This summary ties together three sources:

Chapter 3 in An Introduction to Karl Marx by Jon Elster

Part I in Karl Marx by Allen Wood

Chapters 1 and 10 in Introduction to Marx and Engels by Richard Schmitt



Marx found three main flaws in Capitalism:

1.      Inefficiency – this is most important to Marx’s general theory of modes of production (which explains why communism will replace capitalism)

2.      Exploitation – most important to Marx’s theory of class struggle

3.      Alienation – plays the dominant role in Marx’s normative theory – i.e., explains why communism should replace capitalism.


Does alienation have any explanatory role, i.e., showing why one mode of production replaces another?  No, because alienation is not necessarily conscious – that is, you might lack meaning in your life without realizing it.  So even if the masses were alienated, they might not know it, and therefore would not be motivated to revolt.


Some writers argue that Marx’s theory of alienation was only part of his early work and was abandoned in the mature work (especially Capital).  However, the writers we’re reading argue that the concept just metamorphoses and is still present in the later work. 


In his earliest writings on the topic, Marx was reacting both to Hegel and Feuerbach (a “young Hegelian” who rejected Hegel’s idealism, and, like Marx, embraced materialism – the idea that the world we inhabit is the ultimate reality)


Wood on the contrast between Marx’s, Hegel’s and Feuerbach’s concepts of alienation:


Hegel and Feuerbach: Alienation and false consciousness

For Hegel, the paradigm of alienation is the unhappy consciousness: a form of mistaken Christian religiosity whereby one’s own spiritual essence is a divine being dwelling outside the world in a supernatural ‘beyond’.  On this way of thinking, the natural world is ‘inessential’ and thus devoid of true reality or significance.  (Whereas, on Hegel’s pantheistic view, the natural world is the necessary expression/objectification of the divine world spirit.)

For Feuerbach, the idea of God is “really no more than our idea of our own human essence,... erroneously conceived as an entity distinct from and opposed to us.”  Hegelian philosophy makes the same mistake in locating what is essential in human thoughts and deeds in an abstraction – a supernatural world-mind – rather than the real, material world.  Thus, for Feuerbach, alienation is a kind of mistake (false consciousness) that is cured once people renounce their religious illusions.


Marx: Alienation and practice

Marx on religion: it itself is not alienation or even the cause of it.  Religion, as the “opiate of the masses” serves two purposes:

  1. to express a sense of the worthlessness and emptiness of human life
  2. to comfort us from this worthlessness

For Hegel and Feuerbach, alienation is mental and involves a misunderstanding of one’s condition.  In contrast, for Marx, alienation is real.  The social function of religion is to cloud people’s minds and anaesthetize people to the realities of their alienation. 

Thus, Marx rejects the idea that alienation consists in false consciousness.  Alienation cannot be removed by changing the way people think, if anything, alienation becomes more painfully apparent by doing that.  What matters (as he famously said in his Theses on Feuerbach, and the inscription on his grave) is not just to interpret the world but to change it – that is the only way to remove alienation.  For H & F, alienation is subjective but for Marx it is objective.


Perhaps the clearest and most complete discussion of alienation comes in the Paris Manuscripts (AKA: the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 – see the red Elster book, pp. 35-47), where he elaborates four elements to the alienation experienced by workers under Capitalism: (numbers in brackets refer to page #s in the red Elster book)


1.      Workers are alienated from the objects of their work [37-39]
They produce surplus value which empowers the capitalists against them.  (The harder “live” labor works, the more “dead” labor – i.e., capital – is increased, and this is used against worker interests, because the capitalists invest in machines that make work less skilled and squeezes greater productivity out of workers.)  (It is this kind of alienation that is compared with Feuerbach’s comments on Religion [bottom  37])

2.      Workers are alienated from the activity of working [39-40]
The worker is forced to work, so the work is not truly “theirs” – it belongs to those who force them to work for them.

3.      Workers are alienated from the chance to determine what it is to be human [40-42]
For example, workers forced to work for polluting factories are destroying their own world.  Would they choose this kind of use of their labor?  (This kind of alienation is revisited in the discussion of species being below.)

4.      Workers are alienated from each other [42-3]
...because they are forced to compete in a labor marketplace, and work becomes soulless and Kafkaesque, as portrayed in Dilbert and The Drew Carey Show, among others.


As Wood complains, however, in this early work it is hard to see a common thread running through all of these notions that make them all the same kind of thing.  So in what sense are they all instances of alienation?


If there is an answer, it must be that all of these phenomena have in common an effect on the person who is alienated.  We have already seen that this is not necessarily psychological (one can be alienated without knowing it) but there must be some effect on that person for us to say that he is alienated.  One suggestion is that her life is lacking in meaning or worth.  To explain this, though, we need to know what a meaningful life is for humans.  The answer to that for Marx lies in his conception of human nature.


Schmitt – chapter on Human Nature

Capitalism is supposed to be uniquely suited to human nature (which, according to Adam Smith, involves a propensity to “truck and barter”).  Unequal power relations are also sometimes defended by appealing to supposed different natures within humanity: men over women, whites over non-whites, et. al. 


BUT: Marx and Engels were very skeptical about such broad assertions about human nature.  Consulting history tells us that our ancestors were very different from us.  In fact:

all history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature. [The Poverty of Philosophy]

But further, “the changes in human life and personality have been closely connected with the ways in which people produced the means necessary for their continued existence”.  That is, there is a two-way relationship between humans and their methods of production: obviously, humans invent their methods of production (agriculture, industry, et. al.), but also the circumstances these technological advances produce will determine human nature for that stage of our history:

By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.  The way in which men produce their means of a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life...As individuals express their life, so they are.  [The German Ideology]

That is:

1.      People who (e.g.) farm not only create farm products, they also determine their “worklife” to be that of farmers.

2.      Worklife determines your entire way of life (humankind is “homo faber”): country-dwellers more conservative, etc.

3.      People who live differently are different people – “As individuals express their life, so they are”

The handmill gives you the society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.

Examples: feudal lords have to be brave in combat and honourable.  Capitlaists have to be brave in risk-taking and credible.


Do humans have an essential nature?  Marx appears to deny this:

the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual.  In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.

That is: there is no nature in each human, the “essence” of any human is determined by her environment.  However, clearly if humans are shaped by their environment, then you can say that one feature of their nature is the ability to be shaped.  The message to be taken from the above, however, is that individuals do not individually shape their own natures, but have them shaped in groups.


Species Being

Humans, unlike other animals are species beings in that they not only belong to a species, they make that species the object of thinking and acting.  This means, first, that human behaviour is intentional:

An animal...produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst human beings produce even when they are free from physical need. [Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844]

a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells.  But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.  [Capital vol. 1]

Second, that (a la Rousseau) human beings create their own needs (while animals just experience them):

Under private property [the significance of human needs] is reversed: every person speculates on creating a new need in another, so as him in a new dependence and to seduce him into a new mode of gratification and therefore economic ruin. [Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844]

Third, human beings determine what it is to be a human being.  Under feudalism, workers were “desultory” and worked by the light.  Under capitalism, they are regimented by the clock.  (The fact that workers under capitalism cannot act in a coordinated way to determine their nature is the third kind of worker alienation mentioned earlier.)


Wood also discusses species being in relation to alienation:

People are alienated if their lives are somehow lacking in meaning or worth (whether or not they know it).  What is non-alienated life like, then?  What is it for humans to lead meaningful lives?

Marx: alienated life is dehumanized.  This implies that there is a distinctively human way of living, in other words, that Marx has a conception of human nature.  This is embodied in his notion of species being.  This has (at least) two elements, for Marx:

1.      man is a social being (like a herd animal)

2.      man, unlike other animals, is conscious of this fact


Species consciousness and alienation

Awareness of one’s species-being (2 above) is connected to self-consciousness (in the sense of having a self-conception, a view of one’s own identity) in that my view of my identity is shaped by my view of my role in society and humanity and my relationships with other humans.

It is the having of a self-consciousness that enables humans (and not other animals) to be alienated.  An alienated life is one where individuals fail to affirm, confirm and actualize their essences as humans.

Alienation is thus conceived by Marx as a separation and estrangement of individuals from their human essence.... their lives are not lives in which ‘the human essence feels itself satisfied.’ [Wood 21]

I am not alienated to the extent that my actions take on a “self-conscious human form”



Because of our species-essence, self-actualization is intimately bound up with other-actualization:

I cannot truly actualize myself or my individuality without also actualizing the self or individuality of  others.  My own good, the worth of myself and the meaningfulness of my life, thus requires (because it partly consists in) my achievement of the same good for others. [Wood 22]

Commodity production frustrates the human good by imposing an indirect egoistic form on our pursuit of the good of others.  A fulfilling human life “consists in the development and exercise of our essentially human capacities in a life of activity suited to our nature.” (a la Aristotle)

New definition of alienation:

More basic than consciousness of alienation (the lack of a sense of meaning and self-worth) is real alienation: the failure (or inability) to actualize one’s human essential powers. [Wood 23]

Whether I’m happy or not does not determine whether or not I’m alienated, but rather:

it is a matter of whether my life in fact actualizes the potentialities which are objectively present in my human essence, whether I fulfill my ‘natural vocation’ as the human being that I am. [Wood 23-4]


Elster also analyzes alienation in terms of lack of self-actualization (which he sees as one element of self-realization):


Alienation: Lack of Self-Realization

Elster: “Marx believed that the good life for the individual was one of active self-realization.”

Self realization = full and free actualization and externalization of the powers and abilities of the individual.


Fullness of self-realization:

Quote from German Ideology: “people will hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and be critical critics after dinner” under communism.

This is the utopian idea that there will be no more specialized occupations.


Freedom of self-realization:

Un-free realization of talents would be if society forced individuals to be certain things (even if they were well-suited to those roles).  Free self-realization is when one works on oneself to improve oneself in areas that one cares about (even if those aren’t necessarily the abilities to which one is best suited?).

Utopian reading: everyone will be able to be whatever they want

Alternative: lack of coercion – you won’t be forced to be something by others, but there may not be room or call for everyone to be a poet, say.


Two elements to self-realization:


1.      Development of potential ability into an actual one

2.      Deployment of actual ability



The process whereby the powers of the individual become observable to other people.


Questions about self-realization:

1.      What’s good about it?

a.      Self-actualization has increasing marginal utility – the better one becomes at something, the more one enjoys it (and is capable of enjoying it) [Aristotle’s point]
CONTRAST CONSUMPTION – diminishing marginal utility

b.      Self-externalization is a source of self-esteem.  Must have self-esteem for consumption even to be valuable.

2.      Why, then, isn’t it chosen more frequently?  According to Elster, a combination of three features:

a.      myopia: people prefer the present easy pleasure (big screen TV and a bunch of Cheetos) over the future pleasure that requires work

b.      risk-aversion: developing talents carries the risk that you’re not that talented in the area you choose to pursue.

c.      free-riding: developing talents helps others as well as oneself – why not sit back and let others give us the benefit of their talents?


These three features combine to work against self-realization in two ways:

  1. If there are opportunities for self-realization, people will not take them
  2. If there aren’t, a reform movement to create opportunities is unlikely to get off the ground.


How do we define Alienation in terms of self-realization?  Possibilities:

1.      Absence of self-realization

2.      Absence of desire for s-r (whether or not opportunities are there)

3.      Presence of ineffective desire (blocked by the three above or simply lack of opportunity)


Marx appeared to have interp. 3, because Capitalism lacks opportunities (but, at least, creates the material basis for communism which will provide the opportunities).


Can the twin values of self-realization and community be reconciled?  They appear potentially at odds (particularly if everybody wants to be a poet and nobody wants to take out the trash).  Marx saw two possibilities:

  1. self-realization for others:
    bond of community arises from the knowledge that other people appreciate the activity that is the vehicle of my self-realization, and vice-versa
    BUT: this works fine in a small community where I can admire your woodwork and you can appreciate my sax-playing, but will it work in an industrialized society, where it is often unclear what I contribute to any product?
  2. joint self-realization:
    where a team jointly makes a product – sports teams or symphonies, etc.
    BUT: again, how far can this be pushed in an industrialized society?  In general, integrated work processes seem to work against self-realization.


So one aspect of alienation is lack of self-realization.  Another, according to Schmitt, Wood and Elster, is lack of freedom.


First, Schmitt:

Alienation and Freedom

In Alienated Labor, Marx wrote that human beings are potentially free because they are species beings, and, insofar as they are not actually free, they are alienated.

Marxian freedom (“HUMAN freedom”):
People are free (as a group) if they can and do choose deliberately how to organize their social and economic institutions with a view to making themselves and future generations into the most desirable sorts of persons.


But, because of the “anarchical” nature of capitalism, this kind of social planning is impossible (even though the innovation of capitalism has finally provided the conditions to make it possible) – decisions about how social wealth will be spent are made entirely by capitalists.

Under capitalism, individuals are forced to be utility maximizers, and do not even consider the possibility that life could be otherwise.  People (mostly the capitalists) have personal freedom but nobody has human freedom.  Thus capitalism alienates the capitalists as well as the workers.  We are forced to be one particular (not especially admirable) kind of human being – the kind who competes against her fellows in an increasingly commodified world.  Capitalism can always boast that it is the best system for fulfilling peoples’ desires.

Marxian response: because of the alienation of all humans under capitalism, those desires are petty and not really worth satisfying.  They rely on others being exploited and downtrodden and they can’t even be fully satisfied, because capitalism has to keep producing new “needs” and desires.


Problem for Marx: doesn’t this mean that capitalism will kill the revolutionary drive in workers?  (In fact, alienation is more the culprit for the failure of the proletariat to rise up than is ideology.)


Second, Wood:

Capitalism and freedom

Comparison with Feuerbach’s religious alienation:

As in religion man is ruled by a botched work of his own head, so in capitalist production he is ruled by a botched work of his own hand.

Supposed free actions under capitalism combine to control individuals by creating the profit motive of the market mechanism, and taking control away from anybody:

What is alienating is ... that under capitalism human beings cannot be masters, whether individually or collectively, of their own fate, even within the sphere where that fate is a product solely of human action. [Wood 49]

Appropriate your own life through self-activity and self-exercise! [50]

FREEDOM for Marx is positive.  It is both NOT individualistic (because it requires that the whole community control the conditions of production) and individualistic (no society can be free unless it ‘gives to each the social room for his essential life expression’ [52])


Third, Elster:

Alienation: Lack of Autonomy

Capitalism is supposed to be a social system that maximized freedom.  Certainly, there is much greater scope for choice under capitalism than before, as Marx concedes.  However, he argues that choice is twisted and subverted in the following ways:

1.      The formation of desires under capitalism is not under individuals’ control – the desires appear to him as alien powers.

2.      The realization of those desires is frustrated by lack of coordination – the aggregate outcome of individual action appears as an independent and sometimes hostile power, and not under human control.


1. Marx: desires under capitalism are

1.      one-sided (because of specialization – BUT, says Elster, this criticism is Utopian)

2.      compulsive

Elster: compulsive desires need not be bad (a compulsion to do good, for example)

Marx means desires with which the individual does not identify and that lead to actions that do not give him pleasure – consumption in particular, which (ironically) leads to the compulsion to hoard (miserliness) and a perversion of human nature.

Elster:  actually, most consumption satisfies real needs or wants, and besides, you could get compulsive desires under communism.

Marx’s psychology is too simple, and a modified id/superego model is more plausible [51]

Finally: these problems have biological causes and are not caused by capitalism.


2. “Supraintentional causation” that frustrates our desires:

To clarify, we need to distinguish between transparency and control:

Hog farmers used to frustrate themselves by underproducing and driving up costs or vice-versa.  Transparency improved control.  However, in prisoners’ dilemma situations, transparency doesn’t produce control.  Here Marx’s point is that the solution is coordination (in central economic planning).  According to Marx, markets operate by arm’s-length transactions that subvert communitarian values and make people into mere means to one another’s satisfaction. (“Mutual exploitation” – The German Ideology)


So, alienation is:

1.     absence of self-realization

2.     absence of (Marxian human) freedom


Both of these are tied to what it is to be human.  Further related is the nature of alienated labor.  In the Grundrisse Marx criticizes Adam Smith for claiming that labor is a “curse” to be avoided [red Elster p. 59].  This is only so if the labor is alienated.  True labor is the most human of activities, and is thus one affirms oneself in work.  Wood writes:


Human essential powers

Humans are objective beings in the sense of being objects in the material world, confronted by other objects on whom their life depends, and for that reason, a healthy human life is not the inward-turning life of the ascetic.

Thus, the human essential powers are needs and drives that succeed when they are objectified – that is, when we as humans establish certain connections with other objects.

The main two are consumption and production.  Production in particular involves

a determinate activity of individuals, a determinate way of expressing their life, a determinate mode of life for them.  As individuals express their life, so they are.  What they are coincides with what they produce and how they produce. [German Ideology, quoted in Wood 28]

Production includes consumption and is the ‘encompassing moment of the whole human life process.’

Human history (on Marx’s theory) is best made intelligible in terms of the fundamental human aspiration to develop and exercise the productive powers of society. [Woods 30]


Conscious life activity

Marx agrees with Franklin’s definition of man as a “tool-making animal” [33]

Relationship between tools and needs [34]


Labour as self-affirmation

Marx v. Adam Smith on whether or not work is a “sacrifice” (Marx says it is a symptom of alienation if it is [35]

Alienation as a function of the development of productive powers (alienation is the gap between powers and their realization, so when they are not realized, there can’t be a gap, as in “primitive” societies) [36]

“True” production only takes place when one is free from need – under communism.


Objectification and appropriation

The meaningfulness of a life is affirmed in activity and confirmed by the objectively existing product of labor.  (Our products are “so many mirrors from which our essence shines forth”) [38]


Genuine appropriation cannot take place under alienation.  Private property is not appropriation because it doesn’t involve a truly human relationship.  The sense of “having” requires the alienation of all human senses. [40-41]


Under wage labour there is both objectification and alienation because there is a product but it is alienated from the worker.  However, capitalism is not unjust because no rights exist to be violated.


Finally, both Wood and Elster treat as a separate element to alienation the fact that Capital controls labor under capitalism.  (This is obviously another way in which alienated labor is unfree).  Elster first:


Alienation: The Rule of Capital Over Labor [54]

All production requires living labour (workers working) and dead labour (the tools and machines [capital] that were produced by previous workers)

Two stages of capital’s domination over labour:

formal subsumption – capitalist can force worker to work because he owns the means of production, but does not interfere in process (“putting out” – giving worker materials but allowing them to produce product in own time)

real subsumption – capitalist controls process of production (e.g., factory)


Labour becomes the means to its own enslavement: labour produces capital goods which in turn come to dominate labour [Michael Moore’s observation of the worker and the robot in Autoworld – “me and my buddy”]


And Woods adds:

It is not the mechanization of modern life that is alienating – in fact, mechanization could facilitate truly human labour if production was regulated by humans instead of being driven by dead capitalisms vampire-like thirst for profit.  But as it is, the specialization required by division of labour is alienating.



For Marx, alienation is objective rather than subjective, and thus cannot be removed by altering the attitudes of alienated people, and conversely, those alienated might be perfectly content (or at least, as in the case of religious believers, describe themselves as such).  It is dehumanizing in the sense that it denies humans several things that are distinctively human:

·         the potential for self-realization (which, because we are social beings, entails other-realization too)

·         the opportunity to shape human nature intentionally (rather than have it be shaped by impersonal market forces in the “chaotic” market economy)

·         genuine appropriation rather than the bastardized “having” that is all capitalism allows

Furthermore, while alienation is felt most keenly by workers under capitalism (see the four aspects of the Paris Manuscripts) and only they are under the control of capital, and lacking in individual freedom, many aspects of alienation under capitalism affect the capitalists just as much as the workers.  (Nobody can experience self-realization or experience human freedom, for example.)