April 17, 2001

Political and Social Philosophy: Karl Marx

1.) Discuss the multi-fold problem of alienation presented by Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Fromm pp. 43-58, 93-109). Explain why alienation is a uniquely human problem and why Marx believes it results in its most damaging form from production of private property under capitalism.

In order to understand Karl Marx’s view of alienation, we first need to understand some of beliefs about man. Specifically, we need to understand (1) what Marx believes is the natural predicament that man finds himself in and (2) how Marx believes man is able to get out of this predicament.

According to Marx, the predicament that man naturally finds himself in is that his existence and essence do not coincide. What this means is that, as Erich Fromm puts it, “in reality he [man] is not what he potentially is, or, to put it differently . . . he is not what he ought to be” (47). In order to get out of his natural predicament, it follows that man must simply achieve his essence, or become what he ought to be.

Much like Plato, Marx believes that we can discover what man’s essence is by discovering what it is that man alone can do. In other words, we can determine what it is that man ought to be by discovering what it is that only he is capable of being. Only man, Marx writes, is able to manipulate nature according to his will. As he writes in Capital I, “what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in his imagination before he erects it in reality” (41).

Since man’s essence is his ability to manipulate nature according to his will, it naturally follows that, in order for man to achieve his essence, he must manipulate nature according to his will. And since one comes in contact with nature when he labors, it follows that one is able to manipulate nature according to his will in the act of labor. Therefore, Marx believes that, by performing a distinctively human type of labor (by appropriating “nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants”), man is able to achieve his essence and, thus, get out of the predicament that he naturally finds himself in (40).

Now that we understand these beliefs that Marx has regarding man, we are able to understand his view of alienation. Simply put, Marx believes that alienation occurs when man does not achieve his essence. In other words, alienation occurs when man does not perform a type of labor in which he manipulates nature according to his will. As Fromm puts it, “Alienation (or ‘estrangement’) means, for Marx, that man does not experience himself as the acting agent in his grasp of the world, but that the world (nature, others, and he himself) remain alien to him” (44). Since alienation occurs when man does not manipulate nature according to his will and since only man is able to manipulate nature according to his will, it follows that only man is able to be alienated.

The most damaging form of alienation, believes Marx, occurs under capitalism. By encouraging people to accumulate private property, capitalism creates a society in which people do not value and care about one another, but rather vigorously compete against one another. In time, Marx believes, this competition results in “the accumulation of capital in a few hands,” and society becomes divided into two classes: a small number of “property owners” and a large number of “propertyless workers” (93). In order to physically survive, the workers become forced to work for the property owners; and since the property owners are only interested in accumulating more wealth for themselves, they treat the workers, not as human beings with intrinsic worth, but as mere means to increase their own wealth. Since the property owners treat their workers like commodities, and not humans, the workers end up doing the most awful and dehumanizing types of work, and not distinctively human types of work. As a result, the workers become alienated in three ways.

First, under capitalism, workers become alienated from the product of their labor. When man performs a distinctively human type of labor, he has a special relationship to the product of his labor—as the product was produced as a result of him performing his essence. Under capitalism, however, workers do not actively produce the objects of their labor according to their wills. Instead, products are made by machines and workers merely assist the machines. As a result, man finds himself alienated from the objects of his labor, as each object stands opposed to him “as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer” (95).

Second, under capitalism, workers become alienated from the act of production. Since, in capitalism, man does not manipulate nature according to his will, but merely assists a machine in its production, man finds himself unable to fulfill his essence through his labor. Work becomes merely a means to satisfy the worker’s physical needs. As Marx puts it, the worker “does not fulfill himself in his work but denies himself . . . does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased” (98).

Third, under capitalism, workers become alienated from their species-beings. To be a species-being is to be a being that is capable of manipulating nature according to its will. In other words, to be a species-being is to be a being capable of creating itself through labor. In a capitalistic society, man becomes alienated form his species-being because in such a society, man does not work in order to develop himself, but merely in order to physically survive. Under capitalism, labor appears “to man only as means for the satisfaction of a need, the need to maintain his physical existence” (101).


2.) Discuss and critique Marx’s reference to true communism as “the positive abolition of private property, of human self-alienation, and thus the real appropriation of human nature through and for man…” (Fromm, p. 127).

Simply put, Karl Marx believes that, by abolishing private property, a society can deliver its members from alienation and, in so doing, can enable them to achieve their essences. In the following essay, I discuss why Marx believes this is so and then critique this belief. But before understanding why Marx believes that abolishing private property will end alienation, we need to understand two things: (1) how Marx conceives alienation and (2) why Marx believes that the existence of private property leads to alienation.

Let’s first look at Marx’s conception of alienation. According to Marx, alienation is the state in which man’s essence does not coincide with his existence. Or, as Erich Fromm puts it, alienation is the state in which man is “not what he ought to be” (47). Since man’s essence is his ability to manipulate nature according to his will and since man interacts with nature through labor (and thus is able to manipulate nature according to his will through labor), it follows that man is alienated when he does not labor in a way in which he manipulates nature according to his will.

Let’s now look at why Marx believes the existence of private property leads to alienation. Simply put, Marx believes that, when private property exists, people began to vigorously compete against one another in an effort to accumulate as much private property as they can. In time, this competition results in “the accumulation of capital in a few hands,” and society becomes divided into two classes: a small number of “property owners” and a large number of “propertyless workers” (93). In order to physically survive, the workers become forced to work for the property owners; and since the property owners are only interested in accumulating more wealth for themselves, they exploit the workers—viewing them, not as humans with intrinsic worth, but as mere means to increase their own wealth. One of the results of this exploitation is that workers become forced to work in the most awful and dehumanizing jobs, and not in jobs that enable them to manipulate nature according to their wills. As a result, workers do not achieve their essences—they become alienated.

Since Marx believes that the existence of private property leads to a state in which workers labor in dehumanizing jobs and, thus, become alienated, it is easy to see why he believes abolishing private property will solve the problem of alienation. When private property is abolished, people no longer have reason to compete with one another. Man now “produces in an associated, not competitive way.” Since people no longer compete against one another, society does not get divided into unequal classes, and, therefore, one class does not end up exploiting the other. Since this exploitation does not occur, workers are not forced to work dehumanizing jobs. Rather, man is able to labor in a way in which he manipulates nature according to his will. As Fromm writes, man “produces rationally and in an unalienated way, which means that he brings production under his control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power” (60).

Now that we understand Marx’s theory, let’s evaluate it. In order to evaluate his theory, we simply need to discover whether, as Marx claims, it is true that abolishing private property enables people to manipulate nature according to their wills and, thus, achieve their essences.

Marx’s claim seems to rest on the belief that private property naturally results in one class of people exploiting another. In order to prove whether this is so, I think one would need some sort of empirical evidence. (One would need to see proof that this is how things work in reality and not just in some man’s head.) Maybe this claim is true—maybe the changing economies of the eighteenth-century made people far more alienated than they had been in times past. However, maybe the opposite is true—maybe people were actually less alienated in Marx’s day than they had been in previous times. The point is that, in order to validate Marx’s hypothesis, I think one would need empirical support. Until I see such evidence, therefore, I would be leery to believe that Marx’s theory is true.

Marx, of course, does not provide any empirical evidence for his theory. Instead, he seems to believe that abolishing private property enables people to achieve their essences simply because he puts his faith in the historical dialectic and believes that during the next phase in history, workers will revolt, private property will be abolished, and people will be better able to achieve their essences. In other words, Marx seems to believe that abolishing private property will create a state in which people are able to manipulate nature according to their wills simply because he believes, apart from any empirical evidence, that this is what the future holds.