Marx on Alienation: Definition & Concept

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  • 0:01 Understanding Alienation
  • 1:02 Theory on Alienation
  • 1:55 Negative Effects
  • 3:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
As an influential figure in the social sciences, Karl Marx's writings have informed many areas of human societies. In this lesson, you'll explore Marx's theory on alienation and gain insight into how it affects capitalistic social systems.

Understanding Alienation

If you've spent much time studying sociology or philosophy, you've probably noticed that there are few people, if any, who have contributed as much to the fields as Karl Marx. As one of the preeminent thinkers of the 19th century, Marx's writing has been critical in the development of theories ranging from capitalism and the economy to social development and human nature. Among his valuable contributions to these fields are his theories on the effects of social alienation on an individual's ability to forge his or her own path in life.

Generally speaking, the term alienation is used to describe a person who feels isolated from others or is prohibited from taking part in aspects of society in which he or she should otherwise be allowed to participate. For example, people who often perceive themselves or are perceived by others to be 'outsiders' or a 'social misfits' might find that they are unwelcome in certain areas of society and will therefore feel alienated from others because they don't fit in.

Theory on Alienation

From Marx's perspective, human beings distinguished themselves from other animals based on their consciousness, autonomy, and ability to be productive members of a society, which give them a sense of purpose in life. Broadly, this is what Marx referred to as human nature, which he characterized as the essence of a person, or one's ability to control their own destiny to a certain extent.

According to Marx's theory of alienation, when a person is engaged in the lower rungs of a capitalist system, in which they are just cogs in a much larger system, they are driven by those within a higher social class to produce as much as possible. From his point of view, this social position discouraged the laborer from taking control of their own future or pursuing ways to climb the social ladder, which put increasing distance between individuals and their human nature.

Negative Effects

This alienation has numerous negative effects, but one of the most significant is that it precludes the opportunity for self-actualization, which is the point at which an individual sees the fulfillment of his or her potential. Being disconnected from their humanity and denied the right to self-actualization causes the individuals to see themselves or be seen by others as nothing more than an object in a capitalist system of production.

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