Alienation: Was Marx Right?

Marx's view of workers encounters problems in the real world


Imagine, if you will, someone laboring away on a flower pot, designing it carefully, making it in a shop somewhere in a basement, then taking it to the market to be sold by a merchant to a buyer who'll give it as a wedding present to a friend. As the purchase is made, it is hardly likely that the seller or the buyer will pay much attention to the history of the flower pot's production. The buyer wants something that will serve as a charming enough gift. The happy couple, in turn, will open the box containing the pot, exclaim with a few oohs and ahs, and shortly the pot will join a dozen other gifts on some shelf.

Has the pot maker's labor been appreciated? Have those who exchanged and eventually received the item treated it with the regard such labors should be granted? The merchant and the purchaser gave little or no thought to the pot maker's labors, treating the pot as one among many commodities, while the couple, of course, gave no thought to what went into making it.


This is what Karl Marx had in mind when he talked about alienation. Roughly put, Marx believed that alienation arises when an individual worker is divorced from his distinctive human nature, or essence. For Marx, the defining characteristic of human beings is that they are conscious producersworkers with conscious plans triggered by economic factors in their society. And he believed that the failure to take into account the personal element of production in market transactions precipitates widespread alienation in any society where buying and selling occurs.

This was one of his objections to capitalist economic systems. People who buy goods and services disregard the essentially human, personal element of what they are obtaining. In focusing on the resultthe commodity or servicethey forget about the process of work. Goods and services are thus objectified, dehumanized, depersonalized, creating a gulf between workers and their nature as conscious producers. And so Marx charged capitalism with widespread alienation of the producing class, the workers or laborers.

Now we all know plenty of unalienated workersflowerpot makers and workers of all stripes who claim to have their essential humanity well intact and to enjoy their work in the context of a market economy. Doesn't this prove that Marx didn't have the facts straight?

Marxists will answer that such producers suffer from false consciousness, a deluded belief that they are treated humanely. This false consciousness is created, the Marxists will continue, by the market economy itself; indeed, it is a symptom of alienation. Neo-Marxists such as C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse add to this the contention that a concerted conspiracy is afoot within modern capitalist societies to manipulate the working class into thinking that they are treated humanely. Advertising, for example, creates shallow desires and, because these can be satisfied within a market economy, deludes workers into thinking they are well-off.

Today, the theme of the inherently alienating character of capitalism has many variations, heard way beyond Marxist and neo-Marxist circles. Contemporary critics of technology extend the idea when they charge technology with giving us all the impression that we have control over our lives, whereas in fact technocrats have manipulated us so that we are deluded about this. From left and right alike, critics of capitalism and the system's productive capacity aim to convince us that the things we think are of value to uskitchen gadgets, car accessories, office machinery, etc.appear to be of value only because we have been taken in by the business folks and bankers whose thriving is entirely parasitic upon our deluded satisfaction with what they sell us. Such critics, who on this count are joined by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, complain that we in the industrialized West are too materialistic. We are too much concerned with things in the marketplace and too little concerned with intangible goods that distinguish human beings from other creatures.


But the question needs to be confronted at its heart: Must the free society, with its market economy, be alienating?

It would be silly to deny that in a free society alienation is a distinct possibility. And this doesn't depend on Marx's definition of human beings as conscious producers. In a free society it is possible to subvert one's humanity whatever that must ultimately amount toconscious producer, divinely inspired beast, or rational animal.

But suppose for the moment that one's essential humanity would be undermined by becoming what the Canadian Marxist C.B. Macpherson calls a possessive individualistsomeone entirely immersed in attempting to obtain gratification through the possession of material things or pleasures. Even so, it is all wrong to maintain that in free societies this sort of life will be widely cherished. Single-minded possessiveness is possible in a free society, but that it is necessary, even very probable, is extremely doubtful.

Marx, it bears recalling, was committed to economic determinism when he developed his mature theory about alienation. He believed that one's actions, and even one's thought processes, are entirely dictated by the economic aspects of whatever society one lives in. Thus, in a society where the economics of a free market prevail, one's personal life must become subordinate to market factors. And although Engels tried to deny it later, Marxist theory just does not hang together once economic determinism is lifted from it.

So the first point to be made about Marx's view of alienation is that this determinism is ultimately inconsistent with the possibility of any theoretical activity such as Marx engaged in. He appeared to be quite aware of this, since he exempted himself from the all-embracing economic determinism the rest of us are supposedly subject to!


But Marx also forgot about the capacity to keep on oneself a perspective different from that which others hold. A worker, for example, could keep in clear focus his full human nature even as the rest of those involved in trading his product forget about the producer. In short, producers can have personal pride in their work and can easily do without the audience Marx believed everyone requires to keep one's humanity in clear view. Marx, however, being fundamentally an altruist (as is clear in all of his writings, starting with letters to his father from high school), refused to give personal pride a serious place in his human psychology.

Marx's idea of alienation also encounters the problem that conscious material production is not what is distinctive about human beings. A historical/dialectical materialist, Marx closed his eyes to the fact that human nature is only partially characterized by productivity (and not necessarily material productivity, at that). Of course, without material production one would neglect some essential features of one's humanityone's physical, chemical, biological existence. But there is more to human life. The formation of ideas, learning, understanding, artistic creativity and appreciation, emotional exaltation, and so forth all constitute equally important features of human living. And only by a materialist prejudice can all these be subsumed under material production. Since social life involves all of these in one form or another, a correct conception of human nature must make room for education, the arts and sciences, friendship, and a family life as well as commerce.

Since conscious material production is not the distinctively human characteristic, there is ample opportunity for involvement with the world on other than commercial levels, even while engaged mainly in material labor or the exchange of its product. To regard human beings as incapable of widening the scope of their involvement with one another beyond the narrow material dimensions of some action is unjustifiably pessimistic.

Finally, the Marxist theory of alienation is insulting to workers. Most people do material, even menial, labor at some time in their lives. I was a boxcart packer for a year. And a shipping clerk another, where all I did was pack and mail machinery. And a welder another. I didn't know I would advance past this point in my life, although I never failed to make plans. But quite apart from any long-range hopes, I never failed to create opportunities on the job to make the most of my work.

Those for whom I workedwith whom I engaged in market exchange"merely" wanted the result of what I did, such as neatly packed boxcarts. Yet every day, every hour, I'd improve my packing, eventually learning to throw boxes, with precision, from several yards. In all my jobs as a laborer and more and more skilled worker, I found ample opportunity to improve my work and come up with a better product, and I found the opportunity to discover what I wanted to specialize in, what suited me well.

Many, many people could tell very similar stories. This shows clearly enough that selling one's labor to those who have no personal interest in itas the economic system of capitalism requiresneed not engender alienation for those involved.

No doubt some people stagnate in the sort of labor that does not suit them or box themselves into routine and boring work. But this does not at all reflect badly on the marketplace itself, unless one is a utopian like Marx who could not accept the fact that individuals might botch up their lives on their own, that such failure does not require some metaphysical explanation and, in turn, some revolutionary remedy.

Let us simply admit it: if individuals in a free marketplace are alienated, the problem is usually of their own making, not the result of the inherently alienating features of the systemcontrary to what Marx and many conscious and unconscious followers would have us believe.

Tibor Machan is a senior editor of REASON and the author of Human Rights and Human Liberties. As a philosophy professor specializing in political theory, he often teaches Marxist theory to undergraduate students.