Marx Essay, Research Paper
In Karl Marx’s early writing on “estranged labor” there is a clear and prevailing focus on the plight of the laborer. Marx’s writing on estranged labor is an attempt to draw a stark distinction between property owners and workers. In the writing Marx argues that the worker becomes estranged from his labor because he is not the recipient of the product he creates. As a result labor is objectified, that is labor becomes the object of mans existence. As labor is objectified man becomes disillusioned and enslaved. Marx argues that man becomes to be viewed as a commodity worth only the labor he creates and man is further reduced to a subsisting animal void of any capacity of freedom except the will to labor. For Marx this all leads to the emergence of private property, the enemy of the proletariat. In fact Marx’s writing on estranged labor is a repudiation of private property- a warning of how private property enslaves the worker. This writing on estranged labor is an obvious point of basis for Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
The purpose of this paper is to view Marx’s concept of alienation (estranged labor) and how it limits freedom. For Marx man’s freedom is relinquished or in fact wrested from his true nature once he becomes a laborer. This process is thoroughly explained throughout Estranged Labor. This study will reveal this process and argue it’s validity. Appendant to this study on alienation there will be a micro-study which will attempt to ascertain Marx’s view of freedom (i.e. positive or negative). The study on alienation in conjunction with the micro-study on Marx’s view of freedom will help not only reveal why Marx feels labor limits mans freedom, but it will also identify exactly what kind of freedom is being limited.
Karl Marx identifies estranged labor as labor alien to man. Marx explains the condition of estranged labor as the result of man participating in an institution alien to his nature. It is my interpretation that man is alienated from his labor because he is not the reaper of what he sows. Because he is never the recipient of his efforts the laborer lacks identity with what he creates. For Marx then labor is “alien to the worker…[and]…does not belong to his essential being.” Marx identifies two explanations of why mans lack of identity with labor leads him to be estranged from labor. (1) “[The laborer] does not develop freely his physical and mental energy, but instead mortifies his mind.” In other words labor fails to nurture mans physical and mental capacities and instead drains them. Because the worker is denied any nurturing in his work no intimacy between the worker and his work develops. Lacking an intimate relation with what he creates man is summarily estranged from his labor. (2) Labor estranges man from himself. Marx argues that the labor the worker produces does not belong to him, but to someone else. Given this condition the laborer belongs to someone else and is therefore enslaved. As a result of being enslaved the worker is reduced to a “subsisting animal”, a condition alien to him. As an end result man is estranged from himself and is entirely mortified. Marx points to these to situations as the reason man is essentially
estranged from his labor. The incongruency between the world of things the worker creates and the world the worker lives in is the estrangement.
Marx argues that the worker first realizes he is estranged from his labor when it is apparent he cannot attain what he appropriates. As a result of this realization the objectification of labor occurs. For the worker the labor becomes an object, something shapeless and unidentifiable. Because labor is objectified, the laborer begins to identify the product of labor as labor. In other words all the worker can identify as a product of his labor, given the condition of what he produces as a shapeless, unidentifiable object, is labor. The worker is then left with only labor as the end product of his efforts. The emerging condition is that he works to create more work. For Marx the monotonous redundancy of this condition is highly detrimental because the worker loses himself in his efforts. He argues that this situation is analogous to a man and his religion. Marx writes, “The more man puts into God the less he retains in himself….The worker puts his life into the object, but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object.” The result of the worker belonging to the object is that he is enslaved. The worker belongs to something else and his actions are dictated by that thing. For Marx, labor turns man into a means. Workers become nothing more than the capital necessary to produce a product. Labor for Marx reduces man to a means of production. As a means of production man is diminished to a subsisting enslaved creature void of his true nature. In this
condition he is reduced to the most detrimental state of man: one in which he is estranged from himself. To help expand on this theme it is useful to look at Marx’s allegory of man’s life-activity.
Of the variety of reasons Marx argues man is estranged from his labor, probably the most significant is his belief that labor estranges man from himself. Marx argues that the labor the worker produces does not belong to the worker so in essence the worker does not belong to the worker. By virtue of this condition Marx argues the worker is enslaved. Enslavement for Marx is a condition alien to man and he becomes estranged from himself. For Marx, man estranged from himself is stripped of his very nature. Not only because he is enslaved but because his life-activity has been displaced. For Marx mans character is free, conscious activity, and mans pursuit of his character is his life-activity. Mans life-activity is then the object of his life. So by nature, mans own life is the object of his existence. This is mans condition before labor. After labor mans life-activity, that is, his free conscious, activity, or his very nature, is displaced. In a pre-labor condition mans life was the object of his condition; in a labor condition man exists to labor and his life-activity is reduced to a means of his existence so he can labor. In effect labor
necessitates itself in man by supplanting mans true nature with an artificial one that re-prioritizes mans goals. Man’s goal then is not to pursue his life but to labor. He becomes linked to his labor and is viewed in no other way. Man is reduced to chattel, a commodity, the private property of another individual.
For Marx labor limits the freedom of man. Labor becomes the object of man’s existence and he therefore becomes enslaved by it. In considering the validity of Marx’s argument I feel Marx is correct that man’s freedom is limited by the fact that he is a laborer. But in opposition to Marx I believe that man’s freedom is no more limited as a laborer than as a farmer. Agrarian worker or laborer man’s freedom is limited. Whether he is identified by the product he creates in a factory or in a wheat field in either case he is tied to his work and is not viewed beyond it. In either instance the product is objectified because in either instance the worker works only to create more work. Just as the laborer must continue to work without end to subsist, so must the agrarian worker. The implication then is that alienation is not the culprit that limits mans freedom, it is work itself. Do not mistake this as an advocation for laziness. Instead consider the implications of not
working. If one did not work at all he or she would live a life of poverty and would be far less free than if he did work. Working, either as a laborer or a farmer, offers greater financial means and with greater financial means comes greater freedom. This point of the argument stands up of course only if you believe money can by freedom. I argue it can. Surely my freedom to buy something is limited if I do not have the financial means. On the other hand if I have greater financial means I
have more freedom to buy things. So although labor limits freedom to the extent that the worker becomes tied to his work, labor also offers a far greater freedom than that of indigence. Laboring is no less acceptable than agrarian work because the implications of partaking in either are uniform to both and alienation holds no relevancy.
Marx’s view of freedom would seem a rather broad topic, and I’m sure it is. For our purposes it is convenient to have just an idea of what type of freedom Marx favors. For the sake of ease the scope of this study will be limited to two (2) classifications of freedom: prescribed (positive) freedom and negative liberties. Prescribed freedom would be guided freedoms, or freedoms to do certain things. Negative liberties would be freedom to do all but what is forbidden. In Marx’s
writing On The Jewish Question he identifies (but does not necessarily advocates) liberty as “…the right to do everything which does not harm others.” In further argument Marx’s states that “liberty as a right of man is not founded upon the relationship between man and man; but rather upon the separation of man from man.” By this definition liberty is negative liberty, and for Marx it is monistic and solitary. Marx then argues that private property is the practical application of this negative liberty. He states “…[private] property is…the right to enjoy ones fortune and dispose of it as one will; without regard for other men and independently of society.” Private property for Marx is the mechanism by which man can be separate from other men and pursue his (negative) liberty. Marx’s writings on estranged labor and in The Communist Manifesto are a clear repudiation of private property. What can be deduced then is that Marx does not favor negative liberties. Negative liberties require private property to exist and private property is for Marx the enslaver of the proletariat. With negative freedom eliminated from the discussion we are left with Positive or prescribed freedoms. Positive freedom, as was identified above, is the freedom to pursue specified options. That is, freedom to do certain things. Man is not necessarily given a choice of what these options are, he is simply free to pursue them whatever they may be. Positive freedoms then are the freedoms Marx likely wishes to uphold by denouncing estranged labor.
1Marx, Karl, The Early Marx,
2Marx, Karl and Engles, Freidrich, The Communist Manifesto, London, England, 1888