The Proletariat’s Alienation: A Critique And Explanation Of Marx’s Theory On Estranged Labor

A state of “alienation” is a situation in which an individual is excluded from or is isolated from a group (Merriam Webster, 2015). Marxist theory defines “alienation” as the absence or inability to exist for a particular sector of society. Karl Marx developed this concept, appropriately named the Theory of estranged Labor. It explores the idea of working class people being intrinsically alienated by Capitalistic economic systems. Marx’s 1844 text “Estranged Work” and Bertell Ollman’s critiques of his theory (Alienation “The Theory of Alienation”, 1977) show how labor, product, and production interact. These forces operate within the larger contexts of the class diaspora between property owners/propertyless workers — the proletariat and the bourgeois. These interactions result in the alienation of both the proletariat and individuals. It is possible to see if Karl Marx wrote “Estranged labor” in order to provide a direct commentary on Capitalism’s alienation. Or, if he intended to portray alienation as an ongoing condition throughout economic history.

Karl Marx’s 1844 text Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts discusses “estranged labor” within the contexts of Capitalism’s labor relations and working conditions. Understanding Capitalism is crucial. Capitalism is best described by Merriam-Webster (2015) as “an economic system in which the country’s industry, trade, and finances are managed by private individuals for profit” (Merriam Webster 2015). Marx critiqued Capitalism in relation to the alienation – or estrangement – of the worker. He defined the concept of “estranged Labor” as the following: “The worker becomes ever poorer the more wealth they produce, the larger their production increases in power and scale. “Estranged Labor” Karl Marx.

The laborer (the proletariat) is an object in Capitalistic markets. He is not free to develop his mental and physical energy. When he works, he feels at home. His labor is coerced and forced. Karl Marx, 5, explains that this is “Estranged Labor”. Marx adds to this theory by explaining how the laborer is actually the object and creator of the product. This is because production, which includes the product being manufactured and its entrance into the economy, is not under the control or the laborer. Marx calls this “Estranged Labor”, Karl Marx. The object itself is not the property of the laborer. Neither is the machine that produces it. Neither is the designer or distributor of the product. This system of mindless work means that any labor produced by an individual does not belong to him. He is performing an inhuman act of assembly to serve two purposes: 1) the production of goods for others and 2) the maintenance of the worker’s physical subsistence (“Estranged labor”, Karl Marx, 3). The requirement for a laborer to buy a product created by him from the company that employed him to make it is a clear example of how the laborer can be separated from his production. The notion of “estranged work” is apparent in this economic moment. The laborer is removed from the object and purpose of his labor. He is also separated from his self-understanding within the framework of Capitalistic production. The laborer is not familiar with the object. This is a direct example of the inherent concept that laborers lose value as human beings and members of society as the value of their labor increases (“Estranged labor”, Karl Marx, 2). Thus, the worker becomes more dependent upon labor than labor is dependent upon him; the worker is an item of the production process. The laborer is also forced to see his labor as something he can only obtain with the greatest effort and without interruptions (“Estranged Labor”, Karl Marx 3). This makes him value the exploitative labor far more than his owner. He must seperate himself from the outside, sensuous world, taking on an activity belonging to another. “Estranged Labor”, Karl Marx, 3. Perhaps assimilation would be more appropriate in this instance than appropriation since he is an individual from a marginalized community who must adapt to the needs of others to make it through a system that has failed him.

As a result of this loss of his sense of self — and ultimately a loss of his sense of humanity in the context of species-characteristics (freely active, self-separating actions and activities based in individuality and willful choice) — the laborer:

“Only feels himself fully engaged in his animal functions — procreating, eating, living, etc. — and in his humans functions does he feel anything but an animal. What is animal is made human.

These facets of estrangement — including alienation from the object, alienation from oneself, and alienation from humanity/human species-characteristics (and nature, therein) — provide the framework for classifying estrangement of labor within Capitalism as a fact within the boundaries of the laws of political economic theory.

The question is: Who owns the labor? Marx explained that it must “belonged” to someone else. If the worker’s labor is a source of pain and suffering, then another person must have satisfaction and pleasure. This alien power can only be held by man, and not the gods or nature. It is possible to conclude that “someone else is master of this object” (“Estranged Labor”, Karl Marx 9): This other is, of necessity, the “property owners”; “Capitalist” or “bourgeoisie”. This other — who acts as a malevolent god-character – requires the worker to “perform…service” under his domination, coercion (“Estranged Labor”, Karl Marx 9). This makes the laborer a slave to his wages, capital, and Capitalistic, as well as to himself. This alone is “the true soul of production”, Karl Marx 10

Many communist-oriented sociologists have studied Marx’s criticism and discussion of Capitalism’s economic system and its downfalls over the past century. These analyses frequently produce the same question as Marx, but it is not one Marx asked. “Is Capitalism the position for the estranged laborer in Capitalism one or struggle?”. John Holloway of the Marxist Society and Bertell Ollman were two notable scholars who raised the same question. Their responses to it provided different interpretations about Marx’s theories and thoughts. Holloway’s text “A Note on Alienation” was published in Historical Materialism 1997. It suggests that there two basic approaches to understanding alienation. First, Capitalism is a category of objects that suffer from humans. However, second, alienation is a condition which allows for transcendental thinking. He continued to state that there is an additional interpretation. It is “not a condition… it’s a continuous struggle”. He states that Marx’s work on estranged labor has an overarching narrative that emphasizes the importance to understand alienation in terms if activity. (“A Note about Alienation”, John Holloway; 147). He believes that alienation is actually an activity and the laborer creates it within capitalism. Capital is dependent upon labor. “Alienation does not exist in class struggle. It is the struggle to make capital exist.” (A Note on Alienation, John Holloway), 148. Holloway’s solution to Capitalism’s concept of alienation and its ultimate end goal of reaching a disalienation state is in his claim that “disalienation has here now” in his existence as insubordinate work, not only within, or against capital. This is a problematic approach to alienation. This view of alienation assumes not only that there is a future that will not be affected by alienation, but also that the proletariat has the ability and willingness to seperate from capitalism in order for it to fall. Holloway is writing from a privilege perspective in this respect, since Holloway’s interpretation of “Estranged Labor” completely ignores the real struggle of the proletariat. It is a system that dehumanizes, devalues, but gives them the means to live. As a member or a group of the bourgeoisie, it is not realistic to assume that an individual should be able to give up basic security and existence.

Bertell Ollman interprets Marx’s “Estranged labor” differently. He views alienation instead as a condition that is present in the present but which can be overcome in time. Ollman examines the proletariat’s condition through the lense of a medical analogy.

“Alienation, without some knowledge of what the future millennium will bring, remains a reproach that cannot ever be clarified.” Declaring someone sick is a declaration of fact, not an evaluation that relies on any outside standards.

Similar… Marx also posits an inner relation between unalienation and alienation. “The Theory of Alienation”, Bertell Ollman 3), states that there is no outside standard to judge alienation. The concept of alienation can’t be considered a struggle. It must be seen as a condition. He continues to explain the effects of alienation on all individuals in a capitalistic economy, whether they be bourgeoisie, proletariat or proletariat. Ollman states that the Capitalistic regime’s alienating and oppressive conditions are very severe and can be fatal. Ollman also points out that laborers may not have reached the state of enlightenment that would allow them to truly walk away. Holloway’s theory is not supported by Ollman. Ollman presents the end of a system of alienation and estrangement more closely to Marx’s commentary on “Estranged labor” by arguing for Communism to be the positive transcendence of all estrangement.

Holloway’s interpretation of Marx’s text is much clearer than Marx’s, opening the door to a self-directed and focused conception of the outcome of Capitalism’s transcendence. Together these texts give a clear picture of the current situation regarding the alienation or condition of labor. This analysis shows that the future and viability of Communism as an ideology is at stake. Even though it’s most plausible, the idea that there’s no plan for the transition of a Capitalist government to a Communist state is perhaps dangerous. It is possible for Communism to fall if there is no plan or system of governance within a Communist society. This has been demonstrated in red-state China, and the USSR. A Communist system without a clearly defined path is vulnerable to being overthrown and exploited for fascism. But, a clear interpretation of Theory of Estranged Labor is the first direct step towards eventuality of a disaliented Communist State based on justice. Inherent humanity, equality.



Hi! I'm Benson Simpson, a 35-year-old educational blogger and teacher. I write about educational topics such as student motivation, creativity, and effective teaching techniques. I also run a blog about creativity and learning, which you can find at