History and the Social Forms of Existence

This is the second part in an ongoing series on some of the key ideas in Marx’s thought. The first part can be found here.


The preceding section discussed Marx’s understanding of human beings in the abstract. However, a true picture only emerges when one grasps humanity in the concrete; that is, in its actual living existence. So, for instance, in the beginning of the previous section the relationship between essence and existence was described as a matter of “standpoint.” This terminology is important because it suggests how Marx conceived of humanity as a dialectical unity between its essence and its mode of existence. One can only view human beings from different, distinct sides that, nonetheless, constitute a whole. As was emphasized above, essence only comes into being through existence and its content only exists objectively as form.

To develop this methodological point further it is necessary to consider the important role of abstraction in Marx’s thought. In order to understand the concrete phenomena of society, it is necessary to abstract from their particularity. Since a specific phenomena cannot be comprehended in itself, but only in its relation to other phenomena, it is necessary to discover new concepts that explain their unity. One thereby moves toward a conception of the totality of all relations in society. Without the relations between phenomena, the concrete becomes merely empirical. Once again, in Marx’s approach there are no “things,” but only relations and moments of totality. However, it is also necessary to grasp the concrete or else the relations from which phenomena emerge would become abstract. As a result, social reality and its concrete historical movement could not be comprehended at all. Marx’s methodology regarding abstraction and the concrete will be returned to later and developed further.

With these considerations in mind it becomes clear that Marx’s philosophical break in the “Theses” and ‘Estranged Labor” does not really begin to take methodological shape until he grounds his categories in history. For Marx history is the movement of the successive modes of existence humanity has created. History is the result of and the process of the objectivity of sensuous activity he speaks of in those early writings. In this light it is possible to understand more clearly Marx’s turn to the critique of political economy. Of course, this move was necessary to critique bourgeois ideology. But this critique proceeded in immanent fashion by grasping the movement of human activity in its concrete forms of existence. Marx’s aim was to show how in class society, humanity’s essence and existence come into contradiction with each other.

Mode of Production and the Mode of Life

When Marx turns to history he does not look at human beings in isolation, but rather in society. It is not possible to think of humanity as separate individuals. Human beings only come into being and gain awareness in mutual association with each other. In The German Ideology, Marx writes that if “consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other” people, then “consciousness of the necessity of associating with the individuals around [them] is the beginning of the consciousness that [they are] living in society at all.” Consequently, Marx’s concept of self-activity must be understood as being a social process, one that involves human beings reproducing themselves only in relation to each other.

We are not dealing with the materialization of a single individual, but a collective realization. Only in mutual association do human beings therefore “distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation.” The means of subsistence are the objects produced by people in association that consist of the tools and knowledge that subsequently absorbs and gives shape to the labor that follows. The means of subsistence is the basis for society because it is the foundation for the reproduction of the people who comprise that society. As Marx notes, “By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life” (The German Ideology). The result of this mutual materialization is the creation of the means of labor.

In putting forward the concept of the means of labor Marx restates the methodological point about the objectivity of self-activity. As he maintains in The German Ideology, humanity does not have “inherent” or “‘pure’ consciousness” independent of the objective reality it creates. There is an inner connection between consciousness and its material conditions. Marx thereby returns to the dialectic of self-activity between sensuous activity as a metabolism with nature and the materialization of the needs that arise from that activity. This dialectic, according to Marx, comprises the historical movement of content and form:

The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history…the satisfaction of the first need (the action of satisfying, and the instrument of satisfaction which has been acquired) leads to new needs; and this production of new needs is the first historical act. (The German Ideology)

As needs have changed and expanded so too have the means of labor to materialize and therefore realize those needs. The means of subsistence establish a ground upon which new needs and desires develop. With the concept of the means of labor, Marx recasts the dialectic of subject and object as a social process which mediates the historical movement of humanity. As such the means of subsistence do not stand outside those who create them. Instead they are, as he continues in The German Ideology, “a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore coincides with their production, both what they produce and how they produce.” History is the successive modes of existence humanity has created. Recalling “Estranged Labor,” Marx further develops the inner relation between needs and labor in The German Ideology now fully conceived as a social process. It is a social process in which human beings “daily remake their own life,” and, through “increased needs create new social relations,” create the content and forms of the history.

In grasping the self-reproduction of humanity as a “mode of life,” Marx indicated that he has in mind the recreation of human life as a whole. Thus the concept of the means of labor is not a reductionist one. Rather “mode of life” signifies people’s way of being in the world at any particular moment in time. Marx is focused on the forms of expression of human existence, their relations and the manifestations of their subjectivity. The means of labor as “mode of life” is also therefore a cultural concept which plays a crucial role in a communist analysis.

Marx makes one more conceptual leap that must be taken into account in regards to the means of labor that has so far remained implicit. If needs expand then, by definition, Marx no longer conceives of the means of labor as the material expression of social relations through which human beings simply subsist. To subsist is to reproduce one’s existing self. For Marx, as a matter of course, no society simply subsists. It is axiomatic that human beings develop historically, slowly as in the past, or at a barely imaginable pace with the modern capitalist epoch. Social relations are social labor and they are what Marx calls a “productive force.” Consequently, the means of labor are not merely a matter of subsistence, but, in fact, a “mode of production.” According to Marx, “a certain mode of production, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode of co-operation is itself a ‘productive force’” (The German Ideology). How productive forces expand with the mode of production is found in the increasing development of the division of labor.

Division of Labor

In “Estranged Labor,” Marx examines self-activity in a state of “free activity,” where their “own life is an object” for human beings. As we have seen, by definition self-activity is social activity or social labor. Social labor expresses itself in a particular form called the mode of production. The form of social organization mediates the self-activity of all the individuals who make up a given society as a whole at any specific historical moment. Since the mode of production is a specific form of association, or what Marx calls cooperative labor, it gives rise to a particular organization of collective labor in society and, therefore, the relations between its members. Those relations constitute a division of labor and every mode of production has a particular one.

Under the division of labor in a class society self-activity is no longer “free activity.” Instead, as Marx writes, “as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape” (The German Ideology). Accordingly, the division of labor gives rise to and is an expression of a “fixation of social activity.”

The image is an important one. For Marx the division of labor is a reduction of self-activity to a one-sided production. By limiting people to the production of one kind of object or one type of labor the division of labor reduces them to a one-sided activity. The division of labor interrupts the metabolism of self-activity and freezes it in a constant reproduction of a single sided activity. The expression of the many-sided content of human beings is limited at best to a very few forms.

However, Marx argues, the mode of production has developed historically through the social division of labor. We have seen how in the process of satisfying needs, humanity creates new needs. The mode of production changes accordingly to realize these new needs. The dialectic of content and form here gives rise to the collective or social productive powers of humanity, or what Marx calls the “productive forces.” In The German Ideology, he writes: “How far the productive forces of a nation are developed is shown most manifestly by the degree to which the division of labour has been carried. Each new productive force, insofar as it is not merely a quantitative extension of productive forces already known [ ] causes a further development of the division of labour.”

The productive powers of humanity achieve a qualitative shift in substance or content, changing from what was known to something previously “unknown.” New abilities of labor emerge from new kinds of people that correspond to new social relations. Marx refers to these qualitative changes in self-activity as the growing productivity of labor. Productivity, or the growth of the forces of production, is “The social power, i.e., the multiplied productive force, which arises through the cooperation of different individuals as it is caused by the division of labor.” As a result, “consciousness receives its further development and extension through increased productivity, the increase of needs” (The German Ideology). In turn, increased productivity leads to a further growth and development of productive powers.

History, then, moves through an important contradiction. As the productive powers increase so does the division of labor and, therefore, the relative impoverishment of humanity. The qualitative development of the productive powers is linked to people being assigned a “particular, exclusive sphere of activity” whose labor then becomes “fixed” in place one-sidedly. What was previously more holistic forms of labor are subsequently separated into specific acts of labor. Where before a person completed the creation of an object as a whole, or worked with others to do so, now their labor becomes increasingly isolated as the production process becomes more and more segmented.

Production relations are social relations of labor. Therefore, as Marx notes, “the existing stage in the division of labour determines also the relations of individuals to one another with reference to the material, instrument, and product of labour.” We are dealing with social relations in which, in some form, people become separated from the means of production and each other. In short, the form of cooperation expressed in the mode of production becomes internally divided and develops into an increasingly conflicted unity.

“Each new productive force,” Marx argues, “causes a further development of the division of labour.” For Marx this is the case for a particular reason. The content of the productive powers of humanity and their form in the mode of production “must come into contradiction with one another, because the division of labour implies the possibility, nay the fact that intellectual and material activity – enjoyment and labour, production and consumption – devolve on different individuals” (German Ideology).

The productive powers grow as a result of the increasing specialization and concentration of labor. This process shortens the time it takes to produce a greater amount of objects to satisfy needs, establishing a new ground of productivity. In turn, this creates a new foundation for expanding needs that are reflected in new knowledge, desires and technology. This is possible because increasing productivity frees up more time to discover and realize those new needs. However, as the division of labor develops, becoming deeper and more rigid, these needs can only be expressed and realized by some though they are the common content of all. For Marx the tension between the two becomes the moving contradiction of history. With the growth in the productive powers, as the mode of production and social labor develop, labor becomes more impoverished relative to those productive powers. The conditions of labor are kept at a minimum while the wealth created by labor grows exponentially. Those without the ability to realize the new needs that come into existence seek to appropriate the means of production and, in the process, create a new mode of production, a new form of cooperative association.

The division of labor lies at the origins of class society and its increasing development gives rise to a struggle of classes. Marx posits that the associative self-activity or social labor in the form of a mode of production creates a division of labor. Different forms of labor fall upon different members of society and, as a result, classes arise, with a ruling class who appropriates the labor of other classes, enriching itself on the growing powers of social production. No longer “free activity,” self-activity turns against itself, creating a society of exploitation and oppression. At the same time the productive powers of humanity grow, outstripping the given mode of production. The mode of production can no longer contain the new forces of production. In this struggle of new content in old forms of existence, new classes emerge, struggling for the “the negation of the division of labour” of the old mode of production (The German Ideology).


We saw how Marx described the division of labor as a “fixation of social activity” that interrupts the process of self-activity and that this disruption is the result of and gives further rise to the division of labor. With the emergence of class society a ruling class controls the means of production and confiscates the results of the productive powers of humanity in part, as in pre-capitalist societies, or as a whole, as is the case with capitalism. Key for Marx is that self-activity becomes internally divided, separating the creation of productive powers from the means to appropriate its results. The consequence of class society, then, is alienation.

Alienation expresses itself in two interrelated ways. On one side class society leads to the impoverishment of the material existence of humanity relative to the productive forces created. By coercing and ultimately reducing human beings to a particular activity the division of labor leads to a one-sided development of people. This one-sidedness manifests itself not only qualitatively, reducing living content to a single form of activity. As Marx contends in “Estranged Labor,” class society reduces “spontaneous, free activity to a means, estranged labor makes man’s species-life a means to his physical existence.” Thus a reduction of human life also occurs quantitatively, spending the overwhelming time laboring simply to reproduce one’s physical existence, or one’s historically conditioned subsistence.

As a result, a contradiction arises in which the condition of labor “is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production” (“Estranged Labor”). Such a contradiction grows with the historical development of class society in which, as the more wealth is created and the more the productive powers of humanity grow, “the more powerful labor becomes, the more powerless” is the laborer (“Estranged Labor”). The material existence of humanity declines relative to the productive powers whose wealth exists as an unrealized potential for the vast majority. The productive power created, therefore, “does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind” (“Estranged Labor”). Alienation as material underdevelopment emerges objectively from the division of labor.

The other side of alienation is the inner movement of this impoverished material development. As we have seen the “fixation of social activity” leads to an internal division within the individual and the unity of the social body as a whole. In The German Ideology, Marx writes, “For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape.” Marx continues:

This fixation 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 naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now. The social power, i.e., the multiplied productive force, which arises through the co-operation of different individuals as it is determined by the division of labour, appears to these individuals, since their co-operation is not voluntary but has come about naturally, not as their own united power, but as an alien force existing outside them, of the origin and goal of which they are ignorant, which they thus cannot control, which on the contrary passes through a peculiar series of phases and stages independent of the will and the action of man, nay even being the prime governor of these. (The German Ideology)

The mode of production arises as an expression of the mutual association and constitution of the members of society as a whole or totality. It is the social form by which the process of self-activity takes place, in which “man’s relation to himself becomes for him objective and actual through his relation to the other man” (“Estranged Labor”). Consequently with class society the process of “objectification,” or materialization and realization of needs, becomes inverted. Separated from the means of production, activity is no longer free, but instead produces for another and, in the process, reproduces the division of labor. In class society the means of production do not function as a means for people to realize themselves as whole. Separated from the means of production, reduced to a single activity without the ability to realize other needs, the productive forces exist as an “objective power above” people.

As a result, self-activity becomes externalized where “man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him” (The German Ideology). With alienation self-activity is internally divided against itself. Labor produces an objective world that it cannot appropriate. Humanity becomes imprisoned in a world in which it cannot recognize itself. For the producer, alienation arises because activity “does not belong to his essential being; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm,” but negates himself through his own activity (“Estranged Labor”). Being alienated from the world one has created also results in “the estrangement of man from man. When man confronts himself, he confronts the other man” (“Estranged Labor”). As the creator of their social relations humanity comes to imprison itself. The objectifier becomes objectified.

For Marx the dialectic of alienation is “one of the chief factors in historical development” (The German Ideology). Separated from the means of labor, labor experiences a profound disunity with itself. The struggle to achieve a unity of labor and the means to realize the results or object of labor is expressed in the constant struggle toward “negation of the division of labor.” This inner movement to reappropriate the productive powers of society and therefore of oneself is how, historically, the mode of production has developed through the social division of labor. Only with this in mind can we understand Marx’s famous statement in The Communist Manifesto that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

Next up: Capitalism and the Value-Form