Speech / Presentation

Capitalism, Socialism, and Alienated Man

silhouette man


In recent years the concept of “alienation” and the arguments surrounding it have assumed an increasing importance as part of the case against an economic order based on private property in the means of production.1 As the more strictly economic criticisms of capitalism prove, to a greater or lesser degree, to be unfounded or inconclusive, the attention of its opponents has tended to shift to complaints of a more “psychological” nature. Concomitantly, as part of another movement (perhaps of the general eclipse of broad philosophies of history), interest in what have traditionally been regarded as the essential elements of Marxism—the materialist interpretation of history, the class struggle, the inevitability of socialism, etc.—has waned. The two movements—one away from economic criticisms of capitalism, and the other towards a de-emphasis of the elements more traditionally accepted as characteristic of Marxism—have found a common meeting point in the thought of the young Marx: his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), published for the first time in 1932, and only recently available in English, have become the starting point for a vigorous assault on capitalism as the economic system based on and promoting alienation in its essence. Interest in this question is quite wide-spread in the Western countries. If, for instance, it is true, as one writer has said,2 that there is today scarcely a philosophy in France that does not involve itself at least to some degree with Marxism, it is above all Marx’s theory of alienation that interests the French philosophers. Interest in his ideas on the subject is strong also in other countries, especially West Germany, where, as on much of the Continent, Marx’s great concern for the problem leads to his often being looked on as fundamentally a sort of “humanist existentialist.”

In the English-speaking world, the elaboration and dissemination of this aspect of Marx’s thought has so far fallen principally to writers in the field of social science. It appears that, because of his great renown, Erich Fromm is destined to exert the greatest influence in this direction in the near future. It is with Fromm’s neo-Marxism, and specifically with some of his ideas on what he terms the “central issue of the effects of Capitalism on personality: alienation,”3 I propose to deal in this paper.

A precise delimitation of the concept of alienation is hard to come by, but there is wide agreement on the core meaning of the term. The social psychologist Karen Horney, for instance, speaks of the alienated individual as feeling “depersonalized, removed from himself,” as performing all of his activities with the feeling that, “I am driven instead of being the driver … He has the feeling of not being a moving force in his own life.”4 According to Fromm, the alienated person “does not feel strong, he is frightened and inhibited because he does not experience himself as the subject and originator of his own acts and experiences.”5 Commentators are agreed, moreover, that alienation has become a social malaise of alarming proportions in modern society, to the point where it is often taken as characteristic of twentieth century man.

In our discussion of Fromm’s Marxist-oriented theory of alienation, we will not examine the Hegelian underpinnings of Marx’s theory, or his own concrete development of it. The same reasons that make it attractive to existentialist thinkers render it unfamiliar and strange-sounding to persons accustomed to more empirically-based philosophical discourse; and, moreover, it is not certain that a lengthy examination would even be rewarding.

Nor will our chief concern be the general assertion that alienation is a product of a regime of private property in the means of production, (a thesis which would require a much more detailed treatment than is possible here). What I want to deal with instead is the claim that alienation will be greatly diminished, or even eliminated (Marx’s own view) by socialism; to do this, I shall investigate a few of the major ways in which capitalism is alleged to promote alienation, in order to see whether socialism is likely to do away with them.

Before the merits of the Marxist claim can be evaluated, it is necessary of course to have a good idea of how it is imagined that a socialist society would function. This is not as easy to determine as might be thought. It seems to me clear that a critic of a social arrangement is obligated not only to bring evidence that the arrangement has had unfortunate results, but to prove the possibility (where there might be a question of it) of an alternative arrangement which will avoid the undesirable consequences of the first. For otherwise his criticism would amount not to a condemnation of the social institution, but to an assertion that certain social arrangements which are indispensable have, regrettably, undesirable consequences. But when we come to the economic order based on private property, and to its most influential critics—Marx, Engels, and their followers—this rule is largely forgotten. It has been thought that virtually any flaw in capitalism was a good argument against the system, which amounts to the position that capitalism is to be compared, not with other practicable systems of economic organization, but with an ideally perfect standard. A learned and impartial historian of socialist thought has remarked on the curious circumstance that

in the extensive literature on Marxism there is lacking a systematic investigation of the notions that Marx and Engels had of the future social order, after the carrying out of the victorious proletarian revolution. To the unbiased observer it appears that any serious political evaluation of a theory that has made world history must begin with the question of what it was that its founders actually wanted to put in place of the liberal order they so violently attacked.6

It is interesting to note that after a fairly comprehensive examination of the sparse indications given by Marx and Engels themselves as to the structure of the future socialist society, and after indicating various reasons, tactical and otherwise, for their reluctance to discuss the organization of the future society, he concludes:

Not least of all, however, the renunciation of any detailed presentation of their own conception of the [future] social order gave them the advantage of protecting their position against controversies with the defenders of the existing order. Such controversies would have weakened the revolutionary spirit of their [own] supporters, either by casting doubt on the realizability of these [Marxist] proposals, or by indicating what they had in common with the existing order.7

Fromm, too, is rather vague at crucial places as to just how his socialist society would work, and we shall find that we will have to fill out his theory of the future organization of society, in order to be able to come to a conclusion as to the ability of socialism to overcome alienation.


Marx, in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, distinguishes four aspects of alienation, all inter-related: (1) alienation of the worker from the product of his labor; (2) alienation of the worker from the process of his labor; (3) alienation of the worker from his species nature; (4) alienation of the worker from his fellow man.8 Fromm, it ought to be pointed out, has abandoned the narrow class basis of this analysis, and sees alienation as a disease of all classes, with the middle class possibly being more prone to contract it.9 Moreover, he lays little stress on the alienation of the worker from the product of his labor, and the alienation of the worker from the process of his labor; the first is, of course, a corollary of the Marxist labor theory of value, while the second, in Marx’s thinking, follows immediately from the first.10 The reason why these two aspects of the problem do not loom large in Fromm’s thought appears to be that they would throw no light at all on the problem Fromm must give an account of—the increase in the incidence and intensity of alienation in the twentieth century.11 It is this increase that has drawn attention to the issue, and that must be explained. But it is not the case that the worker’s share of his product has diminished; Fromm, in fact, concedes that it has increased.12 Thus, the roots of the problem are to be sought elsewhere.

Much more helpful, it has been thought, is Marx’s notion of the alienation of man from his species nature. He states: “The whole character of a species—its species character [Gattungswesen]—is contained in the character of its life activity; and free conscious activity is man’s species character.”13 Under capitalism, however, “life itself appears as a means to life.”14 What Marx seems to mean by this, and the sense in which Fromm strongly supports the position, is that man’s essential nature—that in virtue of which he is human—consists in freely chosen, rational productive activity. It is likely, as has been suggested, that Marx had in mind here, as a paradigm case of such activity, the life of an artist, which is not (in the best or natural case) dictated by external necessity:

Their [i.e., the artists’] activity is not subordinated to ends outside of the activity. In so far as their motives are artistic, they are not working for reward, or fame, or any other non-artistic end. They are working for the sake of the activity itself. They create, or seek to create, according to the laws of art, not according to laws dictated from outside the activity by non-artistic or anti-artistic motives and ends.15

While this is the form of life activity dictated by man’s nature, Marx contends, in a capitalist system labor is performed under the necessity of survival, is thus a means to a physical end, and is not the free expression of the individual’s creative powers. The most shocking example of the alienation of man from his nature in this regard is the division of labor, which has now made man an appendage of the machine, and turns him, as Marx remarks in Das Kapital, into a “crippled monstrosity.”

And finally the division of labor offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural [i.e., unplanned] society, that is as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily but naturally divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as labor is distributed [i.e., divided], each man has a particular exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if the does not want to lose his means of livelihood …16

In communist society, on the other hand:

where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity, but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind to, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.17

Fromm accepts Marx’s fundamental view of the nature of man, and repeats his criticism of the division of labor. He is particularly indignant at its great refinement in recent decades. We shall postpone the examination of the means Fromm proposes to alleviate this problem, until we come to the general discussion of his guild socialist ideas. What I want to emphasize here is that while Marx had a theory which held out the promise of the elimination of this principal aspect of alienation, Fromm does not.

In Marx’s theory, it is true that the alienation of a man’s nature implied in the division of labor will not be cured immediately upon the abolition of private property in the means of production, in the first phase of socialism (where, for instance, as we shall see, the alienation involved in the lack of control by man of his social environment will come to an end). Its remedy, however, comes with the higher phase of socialism which can “only flourish upon that realm of necessity as its base.” This seems to mean that only after social productivity shall have reached a very high level will it be possible to abolish the division of labor and enter into the realm of true freedom. We need not enter into a discussion of whether Marx provides us with reasonable grounds for supposing that productivity under socialism is likely to reach this level, or likely to do so sooner than under capitalism; no one, I think, would question the fact that he does not. What I want to point out is that Marx, at least, operated in a legitimate fashion. While criticizing the division of labor as a denial of true freedom, as the alienation of man from his nature, he indicated a conceivable way in which (in the distant future, to be sure) the division of labor could be done away with, viz., by the creation of productive forces so efficient that the material basis of life could easily be provided without it. Fromm, on the other hand, cuts the ground from under the Marxist position. While accepting the proposition that “the lifelong submersion of a man in one occupation” is “crippling” and a denial of the “total, universal man,” he provides no long run cure for it.18 On the contrary, he criticizes modern society (capitalistic as well as “authoritarian Communist”) for having as its “goal … ever-increasing economic efficiency and wealth.”19 Thus, within the framework of the Marxist theory, and simply given what seem to be his own views on the subject, Fromm implicitly concedes that the aim of humanistic socialism—the overcoming of alienation—will not be achieved, but that, as it regards the division of labor, will at most be alleviated.

Another basic facet of the alienation of man from his nature under capitalism is “the process of consumption,” which “is as alienated as the process of production.”20 The reason for this is to be found in the use of money, and in this way Fromm associates himself with the famous critique of money by Marx in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Here the essential artificiality and sham of capitalist society, produced by the use of money, is contrasted with the warm genuineness of the environment appropriate to the nature of man:

Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one; then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real-individual life.21

Under a regime of private property, on the other hand, the abstract, dead symbol of labor—money—enters between the human reality—the real desire, capacity, vocation, or whatever—and its fulfillment. Money, moreover, creates a false reality, buying love for the ugly man (and thus, Marx says, making him beautiful), giving the lame man twenty-four feet (by buying him a coach), etc. Fromm does not agree with Marx, evidently, on this latter point, but nevertheless emphasizes the gulf which exists under capitalism between the human reality of the individual and his needs and desires, and the “reality” which money can purchase for him:

Provided I am in the possession of money, no effort or interest of mine is necessary to acquire something. If I have the money, I can acquire an exquisite painting, even though I may not have any appreciation of art …22

and so on.

The first thing to recognize on this issue, I think, is that money is not really the center of the discussion—that it is not money that is responsible for the undesirable conditions which Fromm, following Marx, describes. Money, after all, simply plays the part of a medium of exchange. The same essential conditions which Fromm and Marx here hold responsible for alienation of acquisition and consumption would obtain in the absence of money, provided exchange were present, e.g., in a barter system. A person with four goats could obtain eight bracelets or six drums for them, even if he had no appreciation at all of bracelets or drums, provided only that bracelets, drums and goats were exchanging at the appropriate ratios in his society. Conversely, in such a situation, a person with nothing to exchange would not obtain the desired goods, no matter how worthy of them he was. So the attack on money is a misdirected one.

But even assuming that money is a great source of alienation, in the manner described, the question arises, With what will money be replaced in a socialist society? Here, I think it is fair to say that Fromm is nothing short of irresponsible. He states:

The human way of acquiring would be to make an effort qualitatively commensurate with what I acquire … the acquisition of books and paintings [would depend] on my effort to understand them and my ability to use them. How this principle would be applied practically is not the point to be discussed here. What matters is that the way we acquire things is separated from the way in which we use them.23

But, in fact, nothing could be more evident [than] that the practicability of the “human” way of acquiring must be established before capitalism can be censured for not applying it. For if it turned out that there was no practicable method of implementing the “human” way, then our conclusions would have to be, not that capitalism is responsible for an alienating method of acquiring things, but that an alienating way of acquiring things is a necessary part of the human condition.

Marx, on the other hand, appears to have felt the responsibility of showing how the future socialist society (in its first, or “economic” phase) would be able to avoid the use of money. In Capital he states:

The producers may receive, for my part, paper certificates, for which they withdraw from the societal supplies [gesellschaftlichen Konsumptionsvorräten] a quantity [of goods] corresponding to their work-time. These certificates are not money. They do not circulate.24

In his earlier work, however, Marx had not maintained that the undesirable aspects of money—the modern money-worship and the unnaturalness of the method of acquisition of goods—followed from the fact that money circulated, but from the fact that it could be exchanged against any other good:

By possessing the property of buying everything, by possessing the property of appropriating all objects, money is thus the object of eminent possession. The universality of its property is the omnipotence of its being,

and from the fact that it “is the pimp between man’s need and the object.”25 But in the first stage of socialism, both of these qualities will be possessed by the “paper certificates,” which will be given in against desired goods. Thus, the characteristics of money which are held to produce alienation will be preserved in the future socialist society, up until the leap into the realm of freedom. Until that point then in Marx’s theory, and evidently ad infinitum in Fromm’s, the use of money will continue to be a potent source of alienation.

According to Marx and Fromm, there are a number of causes of the alienation of man from man which we witness under capitalism. We shall deal, however, with only one of them, what Fromm refers to as: “the principle that is to be found in all class societies: the use of man by man.” In a system of private property

the owner of capital uses other men for the purpose of his own profit. The basic concept of use has nothing to do with cruel, or not cruel, ways of human treatment, but with the fundamental fact that one man serves another for purposes which are not his own but those of the employer. The concept of use of man by man has nothing to do even with the question of whether one man uses another, or uses himself. The fact remains the same, that a man, a living human being, ceases to be an end in himself, and becomes the means for the economic interests of another man, or of an impersonal giant, the economic machine.26

It seems to me that even within the framework of Fromm’s ideas as expressed in this passage, he is not consistent: it is not true that the worker “serves another [the employer] for ends which are not his own, but those of the employer.” It seems just as reasonable, moreover, to interpret the situation as one in which the worker is “exploiting” the employer, in the sense that he is treating him simply as a means for his own livelihood, and not as an end in himself. Nevertheless, such a criticism is merely peripheral: the main point, I think, is that Fromm has given us no coherent idea of what might be meant by “the use of man by man.” Is, for instance, the fact that I “use” my barber to obtain haircuts morally reprehensible in Fromm’s view? How could any exchange of goods possibly take place if we take the concept of “use” of another person in so strict a sense? In an exchange, I am obviously not regarding the other person as an end in himself, but at least partially as a means.

Fromm, who is at pains to prove that Marxism is a humanistic philosophy, with one of its main sources being the German Enlightenment, links the idea of the essentially exploitative nature of capitalism with the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant: “Marx’s concept here touches the Kantian principle that man must always be an end in himself, and never a means to an end.”27 The reference, however, is inexact, and the error illustrates what is fundamentally wrong with Fromm’s complaint against capitalism here. The formulation of the categorical imperative that Fromm had in mind is put as follows by Kant: “So act as to use humanity, both in your own person and in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end, never simply as a means.” One of the most authoritative commentators on Kantian ethics notes:

The words “at the same time” and “simply” must not be overlooked: they are absolutely necessary to Kant’s statement. Every time we post a letter, we use post-office officials as a means, but we do not use them simply as a means. What we expect of them we believe to be in accordance with their own will, and indeed to be in accordance with their duty. Considerations of this kind do not arise in regard to the stamp which we stick on our letter or the post-box to which we entrust it: they arise only in regard to persons and not to things. So far as we limit our actions by such considerations, we are treating persons “at the same time” as an end, though we may also be using them as means.28

If we suppose, with Fromm, that using a person as a means at any time is exploitative, and signifies the alienation of man from man, we must assume that this form of alienation will not disappear with capitalism, but only with organized society, for it is of the essence of social cooperation.


It is a common assertion of Marxism that under capitalism man is not the master of his fate, but is rather at the mercy of and under the control of blind forces, which, while fundamentally of human origin, face man as an enemy. Indeed, it seems probable that the essential idea behind the Marxist theory of alienation is that man has lost control over his own activity; as Marx stated, in The German Ideology: “man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him.”29 This refers to the fact that, while society is the product of human actions, these actions produce results which are unintended, which in fact run contrary to human desires and intentions; depressions, for instance, which no one desires, occur as the unintended consequence of human actions aiming at altogether different ends:

This crystallization of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to nought our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up until now.30

One of the chief advantages of socialism, for the point of view of human freedom, it is contended, is that it represents a system in which man would become a conscious, rational agent in human history, rather than the victim of unplanned forces resulting from his actions. The matter is put bluntly by Engels:

With the seizure of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and with it the domination of the product over the producers. Anarchy in social production is replaced by conscious organization according to plan. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which surround man, which ruled men up until now, now comes under the dominion and control of men, who become for the first time the real, conscious lords of nature, because and in that they become the masters of their own social organization. The laws of their own social activity, which confronted them until this point as alien laws of nature, controlling them, then are applied by men with full understanding, and so mastered by them. Men’s own social organization, which confronted them until now as a necessity imposed by nature and history, now becomes their free act. The objective, alien powers, which until now ruled history, come under the control of men themselves. Only from then on will men make their history themselves, with full consciousness; only from then on will the social causes they set in motion have in the main and in constantly increasing proportion, also the results intended by them. It is the leap of mankind from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.31

Fromm associates himself with these views:

the very fact that we are governed by [economic] laws which we do not control, and do not even want to control, is one of the most outstanding manifestations of alienation … Our own actions are embodied in the laws which govern us, but these laws are above us, and we are their slaves. The giant state and economic system are not any more controlled by man. They run wild …32

We ought to remark, as a preliminary step, that Fromm is speaking in a logically odd manner when he deplores the fact that, under capitalism, man is the slave of economic laws, and asserts that this is a condition that ought to be changed. Laws, whether social or natural, whether describing the behavior of social phenomena or of the phenomena of nature, can in no sense be “masters,” nor can we legitimately be said to be their “slaves.” To say that there exist economic laws, is simply to say that certain economic actions will bring about certain economic consequences. It may be that an assertion which one claims to be an economic law is not in fact a law at all; but if it is a law, then it states an actual relationship between a cause and an effect.  It may be that this relationship is one which is found to be unfortunate—e.g., the laws implied in the principle Prof. Friedman takes to be basic to economic science, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,”—but as long as they are in actuality laws, they cannot be said to tyrannize over us—they simply exist. In the same way, the physiological law that under certain conditions a given bacterium will produce a disease is not a law which is our master—it is simply an unfortunate law of nature.

What Fromm probably has in mind is not that the laws of a capitalist economic system tyrannize over individuals, but that the forces operating under capitalism (operating, presumably, in accordance with certain social and economic laws) do so. Under capitalism there are “social forces which determine our society and the life of everybody living in it,“ he writes; and these social forces manifest an “anonymity … inherent in the structure of the capitalistic mode of production.”33 Thus, on the largest possible social scale, capitalism shows the characteristics of an alienated system: forces independent of human will are the drivers, and men are simply being driven. Capitalism is a “system which has no purpose or goal transcending it, and which makes man its appendix.”34 Socialism, on the other hand, will give man the possibility of controlling his own fate. It is thus analogous to the coming of age of the human being, when reason replaces dependence on irrational influences outside of himself.

It is possible that the preceding has been the central idea in the antagonism towards capitalism and the open society. The notion, for instance, that freedom, to be genuine, must include freedom not only from interpersonal constraint, but also from tradition and custom—the things which condition an individual independent of his own reasoning mind—is traceable to Rousseau and the men who launched the first systematic attack on the open society in the later stages of the French Revolution. Its corollary was the idea that true freedom implied a sort of self-creation,35 the control by man of his social environment, so that he would not irrationally and blindly follow in the tracks of those who came before him, but with truly human deliberateness and consciousness fashion his own social world. It seems to me that there are a number of interesting and important fallacies involved in this conception of freedom, but we shall deal with only one here.

It is, I am afraid, a rather elementary fallacy. It is called in logic the “fallacy of division,” and it occurs when a property of a whole is taken to be a property of each of its parts. Just as it does not follow from the fact that the American Indian is vanishing that this misfortune is befalling all individual Indians, so it is not true that if “man” assumes control of his own economic destiny, individual men will assume control of their own particular economic destinies. A centrally planned economy, for instance, might be said to be one in which man has come to control the economic life of his society. But it would be a mistake to conclude from [this] that each of the particular persons under such a regime was in control of his own economic life. It is, of course, particular persons, and not “man” who suffer from alienation. (It could be said that man suffers from alienation only in the sense that most people did, or that it was an ineluctable fact of human existence that all people did.) If, say, Josef K. suffers from alienation, proceeding from the fact that his economic existence is under the control of forces outside of himself, in what way is his situation improved if control over the economic circumstances that condition his life passes from the impersonal market to the economic planner? It is true that the economic forces are, to some extent, no longer impersonal (although, of course, there will still be economic laws independent of the will of whoever is in charge of the economy). But it was not in the first instance from the impersonality of the economic determinants, but from the absence of control over them by a given individual that produced alienation. Thus, alienation from this cause can only be done away with if control over each man’s economic circumstances passes in the main to him personally.

The question of the extent to which society will be governed by conscious, rational planning brings up the issue of the character of the future socialist state. Here Marx and Fromm differ fundamentally. Marx’s basic view of the organization of production under socialism appears to have been a statist one—i.e., the control of the means of production was to lie with the central authority, which would direct production according to a rational over-all plan.36 Such an arrangement possesses the advantage of providing (at least verbally) a solution to the major aspect of alienation, lack of control by man of his socio-economic environment. It also allows, always under the assumption of the superior efficiency of central planning, the prospect of the eventual abolition of money and the division of labor, two important particular manifestations of alienation.

Fromm, however, is no friend of central planning. On the other hand, he recognizes that it entails wide-spread bureaucratic management and control, a proposition that Marx (also a vigorous opponent of bureaucracy) was able to ignore only because he vastly underestimated the effort and organization required by central planning. Bureaucracy, however, is itself a manifestation of alienation: “… the bureaucrat’s relationship to the people is one of complete alienation.”37 On the other hand, Fromm acknowledges that central planning presents serious problems for the maintenance of liberty:

It is true that the capitalistic mode of production is conducive to political freedom, while any centrally planned social order is in danger of leading to political regimentation and eventually to dictatorship.38

Fromm therefore proposes a form of guild socialism as the answer to the problems he raises:

The worker can become an active, interested and responsible participant only if he can have influence on the decisions which bear upon his individual work situation and the whole enterprise. His alienation from work can be overcome only if he is not employed by capital, if he is not subject of command, but if he becomes a responsible subject who employs capital.39

He recognizes that so far no answer has been provided for the problem of lack of general over-all control, and so adds:

the problem here is to avoid the danger of an anarchic state of affairs in which central planning and leadership would be lacking; but the alternative between centralized authoritarian management and planless, uncoordinated workers’ management is not a necessary one. The answer lies in a blending of centralization and decentralization, in a synthesis between decision making from above to below, and from below to above.40

But it is doubtful whether Fromm has considered the implications of his position in regard to the problem of central control and consequent bureaucracy. The workers’ councils, after all, would be, to the extent they really had power, in charge of the social means of production. A method would surely have to be found to prevent them from exploiting their position vis-à-vis the consumers. Marx saw this problem clearly, and it may have been one of the reasons for his preference for central ownership and control of the means of production. In his posthumously published article, “On the Nationalization of Land,” he stated:

To give over the land to the associated farm workers would mean to deliver over all of society to a special class of producers.41

And Fromm admits, in an oblique way, the existence of these dangers:

If the workers and employees in an enterprise were exclusively concerned with their enterprise, the alienation between man and his social forces would remain unchanged. The egotistical, alienated attitude would only have been extended from one individual to the “team.” It is therefore not an incidental but an essential part of workers’ participation that they look beyond their own enterprise, that they be interested in and connected with consumers as well as with other workers in the same industry, and with the working population as a whole … there is only one truly social orientation, namely the one of solidarity with mankind.42

Fromm does not indicate, however, how a more consciously “social” attitude might be produced. We are justified, therefore, in assuming that the councils elected by the workers in various industries will be largely motivated by a desire to better the conditions of those workers. Depending on the size of the jurisdiction of these councils, a more or less monopolistic situation will be created, the probability of which will be increased by the operation of Fromm’s principle that “cooperation will replace competition.” This placing of the consumers at the mercy of workers’ councils is obviously intolerable from the point of view of society as a whole, and von Mises’s analysis of the probable resulting state of affairs seems well-founded:

The State alone sets the aim of production and determines what must be done in order to achieve this aim. Directly or indirectly through its taxation policy, it determines the conditions of labor, moves capital and labor from one branch of industry to another, makes adjustments and acts as intermediary between the guilds themselves and between producers and consumers. These tasks falling to the State are the only important ones, and they constitute the essence of economic control … Society cannot leave it to the workers themselves in individual branches of production to determine the amount and the quality of the labor they perform and how the material means thereby involved shall be applied.43

It may be that some worker control will still be exercised in the form of selection of foremen, etc., but this too is likely to be quite limited. Here it cannot be argued that discipline will be unnecessary in the factories, because the workers, being in control, will work enthusiastically, that work will henceforth be enjoyable. So far, we have not established that there will be any substantial amount of control on the part of the workers, but that, instead, the important economic decisions will—to protect the interests of the consumers—come from “above to below.” Von Mises seems to be right, therefore, when he suggests that worker-elected foremen and plant managers who do not impose sufficient discipline on the workers will have to be replaced by the central authority.44

Thus, it is probable that Fromm’s guild socialism will evolve into some form of bureaucratic central planning. But if it does not, then most of the chief sources of alienation with which he taxes capitalism will remain. Since Fromm makes no claims for the greater economic efficiency of his system, the material base necessary, in Marxist theory, for the elimination of money and the division of labor is, as we have seen, lacking. Moreover, and most important of all, to the degree that decentralization is a reality, there will be no conscious, over-all control of economic life—the workers’ councils face each other as independent economic units, and they lack any authority to instill into them a transcendent purpose, the situation in these respects resembling that of capitalism.


The need for the creation of a “truly social orientation,” which is to insure that the workers in various industries conduct themselves in appropriate ways in regard to the rest of society, is one example of the fact that, as we have seen, and as Fromm admits, a simple transformation of the organization of industry is insufficient to produce the sort of human, sane society he desires: his proposals for making work more meaningful for the worker

only make sense in a totally different social structure, in which economic activity is part—and a subordinate part—of social life. One cannot separate work activity from political activity, from the use of leisure time and from personal life. If work were to become interesting without the other spheres of life becoming human no real change would occur …45

But unless Fromm’s vision of “a fundamental change of the human condition,”46 is to remain completely sterile, there must be more effective ways of proselytizing than mere personal communication. But a designed transvaluation of values is a difficult task within the framework of an open society. For reasons which we shall elaborate shortly, it is not surprising then that totalitarian elements appear in the thought of even this most humanistic of democratic socialists: he speaks of the “general problem” of

to what extent the interests of profitable capital investment may be permitted to manipulate the public needs in a detrimental and unhealthy way. The most obvious examples are our movie industry, the comic-book industry and the crime pages of our newspapers. In order to make the highest profit, the lowest instincts are artificially stimulated and the mind of the public is poisoned. Th Food and Drug Act has regulated the unrestricted production and advertising of harmful food and drugs; the same can be done with regard to all other vital necessities. If such laws should prove to be ineffective, certain industries, such as the film industry, must be socialized, or at least competing industries must be created, financed with public funds.47

In this passage, Fromm appears to leave room for the milder recourse of a government film industry, say, competing with a sensation-mongering private one. This violates, however, the logic of the analogy with the Pure Food and Drug Act (which, with its implication that there exists an exact chemistry of good and bad values, is the customary analogy of authoritarian advocates of censorship); it would not be a sufficient protection for the consumer if the government simply set up a drug industry competing with private purveyors of harmful medicines. Moreover, the problem is not to offer alternatives to bad movies—such alternatives obviously exist, in the form of the numerous good movies which are produced (by a number of fine Italian producers, say), and the American public by and large has not taken to them. There is little reason to suppose that the mere offering of good movies would solve the problem; and furthermore, Fromm suggests the strong possibility that the government will have to socialize the film industry. Let us examine then what situation would be likely to result.

We may assume that it will be granted that, since people who produce films exert powerful influence in molding the minds and character of the public, it is desirable that the public be able to control the film makers as much as possible. One possible way in which this could be done, would be, for instance, after socializing the film industry, to make the Secretary of Films an elected public official. But let us remember that we cannot assume that the values of the public have become humanist ones: it is, after all, precisely the absence of such a happy situation that we have set about to remedy, and one of the means of making the public humanist, it has seemed to us, is by ceasing to make sensationalistic and brutal films, and making instead films reflecting humanist values. But if the public is still base-minded, it will presumably elect a Secretary of Films who will give it the sort of base movies it desires. (While we can assume that there will be a certain solemnity and civic-mindedness about the voting for this official which is lacking in the individual’s selection of a film to go see, there does not seem to be any reason to think that this will be powerful enough to restrain the desire for vulgar and stupid films.) This is, it should be clear, only a particular case of the basic problem confronting a socialist who would be a radical reformer of the values of society—the problem Marx foresaw:

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.48

It was this problem that the traditional left-Marxists, especially Lenin, attempted to solve by the doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and in particular, of the vanguard of the proletariat, the Communist Party. The latter is charged in Lenin’s view with the task of

leading the whole people to socialism, of directing and organizing the new order, of being the teacher, guide and leader of all the toiling and exploited in the task of building up their social life.49

And, I think, Lenin had reasoned consistently from Marxist premises. One cannot on the one hand maintain that capitalism is to be overthrown because it has dehumanized the working class, corrupted it, filled it with values unworthy of human beings, and then immediately pass control of society to this brutish element. Precisely because capitalism has victimized the worker, by sinning the sin against his human essence, democracy would be an inappropriate procedure at the beginning of socialist society.

Now, to return to our example of the film industry. If the point of doing away with private property in the film industry is to make good, to some extent, the harm caused to human values by the capitalist search for profit, then it is clear that it cannot be the profit motive which determines what movies are to be produced. Neither can it be democratic selection of a Secretary of Films, as we have shown. There must therefore exist a group of men, more or less sheltered against mass popular control, who attempt to elevate the public’s tastes and aesthetic standards. Now, it may be that this group will be composed of competent and benevolent men, but so far no reason has been given to suppose this. It is likely, in fact, that the problem has not even occurred to Fromm.

It might appear that in this discussion we have been dealing at rather great length with what may have been an off-handed suggestion of Fromm’s concerning the film industry. But it seems to me that much more significant issues are at stake at this point. It is no accident that movements which have set out to create a “new man,” to affect a “fundamental change in the human condition,” by manipulating social institutions, have ended in a dictatorship of the true believers (e.g., Jacobinism, Bolshevism). For the basic aim of such movements is essentially incompatible with freedom: if one wishes to change the values of individuals in a radical way, then this cannot be done by leaving ultimate control over their own lives to these individuals;50 nor can it be done by leaving political control to those individuals collectively. Freedom and democracy would be compatible with such large-scale social engineering only if we assume that once exposed to the values one wished to inculcate in them, people would give up their old values voluntarily. Experience has not borne out such an assumption. Typically the appeal of the new values for the people is vastly over-estimated by the radical reformers, who maintain that these values have not been realized up until now because the existing system has distorted and shackled genuine human nature. Once in power, the fact that little response is elicited among the people by the new values (e.g., “virtue” among the Jacobins, solidarity instead of the acquisitive spirit among the Bolsheviks) is laid to the lack of civic-mindedness of certain elements, or to counter-revolutionary activities. What is forgotten is that the values of the old society are after all the values of the people who compose it; there is no reason to suppose that, because these values are, according to our speculation, superficial and not implied in the “nature of man,” people will identify with them any the less, or will cling to them with little insistence. Even a satisfaction founded on an illusion is, after all, a satisfaction; even a way of life diverging from one we want to call “natural” and “fitting human dignity” will ordinarily call forth loyalties. For it represents what a person is, regardless of what he might become. It is not certain that radical social engineering, aiming at remaking the historically conditioned character of man can even be successful. What is quite probable, however, is that it cannot be combined with any substantial respect for human freedom. If, therefore, Fromm wants to maintain his position as a democratic socialist, then it appears to me that the promise he holds out of a new society, where people will have the right values and act as genuine human beings, must fall away.

Finally, I want to discuss a point which has, I think, important implications for the issue we have been examining: it is the fairly common notion, shared by Fromm, that there is something about the market system which suggests the non-human, which reminds one not of the product of human desire and striving so much as that of a machine, or of nature. At first glance, such an impression is hard to account for: the phenomena that arise on the market are obviously the result of human action, and are in this sense distinguishable from natural phenomena. It appears to me that this abiding sense of the essentially inhuman nature of the capitalist system, the feeling that capitalism resembles a natural force, stems to a large extent from the belief that it does not take account of any of the characteristically human qualities of the people who enter into it. The aspect of capitalism which produces this feeling is the “automatic” response to one given element in a person: the marketability of what he has to sell. Fromm expresses his indignation at this:

Man has transformed himself into a commodity [under capitalism] … His “value” lies in his salability, not in his human qualities of love and reason nor in his artistic capacities.51

Basically, then, the complaint is that in a capitalistic system, important areas of a person’s life (viz., his economic well-being and what follows from that) are determined by a method which takes no account of the things which, in encountering people in a more human way—say, in friendship, or in a lover-relationship—we lay most stress upon. In this sense, capitalism is similar to some inhuman, natural force.

There seems to me to be a good deal of truth in this conception of capitalism. But it appears to me that Fromm is mistaken in supposing that this is altogether, or for the most part, a disadvantage.

Consider what an alternative system of economic rewards would entail. If A is in charge of distributing incomes, he would have it in his power to increase—or decrease—the economically appropriate income of B in accordance with his (A’s) appreciation of the human qualities he (B) possesses: his compassion, wit, capacity for creativity, ability to show nuances of personality, and so on. It is just because the human qualities of a person are relatively ineffable things, because no valid response to them can be automatic, that it would be difficult and dangerous to put anyone in a position of authority over them (and whoever is in charge of determining a person’s income is surely in a position of authority over that person). For it is impossible to say what rules could be used to determine an income appropriate to the human qualities by any individual, and, moreover, it is quite unlikely that any consensus could be arrived at among intelligent people concerning this matter—obviously a follower of Nietzsche would judge such things differently from a follower of St. Francis of Assisi. With no rules available for checking on the judgement of the official, and with little likelihood that he could be checked up on by other officials (since lack of agreement among officials could not be used to prove the original official “mistaken”), it seems clear that the worker would be at the mercy of the arbitrary discretion of the official for his income. If there ever was a case which could reasonably be called one of economic tyranny, this would surely be it. Under capitalism, it is fortunate that, as it were, the factors governing the realm of necessity—the area in which persons might be said, by analogy, to be “compelled” by their need to survive—are controlled in an “automatic” way, and that marketability will summon forth an “automatic” response: it is a fortunate circumstance, that is to say, that the appreciation and rewarding of a person’s human qualities are reserved for the “freer” area of social intercourse, while the area in which the material conditions of a person’s life are determined is given over to an “automatic” mechanism. This provides an area of freedom to the person who enters the market which is unavailable in cases where he must wait upon the appreciation of his human qualities by some authority or other. I take this to be a somewhat more general statement of the advantages of separating economic and political power as set forth by Prof. Friedman:

… an impersonal market separates economic activities from political views and protects men from being discriminated against for reasons that are irrelevant to their productivity …52

If our analysis has been correct, then it suggests that not only would the problem of alienation not be solved by socialism, but the substitution of socialism for a regime of private property in the means of production would shake the foundation of all the humanist values, and they are not few, which are linked to political and cultural freedom.

This speech was given at Wabash College at a conference on the humane economy by Professor Ralph Raico, August 1964. It was found in the Raico Papers in the Mises Institute archives and has never been published before.

  • 1It should not, of course, be thought that it is only Marxists, or even socialists, who are aware of and concerned with this problem. The sociologist Robert A. Nisbet has also devoted a great deal of study to the problem, and he concludes that the primary source of alienation has been the growth of the powers and duties of the central government, to the point where smaller groups have ceased to perform their functions in the acculturation of the individual. Cf., Community and Power (New York: Oxford University, 1962.)
  • 2I. Fetscher, “Der Marxismus im Spiegel der französischen Philosophie,” in I. Fetscher, ed., Marxismusstudien (Tübingen: Mohr, 1954, p. 173.
  • 3The Sane Society (New York: Rinehart, 1955), p. 12.
  • 4Cited in Robert Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University, 1964), p. 145.
  • 5Beyond the Chains of Illusion (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1962), p. 52.
  • 6Thilo Ramm, “Die künftige Gesellschaftsordnung narch der Theorie von Marx und Engels,” in I. Fetscher, ed., op. cit, II, pp. 78-79.
  • 7Ibid., p. 108.
  • 8New York: International Publishers, 1964. Pp. 107–15.
  • 9Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Ungar, 1962), p. 50.
  • 10Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, p. 110.
  • 11The Dogma of Christ and Other Essays (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1963), p. 101.
  • 12The Sane Society, p. 101.
  • 13Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, p. 101.
  • 14Ibid.
  • 15Eugene Kamenka, The Ethical Foundations of Marxism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), p. 110.
  • 16The German Ideology (New York: International Publishers, 1947), p. 22.
  • 17Ibid.
  • 18Marx’s Concept of Man, p. 42.
  • 19The Sane Society, pp. 358–59.
  • 20Ibid., p. 131.
  • 21Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, p. 169.
  • 22The Sane Society, p. 131.
  • 23Ibid., pp. 131–32
  • 24Das Kapital (Hamburg: Meissner, 1893), II, p. 331.
  • 25Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, p. 165.
  • 26The Sane Society, p. 93.
  • 27Marx’s Concept of Man, pp. 53–54.
  • 28H. J. Paton, The Categorical Imperative (London: Hutchinson, 1958), p. 165.
  • 29P. 22.
  • 30Ibid.
  • 31Friedrich Engels, Die Entwicklung des Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenschaft (Berlin: Dietz, 1923), p. 51.
  • 32The Sane Society, pp. 138–39.
  • 33Ibid., pp. 137–38.
  • 34Ibid., p. 86.
  • 35Fromm quotes Marx with approval: “For Marx independence and freedom are rooted in the act of self-creation. ‘A being,’ Marx wrote, ‘does not regard himself as independent unless he is his own master, and he is only his own master when he owes his existence to himself. A man who lives by the favor of another considers himself a dependent being. But I live completely by another person’s favor when I owe him not only the continuance of my life but also its creation, when he is its source.’” Beyond Chains of Illusion, p. 65.
  • 36Ramm, loc. cit., p. 88.
  • 37The Sane Society, p. 126.
  • 38Ibid., p. 138.
  • 39Ibid., pp. 322–23.
  • 40Ibid., p. 323.
  • 41Ramm, loc. cit., p. 88.
  • 42The Sane Society, pp. 325–26.
  • 43Socialism (New Haven: Yale, 1951), pp. 258–59.
  • 44Ibid., p. 259.
  • 45The Sane Society, p. 325.
  • 46Beyond the Chains of Illusion, p. 144.
  • 47The Sane Society, p. 334.
  • 48Critique of the Gotha Programme (New York: International Publishers, 1938), p. 8.
  • 49State and Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1943), p. 24.
  • 50Unless, that is, we are prepared to assume, with raw Marxism, that the culture of a society is the product of the technological substructure, so that changes in the latter can be depended on to affect changes in the former without the need to act upon the culture independently.
  • 51The Dogma of Christ, p. 97.
  • 52Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), p. 21.


Ralph Raico, “Capitalism, Socialism, and Alienated Man,” presented at a conference on the humane economy at Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana, August, 1964. First published August 4, 2022, on mises.org.

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