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Palinurus: Engaging Political Philosophy

Alex Callinicos: Labour and Alienation

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The oldest argument against socialism—that it is contrary to human

nature—is also the most popular. Socialism is a good idea, people say,

but it will never happen, because you can’t change human nature. Any

attempt to create a society free of poverty, exploitation and violence is

bound to run up against the fact that human beings are naturally selfish,

greedy and aggressive.


The argument presumably goes back to the old Christian concept

of original sin. Man (people who talk about human nature

tend to forget women completely) is a fallen animal, born with the

mark of Cain upon his brow, whose only salvation lies outside this

world in the grace of God. Adam Smith used a secular version of

this argument to explain why the emerging capitalist society of 18th

century Britain was natural and inevitable. He traced the origins of

the market economy to the ‘propensity in human nature…to truck,

barter and exchange’.


These ideas are alive today. Smith’s free market economics lives on

in monetarism. All sorts of ‘scientific’ theories seek to prove that

competition and war are inherent in human nature. The pseudo-science

known as sociobiology claims that human beings are really animals

squabbling over patches of ground. The ramifications of this sort of

idea are endless. It has been used to ‘prove’ that women are naturally

inferior to men, condemned by biology to cook the food, make the

beds and mind the children.


Marx cut across the whole idea of an unchanging human nature in

his sixth ‘Thesis on Feuerbach’, where he declared that ‘Feuerbach

resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man. But the

essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In

its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations’ [CWv 4]. In other

words, there is no such thing as ‘human nature’ in the abstract.

Rather, as society changes, so also do the beliefs, desires and abilities

of men and women. The way people are cannot be separated from the

sort of society in which they live. So in order to understand how people

behave, we must first analyse the historically changing ‘ensemble of

social relations’. ‘My analytic method’, Marx wrote towards the end of

his life, ‘does not proceed from man but from the period of society

given by economics’ [V 217].


Although Marx thus rejected the notion of an unchanging human

nature, he continued to believe that human beings in widely differing

societies share certain things in common. Indeed, it is precisely these

common properties which explain why human societies change, and

with them the beliefs, desires and abilities of the people composing



Marx’s thoughts on the subject were developed at length in the

Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, where he takes over

Feuerbach’s concept of ‘species being’, but gives it a radically different

content. To quote the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ again, ‘The essence of

man…can with him [Feuerbach] be regarded only as “species”, as an

inner, mute, general character which unites the many individuals only

in a general way’ [CWv 8]. For Feuerbach what binds people together

in society is love, the natural and unchanging sentiment which attracts

individuals to each other.


For Marx, however, ‘labour [is] the essence of man’ [CWiii 333]

and the basis of society. Man is a labouring animal. ‘It is just in his

work upon the objective world… that man proves himself to be a

species being. This production is his active species life. Through this

production, nature appears as his work and his reality’ [CWiii 277].


Like the other animals, man is a part of nature, and, like them,

he is motivated by the need to survive, and to reproduce himself.

But what sets human beings apart from other animals is the wide

variety of ways in which human beings can meet their needs. This is

possible because human beings are conscious and self-conscious



The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does

not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes

his life activity itself  the object of his will and of his

consciousness. He has conscious life activity… Conscious

life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life

activity [CWiii 276].


Marx’s point may be made clearer if we borrow an analogy he himself

used on a number of occasions. A beehive is a case of a highly

organised division of labour in which each bee has its allotted task to

fulfil in the hive’s economy. But the bees’ work is repetitive. It has not

changed for many millions of years. What a bee can do is limited in

advance to a very narrow range of activities determined by its genetic



Human beings are not subject to this limitation. They can change,

and improve on, their methods of production. They are able to do

this because of their superior mental equipment. Human beings possess

the power of reflection. They can, in other words, step back from

what they are doing, and compare it with other ways of achieving the

same objective. They can thus criticise and improve on what they are

doing. They can even think up new goals to pursue.


This is why humanity has a history. Natural history is concerned

with discovering what kinds of animals there are, and with studying

their behaviour. Change enters the natural world only when a new

species emerges. Human history, on the other hand, is about the

changing ways in which the same species has organised to meet its



Marx is careful to stress, however, that consciousness is inseparable

from the productive activity in which human beings engage. He

declares in The German Ideology that ‘men can be distinguished from

animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They

themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as

they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is

conditioned by their physical organisation’ [CWv 31].


The proposition that men and women are first and foremost producers

radically challenged basic assumptions about society that had

been accepted by almost all earlier thinkers. Aristotle had defined man

as a rational animal. This definition separates the power to think and

reason from all other activities, and especially from the daily drudgery

of manual work to which most people in history have been condemned.


Aristotle was the product of a slave society. The ruling class of the

ancient world despised manual labour as an activity fit only for their

slaves. (The Roman legal definition of a slave was instrumentum

vocale—a tool that talks.) Aristotle’s image of the good man is that of a

slave owner who, free from the need to work for his living, is able to

pursue the higher things of the mind. The same separation of mental

and manual labour, itself a reflection of the class societies in which

they lived, was made by all the great bourgeois philosophers, from

Descartes to Hegel. All treated the life of the mind as the only important

thing about human beings, and all assumed that someone else

would do the work to provide them with the sordid material goods—

food, clothing, lodging—that they needed in order to pursue the

truth. As Marx wrote, ‘The only labour which Hegel knows and recognises

is abstractly mental labour’ [CWiii 333].


Marx overturned this by treating productive labour as fundamental

to what human beings are. He saw labour as what binds them to

nature. ‘Man liveson nature—means that nature is his body, with

which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die’

[CWiii 275]. And this ‘continuous interchange’ between man and

nature is a two-way process.


Human labour transforms nature. Marx ridiculed the idea of an

unchanging nature as much as he did that of an eternal human

‘species being’. He wrote of Feuerbach:


He does not see that the sensuous world around him is not a

thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same,

but the product of industry and of the state of society, and, indeed

[a product] in the sense that it is a historical product, the result of

the activity of a whole succession of generations, each standing

on the shoulders of the preceding one… Even the objects of the simplest ‘sensuous certainty’ are only given him through social development, industry and commercial development. The cherry

tree, like almost all fruit trees, was, as is well known, only a few centuries ago transplanted by commerce into our zone, and

therefore only by this action of a definite society in a definite age

has it become ‘sensuous certainty’ for Feuerbach [CWv 39].


But the labour of human beings not only transforms nature, it

also alters human beings themselves. Production is, for Marx, a social

activity. He describes labour as involving ‘a twofold relation: on the

one hand as a natural, on the other as a social relation—social in the

sense that it denotes cooperation of several individuals, no matter

under what conditions, in what manner and to what end’ [CWv 43].


If follows that human beings are fundamentally social creatures. It

doesn’t make any sense to conceive of people as existing outside society.

Here Marx was challenging the political economists, who based their

theories on the notion of the individual in isolation from society, and

explained the workings of the capitalist market as arising from the desires

of this ‘natural man’. This view of man as an isolated individual could

easily serve to justify capitalist society, based as it is on what Hobbes called

‘the war of all against all’, the constant struggle for power and wealth.


Marx called these fantasies ‘Robinsonades’, because they viewed

people as if they were like Robinson Crusoe on his island. ‘In this

society of free competition, the individual appears detached from the

natural bonds, etc, which in earlier historical periods make him the

accessory of a definite and limited human conglomerate’ [G 83].


But this is only an appearance:


The human being is in the most literal sense a zoon politikon

[an animal which lives in communities], not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst

of society. Production by an isolated individual outside society…

is as much of an absurdity as is the development of language

without human beings living together and talking to each other [G 84].


If production is the most fundamental human activity, it follows

that when we analyse society, we should give most attention to the way

in which production is organised. Thus Marx concentrates his attention

on the ‘social relations of production’, the exploitative relationship

between lord and serf or capitalist and worker.


If production is a social activity, then it follows that changes in the

organisation of production will bring about changes in society, and therefore,

since ‘the essence of man is the ensemble of the social relations’,

changes also in people’s beliefs, desires and conduct. This is the core of

Marx’s materialist conception of history, the mature version of which we

shall consider in the next chapter. Here let us take a brief look at Marx’s

first sketch of historical materialism, in the Economic and Philosophic

Manuscripts of 1844, since it is closely related to his criticisms of Hegel

and Feuerbach, and so to how he saw his own analytical method.


For both Hegel and Feuerbach, alienation is a purely intellectual

phenomenon, the result of seeing the world in a certain mistaken way.

But Marx considered alienation to be a material and social process.

Under capitalist society, the worker is compelled to sell his strength

and his skills to the capitalist. As a result he controls neither the products

of his labour, nor his labour itself. What should be his ‘life activity’,

through which he affirms his humanity, or ‘species being’,

becomes a mere means to an end. And because he has thus become

alienated from his own human nature, the worker is also alienated

from nature, for it is through labour that he transforms nature, and

thus humanises it, and he is also alienated from other human beings.

This condition of alienated labour gives rise to the relationship

between worker and capitalist, in which a non-worker controls, and

profits from, the labour of others.


Capitalism, for Marx, is a world in which the worker is dominated by

the products of his labour, which have taken on the shape of an alien

being, capital. This vision, so powerfully developed in the 1844 Manuscripts,

is to be found in Marx’s later writings, including Capital. But his

analysis of alienated labour still bears the marks of his philosophical past.


In the first place, everything is built about the contrast between

human nature as it is—debased, distorted, alienated—and as it should be.

In the Manuscripts, capitalism is still primarily an unnatural society, the

‘social hell’ which Fourier and the other Utopians had denounced for its

failure to fulfil human beings’ genuine needs.


Such a primarily moral diagnosis of the weaknesses of capitalist

society is an essential part of any socialist theory. But what would distinguish

Marx’s later writings from those of earlier socialists was his

analysis of the way in which capitalism creates the material and social

conditions of its overthrow. Marx is not yet in the Manuscripts really

concerned with what he would call in Capital ‘the economic law of

motion of modern society’ [Ci 92], but primarily with showing how

capitalism denies human nature.


Again, it is true that the class struggle is seriously considered by

Marx for the first time here. The first of the Manuscripts begins with

the words, ‘ Wages are determined through the antagonistic struggle

between capitalist and worker’ [CWiii 235]. Nevertheless, there is

no real discussion of how the class struggle plays a crucial role in

both the development and the overthrow of capitalism. Communism

figures still in the Manuscripts as a philosophical category, as

the goal from which the whole of history takes its meaning. Marx

calls it ‘the riddle of history solved’ [CWiii 297]. The influence of

Hegel’s circular dialectic, in which the outcome of history, the reconciliation

of contradictions in Absolute Spirit, is determined from

the outset, is still strong.


These philosophical traces have their political effects. One implication

of the analysis of alienated labour is that the capitalists are themselves

alienated, themselves condemned to live a less than human,

debased existence. This sort of argument had been used by the Utopian

socialists to justify appealing to capitalists as well as workers, arguing that

they too stood to benefit from the overthrow of bourgeois society.


These philosophical traces have their political effects. One implication

of the analysis of alienated labour is that the capitalists are themselves

alienated, themselves condemned to live a less than human,

debased existence. This sort of argument had been used by the Utopian

socialists to justify appealing to capitalists as well as workers, arguing that

they too stood to benefit from the overthrow of bourgeois society.



What Engels said in 1892 of his own early writings is true of Marx’s

Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:


Modern international socialism…did not exist in 1844. My book represents one of the phases of its embryonic development; and

as the human embryo, in its early stages, still reproduces the gill arches of our fish ancestors, so this book exhibits everywhere the traces of the descent of modern socialism from one of its ancestors, German philosophy. Thus great stress is laid on the dictum that communism is not a mere party doctrine of the working class, but a theory encompassing the emancipation of society at large, including the capitalist class, from its present narrow conditions. This is true enough in the abstract, but absolutely useless, and sometimes worse, in practice. So long as the wealthy classes not only do not feel the want of any emancipation, but strenuously oppose the self-emancipation of the working class, so long the social revolution will have to be prepared and fought out by the working class alone [Swiii 444].


In later works, The German Ideology, The Poverty of Philosophy,

Capital and its drafts, Marx fully developed his theory of history, and

showed how capitalist exploitation forces workers to organise collectively

for its overthrow. The analysis of alienated labour in the 1844

Manuscripts is, as Engels says, an embryo of that later, mature theory.




C   Marx, Capital: i (Harmondsworth, 1976), ii (Moscow, 1956),

iii (Moscow, 1971).


CW   Marx and Engels, Collected Works, 50 vols., published or in

preparation (London, 1975- ).


G   Marx, Grundrisse (Harmondsworth, 1973).


SW   Marx and Engels, Selected Works, 3 vols (Moscow, 1973).


V   Value: Studies by Marx (London, 1976).



Excerpt from The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (London: Bookmarks, 2004), pp. 65-71.