Unit 5: Justice

An Introduction to Marx’s Philosophic and Economic Thought

Heather Wilburn, Ph.D

Introductory notes:

An important concept to keep in mind when approaching the writings of Karl Marx is “the division of labor.” In Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, he explains how the division of labor has caused the greatest improvement in work productivity. For instance, if I were in the pin making business, I could provide step-by-step instructions for my pin-maker to make pins. How many pins could one individual produce in a day? Maybe a couple. However, if we divide the labor out into a series of 20 production steps, a work group could likely make around 50,000 pins per day. The key is that each individual take on only one step, so that each member of the group completes her individual step according to the production plan. The individual completing only one step of the production process will become a master at that one step. According to Smith, the division of labor eliminates lag time from technology maintenance, retraining workers, and the like. Labor is divided and workers’ productivity is much more efficient.

Marx on Materialism:

Philosophically speaking, Marx is heavily influenced by Hegel. Hegel argues that progress is guided by Spirit, which is a form of idealism. Contrary to Hegel, Marx is a materialist, which means that progress is guided by human activity, particularly as such is related to economic and social factors. Marx’s focus is on the ways that people make a living–labor–and how labor influences social and cultural life. He gives a three tiered framework for classifying features of economic and social life that are essential to his understanding of social and historical change.

  1. Productive forces used in the process of production: labor power and the means of production
  2. Relations of production: social roles between people regarding the control of productive forces used in the process of production (i.e. ownership, slaveholders, slaves, lord, serf, employer, employee. The first two form the economic structures of a society.
  3. Legal and political forms of social consciousness, which is what we might refer to as social life of a culture

While specific societies have different details, all societies have features of this framework. Historical changes grow out of the tendency humans have to develop their productive capacities and their ability to transform and control nature. During the development of productive forces, different relations of production affect the use and growth of productive forces. Over time, new relations of production will be adopted and endure to the extent that they foster growth, but when growth is restricted or prevented, new relations of production arise. This is how revolutionary changes occur in the organization of society.

Similarly, legal and political forms of social consciousness do not function independently of the existing relations of production in a society and alone do not account for historical change. Legal and political forms of social consciousness are connected to the existing relations of production. This means that when there is a fundamental change in the relations of production, there will be corresponding changes legally and politically.

In Estranged Labor, Marx explains that capitalism is a way of organizing economic life that involves three features:

  1. Private property in the means of production, used to make a profit
  2. Labor power is a commodity, where individual producers own their labor power and are free to exchange it with employers for a wage in a labor market.
  3. Commodity production, where production is for exchange in the market rather than for direct consumption.

According to Marx, under capitalist conditions, the worker becomes a commodity because we exchange our labor as a good on the market. However, this is the worst kind of commodity because we are forced into a competitive relationship with others. The result of this competition is the accumulation of capital in the hands of the few (1% versus 99%). Beyond competition, this also leads to greed.

Marx’s critique of capitalism involves an understanding of the worker within the labor processes under capitalism. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he gives an account of alienated or estranged labor that includes four types of alienation.

  1. Alienation from the Product of Labor: What the worker produces is an external realization or “objectification” of the worker’s activity. In other words, labor is manifested in external objects as the worker transforms and appropriates the material world according to the worker’s goal or plan. Under certain economic conditions this can involve self-satisfaction and self-expression for the worker because the worker can identify with the product. The product is seen as an expression of the worker and is a source of self-worth for the worker.However, Marx argued that under capitalist conditions of production this objectification of labor in the product involves a separation between worker and product, a “loss of reality” for the worker, where the product is not under the worker’s control. Instead of belonging to or being an expression of the worker, the product confronts the worker as something independent and at odds with the worker’s freedom (Section XXII).
  2. Alienation from the Activity of Labor: The worker’s own activity is not under the control of the worker and is valued by the worker only instrumentally–as a means to a further end ($). The activity of labor is therefore not intrinsically meaningful or worthwhile in itself; labor is unpleasant and becomes something to be be avoided (Section XXII).
  3. Alienation of the Worker from the Worker’s Species Being: For Marx, the worker has a particular nature or “species character” as a human being. This means we are capable of producing in a way in which one is conscious of oneself, of one’s activity, of the product of one’s labor, and of oneself. Essentially, being human means that we are self-aware or self-consciousness and because we have this capacity, humans are able to reflect on and make choices regarding what and how they produce. Thus, they can act freely and can produce “universally” in a variety of ways and for purposes that go beyond basic biological needs.
    According to Marx, humans realize and express their nature as species beings through production. The non-human animal is immediately one with its life activity. It is not distinct from that activity; it is that activity. Man makes his activity itself an object of his will and consciousness. Under capitalism, work is not adequate fulfillment or expression of the worker’s nature of species being. People under capitalism work to survive rather than work because it is enjoyable (Section XXIV).
  4. Alienation of Humans from One Another: Marx claims that individuals are alienated from one another during working time, which is evident through the other types of alienation (Section XXV).


Marx on Communism:

Marx argues that capitalism leads to these various forms of alienation. He does not believe that alienation can be overcome by reform within capitalism because the fundamental aspect of alienation concerns the impoverishment of the worker. Simply raising wages by reform will do nothing but provide better payment for worker, but does not restore human dignity. Marx believes that alienated labor is inseparable from the wage system and private property that characterizes capitalism. Alienated labor can only be overcome and workers can only have their human dignity returned to them by a radically different system. This would be a system without wages and private property, where the workers themselves controlled their productivity–communism.[1]

Marx does not provide a full definition of what a communist society would look like. He does describe it as a community of free individuals, working with the means of production in common, in which the labor-power is applied as the combined labor power of the community. This would entail no class divisions and no exploitation of workers by capitalists. Minimally, a communist system would include the following:

  1. Private property in the means of production would be replaced by common ownership.
  2. The market exchange of labor and the products of labor would be replaced by collective control of labor.
  3. The products of labor by the community of producers would be in accordance with a consciously adopted plan for production and distribution.

Marx also describes a two-stage development of communist society that includes a transitional stage and a later stage where the principles governing the distribution of the means of consumption are different in each:

  1. Stage 1: After deductions for certain common funds (e.g. administration, insurance, health, education, taking care of those no longer able to contribute to the labor force, etc), society returns to the individual workers that is proportionate to the labor each laborer supplies. Here there would be inequalities in consumption based on differences in the labor of each of the individuals supplied. Essentially because this communist society would be emerging out of a capitalist society there would be inequalities. This is because we cannot change overnight. In the transitional period the distribution of goods among workers will follow the same principle of distribution that prevails in capitalist societies, where labor is paid in proportion to the labor supplied. Most interpretations of Marx refer to this transitional stage as a form of socialism.
  2. Stage 2: As a communist society develops and reaches this stage, labor and human motivation regarding labor will be transformed and means of consumption will be distributed according to a different principle: from each according to his own ability and to each according to his own needs.

The reason that there are not many details that would describe what a communist society would look like is because these cannot be figured out in advance. We, in a capitalist society, cannot create abstract notions of what a non-alienating society would look like and then simply apply it to our actuality. There can be no utopian ideal for Marx. He is a materialist, which means all change must come from the various individuals that are living in different societies and such will reflect specific conditions and problems that cannot be universally solved or determined. In fact, Marx criticized other socialist and communist thinkers for utopian thinking. He thought utopian thinkers made too many assumptions about individuals and institutions that were unrealistic and far removed from what actuality would likely be. Therefore, Marx thought that communist societies would have to be based on and develop out of existing individuals and institutions instead of imaginary ones. Again, this is in line with his materialism. Because development of the new comes out of what exists, no one can say how these new institutions or societies will be.[2]


Selections from Manifesto of the Communist Party, by Engels and Marx:

If we look at the history of the various relations of production: free/slave; lord/serf; guildmaster/apprentice; employer/employee–all of these are equivalent to oppressor and oppressed.

History shows us the various social ranks. In Ancient Rome there were the patricians, knights, and plebians. In the Middle Ages there were the fuedal lords, vassals, and serfs. Now, in the Industrial Revolution there are the capitalists and the workers. The latter classes simply assert new class antagonisms and new conditions of oppression in place of old ones from feudal times.

The modern bourgeois, is a product of revolutions in the means of production. Remember, as the means of production change so do the relations of production. Then the bourgeois begins to gain political sway: “The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

A question we might consider here is, how our political system supports capitalists.

Marx continues, “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal ties, idyllic relations. 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 fervor, 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 numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom–Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

So, the bourgeois tears apart other relations of production. In the feudal age, man was naturally bound to his superiors (by land, by manor). Only self-interest and money are of importance now. All notions of sentimentalism and chivalry are drowned by the icy waters of egotistical calculation–how can I increase my capital? Personal worth is leveled out by exchange values.

We each become exchangeable–just like an object on the market. We become numbers and can be replaced with any other individual when we are wage-laborers: doctors, lawyers, educators, priests, and poets.

As this system expands, industries no longer use local natural ingredients but import such from the most remote areas and industries produce commodities that are used world-wide.

This relates to a claim that Adam Smith makes regarding importing goods. He claims  Smith’s that if one can import a good for less cost than using a local resource, one ought to be able to do so. His view is that it will lower the cost for the capitalist, which, will, in turn, lower the cost for the buyer. He believes that any jobs lost due to import will be replaced with other jobs, so it will all work out in the end. Also, think about our current political discourse regarding trade, tariffs, import, and outsourced jobs.

Nations are no longer independent and self-sufficient, but instead are dependent upon other nations. We are a global community now–even with barbaric societies. This is because of the goods they can offer or the goods we can sell.

In order for the system to continue, new wants and desires are produced–the only way to satisfy a particular desire is with some product that is produced, regardless of where that good is produced.

If you are familiar with the show Madmen, think about how Draper’s job involved the creation of desires and new markets. The creation of new markets is something that Smith acknowledged as part of the capitalist system and its ability to grow wealth.

The laborer as a commodity–the worst kind of commodity for Marx–is like every other commodity: exposed to the flux of the market and forced into competition with others. “Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for his maintenance, and for the propagation of his [human] race. But the price of a commodity, and also of labor, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases.”

The average price of wage-labor is the minimum wage (i.e. the amount that is required to keep the laborer in bare existence as a laborer and to reproduce more laborers). Marx explains that they (he and his co-author Engles) by no means intend to abolish the personal appropriation of the products of labor. All they want to do away with is the miserable character of appropriation, under which the laborer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only insofar as the interest of the ruling class requires it. In other words, the point is not to do away with the individual’s access to goods, but instead to do away with how we appropriate such goods.

In the end, Marx believed that the proletariat class would rise up and the fall of capitalism would occur. It seems clear that he thought this would’ve happened by now, but I suppose in the end, time will tell.


Key Concepts

division of labor

philosophical idealism

philosophical materialism

productive forces

relations of production

social consciousness



alienation from the product of labor

alienation from the activity of labor

alienation from the workers’ species being

alienation of human beings from one another




private property

market exchange and exchange value






  1. Washburn, P. (2003). The many faces of wisdom: Great philosophers' visions of philosophy (1st ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  2. ibid.


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An Introduction to Marx's Philosophic and Economic Thought Copyright © 2020 by Heather Wilburn, Ph.D is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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