This paper discusses Marx’s argument on “estranged labour.” This is a rather microcosmic topic, but it is important because estranged labour is the basis for all of Marx’s writing, most importantly, ‘The Communist Manifesto.’ In Karl Marx’s early writing on “estranged labour,” there is a clear and prevailing focus on the plight of the labourer. Marx’s writing on estranged labour is an attempt to draw a stark distinction between property owners and workers. In the writing, Marx argues that the worker becomes estranged from his labour because he is not the recipient of the product he creates. As a result, labour is objectified; that is, labour becomes the object of man’s existence.
As labour is objectified, man becomes disillusioned and enslaved. Marx argues that man becomes viewed as a commodity worth only the labour he creates, and man is further reduced to a subsisting animal void of any capacity of freedom except the will to labour. For Marx, this all leads to the emergence of private property, the enemy of the proletariat. In fact, Marx’s writing on estranged labour is a repudiation of private property, a warning of how private property enslaves the worker. This writing on estranged labour is an obvious basis for Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
The purpose of this paper is to view Marx’s concept of alienation (estranged labour) and how it limits freedom. For Marx, man’s freedom is relinquished or, in fact, wrested from his true nature once he becomes a labourer. This process is thoroughly explained throughout Estranged Labour. This study will reveal this process and argue its validity.
Appended to this study on alienation, there will be a micro-study that will attempt to ascertain Marx’s view of freedom (i.e. positive or negative). The study on alienation, in conjunction with the micro-study on Marx’s view of freedom, will not only reveal why Marx feels labour limits man’s freedom, but it will also identify exactly what kind of freedom is being limited. Estranged Labour Karl Marx identifies estranged labour as labour alien to man.
Marx explains the condition of estranged labour as the result of man participating in an institution alien to his nature. It is my interpretation that man is alienated from his labour because he is not the reaper of what he sows. Because he is never the recipient of his efforts, the labourer lacks identity with what he creates. For Marx, then, labour is “alien to the worker…[and] does not belong to his essential being.” Marx identifies two explanations of why man’s lack of identity with labour leads him to be estranged from labour. (1) “[The labourer] does not develop freely his physical and mental energy, but instead mortifies his mind.” In other words, labour fails to nurture man’s physical and mental capacities and instead drains them. Because the worker is denied any nurturing in his work, no intimacy between the worker and his work develops. Lacking an intimate relation with what he creates, man is summarily estranged from his labour.
(2) Labour estranges man from himself. Marx argues that the labour the worker produces does not belong to him, but to someone else. Given this condition, the labourer belongs to someone else and is therefore enslaved. As a result of being enslaved, the worker is reduced to a “subsisting animal”, a condition alien to him.
As an end result, man is estranged from himself and is entirely mortified. Marx points to these two situations as the reason man is essentially estranged from his labour. The incongruency between the world of things the worker creates and the world the worker lives in is the estrangement. Marx argues that the worker first realizes he is estranged from his labour when it is apparent he cannot attain what he appropriates.
As a result of this realization, the objectification of labour occurs. For the worker, the labour becomes an object, something shapeless and unidentifiable. Because labour is objectified, the labourer begins to identify the product of labour as labour. In other words, all the worker can identify as a product of his labour, given the condition of what he produces as a shapeless, unidentifiable object, is labour. The worker is then left with only labour as the end product of his efforts. The emerging condition is that he works to create more work.
For Marx, the monotonous redundancy of this condition is highly detrimental because the worker loses himself in his efforts. He argues that this situation is analogous to a man and his religion. Marx writes, “The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself… The worker puts his life into the object, but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object.” The result of the worker belonging to the object is that he is enslaved. The worker belongs to something else, and his actions are dictated by that thing. For Marx, labour turns man into a means.
Workers become nothing more than the capital necessary to produce a product. Labour for Marx reduces man to a means of production. As a means of production, man is diminished to a subsisting, enslaved creature void of his true nature. In this condition, he is reduced to the most detrimental state of man: one in which he is estranged from himself. To help expand on this theme, it is useful to look at Marx’s allegory of man’s life-activity.
Life-activity and the Nature of Man
Of the variety of reasons Marx argues man is estranged from his labour, probably the most significant is his belief that labour estranges man from himself. Marx argues that the labour the worker produces does not belong to the worker, so, in essence, the worker does not belong to the worker. By virtue of this condition, Marx argues the worker is enslaved. Enslavement for Marx is a condition alien to man, and he becomes estranged from himself.
For Marx, man estranged from himself is stripped of his very nature. Not only because he is enslaved, but because his life-activity has been displaced. For Marx, man’s character is free, conscious activity, and man’s pursuit of his character is his life-activity. Man’s life-activity is then the object of his life. So by nature, man’s own life is the object of his existence. This is man’s condition before labour. After labour, man’s life-activity, that is, his free conscious activity or his very nature, is displaced. In a pre-labour condition, man’s life was the object of his condition; in a labour condition, man exists to labour, and his life-activity is reduced to a means of his existence so he can labour.
In effect, labor necessitates itself in man by supplanting man’s true nature with an artificial one that re-prioritizes man’s goals. Man’s goal then is not to pursue his life but to labor. He becomes linked to his labor and is viewed in no other way. Man is reduced to chattel, a commodity, the private property of another individual.
Conclusion: For Marx, labor limits the freedom of man. Labor becomes the object of man’s existence and he, therefore, becomes enslaved by it. In considering the validity of Marx’s argument, I feel Marx is correct that man’s freedom is limited by the fact that he is a laborer. But, in opposition to Marx, I believe that man’s freedom is no more limited as a laborer than as a farmer. Agrarian worker or laborer, man’s freedom is limited. Whether he is identified by the product he creates in a factory or in a wheat field, in either case, he is tied to his work and is not viewed beyond it.
In either instance, the product is objectified because, in either instance, the worker works only to create more work. Just as the laborer must continue to work without end to subsist, so must the agrarian worker. The implication then is that alienation is not the culprit that limits man’s freedom; it is work itself. Do not mistake this as an advocacy for laziness. Instead, consider the implications of not working. If one did not work at all, he or she would live a life of poverty and would be far less free than if he did work.
Working, either as a laborer or a farmer, offers greater financial means and with greater financial means comes greater freedom. This point of the argument stands up, of course, only if you believe money can buy freedom. I argue it can. Surely, my freedom to buy something is limited if I do not have the financial means. On the other hand, if I have greater financial means, I have more freedom to buy things. So, although labor limits freedom to the extent that the worker becomes tied to his work, labor also offers far greater freedom than that of indigence. Laboring is no less acceptable than agrarian work because the implications of partaking in either are uniform to both, and alienation holds no relevancy.
Appendage 1. Marx on Freedom: Marx’s view of freedom would seem a rather broad topic, and I’m sure it is. For our purposes, it is convenient to have just an idea of what type of freedom Marx favors. For the sake of ease, the scope of this study will be limited to two (2) classifications of freedom: prescribed (positive) freedom and negative liberties. Prescribed freedom would be guided freedoms, or freedoms to do certain things. Negative liberties would be the freedom to do all but what is forbidden.
In Marx’s writing On The Jewish Question, he identifies (but does not necessarily advocate) liberty as “. . . the right to do everything which does not harm others.” In further argument, Marx states that “liberty as a right of man is not founded upon the relationship between man and man; but rather upon the separation of man from man.” By this definition, liberty is negative liberty, and for Marx, it is monistic and solitary.
Marx then argues that private property is the practical application of this negative liberty. He states that “private property is the right to enjoy one’s fortune and dispose of it as one will, without regard for other men and independently of society.” Private property for Marx is the mechanism by which man can be separate from other men and pursue his (negative) liberty. Marx’s writings on estranged labor and in The Communist Manifesto are a clear repudiation of private property.
What can be deduced then is that Marx does not favor negative liberties. Negative liberties require private property to exist, and private property is, for Marx, the enslaver of the proletariat. Negative freedom eliminated from the discussion, we are left with positive or prescribed freedoms. Positive freedom, as identified above, is the freedom to pursue specified options. That is, the freedom to do certain things.
Man is not necessarily given a choice of what these options are; he is simply free to pursue them, whatever they may be. Positive freedoms, then, are the freedoms Marx likely wishes to uphold by denouncing estranged labor.
- Marx, Karl, The Early Marx, (reserve packet)
- Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, The Communist Manifesto, London, England, 1888.