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Close Reading of Karl Marx’s Alienated Labor Essay Sample

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Close Reading of Karl Marx’s Alienated Labor Essay Sample

For Karl Marx, every individual part is only relevant when taken within the scope of the whole. The paragraph on page 331 is emblematic of this notion because it arrives at the culmination of one of Marx’s major points in his theory of alienation: that by working in the capitalistic system, the worker estranges himself from other men and sets up a system of domination. In this paragraph, Marx introduces the notion of the “practical, real world” claiming that in reality, “self-estrangement can manifest itself only in the practical, real relationship to other men” (Marx 331). In the paragraphs leading to this one, Marx establishes his argument for how man estranges himself from both the product of his work and the act of production itself. Both of these points, however, merely serve as individual stepping-stones in the realm of the whole. When Marx conceptualizes the “practical, real” version of estrangement, he introduces the umbrella, which, when placed over the individual stones, grants pertinence and meaning to everything he has been discussing thus far. Reading on, Marx constructs an implicit dichotomy between the “practical, real” and the less perceptible abstract.

He writes: “so through estranged labour man not only produces his relationship to the object and to the act of production as to alien and hostile powers1; he also produces the relationship in which other men stand to his production and product, and the relationship in which he stands to these other men.” Using perfectly parallel structure, Marx breaks apart the two opposing realms of estranged labor—its role in the relationship of man to abstract “powers” and of man to other men—and places them on directly separate sides of his statement. Furthermore, an analysis of the footnote at the bottom of the page provides a noteworthy implication from this dichotomy. Marx originally described the relationship between man and the product of his labor/act of production as a relationship to “alien and hostile men.” In a later amendment to the text, Marx recalls the word “men,” and replaces it instead with the term “powers.” In doing this, Marx makes an extremely significant distinction that is not explicit in the text.

He highlights the pivotal difference between these two realms: the relationships man has with the object of his labor and the act of labor itself are those to powers—they are intangible and theoretical. What really matters here, however, is the by-product of these abstractions, which in the “practical, real world” manifests itself as man’s relationship to other man. With this notion, Marx provides the final analogy that makes things practical for readers and brings them into the scope of reality. Thus far, every estrangement Marx has presented the reader has been abstract.

By introducing the “practical, real” estrangement between man and other man and placing to so-called umbrella upon the individual, abstractions, Marx transitions his argument from the theoretical to the practical and simultaneously shifts his focus from the concept of “estrangement” to that of “domination.” Having used dialectic to arrive at these simultaneous transitions, Marx sets up the hierarchic relationship between man and other man in the “practical, real” realm of things. He claims that just like the losses man faces in the abstract realm, “he creates the domination of the non-producer” in the practical one. This is the ultimate loss for man—the one that is felt the most and hits the hardest. As “estrange[s] himself” from his work in the abstract realm, he establishes a system of winner/loser domination by “strangers” in reality.

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