Dialectics of Labour: Chapter 1 – Alienated Labour

Dialectics of Labour: Marx and his Relation to Hegel
by C. J. Arthur
first published, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986
PART ONE: Marx’s Theory of Alienation

Chapter 1 – Alienated Labour


In 1844 a turning point occurs in Marx’s philosophical development. For the first time he attributes fundamental ontological [1] significance to productive activity.[2] Through material production humanity comes to be what it is. Through the process of production the worker realizes his potential and becomes objective to himself in his product. He develops his productive powers and knows himself in and through his activity and its result. It is important to observe that this is possible only because there exists raw material with which to work. Marx says that ‘the worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world’. [3] It is the material in which his activity realizes itself, and, in the absence of any distortion of the relationship, this material production is the ‘mediation‘ in which the unity of man with nature is established.

The category of ‘mediation’ Marx takes from Hegel, and it is as central to his work as it is to Hegel’s. It is to be contrasted with ‘immediacy’. In the present case, someone who argues that man is nothing but a part of nature, a natural being subject to natural laws, is taking the position that man is in immediate unity with nature. By contrast, someone who takes a dualistic position, representing man as separate from the natural realm, developing himself spiritually, and struggling against the power of nature latent in himself as well as the influence of external determinants, is taking man to be immediately opposed to nature.

Marx’s position is much more complex. On the one hand, he speaks of nature as ‘man’s inorganic body’ and says that ‘he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die … for man is a part of nature’. [4] On the other hand, he says that ‘it is in his fashioning of the objective world that man really proves himself; through such productive activity ‘nature appears as his work and his reality . . . and he can therefore contemplate himself in a world he himself created’; [5] this process is characterized as ‘objectification’ (Vergegenständlichung) – another important category Marx employs.

In truth, man is neither passively dependent upon nature, nor is he able to create his world from nothing. It is rather the case that through industry, productive activity, a dynamic relationship between man and nature is established in which both poles are transformed. In a discussion of this problem in the German Ideology (1846) Marx and Engels explain that ‘the celebrated “unity of man with nature” has always existed in industry … and so has the “struggle” of man with nature …’. [6] In summing up Marx’s position we may therefore refer to the relationship of man and nature as mediated in that it is not immediately given, and forever untransformed, but is one in which productive activity, interposed as a third ‘moment’, provides a principle of development, transformation and self-transformation. On the objective side there is the development of productive powers, which enable society to appropriate natural materials to human use with decreasing effort. On the subjective side, Marx elaborates the idea of the constitution of a ‘wealth of human needs’, [7] and the development of ‘the richness of . . . human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form – in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man)’. [8]

The mediation of productive activity (objectification) Marx views as ontologically fundamental to the whole social and historical development of mankind (see figure 1).


Where idealist social ontologies try to purge social categories of the natural, and biological reductionists evacuate the social mediations, the strength of Marx’s category of ‘productive activity’ lies precisely in its double determination as the linking element between the human and the natural, the ideal and the material, teleology and causality. Productive activity is at the same time both a material interchange (the combination and transformation of raw materials into goods for human consumption) and a human social process – whereby the cunning of human practice realizes its aims within the context of definite, historically determined and transformed, socio-economic relationships.

The perspective just outlined is admittedly very general, but it underpins Marx’s theory of alienation as it is sketched in the well-known chapter of the 1844 Manuscripts – ‘Estranged Labour’ – to which we now turn. (For notes on the German terms for alienation/estrangement see the Appendix, pp. 147-9.)

Estranged Labour

Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts are justly famous for conceptualizing the situation of the wage-labourer as one of alienation. Because the worker has no property in the means of production his labour-power is excluded from the instrument and object of production owned by another; his labour realizes itself therefore only through the wage-contract whereby it is alienated to the master and works in his behalf. The labourer treats his labour as a commodity; as a consequence he has no interest in the work itself but only in the wage; labour does not belong to itself but to private property. Marx comments trenchantly on the situation endured by the worker: he executes plans he does not form; he objectifies himself in his product only to have it taken from him; he produces palaces but lives in hovels; his labour creates beauty but deforms himself; the more intelligence is embodied in the design of the factory system the more machine-like and stupefying the routine of work, so much so that the labourer faces machinery as a competitor for his place; at work he does not feel at home; he feels himself only when he is not working; his work is not voluntary therefore, but is forced labour; in it the worker belongs not to himself but to another.[9]

Marx’s diagnosis of ‘estranged labour’ is a complex shifting one in which he continually comes back to elaborate themes initiated earlier. Because we have before us a first draft, the presentation is not clearly organized. However, the underlying structure of Marx’s thought articulates the different moments of the system of estranged relationships by mapping the alienating mediations on to the ontologically fundamental relationships already outlined.

Marx’s frame of reference is the relationship man – activity – nature. In his production man works upon the naturally given object of his activity and develops himself and his powers on a corresponding basis. Marx thematizes alienation in the same dimensions. Alienating activity estranges man from the object of production and his essential human qualities. Although the active moment is the central one, in his exposition Marx finds it convenient to deepen the analysis in the sequence object – activity – man. Let me elaborate these moments (see figure 2).


  1. The worker is confronted by the product of his labour ‘as an alien object exercising power over him’ says Marx; not only does he lose the product to the capitalist, but its sale by the latter reinforces the power of wealth over the labourer; and, likewise, nature, the basis of production, is monopolized by the propertied class and appears as ‘an alien world inimically opposed to him’. [10] ‘The product of labour’, says Marx, ‘is the objectification {Vergegenständlichung} of labour’, but, given that labour is separated from its objective conditions of realization (namely the material and the instruments of production) by their status as private property, the objectification of labour is at the same time its alienation, and the outcome is the estrangement of the worker from the material basis of his existence and life activity. [11]
  2. ‘The relation of labour to the act of production within the labour process’, Marx says, ‘is the relation of the worker to his own activity as alien . . .’ Marx derives this aspect from the first by means of the argument that, if estrangement is manifest in the result of production, this means that production itself must be alienating, ‘the activity of alienation, the alienation of activity’. The wage-labourer has no satisfaction in his work and only endures it for the sake of the wage, subordinating his activity to an alien power. ‘His life-activity’, says Marx, ‘does not belong to him.’ Since, for Marx, activity is the central determinant of human being (for as men express their life so they are), the alienation of labour is at the same time self-estrangement. Marx concludes: ‘Here we have self-estrangement, as previously we had the estrangement of the thing.’ [12]
  3. ‘Estranged labour’, Marx says, ‘turns man’s species being . . . into a being alien to him, into a means for his individual existence.’ [13] What does Marx mean by ‘species being‘? [14] He explains that ‘man is a species being . . . because he looks upon himself as a universal and therefore free being.’ [15] The most important species activity is ‘productive life’. [16] It is worth quoting an extended passage in which this is thematized:

    The practical creation of an objective world, the fashioning of inorganic nature, is the proof that man is a conscious species being . . . It is true that animals also produce. They build nests and dwellings, like the bee, the beaver, the ant, etc. But an animal produces only what is immediately needed for itself or its young; it produces one-sidedly, while man produces universally; it produces only under the pressure of immediate physical need, while man produces even when he is free from physical need arid truly produces only in freedom therefrom; it produces only itself, while man reproduces the whole of nature; its product belongs immediately to its physical body, while man freely confronts his product. An animal forms things only according to the standard and need of the species to which it belongs, while man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species and knows how to apply to each object its inherent standard, hence man forms things in accordance with the laws of beauty.

    In fashioning the objective world, therefore, man proves himself really to be a species being. This production is his active species life. Through it nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labour is therefore the objectification of the species-life of man: for he duplicates himself not only intellectually, in his consciousness, but actively and actually, and therefore he sees himself in the world he has created. [17]

    The characteristic of human productive activity that marks it off from a merely animal mode of subsistence is its universal and creative power. A man can ‘put his hand to anything’. But the labourer subordinated to the division of labour obtains no satisfaction in his work because the universal power of the species is realized in capitalism as the annexation of the individual to a particular set routine. The work is a mere means towards a living wage. ‘In degrading spontaneous free activity to a means, estranged labour makes man’s species life a means to his physical existence’, [18] complains Marx. In this light, Marx argues that an increase in wages ‘would therefore be nothing but better payment for the slave, and would not win either for the worker or for labour their human status and dignity.’ [19]

    At the same time, the social character of production takes on an asocial quality in so far as the worker and the capitalist both depend on each other, yet are thrown into confrontation over the destiny of the product. Thus man is estranged from man. [20]

So this, in schematic outline, is Marx’s account of estranged labour. We are not concerned here with thematizing other spheres of estrangement; but there is one corollary worth noting. Marx writes a special section on the estrangement involved in capitalist consumption. The significance Marx attaches to the development of ‘the wealth of human needs’ was noted briefly above. In principle, Marx regards each new product as ‘a new enrichment of human nature’. Under private property, however, this relation of production to consumption reverses its significance; for the former now dominates the latter in an alienating way, he argues. The capitalist ‘speculates on creating a new need in another so as to drive him to fresh sacrifice, to place him in a new dependence’. In this context ‘every new product represents a new potentiality of mutual swindling.’ [21] In a remarkably prescient passage, Marx diagnoses the essence of advertising:

Subjectively . . . the extension of products and needs becomes a contriving and ever-calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites. . . No eunuch flatters his despot more basely or uses more despicable means to stimulate his dulled capacity for pleasure than does the industrial eunuch – the producer – in order to sneak a few pieces of silver . . . out of the pockets of his dearly beloved neighbours in Christ. He puts himself at the service of the other’s most depraved fancies, plays the pimp between him and his need, excites in him morbid appetites, lies in wait for each of his weaknesses – all so that he can then demand the cash for this service. [22]

As for the purchaser of these goodies, he is incapable of truly enjoying anything for itself because all the senses have been estranged by private property in favour of ‘the sense of having’. [23]

Marx is struck above all by the quasi-magical power of money seemingly to acquire for its possessor every human power he lacks. It is ‘the alienated ability of mankind’; ‘it makes contradictions embrace’. [24]

Of course, one could say that such a criticism of capitalist priorities and perversions is not difficult to mount: Charles Fourier, with his theory of the passions, had already connected the richness of need and enjoyment with ‘association’ of labour, and inveighed against production for the sake of production; the work of M. Hess on the category of ‘having’ is explicitly cited in Marx’s text; furthermore, Marx is able to draw on the resources of literature [25]in so far as it depicts the system of estrangement – in the final pages of his notebook he quotes passages from Goethe and Shakespeare in his critique of money. [26]

What is new in Marx, as we shall see, is the way in which such insights are situated in a comprehensive theory of capitalism which grounds the necessity of communism in a real historical transition.

Let us now try to get an overview of our progress so far. At the beginning I showed that the category of ‘productive activity’ has general ontological significance for Marx. Already in 1844, therefore, we have the first glimpses of the science of historical materialism, because this mediation provides the possibility of a historical dimension to human existence in so far as men’s relationships to nature and to each other are transformed through it.

The actual development of this activity, however, has become subsumed under a further set of mediations; in the present economic conditions we find that productive activity itself is mediated through the division of labour, private property, exchange, wages, in sum a system of estrangement in which productive activity loses itself and falls under the sway of an alien power. Istávan Mészáros has termed this ‘a set of second-order mediations . . . i.e. a historically specific mediation of the ontologically fundamental self-mediation of man with nature.`[27] The most important distinction between the two orders is that initially it is presupposed that productive activity is in immediate unity with its object, whereas with the imposition of the estranging second-order mediations labour is immediately confronted by its object as something separate from it. This immediate opposition is not ontologically given in the nature of things but is the result of historically determinate mediations. (It is necessary to note that the categories immediate/mediate do not divide elements into two different classes; rather, the same relation may be mediated from one point of view and immediate from another.)

For Marx, what requires historical explanation is not the unity but the separation of these moments, through a process whereby ‘man alienates the mediating activity itself’, and hence becomes the slave of an ‘alien mediator’. [28]

It is important to understand that the emergence of the second-order mediation does not substitute itself for the first – it further mediates the mediation itself. This means that it would not be correct to erect a dichotomy between them such that everything true of one side is untrue of the other (a strategy typical of analytical thought); this, in turn, would facilitate a faulty diagnosis of the problem of alienation in terms of an opposition of the ideal and the real.

Let us note in particular that, if through productive activity man objectifies himself and lives in a world he has himself made, this is no less true when he alienates himself and fails to recognize himself in the system of estrangement brought about through alienated objectification. It is this conceptual inflection rather than mutual exclusion of the categories ‘objectification’ and ‘alienation’ that permits theoretical space for grasping the objective necessity of a historical supersession, which would otherwise be a utopian ‘demand’. Equally, the possibility of historical supersession depends on a refusal to identify the second-order mediation with the first (easy to do because in recorded history the rule of private property bulks large), thus building into the theory the inevitability of alienation, whatever philosophy may endeavour to reconcile us to it. In order to overcome estrangement, the alienating mediations must be overcome. But this does not mean that Marx rejects all mediation, for the ‘first-order mediation’ – productive activity as such – is an absolute ontological dimension of social life; Marx opposes only its specific alienated form, imposed through second-order mediations which are historically surpassable. If this distinction is not drawn, and social philosophy collapses the two levels into one, such that private property and exchange are taken to be as absolute as productive activity itself, then it is not possible for such a philosophy to grasp the conditions of a positive supersession of estrangement; it must descend to apologetics and pseudo-solutions.

The Concept of ‘Labour’

Confusion is evident on this last point in some of the secondary literature on Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts. One reason for this is that Marx’s terminology is not always understood. To make further progress in elucidating his thought, it is necessary to deal with a point on this avoided so far.

This is that the second-order alienating activity is often identified by Marx as ‘labour’ – not ‘wage-labour’ or ‘alienated labour’ but ‘labour’ pure and simple. If this category ‘labour’ (Arbeit) is identified in reading the text with the productive activity as such that is ontologically fundamental, hopeless misunderstanding can arise, It need not arise if a commentator is sufficiently sensitive to the context to discount such a ‘literal’ reading. However, this point on terminology needs to be grasped, not only for pedantic exactness, but also because an important conceptual point hangs on it, as will be shown below.

To begin with, let us attend to the textual problem. This problem is a special case of the difficulty of reading Marx’s early work through spectacles acquired by a knowledge of the later work, thus imposing anachronistically the meanings of Capital on the young Marx. The category ‘labour’ (Arbeit) had settled its meaning by the time Marx wrote Capital, as one of his fundamental ahistorical categories. Thus, the chapter in Capital on the labour-process starts with the assertion that this can be examined without reference to the social form within which it is carried on. He goes on:

Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, of his own accord, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature , . . Through this movement he acts on external nature, changing it, and simultaneously changes his own nature. [29]

Another quotation from Capital shows that at this time Marx equates ‘labour’ with productive activity in the sense of our first-order mediation:

Labour as such, in its simple character as purposive activity, is related to the means of production not in their determinate social form, but rather in their concrete substance . . ., the earth as non-produced means of labour, the others as produced. [30]

The usage of the term ‘labour’ is different in the early writings. In such texts as the 1844 Manuscripts and the German Ideology (1846-7) Marx restricts the term to productive activity carried on under the rule of private property. It is not the term he uses when he wishes to thematize that activity which is the universal ontological ground of social life. Still less does it apply to future unalienated free activity.

It is a testimony to the incapacity of people to read what is written in the 1844 text that when Lukács takes from it the appropriate distinction he does not use Marx’s own terminology. Instead, he elevates the term ‘Arbeit‘ to an ahistorical universal, as in the following diagnosis:

In his discussion of economics Marx, drawing on his knowledge of empirical evidence, distinguishes sharply between objectification in labour in general and the estrangement of subject and object in the capitalist form of labour. [31]

If Lukács can overlook the point, it is not surprising that lesser thinkers do so. Thus Herbert Marcuse (in his 1932 review of the 1844 Manuscripts) speaks of ‘Marx’s positive definition of labour’, and (in his Reason and Revolution of 1941) he states that in the 1844 Manuscripts Marx holds that ‘labour in its true form is a medium for man’s true self-fulfilment’. [32] T.I. Oizerman says in his paraphrase of the 1844 Manuscripts: ‘To analyse private property, one has above all to analyse the form of labour which creates it . . . Marx . . . explains that private property and everything that springs from it is not created by labour in general, but by alienated labour, a historically definite form of human activity.’ [33] These are examples of ‘positive’ readings, which would conform with Marx’s usage only if the phrase ‘labour in general’ were to be ‘productive activity’ instead.

Let us now turn to some examples of ‘negative’ readings. Raya Dunayevskaya, without citing exact references, says:

So hostile was Marx to labour under capitalism, that at first he called, not for the ‘emancipation’ of labour, but for its ‘abolition’. That is why, at first, he termed man’s function not ‘labour’, but ‘self-activity’ . . . No matter how the language changed, the point remained that labour, in a new society, would in no manner whatever be the type of activity it is under capitalism where man’s labour is limited to the exercise of his physical labour-power. [34]

Erich Fromm follows Dunayevskaya closely. [35] Robert Tucker sums up the matter correctly as follows:

By ‘labour’ or ‘alienated labour’ – terms that he employs interchangeably – Marx means productive activity performed by man in the state of alienation from himself. He declares that all human activity up to now has been labour . . . Consequently, man has never been fully himself in his creative activity. This activity has never been ‘self-activity’, by which Marx means free creativity in which a person feels thoroughly at home with himself, enjoys a sense of voluntary self-determination to action, and experiences his energies as his own. [36]

Mészáros detects some ambiguity:

In the Manuscripts of 1844 labour is considered both in general – as ‘productive activity’: the fundamental ontological determination of ‘humanness’ – and in particular, as having the form of capitalistic ‘division of labour’. It is in this latter form capitalistically structured activity – that ‘labour’ is the ground of all alienation. [37]

G. Petrović detects a similar inconsistency:

In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx as a rule opposes ‘labour’ to ‘praxis’ and explicitly describes ‘labour’ as ‘the act of alienation of practical human activity’, but he is sometimes inconsistent, using ‘labour’ synonymously with ‘praxis’. [38]

I would not claim that Marx is absolutely consistent, but I would say that his normal usage of ‘labour’ refers it to the more specific meaning and that examples that look like the more universal sense are often simply aspects of the former because, as we have already explained, labour is, at the same time, productive activity.

Let us now establish the textual evidence for Marx’s early ‘negative’ definition of ‘labour’ and his anticipation of its ‘abolition’. In the first three sections of the first manuscript it has not yet occurred to Marx to organize the material under the rubric of estrangement. His main critical category is ‘abstraction’. Capital, landed property and labour are separated from each other and this ‘abstraction’ is ‘fatal for the worker’. [39] Marx shows that the evidence of the political economists themselves proves this; but they do not recognize ‘that labour itself . . . is harmful and pernicious’ – even though it follows from their own arguments. [40] This is partly because the political economist does not consider the human being of the worker but merely his function as a labourer – one who lives ‘by a one-sided abstract labour’ – hence ‘in political economy labour occurs only in the shape of the activity of earning a living. [41] This might leave open the possibility of some other ‘shape’ of labour, but in the following discussion of estrangement Marx says more conclusively that ‘political economy conceals the estrangement inherent on the nature of labour‘. [42]

In the following pages there is a summarizing passage in which ‘labour’ is equated with ‘the act of estranging practical human activity’ [43] and in which ‘the act of production’ is said to become ‘an alien activity’ turned against the worker, within ‘the labour process’. [44]

In the second manuscript a very important passage includes the following definition: ‘Within the private property relationship there is contained latently . . . the production of human activity as labour – that is, as an activity quite alien to itself, to man, and to nature.’ [45] In this passage ‘labour’ is defined as productive activity transformed by the private property system into an activity alien to itself. Were it not that this is simply ignored by political economy, simply not understood, then ‘alienated labour’ would be a pleonasm. In this sense of ‘labour’, human activity as such is distinguished from it as free activity which harmoniously relates man and nature, the producer and his object.

In the third manuscript Marx says that the history of industry presents – albeit ‘in the form of estrangement’ – an ‘open book of man’s essential powers’. ‘This was not conceived in its connection with man’s essential being but only in the external relation of utility’, he goes on, because ‘all human activity hitherto has been labour’, that is ‘activity estranged from itself.’ [46] Here there is a clear distinction between the positive side of the history of production, in so far as it mobilized ‘mans essential powers’, and the negative side, constituted by the forms of estrangement within which it has developed. ‘Labour’ is clearly assigned to the latter as ‘activity estranged from itself’.

Later, in a fragment on the division of labour in civil society, the same negative definition of ‘labour’ appears again; since ‘labour is only an expression of human activity within alienation’ then the division of labour is ‘the estranged and alienated form of human activity as an activity of the species’. [47]

A couple of years later Marx worked with Engels on another manuscript, known to us as the German Ideology, in which even more striking formulations occur. He proposes not only the end of the division of labour (for which ‘private property’ is an ‘identical expression’ [48]) but also the abolition of labour. For example: ‘In all previous revolutions the mode of activity always remained unchanged and it was only a question of . . . a new distribution of labour . . . whilst the communist revolution is directed against the hitherto existing mode of activity, does away with labour . . . ‘ [49] There followed the beginnings of a further amplification: ‘the modern form of activity under the rule of. . .’ – but this was crossed out; nevertheless it is clear that ‘labour’ is understood as an activity which is not free and falls together with private property.

The ‘abolition of labour’ (‘Aufhebung der Arbeit‘) is spoken of on several occasions later in this text, [50] of which the most interesting states:

Labour, the only connection which still links them with the productive forces and with their own existence, has lost all semblance of self-activity and . . . while in earlier periods . . . the production of material life was considered a subordinate mode of self-activity, they now diverge to such an extent that material life appears as the end, and what produces this material life, labour (which is now the only possible but, as we see, negative form of self-activity) as the means.’ [51]

All these passages show that ‘labour’ is defined as alienating activity, to be distinguished from self-activity, free activity, human activity. In all these passages, also, the context makes it clear that the labour defined negatively is not productive activity itself (the manifestation of ‘essential power’) but only that carried on within the division of labour and private property. Equally, abolition of labour does not do away with work itself (not even manual work) but sets it in the framework of ‘free’ and ‘universal’ activity. If we want to know the immediate source of this way of talking about ‘labour’, we need look no further than Marx’s own acknowledgement of the influence of M. Hess on his thought. In the Preface to the 1844 Manuscripts Marx says that ‘the only original German works of substance in this science’ include ‘the essays by Hess published in Einundzwanzig Bogen‘. [52]

This refers the reader to some essays by Hess, in a book published abroad in 1843 to defeat the German censorship. The first of these is a review of a book by Lorenz von Stein on French socialism and communism, which made a big impact on radical circles in Germany. At the time he wrote the review, Hess was already in Paris and so had first-hand knowledge of the Fourierists and other socialist currents. In his review Hess declares that in communism ‘the opposition of enjoyment and labour disappears’. This is because ‘every man has an inclination to some kind of activity, even to very different sorts of activity, and out of the multiplicity of free human inclinations and activities arises the free, living and ever-youthful organism of free, human society, free, human occupations that cease to be ‘work’ and become identical with ‘pleasure’.’ [53]

There is no doubt, therefore, that in his 1844 Manuscripts Marx is writing under the immediate influence of such views.

Two of the commentators we cited earlier as failing to notice that in the 1844 Manuscripts ‘labour’ is the term construed as a ‘negative’ form of self-activity, as alienation, are yet struck by the fact that Marx calls for the ‘abolition of labour’ in the German Ideology; and they provide similar solutions to the problem – which will serve to introduce our own reflections on the matter.

Marcuse (in his Reason and Revolution) makes the following comment:

These amazing formulations in Marx’s earliest writings all contain the Hegelian term ‘Aufhebung‘, so abolition also carries the meaning that a content is restored to its true form. Marx, however, envisioned the future mode of labour to be so different from the prevailing one that he hesitated to use the same term ‘labour’ to designate alike the material process of capitalist and of communist society. He uses the term ‘labour’ to mean what capitalism actually understands by it in the last analysis, that activity which creates surplus value in commodity production, or, which ‘produces capital’. [54]

Oizerman permits himself to express the view that in speaking of the abolition of labour Marx adopts ‘a form of expression which is not very apt terminologically’;[55] and he excuses it with much the same reasons as Marcuse, namely that Marx is simply borrowing the category of the political economists and that, in any case, ‘Aufhebung‘ does not quite mean ‘abolition’. [56]

The problem is clear – in some sense the alienated form of activity seems to demand a distinct concept which is correlative with the other moments of the bourgeois totality, notably capital, that is a concept which is historically specific; in another sense there is a continuity of reference when we discuss productive activity under the rule of private property, and under socialism.

Curiously enough, a similar terminological problem was addressed by Engels in his editorial work on Marx’s Capital. In a footnote in Capital, [57] Marx already noted that English writers of the seventeenth century liked to use an Anglo-Saxon word for the actual thing, and a Latin word for ‘its reflection’. In a later note inserted in the fourth German edition such a case arises, when Engels over-enthusiastically claims that where German just has ‘die Arbeit‘ English has the advantage of two separate words for two different aspects of it: that which ‘creates use-values . . . is called “work”, as opposed to “labour”; that which ‘creates value . . . is called “labour”, as opposed to “work”,’ says Engels. [58] English usage does not accord with Engels’ distinction – as expressions such as ‘look for work’ show – but the important point is that it would be useful to have two such separate expressions.

There is a conceptual difference that needs to be marked between the material process of working and the inflection given to this activity when it is socially specified within exchange as value-producing labour. It is no longer just work but has a determinate social form which marks it out within the generic activity.

Earlier I mentioned that there is a conceptual problem underlying the sense in which ‘labour’ is used. This is because, throughout the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx continually relates labour to private property in a very intimate way, as ‘the subjective essence of private property’. Since private property is understood by Marx as a historically specific system, to be superseded, it must surely follow that its essence cannot be a first-order mediation but must be equally determined within the framework of second-order mediations. Either Marx should have said that the essence of private property is ‘alienated labour’, reserving the term ‘labour’ for the ontologically prior level; or, if ‘labour’ as such is to be ‘the subjective essence’, then we need some other term for the relevant first-order mediation. If we take the second alternative, then a reading of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts and the German Ideology readily gives us a candidate, namely ‘activity’ or, more precisely, ‘productive activity’; ‘labour’ may then be defined as ‘alienated productive activity’, or, if that is to beg the question, as ‘activity within the relationships of private property’. The next chapter investigates these private property relations.


Marx’s ontology comprises the complex totality man – activity – nature. In the history of human society the mediating moment is productive activity. But imposed on this first-order mediation is a set of second-order mediations, principally private property, estranging man from himself, his powers, his activity and his object. Objectification is then at the same time alienation. Within the system of second-order mediations, productive activity, now an alienating activity, is redefined as (alienated) labour.

Marx’s project is to conceptualize the positive supersession of this system of estrangement.

1 I use ‘ontology’ to indicate that set of fundamental categories through which the character of the social sphere is delimited and the general framework for theory construction established. I do not mean that a priori arguments establish the necessity of these categories, but I think that every research programme presupposes a commitment to some ontology. For Marx’s ontology see Georg Lukács, Ontology of Social Being: Marx (1972), trans. D. Fernbach, London 1978; Carol C. Gould, Marx’s Social Ontology, Cambridge, Mass., London, 1978; Scott Meikle, Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx, London, 1985.

2 I deliberately choose this phrase rather than ‘labour’ because the latter is open to some ambiguity of interpretation, as will be seen later an this chapter.

3 Werke Eb., 512; C.W.3, 273; E.W., 325.

4 Werke Eb., 516; C.W.3, 276; E.W., 328.

5 Werke Eb., 517; C.W.3, 277; E.W., 929.

6 C.W. 5, 40.

7 Werke Eb., 546; C.W.3, 306.

8 Werke Eb., 541; C.W.3, 301.

9 Werke Eb., 512-14; C.W.3, 272-4; E.W., 322-6.

10 Werke Eb., 515; C.W.3, 275.

11 Werke Eb., 511-12; C.W.3, 272; E.W., 324.

12 Werke Eb., 514-15; C.W.3, 274-5.

13 Werke Eb., 517; C.W.3, 277; E. W., 329.

14 One should not be disturbed by Marx’s borrowing the term ‘species being’ (Gattungswesen) from Feuerbach. The content is different (see Part Three below).

15 Werke Eb., 515; C.W.3, 275; E.W., 327.

16 Werke Eb., 516; C.W.3, 276; E.W., 328.

17 Werke Eb., 516-17; C.W.3, 276-7; E.W., 328-9.

18 Werke Eb., 517; C.W.3, 277; E.W., 329.

19 Werke Eb., 520-1; C.W.3, 280; E.W., 332.

20 Werke Eb., 517-18; C.W.3, 277-8.

21 Werke Eb., 546-7; C.W.3, 306; E.W., 359. Hegel already explained thus in bourgeois society ‘the system of needs’ multiplies indefinitely. He observes thus the need for greater comfort . . . is suggested to you by those who hope to make a profit from its creation’: P.R. (Knox), p. 269.

22 Werke Eb., 547; C.W.3, 307.

23 Werke Eb., 540; C.W.3, 300. But it is wrong to speak of Marx’s ‘producer’s morality’ (Eugene Kamenka, The Ethical Foundations of Marxism London, 1962, p. 149) for he also values here ‘human use’.

24 Werke Eb, 565-7; C.W.3, 325-6.

25 See S.S. Prawer, Karl Marx and World Literature, Oxford, 1976, pp. 76-85.

26 XLI – XLIII: New MEGA 1,2, 318-22; Werke Eb., 563-4; C.W.3, 323-4.

27 István Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation, London, 1970, p. 79.

28 ‘Comment on James Mill’ (1844): Werke Eb., 446; C.W.3, 312. Also: ‘is is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature, and hence their appropriation of nature, which requires explanation or is the result of a historic process, but rather the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active existence, a separation which is completely posited only in the relation of wage labour and capital.’ (Marx, Grundrisse, trans. M. Nicolaus, Harmondsworth, 1973, p. 489).

29 Werke Band 23, Das Kapital, Berlin, 1962, p. 192; C.l (Penguin), 283; C.1 (Moscow), 177.

30 C.3 (Penguin), 964; C.3 (Moscow). 804.

31 Georg Lukács: ‘In seinem oekonomischen Betrachtungen zieht Marx an der Hand der Tatsachen des wirklichen Lebens scharf dis Grenze zwischen Vergegenständlichung in der Arbeit an sich und Entfremdung von Subjekt und Objekt in der kapitalistischen Form der Arbeit.’ Werke 8, 674; also The Young Hegel, trans. Rodney Livingstone, London 1975, pp. 551-2.

32 ‘The foundations of historical materialism’ (1932), quoted from Herbert Marcuse, From Luther to Popper, essays trans. Joris de Bres, London, 1983, p. 13; Reason and Revolution (194l), 2nd ed. London, 1954, p. 277. To cite a more recent account: Paul Walton and Andrew Gamble, in their book From Alienation so Surplus Value, London, 1972, put forward the view that Marx’s ‘ontological position’ is grounded in ‘the dialectics of labour’ and they quote freely from all periods of Marx’s work to establish this without noting any problems about the early terminology.

33 T.I. Oizerman, The Making of the Marxist Philosophy (1977), English trans., Moscow, 1981, p. 230.

34 Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom, New York,1958, p. 61.

35 Erich Fromm Marx’s Concept of Man (196l), New York, 1971, p. 40. Despite the fact that this book appears under Fromm’s name, it consists mostly of Bottomore’s translation of Marx’s 1844 Mss; Fromm’s Preface attempts to popularize Marx by characterizing him as an ‘existentialist’ and a ‘Zen Buddhist’.

36 Robert C. Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx, Cambridge, 1961 p. 134.

37 Mészáros, Theory of Alienation, p. 78.

38 Article on ‘praxis’ in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, ed. T.B. Bottomore, Oxford, 1983, p. 386.

39 Werke Eb., 471; C.W.3, 235.

40 Werke Eb., 476; C.W.3. 240; E.W., 288.

41 Werke Eb., 477; C.W.3, 241; E.W., 289.

42 Werke Eb., 513; C.W.3, 273.

43 ‘Wir haben den Akt der Entfremdung der praktischen menslichen Tätigkeit, die Arbeit . . . ‘: Werke Eb., 515; C.W.3, 275; E.W., 327 gives a misleading translation of this sentence.

44 Werke Eb., 515; C.W.3, 275.

45 Werke Eb., 524; C.W.3, 285; E.W., 336.

46 Werke Eb., 542-3; C.W.3, 302-3.

47 Werke Eb., 557; C.W.3, 317; E.W., 369.

48 C.W.5, 46.

49 Ibid., 52.

50 Ibid., 77, 80, 87, 88, 205.

51 Ibid., 87.

52 Werke Eb., 468; C. W. 3, 232; Marx also gives credit to W. Weitling and to Engels.

53 Quoted from David McLellan, The Young Hegelians and Karl Marx, London, 1969, pp. 148-9.

54 Marcuse, Reason and Revolution, p. 293. For ‘Aufhebung‘, see Appendix.

55 Oizerman, Making of the Marxist Philosophy, p. 392.

56 The editors of the current English edition of the Collected Works simply ignore the problem and write in their Preface: ‘Labour will be transformed from an activity people perform under compulsion into genuine self-activity of free people.’ C.W.5, xxii.

57 C.1 (Penguin), 126 n.4, Das Kapital, p. 50 n.4.

58 C.1 (Penguin), 138 n.16; Das Kapital, pp. 61-2, n.16.