Exploitation, Alienation and Oppression

Abbie Bakan

AS WE REFLECT on the influence of the life and work of Karl Marx (1818-1883), one of the major challenges is distinguishing Marx from “Marxism,” or rather multiple “Marxisms,” that have claimed the legacy.(1)

The variations of Marxisms are commonly associated with historic divisions in the world socialist movement, for example: between the major adherents to the Russian Revolution of 1917 (Trotsky vs. Stalin); between the Second and Third Internationals (Social Democracy vs. Communism); or between geopolitical allegiances (USSR, China, Cuba, etc.). Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the two centuries since Marx’s birth, numerous competing governments and political parties, and related public intellectuals, have claimed to be the “true” followers of Marx.

The best of the Marxist tradition, however, resists such a claim to orthodoxy. Rather than piling on claims of interpreting the “real” Marx, it would be more productive to pivot the conversation, and consider the complexity and variation in the core concepts in Marx’s work regarding inequality.

Specifically, while many of Marx’s followers might resist the approach, there is a case to be made that Marxism can serve as a key contributor to a politics of difference.

Much ink has been spilt regarding the politics of difference, inspired largely by the philosophical debates between what has come to be called generically “post-modernism” and Marxism. Anti-oppression theorists have embraced recognition of difference as a theoretical and methodological starting point, often seen as a corrective to a perceived economic reductionism associated with traditional Marxism.

While many Marxists might reject, dismiss or minimize such contributions, there are grounds to consider that there is a certain “politics of difference” in Marx’s work. The notion of difference, as it has been developed in contemporary debates, was not a category used by Marx but is implicitly integrated in the categories of human suffering identified in his work.

Many Marxists commonly focus on Marx’s work on exploitation, which he developed most fully among his various abstract categories, regarding human suffering and capacities for resistance. But Marx also was considerably interested in other forms of inequality, and the related implications for human suffering, one of which is alienation.

Alienation is a fairly well-developed concept in Marx’s work but receives less attention than exploitation, especially when we think about its implications to move from the abstract to the concrete, or issues of strategy.

Another concept regarding inequality, one that is the least developed in Marx’s work but extremely important for Marxists today, is the category of oppression. In what follows, each of these concepts in Marx’s work is briefly considered.

Capitalist Exploitation

Exploitation for Marx is not specific to capitalism, but is characteristic of all class societies. There is a unique characteristic to capitalist exploitation, however, in its motivating force: the drive for commodity production. This generates a historically unique tendency for units of capital to be self-expanding or to suffer defeat and elimination in a competitive market where all commodities are compared against one another.

Capitalist exploitation compels the universalized, competitive drive toward extraction of surplus labor from the mass of the population. This was the focus of Marx’s work on Capital, but it was not the only form of human suffering that he was concerned to explain or understand.

Alienation and Oppression

Alienation is a concept that Marx drew originally from Hegel and the German school of idealist philosophy. It refers to the general distance of humanity from its real potential.

Unlike exploitation, which is, at least theoretically, materially measurable in terms of value production, alienation is not quantifiable. It is no less “real,” however, in shaping how humans relate to one another, or to the material world in nature and production.

For Marx, all those who live in class society — any form of class society, not only capitalism — suffer from alienation. This concept is developed most clearly in the early writings of Marx and Engels in the 1840s, and later by Marx, in the Grundrisse.

Far less attention, however, has been given to Marx’s views regarding processes of oppression. Oppression is the least complete in its theorization of all the forms of human relations studied by Marx. And there is no doubt that neither Marx nor his lifelong collaborator Frederick Engels were free of certain prejudices of their time.

In a classic contribution titled “Beyond Sexless Class and Classless Sex: Towards Feminist Marxism,”(2) Pat Armstrong and Hugh Armstrong invite us to consider such limitations regarding Marxism and feminism. They note:

“The danger of creating a vulgar or dogmatic Marxism is nowhere more apparent than in analyzing the position of women. Marx and Engels, most marxists would agree, did not say much about women, and what they did say is not always useful or illuminating both because they concentrated on explaining capitalist production and because they reflected the particular male bias of their historical period.”(3)

We should certainly remember that the experiences of Marx and Engels predated even such a minimal reform as universal suffrage. Certainly, the experience of anti-oppression movements from the vantage point of the 21st century generates a far richer body of experience from which to draw.

Generally, however, for Marx oppression can be understood to include both material and ideological elements. It is historically specific rather than subject to general, common laws of motion.

Oppression in Marx can be described to take two distinct forms: (i) class oppression, and (ii) the specific oppression of sections of classes, or what we could call special oppression. Class oppression is the lived experience of subordination that accompanies the exploited, but also those who are unemployed, or who suffer from economic as well as social and political discrimination.

Marx often referred, for example, to the oppressed classes — a concept similar to Gramsci’s notion of the subaltern — referring to the proletariat, the unemployed, the peasantry, sharecroppers, slaves, serfs, etc.

Special oppression divides the working class, or any oppressed class, among itself. It obscures class differences by creating new lines of demarcation that are used as means of subordination. Special oppression is particularly necessary to capitalism where there is a threat of unity among the oppressed classes against the ruling class. Special oppression forces a sense of competition among workers and thereby weakens their collective capacity to resist.

In his 1847 work Poverty of Philosophy(4) Marx elaborated a distinction between class oppression — based on the common experiences of the working class, providing the basis for the formation of a class “in itself” — and the act of resisting class oppression, which depends upon the conscious self-emancipation of the working class, or becoming a class “for itself.”

Marx’s argument, developed as a polemic challenging the views of his contemporary Proudhon, is in the context of defending the rights of workers to unite in early forms of trade union associations, or combinations. Thus, “[e]conomic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. The mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself.”(5)

Special oppression is addressed in various places in Marx’s writings, rather than as a coherent analytical category. It can be understood, however, to figure centrally in much of Marx’s political writings.

This framework was not produced in a single work, but is clearly present in an early form in writings addressing racial slavery in the United States, the Irish question, women and the family, and such issues as poverty and suicide.

Caution and Conclusion

Reading Marx remains central to an emancipatory project, two centuries since his birth. But we have to be cautious in how we read and learn from Marx and his longtime collaborator, Frederick Engels.

Take the example of Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published in 1884, one year after Marx’s death.(6) While identified as a pathbreaking contribution for its time in providing an historical materialist case for women’s emancipation, it is inspired by Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, which has been critiqued by Indigenous scholars and others regarding the views on race.(7)

In another example, when referring to the issue of the Jewish question,(8) significantly Marx advocated for the citizenship rights of Jews in German society. But he also asserted some highly problematic formulations in some early writings. Regardless of the common assumptions of the period, noted clearly by Hal Draper,(9) the generalization of ethnic stereotypes is hardly an inspiration for contemporary activists.(10)

Such a caution does not lessen the importance of advancing the method of historical materialism that Marx advanced; in fact, identifying the contradictions greatly supports and enhances the relevance of this work. As Himani Bannerji notes, there is a kind of “reflexive and critical method” within Marx that can be used to question Marx’s work itself, a method lacking in, for example, liberal thought.(11)

One way to explain the multiplicity of Marxisms, in sum, is to consider the complexity within Marx’s work. Among those who are drawn to challenge forms of inequality based on sexism, racism and other forms of oppression, the historical materialist method offers a welcome and much-needed analytical approach, one that is commonly little understood.

Considering the contributions of Marx’s work not only to explain exploitation, but also alienation and oppression, can help us to better understand the world, and also, therefore, to change it.


  1. This argument is drawn largely from work advanced by this author in, “Marxism and Anti-Racism: Rethinking the Politics of Difference,” in Abigail B. Bakan and Enakshi Dua, eds., Theorizing Anti-Racism: Linkages in Marxism and Critical Race Theories (University of Toronto Press, 2014): 97-122.
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  2. Pat Armstrong and Hugh Armstrong, “Beyond Sexless Class and Classless Sex: Towards Feminist Marxism,” Studies in Political Economy (1983): 7-43.
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  3. Armstrong and Armstrong, “Beyond Sexless Class”: 8-9.
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  4. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, introduction, Frederick Engels. New York: International Publishers, [1847;1885;1892], 1973).
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  5. Marx, Poverty of Philosophy: 173-4.
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  6. Frederick Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State: In Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan (New York: Pathfinder, [1884]; 1973).
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  7. See for example Sally Roesch Wagner, Sisters in Spirti: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists (USA: Book Publishing Company, 2001); and Yael Ben-zvi, “Where did Race Go?: Lewis Henry Morgan’s Evolutionary Inheritance and US Racial Imagination,” New Centennial Review, vol. 7, no. 2, (Fall, 2007): 201-229.
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  8. See Abigail B. Bakan, “Race, Class and Colonialism: Reconsidering the ‘Jewish Question,’” in Abigail B. Bakan and Enakshi Dua, eds., Theorizing Anti-Racism: Linkages in Marxism and Critical Race Theories (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014): 252-279.
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  9. Draper, Hal. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol. I: State and Bureaucracy (New York: Monthly Review Pres, 1977). See in particular, “Marx and the Economic-Jew Stereotype,” 591-608.
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  10. See Paul Kellogg, “How to Honor Marx: ‘Ruthless Criticism of All that Exists,” Against the Current, no. 194 (May/June 2018): 19-20.
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  11. Himani Bannerji, “Marxism and Anti-racism in Theory and Practice: Reflections and Interpretations,” in Abigail B. Bakan and Enakshi Dua, eds., Theorizing Anti-Racism: Linkages in Marxism and Critical Race Theories (University of Toronto Press, 2014): 127-144.
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July-August 2018, ATC 195