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 and 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 mans existence. As labour is objectified man becomes disillusioned and enslaved.
Marx argues that man becomes to be 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 point of 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 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
labour limits mans freedom, but it will also identify exactly what kind of freedom is being limited.
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 mans
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 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 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 to 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
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 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 labour. After labour mans life-activity, that is, his free conscious, activity, or his very nature, is
displaced. In a pre-labour condition mans 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
labour 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 labour. He becomes linked to his labour and is
viewed in no other way. Man is reduced to chattel, a commodity, the private property of another
For Marx labour limits the freedom of man. Labour 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 labourer. But in opposition to Marx I believe that
man's freedom is no more limited as a labourer than as a farmer. Agrarian worker or labourer 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 labourer 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 labourer 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 labour limits freedom to the
extent that the worker becomes tied to his work, labour also offers a far greater freedom than that of
indigence. Labouring is no less acceptable than agrarian work because the implications of partaking in
either are uniform to both and alienation holds no relevancy.
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 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 labour 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
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. Posistive freedoms then are the freedoms Marx likley wishes to
uphold by denouncing estarnged labour.
1Marx, Karl, The Early Marx, (reserve packet)
2Marx, Karl and Engles, Freidrich, The Communist Manifesto, London, England, 1888
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