Communism and Non-Alienated Labour Is Best
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 7 - Social and Political Philosophy
Karl Marx, from Manifesto of the Communist Party and Early Writings
Kem Stone - 4 May 2008
There is a great deal to be admired in the work of Karl Marx, though I ultimately reject his philosophy.  Marx saw
the brutality and injustice of the industrial society he lived in and devoted his life to trying to correct it.  He called
for a revolution when a revolution was necessary, but unfortunately those who tried to put his theories into
practice were just as brutal and unjust as the bourgeoisie whom Marx targeted in his writings.  I do not believe
communism to be ultimately superior or inferior to capitalism as an economic system, or to democracy as a system
of government.  I believe that social injustice is more of a result of the people in control of any given system than
the system itself, though I will grant that some very good arguments can be made as to why one particular system
is more likely to lead to brutality than another.  The selections from Marx that the editors have included in this
volume together serve to make up exactly this sort of argument, which is more of an indictment of “Modern
Industry” and the bourgeoisie behind it than an argument in favour of communism as the superior system.  I will
examine and support Marx’s attack on the free market system, and conclude by stating why I believe that
communism is not necessarily the best alternative.

By the time Marx wrote his infamous Manifesto, the “spectre of Communism” was already seen as a threat by the
powers that be.  Because it was already acknowledged to be a power, Marx decided that in order to safeguard
against misinformation and negative propaganda, the Communist party needed a written declaration of its views,
aims, and tendencies so that anyone who wanted could find out the truth.  He begins with the statement that the
history of all society is a history of struggles between the classes.  “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord
and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one
another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a
revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (477).  One
might immediately object that history is full of struggles—between rival nations or city-states, among ruling
families, between citizens and barbarians, or of civilization against destructive natural forces from earthquakes and
hurricanes to famine and plague—none of which have to do with the struggles between classes.  Marx’s argument
is not negated because of his narrow categorisation of history, but it does reveal that from the very beginning he
approaches the issue from a somewhat skewed perspective.

Marx sees the society in which he lives as divided among only two classes, which have arisen from the ruins of
feudal society: the Bourgeoisie who own the businesses and property, and the Proletariat who work for them.  
Marx describes how the discovery of America and the opening up of the East-Indian and Chinese markets led to
the destruction of feudalism and the rise of manufacturing.  As the markets continued to grow, the invention of the
steam engine brought about the revolutionary transformation to Modern Industry, which elevated the bourgeoisie
to political dominance and pushed every other class into the background.

Here is where Marx begins his indictments against the bourgeoisie, which he argues has destroyed the old way of
life and replaced it with something much uglier.  “It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound
man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-
interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’  It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of
chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.  It has resolved
personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up
that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade.  In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political
illusion, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” (478).  Marx’s words are both insightful
and prophetic, as they accurately and succinctly point to the most devastating consequences of Modern Industry
and Free Trade, and foreshadow the draining of the human spirit that was only just beginning in his time but which
continues to this day.

It is the spiritual emptiness brought on by the advance of Modern Industry that constitutes Marx’s sharpest
criticism, which targets not the individual members of the bourgeoisie but the entire capitalist system.  This system,
Marx points out, can only endure if the instruments of production are continuously revolutionised, which means the
entire relations of society must undergo constant revolutionary changes as well.  By demolishing all fixed and
frozen relations among men, this system strips people of this age-old form of security and forces them to face the
real conditions of life.  In such a constantly changing society, these conditions are characterised by everlasting
uncertainty and agitation, where no man can feel secure because he could suddenly find his position obsolete at
any time.

To make matters worse on an even larger scale, it is characteristic of the free market industrial system that it must
be in a constant state of expansion in order to maintain itself.  The bourgeoisie must therefore spread all over the
globe, establishing connections everywhere to open up new markets for exploitation.  “All old-established national
industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.  They are dislodged by new industries, whose
introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up
indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are
consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe.  In place of the old wants, satisfied by the
productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and
climes” (479).  Nations that may not wish to industrialise will find themselves rapidly falling behind the rest of the
world’s ever-growing wealth and power, and are therefore forced to adopt the bourgeois mode of production on
pain of extinction.  Just as industrial capitalism has made the towns dependent on the cities, it has made the
developing nations dependent on the civilised.  The final consequence is political centralisation, where in order to
survive small and previously independent nations and provinces must lump together into one nation with a shared
code of laws, system of taxation, customs-tariff, and one national class-interest.

So far Marx has traced the development of modern society from its birth in feudal society, under which the means
of production and exchange with which the bourgeoisie was able to raise itself up were generated.  Once the
productive forces had reached a certain stage of development, the feudal organisation of agriculture and
manufacturing industry became obsolete, and all of the old relations were shattered.  What replaced them is the
modern system of free competition, backed by a social and political constitution adapted to it, and held up by the
power of the bourgeois class.

It is concerning the power of the bourgeoisie that Marx enters into one of the most important (and most
objectionable) portions of his argument—the “bourgeois prophecy”—the assertion that the collapse of the
bourgeoisie is inevitable.  Marx analogises bourgeois society to the sorcerer who can no longer control the evil
powers he has summoned with his spells.  He points to one of the symptoms of this impending doom: the
occasional epidemics of overproduction, when society produces more than it can sell, and suddenly finds itself
with
too much civilisation.  The only remedies for these crises available to the bourgeoisie are the enforced
destruction of a mass of productive forces, the conquest of new markets, or the more thorough exploitation of
existing markets.  All of these are only temporary solutions that eventually pave the way for further crises and
diminish the means to prevent them.

In addition to forging the weapons with which to take themselves down, the bourgeoisie also bring into existence
the very class of people to wield those weapons: the proletariat.  The proletarians are a class of labourers who
work as long as they live and live only as long as they can work.  They are a commodity, an appendage of the
machine, paid only as much as is necessary to keep them alive and reproducing to bring new labourers into the
world.  “Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organised like soldiers.  As privates of the industrial
army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants.  Not only are they
slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by
the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself” (482).  Not only men but women
and children also share in this state of slavery, as they too can be used as instruments of labour.  Even when the
work is over, the exploitation continues, now at the hands of the landlord, storekeeper, and pawnbroker who
prevent the worker from keeping any of his earnings for himself and his family.  Meanwhile, the lower middle class
sinks deeper into the social strata, as tradespeople, shopkeepers, and handicraftsmen are unable to compete with
the manufacturing giants, and eventually find themselves with no other choice but to join the ranks of wage
labourers, and the size of the proletariat increases even further.

From its birth, the proletariat is engaged in a lifelong struggle with the bourgeoisie which goes through various
stages.  At first, it is the struggle of individual labourers, then by the workers of one factory, then the operatives of
one trade, and eventually of one locality.  “They direct their attacks not against the bourgeois conditions of
production, but against the instruments of production themselves; they destroy imported wares that compete with
their labour, they smash to pieces machinery, they set factories ablaze, they seek to restore by force the vanished
status of the workman of the Middle Ages” (482).  Still an incoherent mass scattered across the country, the
proletarians at this stage are not fighting their enemies but the enemies of their enemies: the remnants of absolute
monarchy.  So far, every victory is a victory for the bourgeoisie.

But as the proletariat grows, it becomes more concentrated and more aware of the strength it possesses when
unified.  When constant fluctuations in the market and unceasing improvement of the machinery render the
positions of these labourers more and more precarious, they begin to form Trades’ Unions, clubs and associations
geared towards organised revolt.  Occasionally, these revolts are successful, but although the bourgeoisie always
manages to cut back on any progress they might make, each temporary victory brings the entire movement closer
to its inevitable total victory, as each successful revolt both strengthens and expands the workers’ union.  The
bourgeoisie even aids this expansion unwittingly through the constant improvement of the means of
communication, which allows workers from different localities to contact each other with greater ease.

The bourgeois contribute to their own demise in a more direct way as well.  “The bourgeoisie finds itself involved
in a constant battle.  At first with the aristocracy; later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself, whose
interests have become antagonistic to the progress of industry; at all times, with the bourgeoisie of foreign
countries.  In all these battles it sees itself compelled to appeal to the proletariat, to ask for its help, and thus, to
drag it into the political arena.  The bourgeoisie itself, therefore, supplies the proletariat with its own elements of
political and general education, in other words, it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the
bourgeoisie” (483).  Some sections of the ruling class even go so far as to actually join the revolutionary class,
accelerating the process of self-destruction even further.  Finally, the lower middle class is forced to fight the
bourgeoisie as a means of self-preservation, to prevent themselves from sinking into the proletariat.

It is not enough for Marx to proclaim the impending doom of the bourgeois class—his prophecy goes deeper than
that.  He believes that the coming revolution will be the final, decisive end to all class struggles, and he points to
several differences between this and all previous historical movements.  “All the preceding classes that got the
upper hand, sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of
appropriation.  The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing
their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation” (484).  
Whereas all previous movements were in the interest of minorities, the coming revolution is a self-conscious,
independent movement of the mass majority, which stands to toss the existing social strata entirely into the air.

The development of the proletariat is the history of a veiled civil war within society which the bourgeoisie is
doomed to lose.  When a class is oppressed, it cannot be oppressed for very long without violence unless there
exists a chance for some degree, however slight, of upward mobility within the social hierarchy.  In the period of
serfdom, the serf was able to raise himself to membership in the commune.  Under feudal absolutism, the petty
bourgeois was able to develop into a bourgeois.  But the modern labourer only sinks deeper and deeper into
poverty.  “And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society,
and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law.  It is unfit to rule because it is
incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a
state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him” (485).

Marx sums up his bourgeois prophecy with a very simple argument.  The essential condition for the existence and
sway of the bourgeois class is the augmentation of capital.  The condition for the augmentation of capital is wage
labour.  The condition for the success of wage labour is competition between the labourers.  But the advancement
of industry forces labourers into revolutionary combination rather than competition.  “The development of Modern
Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and
appropriates products.  What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own gravediggers.  Its fall and
the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” (485).  The argument seems sound, but in the century that has
passed since the Manifesto was written, we have seen no such decisive victory of the working class.  We have
had only violent revolutions in several nations which have merely replaced the bourgeoisie with despots and
tyrants, and the gradual advancement of workers’ rights which may have unquestionably improved the living
conditions of workers, but have not even come close to uprooting the entire exploitative system of wage labour.  
Whether Marx was simply wrong, or whether the process is ongoing and the victory of the proletariat still lies in
the future, is an issue open for debate, and one that I will return to later.

In keeping with their tradition of making odd decisions in compiling this anthology, the editors have inserted here a
selection from Marx’s early writings regarding alienated labour.  As strange as its inclusion may seem, it does offer
some additional insights and strong support for Marx’s most forceful premise: that bourgeois capitalism is a brutal
and inhumane system.  In this text, Marx examines the connection between the money system and the devaluation
of man.  Breaking away from the tradition of Hobbes and Locke, Marx does not begin from an imagined “state of
nature” but from a contemporary economic fact.  “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” (486).  Even without any arguments to support it, this statement rings true, but Marx
nevertheless provides his reasoning.

The object produced by labour stands opposed to its producer as an alien object, one that he finds himself in a
state of servitude to.  He is alienated from the product of his labour because the harder he works to produce it,
the more powerful the world of objects becomes and the less powerful he becomes in his own inner life.  Marx
analogises this to religion, in that the more of oneself a person attributes to God, the less he belongs to himself.  By
putting his life into an object, the worker no longer belongs to himself but to the object he produces.  This inverse
relationship between worker and product is illustrated further by nature itself, without which no products could be
created.  Nature provides both the means of existence of labour as well as the means of the physical existence of
the worker himself, so the more of nature that the worker appropriates for production, the more of nature he
deprives himself for his own means of existence.  “The more the worker produces the less he has to consume; the
more value he creates the more worthless he becomes; the more refined his product the more crude and
misshapen the worker; the more civilised the product the more barbarous the worker; the more powerful the
work the more feeble the worker; the more the work manifests intelligence the more the worker declines in
intelligence and becomes a slave of nature” (487).

Alienation does not only appear in the products of labour but in the activity of production itself.  Since the product
of labour is alienation, the process of labour is active alienation—the activity of alienation.  The work is external to
the worker and quite unnatural to him, and so he does not fulfil himself but denies himself by doing it.  External
labour is a labour of self-mortification, exemplified best by the fact that the work he does is never for himself but
always for someone else, an alien being.  “If the product of labour does not belong to the worker, but confronts
him as an alien power, this can only be because it belongs to
a man other than the worker.  If his activity is a
torment to him it must be a source of
enjoyment and pleasure to another” (488).  The necessary product of
alienated labour is private property; the harder the labourer works, the more the landlord accumulates, and the
more he is able to further exploit the worker.  Thus private property is both a consequence and a cause of
alienated labour.

To wrap up their presentation of Marxism, the editors have included the conclusion from the Communist
Manifesto.  In it, Marx distinguishes Communists from other working-class parties, and presents an itemised list of
the goals of the Communist party.  There are two factors that Marx cites as distinguishing the Communist
movement from other labour movements: “1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries,
they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.  
2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass
through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole” (488).  Thus
Communists are distinguished for operating beyond national borders, and focussing on the larger picture rather
than small issues.

This large picture that Marx has in mind consists in the wresting of all capital from the hands of the bourgeoisie, the
centralisation of all instruments of production to the hands of the State, and the organisation of the proletariat as
the ruling class.  This vision, Marx understands, can not be achieved by operating within the existing political or
economic framework.  He writes that these changes can only be affected by means of “despotic inroads on the
rights of property” (489), a grim foreshadowing of the tyrannical despotism that Communist ideology would later
lead to.  He also admits that some of the measures to be implemented will appear economically untenable at first,
but he believes such deficiencies would ultimately correct themselves, an argument that is now much harder to
defend after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Marx’s list of Communism’s goals consists of such items as the abolition of private property, a heavy income tax,
abolition of rights of inheritance, the centralisation of capital into the hands of the state, the combination of
agriculture and manufacturing industries, and free education for all children in public schools.  No supporting
arguments are given for any of these items, but in the context of the texts selected for this anthology, it is the
elimination of the brutality of bourgeois capitalism and the devaluation of humanity through alienated labour that
should serve as a justification for their implementation.  Abolishing private property eliminates both the cause and
the effect of alienated labour, and the abolition of inheritance rights as well as the centralisation of power in the
State’s hands are enough to completely destroy the bourgeois class.  Combining agriculture and manufacturing
would lead to a more equal distribution of wealth between town and country, and free education would help to
eliminate child labour as well as provide all of the other advantages that education brings to a society.

Most importantly, oppression between classes will be a thing of the past.  According to Marx, political power has
always been the organised power of one class for oppressing another.  But if the proletariat becomes the ruling
class and sweeps away the old conditions of production, it will also have swept away the conditions for the
existence of all class antagonisms and of classes in general.  “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes
and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the
free development of all” (490).  Marx calls upon his fellow Communists to openly declare their views, and to
demand the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions through a massive organised revolution which will
sweep across national borders and spread throughout the world.

There are two important things to consider when it comes to Marxism: first is whether the bourgeois prophecy has
failed or if it has yet to come true, and second is whether the ideals of communism
ought to be implemented.  As
to the first question, it appears as though Marx’s vision of the overthrow of the bourgeois by the proletariat did
not come to pass except in a few locations around the world, almost always ending in failure.  But for the majority
of the industrialised world, class antagonisms are still very real and are in fact growing larger by the day.  There is
no question that conditions are much different now than in Marx’s time, but while we now have a minimum wage
and powerful labour unions, most of the wealth in the world is still concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few.  
We may not refer to these tycoons as “bourgeoisie” nor to the workers as “proletarians” but these classes still
exist, and antagonism between them still continues.  Should the earning power of the workers continue to decline
as the minimum wage allows them to afford less and less, and should the increasingly obscene gap between upper
and lower classes continue to widen, the prospect of a revolution on the horizon remains a possibility.  Marx’s
bourgeois prophecy may turn out
not to have been false, but merely a few centuries ahead of its time.

Should the revolution come and the existing social structures be destroyed, what we must then consider is whether
to replace them with communism or something else altogether.  To give this question a full and proper treatment, I
would have to go well beyond the scope of this text, so I will only examine the issue broadly.  In order to measure
the merits of communism against other forms of government, we must first decide by which criteria to make such
judgments.  To be as fair to Marx as possible, we can consider the best form of government to be that which
leads to the least amount of exploitation of the workers, and to the most equable distribution of wealth.  As a
theoretical system, it does appear that communism, by eliminating classes and placing all capital in the hands of the
state, best satisfies these conditions.  However, if we look at historical examples in which communist ideology was
actually put into practice, we see that while the bourgeoisie does lose its power and influence, the proletariat
remains exploited and brutalised.  Wealth is distributed
evenly but not equably, as it all goes to the hands of the
State, which merely replaces the bourgeoisie as the oppressor.

This is not to say that any communist government will necessarily bring about tyranny and oppression, but it does
demonstrate that as a system, communism does not render such things impossible.  The people of a communist
country are just as vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of the greedy and power-hungry as the people living in a
monarchy or democracy.  A communist government
could fairly and equably distribute the wealth of the State,
just as a capitalist system could include a fair and equable minimum wage for the workers and create the right
conditions for upward mobility between the classes.  If we use Marxist criteria, communism may be the
theoretically superior economic system, but whether it really satisfies Marx’s ideals depends entirely upon its
actual application.  If Marx had been alive in the mid-20th century, he probably would have found that the
capitalist, democratic society of the United States a far better place for workers than the communist, totalitarian
society of the Soviet Union.  While the shape of an institution is undoubtedly a great factor in its effects on society,
it is the people who make up these institutions and decide how to run them that turn out to be the greater influence.

When considering these arguments as a whole, I would conclude that Karl Marx is an example of a historical
thinker with the mixed record of asking the right questions while coming up with the wrong answers.  Marx was
absolutely right to challenge the social conditions of his day, to stand up to the bourgeoisie and galvanise the
working class into fighting for their rights and demanding a better standard of living from their government.  Yet the
complete abolition of all existing social structures and centralisation of all wealth and power into the hands of the
State, when it was tried, turned out to be a terrible solution in that it failed to solve most of the problems it sought
to remedy, and for every problem it fixed it created even more difficult ones.  We should continue to follow Marx’
s lead in scrutinising our economic institutions and struggling against worker exploitation wherever we find it, but
we must open our minds to solutions other than communism, and to attempt to remedy the problems of social
inequality from within the framework of our existing system.  Should the system ever become so slanted in favour
of the wealthy class at the expense of the workers that the latter find themselves with no legal recourse to combat
the injustice, talk of a total revolution will become justified.

The one factor that Marx only hinted at but did not treat explicitly was the damage industrial capitalism does to
nature.  If we take the potential for global warming and other environmental catastrophes into account, we may
have to conclude that a global revolution is justifiable
now, and that tearing down the entire economic
infrastructure is
already necessary, not just to stop the devaluation of human life, but to save it from extinction.