the alienation of labor 1

karl marx
economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844

In political economy 2 and its terminology, we have shown that the laborer sinks to the level of a commodity and indeed becomes the most miserable commodity possible, that the misery of the laborer stands in an inverse relationship to the power and size of his production, that the natural result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands, which is the most frightening type of monopoly, that finally the difference between the ground-rentier 3 and the capitalist 4 as well as the difference between the farmer-renter and the factory laborer disappears and the entire society must fall into two classes: those with property and those propertyless souls who labor.

Political economy begins with the fact of private property. It does not explain this fact to us. It describes the material process of private property--by which it actually passes from hand to hand--in general, abstract formulas, which it then raises to the status of laws . It does not understand these laws, that is, it does not show how the existence of private property comes about. Political economy gives no explanation concerning the foundation of the division between labor and capital and between capital and land. When, for instance, it describes the relationship between wage-labor and the profit of capital, its fundamental point of departure is the interest of the capitalist, that is, it accepts as given what it should be explaining. In the same way, competition is used to explain everything. It is explained using external circumstances. How far these external, seemingly magical circumstances originate in a necessary process, political economy teaches us nothing. We have seen, that exchange itself appears to be some magical occurrence. The only wheels which political economy sets in motion and greed and the war between the greedy: competition. . . .

We have now to explain the real connections between private property, greed, the division of labor, capital, and land, the connection between exchange and competition, between value and the devaluation of humans, between monopoly and competition, etc., and between this entire estrangement and the money system. . . .

We must start our investigation from a real fact of political economy.

The laborer becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, indeed, the more powerful and wide-ranging his production becomes. The laborer becomes a cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. With the increase in value of the world of things arises in direct proportion the decrease of value of human beings. Labor does not only produce commodities, it produces itself and the laborer as a commodity , and in relation to the level at which it produces commodities. 5

This fact defines more than this: the object, which labor produces, its product, confronts the laborer as a strange thing, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor, which fixes itself in the object, it becomes a thing, it is the objectification 6 of labor. The "making real," or realization, 7 of labor is its objectification. The realization of labor appears in political economy as the "making unreal," or loss of reality 8 of, the laborer, objectification as the loss of and slavery to the object , appropriation as estrangement , as alienation .

The realization of labor manifests itself so much as a loss of reality, that the worker becomes unreal to the point that he starves to death. The objectification of labor manifests itself so much as a loss of objects, that the laborer is robbed of the most necessary objects, not only to maintain his own life, but even objects to labor with. Indeed, labor itself becomes an object, which only with the greatest effort and with random interruptions can be acquired. Appropriation of objects manifests itself so much as estrangement, that, the more objects the laborer produces, the fewer he can own and so he plunges deeper under the mastery of his product: capital.

In this definition--that the laborer is related to the product of his labor as a strange, foreign object, lies all these consequences. For from this hypothesis the following becomes clear: the more the laborer labors, as well as the more powerful the alien, object world which he builds over himself becomes, the poorer he himself becomes, that is, his inner world, as he owns less. The same thing occurs in religion. The more people place in God, the less they retain in themselves. The laborer places his life in the object; but now it [his life] belongs less to him than to the object. Therefore, the more this happens, the more deprived of objects the laborer becomes. What the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less he becomes. The alienation of the laborer in his product has this significance: since his labor is an object, not only does this labor become a separate existence, but it is also separate from him, independent, alien to his existence and a self-sufficient power which exists above him, that the life, which he has bestowed on the object, confronts him as something hostile and strange.

XXIII. Let us now treat more closely objectification, the production of the laborer and its estrangement, the loss of objects, its products.

The laborer can create nothing without nature, without the sensual, material world. It is the stuff on which labor realizes itself, on which it acts, and from which and with which it produces.

Just as nature provides the means of life for labor, in the sense that labor cannot live without objects, which it uses, but also it provides the means of life in a narrower sense, namely the means to sustain the physical existence of the laborer .

Therefore, the more the laborer through his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in this double meaning: first, more and more the sensuous external world stops being an object proper to his labor, that is, to be a means of life to his labor; second: more and more the sensuous, external world stops being a means of life in the second sense: means to sustain the physical existence of the laborer.

In this double sense the worker becomes a slave to his objects; first: he receives an object of labor , that is, labor ; and second: he receives a means of subsistence . In the first instance, he can exist as a laborer; in the second instance, he can exist as a physical subject . The result of this slavery is that he can maintain himself as a physical subject only if he is a laborer , and that he can maintain himself as a laborer only if he is a physical subject. . . .

Political economy hides completely the estrangement of labor in its real existence in that it does not treat the direct, unmediated relationship between the laborer (labor) and production . Labor produces wonderful works for the rich, but it produces poverty for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the laborer. It produces beauty, but deformity for the laborer. It replaces labor with machines, but at the same time it throws the laborer into the most barbarous labor and at the same time makes the laborer into a machine. It produces intelligence and culture, but it produces senselessness and cretinism for the laborer.

The direct, unmediated relationship between labor and its product is the relationship between laborers and the objects of their production . The relationship between the wealthy man and the objects of production and to production itself is only a consequence of these primary relationships. And it, in fact, proves these primary relationships. We will treat these in later pages. Therefore, when we ask what the essential relationship of labor is, we are asking about the relationship of labor to production.

Up until this point, we have been treating the estrangement, the alienation of the laborer in only one sense, that is, his relationship to the products of his labor . But this estrangement displays itself not only in the products, but also in the act of production , in the producing activity itself. How can it happen that the laborer becomes estranged from the product of his activity if in the act of production he does not become estranged from himself? The product is only the sum of the activity, that is, production. If the product of labor is alienation, then production itself must be active alienation, the alienation of activity, the activity of alienation. In the estrangement of the objects of labor is summed up the estrangement, the alienation of the laboring activity itself. What then makes up the alienation of labor?

First, that labor is alien to the laborer, that is, that it does not make up his existence, that he does not affirm himself in his labor, but rather denies himself; he does not feel happy, but rather unhappy; he does not grow physically or mentally, but rather tortures his body and ruins his mind. The laborer feels himself first to be other than his labor and his labor to be other than himself. He is at home when he is not laboring, and when he is laboring he is not at home. His labor is not voluntary, but constrained, forced labor . Therefore, it does not meet a need, but rather it is a means to meet some need alien to it. Its estranged character becomes obvious when one sees that as soon as there is no physical or other coercion, labor is avoided like the plague. This alienated labor, this labor, in which human beings alienate themselves from themselves, is a labor of self-denial and self-torture. Finally, the alienation of labor manifests itself to the laborer in that this labor does not belong to him, but to someone else; it does not belong to him; while he is doing it he does not belong to himself, but to another. . . . the activity of the laborer is not his own activity. It belongs to someone else, it is the loss of his self.

The result, therefore, is that the human being (the laborer) does not feel himself to be free except in his animal functions: eating, drinking, and reproducing, at his best in his dwelling or in his clothing, etc., and in his human functions he is no more than an animal. The animal becomes human and the human becomes animal.

Eating, drinking, and reproducing, etc., are real human functions. However, in the abstraction which draws them out of the circle of other human activities and makes them the sole activity to be sought after, they are animal.

We have treated the act of the estrangement of practical, human activity, labor, as having two senses: 1. The relationship of the laborer to the product of labor as a strange object having power over the laborer. This relationship is moreover a relationship to the sensuous, external world, in which the objects of nature confront the laborer as a dominating, strange, and hostile world. 2.) The relationship of labor as an act of production within labor itself. This relationship is a relationship of the laborer to his activity as if it were estranged, as if it didn't belong to him, activity as sorrow, strength as weakness, producing as emasculation, the laborer's own physical and mental energy, his individual life--what is life without activity?--is an activity which turns against him, does not depend on him, does not belong to him. This is self-alienation , where before we had the estrangement of the thing .

XXIV. We have now to demonstrate how a third aspect of estranged labor derives from these two.

Human beings are a species being . . . because they believe themselves to represent the real, living species, in that they believe themselves to be universal ; they believe themselves to represent, therefore, a free being.

The life of the species, which applies to both humans and animals, consists in the physical, in which humans, just as animals, derive their life from inorganic nature, and the more universal man is in comparison to animals, the more universal is the sphere of inorganic nature, on which he lives. . . . Physically, human beings live only on the products of nature, whether they might appear in the form of food, heating, clothing, dwellings, etc. The universality of humanity manifests itself practically even in this universality, in which the whole of nature becomes the inorganic body of human beings, both inasmuch as 1.) it is an direct means for life, and 2.) the material, the object and the instrument of humanity's life-activity. Nature is the inorganic body of humanity insofar as it is not a human body. Humanity lives on nature, which means that nature is humanity's body with which it must remain in objective dialogue with or else perish. That the physical and mental life of human beings depends on nature has another sense: nature depends on itself since human beings are part of nature.

Estranged labor estranges human beings from 1.) nature and 2.) from themselves in their own active function, their life-activity, and from this, it estranges human beings from their species ; estranged labor makes the species being only the means for the individual life. First, it estranges the species life from the individual life, and second, it makes the individual life in its abstraction the purpose of the species life, even in its abstracted and estranged form.

First, labor appears to human beings, labor which is the life-activity , the productive life itself, only as a means to meet some need, the need of maintaining physical existence. The productive life is also the species life. It is life engendering life. In the art of life-activity lies the entire character of the species, its species-character, and the species-character of humanity consists of free, conscious activity. Life itself manifests itself as a means of life .

The animal is its own life-activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is it . Humanity makes its life-activity itself an object of will and consciousness. It has conscious life-activity. . . . Conscious life-activity distinguishes human beings from animals. . . . human life is an object that belongs to humanity, this is its species-being. For this reason its activity is free activity. Estranged labor reverses this relationship, so that human beings, because they have conscious being, make their life-activity, their existence , a means for existence. . . .

Estranged labor works thus:

3.) the species being of humanity , in that nature and its mental species-property, confronts humanity as a strange existence, as a means to its individual existence . It estranges humanity from its own body, as it does the external, natural world, as it does his mental existence, his human existence.

4.) A direct consequence of the estrangement of the humans from the product of their labor, from their life-activity, from their species-being, is the estrangement of humans from humans . When a human confronts himself as a stranger, so he confronts another human as a stranger. The relationship of humans to their labor, to the product of their labor, and to themselves, is also the relationship of humans to each other, and to the labor of others and to the objects of others.

Moreover, this fact, that the individual is estranged from his species being means that the individual is estranged from other individuals, since each of them is estranged from their own species being.

The self-estrangement of individuals, in fact, every relationship in which individuals in which individuals stand in relationship to themselves, is first realized in the relationship that individuals have with other individuals. Therefore, within the relationship of estranged labor, each individual treats others with the same standard and relative position that he finds himself in.

XXV. We began with a fact of political economy, the estrangement of the laborer and his production. We have produced the idea of this fact: estranged, alienated labor. We have analyzed this idea, therefore, we have analyzed a fact of political economy.

We must now see how this idea of estranged, alienated labor expresses and produces itself in actuality.

If the product of labor is foreign to me, if it confronts me as a foreign power, to whom, then, does it belong?

When my own activity does not belong to me, when it is a coerced activity, to whom then does it belong?

It belongs to a being other than myself.

Who is this being? . . .

This foreign being, to whom labor and the product of labor belong, in whose service labor and in whose benefit the product of labor is brought into existence, can only be another human being .

When the product of labor does not belong to the laborer, when a strange, foreign power confronts and dominates him, this can only be possible if it belongs to a human being other than the laborer . When his activity is agony to the laborer, it can only be a delight and joy to another. Not gods, not nature, but only human beings themselves can be this strange, foreign power over other human beings.

One should consider that in the proposition stated above man's relationship to himself is first and foremost an objective, actual relationship only through his relationship to other men. Therefore, if the product of his labor, of his labor turned into an object, is in relation to him to him a foreign, hostile , powerful, independent object, then his relation to it is such that it is an object mastered by a man foreign, hostile, powerful, and independent of him. If his own activity is for him an unfree activity, then he sees his activity as being done in the service, under the lordship, under the coercion and under the yoke of another man.

Every self-estrangement of people from themselves and from nature manifests itself in the relationship they establish between themselves, nature, and other humans differentiated from themselves. . . . In the practical, real world, self-estrangement can only manifest itself in the practical, real relationships between other people. The medium, through which estrangement arises, is itself practical . Through estranged labor, humans not only produce their relationship to the object and to the act of production as a power foreign and hostile to them, they produce also the relationship in which their production and their product stands in relationship to other humans as well as the relationship between themselves and other men. Just as the laborer gives birth to his own production as his reality, as his strife, just as he gives birth to his own product as a loss, as a product not to be owned by him, so he gives birth to the mastery of that man, who has produced nothing, over production and over the product. Just as he estranges himself from his own activity, so he confers ownership to a stranger over this activity which does not really belong to him.

We have until now treated only this relationship from the side of the laborer, and we shall later treat this relationship from the side of the non-laborer.

Therefore, through estranged, alienated labor the laborer gives birth to his relationship to his labor as something alien and external to him. This relationship of the laborer to his labor gives birth to the relationship of that labor to the capitalist, or whatever one wishes to name the "labor-master." Private property is also the product, the result, the natural consequence of alienated labor , of the alienated relationship of the laborer to nature and to himself.

Therefore, private property arises from the analysis of the idea of alienated labor , that is, of alienated humanity , of estranged labor, of estranged life, of estranged humanity.

In political economy we have derived this idea of alienated labor (of alienated life ) as a result of the circulation of private property . But it is manifest in the analysis of this idea that even though private property appears as the ground, as the foundation of alienated labor, it is rather the consequence of it . . .

This explanation can shed light on several conflicts unsolved until now:

1.) Political economy begins with the notion that labor is the soul of production, yet it gives nothing to labor and everything to private property. . . . We now see, however, that this blatant contradiction is a contradiction of estranged labor with itself and that political economy only has drawn out the laws of estranged labor.

We can also see that wages and private property are identical: wages, which is the product, the object of labor, for which labor sells itself, are the necessary consequence of the estrangement of labor, just as in wage labor work itself is not an end in itself, but rather appears as a servant of the wage. . . .

XXVI. A coerced rise in wages , therefore . . . is nothing more than a better salary for slaves and would not recover for the laborer or for labor its human meaning and dignity.

Indeed, the equality of salaries . . . would only change the relationship of each laborer to his labor into the relationship of all humans to their labor. Society would then become an abstract capitalist.

Wages are an unmediated, direct result of estranged labor, and estranged labor is the unmediated, direct source of private property. If the one falls, the other must fall.

2.) From the relationship of estranged labor to private property follows the conclusion that the liberation of society from private property, etc., from servitude, expresses its political form in the emancipation of the laborer , and not only the emancipation of the laborer, for in the emancipation of the laborer is contained the emancipation of all humanity, and it contains this because the entirety of human servitude is involved in the relationship of the laborer to production and all relationships of servitude are only modifications and consequences of this primary relationship. . . .

Translated from the German by Richard Hooker


1 A note on terminology: Marx uses two terms to describe this phenomenon: Entfremdung (estrangement) and Entaüsserung (alienation); these words are by and large interchangeable (the real title of this essay is the estrangement of labor). Estrangement means "dividing, separating" or "making strange or unfamiliar"; alienation means "making alien, making foreign." Estrangement of labor means "separating" labor from the laborer, separating the product of labor from the laborer, etc. Alienation of labor can be understood in largely the same terms: "making labor something foreign to the laborer," "making the product of labor something alien to the laborer."
2 "Political economy" (in German: Nationalökonomie : "the economy of nations") is what we would call "macroeconomics," that is economics of large systems. The principle authors of political economy for Marx are Adam Smith, David Ricardo, David Hume and Thomas Malthus.
3 A "ground-rentier" for Marx is a person in largely a pre-industrial society who owns land and rents it out to people who produce goods from that land. Historically, in pre-industrial societies land tends to accumulate in only a very few hands, and the bulk of people within these societies are renters. A ground-rentier is the prototype for the "capitalist" in an industrial society.
4 The capitalist in European economics is understood as a person who accumulates the material of production, factories, raw materials, etc., and who pays laborers wages in order to produce various goods. The capitalist is essentially rational: he or she calculates the acquisition and disposal of materials and wage-labor in order to produce extra wealth, profit, which accumulates to the capitalist as a reward for accurate calculation.
5 What Marx is arguing is that wage-labor becomes something that can be bought and sold just like any other object. The more important products become, the less important humans as laborers become.
6 (German: Vergegenständlichung , often translated as "reification": "the making into a thing"), that is, labor turned into an object. Labor becomes an object rather than a thing people do; as a result, the laborer becomes an object rather than a human being.
7 (German: Verwirklichung ): this literally means "the making real"; this is what the word "realization" means, that is, "making real."
8 (German: Entwirklichung ): "making unreal"; this is the opposite of Verwirklichung, "the making real." In other words, labor "made real" in its product "makes unreal" the laborer, in other words, the laborer is no longer a person who is laboring, he or she becomes rather, the products he or she produces. The products are more "valuable" than the people who produce them.

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Other links to the work of Karl Marx: Karl Marx' 'Capital' in Lithographs, by Hugo Gellert
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