marx & alienation

textile factory 1900

Social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which mislead theory into mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of practice.

—Karl Marx “Theses on Feuerbach” (Thesis VIII)

For a better understanding of what Karl Marx meant by the term alienation we will examine three of his early texts from the 1840s, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” (1843-44); the “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” (hereafter the “1844 Manuscripts”); and the posthumously published “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845, published by Frederic Engels in 1888).[1] We will briefly examine how Feuerbach’s critique brings Marx to his analysis of alienation. Then, using Marx’s descriptions, from his “1844 Manuscripts”, alienation will be further investigated in order to identify key moments of estrangement in the working life of laborers. Final consideration will be given to Marx’s VIIth thesis on Feuerbach, and its relation to alienation within the dynamic role of praxis.

In Marx’s “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” there are opening references to Feuerbach’s critique of religion, whereby Feuerbach arrived at the realization that “man makes religion; religion does not make man.”[2] This idea propelled Marx toward his own critique of religion (Christianity) which places man in an alienated relationship with a spiritual ideal that can never be fully actualized.

Before Marx, alienation as a philosophical concept was dealt with in Hegel’s description of the way self-consciousness becomes self-alienated in order to become socialized, and ultimately, how self-consciousness knows itself (re: the absolute knowing of self-consciousness and Geist).[3] Marx’s critical contribution, thanks to Feuerbach’s critique of religion and Hegel, was to emphasize that man’s labor is the origin of culture and society, instead of the other way around, whereby man is subordinate to the state and religion as it was according to Hegel. In order to critique capitalism, we need to comprehend such mystifications. Man is not a predicate of society, society is made by man. Marx’s aim was to critique Hegelian, Feuerbachian, religious, societal, and economic mystifications. This meant critiquing how things are in actuality, according to Marx and Engel’s incessant erudition, instead of appealing to traditional philosophical abstractions.

In Marx’s “1844 Manuscripts,” the first section “Estranged Labor” reveals an in-depth description of the phenomenon of alienation as it relates to the political economy of his day—otherwise known as economics. Marx writes that capitalism carries with it the integral components of private property, and the profits of capital. Both of these elements require a division of labor whereby the workers become a mere commodity of the capitalist’s mode of production. The property owners (capitalists), by way of competing for profits, consolidate, and form monopolies. Society is taken to the level of property owners competing with each other for bigger profits, and workers who have little to no property, who form the base of capital. Marx identifies the way in which this model of capitalism is usually explained in veiled terms that favor the capitalist’s viewpoint at the expense, and ignorance, of the laborer’s perspective. Hence, “the worker becomes an even cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates.”[4]

A worker, entrenched in a capitalist circumstance, is encouraged to be productive, while his life becomes evermore devalued. Capitalist production not only produces commodities in the form of objects, but the laborer’s work also becomes a commodity, therefore, the worker is a dispensable commodity. Marx shows that the product’s value stems from the labor produced by human beings. The products, in-and-of-themselves, become alien, distant, and necessarily objectified from the hands that produced them. Yet, objectification itself should not be mistaken for alienation, since objectification is a necessary part of making things for human beings. The phenomena of alienation comes about because the products and the worker’s labor’s are no longer his own. Production and its products are not controlled by the worker after the products leaves his hands. Alienation becomes more trenchant as the worker’s human-nature is detached from the private property born from his labor.

There are four modes of alienation identified by Marx, and each mode is not mutually exclusive of the others. Alienation is an “avaricious”[5] byproduct of capitalism’s competition and it represents a detachment, or alienation/estrangement, from (a) the product: whereby the product is objectified from the worker, but the product is not his own, since the product is produced as a basic means to earn wages; (b) the process: whereby the labor required to produce the commodity is not his own, the process is also an objectification from the man’s will, his base labor is a means to earn wages and to create private property; (c) his species being or human-nature: Marx, after Hegel, recognized that man’s way of being, and interacting in society, is primarily defined by products of his labor, however this essential interaction of man’s environment/ nature is cut off by the capitalist, since the capitalist’s abstract interaction with nature is more important, the capitalist uses (and exploits) the laborer’s human-nature as his base means of production; (d) other people: as a direct result of becoming alienated the relationship of the capitalist and the laborer becomes an abstract market relation. “Not the gods, not nature, but only man himself can be this alien power over man.”[6]

Lastly, when we turn to Marx’s VIIth Thesis on Feuerbach[7], quoted above, we are immediately reminded of the theme of praxis (re: practice). Praxis has roots in Hegel as well as ancient philosophy. Marx felt that in order to understand the effects of alienation we have to understand the practices of capitalism. “The medium through which estrangement takes place is itself practical.”[8] This suggests that to address the symptoms we have to know, and therefore, critique the causes of the alienation as it is made manifest in the working world. With the advent of new practices, new problems, and their accompanying concepts emerge.[9] If we don’t actively expose the causes of the multiple problems surrounding the capitalist practices that enable and foster alienation, we cannot overcome the resulting suffering and careless oversight of existing conditions. For Marx understanding alienation makes way for revolution.

Aurelio Madrid

[1] All three texts are from: Robert C. Tucker, ed, The Marx-Engels Reader, New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1972, 1978.

[2] Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” The Marx-Engels Reader, 53.

[3] See G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, (1807).

[4] Marx, “1844 Manuscripts,” 71.

[5] “The only wheels which political economy sets in motion are avarice and the war amongst the avaricious—competition.” Marx, “1844 Manuscripts,” 71.

[6] Marx, “1844 Manuscripts,” 78.

[7] Recall that Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” was written in 1844-5, i.e. within close proximity to the “1844 Manuscripts.”

[8] Marx, “1844 Manuscripts,” 78.

[9] Paraphrase of Dr. Chad Kautzer, Marx and Marxism lecture, September 10th, 2014


Balibar, Etienne. The Philosophy of Marx. Translated by Chris Turner. New York, NY: Verso, 1995.

Bernstein, Richard J. “Praxis: Marx and the Hegelian Background” in Praxis and Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Activity. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.

Bottomore, Tom, ed. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Tucker, Robert C. ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1972,1978.