Flow of Ideas


What is alienated labour, and what would unalienated labour be like?

An essay written as an undergraduate in the Department of Philosophy, King’s College London

Alexander Rikowski

London, June 2010

In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844a) Marx explains that there are four aspects of alienated labour under capitalism. Wolff (2002, p. 29) writes: “The basic idea [of alienation] is that two things which belong together come apart” [1]. I shall be examining the four forms of alienated labour indicated by Marx in his Manuscripts and I will be using the concept of ‘unalienated labour’ as a tool to clarify what Marx meant by ‘alienated labour’. For, as Ollman puts it:

“Alienation can only be grasped as the absence of unalienation, each state serving as a point of reference for the other. And for Marx, unalienation is the life man leads in communism” [2].

Marx explains that the capitalist alienates the products of labour from the workers by forcing them to produce products for both him and the buying public. But, according to Marx, since there would be no private property under communism, it is there that man would then be free to express his individuality through production (Marx, 1844b, p. 278). I will argue that although some will remain unconvinced by Marx’s theory of alienated labour because it relies on what they see as Marx’s warped conception of human nature, the theory is still useful to those struggling to understand the difficulties imposed on them by capitalist society.

The first category of alienated labour analysed by Marx is: alienation from the product of labour. Under capitalism the workers produce products, but Marx argues they are alienated from the products they produce. One understanding of why this is the case is: it is not up to the workers what happens to the products they produce (Wolff, 2002, p. 31). Those products were made to be sold off to those who wish to purchase them, with the capitalist picking up the profit.

The worker’s products were not made by the worker because he needs them, but because others do, and they are not for him to use as he wishes. Marx writes:

“The product of labour is labour embodied and made objective in a thing. It is the objectification of labour. Labour’s realisation is its objectification” [3].

The workers put their life into their work, and labour is realised in the external alien objects they have created, which then have power over the workers. Marx says: “The more the worker exerts himself, the more powerful becomes the alien objective world which he fashions against himself” [4]. Power is transferred from the workers to objects, and as the value of those objects increases, so does the worth of the workers decrease. Under capitalism, our creations come to dominate and overpower us as alien forces, Marx is saying.

Marx argues that we humans have created a world we are mystified by. Wolff (2002, p. 32) gives the example that very few of us today actually know how a refrigerator works. We also rarely notice the fact that a lot of the world has been shaped by human endeavour. The example given by Wolff is of a national park in the USA which is officially called a “wilderness”, but was actually farmland in the early 1900’s. According to Marx, although much of the world has been affected by humans, we have become strangers in a world we created.

Wolff also explains how under capitalism we recognise that market forces ought not to be ignored. He gives the example that if a capitalist wants to stay in business he needs to cut his prices if his competitors are doing the same. The capitalist also needs to take notice of what consumers want. If a product is no longer in demand, the capitalist needs to get his workers to produce products that are in demand, and if they cannot manage this, then the capitalist will need to give them the sack. For as Wolff says: “The market is like a monster we have accidentally created, but which now comes to rule our lives” [5]. We created the market, as it is an effect of the consumer needs of humans, but, for Marx, this creation comes to dominates us all as something alien. In contrast to this alien world we have created, Marx would say that if man’s labour was unalienated, we would individually and collectively be at one with the world and our creations within it.

Another form of alienated labour examined by Marx is man’s alienation in his productive activity. This activity is linked to the worker being alienated from his product. For as Marx puts it:

“How could the worker stand in an alien relationship to the product of his activity if he did not alienate himself from himself in the very act of production?” [6].

Since the product of labour is external and alien to the worker, so then must the act of production be external, says Marx. In capitalism, labour is not part of the worker’s nature, as the worker does not express himself in his work, but instead: “…denies himself, feels miserable and unhappy, develops no free physical and mental energy but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind” [7]. Marx calls the worker’s labour under capitalism “forced labour.” The worker only feels comfortable when he is not working, as when he works he is not satisfying his own needs, but is instead trying to satisfy the needs of others (Marx, 1844a, p. 292). Since under capitalism the worker’s productive activity is hostile and belongs not to him but to the capitalist, it is then alien to him.

Alienation in productive activity derives from the capitalist division in labour (Wolff, 2002, p. 34). The problem is not that each worker is given his own specific task, as some tasks may be rewarding for the worker, explains Wolff. But, usually under capitalism, the division of labour means that in order for profit to be maximized, the workers are required to do the same boring tasks many times over. The workers only use a small part of their human powers, and become one-dimensional instead of the all-dimensional beings which Marx believes we humans essentially are (Ollman, 1976, p. 139). Marx tells us that if the worker’s productive activity was unalienated, the worker would have free control over this activity. Ollman states: “Here, man’s productive activity engages all his powers and creates ever widening opportunities for their fulfilment” [8].

Marx then moves on to the next aspect of alienated labour which is: man’s alienation from his species-being. Wolff illustrates that for Marx, one aspect of our species-being is that it is essential to human beings that they “…are capable of free production in the sense that they can produce in accordance with their will and consciousness in elaborate and unpredicted ways” [9]. This is in contrast to animals which produce in predictable ways that are routine to their species, says Marx (1844a, p. 295). As Marx states: “It [the animal] produces in a one-sided way while man produces universally” [10]. By “universally” Marx meant that man can produce in an unlimited amount of ways. However, Marx tells us that under capitalism, only a small minority of us actually enjoy this side of our species-essence (Ollman, 1976, p. 151). Rather, under capitalism the workers produce in a one-sided way more similar to animals than humans, and this is one way in which man is alienated from his own species-being under capitalism. Man’s species-being is alienated from both his body and the outside world, says Marx (1844a, p. 295).

Wolff indicates that the other aspect of our species-being for Marx is a social aspect. In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx states:

“The essence of man is no abstraction inhering in each single individual. In its actuality it is the ensemble of social relationships” [11].

Marx is saying that we human beings co-operate with one another in order to achieve things—we are essentially social beings. But the problem is that, under capitalism, instead of seeing ourselves as part of a large co-operation of humans, we think in a selfish linear way in order to survive in the system we are in. As Wolff puts it: “we think of ourselves as people who go to work to earn money, and then go to shops to spend it. We are people with tunnel vision” [12]. The result is that we are alienated from the social aspect of our species-being.

Being alienated from the social aspect of our species-essence is tied to the last form of alienated labour, which is: alienation from others. For as Marx writes: “In general, the statement that man is alienated from his species-existence means that one man is alienated from another just as each man is alienated from human nature” [13]. Marx then asks the question: since the product of my labour is alien to me under capitalism, who does that product then belong to? Marx explains that that product is owned by a capitalist. Since the hostile alien objects produced by labour are owned by a capitalist, the capitalist and the worker are alien to each other, with each of them having competing interests. The capitalist wants to make as much profit as possible, whilst the worker wants less mundane work and more pay. Workers and capitalists cannot relate to each other as human beings, but instead remain antagonistic to one another (Ollman, 1976, p. 154).

Sayers (1998, p. 3) writes that for Marx, history shows us that human beings are: “…active, social and productive beings” [14]. Marx perceived humans as: beings that continuously alter their natures; the world around them; and the relationships they have with others, says Sayers. Similarly, Wolff (2002, p. 28) explains how the young Marx saw history as proof that in physically changing the world, humans change both themselves and how they conceptualize the world. “In changing the world they change themselves, by developing new skills, but also new needs” [15]. It is from grasping Marx’s conception of human nature that we can tell what he thought it would be like to have unalienated labour. For Marx, to have unalienated labour would be to live as an active, productive social being that changes itself and its needs by producing freely in many different ways without coercion. The workers having unalienated labour would mean they would have power over both themselves and their creations, whilst also being aware of the part they have to play in the grand scheme of things. Living under communism is where we will all be in unity with ourselves; others; the products of our labour; and our productive activity. But as I have shown, Marx argues this is a far cry from the alienated labour we have under capitalism.

Although the conditions of the workers may not be as bad in today’s Western countries as it was back in Marx’s day, they may still be as bad today in certain parts of poor developing countries (Wolff, 2002, p. 104). Also, as Ollman reiterates: “labour is still productive activity performed in the service of someone else, a response to external pressures rather than the fulfilment of a need” [16]. Competition for money still drives us, and there is a price for everything under capitalism. We are still told what to produce and how to produce it. And as Ollman rightly mentions, we are also told in the form of advertisements: “…what to buy and how to use it” [17]. We remain creatures who are constantly being manipulated and used by alien forces, explains Ollman. It may also be argued that because communism would not be about profit maximization, the workers would not be forced to do the same things over and over again in a communist world (Wolff, 2002, p. 105).

I have said that for Marx, unalienated man is the man who lives in accordance with human nature. He saw human nature as being essentially social/co-operative and universally productive. But what if Marx was wrong about human nature? As Wolff states: “Could there be an ineliminable ‘tribal’ element that makes universal co-operation impossible?” [18]. History suggests this may be correct. If it is essential to human nature to be selfish and competitive, then it seems that living in a dog eat dog capitalist system suits us well.

Also, rather than production being an essential activity to human nature, it may instead be one of several activities that all form part of what it means to be human. Wolff (2002, p. 125) points out that these activities may include the act of using language; practising religion; and philosophising. He also explains that since we may always have disagreements about these activities, perhaps human nature makes it so that humans will always be divided on many issues.

Yet, the plausibility of Marx’s conception of human nature may be acknowledged once it is realised that the reason we humans are so successful is because we are both creative and social. For example, I recently watched a television programme with a scientist explaining that part of the reason Homo sapiens have endured whilst other types of human are extinct, is that, unlike those other types of human, we Homo sapiens have a great capacity to trade and co-operate with one another in order to ensure that we continue to survive through harsh times. We humans both co-operate and find new creative ways of overcoming scarcity, and it is essential for us to be able to do all this, as it ensures the continuation of our species.

Since history has shown us to be actively creative on many levels, we ideally ought to enjoy labouring on our products, as it is something we have been doing throughout history. But for those workers who take no pleasure from labouring and feel powerless to do anything about it, they may find Marx’s theory of alienation useful in helping them come to terms with what is happening to them. Marx himself believed that in coming to terms with unalienated labour, the workers would unite in breaking free from their alienated states. And as Ollman illustrates, although we mostly act for competitive and selfish reasons under capitalism, the future may yet confirm that Marx’s conception of human nature was indeed the correct one (Ollman, 1976, p. 238).


[1] Wolff, J. (2002), Why Read Marx Today? p. 29.
[2] Ollman, B. (1976), Alienation: Marx’s concept of man in capitalist society, Second edition, pp. 131-132.
[3] Marx, K. (1844a), “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts”, published in (1967), Writings of the young Marx on Philosophy and Society, p. 289.
[4] Marx, K. (1844a), ibid, p, 289.
[5] Wolff, J. (2002), ibid, p. 33.
[6] Marx, K. (1844a), ibid, p. 291.
[7]Marx, K. (1844a), ibid, p. 292.
[8] Ollman, B. (1976), ibid, pp. 137-138. [9] Wolff, J. (2002), ibid, p. 35.
[10] Marx, K. (1844a), ibid. p. 294.
[11] Marx, K. (1888), “Theses on Feuerbach” published in (1967), ibid, p. 402.
[12] Wolff, J. (2002), ibid, p. 37.
[13] Marx, K. (1844a), ibid, p. 296.
[14] Sayers, S. (1998), Marxism and Human Nature, p. 3.
[15] Wolff, J. ibid, p. 28.
[16] Ollman, B. (1976), ibid, p. 251.
[17] Ollman, B. ibid. p. 251.
[18] Wolff, J. (2002), ibid, p. 123.


Marx, K. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts”, (1844a), published in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, translated and edited by L. Easton and K. Guddat, New York: Anchor Books edition, (1967).

Marx, K. “Excerpts from James Mill’s Elements of Political Economy”, (1844b), published in Karl Marx: Early Writings, introduced by Colletti, L. and Translated by G, Benton and R. Livingston, London: Penguin Classics, (1992).

Marx, K. “Theses on Feuerbach” (1888), published in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, Translated and Edited by L. Easton and K. Guddat, New York: Anchor Books edition, (1967).

Ollman, B. Alienation: Marx’s conception of man in capitalist society, Second Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (1976).

Sayers, S. Marxism and Human Nature, London: Routledge, (1998).

Wolff, J. Why read Marx Today? New York: Oxford University Press, (2002).

This paper was originally a Pre-Submission for the 2009/10 BA ‘Marxist Philosophy’ Paper, King’s College London, for the BA in Philosophy

Copyright © Alexander Rikowski, December 2010

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