Critical examination of the Marxist concept of alienation.

The theory of alienation was developed by Marx, especially so in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. It mainly circulated within the constraints of his ideas about man and consciousness; which was to define the dynamic between both of them in terms of, primarily, industrial production. The means of production was a paramount economic category, this idea was what allowed Marx the conception of alienation. “Alienation” conceptually presupposes The Second Treatise of Government Lockean idea of ‘private property’, it held that the thing in which a human would put his or her essence (labour) in would become theirs. The pre-industrial formation of human work was mainly of apprenticeship, it allowed for the thing that which was being worked on to become of the person who put their labour into it. With the onset of the industrial capitalist structure, the ‘private property’ was too farfetched and complex of an ideal to look after, as the workers were paid salaries instead of them owning the object that they were working on. His theory has a basis in the material order of reality; physical entities, “the application of power and labour and their actual consequences or results, manifestations of thought and man’s actions”.

In the Economic Sources of Consciousness, being the call for “class consciousness” and “false consciousness” Marx lays bare the reasons behind the adulteration of “class consciousness”, which had its base in the alienation caused by industrial-capitalist society, and the production of thought that kept the proletariats at bay from the bourgeoisie using the development of philosophies and ideas that came as a result of such productional structure. His notion of ‘alienation’ can be generally classified into a few broad aspects; of the product and process of labour, alienation from the species and of man from man.

Provided his acceptance of the “private property” notion and the materiality of it, he concludes for alienation basing it on the fact of the labourers not owning what they work on. The products that are created by the worker take a life of their own, outside of the control of their creator worker, the worker instead is maintained at a minimum length, of cost and efficiency. Marx juxtaposes the activity of creation of an object and the process of its creation; the intellectual origin for instance, the design of the object and the methodology behind its creation is not taken into full consideration but seen through the same lens. Furthermore, Marx doubles down on the notion by noting an estrangement effect on the labourers who engage in the process of production just as a source of survival, throwing onto them some mere “animal functions”. Utilising the notion of process and object alienation he synthesises the cause of alienation from the species life of humans. Provided his understanding that “a relationship is what determines consciousness…labour should engage directly with nature for its own benefit, instead of the capitalist’s”. But by cause of capitalist mode of engagement, that generated estrangement, man had become separated from the purpose of species life. This is yet again Marx fusing together concepts of creator and producer. However, his attempts of creating a dichotomy within the concept of labour remains unsuccessful for that he provides no promotion for an actual change within the method of production. Such alienation creates the effects such that the as the labourer doesn’t own the product, instead the product becomes an alien power over the labourer. The product being in control of some other being, that being also becomes alien to the labourer.

Marx’s concept of alienation has had a multitude of counters and retaliations over the course of time, such as his ambiguity over his use of “owner”, “species” and else. Their non-extensiveness to account for all forms of labour and individual or universal sense of life is noticeable. Nevertheless, it has brought to the forefront an extend of deconstruction to the fruits of industrial-capitalism that is worth being scrutinised further.


Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, “Economic sources of Consciousness”. 

Erickson, Tammy Marie. “A Critique of Marx’s Theory of Alienation.” UNISA. University of South Africa. Accessed November 23, 2021.

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