with meaningless or powerlessness.  However, it is the alienation of objects, processes, and self that produces these results.


a. Alienation of labour not just individual alienation.   Some consider alienation to be a personal or psychological problem.  While this aspect of alienation certainly exists, for Marx the origin of alienation is not with the individual, nor can the problems it creates be solved on a person by person basis, perhaps by reorganizing workplaces or providing assistance to individuals.  Rather, the origin of alienation is in the social structure, in the fact that society is organized in a way that production takes place with alienated labour, i.e. on the capital/labour basis.  It is the fact that capitalists own the means of production, that workers must work for these capitalists, that is at the root of alienation.  The solution must be a structural one, not merely an individual one.


b. Social order and disorder.  Many other sociological theorists were concerned with the economic, political and social disorganization that results from capitalism and industrialization, and as a result they focussed their studies on values, religion, ideology, the state, or consensus.  For these theorists, the latter forces were ways in which social order could be created and maintained.  In contrast, Marx shows how social disorganization is built into capitalism with a system with private property.  Marx's solution to overcoming alienation is to remove the conditions creating alienation, rather than modifying or reforming sociey to create greater social organization.  See quotes 9 and 10.


c.  Sources of and solution to alienation.   Marx connects alienation with the division of labour, wages and private property.  In early society, there was a very simple form of the division of labour, perhaps by sex and age.  People may not have specialized in particular occupations, rather there were often group or communal activities.  As the division of labour developed, and as people began to specialize in different occupational activities, a surplus began to develop.   Exchange of products became necessary, and this created the possibility of alienation.   At this stage, production was generally small scale and exchange mostly at a local level, so that control over production was close to the producer.


The development of private property creates a different situation.  With private property and a system of exchange that expands to create a money economy, the possibility of gain become vastly expanded.  As capitalism developed, some became propertyless and had to work as wage labourers.  After the middle ages, the alienation of the peasantry from their land becomes a key part of this process.  Once capitalism became more fully developed, the different forms of alienation became part of the normal functioning of a capitalist system.


Marx’s solution to alienation is outlined in Quotes 12 and 13 as Marx's early vision of communism.  In order to end alienation, it is necessary to abolish private property and abolish the relationship between private property and wage labour.  In quote 10 note Marx’s early vision of the role of the working class in accomplishing this.  For Marx, the abolition of private property removes the cause of alienation, and to accomplish this workers have to be emancipated from a system of private property and wages.  Since other forms of inequality and servitude are a result of this, as workers emancipate themselves, this creates “universal human emancipation.”


In order to carry out such emancipation, there would have to be more than destruction of the current system, so that there is a positive abolition of private property.  That is, a new society could be created where there could be a “complete return of man to himself as a social being.” (Quote 13)   Giddens (p. 17) notes that

Communist society will be based, not upon the egoistic self-seeking which the economists assume to be characteristic of human nature in general, but upon the conscious awareness of the reciprocal dependence of the individual and the social community.

This communist society is not expected to be one that submerges the individual in the group, but allow for the “expansion of the particular potentialities and capabilities of individuals.” (Giddens, p. 17).


Note that Marx does not have a well developed program to achieved this in his early writings.  He objected to some of the utopian or crude communist ideas that appeared in early socialist writings.  In these early writings there is no systematic theory connecting  the development of socialism and communism with the development of the working class or proletariat.  But he does argue that private property must be abolished in order to achieve the better society.  His conception of communism involves an integrated form of mental and manual labour, with control over labour by the worker and the community, and the development of human productive and creative capabilities.  These ideas were further developed in Marx's later writings.


d. Later views on alienation.   Marx did not discuss alienation in his later writings, partly because of the way that other writers used the term and partly because he developed other concepts.  Marx objected to the philosophic view of alienation, instead seeing alienation as rooted in actual historical developments.  In the Manuscripts, Marx wrote about labour, political economy and alienation, moving back and forth between materialist and political economic approaches.  In his later writings, political economy becomes the dominant form of analysis, and some writers have argued that the concept of alienation becomes transformed into the concept of 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 is, surplus labour is extracted from the worker, the products created by this surplus labour are taken away from the worker, and the value created by this labour is transformed into profits and capital.  These latter come to dominate the worker.  It was only later that Marx worked out this more systematic political economic approach.


e. Problems with Marx's analysis of alienation.  Some of the problems associated with Marx's writings on alienation are as follows.


(i) Solution?  The explanation was not well worked out in terms of its implications and how it might be eliminated.  The solution of communism has not occurred, and does not seem a likely prospect in the near future.


(ii) Changes in capitalism.  Marx's approach to the study of alienation helps explain a lot of what does occur in labour markets, and alienation is an important concept in the sociology of labour.  At the same time, living and working conditions and the structure of the labour market have changed considerably since the time when Marx was writing.  The worst conditions he describes are felt by some, but not by all workers.  The division of labour has vastly expanded, with different types of effects for different segments of working class, and with different working classes in different countries.


(iii) Origins of alienation.  Marx deals only with work for capitalists, seeing the roots of alienation only in exchange of labour and private property.  Similar feelings and causes of estrangement and alienation may be related to ethnicity or race (alienation from the economic system, by being left out of the system), region (Prairie or western alienation, which may be tied more to the distribution, rather than production, of the surplus) or other aspects of society that are not directly tied to production.  In addition, by considering only labour in the market, Marx ignores all aspects of life other than this -- in the home, relations between sexes, relations between those of different ages, etc.  Many of these social relations have effects that are very similar to the aspects Marx is discussing.  Work and labour as alienating refer only to work done in the capital-labour relationship.  But work in general and production may be alienating in some of the same senses as Marx discusses. 


(iv) Approaches of other sociologists.  Weber used rationalization and bureaucracy to describe some of the ways that people feel trapped.  Durkheim used the division of labour and anomie to describe the sense of rootlessness and disconnection that people felt from society.  What is interesting is that many of the same types of effects that Marx observed were important for later sociologists to explain as well -- although these later sociologists used different terms and had different explanations for these same or similar phenomena. 


f. Conclusion.    In spite of these weaknesses, the concept of alienation has proved to be a very useful and fruitful one.  It is widely used today in politics, in social psychology, studies of labour and work, and so on.  For Marx's system itself, the analysis of alienation is associated with the early stage of his writings.  The analysis of alienation allowed him to pull together his philosophical background, his observations of early nineteenth century capitalism, his interest in political issues, and his first forays into a discussion of political economy.  In the Marxian system, alienation becomes transformed into exploitation and surplus value, and it is the latter that the late Marx is more concerned with explaining.


Marx's contribution was to provide a systematic analysis of alienation, and show how it had material origin, being rooted in the organization of labour and private property.  His theoretical approach is also evident in the study of alienation, with a dialectical analysis combining elements from various other writers, but developing a new approach to the study of alienation.




Note:  Manuscripts refers the the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts reprinted in Giddens, A. and D. Held, Classes, Power, and Conflict:  Classical and Contemporary Debates, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982, pp. 12-19.  HT675 C55 1982

Giddens, Anthony, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1971. HM19 G53.

Grabb, Edward G., Theories of Social Inequality:  Classical and Contemporary Perspectives, second edition, Toronto, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990.  HT609 G72

Hadden, R. W., Sociological Theory: An Introduction to the Classical Tradition, Peterborough, Broadview Press, 1997.

Josephson, Eric and Mary Josephson, editors, Man Alone:  Alienation in Modern Society, New York, Dell, 1962.  HM101 J6

Krahn, H. J. and G. S. Lowe, Work, Industry, and Canadian Society, second edition, Scarborough, Nelson Canada, 1993.

Marx, K., Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, New York City, International Publishers, 1964.

McLellan, David, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, London, Macmillan, 1973.  HX39.5 M26 1973.

Ritzer, George, Sociological Theory, third edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1992.  HM24 R4938.

Tucker, Kenneth H., Jr., Classical Social Theory: A Contemporary Approach, Blackwell, 2002.


Last edited January 29, 2003

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