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The Basics of Marx Alienation Theory


As philosophers go, Karl Marx was one of the most influential, blending his philosophy with a healthy dose of sociology that challenged the status quo. He was also a self-described revolutionary economist, developing theories regarding the labor class, money and economics, which he conflated into a system of beliefs that came to be known as ‘Marxism.’ His theory of alienation was another revolutionary idea in which Marx laid out the isolation people felt because of their social class division. Marx wrote his theory in an 1844 document known as “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.” Here is a brief breakdown of Marx’s alienation theory.

In broad terms, alienation can best be described as a feeling a person gets when has no connection to the outer society. This creates feelings of dislocation and confusion, and prevents a person from fully engaging in the norms of a society to which he feels no particular affinity. Alienation may be caused by hostility of others, or it can be an expression of a person’s own feelings of inadequacy, weakness or disconnection. The end result of alienation, is a feeling that a person can never be fully integrated into society, which leads to depression and despair.

Marx developed his theory of alienation in response to German philosopher Hegel, who believed that human beings’ activities and work were a by-product of an existing culture, and that human interaction was driven by a guiding spirit which controlled how people acted. Marx disagreed and felt that it was the work of human beings that created the culture and that the guiding spirit Hegel referred to was a creation of human beings and was not in existence until humans thought of it.

As a result, Marx theorized that alienation was a direct result of the fact that people were divided into social classes based on their labor and income. Although it would seem obvious to argue that those on the bottom rung felt the most disassociated from the upper strata, Marx’s theory was that everyone who was part of a social class experienced alienation, because the very existence of a division of classes alienated people from their basic humanity.

For Marx, being at the top of a social class did not mean that the rich were any less alienated. And the fact that people in different social classes were not even aware of their alienation did not matter as far as Marx was concerned. But Marx acknowledged that the worker class was most likely to experience alienation, and he divided this alienation into four kinds: alienation of the working class from himself, alienation of the working class from the product, alienation of the working class from the actual labor and alienation of the working class from other workers.

For Marx, alienation was tied directly to labor, product and social class. It was not an abstract concept, but one that could not be separated from the stratification of society.

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