Marx Shrugged: Alienation and Opiates

By Zia Ahmad


As much as exploitation is an external woe that afflicts a majority of humankind, alienation is something that simmers inwardly. More so a state of being, alienation is a sense of disconnect and estrangement of an individual from his external environment. For the keen disciple of Marx alienation serves a less than existential purpose.

 Marx states alienation as a separation of human beings from their more natural instincts and bearings. Age old wisdom does maintain that man can only find true happiness in finding harmony with his nature. Distance from aspects of one’s innate nature gives reason for much grief and some degree of wretchedness. Marx blames capitalism for creating this distance.

 One way of blaming capitalism for the wretchedness in men can be seen by way of declaring the enterprise of making money as evil. The task of making money keeps one from his natural vocation, be it painting or writing or crafting woodwork. Man is compelled by his basic survival needs to work for uncaring capitalists who exploit him by making him work long hours for pitiable wages. This blatant exploitation keeps him from appreciating the finer pleasures of life and from achieving his potential. This understandably gives way to much debasement, disillusionment and ultimately alienation. Though, on another note, this can lead to a debate to see if the inclination towards the pursuit of finer pleasures in life such as knowledge and understanding of art is a universal trait. Many workers would just be happy to earn an honest day’s living, get back home to a hot meal, comfort of family and escapist entertainment, so the idea of alienation afflicting all is suspect.

 Karl Marx exercises his interpretation of alienation rigidly within the confines of the factory production line. He argues that the fruit of surplus labor which results in profits is solely enjoyed by the owner which leaves the workers who did the extra effort towards achieving that very profit alienated.

 Though a closer reading reveals how workers lose control of their lives and selves in a capitalist industrial production set up. This loss of control stems from having no control over their work. Marx observed that the worker never became an autonomous, self realized individual in any significant sense. The worker’s worth is defined by the capitalist owner and his wage. The monotonous  work systematically breaks down the individuality of the worker. Individuality is also robbed by way of working collectively and anonymously. No satisfaction is to be derived out of the work achieved and no joy to be had on the thought of the product being savored and enjoyed by the buyer.

 Marx further attributes four different kinds of alienation of labor under capitalism:

  •  Alienation of the worker from his specie: This anthropological sounding aspect points to the kind of alienation where the worker ceases to relate to his fellow humans and takes on an indifferent persona. The apathetic drone like existence adjusts itself to a regimented dull and monotonous routine.
  • Alienation between workers: Since capitalism treats workers as commodities, the objectification brings the workers to see other workers as easily interchangeable tools and conditions them to form an aloof relationship rather than a social one.
  • Alienation of worker from the product:  The product that the worker commits himself to produce is in possession of the capitalist to be sold into the market for the consumption of the buyer so the worker can lay no claim over the product and wouldn’t feel proud of it as a carpenter might of his handicraft
  • Alienation from work: A monotonous, tedious and at times even hazardous work that has no meaning and purpose but to provide the worker with covering his basic needs. No satisfaction is to be had and hence the worker attaches no pride and loyalty with his work.

 Probably it is this brand of dissatisfaction that lead Marx to make his famous remark about religion as opium of the masses. The essence of this remark has been much abused over the ages as a Godless and heathen rhetoric. Though in all fairness, in the 19th century opium was widely used for medicinal purposes to alleviate pain. Marx observed a spiritual unease in the working classes that just may as well be induced by alienation. He also noticed a bent towards religion in the impoverished working classes in an attempt to heal their emotional malaise. Religion gave purpose to the existence of the working man and just as opium worked for the physically sick, religion seemed to make the world a bit bearable for the exploited and alienated working man.

 Marx sought to redefine the world and its history in order to bring a “positive transcendence of all estrangement” that would mark the return of man from religion and material to his natural state of being that is in harmony with itself. Thus, Marx offers his own opiate for the impoverished masses.


Filed under Economy, History, human rights, Labour, Left, poverty, Religion, Society

14 responses to “Marx Shrugged: Alienation and Opiates

  1. Rizwan

    Marxism has failed to alleviate the sufferings of the masses in each of the countries it was practiced.
    It works exactly opposite to its own theories.
    The natural human instincts guarantees its failure wherever it is attempted.

  2. khawerkhan

    My apologies I misread the article in my last post. Pardon my stupdity. Do not publish my last reply.


  3. khawerkhan


    Okay seems both my posts were eventually published. Mr. Ahmad, I must admit I misread your article at first. My sincere apologies for such an irresponsible post.

    I do not object to your essay as strongly as I did in my initial message. However, I do suggest that an alternate view exists. You have presented a very “orthodox” picture of Marxism here.

    Early Marx was not divorced from “historicism”, i.e the belief that our understanding of knowledge is based within a particular time and place. Even independent of “early Marx” this argument has its merits.

    As such, there is not true “human nature”. That becomes the point of Marxism its self, that there is no Human Nature, that so-called nature is a historical and social construct and that it can change. In short, nature too is a construct of material conditions, but in a far less crude or vulgar manner.

    What this historicist reading of Marxism then offers is a lack of pretensions to Marxism being independent of the superstructure, like some readings of Marx may suggest. Namely those readings which claim a scientific basis.

    The point however is not to repudiate Marxism, but point out its ultimate objective: the recognition that Capitalism is not based in “nature” and that it can be transcended by a more just system (i.e. socialism) via a revolution of the workers.

    So back to the point, my only issue with you is that you make an ontological claim that mystifies Marx. You seem to suggest that there is some objective human nature that is alienated. Please note that none of the 4 types of alienation listed by Marx suggest this.

    That was my only point. Pardon my earlier retort, it was misplaced and rude.

  4. khawerkhan

    This lack of objective “nature” argument is also very important for opponents of socialism to understand. There is nothing “natural” about capitalism.

  5. Gorki

    Zia Ahmad has done a tremendous job (and mostly succeeded) in trying to reduce the usually incomprehensible Marxist rhetoric to plain English so that it is understandable by ordinary mortals like me.

    I am now waiting for Bonobashi to break his self imposed silence and complement the commentary that Zia Sahib has undertaken so patiently and painstakingly.

    It is amazing that Marxism, which was developed purely as an academic theory had such an immense impact on the world in the 20th century.

    Founded as it was on a premise of rationality and social justice, it is no wonder that at one point it found a sympathetic and receptive audience not only in the factories and shipyards of Europe but also in the former colonies of the west in Asia and Africa; which led to the dubious label; ‘The third world’.

    However being purely a theory and overly dogmatic at that, it could not grapple with the contradictions between the assumed notions and the ground realities it faced in the real world and eventually failed as it was inevitably destined to.

    The following joke that I read many years ago illustrates my point:

    A Marxist revolutionary was once speaking in front of the crowd in a South America and was extolling the virtues of the coming workers’ revolution as follows:

    “Come the revolution” he said, “you all will have a comfortable job and a nice clean house to live in”.
    Yeah; the crowd cheered.

    “Come the revolution, you all will have a nice fancy red car to drive in” he further railed.
    Yeah; the crowd again responded, a bit louder than before.

    The guy was now on the roll and saw no reason to stop.
    “Come the revolution, and you all will have a beautiful blonde at your side in the car”.
    Most men again cheered loudly.

    One guy however had some second thoughts.
    “Err comrade, I don’t want a blonde at my side in the car” he demurred.
    The revolutionary heard him but continued:
    “Come the glorious revolution, you all will all do what you are all damn well told to do.”

    I think this joke summed up the inherent contradictions of the Marxist ideology that no amount of revolutionary zeal could overcome.

    It claimed to speak for the workers’ freedom yet its solution for this was to prescribe a straightjacket dictatorship by a few in the name of the proletariat. This did not sound so bad in theory but in practice it led to such outrageous atrocities and human rights violations that it eventually alienated even its most ardent supporters.

    Thus when the grim tyranny by a handful of octogenarians came to a sudden and a shocking end in the Soviet Union, took every one by surprise.

    Marxism failed because ironically it missed one important academic fact; that humans are too individualistic to be grouped into classes.
    Above all they yearned for freedom to live and act as individuals.

    Marxism may yet have succeeded if instead of advocating fairness in terms of group rights, it had only advocated fairness in terms of individual human rights and kept out of economic mumbo jumbo, but then it would not have been Marxism.

    In its heyday Marxism enjoyed a cult status that was the envy of major religions of mankind.
    Today it is a sad ideological shadow of its former self; and has outlived its usefulness.
    Like a former beauty queen, it can only reminisce about the glory of the days gone by.

    Marxism was not all tyranny and bad economic theory though. For the former Soviet union, it allowed that nation to marshal its resources like never before and defeat the evil of Nazi racism.

    On a larger plane, it can lay a claim to be among the first to advocate broad internationalism which transcended the narrow nationalism of the day.

    Also with its focus on grouping based on economic classes rather than on races of mankind it helped drive a decisive nail once and for all in the coffin of racism.
    Martin Luther King may still have succeeded in the USA and apartheid may still have been defeated in South Africa but the fact that these struggles took place against the backdrop of a cold war waged in the name of freedom for all made the task easier by providing a mirror like no other to the hypocrisy of the supremacist whites.


  6. Gorki

    There is nothing “natural” about capitalism.


    It just happens to be one of the economic models in the world. Yet opponents of Marxism like for example George Orwell did not think that opposite of Marxism was capitalism; it was (in their eyes) more right to say that the opposite of Marxism (or atleast Marxist practice) was freedom; more specifically, individual freedom.

    What rankled most opponents and neutral observers as well was the assumption that individuals had no free will and thus individual rights were subordinate to the rights of a group and that were, was best defined by a small coterie of orthodox thought leaders.


  7. khawerkhan


    Orwell was not an anti-marxist, he was an anti-Stalinist. That is, he was opposed to one subset of Marxist practice.

    MI5 kept a file on him and described him as having “advanced Communist views and several of his Indian friends say that they have often seen him at Communist meetings”

    Furthermore Marxism is not opposed to individual freedom at all. In fact, from a Marxist view, it is capitalism which reduced the individual to a commodity. Please read Mr. Ahmed article and also “Wage Labor and Capital” by Marx.

  8. Zia Ahmad

    @ Gorki
    Thank you for the kind words. Only one more installement to go and I also eagerly await Bonobashi’s response in good time.

  9. Gorki


    Thanks for the post.

    I used Orwell as one example of individuals who were not opposed to socialism as a theory but were turned off by the totalarian concepts which are a part of a central dogma of practical Marxism; when it is put in practice.

    I am not an expert in Marxist theories and thus will gladly concede that you may have a point too but the fact remains that Marxist rhetoric made many people uncomfortable even when it was espoused purely as a theory.

    For example an anarchist with socialist sympathies named Bakunin argued with Marx himself regarding his espousal of the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ asking pointedly:

    “If the proletariat is ruling, over whom will it rule? Another proletariat?

    He is said to have told Marx (rather prophetically, I think) that when the people are being beaten with a stick, it doen not make them much happier if it is called ‘the People’s Stick’.


  10. khawerkhan


    We could go on for ever about the totalitarian and brutal nature of capitalism, which is often overlooked because it lacks an easily identifiable agent, and the impractical nature of anarchist theory; but lets just say we understand each others positions 🙂

  11. Gorki


    I agree. 😉


  12. Charan Gill,Patiala

    I think Marx does not limit the phenomenon of alienation( mainly as a loss of human essence in oppressive and exploitative conditions of capitalist system)to working class only.Capitalists themselves are not less victims of their favorite system.In a way workers are better placed as their sufferings in the oppressive conditions can make them conscious of their loss.But the feeling of ownership in the capitalists denies them this very consciousness. so they are destined to defend their enemy,the capitalist system.Marx found the emancipatory potential of working class in the possibility of their becoming a class for itself from a class in itself.

  13. bonobashi

    @Zia Ahmed

    If I may just write a few words, explaining a few not very important things.

    I had hoped to wait until the end of your series to comment, for the simple reason that even observations and thoughts spoken aloud in the middle of somebody else’s composition can be distracting and certainly is rude.

    Is this fourth installment, then, the end? I am not sure, because it is tempting to think of an addition regarding, severally and greedily, current Marxism in a post-Soviet, post-Maoist world; the young Marx vs. the old Marx controversies, or the Hegelian Marx (!); anything that you might want to add on the national interpretations of Marx, which yielded Euro-Communism, Cuban and other South American brands of Communism, Chinese Communism, South Asian Communism, perhaps a dozen other manifestations which can be discussed cheekily before orthodox Marxists cut off the discussion; and of course the possibility of a post-Marxist world.

    On further thought, it was obvious that you would not abuse readers’ tolerance with these extensions, which really belong to those who wallow in the pages of EPW and read Lukacs on Culture with avid delight. This must be the well-constructed end of the series, save for one more article, which you have referred to.

    My earlier interjection was untimely and regrettable. I was very angry with myself for that premature remark. Your kindness did much to soothe injured self-esteem and a feeling of embarrassment, rather like that which overcomes the idiot who cannot help coughing in the middle of a virtuoso’s violin cadenza. So the second obstacle is overcome, the second gate is opened.

    The third (self-created) bar was my feeling that the debate (elsewhere) on Jinnah and Pakistani nationalism had wandered far away into the realms of the personality cult, both a positive one and a negative one, and into – once again – a lapse into what Benda called ‘la trahison des clercs’, and a personal decision to cleanse and clarify my thinking before considering these issues again – or at all in fact. This bar remains, but in no way should it interfere with supporting your excellent articles, which gave me much pleasure and which I hope was liked by us at large as well: its quality deserves that appreciation from us all at the least.

    I am avidly waiting for the fifth instalment, and hope that some of our subsequent remarks will move you to more.

  14. Zia Ahmad

    I am humbled and grateful for your generous response. I hope you, Gorki and all who have appreciated the series will find the next and final article satisfying. And I also do admit there is a temptation to tackle most of the other entities in the Marxist universe. Not to mention the massive impression Marxism made on culture and academics, the house that Eisenstien built, how Che Guevera got to be a pop icon and frankly other ideas that refuse to transcribe themselves at this moment. But I should remind my self not to get ahead of myself and make sure the next one is an appropriate finale.