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The 1844 Economic and Philosophical manuscripts remained unpublished during Marx’s lifetime and did not surface until 1927, some forty-four years after his death.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.