Last Updated 10 Apr 2020

Marx’s Theory of Alienation

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Sociology Essay – Assessment 1 Q. Outline and assess Marx’s concept of Alienation Alienation, a concept that became widely known during the 19th and 20th century has been looked at extensively by a number of leading theorists. Theorists such as Georg Hegel first used the idea of alienation as a philosophic idea, but his work was later grasped upon by theorists known as Ludwig Feuerbach and more importantly Karl Marx. The world till now has been witness to a change in different social structures and forms in which society operates. We as human beings must ask, what purpose do we serve within society?

What means do we have to sustain an effective or prosperous way of living? Marx believed we have been through different economic stages and ownership of the things we need to live, beginning with the times of the ancient to feudalism (land granted from the crown) to now where we have arrived at capitalism (private ownership). He saw this as historical stages of development where each stage has the characteristics of a system of production and division of labour, forms of property ownership and a system of class relations (Morrison,K. 1995:40).

This brought forward Marx’s idea of historical materialism which centred on how to interpret the history of mankind and the development of one stage of society to the next. In turn it looks for reasons for changes in human society and how humans together produced the necessary requirements to live. In relation to historical materialism there was another idea of dialectal materialism. This was a term used by Marx to study natural phenomena, the evolution of society and human thought itself as a process of development which rests upon motion and contradiction (Clapp,R: Acc 10/11/2012).

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Marx further explains historical and dialectical materialism which will be looked at further in the essay. By understanding how humans produce the necessities to live (historical materialism) and how a way of reasoning helps us to see the growth in efficiency of economic orders where in turn they develop contradictions and weaknesses (dialectical materialism), we can begin to look at the idea of alienation and how it exists through expanding economic orders according to Marx. Alienation can be described as an idea where humans are dominated by forces of their own creation, which pose as ‘alien powers’ (Coser: 1977 Acc. 0/11/2012). It is seen that we are subject to psychological or emotional separation from the things we produce and the surplus value that is gained, all be it in the control of private owners in a capitalist climate. There are different ways in which we are separated from these factors. They are the worker from the product of labour, the actual activity of labour, members of society and from our ‘species being’. However both the worker and capitalist suffer forms of alienation which will be discussed further.

The purpose of this essay is to outline and assess Marx’s theory of alienation where many forms of separation occur and how different members of society suffer from it, as well as taking into account how historical and dialectical ideas help to give a background to it. Karl Marx who was born in 1818 in Germany was considered as an unconventional theorist. His reputation for being a political economist, philosopher, revolutionary and founder of Communism did not bring people to the typical image of a sociologist.

Marx was a strong believer in the materialistic understanding of factors such as social change, class conflict, labour and the organisation of production. He put forward some notions that would help him identify the materialist perspective. So what does historical materialism tell us about history? When using this idea to analyse society we are always looking at the economic base or structure of it. In order for society to live in this sense, we must be able to produce the necessities like food, shelter and clothing in order to do so. The act of production is one of the principle requirements to satisfy human economic needs.

Marx also made a comparison of humans to animals where we as humans produce the means to satisfy our primary material needs. For this reason humans are different from animals because humans need to produce the means for survival and when done, they build an active conscious with nature in order to do so (Morrison, K. 1995:40). Another point was that the way humans produce depends on what is already there in nature and what they must to survive. If this is the case then how they exist and how they live will run parallel to what they produce and how they produce. Historical materialism was given a number of main concepts to look at.

These were the means of production (necessitates for survival), relations of production (the link between producers and non-producers of physical labour) and the mode of production (changing the way of making a living). By taking these points into account we can see how an economic structure has been formed over different periods of time and how historical materialism helps to look at social processes of human economic work and how it will help give a background to the theory of alienation. Historical materialism serves a link to the dialectical way of thinking as Marx was the first person to merge materialism and dialectics together.

The dialectics was a way of thinking to understand the world. Marx was mainly influenced by the theorist Hegel in his younger days, he was a pioneer in understanding philosophic logic through his process of dialectic. This involved looking at natural phenomena, the evolution of society and thought through motion and contradiction with a direct challenge to formal logic. Marx seen that the contradictions and oppositions were paramount to the whole analysis. For example in using dialectics imagine there is tension for a nurse trying to accommodate a client but at the same time we know she is trying to bring change for the client.

Using this small scale example in the greater picture we can see that dialectics accepts reality as a set of opposing forces which exist at the same time (Estefan,A:2002 Acc 10/11/2012). Moreover by understanding historical and dialectical materialism in nature, society or economy we are able to understand how through different economic periods it gives a background to Marx’s theory of alienation. As we discuss alienation by Marx we first need to analyse the environment he sees it in. Capitalism is an economic system, whereby ownership of factories, materials and machinery for production is the property of private individuals.

The term alienation relates to the specific levels of separation that are seen through the production and increasing surplus value by workers. Marx had this idea that private property is the ‘material summary expression’ of estranged labour. Marx highlighted that labour power had a major value where the use of it by the capitalist was turned into surplus value. This labour is something that cannot be similar to work because it has a social relationship that can only identify with capitalism. What he is trying to say is that during the production of goods, physical effort (work) is changed into labour.

With an increasing industrial demand for production workers are subject to exploitation, where they are required to work harder to meet demand but still for a wage not in proportion to the work carried out. The wage that the workers receive will fluctuate but will not be in proportion with the increase in productivity, the increased input turns into surplus value in which the capitalist owner takes in the form of profit. The relationship between the productivity of workers and the production of surplus value is therefore the more wealth he produces the less he will expect to see back or he will become all the poorer (Calhoun, Craig. 002). This shows us that an object which the worker produces becomes more distant from him as the bond created between the product and worker is lost, knowing that it will be owned or disposed of by another, the capitalist. In turn, the object that the worker has put a part of his life into stands against him as something alien. In all societies people use skills that have been gained over time to produce goods that they need to live, exchange or sell. This is not the case in a capitalist environment because ‘‘the worker cannot use the things he produces to keep alive or to engage in further productive activity...

The worker needs, no matter how desperate, do not give him a license to lay hands on what these same hands have produced, for all his products are the property of another’’ (B Ollman, Alienation, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p143). This form of separation was highlighted by Marx as separation of the worker from the product of labour. He identified other main levels of separation within the idea of alienation. These consist of separation from the act of labour, from fellow members of society and from species being.

When looking at separation from the activity of labour we mean that the worker is alienated by the lack of control in the process of production. This drainage of control completely restricts on how the worker can carry out his work. He is limited to a systematic process so the input of creativity almost becomes nothing as the worker would need to follow restrictions. With lack of input in the activity of labour, it would seem that an increased division of labour from the process would become more existent. For example in a car factory there would be a line to assemble a car together which consists of many different parts.

With little say in the process the worker may be restricted to assembling only the tyres on the car. The activity would be a repetitive process and would separate the worker from the rest of the production line and in essence from his natural being as his potential is not being utilised. A third aspect of alienation is that man is a species-being. Marx argues that humans come across as social animals where he states ‘man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity.

It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. It is just because of this he is a specious-being’ (Calhoun, Craig. 2002. 38). What Marx is saying here is that we as humans have the ability to consciously interact with the world around us and it is in our character to do so. Also, the main thing that separates us from the animal world is that we know who we are and have a personal conscious of our self with a kind of relation to the natural world.

In terms of capitalist relations of production when our labour is used, we are displaced from our species being as it turns labour into a physical act. We are effectively revoked from what nature has favoured us for over animal life. Also, by converting conscious being into physical being it makes human labour like the labour of animals (Morrison, K. 1995. 96). With this kind of alienation by being taken from our specious being we become creatures of physical activity all in tandem with the drive for profit for the capitalist owner.

However under capitalism the development of production methods results in specialised division of labour which with some difference can increase society’s ability to produce, but the benefits in turn will flow in the favour the few private owners. The fourth factor of alienation that Marx brought forward is that from fellow humans and from our human social community. Those who live in a capitalist society are separated from fellow members as a class structure becomes evident.

There is a structure of those who work and those who exploit the workers so for this reason Marx feels we are alienated from fellow members. Those in the capitalist society are only partially connected by the way of the market. In the market members will come to buy and sell goods that they produce or sell so by looking at it this way individuals are not connected properly but as separated representatives of different relations of production in competition with each other. We can then see the different forms of alienation that Marx sees existent in a capitalist society.

The theory of alienation has taken many forms and laid down many points, but it may be important to consider a few criticisms that may exist within it. By looking at it from a modern perspective, some may consider that the concept is not fully defined in the sense that working for someone else or above with free movement is difficult. A main feature of Capitalism is that property rights and freedom of contract is what strengthens it. In a contract of employment if a worker is not satisfied with a job then it is possible for them to leave with notice and look for work elsewhere or even start up their own business.

This level of autonomy in decision making is what one may argue shines light on capitalism. The government may play a role in alienating the capitalist owner as it may be through legislation that they need to follow specific rules. In turn it will filter through to the worker and that feeling of degradation may be situated elsewhere. In defence of the private owners the hate feeling of workers may point at the wrong direction when it is other factors that have contributed to their change.

For example in 1912 employees went on strike from a textile factory in Massachusetts, U. S. A when owners reduced wages due to the reduction of working hours by the state from 56 to 54 hours. As the root of the change was the state, it should be them that are targeted not the owner. Marx’s theory of alienation therefore contests that in modern industrial production under a capitalist system workers will eventually lose control of their lives by the overwhelming conditions they are faced with at work.

Through the different degrees of separation be it from the product of labour, the activity of labour, from species being or from fellow members of society Marx attempts to show that under the conditions of modern factory production the average worker is just like a cog in a machine where it is continuously worked and replaced by swarms of other parts. The new workers perform repetitive tasks which are closely under watch and with them they don’t have control over production, the products of labour and relations with each other. As a result the worker is taken away from his human nature.

Overall, the role and conditions for the labourer has changed through time along with the changes in economic systems. Word Count: 2,475 Bibliography (B Ollman, Alienation, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p143) * (B Ollman, Alienation, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p143) Calhoun, Craig. (2002). Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. In: Classical Sociological Theory. Massachusetts: Blackwell. 35. * (Calhoun, Craig. 2002. 35) * (Calhoun, Craig. 2002. 38) Coser. (1977:50-53) Alienation. Available: http://www. cf. ac. uk/socsi/undergraduate/introsoc/marx7. html. Last accessed 10/11/2012. (Coser: 1977 Acc. 10/11/2012) Clapp, R. An Introduction to Dialectical Materialism. Available: http://www. marxism. org. uk/pack/dialetics. html. Last accessed 10/11/2012. * (Clapp,R: Acc 10/11/2012) Estefan, A. (2002). Dialectical Thinking. Available: http://www. palgrave. com/nursinghealth/mcallister/suggestions_thinking/example%20of%20teaching%20dialectical%20thinking. htm. Last accessed 10/11/2012. * (Estefan,A:2002 Acc 10/11/2012) Morrison, K. (1995). Laws of Historical development. In: Morrison, K Formations of Modern Social Thought. London: SAGE. 40. * (Morrison, K. 1995. 40) * (Morrison, K. 1995. 96)

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