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Candidate Number: B00527

Degree: BA Psychology & Philosophy

Module Code & Title: PF307 Political Philosophy

Essay Title: Present and Discuss Marx’s Account of Alienation

Word Count: 4,040

Heythrop College, University of London

May 2008

Present and Discuss Marx’s Account of Alienation

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In Paris Manuscripts of 1844, where Marx gives his most detailed

presentation of alienation, he argues that it consists in four different aspects
(Wolff, 2008). The first two of these four ‘types’ of alienation are the alienation
of the product and the alienation of the labour; from these two both the
frustration of his species-life, the alienation of the labourer from himself and
by extension his alienation from other men can be deduced (Wolff, 2008).
According to Marx, each of these categories of alienation overlap; in his works
Marx attempts to apply a Hegelian deduction of categories to economics in an
attempt to reduce all the categories of capitalist economic to an analysis of
the concept of alienation, such as wage, rent exchange, profit, etc.; which he
eventually does with some success, via the Grundrisse of 1857/8, in Capital of
1867. In the Manuscripts, Marx’s argument begins with the simple economic
fact of supply and demand. As demand increases the price increases, whilst
as supply increases the price decreases; ‘the worker becomes poorer the
richer is his production, the more it increase in power and scope’ (McLellan,
2000; pp.86). He then argues from this fact that the worker himself essentially
becomes a commodity that also follows this rule of supply and demand. It is
interesting that Marx starts with the point and later, in Capital, returns to it
implicitly as the basis of alienation.
Thus, this essay shall start as Marx did, with his discussion of alienation
in the Manuscripts. Like Hegel, Marx did not believe production itself to cause
alienation, as the product is not alienated in virtue of the workers labour
becoming manifest in an object (Schact, 1970); it is not simply a physical
phenomenon. Where there is no deeper separation between labourer and
product the product is a true embodiment of the labourers self (Schact, 1970),
and so very much a part of him rather than alien to him, a true expression of
his own personality and creativity. Thus Marx clearly differentiates between
alienation and mere externalization or objectification by stating that alienation
only occur when the product is ‘outside of his control, and alien to him, and…
stands opposed to him as an autonomous power’ (quoted by Schact, 1970;
On the surface this is a passive alienation, and could be described as a
mere detachment. However, according to Marx alienation also involves an

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active sense of hostility. He states that alienation involves ‘a power

independent of the producer,’ which ‘sets itself against him as an alien and
hostile force’ (quoted by Schact, 1970; pp. 85). Marx attributes this hostility to
the object itself, and this gives rise to the first ‘type’ of alienation, the
alienation of a product from its labourer. Whilst this hostility becomes
manifest towards the object of production, it is really displaced hostility
towards the powers that control the product; specifically the ‘other-man’ for
whom the product is made and the economic laws which govern its
production. Thus, in this sense, the product does not become alienated from
the labourer because of the nature of the product itself, but the nature of its
The ‘other-man’ is the entity that dictates the production of the object
and reaps the benefits of its production1, the employer (Schact, 1970). If the
product is an alienated and hostile object, it follows that it must belong to an
entity that is alien and hostile to the labourer, and thus its alienation must, in
part, be caused by the surrender of the product to this other person (Schact,
1970). This particular point has roots in Hegel, who pointed out the action of
selling an object requires the object to pass from someone’s hands (the
labourer) into someone else’s (the other-man) (Schact, 1970). However, whilst
Hegel thought this act of sale was permissible as long as some of the
labourer’s product remained his own property, as long as he received some of
the benefits specific to that product; however, Marx believed it was
unacceptable under any circumstances (Schact, 1970). He argues that any
change of product ownership through sale would mean that product no longer
serves the interests of the labourer, but serves the interests of the new owner
at the labourer’s expense (Schact, 1970). The other-man fully satiates his own
desire in return for mere subsistence, and at the cost of the labourer’s self-
realisation (Schact, 1970). The other-man is able to do what he wants with the
product, regardless of how it affects the labourer, and the product becomes a
symbol of the labourer’s oppression and the other-mans power over him
(Schact, 1970). With this in mind, it is clear how the other-man is a hostile and
alien force to the labourer, and thus the product itself can become a force that
is also both hostile and alien after appropriation.
The ‘inhuman power(s)’ in capitalist society are the economic forces

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that control all the prices within the market, those of the labour, capital and
final product. According to Marx, the labourer has no power over these laws2,
and thus the market created by the labourer is governed by forces external to
himself; alien forces. Furthermore, in a capitalist economy the labourer
produces large quantities of his product, much of which he cannot use; this
mass production of a singe product rather subsistence production of all his
necessities of life means that he becomes entirely dependant upon the whim
of these inhuman powers which are hostile to him (Schact, 1970). The worker
himself also becomes a commodity subject to these laws of supply and
demand, and under a free market system with many suppliers and relatively
few buyers such as the labour market, the cost of the good, in this case
labour, will set itself at the same level as the cost of the inputs to production,
wages will ‘thus tend inevitably to fall to the lowest level that will keep the
workmen alive and allow able to rear children’ (Kolakowski, 1978; pp138). This
means that the workers life becomes joylessly focused upon his subsistence
and that of his family, which gives rise, in part, to the alienation of the labour
itself and the frustration of his species-life.
In order to present the second type of alienation, some context must be
considered. Adam Smith’s theory that ‘humans will sacrifice the state of rest
only when forced to by necessity’ (Dupre, 1983; pp38) appears at first look to
conflict with Marx’s theory that true labour occurs when man is free from
physical need; but when combined with the Marxist idea that free labour is a
form of fulfilment, it can then be seen as a necessity. The conjoining of these
two ideas thus lends support to Marx’s argument that man is different from
animals in that he only truly produces in freedom from physical needs; when
producing in order to fulfil solely physical needs it is because of a physical
dependency on material things such as food and shelter, it is not labour for
pleasure and as such does not satisfy the psychological part of the being, only
the physical part. Free, un-alienated labour serves to satisfy the psychological
part (and in the ideal case the physical part also), and thus the man is able to
fulfil his species-life and be at one with his nature. However, Marx argues, in
capitalist society the labourer is alienated from his labour, and as such it is
unable to fulfil this double role.
Marx believed that a product becomes alienated from its labourer when

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it is not an ‘objective embodiment of his own personality and the distinctive

expression of his creative powers and interests’ (Schact, 1970; pp. 85); this is
because in a capitalist economy the labourer is usually directed to produce a
certain object in a certain way, and thus he is unable to express himself in the
product, only his employer; furthermore, the labourer is forced to suppress
himself at the direction of his employer and he produces as a machine rather
than as a species-being. Thus the labourer becomes merely a crude
‘instrument’ (Schact, 1970; pp.85) of the employer’s production, and is not
only alienated from both the act of production and the product, but also
This is how the act of production itself can become a torment to the
labourer. The labourer is said to ‘avoid it [labour] like the plague’ and ‘not [be]
at home’ when he is at work (pp.88). For Marx, this dislike of labour stems
from the fact that within a capitalist society the act of labour is not performed
for the love of labour itself, the joy of self-expression through endeavour, but
rather as a method of subsistence, a method of fulfilling his physical needs.
The labour becomes an undesired effort for the labourer, solely a means to an
end rather than an end in itself, no longer an enjoyable act but a frustrating
struggle. As mentioned above, Marx believed that true, un-alienated labour
occurs only when man is ‘free from physical need’ (pp.90), so, for Marx, any
form of labour for wages cannot satisfy mans emotional needs; the labour is
not a part of him, and thus must be alienated from him.
The final two types of alienation in Marx’s account also together cause
man to be alienated in a social sense; it is a conjunction between the
alienation of labour, where the labourer does not express himself in the mode
of production, and the alienation of the product, where the labourer does not
express himself in the product. Marx himself expresses this in two parts; to
him it is alienation ‘from species-being, for humans produce blindly and not in
accordance with their truly human powers’, and further ‘the relation of
exchange replaces the satisfaction of mutual need’, where members of the
economy cease being concerned with one-another’s well-being, and become
focused upon their own material gain.
The denial of the labourers species-being manifests itself externally to
the labourer in the form of dehumanisation, and internally as he becomes

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unable to produce ‘in a specifically human manner’ (Kolakowski, 1978;

pp.139). Marx argues that life is activity, thus by his definition labour is ‘the
life of the species’ and alienation from labour in turn causes alienation from
species-being; ‘for humans produce blindly and not in accordance with their
truly human powers’. ‘[Animals] produce only under the compulsion of direct
physical needs, while man produces when he is free from physical need and
only truly produces in freedom from such need’, thus alienation causes man’s
species-life to become merely a ‘means to individual animalised life, and the
social essence of a man becomes a mere instrument of individual existence’
(Kolakowski, 1970; pp.139). This causes him to become or alienated from the
other members of his society, as rather than working with them for the
common good his focus rests purely on his own survival in competition with
others. Furthermore, the concept of private property becomes another cause
of alienation from species-being, as to say that ‘this is mine’ and ‘that is
yours’ is to differentiate between you and I, creating a sense of alienation
between us. The labourer not only alienates himself from other men, but also
alienates himself from himself; firstly he turns his species-life into a means for
his individual life, thereby alienating his species-life, and secondly he turns his
individual life into ‘the purpose’ of his species-life, which thus takes on an
abstract and alienated form, alienating the man from himself.
In addition, it is not just the labourer that is alienated from his species-
being, it is also the employer. For he becomes an ‘abstract money-power: he
becomes a personification of his power, and his human qualities’ (Kolakowski,
1970; pp.139). The employer ceases to be another human being to the
labourer, he becomes merely an abstract power from which wages, a
thoroughly impersonal substance, can be gained in exchange for the
enactment of his bidding, which bears little or no relation to the labourer. As
all markets within a capitalist economy tend towards monopoly unless anti-
monopoly legislation is in place, this particular aspect of alienation serves to
create two separate classes that cannot be integrated.
The dehumanisation of the labourer can also be clearly seen in that the
labourers come to view one another according to the standards of the
employer (Schact, 1970). In the capitalist economy, the more skilled or
important workers are usually paid more than the less important or unskilled

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labourers. This not only dehumanises the labourers, but also completely
contradicts the idea of mankind as a community of equals and serves to
further alienate the members of the society from one another. Just as the
employer comes to see his employees as a mere commodity, the employees
come to view each other as commodities also; the satisfaction of mutual need
is replaced by the relation of exchange as each member of the society comes
to view one-another as an artificial, or inhuman being, separate and in
competition with one another rather than a community of equals working
together for the common good.
Thus far this essay has focused entirely upon Marx’s account of
alienation as found in the Paris manuscripts of 1844 where he gives the most
detailed account of alienation. However the concept also appears in more
specific discussion at other points in his works, most notably in the German
Ideology of 1847, the Grundrisse and Capital. In the German Ideology he
extends the impact of alienation from the socio-economic field to the whole of
culture, whilst in the Grundrisse he focuses upon the nature of economic
production under capitalism. Finally, in Capital, he focuses upon the internal
conflict within the capitalist system.
In the Paris Manuscripts, Marx is inconsistent in the application of his
theory of man; he argues that man can only be ‘re-humanized’ by a change in
his socio-economic activity, whilst comparing the characteristics of capitalist
society with a humanist model of the ideal species-life (Dupre, 1983). It is
clear that they are related, but it is unclear exactly how. Marx clears up this
confusion The German Ideology by historicizing certain non-temporal
economic concepts; private property becomes a specific stage in the process
of production determined by the division of labour (Dupre, 1983). Due to the
division of labour, the individual labourers within the production process do
not produce a completed product from raw materials, but a more complete
product from a less complete one. Thus, in making its cause specifically the
system of division of labour, Marx historicizes the concept of alienation from
production. This clarifies the confusion in his application of his theory of man,
it is the ‘highly specialised, machine-driven, commodity orientated mode of
production’ (Dupre, 1983; pp.30) that causes the alienation, which in turn is
caused by the focus on the accumulation of private property; thus the latter is

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not the cause of alienation, is the cause of the former which itself is the cause
of alienation.
Another important discussion in the German Ideology concerns
capitalism as a manifestation of such moral utilitarianism (Dupre, 1983), in
that its goal is essentially the most efficient use of capital in order to
maximise production. It thus views the economy as a whole and aims to
maximise the utility of this whole with no focus on the individual. This makes
at least some forms of alienation inevitable, not least because of its
dehumanising effects. The German Ideology is important in any discussion of
Marx’s account of alienation as it serves to remind us of his wider critique of
culture, that ‘what determines the economy of a society determines all other
aspects of its culture’ (Dupre, 1983; pp.33) Thus, if alienation is inherent in
the economic system of the society, as Marx argues it is in capitalism due to
the division of labour, and so alienation will be experienced in every aspect of
capitalist culture.
In the Grundrisse, the economic categories are ‘more radically
historicized’ (Dupre, 1983; pp.34) in that the concept of ‘property’ ceases to
refer to the product of the labourer itself but to the labourers control over the
conditions of his production. Many commentators have argued that through
this Marx has changed from a ‘subjective, humanist position to an objective,
economic one’ but he has actually simply shifted from a ‘non-historical
position to a thoroughly historical one’ (Dupre, 1983; pp35). The appearance
of a shift from the subjective to the objective comes out of Marx’s
replacement of abstract terms, general in nature, to more specific or technical
terms. However, in doing so all he has done is grounded such terms in the
society of day, thus historicizing them. Thus, in the Grundrisse the opposition
between the capital and labour is very similar to the opposition between
product and labourer in the Paris manuscripts; although through such a
change alienation becomes a manifestation of the labourer’s lack of control
over his own production, a more specific definition of the term that is less
general and further rooted in the capitalist economic system, but that has
similar theoretical consequences.
In Capital, Marx exhibits a further change in focus to wages. Whilst the
term alienation is not used much in the work, it remains the central theme

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under a different guise. The inner conflict that Marx describes as alienation
from species-being in the Manuscripts is rephrased as an inner conflict
through economic ‘contradictions’ (Dupre, 1983; pp.43). Marx also explicitly
sates his belief that alienation is not a feature exclusive to capitalism, through
his observation that the concept of surplus value leads to the capitalist desire
to maximise efficiency in production, and that this concept appears in all the
economic systems preceding capitalism, even in crude forms of slavery and
serfdom (Dupre, 1983). In terms of alienation, the core argument of Capital
states that the labourer sells the ‘living power’ (Dupre, 1983; pp.44) of his
labour, which to him has no value, to an employer for whom its productive
value outweighs its exchange value, manifest in wages (Dupre, 1983). The
employer is thus able to profit from the surplus value of the labour. This
objectification of labour is thus the basis of alienation when viewed against
the re-defined terms of the Grundrisse discussed above. Marx thus essentially
reduces all alienation under capitalism to wages (Dupre, 1983), a concept
inherent in the system.
Finally, it must be considered whether alienation is ‘characteristic of
one stage of the historical development of mankind, or is [it] a permanent or
non-temporal structural movement of mans existence, one of those
characteristics that constitute man as man’? (Petrovic, 1963; pp. 420) Thus
far this essay has based much of its explanation of Marx’s account in the
capitalist economic system, as Marx did; but, as Hyppolite pointed out, Marx’s
account of alienation, and thus far my own, suggests that ‘[Alienation] is a
tension inseparable from existence, and it is Hegel's merit to have drawn
attention to it, and to have preserved it in the very centre of self-
consciousness. On the other hand one of the great difficulties of Marxism is its
claim to overcome this tension in the more or less near future and hastily to
attribute it to a particular phase of history. It is surely an oversimplification to
imagine that this tension can be reduced to a superstructure of the economic
world.’ (Hyppolite, Quoted by Clarke, 1971; pp. 368); Hyppolite believed that
alienation could not be a product solely of capitalist society or a historical
product as Marx suggests in his manuscripts, but an inherent fact of life.
However, as Clarke argues in his 1971, ‘the abolition of private property, of
the division of labor, and of the state does not of necessity - whether logical

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or contingent - imply the abolition of alienation, and that while the capitalist
system represents one form of alienation, neither capitalism nor any other
form of economic arrangement can be identified with the alienated condition
of man’ (pp. 368). Furthermore, as discussed above Marx’s implicit discussion
of alienation in Capital shows that he did not believe it to be a feature
exclusively of capitalism.
On the surface it appears as though Marx puts the ‘blame’ for
alienation squarely on the shoulders of capitalism, from which it follows that
Marx must also have believed that the abolition of capitalism would
effectively also abolish alienation. This is the core of Hyppolite’s concern, but
a deeper reading of his works shows that Marx did not actually believe the
former, and he came to the latter by other means. Whilst the capitalist system
contains much that facilitates the alienation of man from his product, labour
and society, it is not the system that created these alienations, but man
himself; ‘men not only freely create their lives, they also freely pervert them’
(Clarke, 1971; pp.371). Just as man created capitalism, so he created its
effects. Hyppolite’s argument comes out of a confusion, Marx did not in fact
believe that the abolition of capitalism would eliminate alienation, only that it
could eliminate it; he does not suggest that alienation could not occur under a
different economic system. Thus there is no real problem of oversimplification
in his argument; he does not reduce the ‘tension’ of alienation to capitalism,
nor does he attribute it to a particular phase of history as Hyppolite suggests.
In summary, Marx provides an excellent account of alienation in is
Manuscripts, especially when the clarifications in which he presents it as a
general term found in his other works are taken into account. He is quite
successful in historicizing the account and applying it directly to capitalism,
but his reduction of alienation to wages in Capital is quite unsatisfying. There
are many examples in our current capitalist society in which labourers work
for wages and yet are not alienated from product, labour or society, these are
essentially all the people in our society that enjoy their jobs and gain
satisfaction from them. Whilst it could be argued that this problem is merely
academic, as all markets within a capitalist society tend towards mass
production, division of labour and monopoly, and it is in markets like these
that alienation is an inherent feature; alienation surely cannot be reduced to

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wages, but to factors such as these three examples. To conclude, when Marx
discusses his conception of alienation in general terms it is an extremely good
account, both in terms of abstract theory and observable facts in society;
however, when he focuses his account as a direct attack on capitalism,
inconsistencies begin to appear between the theory and fact.

the labourer does not gain the benefits of the product; he receives wages. Whilst the wages
are earned due to the manufacture of the product, they are distinct from it; the other-man
receives the benefits specific to the product.
In reality the labour force, and thus by extension each worker, does have some power over
these laws in terms of both supply and demand, but they are essentially negligible, especially
in the sorts of large-scale mass-production markets that Marx is focusing on, and indeed that all
capitalist markets tend towards.

Clarke, J. (1971). ‘The End of History: A Reappraisal of Marx’s Views on Alienation and Human
Emancipation.’ Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol.4, No.3. pp.367-380. Canadian Political
Science Association.
Dupre, L. (1983). ‘Cultural and Social Alienation.’ Marx’s Social Critique of Culture, pp.15-57.
Yale University Press.
Kolakowski, L. (1978). ‘The Alienation of Labour. Dehumanised Man.’ Main Currents of
Marxism, Vol.1, The Founders, pp.138-143. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Petrovic, G. (1963). ‘Marx’s Theory of Alienation.’ Journal of Philosophy and Phenomenological
Research, Vol.23, No.3, pp.419-426. International Phenomenological Society.
Schact, R. (1970) ‘Marx’s Early Writings.’ Alienation, pp. 65-114. Doubleday & Company Inc.
garden City, New York.
Wolff, J. (2008). “Karl Marx.’ The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

Source of original text, from which direct quotes and page references are taken:
McLellan, D. (2000). ‘Economic and Political Manuscripts’, Karl Marx; Selected Writings,
Second Edition. Oxford University Press.

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