Alienation and Marx’s Critique of Capitalism



Submitted as part of a panel on ‘Marx’s Theory of Alienation and Contemporary Anti-Capitalist Politics’. Panel proposal by Paul Raekstad.

Marx’s theory of alienation remains important today because of the re-emergence of anti-capitalist struggle worldwide – e.g. Zapatismo, 21st Century Socialism, and the New Democracy Movement – and because many key thinkers within and about those movements repeatedly highlight the importance of Marx’s theory of alienation for their projects. But why is it important? My paper argues that Marx’s theory of alienation remains important to radical anti-capitalist politics because it provides a compelling critique of how the capitalist mode of production by its very nature thwarts human freedom and human development which contains important lessons for moving beyond capitalism.

To do this, I focus on analysing the first and second kinds of alienation Marx distinguishes – alienation from product and from labour – and on the oft-misunderstood connection between them. I argue that alienation from product, on Marx’s view, consists in the ways in which human beings under capitalism interact in such a way as to produce and reproduce capitalist social relations which come to constitute an alien power outside and seemingly independent of its creators, which comes to dominate them and render them unfree. Alienation from labour consists in an analysis of how these social relations dominate and control the labour process under capitalism.

This analysis is important, I argue, because it helps to counter a number of misconceptions currently gaining ground on the left today. First, by locating the major source of capitalist unfreedom in its constituent social relations, the theory of alienation shows that human emancipation requires not the taming, but the abolition of capitalism altogether. Secondly, it shows that added free time and leisure pursuits, though valuable, are inadequate compared to ensuring the freedom of humans’ labour process in a future society of the associated producers. Thirdly, this has important implications for how we go about replacing capitalism. Since dominating impersonal market forces exist also among cooperatives and under market socialism, it follows that a post-capitalist society must go beyond ideas of merely worker-managed workplaces to consider questions of democratic planning and the division of labour – as Marx indeed points out.

Alienation - Freedom - Socialism - Communism - Capitalism - Market Socialism - Humanism