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Karl marx estranged labor

Karl Marx's Estranged Labor

In Karl Marx's early writing on "estranged labor" there is a clear and

prevailing focus on the plight of the laborer. Marx's writing on estranged labor

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 labor

because he is not the recipient of the product he creates. As a result labor is

objectified, that is labor becomes the object of mans existence. As labor is

objectified man becomes disillusioned and enslaved. Marx argues that man becomes

to be viewed as a commodity worth only the labor he creates and man is further

reduced to a subsisting animal void of any capacity of freedom except the will

to labor. For Marx this all leads to the emergence of private property, the

enemy of the proletariat. In fact Marx's writing on estranged labor is a

repudiation of private property- a warning of how private property enslaves the

worker. This writing on estranged labor is an obvious point of basis for Marx's

Communist Manifesto.

The purpose of this paper is to view Marx's concept of alienation

(estranged labor) and how it limits freedom. For Marx man's freedom is

relinquished or in fact wrested from his true nature once he becomes a laborer.

This process is thoroughly explained throughout Estranged Labor. This study will

reveal this process and argue it's validity. Appendant to this study on

alienation there will be a micro-study which 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 help not only

reveal why Marx feels labor limits mans freedom, but it will also identify

exactly what kind of freedom is being limited.

Karl Marx identifies estranged labor as labor alien to man. Marx

explains the condition of estranged labor as the result of man participating in

an institution alien to his nature. It is my interpretation that man is

alienated from his labor because he is not the reaper of what he sows. Because

he is never the recipient of his efforts the laborer lacks identity with what he

creates. For Marx then labor is "alien to the worker...[and]...does not belong

to his essential being." Marx identifies two explanations of why mans lack of

identity with labor leads him to be estranged from labor. (1) "[The laborer]

does not develop freely his physical and mental energy, but instead mortifies

his mind." In other words labor fails to nurture mans 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 labor.

(2) Labor estranges man from himself. Marx argues that the labor the worker

produces does not belong to him, but to someone else. Given this condition the

laborer 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 to situations as the reason man is essentially estranged

from his labor. 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

labor when it is apparent he cannot attain what he appropriates. As a result of

this realization the objectification of labor occurs. For the worker the labor

becomes an object, something shapeless and unidentifiable. Because labor is

objectified, the laborer begins to identify the product of labor as labor. In

other words all the worker can identify as a product of his labor, given the

condition of what he produces as a shapeless, unidentifiable object, is labor.

The worker is then left with only labor 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, labor turns man into a means.

Workers become nothing more than the capital necessary to produce a product.

Labor 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.

Of the variety of reasons Marx argues man is estranged from his labor,

probably the most significant is his belief that labor estranges man from

himself. Marx argues that the labor 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 mans

character is free, conscious activity, and mans pursuit of his character is his

life-activity. Mans life-activity is then the object of his life. So by nature,

mans own life is the object of his existence. This is mans condition before

labor. After labor mans life-activity, that is, his free conscious, activity, or

his very nature, is displaced. In a pre-labor condition mans life was the object

of his condition; in a labor condition man exists to labor and his life-activity

is reduced to a means of his existence so he can labor. In effect labor

necessitates itself in man by supplanting mans true nature with an artificial

one that re-prioritizes mans 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.

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

mans freedom, it is work itself. Do not mistake this as an advocation 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 by 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 a 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


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 freedom to do all but what is

forbidden. In Marx's writing On The Jewish Question he identifies (but does not

necessarily advocates) liberty as "...the right to do everything which does not

harm others." In further argument Marx's 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 "...[private]

property is...the right to enjoy ones 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. With negative freedom eliminated from the discussion we are left

with Positive or prescribed freedoms. Positive freedom, as was identified above,

is the freedom to pursue specified options. That is, 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.Bibliography


1Marx, Karl, The Early Marx,

2Marx, Karl and Engles, Freidrich, The Communist Manifesto, London, England,


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