Under the economic system of private ownership, society divides itself into two classes: the property owners and the property-less workers. In this arrangement, the workers not only suffer impoverishment but also experience an estrangement or alienation from the world. This estrangement occurs because the worker relates to the product of his work as an object alien and even hostile to himself. The worker puts his life into the object and his labor is invested in the object, yet because the worker does not own the fruits of his labor, which in capitalism are appropriated from him, he becomes more estranged the more he produces. Everything he makes contributes to a world outside of him to which he does not belong. He shrinks in comparison to this world of objects that he helps create but does not possess. This first type of alienation is the estrangement of the worker from the product of his work.
The second type of alienation is the estrangement of the worker from the activity of production. The work that the worker performs does not belong to the worker but is a means of survival that the worker is forced to perform for someone else. As such, his working activity does not spring spontaneously from within as a natural act of creativity but rather exists outside of him and signifies a loss of his self.
The third form of alienation is the worker’s alienation from “species-being,” or human identity. For human beings, work amounts to a life purpose. The process of acting on and transforming inorganic matter to create things constitutes the core identity of the human being. A person is what he or she does in transforming nature into objects through practical activity. But in the modern system of private ownership and the division of labor, the worker is estranged from this essential source of identity and life purpose for the human species.
The fourth and final form of alienation is the “estrangement of man to man.” Since the worker’s product is owned by someone else, the worker regards this person, the capitalist, as alien and hostile. The worker feels alienated from and antagonistic toward the entire system of private property through which the capitalist appropriates both the objects of production for his own enrichment at the expense of the worker and the worker’s sense of identity and wholeness as a human being.
The 1844 Economic and Philosophical manuscripts remained unpublished during Marx’s lifetime and did not surface until 1927, some forty-four years after his death. These manuscripts illustrate the young Marx’s transition from philosophy to political economy (what is now called economics). Marx’s emerging interest in the economy is apparent here—an interest that distinguishes him from other followers of Hegel—but his writing in these texts is much more philosophical, abstract, and speculative than his later writing. For example, the concept of species-being, of what it means to be human, is essentially a philosophical question. These manuscripts give us a glimpse into Marx’s intellectual frame of reference and into the philosophical convictions that underlie his later, less explicitly philosophical work.
In the first manuscript, Marx adopts Hegel’s concept of alienation, the idea that human beings can become out of sync with the world they live in, but he interprets this concept differently, arguing that alienation arises from the way human beings regard their own labor. In these early manuscripts, Marx reveals himself as the great philosopher of work, which he sees as a process of transforming physical matter (raw materials) into objects of sustenance. This process is fundamental to a person’s identity and sense of place in the word, according to Marx. In capitalism, which is founded on the principle of private property, work as a source of identity and location is seriously undermined. Those without property (namely, workers in factories, etc.) must hand over their productive capacities, their essence as human beings, to another person, to the factory owners, the wealthy capitalists. This is not only inherently frustrating and unsatisfying but also turns workers against the capitalists and the system of private property that is the source of their frustration.
In a capitalist society, human needs are defined by the system of private ownership. Instead of mere food, clothing, and shelter, human beings need money. Moreover, capitalism mandates different needs for the different social classes that it creates. As capitalists accumulate wealth, their needs become increasingly more refined, even as the workers are forced to adjust their needs downward, making do with the bare minimum that the system pays them to stay alive. The modern system of ethics is shaped by the needs created by capitalism. In capitalism, self-denial becomes a cardinal virtue, with the moral ideal embodied by the miser and the thrifty worker scrimping and saving. Everything and everyone is treated in terms of utility and price. Capitalism demands that people be oriented to the world in this way simply to secure their own survival. In such a system, the worker quickly becomes conscious of his deprived and miserable status in relation to the capitalist. The solution to this situation of alienation is Communism, which does away with alienation by doing away with the system of private property that creates it.
Marx praises the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach as the best of Hegel’s followers, because of Feuerbach’s demonstration that religion is a reflection of human alienation stemming from antagonistic social relationships. Marx approves of Feuerbach’s criticism of Hegel for privileging religious belief, knowledge, abstract thought, and consciousness above the sensual, the real, and the material. Hegel correctly identifies labor as the essence of man but mistakenly defines labor as mental activity rather than actual physical labor. For Hegel, the dialectical process leads the mind in its search for certainty away from the world of the senses and objective reality, from nature to abstract self-awareness.
According to Hegel, the most highly evolved state of self-consciousness is a self-objectification that carries with it the experience of alienation. The function of religion, civil society, and the state is to enable the objectified, self-conscious subject to feel at home in the world. Marx sees this movement away from nature and toward a reliance on such institutions in order to ameliorate alienation as a mistake. For Marx, alienation results from estrangement from nature. In religious experience, the subject finds confirmation of his own alienation, he does not negate it. Human beings are motivated at a fundamental level by their relationship to natural objects through their senses. Their needs are sensual, and human passions stem from the excitements or frustrations of sensual desire for natural objects. This situation is the essence of human experience. Human beings seek self-realization by working on and transforming natural objects. Man is not at home in the world when this basic need does not find a proper outlet, which it lacks in capitalism. When one is estranged from nature, one is estranged from oneself.
This manuscript is particularly dense and difficult because in it Marx is so deeply engaged in Hegelian philosophy, which is itself an extremely difficult and abstract subject. Here we see Marx moving away from the idealism of his main philosophical predecessor, Hegel, toward the materialism that forms the bedrock of his own view of human nature and history. In these passages, Marx follows closely Hegel’s dialectical method, beginning with the most basic concepts and abstracting toward more comprehensive ones. Marx differs from Hegel in rejecting ideas, or pure thought, as the mode through which human beings relate to the world. In Hegel’s system, the mind’s initial attempt to grasp at the nature of objects leads it away from the input of the senses toward more abstract concepts, to culture and religion and eventually to an objective understanding of self. Consciousness and self-consciousness represent abstractions from material reality. In contrast, Marx argues that experience is built first and foremost around material needs and wants and that the organization of society grows out of this primary experience. In the manuscripts, this perspective leads him to focus on labor and the loss of control of one’s labor as the defining moment of the modern age. In later works, this will be supplemented by an elaborated notion of exploitation.