Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society
Chapter 21
Man's relation to his fellow men

The third broad relation in which Marx exhibits the worker's alienation is his tie with other men. This social alienation is fitted on to activity and product alienation in the following manner:

If the product of labor does not belong to the worker, if it confronts him as an alien power, this can only be because it belongs to some other man than the's relation to himself only becomes objective and real for him through his relation to other men. Thus, if the product of his labor, his labor objectified, is for him an alien, hostile, powerful object independent of him, then his position towards it is such that someone else is master of this object, someone who is alien, hostile, powerful, and independent of him...Every self-estrangement of man from himself and from nature appears in the relation in which he places himself and nature to men other than and differentiated from himself.1
The hostility of the worker's product is due to the fact that it is owned by the capitalist, whose interests are directly opposed to those of the worker. The product serves Marx as both the mask and the instrument of the capitalist's power.

If, when describing capitalists, Marx states they are but personal embodiments of capital, he is equally able to assert, when dealing with capital as a product, that it is an expression of the real power of the capitalist. One claim must not be read as being more 'ultimate' than the other, or else we shall forever be turning in circles as Marx's writings abound with claims of both sorts. On the basis of the internal relations Marx posits between the worker, his product and the man who controls it, these otherwise incompatible remarks become complementary characterizations of the same whole. When proceeding from the vantage point of the product, Marx wants to show ways in which the product of alienated labor exercises power over people (including, as we shall see, the capitalist). And when proceeding from the vantage point of the capitalist, he wants to show ways in which this man controls the product. It is with this latter relation that the present chapter deals.

The worker's dwelling provides an excellent example of how his relation to his product is bound up with his relation to the man who owns it. Marx refers to the worker's home as a 'cave' which he occupies 'only precariously, it being for him an alien habitation which can be withdrawn from him any day—a place from which, if he does not pay, he can be thrown out'. Comparing capitalism with primitive society, Marx adds: The savage in his cave—a natural element which freely offers itself for his use and protection—feels himself no more a stranger, or rather feels himself to be just as much at home as a fish in water. But the cellar-dwelling of the poor man is a hostile dwelling, 'an alien, restraining power which only gives itself up to him so far as he gives up to it his blood and sweat'—a dwelling which he cannot look upon as his own home where he might at last exclaim, 'here I am at home', but where instead he finds himself in someone else's house, in the house of a stranger who daily lies in wait for him and throws him out if he does not pay his rent.2

As elsewhere in capitalism, the worker's need carries no title to use what his own labor has produced. In his dwelling, man should feel himself 'at home as much as a fish in water'. This really expresses the degree of acceptance and trust in the possession of nature that all men will feel in communism. Under capitalism, however, the worker's relation to his home is one of uncertainty which he manifests through his fear of the landlord.

As with the worker's relation to his product, his alienated relation to the man who owns his product is a necessary result of his productive activity being what it is. Marx maintains:

through alienated labor man not only engenders his relationship to the object and to the act of production as powers that are alien and hostile to him; he also engenders the relationship in which other men stand to his production and to his product, and the relationship in which he stands to these other men. Just as he begets his own product as a loss, as a product not belonging to him; so he begets the dominion of the one who does not produce over production and over the product. Just as he estranges himself from his own activity, so he confers to the stranger activity which is not his own...a man alien to labor and standing outside it...the capitalist, or whatever one chooses to call the master of labor.3

Each capitalist only retains his pedestal through the repeated acts of workers. Without capitalist production in which the creative force is alienated labor there would be no capitalists. By engaging in totally unfulfilling labor, labor which destroys his mind and his body, labor which is forced upon him by his drive to live, labor in which all choice is left to someone else who also controls the finished articles, that is, capitalist labor, the worker is said to produce the degrading social relations that distinguish this period.

Marx is capable, as we know, of approaching the same relation from the other side. He says, for example:

The estrangement of man, and in fact every relationship in which man stands to himself, is first realized and expressed in the relationship in which a man stands to other men. Hence within the relationship of estranged labor each man views the other in accordance with the standard and the position in which he finds himself as a worker.4
By separating out social relations and treating them as primary, Marx has in mind the fact that the worker-capitalist relation is already established when the worker asks for a job. On the other hand, this relation is the product of previous labor, and is reproduced for tomorrow by labor today.

In making the transition from man's relation to his product to his relation to the owner of this product, Marx allows, we will recall, the adjectives applied to the former to stand also for the latter. He claims that 'if the product of his for him an alien, hostile, powerful object independent of him, then his position towards it is such that someone else is master of this object, someone who is alien, hostile, and independent of him'.5 The worker faces the capitalist with the very same attitudes, but whereas his employer is able to act toward him with the callous and reckless abandon of the strong, the worker shows his weakness only too clearly through sullen and hateful acquiescence. Their social alienation is a two-way street. Pulling in opposite directions, at the command of competing interests, their relations are necessarily antagonistic.*

  1. 1844 Manuscripts, p. 79. The workers' tie to the capitalist has also been brought forward as a particular relation in alienated labor.
  2. Ibid. p. 117.
  3. Ibid. pp. 79-80.
  4. Ibid. p. 78.
  5. Ibid. p. 79.
  • This account of the worker's alienated relation to the captalist is only a partial account of social alienation, which includes mutual hostility within a class as well as between classes. A fuller treatment of this subject is given in Chapter 29.