Alienation of Labor

By Robin Miranda


How do the ways and conditions in which people earn their living affect their bodies, minds, and daily lives? In the theory of alienation that Karl Marx eagerly adopted from the German philosopher, George Hegel, he gives his answer. The workers who give their labor in society own none of the means (for example, the machines or raw materials) which they use in their work. They are owned by the capitalists, to whom, the employees must sell their labor in return for a wage. This system displays four interpretations that lie at the core of Marx's theory of alienation.


  • "Alienation of the product from the worker" - the worker is alienated from his or her productive activity, having no decisions in what to do or how to do it.

  • "Alienation of the process of work from the worker" - the worker is alienated from the product of that activity, having no control over what is made or what becomes of it.

  • "Alienation of man from human existence" - the worker is alienated from the distinctive potential inherent in the notion of human being.

  • "Alienation of man from man" - finally, the worker is alienated from other human beings, with competition and mutual indifference replacing most forms of cooperation.


The severing of these relationships leaves on one side, a seriously diminished individual - physically weakened, mentally confused and mystified, isolated and virtually powerless. On the other side of this separation are products and ties with other people by the capitalists, outside the control and lost to the understanding of the worker.


As the Western leftist intellectual, T.B. Bottomore points out, the more the worker expends himself in work, the more powerful becomes the world of products in which he creates, while the more poorer he becomes in his inner self, and the less he belongs to himself. He becomes "a slave of the object" (Bottomore, 123), that is, he receives work, and receives a wage for his work done. However, alienation also exists not solely in the result, but also in the process of production. The work becomes external to the employee, outside of his world, it is not a part of him, and he does not feel as himself, and begins to feel remote. He does not develop freely his mental and physical well being, but is physically exhausted and mentally distressed. The external characteristics of work are finally shown by the fact that it is not his own work, but work for someone else. It is another's activity, and "a loss of his own spontaneity" (Bottomore, 125).


Since alienated labor alienated nature from man, and alienated man from himself, so it alienates him from the human species. It takes away his individualism, and makes his productive life his means to maintain his physical existence. He no longer produces universally for all he sees in and of himself and his surroundings, he no longer constructs in accordance with the laws of beauty, everything becomes objective, and a means of existence.

A final consequence is that man becomes alienated from other man. He no longer has relationships with friends or brothers. As the worker becomes alienated, he again bestows upon another man, that labor which then becomes alienated to him, and the cycle continues.


Also in response to Marx's theory, the social philosopher, Erich Fromm, believed, by applying psychoanalytic principles to the remedy of cultural ills, mankind could develop a psychologically balanced "sane society". In his book The Sane Society (1955), Fromm presented his argument that modern man has become alienated and estranged from himself within the consumer-oriented industrial society. He called for a rebirth of enlightenment in a new and perfect society which would allow each person to fulfill his individual needs while maintaining his sense of belonging through bonds of social brotherhood.


Derived from these interpretations of alienated labor theory, comes the inception of private property. It is a consequence, "a realization of this alienation" (Bottomore, 131). Thus, Marx believed here that Communism becomes the cure-all for these acts of de-humanization of the worker. Communism is, stated, "the positive abolition of private property, of human self-alienation, and thus the real appropriation of human nature through and for man. It is therefore, the return of man himself as a social, i.e. really human, being... (Fromm, 127). Also, money, in the form of wages, adds to this alienation of the worker from his labor. People labor for the sake of the wage and not for the sake of labor (Fromm, 106). These same wages also show that the worker is a slave to the object he produces. It also demonstrates that the work belongs to someone else - the person paying the wages (Fromm, 97,99).


Whether it is a better way of life for the worker or not, I believe that Marx's adopted theory was cruel and degenerating to man. Ultimately, the Soviet economy he encompassed evolved into decentralized chaos. Beneath the illusion of central planning lies a polycentric system of irrational spirits. Soviet planners simply ask the factory managers and other heads of enterprises what they intend to do, and then order them to do it.

For Karl Marx, the fundamental "evil" that socialism would eradicate was neither capitalism, nor private property, but commodity exchange itself. Marx felt that trading in the market in and of itself, alienated workers from their labor. Paul Craig Roberts, in his book Alienation and the Soviet Economy, writes, "the separation between producer and user is the source of all the specific economic ills...attributed by Marx to capitalism." Marx looked forward to the abolition of all monetary exchange, indeed all markets, in consumption as well as production - and their replacement with a central plan that would turn the entire economy into one big, happy household.


  • Bottomore, T.B. Karl Marx: Early Writings. McGraw-Hill, NY 1963.

  • Fromm, Erich. Marx's Concept of Man. New York: Continuum, 1966.

  • A Handbook of Marxism. International Publishers Co., 1935.

  • Lecture notes #3 EC396.

  • Various Russian Web sites on the net.








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