About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

5. Socialist Economic Alienation

The concept of alienation expressed 'the objective transformation of the activity of man and of its results into an independent force, dominating him and inimical to him ...'(1) Alienation has its origins in classdominated society based on private property. Under capitalism, in the course of the production process, the worker himself 'always produces objective wealth, in the form of capital, an alien power that dominates and exploits him'.(2) Thus, the exploited classes objectively create and recreate the conditions of their own domination and exploitation. Consciousness of this fuels the class struggle against capitalist relations of production.

The aim of communism is to achieve the complete mastery and control over social forces which humanity itself has generated but which, under capitalism, have become objectified as alien power which is seen to stand above society and exercises mastery over it. Communism, according to Marx, involves the creation of a society in which 'socialised humanity, the associated producers, regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power'.(3)

The relevance of all this for our discussion is that only genuine socialist relations of production can begin the process which will lead to the dealienation of society as a whole and generate the formation of a new 'socialist person'. The process of dealienation whose completion must await the stage of communism cannot be advanced by education and ideology alone; conditions must be created which lead progressively to real participation and control by each individual (as part of 'socialised humanity') over social life in all its aspects.

The destruction of the political and economic power of capital are merely first steps in the direction of dealienation. The transfer of legal ownership of productive property from private capital to the state does not, on its own, create fully socialist relations of production, nor does it always significantly change the worklife of the producer. The power to control the producers' worklife and to dispose of the products of labour is now in the hands of a 'committee' rather than a board of directors. And if the 'committee' separates itself from the producers by a bureaucratic wall without democratic accountability, its role is perceived no differently from that of the board of directors. It remains a force over which the producer has no real control and which (despite the absence of economic exploitation of the capitalist variety) dominates him as an alien power.

State property itself has to be transformed into social property. This involves reorganising social life as a whole so that the producers, at least as a collective, have a real say not only in the production of social wealth but also in its disposal. In the words of Gorbachev, what is required is 'not only formal but also real socialisation and the real turning of the working people into the masters of all socialised production'.(4)

Dealienation requires that the separation between social wealth creation and social wealth appropriation and distribution is ended and society as a whole is in control of all three processes. A degree of selfmanagement (at the level of individual enterprises) is only one ingredient in the process of dealienation; conditions must be created making possible full popular control over all society's institutions of power not just as a 'constitutional right' but as a reality.

Alienation in Existing Socialism

The unavoidable inheritance from the past and the most serious distortions of socialist norms in most of the socialist countries combined to perpetuate alienation, albeit in a new form. Private ownership of the main means of production was replaced by state ownership. Private capital, as an alien power, no longer dominated or exploited the producer. But without real socialisation the key condition for dealienation continued to be absent.

The immediate producers were given very little real control or participation in economic life beyond their own personal physical and/or mental exertions. In general, the overcentralised and commandist economies of the socialist world helped to entrench a form of 'socialist' alienation. At the purely economic level this form of alienation often turned out to be the worst of both worlds.

Under capitalism economic compulsion sanctified by the rule of capital (threatened unemployment, etc.) plays an important role in providing the 'incentive' for rising productivity despite alienation by(4) workers from the products of their labour. Capitalist economic levers based on the sanctity of private property are, at the end of the day, not overconcerned with the problems of alienation and more easily provide the incentive (in relation to the workers) that 'he who does not work, neither shall he eat'.

Under socialism guaranteed employment and the amount of remuneration did not always depend upon quality, productivity or efficiency, opening the way to parasitism at the point of production. Reward based on the socialist maxim of 'to each according to his contribution' can obviously play a part in increasing productivity. But for socialist society as a whole to really come into its own requires an incentive based on the producer's real participation in the mechanisms of social control over the products of his/her labour; a feeling that the means of production and its products are his or hers as part of society. This incentive was too often absent and stood in the way of the process of dealienation.

Episodes of direct compulsion against producers, such as the forced collectivisation of the early 1930's and the extensive use of convict labour as a direct state and party exercise, made things worse. Like all forms of primitive accumulation, these episodes created a most profound sense of alienation whose negative consequences are still being felt. Pure exhortation and political 'mobilisation' did not, in the long run, prevent the onset of stagnation. Alienation, albeit in a different form, continued and inhibited the full potential of socialist economic advance.

There were, of course, other negative factors which require more extensive examination than is possible here. These include policies based on what has been called the 'big bang theory of socialism' which ignored the historical fact that many of the ingredients of social systems which succeed one another and this includes the change from capitalism to socialism cannot be separated by a Chinese Wall.

The economy of a country the day after the workers take over is exactly the same was it was the day before, and it cannot be transformed merely by proclamation. The neglect of this truism resulted, now and then, in a primitive egalitarianism which reached lunatic proportions under the Pol Pot regime, the absence of costaccounting, a dismissive attitude to commodity production and the law of value during the transition period, the premature abandonment of any role for market forces, a doctrinaire approach to the question of collectivisation, etc.

But rectification of these areas alone would not establish the material and moral superiority of socialism as a way of life for humanity. Only the creation of real socialist relations of production will give birth to the socialist man and woman whose active participation in all the social processes will ensure that socialism reaches its full potential and moves towards a classless communist society. Under existing socialism alienation has persisted because of a less than full control and participation by the people in these processes.

In short, the way forward is through thoroughgoing democratic socialism; a way which can only be charted by a party which wins its support through democratic persuasion and ideological contest and not, as has too often happened up to now, by a claim of right.


1. Marx, Capital, Volume 1, p.716, Penguin Books Edition.

2. AP Ogurtsov, Soviet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

3. Capital, Volume 3, Chapter 48.

4. Pravda, September 30, 1989.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.