In Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 Marx writes:

First, that the work is external to the worker, that it is not part of his nature; and that, consequently, he does not fulfill himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery rather than well being, does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased. The worker, therefore, feels himself at home only during his leisure time, whereas at work he feels homeless.

(emphasis mine)

According to Marx, alienation of workers was one of the major problems of capitalism, depriving them of humanity, whereas under communism people should be able to achieve self-realization through meaningful and rewarding work.

Modern liberal democracy (i.e., welfare capitalism) puts high value on adjusting life-to-work balance, specifically by increasing the duration of vacation period, earlier retirement, extended maternity/paternity leave, etc. In this sense the social democracy seems to be deepening the workers alienation, treating any time spent from work as improvement rather than encouraging finding more fulfillment in work.

Moreover, the emphasis on more commitment and self-realization through work is traditionally the sphere of pro-capitalist wing, e.g., Margaret Thatcher:

My policies are based not on some economics theory, but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day's work for an honest day's pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police.

or the Vichy France slogan Travail, famille, patrie. (Work, family, motherland.)

Question: Is there research (likely Marxist research) showing that the liberal democracy only increases the alienation of working people and hence only deepens the problems of capitalism, as Marx had argued in his time (see Remark)?

Marx opposed liberal democracy. For him liberalism stood for the ideology justifying property rights among other rights, and thus being the cornerstone of the capitalism - giving the capitalist the right to profit from the results of work on the means-of-production that they own (but don't use themselves). Consequently, Marx regarded peaceful political engagement in the from of liberal democracy as playing by the rules of the ruling class, only strengthening the bourgeoisie.

Moreover, Marx opposed solutions of social issues via government redistribution and/or regulation, as for him the government was always (by his own definition) a tool of subjugation of the ruled classes by the ruling ones. Thus, attempts at solving social problems via government is dismissed by Marxists as statism (=state + ism.)

  • I wouldn't put 'self-realization through work' exclusively in the Thatcher/ Vichy France camp. In modern usage this is a liberal view and can be combined both with fairly leftwing thinking or with free market capitalism views.
    – quarague
    Jun 1, 2023 at 13:28
  • @quarague could you give an example? Jun 1, 2023 at 13:29
  • If you ask people in the 20's or 30's whether having a job that allows them to realize their personality and that matches their view of society (as opposed to being merely a source of money to live) you will get yes answers both from people who believe in laissez-faire capitalism and from people who self-identify as left-wing, green, pro high tax/ high welfare state.
    – quarague
    Jun 1, 2023 at 13:34
  • 1
    To the point :-) Those at Yale are in favor of 'self-realization through work' regardless of their political leanings on other subjects.
    – quarague
    Jun 1, 2023 at 13:37
  • 3
    @RogerVadim As a matter of practical reality, it is interpreted in several ways and is no better than a religion.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 3, 2023 at 18:19

4 Answers 4


In his own time, Marx also wrote Das Capital in which, among other things, he did offer praise the ability of nations like the U.S. and U.K. to legislate a response to unfettered excesses of Capitalism that he believed would lead to a situation he described in The Communist Manifesto. Essentially, his magnum opus basically posit that Liberal Democracies were capable of enacting regulations.

It's important to note that Marx allowed his philosophy to evolve overtime, and what he believed in the 1840s was not always something he believed in the 1860s or 1880s.

  • What about the Critique of the Gotha program and the revisionists? Also, could you support your claim by quotes? Jun 1, 2023 at 13:01

I think Marx diagnosed alienation primarily as a symptom of production which is organised purely around the sale of commodities on the market.

This stands in contrast to production done for other reasons, such as the sustenance of one's self and one's community (and a stable and secure role as such), or intrinsic enjoyment of craft.

Producing for the market tended to imply an over-division of labour (compared to the quite various tasks which the agricultural worker would undertake), and always sweating people for excessive hours at a narrow task.

I don't think holidays and shorter working hours nowadays are considered to be alienating. Rather, it's a reflection that people need rest, and it has a separate capitalist justification in Keynesian terms of manufacturing additional consumer demand to balance the productive capacity of the economy.

However, capitalists can strike back, such as making women seek employment as well as men - increasing the employed hours of a household, and requiring more members of a household to be employed (including those who would formerly have done the non-employed work of the household), even whilst any individual is not employed for more hours.

Intensification is another way they can strike back. Even as working hours fall, intensities can increase if the bosses succeed in eliminating slack time or slower paces that formerly characterised longer working hours.

It's also worth noting finally that Thatcher probably did have serious convictions about everybody becoming small business owners, and her background was petite bourgeois.

It's just that in practice her politics were really about massive giveaways of state wealth and shifting investment into consumption, and once the well of giveaways ran dry and we ceased to reap what was no longer sown, the shine has really worn off and the economy is massively weaker than in 1979.

  • What about the retirement? Vacation can be seen as getting some rest, but hurrying to retire means that one is not really eager to continue with one's work. There is quite a commotion lately about this in France - which is a lot more social-democratic than the US. Also, expression life-to-work balance suggests that work is something negative (even the opposite of life.) Jun 2, 2023 at 14:57
  • 1
    @RogerVadim, people are not in general set to retire earlier, but later. And what is likely at stake for most is not the right to work, but the right to a secure income. Final salary schemes were gilded cages for many workers, retaining them long after they would otherwise have sought a new challenge in a different job. The point is that most people want wholesome work on terms differing from what the market usually offers, and most want more time for activities which involve work but not capitalist employment. Also, many capitalist jobs are not completely free of intrinsic satisfaction.
    – Steve
    Jun 2, 2023 at 15:06
  • 3
    @RogerVadim, an extreme interpretation would be that the desire to retire at all is already a sign of worker alienation -- seeing one's work as a chore that must be performed, but where the only connection to one's wellbeing is the artificial one made through payment. No skilled woodworker will "retire" from fixing or improving their own house, or that of a friend, as long as they are physically able to, because they have a direct connection with the results. The alienation is a result of standardizing work and make individual workers replaceable, weakening their bargaining position. Jun 7, 2023 at 9:04
  • @SimonRichter you nailed the idea that I tried to communicate: when the debate is mainly about the duration of vacation period, the early retirement, etc., we have already accepted that the work is a chore that must be performed. Jun 7, 2023 at 9:08
  • @RogerVadim How does Thatcher and Fascist-France fit into that? Just because they offer worse compensation for chores doesn't mean they're concept of work doesn't attribute to chores. In fact "family and fatherland" also provide reason other than work itself or the personal improvement to do work aka chores and so is Thatcher when she offers an exchange work for pay. It's also just a compensation for chores rather than a promise of personal gain or fulfillment in work, is it?
    – haxor789
    Jun 7, 2023 at 13:53

I don't think this is a completely fair or accurate reading of Marx. It seems to take some later ideas from revolutionary socialism (e.g., "government redistribution and/or regulation") and possibly structural Marxism (e.g., "liberalism [as the] ideology justifying property rights") and attribute them back to Marx himself.

At any rate, I don't think Marx himself had a problem with people working for wage, so long as the wage properly reflected the labor the worker invests. Marx was not naïve enough to think that all work would be enjoyable or uplifting; there are lots of dirty, dangerous, and unpleasant jobs that need to be done by someone or everything grinds to a halt. But Marx believed that humans should be able to choose to do such work, receiving both decent remuneration and social respect for it, and that no one should be forced into such work (with minimal pay and negligible respect) simply as a matter of social class.

Nor was Marx against liberal democracy per se, though he railed at the degraded forms of faux populism he saw in the world around him (I'm thinking of the "The Eighteenth Brumaire" here). That anti-liberal cynicism would come later in late Leninist and Stalinist ideology, and in the writings of some prominent Italian and South American Marxists. For Marx the issue was the way in which social class combined with control of production to create oppression. There's nothing intrinsic to the ideal of Liberal democracy that is oppressive until we begin to see (as in Gramsci and Poulantzas) the political system as a mere facade covering an over-determined economic system.

  • The first paragraph is misleading - the OP says that Marx was against government in any form, and did not expect solutions come through the government - either in terms of Centralized model or the Social democracy. My reading here largely follows The two souls of socialism. There was also his Critique of Gotha, and the later labeling of the proponents of parliamentary democracy as "revisionists", deviations from Marx. The second paragraph could benefit from citations (from seeing your posts, I suspect you do have some expertise here.) Jun 2, 2023 at 8:00

It's not the "alienation of workers" it's an "alienation from work". As far as I can see he's describing a psychological estrangement. Like for a hunter gatherer risk, toil and reward are correlated, there's an autonomy in ones work and as such the work becomes part of the self.

With the division of labor into different roles people stopped working for their own consumption and already became distant from their work as the value of work is no longer determined by themselves (by means of being useful to them), but is now the value that other people are willing to give for that.

But even then they were at least able to estimate the value of their labor via direct exchange. Whereas wage labor even further estranges them from their work to the point where labor becomes a commodity. You sell a part of your day to someone else. It's no longer your day it's the day of someone else and "you", your "freedom", your "life" is what happens after work, in your leisure time, during work you're not the master of yourself, but a slave to your employer. That's the deal with wage labor. Like if your boss tells you what you have to do and if someone else determines the value of your work other than yourself, THAT is the alienation from your work. It's no longer an expression of yourself it's something you do to pay the bills.

Also as you focus on your self-realization, you might want to consider that previously an artisan craftsmen was the one to produce an entire product and put their name on it building their own brand, while nowadays employees build the brand of a company with little to no recognition of their own input. Like compare a chef to a McDonald's kitchen worker. One can present a menu and say "I've done that" while the other technically also just prepares a meal but has no ability for any personal creative input so the product is related to the company not the maker.

In terms of liberal democracy... Well first of all, Marx never even saw that in action. Like when Marx was around "liberal democracy" was a farce. Europe was still ruled by monarchies and where republican approaches and "liberal democracies" were practiced it was usually restricted to the upper class. It often took well into the 20th century for countries to have universal suffrage and there's apparently a quote from Marx where he argued that universal suffrage in Britain would be the most socialist concept in his time given that it would mean the rule of the proletariat as they would comprise by far the largest group.

He might have revised that position later on seeing that the poor and uneducated often enough vote conservative despite those parties acting most often against the interests of these peoples at least economically. So for all his materialistic critique apparently psychology is a factor that is important as well.

Also "liberal democracy" as a synonym for "welfare capitalism" is a very narrow redefinition of what all of these words mean. Like to call "capitalism" democracy is a pretty harsh misnomer given that capitalism usually creates a social and economic inequality that is more corrupt than democratic and that the democratic elements are in an active struggle to balance that and that "liberalism" is nominally derived from liberty, but actually is better described by privilege because liberty would be universal while many so called liberties are more of a privilege than a universal right.

And in terms of what you all a "welfare system" (vacation, retirement, paternity leave), those aren't even all that much of a welfare system, it's rather the opposite if you take them away you'd make that system unbearable. Like if you work without rest you'd destroy your body and your mind making work a net negative for you, and if you don't have paternity leave and have to decide between having children and being able to feed them you'd kill society and if there is no goal that you're working for but if work just keeps getting harder the more you've destroyed your body with it, the more likely people will rebel and destroy your system because it sucks. And that was something that was in the air even when Marx was around and often enough those measures weren't even introduced by socialists but by conservatives who feared they'd hang from the next tree if they don't improve the living conditions at least a little.

So again, depending on perspective that can be seen as incremental progress or as a pacifier to inhibit actual progress that tries to solve that problem.

Either way it's at least acknowledging the problem in that it tries to compensate for it.

On the other hand that:

My policies are based not on some economics theory, but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day's work for an honest day's pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police.

Sounds like slavery or even feudalism. "Know your place, work hard (for us) and we might grant you a modest life and leave you just enough to stay afloat in the next crisis. And support the executive powers that keep you in that condition"... Seriously THAT is by far more alienating from work than any compensating approach.

or the Vichy France slogan Travail, famille, patrie. (Work, family, motherland.)

For real? You unironically quote fascist France? These guys even managed to make "collaborateur" a slur, because they collaborated with the Nazis. Why not throw in "Arbeit macht frei" (=Work liberates) the slogan at the gates of Auschwitz as an example of a less alienating approach from labor.

Or are your serious in your attempts to sell the idea of Nazis and far right actors to sell slavery to the masses as "choice".

Remarks: I mean we still see a correlation between property rights and capital (social power to command people), as well as between wage labor and alienation from labor. That being said it's usually the lack of democracy and agency that intensifies that. The criticism of liberal democracy was most often that it wasn't actually democratic but rather plutocratic.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .