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Alienation: Chapter 19 - Man's relation to his productive activity <DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society
Chapter 19
Man's relation to his productive activity

In his only organized treatment of the subject, Marx presents alienation as a partaking of four broad relations which are so distributed as to cover the whole of human existence. These are man's relations to his productive activity, his product, other men and the species.1 Productive activity in capitalism is spoken of as 'active alienation, the alienation of activity, the activity of alienation'.2 Asking "What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor?', Marx offers the following reply:

First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it's forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.3

In claiming that labor does not belong to man's essential being, that in it he denies rather than affirms himself and that it is not a satisfaction of a need but merely satisfies needs external to it, Marx's point of reference is species man. In asserting that labor in capitalism mortifies man's body and ruins his mind and that in it he is uncomfortable an unhappy, Marx is alluding to the actual appearance of the proletariat. Alienated labor marks the convergence of these two strands of thought.

Before trying to explain Marx's comments on labor from the standpoint of species man, a brief review of what was said about activity in the previous Part is in order. Marx attributes to man certain powers, which he divides into natural and species, and maintains that each of these powers is reflected in one's consciousness by a corresponding need: the individual feels needs for whatever is necessary to realize his powers. The objects of nature, including other men, provide the matter through which these powers are realized and, consequently, for which needs are felt. Realization occurs through the appropriation of objects which accord in kind and level of development with these powers themselves. 'Appropriation' is Marx's most general expression for the fact that man incorporates the nature he comes into contact with into himself. Activity enters this account as the chief means by which man appropriates objects and becomes, therefore, the effective medium between the individual and the outer world. Marx sees such activity in three special relationships to man's powers: first, it is the foremost example of their combined operation; second, it establishes new possibilities for their fulfillment by transforming nature and, hence, all nature imposed limitations; and third, it is the main means by which their own potential, as powers, is developed.

In asserting that labor in capitalism does not belong to man's essential being, that he denies himself in this labor and that he only satisfies needs external to it, Marx is describing a state where the relations between activity and man's powers exist at a very low level of achievement. As we saw earlier, the terms 'essence' and 'essential' are used by Marx to refer to the whole thread of real and potential ties that link man and nature. Capitalist labor does not belong to man's essential being in the sense that it leaves most of the relations that constitute a human being for Marx unaffected. With the development of the division of labor and the highly repetitive character of each productive task, productive activity no longer affords a good example of the operation of all man's powers, or does so only in so far as these powers have become fewer and narrower in their application. As regards the second relationship, by producing slums, wastelands, dirty factories, etc., such labor does as much or more to decrease the possibilities in nature for the fulfillment of man's powers than it does to increase them.

However, it is the third relationship between activity and powers that capitalism almost completely reverses. Instead of developing the potential inherent in man's powers, capitalist labor consumes these powers without replenishing them, burns them up as if they were a fuel, and leaves the individual worker that much poorer. The qualities that mark him as a human being become progressively diminished. I referred to this process on another occasion as the 'retrogression' of man's powers. It is in this sense that Marx refers to labor as 'man lost to himself'.4 Communist society supplies the proper contrast. Here, man's productive activity engages all his powers and creates widening opportunities for their fulfillment. In this manner, work in communism is an affirmation of human nature, while capitalist labor is its denial, withholding from man what in Marx's view belongs to him as a human being.

Marx also conceives of alienated labor, in part, as the actual appearance of people who engage in such activity. What has capitalist labor done to workers on a level where everyone can observe the results? Marx's answer is that it 'mortifies his body and ruins his mind'. Capital I is, in at least one very important respect, an attempt to document this thesis. Among the physical distortions described in this work are stunted size, bent backs, overdeveloped and underdeveloped muscles, gnarled fingers, enlarged lungs and death pale complexions. Some of these distortions—Marx singles out the overdevelopment of certain muscles and bone curvatures—may even add to the worker's efficiency in performing his limited and one-sided task, and become in this way an advantage to his employer.5 Such physical traits are matched by as many industrial diseases. In Marx's words, the worker is a 'mere fragment of his own body', 'a living appendage of the machine', and he looks the part.6

The worker's mind, too, has been ruined by the nature of his task and the conditions in which he does it. His delusions, decaying will power, mental inflexibility and particularly his ignorance are all of monumental proportions. Capitalist industry produces in its laborers, according to Marx, 'idiocy' and 'cretinism'.7 The total contrast between this condition of man and his condition under communism is too obvious to require comment, and, as before, it is the connection Marx presumes between them which allows him to register the one as alienation.

The worker's subjective feelings of being 'at home when he is not working' and 'not at home' when he is working is still another indication of the alienated character of his labor. Marx's concern about workers being discontented and uncomfortable is incomprehensible if we adopt the view that people will always dislike their work, that work is by its very nature an activity that people cannot wait to finish with. Given what he foresaw in communism, Marx did not and could not share this view.

With capitalist labor variously described as 'torment', a 'sacrifice of life' and 'activity as suffering', it is not to be wondered at that no one in capitalism works unless he is forced.8 Only circumstances which require that one labor in order to eat drives workers to make such an extraordinary sacrifice. Whenever compulsion disappears, 'labor is shunned like the plague'.9

Two other aspects of alienated labor dealt with by Marx are that this labor is the private property of non-workers and that it results in a reversal of man's human and animal functions. As regards the former, Marx says, 'the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else's, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another'.10 If labor is forced, even if its effectiveness lies in the worker's impoverished circumstances, someone must be doing the forcing. According to Marx, 'If his own activity is to him an unfree activity, then he is treating it as activity performed in the service, under the domination, the coercion and the yoke of another man'.11 This overlord, of course, is the capitalist. And so complete is his control that he determines the form of labor, its intensity, duration, the kind and number of its products, surrounding conditions and—most important of all—whether or not it will even take place. The worker engages in his productive activity only on the sufferance of the capitalist, and when the latter decides he has had enough, that is, that further production will not yield a profit, this activity comes to a halt.

What we call a 'reversal of man's human and animal functions' refers to a state in which the activities man shares with animals appear more human than those activities which mark him out as a man. Marx claims that as a result of his productive activity,

man (the worker) no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions—eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal. Certainly eating, drinking, procreating, etc., are also genuine human functions. But in the abstraction which separates them from the sphere of all other human activity and turns them into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal.12
An abstraction, as we saw, is a break in connections, a link in the chain which has set itself off as an independent piece. Eating, drinking and procreating are occasions when all man's powers may be fulfilled together; yet, in capitalism, they only serve their direct and most obvious functions as do their equivalents in the animal kingdom. Despite their depraved state, however, the individual exercises more choice in these activities than he does in those others, work in particular, which distinguish him as a human being. As unsatisfactory as eating and drinking are from a human point of view, the worker feels at least he is doing something he wants to do. The same cannot be said of his productive activity.

All the components of alienated labor are best understood as particular relations which converge to form the Relation, alienated labor. Stated as accurately as possible, the relations of capitalist productive activity to man's species self, to his body and mind, to his subjective feelings when doing labor, to his will to engage in labor, to the capitalist, to his own human and animal functions and to what productive activity will be like under communism equal unalienated labor.13

It should be apparent that these particular relations are constantly finding their way into one another, but Marx never meant them to be distinct. His practise of seeing the whole in the part links all particular relations together as aspects in the full unfolding of any one of them. Overlapping explanations, therefore, cannot be avoided. This coin has another side: just because a full explanation of each of these relations results in the conception of alienated labor, it does not follow that the latter contains only these parts. In reconstructing alienated labor I have limited myself to the largest and most obvious building blocks given in the few pages devoted to this subject in the 1844 Manuscripts. Many other relations enter into its structure, and we are about to learn that at least one of them, which has been bypassed to facilitate exposition, is of crucial importance.




  1. The account referred to appears in the 1844 Manuscripts, pp. 69-80. Most of the material for these chapters on the basic relations of alienation is taken from these pages. As with other relations in Marx's work, the four listed here are aspects of an organic whole. Hence, an explanation of alienation could begin with any one and go naturally on to others. Marx himself begins with man's alienation in his product, but, for reasons which will soon become apparent, alienated activity offers a better starting point. Also for purposes of facilitating exposition, I have transposed Marx's relations three and four. Thus, what appears in the order—product, activity, species and other men—in Marx's explanation of alienation, appears as—activity product, other men and species—in my own.
  2. 1844 Manuscripts, p. 72. Such labor is also described as 'an activity quite alien to itself, to man and to nature, and therefore to consciousness and the flow of life'. Ibid. p. 86. See too, Ibid. pp. 110, 129, 152.
  3. Ibid. p. 72. This is also an account of self-estrangement as distinct from estrangement from the thing. Ibid. pp. 73-4.
  4. Ibid. p. 84.
  5. Capital, I, 349.
  6. Ibid. p. 360; Ibid. p. 484.
  7. 1844 Manuscripts, p. 71.
  8. Ibid. pp. 79, 83, 73.
  9. Ibid. p. 72.
  10. Ibid. p. 73.
  11. Ibid. p. 79.
  12. Ibid. p. 73.
  13. Another similar compilation of the main relations of alienated labor is as follows: 'This relation is the relation of the worker to his own activity as an alien activity not belonging to him; it is activity as suffering, strength as weakness, begetting as emasculating, the worker's own physical and mental energy, his personal life or what is life rather than activity—as an activity which is against him, neither depends on nor belongs to him.' Ibid.