The Concept of Alienation

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12 min read

Published: Oct 22, 2018

Words: 2287|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Oct 22, 2018

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 effect 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.

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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 a blood sacrifice. In general, therefore, alienation of man is the process that separates man from a 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 labor - 'he plays no part in deciding what to do or how to do it'.[2] The division of labor ensures that each worker only does one job, and the labor market decides which job any particular worker will do. During labor, 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 live. 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 labor is the separation of man from his life-activity.

Not only is the worker alienated from his labor, but he is also separated from the result of his labor - 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 labor 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 labor as 'the objectification of labor'. The worker's labor 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 labor 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 the alienation of the product of labor are closely linked. The links between the aspects of alienation will be further explored below.

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 labor 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 labor, 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 fulfill his humanity. The 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 labor implies the alienation of man from man through class conflict and competition. This is also strengthened by the alienation of the products of labor, 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 labor. As society forms into tribes and villages, labor 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 number 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 ' labor because their products have value, whereas, in fact, they have value because labor 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 labor is its denial'.[11] Alienation, or the lack of it, shows the effect 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 the 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 labor appears as a particular form of alienation. It can then be seen that alienation is primary to the division of labor 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 a capitalist society. The division of labor 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 have 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 the human condition, we enrich God by imposing external rules over ourselves. God acts like 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, “[E]mancipation 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 on 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 wither 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.

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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 in 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 to morality?”

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The Concept of Alienation. (2018, October 22). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from
“The Concept of Alienation.” GradesFixer, 22 Oct. 2018,
The Concept of Alienation. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 14 Jul. 2024].
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