Summary: a Critical Review on Karl Marx "Alienated Labour"


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Karl Marx believed that work at its best is what makes us human, it fulfils our species essence. Work allows us to prosper, however in nineteenth-century Europe, Marx argued that work destroyed workers, especially those who had nothing to sell but their labour. To the mill and factory owner, a worker was an abstract idea with a stomach that needed to be filled. The workers had no choice but to endure long hours for a small wage. Their labour alienated them. Alienation can be described as a sense of exclusion and separation whereby an individual is isolated from society, work and sense of self.

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Marx identifies and explains the four types of alienation. Alienation from productive activity: Tasks can be repetitive and monotonous as labours have only one specialised role in the production of the final product, they cannot give any input into the design or purpose of said product. ‘The individual has become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things’. Marx states that “the activity of working, which is potentially the source of human self-definition and human freedom, is. degraded to a necessity for staying alive. Alienation from the product: In a Fordism style of mass production, workers engage in a singular task all day and so are responsible for only a small part of a product, and so workers are making a product they do not own, for others to consume and buy, this lack of involvement creates little connection between the worker and the product.

Alienation from fellow workers: workers are forced to compete with each other for opportunities and promotions. This creates an environment whereby people come to see each other as a means to their ends. There is no concern for the collective.As Marx wrote: “In the relation of alienated labour every man sees the others according to the standard and the relation in which he finds himself as a worker. Alan Swingewood in A Short History of Sociological Thought stated that “Human relationships that are alienated are experienced not as relations between persons but rather as relations between things”, this alienation manifests as hostility between workers

Alienation from oneself: Marx believed that we can contribute to the world is part of what makes us human, our “species essence”, in a product based society people are alienated from their human nature. People live to work rather than work being a creative expression of their being. Marx articulates this when he states: “In taking from man the object of his production, alienated labour takes from his species-life, his actual and objective existence as a species.” (Simon, p.64) and so his view founded on the belief that humans are creative beings and this expressed through our work.

Marx’s theory of alienation provides a framework for understanding the cause of these experiences, subjective experiences about objective reality and therefore a reality we can change but his work was entirely framed by social class conflict and economic exploitation of the labour force. This view is rejected by structural functionalists such as Durkheim who believed that the division of labour in society is the product of social differentiation and the shift from mechanical to organic solidarity. According to Durkheim, life under capitalism is not alienating but it shows the interdependence between agents in society. The division of labour is not evidence of totalitarianism but rather evidence of a regulated society, the complex system of division of labour means that people are allocated in society according to merit and rewarded accordingly: social inequality reflects natural inequality, this maintain social order. (contrary to Marx’s view that capitalism is a social conflict). Another comparison between the two sociologists is that Marx believed that, at their core, humans are creative beings and this expresses itself through work whereas Durkheim described people as “uncivilised beasts” who must be controlled and regulated.

Dahrendorf rejects Marxism as he does not believe that all conflicts can be explained in terms of class and structural changes in industrial societies have occurred not through revolution, but through democracy and negotiations.By Marx’s perspective, the self in a capitalist society is alienated as a result of capitalism, this is similar to Weber’s view of the self in modern society, he describes people as “working cogs”, however, Weber believed that the alienation had little to do with class conflict, but instead, it was a consequence of bureaucracy and the rationalization of social life. Unlike Marx who supported a revolution for change, Weber does not see any escape from this. And he believed that we can only control bureaucracy

Abercrombie, Hill and Turner identify a flaw in Marx’ work – Marx says that a ruling class ideology dominates the working class. However, his argument is based on the assumption that the working class have a common understanding of their exploited position (thus leading them to feel alienated by loss of control) but the working class cannot be both dominated by ruling class ideology and experience a specifically working-class consciousness.

Ted Benton points out the contradiction in Marx’s attitude to nature. Marx wants humans to be unalienated from nature but he argues for humanisation of nature or that nature should be moulded to serve people. It is argued that if we can only be at home in the world based on a transformation of it in line with our intentions, then there is no space is left for a valuing of nature in virtue of its intrinsic qualities? If we can only ‘see ourselves’ in, or identify only with a world which we have created, then what is left of our status as part of nature?

Van der Linden, 1988: 251 states that “Marx’s evaluative conception of human nature in his early writings is not based on any philosophical defence, and so the question arises of what the ground is for the claim that the communist individual will opt for the values embedded in this conception”

Another issue with Marx’ work is that he is interested in power and authority but he views them only as derived from the ownership of property. But power and authority cannot be simply reduced to property. So rather than focusing on the class conflict over property alone, Dahrendorf argues that the study of a social class should be the study of the relations of authority. He states the following: “Classes are social conflict groups the determinant of which can be found in the participation in or exclusion from the exercise of authority within any imperatively coordinated association” and “The general theory of class consists of two analytically separable elements: the theory of class formation and the theory of class action, or class conflict” (1959: 153). He believed that the study of social class from a sociological perspective is the study of the exercise of power in adopting this viewpoint, Dahrendorf is utilising a Weberian theory of power and domination.

Marx supported revolution to overthrow capitalism but it could be argued that even if this was achieved, socialist and communist societies can also separate humans from their species self, and therefore capitalism is not the only system that can be isolating or unfree.





  1. Marx, K. (1844) ‘Alienated Labour’ [taken from Economico-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844], in Kamenka, E. (ed.) (1983) The Portable Karl Marx, New York: Penguin
  2. Giddens, A. (2008) Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  3. Ian Craib (1997) Classical Social Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  4. Lee, D & Newby, H. (1983) The Problem of Sociology. London, Routledge
  5. Lowith (1993) Max Weber and Karl Marx, London: Routledge.
  6. Dahrendorf, R., (1959) Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society, Stanford CA: Stanford University Press.
  7. Alan Swingewood, (1991) A Short History of Sociological Thought x
  8. “Karl Marx Selected Writings” Edited by Lawrence H. Simon, Hackett Publishing Company.
  9. Durkheim, Emile (1997) The Division of Labour in Society. Trans. W. D. Halls, intro. Lewis A. Coser. New York: Free Press.
  10. Weber M (1991) The Protestant Sects and The Spirit of Capitalism
  11. Kymlicka, W. (2001-09-13). 5. Marxism. In Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press
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