Marx won September’s vote on BBC News Online poll as the greatest
thinker of the millennium. Although dictatorships, such as Russian
Communists, have distorted his original ideas, as a philosopher, a
revolutionary, social scientist, and a historian, he is respected by
academics. This paper will study two major concepts of
Marxism—historical materialism and alienation. These concepts have been
controversial and misunderstood; however, it is worthwhile to re-examine
Marx’s thought and develop a better understanding of them.
Before discussing Marx’s concepts of historical materialism and
alienation, it is helpful to examine his concept of the human being.
Marx places human beings at the center of his thinking. For Marx, human
beings live in a given society and class and yet are able to liberate
themselves, and better know their potentialities. Human beings are
distinguished from animals because of creativity, vitality and energy, which
are supposed to be the forces of movement. Human beings make history
and they are their own creators. Marx believes that human beings have
human nature, which is different from that of other animals. Fromm
observes that human nature has two types of human drives: the constant
drives, such as hunger and the sexual urge; and relative drives, such as
economic gain. Human beings are history creators, at the same time, as
they develop and transform themselves. According to Fromm, “History is
the history of man’s self-realization; it is nothing but the self-creation of
man through the process of his work and his production” (Fromm, p. 26).
Marx looks at human beings as creative beings, who shape the outside
world and express specific human powers. Marx himself, who represented
his very concept of man, was a productive, non-alienated and independent
man. He was what he thought. As he said, “nothing human is alien
to me” (p. 82). As a humanist, nothing was more attractive to him than
human beings themselves. He loved human beings and was deeply concerned
for them and their future. As a true man, he had an uncompromising
sense of truth. He had never been taken in by the false surface, and he was
always stimulated. In contrast to Darwin, who believes that the
evolution of species is by natural selection, Marx places human beings as the
center of his thinking and believes that they are the creators of
history. He presumes that human beings are self-creative and are able
to develop their own human potentialities, dignity and brotherhood to
emancipate themselves. Marx states, “A being does not regard
himself as independent unless he is his own master, and he is only his own master
when he owes his existence to himself” (p. 37). Human beings can become
free by choosing to do activities under his will without being enslaved and
alienated. Marx believes that human beings should not pursue one
occupation for their whole life, they should be able to “do one thing to-day
and another to-morrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear
cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner” (p. 206). For Marx, an
ideal society should provide the individuals who live within it to completely
develop their potentialities through different ways.
Marx believes that the totality of human beings is universal, natural and
social. Ultimately, human beings are at the center in the development of
history. The concept of historical materialism is his unique notion of
the human species’ historical development.
For Marx, the concept of materialism is “the
study of the real economic and social life of man and of the influence of
man’s actual way of life on this thinking and feeling” (p. 9).
He believes that human beings in history are real and creative, who “enter
into definite necessary relations which are independent off their will” (p.
217). Historical materialism is not the way
that human beings gain money and have more material comfort neither the
material desires to gain satisfaction. It is the way that human beings
produce that determines their thinking and desires. Marx further
explains his concept of materialism. It means the material base of
human living activities; also, it is a way of living, a life process. Human
beings’ thinking and ideology—politics, law, religion, art, science, etc. are
reflected in their life activities. This is why Marx emphasizes that
“life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” (p.
198). Furthermore, he points out that human beings are social because
they cannot live without interaction with other people; they cannot be
isolated from the society. Human beings can develop their
potentialities and accomplish their achievements only in the society in which
they are living.
It is necessary to examine the history of human beings to understand
Marx’s concept of materialism. The first premise is that human beings
are able to create history. Since they are living human individuals,
they need eating, drinking, a home and clothing and many other things to
sustain their lives. Thus, the first historical act is to produce
materials to satisfy these needs and to establish the relation to the rest of
nature. This is the basic condition of all history. Then, the
history moves to the second fundamental point, which is that once the needs
are satisfied, new needs are created. Since human nature is flexible
and changes all the time, human beings have to create more materials to satisfy
themselves. The third circumstance is that human beings not only make
their own lives but also begin to make others, i.e., getting married and
having children, at the same time, they build the relations between man and
wife, parents and children. This relationship within the family is the
base of social relations from which social relationship starts. These
three stages of history do not happen separately; instead, they exist
simultaneously at the beginning of history and interweave with each other.
Marx goes further to explain human history more concretely. He
indicates that human beings are social beings, not isolated individuals.
Their activities manifest their relationship with nature and the society in
which they are living. Here he focuses on social relations. He
said, “By social we understand the co-operation of several individuals, no
matter under what conditions, in which manner and to what end. It
follows from this that a certain mode of production, or industrial stage, is always
combined with a certain mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode
of co-operation is itself a ‘productive force’” (p. 202). Obviously,
there exists a material connection within human beings, which is determined
by their needs and the means of production. This connection presents a
history that is based on human beings’ economic activities, different from
the political and religious ones.
Based on the material life, human beings further develop and process
consciousness, which is considered the fourth aspect of the fundamental
historical relationship. “Consciousness is at first… merely
consciousness concerning the immediate sensuous environment and consciousness
of the limited connection with other persons and things outside the
individual who is growing self-conscious” (p. 201). The animal has no
consciousness; therefore, they do not have relations with anything and cannot
create their social life. However, human beings can develop social
consciousness. Through relationships within the society in which they live,
they create more needs and increase productivity. From these develops
the division of labor. At the beginning, division of labor was in the
sexual act, and then it naturally develops in material and mental
labor. Starting from here, the division of labor creates contradiction
and antagonism within two polar sides—wife (as slave) and husband in the
family, individuals and state, ruling class and ruled class. Human
beings thus become alienated.
For Marx, the history is neither a collection of dead facts, nor an imagined
world; rather, it is the active and real life-process of human
individuals. They live in the actual, empirically perceivable world
under specific social conditions. In the development of history, how do
they create, modify and continue history? Marx gives us a concrete
explanation. He says that
History is nothing but the succession of the separate generations, each of
which he exploits the materials, the forms of capital, the productive forces
handed down to it by all preceding ones, and thus on the one hand continues
the traditional activity in completely changed circumstances and, on the
other modifies the old circumstances with a completely changed activity (p.
He disagrees that history is made by a goal or special aim, such as the
discovery of America. It is not real history since it excludes human
beings’ real life. Marx further justifies that the development of
world-history counts on the mode of production—the material base. For
instance, a machine invented in England influences the economic conditions of
workers in India; the lack of sugar and coffee proves their importance by
initiating Wars of Liberation of 1813. The facts tell us that the
concrete material act, not only self-consciousness, changes the world. “It
show that circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances” (GI,
The activity in which human beings engage is sustaining their lives.
The formation of human beings’ ideas is interwoven with the material activity
and the material relationship with others. Such activities then
generate means of production and social relationships. “In the social
production of their means of existence men enter into definite, necessary
relations which are independent of their will, productive relationships which
correspond to a definite state of development of their material productive
forces” (p. 217). The productive forces grow within the context of
increasingly outdated relations of production. The contradiction
between productive forces and the existing production relationship causes
social revolution. A new established production relation replaces on
outdated form. This is the development of history of human beings in a
For Marx, human beings’ history, including the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and
modern bourgeois modes of production, are full of antagonism and struggle,
which arise from the conditions of the social life of individuals and the
productive forces developing within the society. Marx believes that the
capitalist society is at the peak of antagonism. Human beings should be able
to find the solution and start to create their own history.
In the following section, we will discuss Marx’s another important
concept—alienation, which is so important that, even today, some feminists
take it as the theoretical base of their argument.
Marx’s concept of alienation is based on his analysis of alienated
labor. Through political economy, he sees that the worker is degraded
to the most miserable commodity, i.e., the misery of the workers increases
with the power and size of their production. Marx depicts political economy
as the following:
The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces and the
more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes
an ever cheaper commodity the more goods he creates. The devaluation of
the human world increases in direct relation with the increase in value of
the world of things. Labor does not only create goods; it also produces
itself and the worker as a commodity, and indeed in the same proportion as it
produces goods (p. 95).
Consequently, the workers relate to the product of their labor as to an alien
object. For it is clear on this presupposition that “the more the
worker expends himself in work the more powerful becomes the world of objects
which he creates in face of himself, the poorer he becomes in his inner life,
and the less he belongs to himself” (p. 96). Under the laws of
political economy, the more the workers produce, the less they have to
consume, thus the more values they create the more valueless and worthless
they become. It is understandable that labor produces works of wonder
for the rich, but nakedness for the worker. It produces palaces, but
only hovels for the worker; it produces beauty, but cripples the worker.
Marx explains four forms of alienated labor. First, it is the
alienation of the product from the laborer. Marx points out that the
alienation of workers from their product means that the labor becomes an
object, an external thing, which is outside self and alien to them. The
effort they make for the object becomes hostile to them. Furthermore, the
laborer becomes a slave of the object, existing only as a worker and as a
physical subject. If the products of labor do not belong to the
workers, but confront them as an alien power, this can only be because it
belongs to a person other than the worker. “The objects of his own work
become alien beings, and eventually rule over him, become powers independent
of the producer.” (p.48). Based on the economic fact, Marx observes
The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces and the more his
product increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever
cheaper commodity the more goods he creates. The devaluation of the
human world increases in direct relation with the increase in value of the
world of things” (p. 95).
Secondly, there is the alienation of the worker from the process of
labor. Since the product does not belong to the workers, they cannot
find achievement in their work; therefore they deny themselves. When
they are working, they feel miserable instead of happy. They feel at
home only during their leisure time, while at work they feel homeless.
Work is not a voluntary but compelled labor. They cannot work to
satisfy themselves, instead they work for others’ needs. It is not
their work but someone else’s work; thus, the workers do not belong to
themselves but to other people. Consequently, the relationship of the
workers to their activities is alien. Here he shows some contradiction:
activity as suffering, strength as powerlessness, creation as weakness.
Since the alien object dominates the workers, they become powerless and
hostile to external world, in the meantime they lose imagination and
creativity in the objects, which they work on.
The third form is that alienated labor alienates itself from species
being. Human beings are species-beings not only because they live with
nature, but also because they look at themselves as living species, as
universal and free beings. However, alienated labor takes away their
species’ life. Since it transforms free and self-directed activity into
a means to life, it transforms the species’ life of human beings into a means
of physical existence. Marx states, “Alienated labor turns the species
life of man, and also nature as his mental species-property, into an alien
being and into a means for his individual existence. It alienates from
man his own body, external nature, his mantel life and his human life”
The fourth form is that alienated labor alienates the self from other
Alienated labor alienates the product and process of labor, and its species
resulting the alienation from workers themselves, from their fellows and from
nature. According to Marx,
A direct consequence of the alienation of man from the product of his labor,
from his life activity and from his species life is that man is alienated
from other men. When man confronts himself he also confronts other men.
What is true of man’s relationship to his work, to the product of his work
and to himself, is also true of his relationship to other men, to their labor
and to the objects of their labor (p. 103).
Marx then analyzes the concept of private property based on the concept of
Through alienated labor the worker creates the relation of another man, who
does not work and is outside the work process, to this labor. The
relation of the worker to work also produces the relation of the capitalist
to work. Private property is therefore the product, the necessary
result, of alienated labor, of the external relation of the worker to nature
and to himself (p.106).
For Marx, private property is not only the basis and cause of alienated labor
but also a consequence of it; they are mutually influential.
Marx’s final goal is to free workers from alienation. Increased wages
would do little to emancipate human beings or equalize income. Above
all, “emancipation includes the emancipation of humanity as a whole” (p.
107). Human slavery is involved in the relation of the worker to
production, and all types of slavery are only consequences of this relation.
To Marx, the ultimate goal of human beings is to pursue real
freedom. Marx believes that human beings are creators of history; and
also they have the ability to emancipate themselves from being
alienated. For Marx, human beings should be freely associated people as
a whole. Here, I quote from German Ideology as my conclusion.
Where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become
accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general
production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing to-day and
another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle
in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever
becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic (p. 206).
Fromm, E. (1991). Marx’s concept of man. New York: