Home > Philosophy > Texts > Social & Political Philosophy > Marx’s Alienated Labor
Source info.
Marx wrote The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts between April and August 1844.
Home > Philosophy > Texts > Social & Political Philosophy > Marx’s Alienated Labor

Marx’s Alienated Labor

"Marx," by Mitch Francis

“Marx,” by Mitch Francis


A contemporary drawing of the young Karl Marx.

A contemporary drawing of the young Karl Marx.

Marx's autograph

Marx’s autograph

Karl Marx (5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883), one of the very founders of the social sciences, argued that attention-grabbing historical changes are at bottom not explained by convincing politicians with bright notions like “equality for all,” or by military strategists, or by rising and falling social movements, artistic trends, or favorite TV shows. All these operate under the sway, or even in the service, of economic processes: talk of “economic freedom” is closer to the heart of history, as are wars for resources, and commodified trends. For instance, however much we might want to analyze the transition from feudal to technological society in terms of the operation of “the impetus to improve the lot of humanity,” “curiosity,” “the fight for equality,” “creativity,” or other human powers, Marx’s analysis gives a central explanatory role to economic forces and tensions. Like G.W.F. Hegel, a marked influence on Marx, Marx thought that larger-than-individual forces driving history were invisible to the untrained eye. And he offered his philosophy as the key which unlocks the secrets of history. The untrained fixate on shadow; Marxian eyes are empowered to see reality.

‘Ideology’

Actually, his position was more extreme than that. He didn’t just think the controlling forces were invisible because they’re hard to see in some straightforward sense. They are made invisible by a kind of blindness, a blindness created as part of the normal operation of history’s fundamental forces. The blindness is achieved by means of the propagation and projection of what he called ideology. At first pass, we might think of this as a program of cultural ideas which reinforce the interests of a particular class at a particular time in history – only, the ideas comprising a “ruling ideology” aren’t accepted as true on the basis of everyone’s careful consideration; instead, they achieve their status somewhat illicitly, and serve a brain-washing function, making the ideology seem to be the statement of natural facts, inevitable power relationships, and universal truths. In our own society, beliefs which help entrench the power of the owning class might, for instance, include

  • “anyone who works hard in our free country can succeed,”
  • “because of freedom, unhappy workers can always quit their jobs to take better ones,” or
  • “those who don’t have, must not have worked hard enough.”
  • “acquiring the right products leads to fulfilment.”

Propagating these beliefs in the population secures the power of the owning class, because relatively powerless workers are taught to blame themselves rather than to direct frustration at the system which creates it, hidden in plain sight though it is. And notice how owners can also appeal to ideology to justify the status quo. Ideology operates as colored lenses which govern the interpretation of experience for workers and owners alike.

Our text, from Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts (1844)

Marx wrote The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts between April and August 1844. The first English translation – published in 1959 by Progress Publishers in Moscow – described the text as “the first … in which Marx tried to systematically elaborate problems of political economy from the standpoint of his maturing dialectical-materialist and communist views and also to synthesise the results of his critical review of prevailing philosophic and economic theories.” A few terms here require explanation.

  • ‘Political economy’ is the pre-20th century term for economics, the study of commodity production, and of the transfer and accumulation of wealth.
  • As for the phrase, ‘dialectical materialism’, it was coined after Marx’s death. ‘Dialectical’ here emphasizes Marx’s indebtedness to Hegel for his approach to seeing in history something like a fruitful “dialogue” of forces, working with opposition and tension rather than shunning them as counter-intelligible, and thus grasping things in their full richness. And ‘materialism’ contrasts with idealism’s effort to understand history’s movement by supposing it to be governed by mental or spiritual forces. Materialism emphasizes the ultimately matter-dependent, down-to-earth forces – economic, historical ones – such as “the working class,” “the owning class,” “the means of production.” These and other economically definable categories which express and characterize power relations form the basis for the explanation of the nature of socio-cultural reality and the problems and tensions arising in it. Many Marxists consider dialectical materialism to be a science – establishing what early 20th century Marxist intellectual Karl Kautsky even defended as ‘laws of history’; key events predicted by these laws include:

    Communism about the future

    • the rise of widespread “class consciousness” on the part of the working class – ultimately, the workers of the world;
    • a transition – here peaceful, there violent – to a dictatorship of the working class;
    • the atrophy of the state bureaucracy and
    • gentle passing into a peaceful end-of-history, an enlightened anarchy in which human potential – both social, and in turn individual – reaches its prime: workers produce out of desire to create; greed is transcended dialectically toward a value system that affirms human beings’ creativity, productivity, and sociality over acquisitiveness and competitiveness, fearfulness and cruelty.

“The means of production” is the term for the collection of stuff used to make products (including factories, raw materials, trained workers, etc.).

  • Finally, the term ‘communism’ might be defined, at first-pass, as the economic reality defined by a communally shared means of production – in historical terms, the period beginning with the abolition of private control of [1.] production (e.g., factories) and [2.] distribution of natural and cultural resources. But in the United States, the term ‘communism’ often still carries the demonic overtones inculcated by U.S. government propaganda, some of which is showcased in the following short compilation video: What is a communist, really? Marx – by contrast with a fear-inspired vision – elsewhere in these Manuscripts defines communism in hopeful, inspirational tones, as the coming-to-term of humanity in all its potential.

    “ … communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man — the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.” (Marx, “Private Property & Communism”

By 1845, Marx thought of these 1844 Manuscripts as just a precursor to a larger work analyzing “the economic system of bourgeois society in his time and its ideological trends” – as the explanatory material in the 1959 edition puts it. That hope was dashed for the time, as his publisher cancelled the book contract for fear of association with Marx the revolutionary. Our main selection comes from the end of the first of three manuscripts. Although the Manuscripts are unfinished and rough, and some of their original content is lost, they provide insight into Marx’s earlier thinking on the subject to which he would return in the 1850s in his multi-volume work, Capital.

By 1846, Marx’s shift away from the focus on alienation within and between workers to “the separation of labor,” as he calls it in the first paragraph below (more commonly, the “division of labor,” a separation between and within classes), is visible in the pages of The German Ideology.

Our 1844 piece, “Estranged Labor,” is often considered more philosophical than the more economic work that followed. Here, he is introducing illuminating concepts, which he thinks play at least two important roles:

  1. they serve to make sense of and discipline ranges of our experience that are otherwise undifferentiated from the rest and not grasped in their own significance, and
  2. they play important theoretical roles in science.

The most central of these concepts is alienation or estrangement, which is both closely linked to the concept of separation and often involves associated suffering. Marx aims to “pull back” the appearance (the Official Story, according to the ruling ideology, the shadow), according to which the causes of suffering are diverse, and are often the fault of individuals themselves. Behind it, he points to a reality in which significant, wide-spread suffering is systematically created as part of the operation of the economic system (capitalism) – hence, his concern with alienated labor. This is his key concept.

Why should we believe the suffering is due to an economic reality that affects us all rather than, say, personal problems with which we must each grapple?

"Alien-ation," by Mitch Francis

“Alien-ation,” by Mitch Francis

Marx’s evidence, below, links each of four forms of alienation to phenomena under capitalism: Workers are alienated from things they make (“products of labor”), from themselves, from their special human capacities (their “species-being”), and from other people. So the suffering isn’t generic, but economic; isn’t accidental, but systematic; isn’t merely personal, but social. And the conceptions associated with each of the four types of alienation, Marx claims, provide essential insights into how to group our experiences so as to really “make sense” of them. We’ll return to Marx’s contribution to disciplining the undifferentiated in his text below.

The second role of the concept of alienated labor is theoretical. This is naturally more abstract, and still more so given Marx’s training in the work of Hegel. He concludes that “private property [is] the material, summarized expression of alienated labor.” This might be taken as claiming that

  1. private property is a manifestation of this alienation, as an outward smile is a manifestation of inward joy;
  2. private property is caused by this alienation, as a burst of inward joy is caused by a joke, or a sculpture by a sculptor; or
  3. private property is identical to this alienation in some sense, as water is to H2O.

Marx can be read now in one, now another of the above three ways. But that last way might look peculiar. How could they be identical? They seem so different. Before dismissing the possibility, consider this. We believe that water is the visible complex identified by the formula which cites its invisible parts, ‘H2O’. The only reason it “makes sense” to us is that we “get” or at least believe chemistry – but Henry Cavendish’s discovery is still “water under the bridge” for us (ha, ha!). Is there any reason we should similarly think Marx meant private property is really alienation? Yes, there is. For now, I’ll nudge and challenge the interested to wrestle with the passages in which he boasts that his focus on “the relationship of alienated labor to the course of human development” overcomes the limitations of grasping private property and labor as separate factors. In short, he celebrates the unity of his account in the concept of alienated labor.

Whether we settle how to interpret him or not, what Marx thought is only one part of our interest. Another is this: What should you believe?

There is a second, in a sense more obvious, way the concept of alienated labor plays an explanatory role in what we’ve come to call “social science.” On Marx’s theory, the suffering generated by the alienation of labor is a necessary part of the course of history (see “Communism about the future,” above). Alone it is not sufficient; however, Marx predicts, workers will awaken – see through the ideology – and find that while they slept these years, capitalists developed a very high-tech capacity to produce, capable of “outfitting the world.” These are workers who, for the first time, see both themselves as enslaved and likewise their power to cast offx their chains. Such predictions are of course fascinating, as is speculating about factual details.

But note the metaphorical content and links to Plato’s allegory: there is a breaking of chains, a setting free, a piercing of illusions, and in a sense a discovery of the true self and unification of what was previously un-integrated, still-separated. The tensions and clashes that catalyze and promote change aren’t intellectual as they were for Socrates; for Marx, the battleground is not just in the mind, although it is there, too: it is between classes. The harmony that emerges from this tension and conflict is both social and personal. For Marx, this liberation and fulfillment of humanity represents a down-to-earth contrast to Plato’s vision of true fulfillment. And yet, both philosophers found the conditions of fulfillment written into our very being – Plato by positing in-born capacities for each type of person, and Marx by positing alienation-to-be-overcome, laying out the path for a journey at the end of which humanity finds itself whole.

So the concept of alienated labor both illuminates experience and plays theoretical roles in some important, philosophically infused efforts to explain large-scale human reality.

Our Marx piece begins with his characterization of workers in a capitalist economy reduced to the status of mere things to be bought and sold, commodities – and, he clarifies, this status is determined on the basis of workers’ economic role rather than need, merit, or other factors. Marx drew on his friend Friedrich Engles’ provocative pop-culture “vampire”-metaphor to describe workers’ reality:

"Capitalist Vampire," by Mitch Francis

“Capitalist Vampire,” by Mitch Francis

“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.” (Capital, vol. 1, chap. 10)

Reflection Assignment
In preparation for discussion, reflect on your experience to find examples of each of the four types of alienation.

Time-line snippets, Marx the revolutionary.
On Marx’s “human side,” and on the whole, a number of biographers have discovered a Marx who married his teenage sweetheart and played vigorously with his children. Here’s a sketch of some of the years in the period for Marx the man.

"Marx, Family Man," by Mitch Francis

“Marx, Family Man,” by Mitch Francis

  • 1830s – Marx studies law in Berlin & Bonn, until he turns to Hegel in the late ’30s; uprisings in France, Belgium, Poland, and a workers’ movement is started in England.
  • 1841 – Marx receives his Doctorate in Philosophy from the (German) University of Jena.
  • 1842 – Marx begins critical work as a journalist, soon contributing to a liberal paper based in the German city of Cologne before becoming editor-in-chief.
  • 1843-44 – the Prussian government closes the “dangerous” paper; Marx marries Jenny von Westphalen and the couple move to Paris – where Marx met Engles, studied French socialism, and fell in with a secret society of revolutionary workers (“The League of the Just”). Jenny Marx is born.
  • 1845 – exiled by the French government, Marx moves to Brussels; Engels follows and the two collaborate on writing and revolutionary organize. Laura Marx is born.
  • 1847 – Marx persuades the now international League of the Just to “go public” under the name “Communist League,” and to move headquarters to Brussels. Edgar Marx born.
  • 1848 – revolutionary “percolations” in Italy, Vienna, Berlin, Paris; revolution in France and Hungary. Marx & Engels publish Manifesto of the Communist Party in London. The King of Belgium orders Marx to leave and arrests his family – they return to Paris. Marx leaves for Germany to support revolution, resuming publication of his radical newspaper.
  • 1849 – though a jury finds Marx and the paper “not guilty” of insulting the authorities, he is exiled from Prussia; he returns to Paris in June, only to be deported in August. The Marxes moved to London, where Karl continued support of workers’ movements and enjoyed the birth of his fourth child, Heinrich Guido.

The Marxes suffered poverty in the 1850s, as well as the crushing deaths of their Heinrich, the infant Franziska, and Edgar. (For context, note that Charles Dickens’ depiction in A Christmas Carol of the harsh effects of industrialization for working families in London was published in late 1843, just before our text was published.) Marx contributed regularly to the New York Daily Tribune, for which he served as a kind of European correspondent and commentator, but also contributed pieces about the Civil War in the United States. Still, during this lean period he remained financially dependent on Engels.

In the years that followed, London remained Marx’s “home base.” He continued to write, lecture, and even took up chemistry – but also to organize and agitate. He became a major intellectual force in the International Workingmen’s Association in the 1860s; and in 1871, IWA-inspired Parisian citizenry seized and held control of the city for two months, until violently suppressed.

Karl was buried with his then-recently deceased wife, Jenny, on March 17, 1883 in London’s Highgate Cemetery.

Grave of Karl Marx, Highgate Cemetery, London, England, 1985

Grave of Karl Marx, Highgate Cemetery, London, England, 1985. Credit: Phil Douglis



Here is Marx’s text.

Estranged Labor

We have started out from the premises of political economy. We have accepted its language and its laws. We presupposed private property; the separation of labor, capital, and land, and likewise of wages, profit, and capital; the division of labor; competition; the conception of exchange value, etc. From political economy itself, using its own words, we have shown that the worker sinks to the level of a commodity, and moreover the most wretched commodity of all; that the misery of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and volume of his production; that the necessary consequence of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands and hence the restoration of monopoly in a more terrible form; and that, finally, the distinction between capitalist and landlord, between agricultural worker and industrial worker, disappears and the whole of society must split into the two classes of property owners and propertyless workers.

Political economy proceeds from the fact of private property. It does not explain it. It grasps the material process of private property, the process through which it actually passes, in general and abstract formulae which it then takes as laws. It does not Comprehend these laws — i.e., it does not show how they arise from the nature of private property. Political economy fails to explain the reason for the division between labor and capital. For example, when it defines the relation of wages to profit, it takes the interests of the capitalists as the basis of its analysis — i.e., it assumes what it is supposed to explain. Similarly, competition is frequently brought into the argument and explained in terms of external circumstances. Political economy teaches us nothing about the extent to which these external and apparently accidental circumstances are only the expression of a necessary development. We have seen how exchange itself appears to political economy as an accidental fact. The only wheels which political economy sets in motion are greed, and the war of the avariciousCompetition.

Marx distinguishes appearance from reality, arguing in particular that existing economic theory merely traces the flow of “private property,” in explanation of which it assumes greed and competition as primitives, rather than recognizing them as arising in part from the system. Hence, it neither comprehends them truly, nor is it capable of explaining the nature of private property. It’s shadow-bound!

Precisely because political economy fails to grasp the interconnections within the movement, it was possible to oppose, for example, the doctrine of competition to the doctrine of monopoly, the doctrine of craft freedom to the doctrine of the guild, and the doctrine of the division of landed property to the doctrine of the great estate; for competition, craft freedom, and division of landed property were developed and conceived only as accidental, deliberate, violent consequences of monopoly, of the guilds, and of feudal property, and not as their necessary, inevitable, and natural consequences.

Economics-as-usual fails to understand that the capitalist replacements for the more feudal forms aren’t simply, “new, opposed forms,” but in fact grow naturally out of earlier forms according to deeper laws.

We now have to grasp the essential connection between … this entire system of estrangement and the money system.

We now have to grasp the essential connection between private property, greed, the separation of labor, capital and landed property, exchange and competition, value and the devaluation [German: Entwertung] of man, monopoly, and competition, etc. — the connection between this entire system of estrangement [German: Entfremdung] and the money system.
We must avoid repeating the mistake of the political economist, who bases his explanations on some imaginary primordial condition. Such a primordial condition explains nothing. It simply pushes the question into the grey and nebulous distance. It assumes as facts and events what it is supposed to deduce — namely, the necessary relationships between two things, between, for example, the division of labor and exchange. Similarly, theology explains the origin of evil by the fall of Man — i.e., it assumes as a fact in the form of history what it should explain.

We shall start out from a present-day economic fact.

Among those Marx likely had in mind are the “social contract” theorists, such as the British philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes posited competition as a basic destabilizing condition of pre-political social life, and argued for draconian measures to secure stability (he attempted to use reasoning about this “reality” to justify absolute monarchy); Locke’s speculations claimed a natural right to private property (and incidentally, he even offered a weak justification for holding slaves as a legitimate form of property). Marx considered that such limited “just-so justifications” reflect and reinforce the status quo and the interests of the powerful.

The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things. Labor not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same proportion in which it produces commodities in general.

Marx identifies a first form of alienation under capitalism:

1. alienation from the product of labor.

This fact simply means that the object that labor produces, its product, stands opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor embodied and made material in an object, it is the objectification of labor. The realization of labor is its objectification. In the sphere of political economy, this realization of labor appears as a loss of reality for the worker, objectification as loss of and bondage to the object, and appropriation as estrangement, as alienation [German: Entausserung].

Marx adds a second form to his sketch:

2. alienation from oneself.

So much does the realization of labor appear as loss of reality that the worker loses his reality to the point of dying of starvation. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects he needs most not only for life but also for work. Work itself becomes an object which he can only obtain through an enormous effort and with spasmodic interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the fewer can he possess and the more he falls under the domination of his product, of capital.

All these consequences are contained in this characteristic, that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For it is clear that, according to this premise, the more the worker exerts himself in his work, the more powerful the alien, objective world becomes which he brings into being over against himself, the poorer he and his inner world become, and the less they belong to him. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains within himself. The worker places his life in the object; but now it no longer belongs to him, but to the object. The greater his activity, therefore, the fewer objects the worker possesses. What the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The externalization [German: Entausserung] of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and beings to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien.

Let us now take a closer look at objectification, at the production of the worker, and the estrangement, the loss of the object, of his product, that this entails.

The workers can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material in which his labor realizes itself, in which it is active and from which, and by means of which, it produces.

But just as nature provides labor with the means of life, in the sense [that] labor cannot live without objects on which to exercise itself, so also it provides the means of life in the narrower sense, namely the means of physical subsistence of the worker.

The more the worker appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, through his labor, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in two respects: firstly, the sensuous external world becomes less and less an object belonging to his labor, a means of life of his labor; and, secondly, it becomes less and less a means of life in the immediate sense, a means for the physical subsistence of the worker.

In these two respects, then, the worker becomes a slave of his object; firstly, in that he receives an object of labor, i.e., he receives work, and, secondly, in that he receives means of subsistence. Firstly, then, so that he can exists as a worker, and secondly as a physical subject. The culmination of this slavery is that it is only as a worker that he can maintain himself as a physical subject and only as a physical subject that he is a worker.

(The estrangement of the worker in his object is expressed according to the laws of political economy in the following way:

the more the worker produces, the less he has to consume;

the more value he creates, the more worthless he becomes;

the more his product is shaped, the more misshapen the worker;

the more civilized his object, the more barbarous the worker;

the more powerful the work, the more powerless the worker;

the more intelligent the work, the duller the worker and the

more he becomes a slave of nature.)

Political economy conceals the estrangement in the nature of labor by ignoring the direct relationship between the worker (labor) and production. It is true that labor produces marvels for the rich, but it produces privation for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the worker. It produces beauty, but deformity for the worker. It replaces labor by machines, but it casts some of the workers back into barbarous forms of labor and turns others into machines. It produces intelligence, but it produces idiocy and cretinism for the worker.

The direct relationship of labor to its products is the relationship of the worker to the objects of his production. The relationship of the rich man to the objects of production and to production itself is only a consequence of this first relationship, and confirms it. Later, we shall consider this second aspect. Therefore, when we ask what is the essential relationship of labor, we are asking about the relationship of the worker to production.

Up to now, we have considered the estrangement, the alienation of the worker, only from one aspect — i.e., his relationship to the products of his labor. But estrangement manifests itself not only in the result, but also in the act of production, within the activity of production itself. How could the product of the worker’s activity confront him as something alien if it were not for the fact that in the act of production he was estranging himself from himself? After all, the product is simply the résumé of the activity, of the production. So if the product of labor is alienation, production itself must be active alienation, the alienation of activity, the activity of alienation. The estrangement of the object of labor merely summarizes the estrangement, the alienation in the activity of labor itself.

The estrangement of the object of labor merely summarizes… the alienation in the activity of labor itself.

What constitutes the alienation of labor?

Firstly, the fact that labor is external to the worker — i.e., does not belong to his essential being; that he, therefore, does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence, the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labor is, therefore, not voluntary but forced, it is forced labor. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, it is shunned like the plague. External labor, labor in which man alienates himself, is a labor of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Finally, the external character of labor for the worker is demonstrated by the fact that it belongs not to him but to another, and that in it he belongs not to himself but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, the human brain, and the human heart, detaches itself from the individual and reappears as the alien activity of a god or of a devil, so the activity of the worker is not his own spontaneous activity. It belongs to another, it is a loss of his self.

Marx begins to work a third form into his analysis:

3. alienation from our special human – creative, productive, social – characteristics.

The result is that man (the worker) feels that he is acting freely only in his animal functions — eating, drinking, and procreating, or at most in his dwelling and adornment — while in his human functions, he is nothing more than animal.

It is true that eating, drinking, and procreating, etc., are also genuine human functions. However, when abstracted from other aspects of human activity, and turned into final and exclusive ends, they are animal.

We have considered the act of estrangement of practical human activity, of labor, from two aspects: (1) the relationship of the worker to the product of labor as an alien object that has power over him. The relationship is, at the same time, the relationship to the sensuous external world, to natural objects, as an alien world confronting him, in hostile opposition. (2) The relationship of labor to the act of production within labor. This relationship is the relationship of the worker to his own activity as something which is alien and does not belong to him, activity as passivity [Leiden], power as impotence, procreation as emasculation, the worker’s own physical and mental energy, his personal life — for what is life but activity? — as an activity directed against himself, which is independent of him and does not belong to him. Self-estrangement, as compared with the estrangement of the object [German: Sache] mentioned above.

We now have to derive a third feature of estranged labor from the two we have already examined.

Man is a species-being, not only because he practically and theoretically makes the species — both his own and those of other things — his object, but also — and this is simply another way of saying the same thing — because he looks upon himself as the present, living species, because he looks upon himself as a universal and therefore free being.

The term “species-being” [German: Gattungswesen] is derived from Ludwig Feuerbach’s philosophy where it is applied to man and mankind as a whole.

An intimate connection to nature.

Species-life, both for man and for animals, consists physically in the fact that man, like animals, lives from inorganic nature; and because man is more universal than animals, so too is the area of inorganic nature from which he lives more universal. Just as plants, animals, stones, air, light, etc., theoretically form a part of human consciousness, partly as objects of science and partly as objects of art — his spiritual inorganic nature, his spiritual means of life, which he must first prepare before he can enjoy and digest them — so, too, in practice they form a part of human life and human activity. In a physical sense, man lives only from these natural products, whether in the form of nourishment, heating, clothing, shelter, etc. The universality of man manifests itself in practice in that universality which makes the whole of nature his inorganic body, (1) as a direct means of life and (2) as the matter, the object, and the tool of his life activity. Nature is man’s inorganic body — that is to say, nature insofar as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature — i.e., nature is his body — and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.

Estranged labor not only (1) estranges nature from man and (2) estranges man from himself, from his own function, from his vital activity; because of this, it also estranges man from his species. It turns his species-life into a means for his individual life. Firstly, it estranges species-life and individual life, and, secondly, it turns the latter, in its abstract form, into the purpose of the former, also in its abstract and estranged form.

For in the first place labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man only as a means for the satisfaction of a need, the need to preserve physical existence. But productive life is species-life. It is life-producing life. The whole character of a species, its species-character, resides in the nature of its life activity, and free conscious activity constitutes the species-character of man. Life appears only as a means of life.

The human species is unique in being self-conscious: A human’s “own life is an object for him”…

The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It is not distinct from that activity; it is that activity. Man makes his life activity itself an object of his will and consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity directly distinguishes man from animal life activity. Only because of that is he a species-being. Or, rather, he is a conscious being — i.e., his own life is an object for him, only because he is a species-being. Only because of that is his activity free activity. Estranged labor reverses the relationship so that man, just because he is a conscious being, makes his life activity, his being [German: Wesen], a mere means for his existence.

… and in producing creatively, and with an eye to beauty.

The practical creation of an objective world, the fashioning of inorganic nature, is proof that man is a conscious species-being — i.e., a being which treats the species as its own essential being or itself as a species-being. It is true that animals also produce. They build nests and dwelling, like the bee, the beaver, the ant, etc. But they produce only their own immediate needs or those of their young; they produce only when immediate physical need compels them to do so, while man produces even when he is free from physical need and truly produces only in freedom from such need; they produce only themselves, while man reproduces the whole of nature; their products belong immediately to their physical bodies, while man freely confronts his own product. Animals produce only according to the standards and needs of the species to which they belong, while man is capable of producing according to the standards of every species and of applying to each object its inherent standard; hence, man also produces in accordance with the laws of beauty.

[M]an … also produces in accordance with the laws of beauty.

It is, therefore, in his fashioning of the objective that man really proves himself to be a species-being. Such production is his active species-life. Through it, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of the species-life of man: for man produces himself not only intellectually, in his consciousness, but actively and actually, and he can therefore contemplate himself in a world he himself has created. In tearing away the object of his production from man, estranged labor therefore tears away from him his species-life, his true species-objectivity, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.

In the same way as estranged labor reduces spontaneous and free activity to a means, it makes man’s species-life a means of his physical existence.

Consciousness, which man has from his species, is transformed through estrangement so that species-life becomes a means for him.

(3) Estranged labor, therefore, turns man’s species-being — both nature and his intellectual species-power — into a being alien to him and a means of his individual existence. It estranges man from his own body, from nature as it exists outside him, from his spiritual essence [Wesen], his human existence.

Marx concludes his account of alienation under capitalism:

4. alienation from each other.

(4) An immediate consequence of man’s estrangement from the product of his labor, his life activity, his species-being, is the estrangement of man from man. When man confronts himself, he also confronts other men. What is true of man’s relationship to his labor, to the product of his labor, and to himself, is also true of his relationship to other men, and to the labor and the object of the labor of other men.

In general, the proposition that man is estranged from his species-being means that each man is estranged from the others and that all are estranged from man’s essence.

[E]strangement… is realized and expressed… in man’s relationship to other men.

Man’s estrangement, like all relationships of man to himself, is realized and expressed only in man’s relationship to other men.

In the relationship of estranged labor, each man therefore regards the other in accordance with the standard and the situation in which he as a worker finds himself.

We started out from an economic fact, the estrangement of the worker and of his production. We gave this fact conceptual form: estranged, alienated labor. We have analyzed this concept, and in so doing merely analyzed an economic fact.

Let us now go on to see how the concept of estranged, alienated labor must express and present itself in reality.

If the product of labor is alien to me, and confronts me as an alien power, to whom does it then belong?

To a being other than me.

Who is this being?

The gods? It is true that in early times most production — e.g., temple building, etc., in Egypt, India, and Mexico — was in the service of the gods, just as the product belonged to the gods. But the gods alone were never the masters of labor. The same is true of nature. And what a paradox it would be if the more man subjugates nature through his labor and the more divine miracles are made superfluous by the miracles of industry, the more he is forced to forgo the joy or production and the enjoyment of the product out of deference to these powers.

The alien being to whom labor and the product of labor belong, in whose service labor is performed, and for whose enjoyment the product of labor is created, can be none other than man himself.

From alienated labor Marx derives private control rather than the other way round!

If the product of labor does not belong to the worker, and if it confronts him as an alien power, this is only possible because it belongs to a man other than the worker. If his activity is a torment for him, it must provide pleasure and enjoyment for someone else. Not the gods, not nature, but only man himself can be this alien power over men.

Consider the above proposition that the relationship of man to himself becomes objective and real for him only through his relationship to other men. If, therefore, he regards the product of his labor, his objectified labor, as an alien, hostile, and powerful object which is independent of him, then his relationship to that object is such that another man — alien, hostile, powerful, and independent of him — is its master. If he relates to his own activity as unfree activity, then he relates to it as activity in the service, under the rule, coercion, and yoke of another man.

[T]hrough estranged labor man… creates the domination of the non-producer over production and its product… [by] the capitalist — or whatever other word one chooses for the master of labor.

Every self-estrangement of man from himself and nature is manifested in the relationship he sets up between other men and himself and nature. Thus, religious self-estrangement is necessarily manifested in the relationship between layman and priest, or, since we are dealing here with the spiritual world, between layman and mediator, etc. In the practical, real world, self-estrangement can manifest itself only in the practical, real relationship to other men. The medium through which estrangement progresses is itself a practical one. So through estranged labor man not only produces his relationship to the object and to the act of production as to alien and hostile powers; he also produces the relationship in which other men stand to his production and product, and the relationship in which he stands to these other men. Just as he creates his own production as a loss of reality, a punishment, and his own product as a loss, a product which does not belong to him, so he creates the domination of the non-producer over production and its product. Just as he estranges from himself his own activity, so he confers upon the stranger and activity which does not belong to him.

Up to now, we have considered the relationship only from the side of the worker. Later on, we shall consider it from the side of the non-worker.

Thus, through estranged, alienated labor, the worker creates the relationship of another man, who is alien to labor and stands outside it, to that labor. The relation of the worker to labor creates the relation of the capitalist — or whatever other word one chooses for the master of labor — to that labor. Private property is therefore the product, result, and necessary consequence of alienated labor, of the external relation of the worker to nature and to himself.

Marx turns the economists’ analysis on its head.

Private property thus derives from an analysis of the concept of alienated labor — i.e., alienated man, estranged labor, estranged life, estranged man.

[A]lthough private property appears as the basis and cause of alienated labor, it is in fact its consequence.

It is true that we took the concept of alienated labor (alienated life) from political economy as a result of the movement of private property. But it is clear from an analysis of this concept that, although private property appears as the basis and cause of alienated labor, it is in fact its consequence, just as the gods were originally not the cause but the effect of the confusion in men’s minds. Later, however, this relationship becomes reciprocal.

It is only when the development of private property reaches its ultimate point of culmination that this, its secret, re-emerges; namely, that is (a) the product of alienated labor, and (b) the means through which labor is alienated, the realization of this alienation.

This development throws light upon a number of hitherto unresolved controversies.

(1) Political economy starts out from labor as the real soul of production and yet gives nothing to labor and everything to private property. Proudhon has dealt with this contradiction by deciding for labor and against private property [see his 1840 pamphlet, Qu’est-ce que la propriete?]. But we have seen that this apparent contradiction is the contradiction of estranged labor with itself and that political economy has merely formulated laws of estranged labor.

There is a note here in the first English translation of text (1959, Progress Publishers, Moscow): “This passage shows that Marx here uses the category of wages in a broad sense, as an expression of antagonistic relations between the classes of capitalists and of wage-workers. Under “the wages” he understands “the wage-labour,” the capitalist system as such. This idea was apparently elaborated in detail in that part of the manuscript which is now extant.”

It, therefore, follows for us that wages and private property are identical: for there the product,the object of labor, pays for the labor itself, wages are only a necessary consequence of the estrangement of labor; similarly, where wages are concerned, labor appears not as an end in itself but as the servant of wages. We intend to deal with this point in more detail later on: for the present we shall merely draw a few conclusions.

An enforced rise in wages (disregarding all other difficulties, including the fact that such an anomalous situation could only be prolonged by force) would therefore be nothing more than better pay for slaves and would not mean an increase in human significance or dignity for either the worker or the labor.

Even the equality of wages, which Proudhon demands, would merely transform the relation of the present-day worker to his work into the relation of all men to work. Society would then be conceived as an abstract capitalist.

Wages are an immediate consequence of estranged labor, and estranged labor is the immediate cause of private property. If the one falls, then the other must fall too.

(2) It further follows from the relation of estranged labor to private property that the emancipation of society from private property, etc., from servitude, is expressed in the political form of the emancipation of the workers. This is not because it is only a question of their emancipation, but because in their emancipation is contained universal human emancipation. The reason for this universality is that the whole of human servitude is involved in the relation of the worker to production, and all relations of servitude are nothing but modifications and consequences of this relation.

Just as we have arrived at the concept of private property through an analysis of the concept of estranged, alienated labor, so with the help of these two factors it is possible to evolve all economic categories, and in each of these categories — e.g., trade, competition, capital, money — we shall identify only a particular and developed expression of these basic constituents.

But, before we go on to consider this configuration, let us try to solve two further problems.

(1) We have to determine the general nature of private property, as it has arisen out of estranged labor, in its relation to truly human and social property.

(2) We have taken the estrangement of labor, its alienation, as a fact and we have analyzed that fact. How, we now ask, does man come to alienate his labor, to estrange it? How is this estrangement founded in the nature of human development? We have already gone a long way towards solving this problem by transforming the question of the origin of private property into the question of the relationship of alienated labor to the course of human development. For, in speaking of private property, one imagines that one is dealing with something external to man. In speaking of labor, one is dealing immediately with man himself. This new way of formulating the problem already contains its solution.

As to (1): The general nature of private property and its relationship to truly human property.

The Progress Publishers note here: “This apparently refers to the conversion of individuals into members of civil society which is considered as the sphere of property, of material relations that determine all other relations. In this case Marx refers to the material relations of society based on private property and the antagonism of different classes.”

Alienated labor has resolved itself for us into two component parts, which mutually condition one another, or which are merely different expressions of one and the same relationship. Appropriation appears as estrangement, as alienation; and alienation appears as appropriation, estrangement as true admission to citizenship.

We have considered the one aspect, alienated labor in relation to the worker himself — i.e., the relation of alienated labor to itself. And as product, as necessary consequence of this relationship, we have found the property relation of the non-worker to the worker and to labor. Private property as the material, summarized expression of alienated labor embraces both relations — the relation of the worker to labor and to the product of his labor and the non-workers, and the relation of the non-worker to the worker and to the product of his labor.

We have already seen that, in relation to the worker who appropriates nature through his labor, appropriation appears as estrangement, self-activity as activity for another and of another, vitality as a sacrifice of life, production of an object as loss of that object to an alien power, to an alien man. Let us now consider the relation between this man, who is alien to labor and to the worker, and the worker, labor, and the object of labor.

The first thing to point out is that everything which appears for the worker as an activity of alienation, of estrangement, appears for the non-worker as a situation of alienation, of estrangement.

Secondly, the real, practical attitude of the worker in production and to the product (as a state of mind) appears for the non-worker who confronts him as a theoretical attitude.

Thirdly, the non-worker does everything against the worker which the worker does against himself, but he does not do against himself what he does against the worker.

Let us take a closer look at these three relationships.

[ First Manuscript breaks off here. ]

Philosophy, Social & Political Philosophy, Texts