March 2014

How Marx Came to Discover the Alienation of Labour

Written by Mary Gabriel

Joblessness was liberating for Karl Marx in 1844 -- it meant he could go back to school. His classrooms were Paris' gas-lit cafes and wine cellars, and small offices filled with cigar smoke.

There were no lectures, there were discussions --boisterous gatherings that drew curious passers-by who watched men from many nations shout at one another about the relative merits of socialism, communism, nationalism, liberalism and democracy, and whether governments should be taken by force and rebuilt from the ruins, or whether appeals should be made to the ruling class that fundamental social change was coming.

All sides of the debate saw the need for new forms of government in Europe; the nature of society had changed. Absolute monarchs with their obsequious courtiers and despots with their bloody henchmen seemed like costume characters from another era. The men in Marx's circle agreed the monarchies must go. They could not agree, however, on how, or on what would replace them.

At that time, there were no international organizations under whose auspices these men could gather. Gradually, however, in the melting pot of Paris, those who were at the forefront of the new ideologies began transcending the barriers of languages and customs to talk about common concerns. Several dominant strands were prominent among these middle-class reformers: liberalism, radicalism, nationalism and socialism.

Proletarian Army
All of those isms, however, existed largely in the theoretical realm, topics of discussion that could not be applied because they had no mass support -- no army. The reason for this was relatively straightforward: The working class was suspicious of middle-class reformers and consequently of their ideologies. Marx, too, was suspicious of these ideas.

Marx did not recognize in any of the isms a real understanding of the disease spreading through Europe's fledgling industrial economic system, and without that knowledge, no meaningful social change was possible. Fully admitting that he, too, did not completely understand, Marx set out in search of answers.

He returned to the books he had been reading that year, specifically texts by French and English economists, filling notebook after notebook with scrambled jottings. These became the "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts" or "1844 Manuscripts," which Marx left unfinished but which formed the basis for his life's work.

'Bourgeois Economists'
The study of these "bourgeois economists" led Marx to the conclusion that these thinkers believed economic systems operated according to cold, immutable laws that carried men along and were beyond their control. These economists also believed that business, left to grow without government interference, would eventually produce a general benefit for all mankind. But Marx had seen and heard evidence to the contrary, and he set out to demythologize economics, to describe its real- world mechanics and, most forcefully, its consequences.

Marx worked his way through wage, rent, credit, profit, private property vs. communism, and the relations of capital to labour. What he discovered was that acquisition of the glittering prize of the new economic system, money (and by extension the things that such capital could buy), had become the driving force in modern man's existence, perverting every aspect of his relations with other people, even how he viewed himself. It magically enabled the rich man to become whatever he chose.

'Stupidity, Cretinism'
Meanwhile the labour that produced the rich man's wealth robbed the worker of his lifeblood: "It produces palaces -- but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty -- but for the worker, deformity. It replaces labour by machines, but it throws one section of the workers back to a barbarous type of labor, and it turns the other section into a machine. It produces intelligence -- but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism."

Marx sought to explain how this corrosive relationship had developed. He began placing man in a system in which the grand bourgeoisie, which controlled all the money as well as the means of production, dehumanized the worker by reducing him to selling his labour for a wage determined by his employer. The worker in the new industrial relationship became alienated from his work, labouring for a class of men who reaped all the benefits and gave him in return only the means to survive.

Falling Wages
Marx's theories became spectacles; evidence was luminescent everywhere. Wages had been falling for nearly 20 years while the cost of living during the same time rose 17 percent. In 1844 wide-scale food shortages began. A series of scandals exposed how French officials had helped create the economic imbalance by concentrating extreme wealth in the hands of a select few.

Although he had once discounted communism as unrealizable, Marx now saw it as the means to recalibrate society. Wealth would not be private property but shared. Men would work, but their work would benefit themselves and the greater good, not the property owner. He described communism as "the genuine resolution of the antagonism between man and nature and between man and man … between freedom and necessity." French and German workers in Paris who identified themselves as communists believed revolution was the only way to end exploitation, as its beneficiaries had so much to lose. Marx agreed, writing, "It takes actual communist action to abolish actual private property."

Silesia Uprising
As if on cue, such violence occurred. Word arrived of an uprising in the Prussian region of Silesia, where on June 4, 1844, a group of weavers marched on the home of Prussian industrialists. Their demands for higher pay denied, the weavers stormed the house and destroyed it. The next day, as many as 5,000 weavers and their families burst into homes and factories, destroyed machines, and looted and ransacked residences and offices. The industrialists called in the Prussian military, which fired on the crowd, killing 35.

The revolt was the first of its kind involving industrial workers in Germany, and though it failed, Marx recognized in it the connection he sought between an impassioned proletariat, economics and the state. The driving force behind the rebellion was not an abstraction such as religion or ethnicity or a throne, as many had been in the past, but something much more tangible: bread.

Energized by events at home, exiled Germans, including Marx and Heinrich Heine, began meeting on Sundays at a Paris wine merchant's shop. French police informers reported they discussed killing kings, oppressing the rich and religious, and other "words of horror."

Steadfast Jenny
Jenny Marx's letters to her husband during this period indicated a creeping anxiety about their future. She was evidently struggling to be strong, while raising their daughter at her parents' house in Trier, as her husband travelled further along a dangerous road. But in the end she seemed resigned that the path Karl had chosen was inevitable and correct. To those who doubted his course, she said, "Can one not see everywhere signs of earthquake and the undermining of the foundations on which society has erected its temples and shops?"