This article is the third installment of a four-part series. Come back next week to read Part IV. Enjoy!
The Alienation of Labor and the Humanism of Marx
In his early writings Karl Marx spends an enormous amount of time examining the effects of capitalism on the individual. Throughout his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts in particular, Marx blasts capitalism for what he views as its inhumane, alienating effect on labor:
What constitutes the alienation of labor?
Firstly, the fact that labor is external to the work—ie, does not belong to his essential being; that he, therefore, does not confirm himself in work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence, the worker feels himself only when he is not working: when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labor is, therefore, not voluntary, but forced, it is forced labor. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself.
What Marx is getting at is that human beings in our “natural state” produce for our own benefit and thus we reap the rewards of our own labor. Yet under capitalism legions upon legions of workers produce like machines for a handful of capitalists. In return most workers get just enough wages to eke by and are still relegated to living paycheck by paycheck. Since workers are removed from the objects they produce (they produce for capitalists, not for themselves) they are alienated from the product of their labor. They thus are inherently removed from the process of labor themselves, because for them work is just an exercise in which their minds, spirit and energy are drained by capitalists in the pursuit of profits. Reformers who work within the system can achieve gains such as higher wages, but in the eyes of Marx this does not solve the real problem:
A forcing-up of wages (disregarding all other difficulties, including the fact that it would only be by force, too, that the higher-wages, being an anomaly, could be maintained) would therefore be nothing but better payment for the slave, and would not conquer either for the worker or for labour their human status and dignity.
The problem remains, as discussed earlier, that a minority controls the means of productions, while a majority have the conditions and terms of their livelihood determined by others. Through this lens we can see capitalism as an anathema to real democracy. Once the workers have real democratic control over what they produce and are able to produce according to their own needs and the needs of their fellow human beings, labor will become less alienating and humanity will able to march towards social emancipation. Democratic production, not production for a coordinating class OR a capitalist class, characterizes the socialist epoch of historical development.
Another example of Marx’s concern for the welfare and development of his fellowman is showcased not in one of his more obscure early writings, but in his magnum opus Das Kapital he writes about the directors of “Cyclops Steel and Iron Works” arguing with the Factory Commission that twelve-year old boys should be able to work twelve-hour shifts throughout the night. The owners tell the commission that boys need to work those hours, because they can’t find adult men who will work that night shift. They explain that most of the boys are physically able to do the work and that they are easy to control and mold into expert workers. Why not move all production to the daytime? Why have a night-shift at all, the commission asks? Sanderson, an owner, replies, “But then there would be the loss from so much expensive machinery, lying idle half the time, and to get through the amount of work which we are able to do on the present system, we should have to double our premises and plant, which would double the outlay.” Marx shows us here that for the capitalists the needs of workers are subordinate to the bottom line. The ignorance of Sanderson would be almost uproarious if it was not so tragic. He can only see profit lost by not using children to operate his machines at night; he cannot see how much can be gained by allowing children enough sleep to function properly, enough free-time to play and creatively develop, or perhaps freedom from servitude and a chance to improve their lot in life through an education.
For Marx and for real socialists there is more to human beings than just surplus-value. Stalin and the Soviet coordinators wanted to direct the workers’ labor in order to help forge a new society (supposedly for the betterment of mankind), while Sanderson wanted to “soak up [this] surplus value” in order to maximize his profits, but neither bothered to ask the workers what they wanted do with their own contributions to society; neither bothered to entrust the creators of the wealth of society with the reigns of society. But the real Karl Marx, free of Soviet-dogmatism and Marxist-Leninist “orthodoxy,” did. As Marx wrote in the first sentence in the rules written for the First International, “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”