Refuting Marx on Alienation

Marxism is often used as a punching bag here, and not without good reason. It has inspired ideologies which have led to millions dead, created untold misery for many more and has ultimately failed as an ideology. But this may be uncharitable to the original...

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Marxism is often used as a punching bag here, and not without good reason. It has inspired ideologies which have led to millions dead, created untold misery for many more and has ultimately failed as an ideology. But this may be uncharitable to the original premises of Marxism. Marx was not a socialist or a Communist. In fact, there is a school of thought that argues, convincingly, that Marx may not have been promoting his system at all, but rather writing a mere prediction. This is an unpopular view, however, and cannot really be confirmed, as Marx is not really around to confirm it.

What this article hopes to accomplish is to refute one of the premises of Marxism – rather than attacking its bastard children. Through this, we can establish that not only are the crude misunderstandings of Marxism wrong, but so to the father.

Many of Marx’s arguments rest on the concept of Alienation, giving way to the crucial question: Are humans living the way we should and is it unjust if we are not? Alienation, in psychology and in Marx’s sense, refers to a state of othering, where aspects that should be together are apart. To Marx, the alienation of labour is one of the prime causes of misery on Earth. Under this view, man exists as a slave, alienated from himself and others, until such time as he overcomes alienation in a state of Communism.

In examining the persuasiveness of Marx’s theory of alienation, this article will be examining the four forms of alienation and determining their merit. This will be accomplished through asking three questions of each form of alienation: should the aspects in question genuinely be together, are they, in actual fact, alienated from one another and can it be overcome? In regards to the latter point, if alienation cannot be overcome, due to the aspect being a necessity, then we may need to return to the first question.

The four forms that will be examined will be alienation of our species-being, alienation from the work process, alienation from our products and alienation in worker relations. This article will ultimately find that Marx’s views of alienation are not truly cases of alienation, and that, in some cases, the logical solutions may lead to actual alienation.

Alienation from our Species-Being

Marx’s forms of alienation stem from a notion of a species-being, borrowed from Feuerbach, that Capitalism has prevented us from fulfilling. A species-being is effectively what makes us, as humans, uniquely different from other species, and as such – should fulfil as our raison d’être. This species-being is described as humans being uniquely capable of freely, creatively and socially producing.

To Marx, the essence of humanity is found in its capacity to produce even if there is no need. Production must be an end in itself for humans to fulfil their species-being. Capitalism, Marx argued, alienates humans from their species-being, as they are made to produce for reasons other than the fulfilment of creative, social production.

The pursuit of money was seen as fundamentally alienating, as workers were producing to amass wealth and not for the sake of production itself. Additionally, Marx argued that Capitalism shifted the feeling of accomplishment to be innate in money and not in the individual themselves – alienating the individual from their capacity to produce their own ends. Marx’s main critiques were that Capitalism made production a mere means to the ends of amassing wealth and staying alive, thus alienating us from our species-being.

Marx’s view is a perfectionist view, also known as Essentialism, as it ascribes a certain way of life as best for all humans. The problem with all perfectionist views is that they assume that, just because an aspect is uniquely human, that it must be our raison d’être or species-being. As Kymlicka argues, the fact that it seems that animals do not partake in rationality (in the Aristotelian view) or production (in the Marxist view) does not necessarily make it our species-being.

We can see that many people who do not partake in the Marxist conception of production can live seemingly fulfilling lives. People do want the option to do other things with their time, and perfectionist views are arrogant to presume that these individuals know less about their own lives than the critic. For example, family-life is not unique to humans, but can be fulfilling to many individuals. People have their own views and factors that contribute to their own individual sense of fulfilment.

Finally, production is not meant to be intrinsically fulfilling. One can treat it as an end in itself individually but, fundamentally, production is a means to an end. We produce to survive, to fulfil desires, to create the means to other ends. Marx wants the carpenter to produce for the sake of it while the fact of life is that he is producing because he wants a chair or a table. Production is simply a means – only an ends in as much as the individual enjoys work for the sake of it.

Alienation from the Work Process

Marx argued that the Capitalist work process alienated workers from their species-being by making work unfulfilling, deskilling and in service to another. We have already established, with the previous section, that production and work is not our species-being so, while the work process may be unpleasant, it is not necessarily alienating. Alienation implies a genuine togetherness that has come apart, but if something is not meant to be together, then it cannot be alienated. Intrinsically fulfilling work is supererogatory, not a base human necessity. Work is simply a means in itself and working under any conditions does not imply a sense of togetherness or alienation.

An additional critique of the Capitalist work process is that it is deskilling and unpleasant. While this may be unfortunate, if it is true, it is not necessarily alienating, for the aforementioned reasons. Many Marxists have since argued that the work process is unpleasant for empirical reasons and that the affluence of Capitalism only masks the destitution required to produce it. This is not an argument of alienation, however. Poverty is something we want to alleviate, but not because we necessarily feel that it alienates a person from wealth they deserve. A poor person may not deserve help, but we help them nonetheless. In this way, working conditions should improve because we want our fellow humans to be comfortable or for a reason other than alienation – for there is no compelling argument to state that humans intrinsically should have fulfilling and pleasant work.

Alienation from the Product

Marx saw alienation of the product of our labour in a variety of forms: the estrangement of our product to the Capitalist, the mystification of human creation and our powerlessness to our own creation.

The simplest form is that workers have a claim over the product of their labour and that the Capitalist is taking that product out of their possession. This implies a total ownership of the product by the worker, however. It is true that the worker is using their labour to produce a product, but this view ignores the fact that other aspects are needed to create a product. In the context of a factory, the Capitalist has to provide the capital to purchase the raw materials, the machinery, the venue and, effectively, the very means to allow the worker to produce said product. A worker voluntarily adds their labour to the means of production to create a product. They enter into this arrangement, willing to exchange their labour for remuneration that they will use as a means to other ends. Therefore, the entire product is not genuinely owned by the worker and the worker has voluntarily given up their share of the product for something they want.

Marx also argues that money itself was a product that alienates us. Money causes workers to externalise their own accomplishments into an alien entity. But that is not what money is. Money is a representation of value contributed. It is a physical manifestation of our accomplishment. Rather than enslaving us, money allows us to exchange our accomplishment for the things we desire or need – which may even lead to our fulfilment.

Market-forces, Marx argued, are a human creation that humans have become mystified by and have become slaves under. He argues that we created it, but have become dominated by it through its externalisation. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the market. The market isn’t a simple human creation like that of a smartphone, book or even ideology; it is a term given to innumerable human actions that affect us every day. Marx argues that we should not be dominated by the market, but this would imply that we can truly divorce ourselves from being affected by other humans and nature itself. It implies that humans can ascend to godliness, whereby they can never clash, or work together in tandem so effectively that individual action becomes impossible. The market is natural and, while it may seem alien, it is rather a process where we, as humans, come together and affect one another. If anything, the market brings us together, leading onto the final form of alienation.

Alienation from Relations

Capitalism puts workers in competition with one another, while money drives us apart. Marx argued that money turned human relations into commodities, where people only exist to serve the means of someone else’s production. Additionally, the desire and need to amass capital put people into conflict. Capitalism valorises competition. Humans should be united in their fulfilment of their species-being.

But are humans supposed to be permanently united? Humans are not a hive-mind. We have separate agencies and, as a result of the nature of our different lives, we are going to come to disagree with one another. We are naturally alienated from other humans, not because Capitalism drives us to compete with them, but because we simply cannot truly access the unassailable barriers to another’s mind. While post-scarcity, a requirement for Marx’s vision, may lead to a lessening of conflict, it will, in all likelihood, never lead to complete unity – until such time as we become a metaphysical collective. But this itself would be alienating from our true selves, which are naturally and genuinely separate. Even with post-scarcity, we may still clash in the way we view the world, our principles, our lot in life; humans are naturally competitive and any view that claims that this is wrong misunderstands human nature or seeks to change it in such a way that it becomes inhuman.

Marx’s entire notion of alienation rests on his perfectionist view of our species-being. If we are not fundamentally socially, creative, productive beings, then we cannot be alienated by the work process or the estrangement of our products. This article has shown that not only do we not fundamentally ascribe to Marx’s species-being, but that the perfectionist views are arrogant and presumptuous of our raison d’être.

Humans are simply too complex to relegate to a singular purpose. From this, this essay has also shown that the work process is not intrinsically alienating as work is not meant to be fulfilling for its own sake. The products of our labour are not necessarily wholly ours and workers voluntarily give up their shares of their product for remuneration. It has also shown that we are not alienated by market-forces, as we are not its sole creators. Finally, we are not alienated from our fellow workers through Capitalism, but rather through the metaphysical nature of our separate agencies. We are simply different people and we will come to conflict regardless of money, capitalism or scarcity.

Ultimately, Marxism seems more valuable as a concept of personal fulfilment that some individuals can adopt as their own conception of the good. To impose it upon all of humanity egotistically assumes the nature of all individuals and, combined with the other arguments against Marx’s notions of alienation, this article proposes that Marx’s argument are not persuasive.


Bramann, J., 2009. Marx: Capitalism and Alienation. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 19 April 2016].

Kymlicka, W., 2002. Contemporary Political Philosophy. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tucker, R., 1979. Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx. 2nd ed. London: Cambridge University Press.

Wolff, J., 2002. Why read Marx today? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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  1. Altus Pienaar Reply

    Please stop with the philosophical rhetoric!!! 😛 Have you ever been outside of the confines of that pathetic institute you referred to as a place of ‘education’? I am asking this because it seems like you lack a clear understanding of what real life is like when you are NOT a student.

    1. Zaggeta Reply

      Please refrain from insults irrelevant to the article at hand.

      1. Altus Pienaar Reply

        Sorry, my bad 😛 but you have to agree that no university can teach one anything about life.
        I have chosen a path that led me down a road of relative poverty and I understand completely the isolation that comes with these choices. I see everyday around me the isolation created by alienation caused by a capitalist society. People are considered as mere commodities or resources and when they are not capable of producing useful labor or have lost the financial means for consumption, they are merely discarded to the indigent junk-pile of society.
        Your article infuriated me from the standpoint of an academic that seems to be thinking far more theory and very little real understanding for what is needed to own a vibrant living. Marx on the other hand seems to understand this and managed to illuminate the problem perfectly well. (I am not a Marxist nor a Marx supporter and have no interest in defending him or his ideology as a whole, instead I am defending his position on alienation)

        1. garg Reply

          Remind me how much of a commodity people at certain faculties are when they produce articles nobody reads about the academic differences between Marx’s theories in theory and in practice?

  2. Altus Pienaar Reply

    “humans are naturally competitive and any view that claims that this is
    wrong misunderstands human nature or seeks to change it in such a way
    that it becomes inhuman.” please elaborate or is this simply your own unadulterated assumption, if not can you proof this as fact by citing a peer reviewed scientific study?

    1. Zaggeta Reply

      The fact that we won natural selection so far proves our ability to out compete other species. The fact that we have experienced countless conflicts over our species’ lifespan proves that we like competing. The fact that we enjoy competitive sports proves that we are naturally competitive.

    2. garg Reply

      Spend some time in any random parking lot and see how long it takes before people start stink-eyeing each other over parking spots.

      But before that, consider why you bothered getting involved on a pissing contest here?

  3. Altus Pienaar Reply

    I would like to add one last statement; one aspect plaguing the modern capitalist society today could not have been perceived by Marx in his time. This would be large scale pollution and global warming which is the direct result of human economic activity. Not only have capitalism caused alienation on a mass scale but it has destroyed the biosphere beyond our ability to have it restored.
    “money allows us to exchange our accomplishment for the things we desire or need – which may even lead to our fulfilment.” You statement again assumes that fulfillment can only be achieved with money and material things. This is exactly the road that led to our own self destruction as a species, while at the same time taking most other species with equal rights of existence with us to their doom. Even more so, this as been the main cause of alienation among men with the clear symptoms being addictions of all sorts, mental disorders and depression becoming almost epidemic while crime and unemployment is on the rise.
    When we are not in an environment that fosters co-operation and economic democracy one can expect nothing but alienation, dissatisfaction and often mindless lives with only the false hope that one day your boat might dock and that money is the only thing that can buy you a ticket out of a life of misery.
    One thing is clear, you have not persuaded me to disagree with Marx’s very clear and engaging view of the causes of alienation.
    But please do not get me wrong, I do not support a collectivist view unless it also incorporate the individualist perspective. When the rights of the collective can be upheld without trampling on that of individual rights I believe harmony can be achieved between our individual choice and our responsibility to society as a whole.
    And please do not refer to recent history of quasi-communism or the fascist, nationalist mentality of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and others under the guise of socialism or communism. Although communism and revolution are seen as two terms that goes hand in hand I believe that communism can only find a secure foothold as a socially excepted norm when it is completely voluntary and without the influence of a central government.
    The worker co-operative offers just such a platform where workers can participate not only in the production but also have a direct influence in how production gets managed. This collective ownership empower workers and provides the sense of fulfillment needed which is a necessary requirement for efficient and quality production.

    1. Nic Haussamer Reply

      -> Insults author without argument – check.
      -> Realises he has failed to properly engage and backtracks – check.
      -> Fails to understand, amongst other things, a simple quoted sentence – check. (Hint: the word ‘may’ indicates possibility, not certainty or exclusivity)
      -> Does the lazy “these guys weren’t *real* socialists/communists” routine – check.

      I would suggest that next time you engage an author (such as Nicholas) who has clearly put much effort into discussing a topic such as this one, you at least engage respectfully and sensibly. Providing counter-arguments, rather than insults, would be a good start.

      1. Altus Pienaar Reply

        Thanks for the pointers, I will seriously consider them next time I engage in a counter argument.

      2. Altus Pienaar Reply

        1- The ‘argument’ is quite obvious, the authors capitalist and neoliberal stance is very clear and obvious in a multitude of articles covering related topics. What defies logic is why people feel the need to protect or uphold such a violent system(capitalist) by breaking down the miserable failures of past systems which was opposed to the capitalist system. Marx was not responsible for Lenin, Stalin and the rest that followed. Attacking Marx’s views to give credibility to capitalism makes no sense and does not help to shed light on why capitalism is failing. Marx might have pointed out many of capitalism’s flaws but instead of trying to find ways to address many of these issues within current systems , the author chose to rather discredit and discard them as mere socialist verbosity.

        2- I wrote all the comments one after the other choosing to leave them separate instead of consolidating them into one comment. I fail to see how one could expect to engage anyone in such a sort time. I might be accused for laziness in not properly formulating my ideas before writing them down or even to finish reading the entire article before I started commenting, but I surely was not trying to elicit your engagement……but here we are 😉

        3- Suggesting that fulfillment and the things one buy ‘may’ be synonymous is simply absurd. It is irrelevant whether the author suggested it is fact or a possibility because it simply is not true.

        4- “…which is a socioeconomic order structured upon the common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money and the state” this quote is from Wikipeadia and forms the basis of defining communism.

        Lets do a few more ‘checks’ to see how communist communism have been since the ideas of Marx was implemented over the past century;

        -> ‘common ownership’ – can be described as co-operative ownership. Only those that own the factory, business of means of production and do the work themselves can be seen as having “common ownership”. A state seizing all property and nationalizing it only means that the state owns everything! – Common ownership does not equal national ownership.

        -> ‘absence of social classes’ – All the communist regimes were run by a political elite disqualifying them from having true equity.

        -> ‘absence of money’ – making money and developing the economy was still the main drivers of even so called quasi-communist regimes making them in reality capitalist. What differentiated them from other capitalist regimes have been that the state formed the bases of the corporation and everyone was forced to work for this one corporation while money was still a main driving force for much of “communist” activity in these regimes.

        -> ‘absence of the state’ – Having no state is the key component of a true communist ideology. Allowing the existence of a state or any form of centralist control is preventing the true co-operative ownership of land and the means of producing a simple yet robust living while finding happiness in more spiritual ventures like that of a sense of community and social activity that includes all members of such a co-operative society.
        Communism = Anarchism and anarchism is NOT defined by chaos.

        As you could see I could not ‘check’ even one of these vital aspects of what defines communism and I think you are compelled to agree that we have not yet seen a valid communist system in recent history.

        Furthermore Nicholas might have put much effort into providing this article but he has not put much thought into it. If my intentions was to insult him I would have called him a ‘dumb twat’. My intention was not to insult but to prove how easy it can be to discredit something or someones ideas.

        1. Nicholas Woode-Smith Reply

          Quick introductory disclaimer: Recovering from flu/cold so may trail off or not completely deal with the point.
          1) The article actually defends Marx to a degree. It states that many opponents of Marxism don’t know what it is. This article seeks to take an aspect of Marxism, Alienation, explain it and refute it. I never once claimed to be attacking all of Marxism with this one article. Claiming that I am proves either that you didn’t read it or that you are lying to try discredit me.

          This article is a Philosophy article, as indicated by its category designation. It isn’t using “Communism in practice” to discredit Marxism. Marxism does that by itself.

          And yes, I am a Capitalist neoliberal. This site is for Capitalist neoliberals. We believe that economic freedom is integral to human freedom. For without choosing ones goals and how to reach them, there cannot be freedom.

          2) In response to three: I never even suggested that. I was arguing against Essentialism, that purports that all humans have one raison d’ettre. I then purported that Capitalism allows an efficient system of delegation that allows us to work indirectly towards our raison d’ettre. I think you blatantly misunderstood this point.

          3) The article wasn’t responding to Communism in practice. It was responding to Marx’s idea of Alienation. You are attacking a point irrelevant to this article.
          The article is sufficient for what it is, a brief essay on why Alienation theory doesn’t work. You haven’t really dealt with that. You have only tried to attack or defend aspects irrelevant to the article.

        2. garg Reply

          Marx is the Marx in Marxism-Leninism. You have to be drinking some pretty strong Kool-Aid to suggest that Marx’s ideas and those of his fans who implemented them are out of sync.

          Anarchism is for gullible, dumb twats. For one, how do you prevent private property and currency and social hierarchies from forming in an anarchist system?

          If you are a fan of anarchism, perhaps you can inform the rest of us here what happened to the few miserable anarchist experiments in history.

      3. garg Reply

        It is with rare exception that people who support Marx even know what they are talking about. In the rare instance that they do, they seem to also realise that Marx’s utopia is scarce possible without large scale pollution and global warming.

    2. garg Reply

      And please do not refer to recent history of quasi-communism or the fascist, nationalist mentality of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and others under the guise of socialism or communism

      Please do not insult my intelligence by suggesting that they were not communist or socialist systems.

  4. The Postmodern Return To Mysticism - Rational Standard Reply

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