Karl Marx’s theory of Alienation: A Critique

Karl Marx

Karl Heinrich Marx, considered to be one of the most influential thinkers in human history, devoted his life to an academic pursuit- studying history through ages, observing what have been the underlying problems mankind has faced and coming out with a new framework which would provide solutions to these issues. A gigantic task indeed to undertake; a task that demands an intellectual command not just on the science of political philosophy and economics, but also history, society, law and almost everything that affects, or has affected in past, human lives.

When one looks at the extensive study that Marx, along with Engel, had put in his works-like the German Ideology and the Communist Manifesto, one comes across the expanse of his coverage and an equivalent depth of looking at individual issues. To criticize his theories as remarkably well as he expounded upon them, one needs to be of an equal, if not more, stature with a clarity and insight that’s conspicuously present all over his works.

However, it is possible to criticize by putting his works to test in the context of how the world has progressed thenceforth, and whether the current-day face of the world lies in accordance with his works and predictions. I, thereby, follow this course of analysis in this essay.

I would concentrate on the concept of Alienation which in part, forms the core foundation of his subsequent works. As Marx analyzes, under Capitalism, because of the inherent working conditions of laborers, alienation surrounds workers’ lives and leads to their exploitation. I briefly describe his notion of alienation and then analyze it from different perspectives and see if the solutions that Marx provides in the Communist Manifesto, would really succeed in combating this issue. I then, attempt to study how the current day societies are probably not as worse off as Marx had predicted, and hence, there might be something missing in his prognosis.


In his writings throughout, Marx is found to be considering labor as not just another physical act, but a conscious one. Through labor, he believes, human beings, first of all, derive their subsistence and survival; secondly, establish a relationship with their productive powers and hence affirm themselves; and thirdly, form a connection with nature and realize that through productive labor, they can build upon the raw nature and use it in their lives. Thus, labor doesn’t merely remain a physical act, but also one that brings self-actualization.

When he compares the situations under feudal and capitalistic societies, he finds that unlike in the former where ‘what laborers produce not only has immediate use value to them but it affirms their relationship to themselves in their own productive powers’; production in the latter, to say the least, is sent to the medium of exchange called market and thus the product of labor is not for the laborer’s use but for someone else’s. Already, the means of production are under external ownership and hence this makes both the purpose and result of labor appear external to the worker. This, as he calls, is the worker’s alienation from the product. When the workers engage in such labor, they lose their ability to affirm their being and define their self-existence. In his words,

“the worker only feels himself outside his work and in his work, feels outside himself… as a result, he no longer feels to be freely active in any but his animal functions- eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling or in dressing up

Thus, this is according to Marx, an alienation from productive activity, through which the worker’s life becomes animalistic in its look and feel. As the workers start engaging freely only in animalistic functions, there develops a hiatus between them and their species being. What distinguishes humans from animals, Marx believes, is their ability to think of themselves as conscious beings. And in capitalistic society, the worker, he says, ends up blurring this distinction. This is the alienation from species being. As the people are ‘compelled’ under capitalism to be isolated and pursue their private interests for personal gain, they enter into competition with each other, remaining no more ‘collective beings’. Also, the fact, that they make another class the beneficiary of the product of their labor, further separates them. This is the final type of alienation in Marx’s views, called alienation from fellow humans.

Now I’d attempt to analyze Marx’s take on this concept of alienation.

Marx’s first attack on alienation in capitalism is that what the workers produce is not their own but the capitalist’s. Receding back to the primitive feudal times where one produces what one uses or vice-versa cannot obviously be a pragmatic solution and neither Marx suggests it. In the Manifesto he talks of demands for the interim phase (i.e. before communism is fully attained) like abolishing private property rights, inheritance rights, bringing in state ownership, etc. Having state owned institutions might bring in some sense of ownership (even that becomes questionable in large population areas), but still, exchange (i.e. the product being sold into the market) would still be the ‘dominant social relation’ and hence, alienation from product would still exist.

The ownership issue, he suggests, should be tackled via bringing state ownership over property and resources. Now this is subject to debate as the states might turn into autocratic regimes or monopolistic economic giants, thereby harming the interests of other private players and small scale entrepreneurs. This would have its own implications. When he says,

“…as the means of production become the property of one class, they stand over and against the workers and are opposed to them as an alien thing”

it should be given a thought that would state owned institutions be any better? Given the enormous powers being granted to the proletariats, aren’t there chances that the state might become apathetic or ‘external’ to the public.

In the second kind of alienation (from productive activity), Marx says,

“…its (labor’s) alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like a plague”

When he talks of laborers, does he exclude all those people who are motivated for their jobs and enjoy doing it? Do artists, editors, doctors, teachers and all those professionals working under private firms, who are in their profession by choice and making respectable contributions to the society, not fall under his definition of laborers? Giving some benefit of doubt, and assuming that he did include these professions in his critique, and still felt labor to be detestable; would things be any better in Communistic regimes, which are rather infamous for having very less incentives to work? The state of West Bengal in India, has been under communism for many decades and has witnessed reduced industrial productivity, incessant worker demands eventually decreasing overall industrial development.

Going ahead in his criticism on alienation from productive labor, he says,

“…the worker’s activity converts into nothing more than a means to satisfy their external needs, so that the sole purpose of life becomes that of fulfilling material needs… Under these circumstances, the laborer can only understand work as springing from need and thus labors only to satisfy physical necessities. The worker comes to believe that the maintenance of individual existence is thus the single and solitary goal of their life activity.”

On one hand, Marx says in the materialistic theory of conception, that it is, and has always been, people’s first priority that they involve in economic activities to ensure food, clothing and shelter for themselves. On the other hand, he is disappointed to note that under capitalistic society, people end up in nothing but working for wages. Although, it is not that he negates the significance of non-economic activities, ideas, and consciousness, yet, if he believes that if the worker works just for the wage, then that deprives him of an ability to affirm his essence; that would imply that labor is the only means to affirm one’s essence being. Freely involving in labor might be a way to affirm oneself, but absence of it shouldn’t imply that the worker can’t undergo self-actualization.

This over-emphasis on labor is again visible when he says that,

“…in capitalism, productive activity (labor) is free only in those functions that workers share with animals such as eating, sleeping, drinking and procreating.”

In Marx’s analysis, there is a consistent neglecting of non-economic forces in society, like law, religion, politics, morality, art, etc. He has written on each of these issues as well, but ascribed them the status of a superstructure that stands on the foundation of economic activities. He does say that this superstructure is influenced by the foundation and the other way too. But then, if it’s both way round, what is the use of over emphasizing one and neglecting the other?

When Marx contends about the competition and how it separates people (who should actually be collective beings according to Marx) and forces them to lead private individualistic existence in capitalism, I wonder how he calls human beings collective beings. Throughout history, human beings have struggled and competed for anything and everything- whether those were kingdoms, properties, fortunes or even for the ones they loved. Human beings, by very nature, are competitive. Even at micro-scale, it has been competition that ultimately formed the basis of theory of survival of the fittest in evolutionary science. And this competition has brought the fittest and the best qualities out of human beings- whether in the fields of war, invention or arts.

Now, let’s look in further details how these concepts of alienation stand against the current scenario.

The free market economies of today allow for people holding shares in private institutions. The income and the profits of the company, hence theoretically, belong to common public, which is a shareholder. It can be said that the ownerships have defused among the common public instead of being shared among few.

The entrepreneurial ecosystem that is heavily encouraged today in capitalist societies provides opportunities to pursue one’s interests. Factors like capital that once used to be prerequisites for establishing businesses are no more so, since economies have liberalized and are open to foreign investments. Microcredit schemes, aimed at supporting rural youth entrepreneurs and innovative ideas (even in third world countries and frontier economies) have opened up vast avenues through which not only people can engage passionately in the work of their choice, but also end up giving back lot to their society. I wonder if the means to affirm one’s self are restricted to the labor that Marx believed in. The term labor has become much bigger now.

Even in case of laborers working under capitalists, it is important to note that the intellectual labor is (or is expected to be, if one is criticizing capitalism in general) also a part of the term labor. There is also a wide range of middle managers and coordinators who employ their skills, earn wages (depend upon the capitalist, in Marx’s words), relish their work and participate in other aspects of life- religion, arts, books to live a more holistic life. They don’t stop affirming themselves once they’re outside of work. Marx’s view, that the laborer under capitalist “mortifies his body and ruins his mind” doesn’t make much sense.

The capitalistic societies and free markets utilize the concept of demand and supply, a phenomenon which is competitive and provides incentives to those who work and in the right direction.

Ending note: On Communism

It is true that some of the most advanced capitalist countries today, suffer from vast poor-rich divide and lopsided distribution of wealth. The workers’ conditions under several capitalists are indeed poor. But then, there are also cases where the industries have healthy workers’ union and trade unions which engage in a dialogue of bargain with the capitalist. And communalism isn’t necessarily the path that those countries took.

Globalization had begun during the time of Marx. Even though some of the countries have suffered badly from this phenomenon, experts don’t suggest abolition of globalization as the solution. Dr. Joseph Stiglitz (former senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank, Nobel Laureate Economics 2001) rather suggests that its fair implementation can undoubtedly result in equitable distribution of wealth across the world. Similarly, the problems that Marx finds under capitalism are not being better tackled by communist policies. Countries like Soviet Union, suffered collapse when they relied upon communism. There’s a reason why communism has failed to spread.

Communism is well intentioned in that it aims to achieve peaceful communities devoid of scope of exploitation. However, despite of these intentions, as the Economics Nobel Laureate (2005) Robert Aumann remarks about communism,

“It’s great to say– to each according to need, from each according to ability. All this is fine. But there’s just one problem- it doesn’t work.”



13 thoughts on “Karl Marx’s theory of Alienation: A Critique

  1. Hello Siddharth. I have been regularly following your blog. However there isn’t any addition to it since past few weeks. Hope you will continue to blog, and we will get to read lot more coming out from you.

    • Thank you Nitesh, it’s a pleasure to hear that. I do have something in mind but am gathering thoughts on it, as of now; will write them down here very soon.

      • Thanks for a quick response and assurance that something interesting and knowledgeable is already in the oven and would be catered soon. Last night I was again going through your post titled “Vent to feminism”, and realized it should be shared with followers on my page on Facebook. Are you happy in giving your consent if I end up sharing that post with other people? Please feel free to say no in case, in case you think that won’t be appropriate.

  2. Thank you very much for this piece of literature on Karl Marx. It was informative and I also enjoyed reading. I am writing a paper on Religious alienation and was doing web research on the topic when I cameacross your blog.
    Thnx again and cheers.

    • Thanks Nishanthi:)
      Good luck for your paper! You’re doing the right thing by taking Marx’s views on religion because, if I remember correctly, he did have this belief of ‘how it turns people against their natural character’ kinda stuff. I didn’t understand much then, as i found his texts on religion a bit tough to decipher. But if one can give sufficient time to understanding it, it would provide some good matter related to this research topic of yours.

  3. I recently started college and I’m majoring in Political Science. It’s a few hours before my first exam and I googled “Alienation”.

    Can’t help but commend the brilliance of your article, I love how you are clear not only with your concepts but also your opinions. It has been beautifully articulated in your words!

    Thank you for this brilliant piece!

    • Thank you. Glad to know if this could be of any help.
      I too came across these writings by Marx, during college years, in one of our philosophy electives on Marxism.

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