Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Marx posed the question: can the study of history and economics, free of all philosophical speculation, religious prejudice, and overt ethical promotion, show us the course that humanity must follow on earth?

At the root of Marx’s theory is a combination of history and economics. The labor theory of value claims that goods are exchanged at rates decided by the amount of labor that went into them.. However, this includes the laborers themselves. So, workers are only paid enough to make more workers (keep them alive and reproducing). The goods made by laborers are thus worth more than the laborers because more labor went into them to create them. Under capitalism the excess belongs to the business owner(s). Therefore, the misery of the masses is due to the economic laws underlying capitalism, not any inherent evil or failing in human beings.

According to Marx, capitalism is merely a stage of historical development. It will eventually collapse under the weight of a laboring class (the proletariat) which increasingly becomes poorer and more numerous. The inconsistency of fewer and fewer people controlling more and more of the means of production will lead to capitalism’s collapse because eventually it will become too great an interference with production. At that time, the proletariat will create a rational society with no wages, no money, no social classes, and, eventually no state - “a free association of producers under their own conscious and purposive control.” (McInes, Neil “Karl Marx,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volumes 5 & 6, MacMillan Publishing Co. (NY: 1967) p. 172.)

Marx believed that human nature is discoverable by a careful study of history and economics. The intrusion of any “nonscientific” elements (i.e. based on speculation or belief, not provable or supported by objective means) biases a study. Therefore, the intrusion of religion, philosophy (especially ethical judgements), and similar nonscientific areas, bias any study of human nature.


If science alone can discover human nature and questions of religion, philosophy, etc. are not discoverable by science, then human nature is not a religious or philosophical issue. As a matter of fact, religion interferes with the study of human nature. Since the study of human nature indicates how we can reduce human misery over the long term, religion can actually prolong human misery.

Marx grants that religion can provide some relief from suffering for a few individuals. However, he sees this relief as temporary and dangerous, like taking opium. Religion distracts people from the search for the cause of their misery. Like drugs, it allows people to forget or be less concerned with their troubles. It may even make matters worse.

For Marx, religion was created by humans, not vice versa. Therefore, Capitalists can use religion as a tool of oppression, creating religions that promote their advantages. Religion is an illusion created to comfort humans in an unjust world. It provides a justification and purpose for human suffering. Therefore, people do not question the institutions and practices that cause suffering. The illusion must be dispelled before people can recognize and eliminate the conditions that cause suffering.


Marx got the idea of alienation from George Hegel (1770-1831). For Hegel, historical change occurs through a dialectical process. In this process, we operate under an assumption until we come across a contradiction to this assumption. Then we assume the opposite of the original assumption until that inevitably is contradicted as well. This leads to a synthesis of the original assumption (thesis) and its contradiction (antithesis). The synthesis leads to a new thesis, and so on. Alienation is the phase of otherness, of opposition, of conflict, of mediation that represents this process. Alienation is the driving force for progress.

Marx reinterprets alienation in socioeconomic and psychological terms. For Marx, alienation is the estrangement of the worker in an industrialist and capitalistic society from 1. the product of his/her labor, 2. him/herself, 3. nature, and 4. other people. Eventually these contradictions will overwhelm the proletariat and cause them to eliminate the conditions that cause their alienation.


Animals create, but are not aware of what they create. The essential characteristic of humans is that they make creation an object of their individual will and consciousness. Because a human being is conscious, she controls what she creates. A human expresses his being in the real, sensuous objects which he creates. This includes himself. Since a human is defined by her creative process and is essentially creative, estrangement from her creative product fails to acknowledge her being and is belittling.

So, in alienation, the human is separated from his creative process and product. This results in a loss of self because the product is an expression of who we are. Ultimately, the less control we have over our creative processes, the less creative we become. So, we are further separated from our nature.

As a dollar value is placed on other things in nature, we begin to value them in terms of dollars instead of in terms of creativity. We focus on the artificial value ($) instead of natural value (vital activity). Therefore, we are further estranged from nature, no longer seeing ourselves as part of it.

Ultimately, we are also estranged from other humans because we are in constant competition with them for dollars. Because workers do not control their work, the conditions of their work are subject to the control of others. Because Capitalism is driven by profit, the capitalists are constantly looking for means to reduce costs, while increasing production. Meanwhile, the workers are looking for ways to increase their wages and improve their working conditions. In this system, the capitalists are obviously at odds with the workers. Furthermore, as jobs become scarce and workers become indiscernible as individuals, the workers compete with each other for jobs and the means for survival.

“Marx was a humanist, for whom man’s freedom, dignity and activity were the basic premises of the 'good society.' As a humanist he believed in the unity of all men, and in man’s capacity to find a new harmony with man and with nature.” (Fromm, p. iii) But unlike Spinoza, Marx believed that education alone will not transform man. “He saw that man is to a large extent determined by his practices in life, and that if man wants to change he has to change the very circumstances which imprison him.. In capitalism, so Marx thought, man is made to be a person who has much, who uses much, but who is little. Hence, in order to create the basis for the free development of man's potentialities, mankind must do away with a social-economic structure which by its very nature feeds man's greed and possessiveness." (Ibid.)

Fromm, Erich "Foreward" in Bottomore, T. B. ed. Karl Marx: Early Writings, McGraw-Hill Paperbacks (New York: 1964).

Tucker, Robert C. ed. The Marx-Engels Reader, second edition, W. W. Norton & Company (New York: 1978).