In his early writings, which are more philosophical than economic, Marx describes how the worker under a capitalist mode of production becomes estranged from himself, from his work, and from other workers. Drawing on Hegel, Marx argues that labor is central to a human being’s self-conception and sense of well-being. By working on and transforming objective matter into sustenance and objects of use-value, human beings meet the needs of existence and come to see themselves externalized in the world. Labor is as much an act of personal creation and a projection of one’s identity as it is a means of survival. However, capitalism, the system of private ownership of the means of production, deprives human beings of this essential source of self-worth and identity. The worker approaches work only as a means of survival and derives none of the other personal satisfactions of work because the products of his labor do not belong to him. These products are instead expropriated by capitalists and sold for profit.

In capitalism, the worker, who is alienated or estranged from the products he creates, is also estranged from the process of production, which he regards only as a means of survival. Estranged from the production process, the worker is therefore also estranged from his or her own humanity, since the transformation of nature into useful objects is one of the fundamental facets of the human condition. The worker is thus alienated from his or her “species being”—from what it is to be human. Finally, the capitalist mode of production alienates human beings from other human beings. Deprived of the satisfaction that comes with owning the product of one’s labor, the worker regards the capitalist as external and hostile. The alienation of the worker from his work and of the worker from capitalists forms the basis of the antagonistic social relationship that will eventually lead to the overthrow of capitalism.