by Will

Background to the 1844 Manuscripts

Some of us around Gathering Forces are reading a selection from The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 by Karl Marx. We should be careful not see this document as just a brilliant piece of writing coming from a solitary brain of an intellectual giant. Instead this writing is a powerful product of its time with all sorts of issues and events shaping its coming together. Four things which stand out in shaping this document are: a) Marx was breaking from Hegel who thought history moved through a world spirit and alienation was only mental. b) Marx was heavily influenced by the working class and specifically the Silesian weavers uprising in Germany. This was an important moment for Marx has it continued to propel him to break from bourgeois radicalism and left-wing Hegelianism. He saw that the movement of history was the process of production, that it was materially located in the working class. So two things are solved in this piece: alienation’s material dimension and the labor process as the central thread of human history. What placing the labor process as central to human history meant was that by only solving the contradictions in how humans work can we hope to build a radically new society. Or as Raya says, “He began with the proletarian activity at the point of production. He separated labor from product and from property, and looked for the contradiction within labor itself. It is through this contradiction that the laborer would develop, that is, would overcome the contradictions in the capitalist method of production (Marxism and Freedom, 55).” c) Marx was separating himself from the various dimensions of French socialism. It’s a big list so I won’t go into it here but folks can look up Utopian Socialism, Auguste Blanque, and Proudhon to get a sense of what I mean. d) He was using British political economy as a basis for his critique of political economy.

There is a trajectory of Marx’s writings which kinda shows his development in these years: Philosophy of Right where Marx says that ideas are not the subject of history, but humans/ society. At this point things are still very general in the way Marx is working things out. In On the Jewish Question, Marx writes how human emancipation is the liberation from the powers of money. And the latter is based on the existence of private property. So we see more clarification. While Marx was in Paris and surrounded by working class militants, he wrote Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, where he proclaims a new class has stepped onto the stage of history which can abolish private property: the working class! From here Marx went onto study more political economy which meant England, Adam Smith, Ricardo etc.

In Marx’s own words, “My investigation led to the conclusion that legal relations such as forms of state are to be grasped neither from themselves nor from the so-called general development of the human mind, but rather have their roots in the material conditions of life, the sum total of which Hegel, in accordance with the procedure of the Englishmen and Frenchmen of the eighteenth century, cominbed under the name of ‘civil society,’ but that the anatomy of civil society is to be sought in political economy (Economic and Philosophic Manscuripts of 1844, 22).

Marx read Frederick Engel’s writings in a journal which slammed political economy. He also read works by a guy called Moses Hess. What is interesting about Hess is that he argued for a philosophy of action. He believed that only through struggle can human beings reach self-consciousness and fulfill the potentials of their species-being. We see how various events, thinkers, and struggles shaped Marx. So many of the ideas which we consider to be Marxism were kinda floating around in different countries, different movements, and in different peoples’ heads. Marx brings them together, but in a way which no one had done before, creating a whole new framework for looking at ourselves and the world.

So in terms of what Marx is doing in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, we need to remember that Marx broke with Hegel and uses Ricardo and Smith to arrive at a new understanding of labor. What was important about Ricardo and Smith is that they too argued that wealth comes from labor! But they had nothing to say about the dehumanizing and horrible effects of capitalist forms of work and private property. Marx takes the viewpoint of the working class and says what does the world look like from there! So from there the basic structure of the book is revealed. Marx says look the worker’s labor is the source of wealth, but the workers are forced to share their wealth with the capitalists and the landlords. This leads to all kinds of estrangement. And while the estrangement of labor developed private property, the development of private property revealed the real basis of labor’s estrangement—private property. Marx writes, “Private property thus results by analysis from the concept of alienated labor, i.e., of alienated man, of estranged labor, of estranged life, of estranged man” (1844 Manuscripts, 117). What this shows is one of Marx’s key methods which is that the internal contradictions of labor become externalized into private property. That is why we can say that the alienation of the laborer results in private property: labor-power against capital.


The idea of estrangement or alienation has its own history. In terms of religion (to be Christian centric) alienation is found in the idea of falling from grace/ or the fall of humankind. When people say we have parted from the ways of God. Another way alienation has come up is the complaint of theologians and others in complaining that everything is becoming property or sellable. So Thomas Munzer complained, “that every creature should be transformed into property” (Meszaros 33). “The complications, at an earlier stage, were of an “external”, political nature, manifest in the taboos and prohibitions of feudal society which declared things to be “inalienable” (Meszaros 34). For a good definition of alienation it could be seen as “selling is the practice of alienation” (Maszaros 34). The rising bourgeoisie in general saw this as a positive development because it meant you can sell land, hats, rivers etc and most importantly purchase labor-power from a worker. So alienation was generally looked at only from a positive side. But as the crappiness of capitalism suck in and revolts in factories took place, another conception of alienation took shape.

Out of this we can try to take a leap into understanding a more complex set of relations, which are key and show the power of the concept of alienation. “Alienation is therefore characterized by the universal extension of “sale-ability” (i.e. the transformation of everything into commodity); by the conversion of human beings into “things” so that they could appear as commodities on the market (in other words: the “reification” of human relations); and by the fragmentation of the social body into “isolated individuals”…” (Maszaros 35). Or as I like to think of it, we just lose control of our lives, but to understand why, we have to enter the realm of the labor process!

In the chapter on Estranged Labor, in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 Marx breaks from Hegel, classical political economy (Ricardo and Smith) and Feuerbachian materialism. Here is how we breaks with them in the following ways a) for Hegel consciousness was key and for Marx it was the alienation of labor b) for classical political economy the worker was central to production but ends up with nothing and Marx demolishes the political economists for not explaining why and c) he takes Feuerbach’s concept of humankind’s alienation of himself in religion and applies that to humankind’s alienation of himself in the product of his labor and also how the workers’ labor is praxis.

Why is estranged labor so important and revolutionary? The basic premise is that no matter how much capitalism pays a worker, no matter the retirement benefits, or whether the state owns means of production; labor alienates itself (Will explain below.) All of the earlier points mentioned, have been the basis for many revolutionaries to proclaim the working class is bought off or that some type of socialism/ communist society has been setup. But as long as labor is alienated, as defined in Estranged Labor, capitalism exists and only with the end of alienated labor can we begin to talk about the end of capitalism.

The Class Basis of Political Economy

Marx outlines why political economy is a bourgeois science. Political economy takes private property for granted. It cannot see the transitory nature of private property. Furthermore, political economy does not historicize capitalism and accepts the categories of wage, profit, and interest as eternal. It sees relations of the worker to commodity as simply that, instead of relationships determined by humankind. Political economy represents the viewpoint of the bourgeoisie. This is why revolutionaries are not political economists and instead conduct a critique of political economy.

The Objectification of Labor

“This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor, which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification” (1844 Manuscripts, 108). This is vital to understanding capitalism and how the labor power of the worker comes to dominate the worker. Another way of saying what commodities are, the tools a worker uses, and even capital, is objectified labor. So it is not absurd to say that under capitalism past labor dominates labor (the worker).

The workers’ labor power creates social conditions, which are against the worker. The economics and organization of capitalist society are beyond the control of the working class under capitalism. When recessions happen the worker is laid off and is powerless. When productivity of the worker increases, the worker has to work according to the dictates of a machine (past objectified labor) and/or supervisor. The worker can quit their job but will find only unemployment. When productivity increases in certain sectors the value of the worker actually falls, which means the capitalists can give the worker less in wages. More generally it means it costs the capitalists less to reproduce the worker and the extra savings go into the pocket of the capitalist and not the worker. All of these are aspects of the domination of objectified labor power over the worker. There is no reason for this to happen, but under capitalism there is no other way. In this way the workers’ life is not controlled by the worker, but by capital.

This same passage has Marx discussing the objectification of labor. This is another way of saying that when the worker works on an object eventually making a shoe, that labor becomes congealed/ concentrated into the shoe. It is now something beyond the control of the worker. It stands against/ opposed to the worker. The workers’ objectified labor will only be enjoyed by someone else that the worker does not know. The workers’ product is owned by the capitalist. The worker does not get to choose how to dispose it. Whether the shoe will sell or not is completely out of the control of the worker. But at the same time its sellability determines whether the worker will have a job in the future. Other capitalists are trying to get their own workers to work harder or be more productive so they can sell shoes for cheaper. If they succeed then all workers will have to produce shoes at the new rate or face the shutting down of factories/ unemployment.

There is also the question of what kind of objective political-economy this creates which dominates everything, which has its own laws/ tendencies, which is inescapable etc etc.

We can ask what is the relationship of the objectification of labor and its estrangement?

Workers’ alienation from nature

So Marx is saying that labor is useless without things from nature to work on. You cannot work on empty space. But even more essentially nature provides the means of life in terms of food, water, and air. The irony of capitalism is that as productivity increases, the worker loses ownership of what he produces and that the worker’s labor directly has less-and-less to do with the reproduction of the worker’s own life. For example, a small number of workers at a peanut butter factory for example use a lot of machines to transform peanuts into peanut butter. So there is a lot of objectified labor in the machines and some in the peanut butter. The worker does not own a farm where the peanuts come from, or the river, which feeds the farm, and definitely not the peanut butter where the worker’s labor is congealed etc etc. The worker owns their labor-power and little else. Even if the worker owned the peanut butter, the worker cannot live off the peanut butter alone. It has to be sold. But this is completely hypothetical since workers do not own what they produce anyway. But what it shows is that by the immense division of labor in capitalist society workers do not produce things for themselves and nor can they. They produce things for strangers through the market. The worker is a slave to the object the worker creates.

This has huge impacts on the ecological question. How we produce is part of the ecological crisis because our production is an extension of a continuum of our relationship to nature. But the “our” is also nature so it is nature acting on nature.

Workers’ alienation from the workers’ products
Workers do not control what happens to their products but instead the products determine what happens to workers. It is from here that Marx jumps to saying that the labor process itself must involve alienation, “If then the product of labor is alienation, production itself must be active alienation, the alienation of activity…” 110.

Workers alienation from the labor process

110 The fact that workers do not choose how the production is organized is an alienating process. Workers do not freely choose to work, but must work or else starve. (Try feeding yourself without working! There is real violent/ coercion going on!) Worst of all the labor of a worker is not their own, but the property of the capitalists. That is what the wage represents.
Marx does something interesting here in this part of the discussion: “First, the fact that labor is external to the worker… The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home. His labor is therefore (emphasis added)not voluntary by coerced; it is forced labor.”
This is different from saying that labor is coerced/forced and therefore then the worker is outside himself, etc. in Marx’s dialectical method “forced labor” is a category that emerges only through a contradictory relationship; here too, Marx is exploring this concept of “externality” as something that emerges from an internal antagonism, i.e., the worker to their own creative power.

The workers’ estrangement from the species being

Human kinds’ (species being) activity is reproduction of the conditions of our life. Things like food, clothes and shelter etc are what make up this reproduction at a minimum. The production of these things is integrally tied to nature and as human kind is part of a continuum of nature, our alienation from nature, from the most important activity our species being does, estranges ourselves from the fundamental purposes of our species being. The purpose of our lives is to enjoy our relationship to nature, to enjoy the work process, to control what we make, to enjoy making things for other people, but under capitalism none of this is possible. Marx says that in theory we have the potential to live upto our species beings, an advantage granted to us by nature/ evolution, but under capitalism we lose that advantage.

“Estrangement of man from man”

Since the worker is estranged from the species being it also means that workers are estranged from other workers. (Marx could have gone more into how estrangement of workers from each other looked like.)

Marx goes onto ask if workers do not own their labor, what they produce etc, then who owns it? Marx answers with, “The alien being, to whom labor and the product of labor belongs, in whose service labor is done and for whose benefit the product of labor is provided, can only be man himself.” 115

“The relationship of the worker to labor creates the relation to it of the capitalist.” 116 Marx goes onto say that private property is the result of alienated labor. We also get a chance to see how Marx thinks when he says that the movement of private property helped in the theoretical understanding of alienated labor, in the real world it is alienated labor which leads to private property. There is a significant difference in this, but it reveals the objective process of history and at the same time Marx’s method.

Marx makes a comment about higher wages, “there be nothing but better payment for the slave…” 118
In Marxism and Freedom Raya writes, “To Marx, private property is the power to dispose of the labor of others. That is why he so adamantly insisted that to make ‘society’ the owner, but to leave the alienated labor alone, is to create “ an abstract capitalism.” 62 In the second sentence Raya is referencing that Russian communism=state capitalism. That when society supposedly (according to Stalin or Trotsky) owns the means of production, alienated labor is not touched. For Marx “freely associated individuals” must become the masters of society 62.

The worker produces commodities on an unimaginable scale. These commodities take on a life of their own in the work process. The workers have to work according to the needs of the machine. Alienation sucks! Time to overthrow capitalism!

Referenced works

Marx’s Theory of Alienation by Istvan Mesazaros
Philosophy and Revolution by Raya
Marxism and Freedom by Raya
Grundrisse by Karl Marx
Alienation by Bertell Ollman
Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value by I.I. Rubin
Dialectics of Labour by C.J. Arthur

9 thoughts on “When we lose control of our labor power

  1. Will, this post really captures what I most love about Marx’s thinking: the creative and dynamic ways that he took many of the ideas of his time and synthesized them into this organic, fluid understanding of history, power, and human activity. You do a great job of summarizing this stuff (though with some confusing formatting in places), and you really got my mind working.

    Some thoughts:

    -Thinking about globalization and the objectification of labor, it’s really interesting to think about how the market relationship between worker and consumer is also an objectified human relationship between workers. For example, when working class people in the U.S. use an I-Pod or drink coffee, we are literally engaging in a relationship with a chain of other people who have put their labor power, their time, their human capacity into that product. It is–to use a great quote you gave–like a congealed conversation across time and space. Though this shows the power of global capitalism to dictate the ways that we relate to each other, I think it also could be turned on its head in some cool ways through internationalist revolutionary movement building.

    -This post really reminds me of how mistaken many anarchists and anti-authoritarians (including myself at times) are when we dismiss Marx or Marxism. Though I side with Bakunin in his debates with Marx in the First International, even Bakunin agreed with Marx on political economy. It’s in Marx’s strategies, and especially later with Marxism-Leninism where everything goes south, in my view. What do you think about the strategy side of Marx’s thinking?

    -One problem that I consistently have with Marxism is in its common insistence on labor as the motive force in history, rather than on a more broad collection of conscious human activities (including intimacy, community, spirituality, play). See, when you start trying to apply this stuff to relationships of patriarchy, of heterosexism, of racism and imperialism, I think the theory gets stretched to the point of clumsiness. I think all of these systems have been motive forces in history and have often taken capitalism in unpredictable (and inefficient) directions, yet I don’t think they can be fully explained within the logic of capitalism. Patriarchy, for example, is not a working class/capitalist relationship and its not primarily a labor relationship, in my opinion. What do you think about this?

    -Another question I often have with Marxist political economy is what about labor related to ideas or human services? How is the objectification of this labor different, and how do workers’ relationships/alienation from the products of their labor different. Because the human services are fleeting (think entertainers or sales people, I guess) and the ideas actually stick with the worker and do kind of maintain themselves as their property.

    Looking forward to what other people think. I hope folks are enjoying the Marxism reading group!

  2. What it do Jeremy,

    I am in a U&S study group at the moment and wanted to share some thoughts on this question you posed above:

    “-One problem that I consistently have with Marxism is in its common insistence on labor as the motive force in history, rather than on a more broad collection of conscious human activities (including intimacy, community, spirituality, play). See, when you start trying to apply this stuff to relationships of patriarchy, of heterosexism, of racism and imperialism, I think the theory gets stretched to the point of clumsiness. I think all of these systems have been motive forces in history and have often taken capitalism in unpredictable (and inefficient) directions, yet I don’t think they can be fully explained within the logic of capitalism. Patriarchy, for example, is not a working class/capitalist relationship and it’s not primarily a labor relationship, in my opinion. What do you think about this?”

    I am still learning a great deal about Marx and it was hard for me initially to fully grasp why labor is so central to his analysis. But, in reading and discussing different writings by Marx (and others) I have learned that those conscious human activities you mentioned (intimacy, play, community, etc.) are indeed inseparable from our “species being” as Marx would call it, or free, creative labor. The examples you gave of being intimate with our partners, creating art/music, or playing games with one another are instances of when we are expressing our labor freely. I would even say that some of the best manifestations of our creative labor are when people use it to rebel against capitalism. To me this can be people’s expression through hip hop music or prison strikes like the ones we just saw happen in Georgia. All these things have expanded my understanding of what people have traditionally defined as labor beyond just work in a factory.

    To talk a little now about how other forms of oppression such as patriarchy and racism are bound up in the production of labor I would like to quote Marx from Vol. 1 of Capital when he wrote, “Manufacture… develops a hierarchy of labour powers, to which there corresponds a scale of wages. If, on the one hand, he individual labourers are appropriated and annexed for life by a limited function; on the other hand, the various operations of the hierarchy are parceled out among the labourers according to both their natural and their acquired capabilities.”

    Here in these pair of sentences Marx has laid out how sexism and racism are deeply connected to labor production and how the wage has in fact hidden the exploitation of the unwaged. In Sex, Race, and Class, Selma James explains it beautifully when she writes, “A hierarchy of labour power and scale of wages to correspond. Racism and sexism training us to develop and acquire certain capabilities at the expense of all others. Then these acquired capabilities are taken to be our nature and fix our functions for life, and fix also the quality of our mutual relations. So planting can or tea is not a job for white people and changing nappies is not a job for men and beating children is not violence. Race, sex, age, nation, each an indispensible element of the international division of labour.”

    So, we see how sex and race are inseparable from capital and are used to divide and weaken working class people. Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems like you view capitalism as an individual hierarchy or oppression amongst others, no? I think to view capitalism as an entity separate of the working class ignores how thoroughly society has been shaped by and for capital in the reproduction, maintenance, and usage of the working class in labor production. I have learned that it is us as working class people who are the unpredictable force that capital tries so hard to beat back in our rebellion to the sexism, homophobia, racism, etc. that it uses to divide us.

    I am still working to understand a lot of this, so I hope my response has been coherent and feel free to correct me or add on anywhere.

    Much love!!

  3. I like early marx, but I think the alienation stuff is a mixed bag. Marx describes an economic relation, and calls it alienation. Its a useful concept, but I think it adds unnecessary confusion. In our time people are used to alienation related to social life under capitalism. Some of that is derived from not having ownership over the product of your labors, but much of not (or only extremely indirectly).

    Similar to the facing reality crew’s take on race and gender, I think we should be careful not to try to economize all social relationships. I think many prior marxists were motivated by trying to bring those concepts into the marxist fold, and so try to blow up the economy to accommodate them. Still alienation as we experience it is better described not in terms of not having ownership over the products of our labor, but in terms of our position within our roles in terms of power, autonomy, and forced atomization. Obviously not independent from the economy, but less to do with ownership than other elements.

  4. Wow, great conversation. I especially appreciate jeremy’s comments and parcer’s response!! I wanted to bring up a conversation had with will and another comrade the other night. What are the limits of Marx today in thinking about the divide between lumpen, laborers at the point of production, and the increasing intellectual labor in colleges and universities today? Many university people have claimed that adjuncts, etc, are precarious labor, making low-wages without health care, and are therefore part of the working class. While I agree to some degree, a more strategic and real interpretation might be that yes, this is true, and academic workers need to fight like workers at the point of production, but we’re NOT really. I realize this may be controversial, but thinking strategically in terms of building struggle, the reality is many of us who have been in school and non-profits our whole adult lives will never really prolentarianize. With a resume full of school and non-profit, it is unlikely we will get a factory job. Something like home care and CNA is different, and people proletarianizing in this way should speak to it more. But for those of us who aren’t, can we think about a recomposition of working class struggle along the lines of our proximity to working class people and communities who either attend the community colleges and universities where we teach, or the communities those schools are in? In NYC, a number of schools are in poor black and brown neighborhoods. This is as a result of historical struggle of these communities to have access to higher education in these places Right now, cc’s in NYC are 85% poc. There is also a 3,000 wait list, and tuition is increasing. Meanwhile, 50% of high school students in NYC don’t graduate. Can we use our leverage in educational institutions to build broader working class milieu’s with our students and their families, not JUST as mentors, but struggling alongside? There are problems with this; many people have no access to colleges themselves. We have talked a lot about this in larger universities, but the conversation on community colleges has been relatively limited. I would love to hear from people at Laney SUP, and other schools. Is it a reframing of our labor struggles not being central, but instead building fighting orgs based in working class urban and rural communities where community colleges are? There are some youth outside baltimore working on this too; would love to hear comments.

    These are just some broad strokes ideas; I hope people can fill in.

  5. Also, I realize this may seem like an argument for leveraging privelege, etc. That is not at all the argument I am making, though I think there is some room for it. More, I am talking about how to understand this moment of recomposition of industrailization, the difficulty in getting working class jobs for everyone, and the increasing role of colleges in redefining and materalizing class social relations.

  6. CG, I think I agree with the politics of the point you’re making and the practices that would go with it but I don’t think you need the claim about adjuncts being working class or not to get there. I also just don’t get what the criteria here are for counting as working class.

    Beyond that, on the early Marx, I have mixed feelings. I think it’s powerful writing and is definitely worth reading, it’s a big part of how I got into Marx in the first place. I’m not sure how much light it sheds though, and I think there are a lot of points of purchase in that work for serious mistakes. I think part of this is about what Marx is for. In my view, Marx is primarily for providing a critical account of capitalism that rejects it in the name of human freedom. I think v1 of Capital is indispensable for that. I think the early Marx is useful for laying out some of Marx’s notion of human freedom, but I’m not sure how much we need his notion of freedom in order to take up his criticisms of capitalism.
    happy new year,

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