Not everyone can be a cutting edge researcher or a successful singer/song writer. Some people are bound to be stuck in jobs they don't like, and which don't allow for any form of self-fulfillment.

Even in an ideal society where "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs", there will still have to be some grunt work that nobody wants to do, and which the least accomplished members of society would have to take up in order to free up the doctors, engineers and artist to do work that benefits society as a whole.

This is true in our day, despite all of our advanced technology, and was even more the case back in Marx's time. It will be true for quite a long time, until some future point at which super efficient AIs and robots do all there work for us (assuming this happens at all).

How would a Marxist deal with the fact that some alienating grunt work is inevitable, even in the most egalitarian worker friendly socialist system possible? How would the people to who it falls to perform this work be able to actualize themselves?

  • Some grunt-work already requires a lot of sophistication: say, copy-editing, or software; it's even true in cutting edge research: Becketts 'ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better'. Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 6:38
  • Possibly the shorter working week, or working day; there were some pertinent points in an essay on Marx and Equality; I read that's probably useful here; I'll see if I can dig it up. Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 6:41

4 Answers 4


No, he didn't, because he didn't agree with your premises. It is central to his entire outlook that alienation can be overcome.

In particular, he would not have agreed with your statement that "Some people are bound to be stuck in jobs they don't like, and which don't allow for any form of self-fulfillment."

One way into understanding Marx's view of communist society is to start with the following sentence in The Communist Manifesto (1848):

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. [emphasis added]

The other passage that comes to mind, in which he makes his view crystal clear that in communism people won't have jobs in the sense of a productive activity that they engage in to the exclusion of others and which defines their role in society, is in The German Ideology (1845):

Further, the division of labour implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another. And indeed, this communal interest does not exist merely in the imagination, as the “general interest,” but first of all in reality, as the mutual interdependence of the individuals among whom the labour is divided. And finally, the division of labour offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural 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 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. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, 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, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. 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. [emphasis added]

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    What about people with highly specialized knowledge that is indisputably useful for society? Doctors for example - not everyone can go around curing patients one day and driving a fork lift the next - add to that the time and resources put into to training people with such knowledge - and even Marx would have to concede that society would require that they stick to their designated profession for the greater good, and the rest of society would have to take up their share of menial work to free them up for practicing their own specialty. Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 5:04
  • Marx did not "concede" what you say he "would have to" concede. He did not come at this from the same angle as you do. In this comment you are restating premises that he did not agree with. Did you ask your question to find out about where he was coming from on this, or to put forward a different view from his?
    – user19558
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 9:43
  • My question isn't rhetorical, I really want to know where he stood (I consider myself a fan of his). I'm just surprised at what I feel is a naive position w/r to the division of labor. Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 17:07
  • Hunting and fishing take a lot of knowledge and practice. You can't just pop out there and be any good at it. The whole idea does seem incredibly naive. Asking people to do their share of undesirable tasks mainly enlists conscientious people, who then get tired of being taken advantage of. Assigning undesirable tasks is prone to inequity. I don't think that human nature allows for an "all for all" scenario. People have to see the advantage to themselves in doing anything voluntarily. This usually involves direct payment and incentives, with more pay for more knowledge, experience, ability...
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 15 at 14:09

I was able to find a pretty direct response, quoted by Jean-Luc Nancy in Being Singular-Plural:

Since human nature is the true community of men, those who produce thereby affirm their nature, human community, and social being which, rather than an abstract, general power in opposition to the isolated individual, is the being of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own joy, his own richness. To say that a man is alienated from himself is to say that the society of this alienated man is the caricature of his real community. (Marx)

Alienation from oneself is the same process as the coarsening and degeneration of social life under capitalism; it is the loss of authentic community.

A comment mentions artists and athletes (people who produce compositions or performances) -- and who since they produce, presumably affirm their nature. And in fact, all labor affirms our nature in the same sense that Marx says labor is humanity's "species being", the means by which humanity discovers-creates its own essence.

But creative or athletic labor can certainly be alienated, out of touch with the essence it is creating-uncovering (what Marx calls human nature or the true community of human beings).

So the social-collective dimension of alienation has priority here; alienated work, or the alienation of the worker from themselves is also the alienation of human society from its own essence. In societies organized by the market, the characteristic relations between human beings are extraneated, our labor is directed away from the authentic pursuit of the discovery of humanity's essence (true community) and towards some other end.

Finally, it should be noted that it certainly does seem like Marx believes that self-directed creative labor may be closer to our species essence (it would be interesting to find a passage talking about this!) So in this way there certainly are degrees of alienation.

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    The quote makes sense, but doesn't ignore the fact that in capitalism there at least must be degrees of alienation? Surely the award winning filmmaker or the champion athlete is less alienated by his work than the person answer calls in a customer support center? Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 18:49
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    @Alexander I don't have a quote from Marx to back this up, but what if the person working in the customer support center were paid the same amount of money as the champion athlete, only had to work 30 hours per week with two months paid vacation every year, didn't have to worry about health insurance, and had the ability to move on from the job after a set period of time before it became stultifying? In other words, it seems possible to arrange society such that people with uninspiring jobs nevertheless have the freedom/security to "actualize" themselves outside of their jobs. Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 18:53
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    @AlexanderSKing I've tried to address this point with a little more context but am having trouble finding good sources around this -- I try to at least show that it is plausible that such creative self-directed laborers are mystified into discovering the alien essence of capital rather than of humanity; but also mention that Marx clearly gives a slightly different impression. Some research seems indicated.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 20:06

Adorno, that paradigm of Marxist elitism, once remarked that he really wouldn't mind running an elevator a few hours a week.

Having worked nearly every sort of job in the course of a lifetime, from picking corn, dishwashing, and oil field labor to financial reports and advertising campaigns, I heartily agree. It isn't the sort of work exactly that matters, it's one's control over the circumstances of labor. Few people mind cleaning the house or shoveling snow if you aren't doing it under a boss and time clock, 10 hours a day for a lifetime.

Marx indicated as much when he spoke of being a "hunter, herdsman, and critic," or whatever the famous quote is. In addition, Marx was deeply attuned to the social potential of labor, especially in the factory. When you are engaged in rapid, engrossing teamwork with, say, a military platoon, kitchen staff, stages actors, or construction crew, it can be quite elevating. The oppressive hours, rules, and bosses, are, for the most part, based on quite unnecessary class constraints. What's needed is rational distribution of labor, rather than some people hopelessly unemployed, some working 15 hour days, some imprisoned, and some performing utterly useless pantomimes of productive labor, usually at the executive level.

Above all, however, Marx was engaged in critique. Apart from the example of the Paris Commune, he did very little to paint pictures of a Marxists society. He was not bent upon "improving jobs" but on a complete reorganization of our social and technological relations...in short, a revolution. And this entails both mutual recognition and a relationship to your future. For a time right after the Bolsheviks took over, many Red Russians, quite uncharacteristically, worked like crazy--everybody did so, even the drudge work, in a state of high excitement.

  • I seem to recall anecdotes in the Bible where Jesus talks about day-laborers showing up in the morning for a day of work and being paid at the end of the day. I'm not sure how much choice there really is in a scheme like that, but we could try it. I know from working on an assembly line that it takes weeks to become good at any particular station on the line and to learn how it works overall, so just showing up wouldn't work well for most jobs.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 15 at 13:46

One might go to Plato in answering this question; in his Republic, he elaborated a theory of three political regimes; but real political regimes are not exclusively one or the other, but take a share in all; the preponderance of one character determines what we call it - aristocratic, oligarchic or democratic, or tyrannical.

Similarly, for the character of work; every kind of work has a share in labour, as it does in the free play of skill; and the preponderance of one over the other determines what we call it; a great deal of 'grunt-work' ie practise is required for Mozart to become Mozart.

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