The Significance Of The Alienation Of Labour In Karl Marx: (It’s Implications To The Condition Of The Nigerian Workers)

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE ALIENATION OF LABOUR IN KARL MARX: (It’s Implications to the Condition of the Nigerian Workers)

Karl Marx


The 17th century philosophy, the enlightenment period, is significant for so many reasons. Not only did it witness the emergence of many vigorous thinkers, but it also shifted the attention of philosophy from the cosmos (ancient period) and God (medieval period) to the appreciation of man as both the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem of all reality. In a splendid way, the philosophies of the German idealist, Hegel and the materialist, Feuerbach respectively contributed to the shaping of the philosophical views of another great thinker, the founder of Historical Materialism, Karl Marx.

Hegel formulated the main principle, law and categories of dialectics, showing that ideas develop progressively from lower to higher form and that in the course of such development, there is a transformation of quantity into quality and internal contradiction are the source of development. This view in a special way depicts Marx’s methodology in exclusion of idealism, in place of the cognition and revolutionary transformation of the existing world. In the same vein, Feuerbach’s materialism, which portrayed that philosophy, should study nature and man as a product of protracted development of nature purged out of its metaphysical and contemplative approach, in place of socio-political sphere of human life. Hence, Marx puts man as

First of all a natural being…. and a living natural being, who is endowed on one hand with natural powers… these powers exist in him as aptitudes and instincts, on the other hand as an object, natural, physical, dependent and limited being… that is the object of his instincts exists outside him, independent of him, but as for the object of his need, indispensable and essential for the realization and confirmation of his substantial powers[1] .

It is this natural power and its instinctive manifestation in man that explain historical movement in Karl Marx. But a pertinent question arises at this juncture: who is Karl Marx?

Karl Marx, son of a famous German lawyer of Jewish descent, was born in 1818 in Trier, Germany. Although a Lutheran, he was educated in Catholic schools and at the university of Berlin, where at twenty, he wrote his doctorate thesis on Democritus and Epicurus, under the influence of Hegelian thought. However, the Hegelian triadic or dialectical method suddenly captured his interest and he conceived history as a process of overcoming opposition and at the same time being reconciled to it, incorporating it within its being. He lost focus in Hegelian idealism and opted for a more materialistic and economic interpretation of man and history with the same dialectical method.

In 1842, he became a journalist for the liberal Rheinische Zeitung and distinguished himself as an erudite and vibrant thinker. Thus, he was described as follows: “he combines the deepest philosophical seriousness with the most biting wit. Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine and Hegel fused into one person—I say fused, not juxtaposed—and you have Dr. Marx”2. Marx was married to Jenny Von Westphalen, and later became radically involved in politics, which underlines his emigration to London, where he came in contact with the French socialists Friedrich Engel (1820-1895) who later became his lifelong friend. “Through Engel, Marx gained insight into British economic theory and the economic and social conditions of Britain,”3 which contributed much in his philosophical works. His principal works are “Economic and Philosophical manuscripts” of 1844, “The communist manifesto” (with Friedrich Engels, 1848) and “De Capital”, 3 vols., 1867, 1885,1895. Marx died in 1883.

In the manuscripts of 1844, he critically observed that under capitalism, the workers (proletariats) are wage-slaves (not free), exploited by the capitalists and as such are alienated beings. This has always been manifested in the relationship between the capitalists and the workers everywhere in Nigeria. Moreso, the researcher wishes to discuss the issue of alienation of labour in Nigeria with inspirations from the Marxian notion of alienation of labour.

1.1Statement of Problem

The philosophy of Karl Marx revolves around one fact this is that matter is the basis of reality. In connection with the economy and thought, Marx posits “economy is based on labour, which specifically is the human activity that puts us in touch with reality”. Therefore, when human being is alienated from labour, the necessary implications include extinction of life, nature, self, relationship and the conception of human being as tool, which in every extent remain unjust and unnatural.

It is incontestable that the foregoing situations abound in the existential world. In Nigeria, the situation is heart-rending. The relationship between the Capitalists and the Labourers is anything but cordial. There is no or at most very low appreciation of labour. This view is substantiated by the ill-treatment of workers, poor payment of salaries or total non-payment, inadequate remuneration, et cetera. Taken the other way round, we see dehumanization of workers in Nigeria both in the private and public sector through the lenses of egoism occasioned by capitalism. The effect of such egoism is not far-fetched.

Just consider the cases of unemployment! Is it not infuriating to see millions of Nigerians, graduates and trained citizens, of course, denied employment opportunities? Why? Because, those already in office want more fat salaries and better treatment. Hence, there is no need to bring in more workers. The worst of it all is that such selfish individuals do not contribute anything substantial to the growth of the economy. The situation is serious really.

Ideologically, money takes priority, and man serves labour instead of labour serving man. The value system of both private and government entrepreneur gives no hope at all. Things have fallen apart and the center of the Nigerian economy cannot hold anymore. But what remedy could one proffer to ameliorate this problem? This is the aim of this work.

 1.2 Aim of Study

Having exposed the problems in Nigeria, especially in relation to labour and capital, the researcher wants to exploit the contents of the Marxian theory of the alienation of labour in redressing the situation. Marx anxiously sought for a balance in the economic benefits of the capitalists and the labourers. Hopefull, this equilibrium will be realized in the Nigerian situation.

 1.3 Scope of Study

The Marxian historical materialism “assigned to the substructure, to the material order, the supreme significance in the dialectic process of history”4. As such the researcher, thereby, restricts himself to the relationship between the labour and capital. This relationship is not one of cordiality. It is rather a relation of alienation, the alienation of labour. He will also extend his research to the meaning of work, obligations of the workers and the implications of the alienation of labour in the Nigerian context. There will be a cursory look into the existing classes, its cause and attendant effects on the economy, then followed by a suggestion of a seemingly workable solution to the situation of workers in Nigeria.

1.4 Methodology

Method is next nature of any research work. Hence, this work combines expository, deductive, review and evaluative methods. The researcher employs exclusive constructions and use of words that are peculiar to Marx, such as cost value, exchange value, surplus value, et cetera, which describe the relationship between the labour, the wage and the alienation.


1.5 Division of Work

In order to justify the aim and scope of study, this work is divided into five chapters. Chapter one deals with the introductory details of the work    while chapter two describes alienation, its forms and the theory of surplus value. In chapter three, the researcher clearly exposes the situation of Nigerian workers. The significance of alienation of labour in Nigeria context forms the subject of chapter four. Lastly, chapter five critically reviews the Marxian theory of alienation of labour, its merits and demerits and the possible solution to the situation of Nigerian workers. After this comes the conclusion


It is a common belief in nature that every existing situation or event has an organic link to something that existed earlier. Hence, there is always a background to any subject under study.

History has it that Karl Marx, though very famous and influential in his time, could not be identified with a particular philosophical system. Instead, what later emerged, as his philosophical thought was the synthesis of his predecessors’ philosophical thoughts. Perusing through his method, the Hegelian categories of dialectics as detected by scholars was purged out of its idealism. Likewise, Feuerbach’s materialism lost its metaphysics and contemplative approach in place of socio-political struggle and in refutation of idealism and religion.

This specifically brought the idea of materialism in Karl Marx. Thus,

Marx’s achievement in social and political thought              was based on a transformation and synthesis of two   traditions: German idealism as exemplified in the work of Hegel, and philosophical radicalism as expressed in the materialism of Feuerbach5.

Nonetheless, such philosophers like Heraclitus, Democritus, Epicurus, Kant, Francis Bacon, Machiavelli, and his father, as a lawyer and intellectual with strong rational inclinations, and of Ludwig Von Westphalia, a distinguished Prussian government official, all had influences on Marx.

From F. Bacon, Marx was able to see knowledge from the practical perspective, and from Machiavelli; he saw that, “the end justifies the means”. Kant’s ethics, which admonishes that one, should always act in a way that one’s action could be universalized and that human beings should not be used as a means to an end also caught the sight and interest of Marx. From these different philosophical thoughts, Marx was exposed into the psychological and social humps of alienation in labour, which accounts for the historical change.

Tracing the historical process of formation in economic factors, according to Karl Marx which have gone through the economic stages, ranging from “primitive communal, slave society, feudal society, and capitalism”, one could assert that Marx’s study of this process of formation of economic factor in various pre-existed epochs that necessitated his view of the classless society (communism) as forthcoming, enormously contributed in the make-up of Marx philosophical thought. Hence, the researcher wishes to view the aspects of the above-mentioned epochs that outstandingly seem very influential in Karl Marx.

1.6.1 The Primitive Communal

This could be described as the first society of men and women, where they convoked as a result of social needs. Here, the factors of production were not sophisticated, but were communally owned. Marx saw this society as next to the communism, though it is too local and primitive.

The gradual sophistication of means of production and the corresponding surplus product of labour led to the following consequences:

First there appeared a chance to accumulate that product, to stockpile different kinds of material wealth and to re-distribute it. This produced an economic basis for inequality…Secondly, exploitation, that is, the appropriation of products of one man’s labour by another becomes also possible.6

So, with the accumulation of wealth and exploitation, struggle became possible, leading to another stage—slave society.

1.6.2 Slave Society

During wars, the conquest kills their enemies and captives. As time went on, captives were no longer killed but subjected to slave labour, by their warlords. This eventually gave rise to private ownership of property. This is because slaves enriched their owners through their labour. This led to the ever greater material inequality, to the extent that the rich tribal lords eventually began turning into slaves, both prisoners of war and impoverished fellow tribesmen and women taken to debt servitude. This was done for material acquisition.

With every epoch containing the seed of its own destruction, the slave society crumbled as a result of slaves not being allowed to own properties. This made them develop little or no zeal for work, and as a result of this, there arose conflict of interests between the slaves and the slave-owners. This led to a more progressive system—Feudalism or Feudal system.

 1.6.3 The Feudal System

Here, the feudal lords receive land from the kings and Tzars in return for various services rendered. Sequel to this, other member servants, depended on the feudal lords, (semi-military commanders) for their own survival. But here, there was little division of labour, and the feudal lords having direct power over other servants (peasants), had to force them to work for themselves. As a result of this, there came a conflict between them, leading the historical movement to the next stage—the Capitalist society.

1.6.4 The Capitalist Society

The capitalist society was more progressive when compared to the previous societies. This epoch of history was characterized by invention of machines and population migration from their local homes to large industrial cities to search for work.

Here, workers are distinguished from owners of the means of production. For workers to exist, they sell their labour power for wages. Men and women are no longer associated with their produce. The product of their labour goes to the owners of the means of production. Consequently, workers are alienated from themselves and their labour, because what they produce no longer belong to them, but belong to the owners of the means of production, which amasses wealth for the sake of amassing wealth.

As a result of these, the society is sharply divided into the rich owners, and the poor workers, and Marx describe them as the “bourgeoisie” and the “proletariats” respectively. Here, the war and class struggle intensified, more than the previous societies. Marx, who saw contradictions in the society, envisaged the abolition of capitalism. For him, capitalism will give way to more progressive, liberal stage—communism or classless society.

Following Marx’s view, one tends to question the extent his parlances on the condition of labour in the capitalist state could be helpful to the contemporary labourers, especially as it concerns the present situation of the Nigerian workers.

[1] P. Edward, Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. II (Chicago:  Willeam Bentom Collier Macmdlian pub., 1974), p.554.

2 D. Mcclellan’s, Karl Marx  Viking  press 1975, p.3

3 S. MADAN, A History of Western Thought , Gunner Skirbekk, and Nils  Gilje. (London: Routledge, pub., 2001), p. 321.

4 E. Craig,  Encyclopedia of Philosophy (London: Routledge vol.1, 1998),  p.178

5 S. Madan, Marxism and Education  (London: Routledge and kegan Paul LTD., 1978), P.110.

6 k. Marx,  Labour and Capital, in The Philosophy of Dialectical Materialism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1984), p. 145.

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