In a video discussion (starting at 0:59:48), Massimo Pigliucci says that he doesn't like Marx's theory of society because it reduces humans to social insects, devoid of individualism. Similarly, conservatives and libertarians in the US usually claim that communism and socialism destroy individualism, and pejoratively call socialists "collectivists".

But it seems to me that Marx was striving for the exact opposite: He was searching for a way to avoid alienation, which is the destruction of individuality brought about by the capitalist means of production, the reduction of a complex human being to a commodified cog in a large industrial mechanism.

In particular his rejection of the division of labor seems to be a very strong affirmation of individuality in the face of the uniformity imposed by modern industrial society.

My questions:

  • Is my reading of Marx on alienation correct?
  • Are critics Marx and socialists in general mistaken when they claim their ideology seeks to destroy individuality?
  • In what way do Marxism and socialism destroy or reduce individuality?
  • You know, it doesn't really seem like you're that baffled about why, in this post-Cold War period, people feel the way they do about Marx, but your headline question invites some pretty dissatisfying answers along the lines of "Well, Joey Stalin ran a shit-show and we haven't forgotten about it." You have a real scholastic inquiry about the original 19th century literature and that's why you brought it here instead of a seventh-grade civics classroom. Maybe some edits to the question are in order, to culture the kind of answers that you'd like to see.
    – Eikre
    Jul 25, 2016 at 18:48
  • Just to point out: Hegel mentions alienation in his philosophy of right; but he hardly explores it. Jul 26, 2016 at 12:47

6 Answers 6


There's two features in Marxism (here I'm working from its Hegelian background primarily as I think these problems transfer) that conspire to enable the objection that it is anti-individual:

First, following Hegel, the Marxist picture is such that the whole is the real. In the Hegelian picture, this whole is "spiritual" but in the marxist version it's somehow merely a material whole. Consequently, the individual is not of prime importance as in views like existentialism. Instead, the individual is a part of something larger.

This by itself does not eliminate the place for the individual. But it conspires with a further feature to do so. On this sort of picture, there's a sense of how the individual should then relate to and be a part of said social whole. One specific place this comes up is in the idea of what thinking is to be used for.

On the Hegelian version, the way in which the individual should think is necessitated by the structure of thinking. Hegel specifically excludes revelations and geniuses from his idea of how we should think. In other words, every being gets a part to play in the inevitable unfolding of "progress" in the Concept whether as a thinking bit or a material bit. This happens dialectically so that each element is to be accepted in all of its difference. The rub being that on this picture you cannot choose not to advance.

Thus, for instance, if as Hegel claims Christianity is superior to Judaism, then making the individual choice to follow Jewish religion (all his terms here -- not me), then you're just plain wrong. Similarly, if your form of Christianity involves personal faith, it's also wrong for Hegel. In other words, progress, freedom, and thinking, but all have a predetermined course. (See Charles Taylor, Hegel (Cambridge 1977), p. 185 and Phenomenology of Spirit 415)

My sense is that Marx gets rid of the thinking bits (as a Hegel scholar I don't really know how this part works) but winds up with a similarly deterministic (and thus anti-individual) account of thought and progress. For instance, you're not allowed to decide that you don't mind being alienated from your labor; that just has the role of sin in previous views of being something you are bound to be if you don't properly relate to your work.

For Hegel, this would not be anti-individual or anti-freedom, but this reply to the objection hinges on some fancy footwork. If Hegel is right about the nature of consciousness and thought and then metaphysics, then it follows that freedom is the self using reason to pursue the goals of reason. And the goals of reason are deterministically knowable. In other words, Hegel is pro-individual and pro-freedom if it is the case that the Concept determines what the individual should do and has them pursue it.

But this is a very unsatisfying reply if you're committed to a more robust concept of individual or freedom. Or to put it another way, if you believe in a freedom as incompatibilism such that actions are free when the individual can choose their actions or their action-shaping preferences without regard for a unified idea of progress, then this is unconvincing.

To make it a bit more practical, for Hegel, you should contribute to society, and society will have certain ideals and values. To pick a near contemporary example, for a while the laws regarding gay marriage varied by state. If it was necessary that gay marriage be allowed, then states restricting it could not be allowed. Since it's become legal in all states, we've also seen periodic clashes that take it further -- should individuals be required to acknowledge or participate in the gay marriages of others? If there's a unified idea of progress and something is part of it, then on the Hegelian picture, there's no right of conscience to refuse to accept it or participate in it.

Hegel doesn't find this problematic precisely because society trumps the isolated individual but incorporates the individual qua living, reasoning bit of the whole. If what we want is individuals who are free to be separate, then Hegel opposes this as an illusion (an immediacy and unmediated state).

  • "For instance, you're not allowed to decide that you don't mind being alienated from your labor" But what does this mean? There is no "normative" that you morally should not do that. It is like saying, "you are not allowed to decide that you don't mind having a cancer". Of course you can, but it will hurt and kill you. You can similarly decide you don't mind being alienated from "your" labour. But it just means you either don't understand what alienation is, or that you don't mind having a bad life, not that alienation is a good thing for you. Jul 21, 2016 at 17:04
  • Your comment supports rather than undermines my answer. You're pointing out that alienation is a metaphysical claim about the moral nature of the universe -- which you see as akin to cancer and identical with having a bad life. But this is to say that choices about "the good" are stripped away from individuals and choices about membership in the collective are as well. If marxism is right, then all well and good (the same sentence can also work by replacing "marxism" with "Aristotelianism" , etc.).
    – virmaior
    Jul 21, 2016 at 21:51
  • Part of the point of my answer is that much hinges on the degree to which we think individuals can make choices about these sorts of values and arrangements vs. to what extent we think these things are metaphysically pre-determined. For those who think it's pre-determined, then of course views that match the form of pre-determination are not "anti-individual" but for those who don't think it's pre-determined or think the shape of pre-determination is different, then it most definitely appears as "anti-individual"
    – virmaior
    Jul 21, 2016 at 21:53
  • @virmaior don't think all marxists would say that alienation is metaphysical, but that it supports an economic system which is (literally) killing people
    – user6917
    Jul 26, 2016 at 1:58
  • @MATHEMETICIAN insofar as that implies the economic system it describes is actual (as in alienation really kills people) rather than just a faith, that's metaphysical.
    – virmaior
    Jul 26, 2016 at 2:15
  • Your reading of Marx on alienation is correct.
  • Critics of Marx and of socialism are mistaken if they argue that Marxism seeks to destroy individuality, or that socialism necessarily does so. If their criticism is based on something else, or if it is directed at a subset of what we may call "socialism", then it depends of whom they are accusing of what.
  • The usual argument is that individuality becomes impossible if there are no "intermediate powers" between State and individual, and that socialism is going to remove such intermediate powers. Then this is usually coated in religious babble or undemonstrated/undemonstrable assumptions about "human nature", and dumbed down into caricatures and straw men, and/or stated forcefully as being "obvious", which for some people substitute for reasoned argument. Bonus points if the several societies that claimed themselves "socialist" in the 20th century, from Swedish (or even German) social-democracy to Cambodia under Pol Pot, are acritically identified with the aim of Marxism. The argument in itself, cleaned from the several fallacies that seem to be attracted to it like iron specs to a magnet, is valid only if it can be demonstrated that such abolition of "intermediate powers" is the aim, or otherwise a necessary, even though unintended, consequence of the common property of means of production. To my knowledge, no one has been able to make such demonstration.

Arguably, it is capitalism that "reduces humans to social insects, devoid of individuality", and its defenders should be the ones pejoratively called "collectivists": as we see, the well being of individuals is of no concern, only the well being of "the economy" (which is a collective entity) should be taken into account, and indeed the interests of individuals must be sacrificed to ensure that the economy goes well (and, apparently, the well being of the economy systematically requires that individuals, or the great majority of them anyway, get screwed - so it is not an abstract problem of whether individuals or collectives are more important).


On a different note, perhaps there is a confusion between different meanings of the word "individualism". In the most common usage, in which the collectivism x individualism disjunction makes sense, Marx's position isn't either individualist or collectivist; he rejects the disjunctive altogether. For him individuality is only possible in and through society. The isolated individual is an impossibility; s/he would not be able to use tools, speak (and therefore think logically), or even to walk on two feet; s/he wouldn't be human indeed, except in the most basic biological sense. Because these things are learned, and learning is only possible in society. He never argues that society is an entity opposed to, and more important than, individuals. He thinks of "the collective" and "the individual" (to the extent that he would use this flawed terminology) as complementary, not as opposed to each other.

But this brings into discussion a different meaning of "individualism", in which it is not the opposite of "collectivism".

For 18th century philosophers, it was usual to think of society as an aggregation of individuals, as if grown up men and women, who previously lived in isolation, met together with the conscious intention of founding a society (the famous "social contract"). Thence their reasoning about society was dependent upon what we would call "methodological individualism": individuals predate society, which is an ad hoc agreement between otherwise free individuals.

(Note that the above is not the opposite of some "methodological collectivism", which doesn't exist to my knowledge.)

In that sense of the word, Marx is decidedly "anti-individualist"; he utterly rejects the hypothesis that society is an ad hoc pact among previously existent human (but a-social) individuals, which he ridicules under the label of "robinsonades". And with good reason; all evidence shows that humans evolved from already social proto-human animals, and that such evolution was only possible because our pre-human ancestors were already social before being human. Methodological individualism, in fact, requires a creationist view of the origin of humans (God created isolated human individuals, which in turn gathered together voluntarily).

Maybe wannabe critics of Marx and Marxism confuse those two very different usages of the word "individualism", in order to conclude that Marx had in mind something like the Borg - and perhaps this is the more direct answer to your question, "why is [Marx] interpreted as being anti-individualist": it is a quid pro quo, either naïve or malicious. But anyway, it is sheer ideology, if not merely crude mythology altogether.

  • "Arguably, it is capitalism that "reduces humans to social insects, devoid of individuality", and its defenders should be the ones pejoratively called "collectivists"" - I personally agree with this. I wonder if anybody has given a more formal version of this argument. Jul 21, 2016 at 16:30
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    @AlexanderSKing the frankfurt school?
    – user6917
    Jul 26, 2016 at 1:44
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    Perhaps Robert Kurz or, more generally, the Krisis and Exit! groups. Or Moshe Postone. But Marx himself goes directly to the point: "As a result, therefore, man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions [...] and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal", as we can read in "Estranged Labour", in the economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844. Jul 26, 2016 at 14:42
  • You listed several attempts at socialism/communism that ended in utter failure. This you reject as examples of not true communism and stand in theory, ignoring the numerous test subjects that ended in failure. It reminds me of the animal trainer in UHF that tried to get dogs to fly and kept throwing them out the window, never realizing that dogs cannot fly. Jul 27, 2016 at 1:11
  • @SensiiMiller - The difference is that you can demonstrate that it is physically impossible for dogs to fly. That's not the case. Nobody has given any demonstrably valid reason why common property of means of production is impossible or necessarily harmful. On the other hand, all "attempts at socialism/communism" listed have one thing in common: they are not valid instances of common property of means of production; they are all either instances of vulgar private property (Sweden) or of State property, where the State is a political body opposed to the "common" citizenry (Cambodia). Jul 27, 2016 at 9:18

Marxism explains behaviour in terms of classes, not individuals. It also attributes the same interests to all members of a class. This makes no sense since being a worker or capitalist or whatever is a role. As a result, a person can play either role at different times, or both at the same time. Lots of people have a day job and some investments: they work and provide capital. See:


As for the deprivation of individual liberty, there is no way to reconcile any variety of socialism I have ever heard of with liberty. Under capitalism, a person may decline to take responsibility for the maintenance and use of capital. He can choose just to come into work, do what his employer asks and leave at the end of the day. If he doesn't like his work, he can either change his preferences so he does like his work or find other work he prefers. Or he can choose to go into business himself so he doesn't have anybody asking him to do specific tasks in return for money: he can choose his own tasks if somebody is willing to pay for what he does.

Under socialism, he is obliged to own the means of production and to take responsibility for them. He might prefer to spend that effort looking after his children or playing computer games or whatever, but his preferences are irrelevant. He is forced to take responsibility he does not want.

And somebody who would like to start any sort of business is in even worse shape. If he can't get the approval of every worker for his plans then he is sunk.

For a detailed discussion of the economic and some moral problems of socialism see "Socialism" by Ludwig von Mises and "Time will run back" by Henry Hazlitt.

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    Your first paragraph gives a straightforward and convincing answer to my question. Your subsequent paragraphs are confusing me though. In 2 you seem to describe an ideal version of capitalism different from reality: workers might be free to act as they choose in the ways you describe, but considerations like family and health prevent them from exercising that freedom (for example I would love to quit being a salaried db engineer and become a full-time bass player getting paid for my creativity, but I have two small children, doing so would be foolhardy by anybody's standards) - continued ... Jul 26, 2016 at 17:38
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    Moreover in Marx's original formulation (not the later versions of the USSR, China, etc...which is what you seem to be describing in paragraph 3) communism was supposed to free people to do what they want, see (this reply)[philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/32597/13808] to a previous post of mine, not constrain them the way state communism à la Stalin and Mao did. Finally I always found the "you can always start your own business" proposal disingenuous: the end result of everyone applying that idea would be in fact perfect communism, where everyone owned their own means of production. Jul 26, 2016 at 17:44
  • The version of capitalism I favour is one that we could reform toward. the current system is a mixed economy, which has also been criticised by von Mises and others, see "Interventionism" by von Mises and "Government versus the economy" by Reisman. In socialism the workers own the means of production. So a worker is not allowed to decline that responsibility. Likewise anyone who wants to specialise in acquiring and managing means of production is not allowed to under socialism. Neither group is free. You can always start your own business means that it is an option, not compulsory.
    – alanf
    Jul 26, 2016 at 19:53
  • What about all that stuff about hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon and knitting in the evening? Specialisation is required to learn to do something well enough to produce stuff that people will voluntarily exchange for the goods and services you want. Specialisation doesn't have to be boring or whatever. The reason many people have shitty jobs is that they don't have the skills necessary to do something better. Unless you know how to help such people be more productive, the only alternative you have to offer them is sponging, which is dangerous for the sponger as well his victim.
    – alanf
    Jul 26, 2016 at 20:01
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    @alanf: I know plenty of people who are highly skilled, and yet they do 'shitty jobs'; I've also known highly skilled people in jobs that require high levels of skills - or so they say; but the work is tedious, repetitative and dull. Jul 27, 2016 at 3:52

Hegel, in his Philosophy of Right views 'trade' as having a 'world-historical character'; and so it has proven - it's known as capitalism and more recently as globalisation where it achieves it's 'world-historical character'; and I suppose this may be why some people call this phase late capitalism. He also points out England as the locus of this world-historical change, and I take it that this is where Marx begins - investigating the conditions and nature of trade where trading has taken on a new form; a new 'intercourse amongst nations'.

I'd suggest that, given this, Marx would take both actually existing Marxisms and capitalisms as simply different avatars of the same phenomenon: a tiger is different from a lion, but both are feline predators.

Hegel, also says that:

A man, who is implicitly rational, must create himself, by working through and out of himself; and by reconstructing himself within himself, before he can become explicitly rational.


The territory of the right is the spiritual, and it's more definite place and origin is the will, which is free. This freedom constitutes the substance and essential character of the will, and the system of right is the kingdom of actualised freedom. It is the world of spirit, produced out of itself and is a second nature.

If alienation is to mean anything, then it must prevent both from reaching their full nature; man as he is for himself, and man as he is in his second nature - society as spiritualised substance; both are conditioned by and are expressions of freedom; the freedom of the spirit made concrete.

As the Communist state is the ideal state in which both of these ideals are attained as closely as possible, anything less is less free for the man in himself and in society; so both political communism & capitalism are both correct in calling each other a regime of the unfree - or collectivist; neccessity is imposed by others enmasse and not as a 'second nature'; they are perhaps less correct in not being self-critical - or perhaps this side, being more reflective, and less bruited about is simply less visible.


Marx was of course opposed to a bourgeois system of individual rights, of property ownership etc.. He also wanted a huge international response to them, and a repressive one.

Being a militant, then, it is not so surprising that he neglected to write favourably about individualism.

It probably actually is worth considering that this may not have seemed necessary due to the nature of the communist milieu at the time.

  • The problem is that property rights are exclusive meaning they favor one over the other, they are a privilege so it's kinda difficult to codify them as rights unless inequality is meant to be baked into your system. Which in turn makes the whole idea of individual rights moot if you do not ground them in equality, right? Also that kinda depend on the perspective, like is a militant against an already repressive system also repressive? In some regard yes, but what is the alternative and were there alternatives given when Marx was around? Many states were still antidemocratic.
    – haxor789
    Aug 31, 2022 at 14:06

Communism destroyed personal wealth and ownership. Everything a person does and owned is contributed to the community as a whole.

A common result is that one individual contributes more and another contributes less. This can cause resentment in The one who contributed more.

The individual is not rewarded for personal contribution to the community. Many people are motivated by rewards for good deeds.

An example of resentment: I invited my brother to live me. He is disabled. I work a regular job that brings in more in one week than he gets from disability in a month.

For the most part, brotherly love keeps problems to a minimum. However, sometimes, I resent that I work all day while he sits and plays video games.

Because I make more, I pay more of the rent , utilities, and other expenses. When we hang out together, I usually pay for both of us.

But, while he is home, he consumes way too much food. He leaves doors open, with AC on. He leaves the toilet seat up, etc.

No matter how much we discuss it, he doesn't change.

And, I resent it. So long as we remain a communist home, I will feel I am being taken advantage of, just as greater contributors in a communist society do.

In my case, I have the choice to either lower my standards to my brother's, or separate myself from him and allow him to flounder and grow more unhealthy.

In state-run communism, the option to leave is not available. The only way out is to escape to a free area or die. That is why communism, practice turns into a totalitarian state like China or North Korea.

Capitalism, on the other hand, rewards one's efforts, usually in the medium of cash. The cash can then be spent to get the things in life you need and desire.

Your desires, once your needs and desires are met might change to contributing to your community. It is personally rewarding to do so. But, only if you do it willingly, not by force. You know better than anyone what you need. When a paper-pushers uses figures on a spreadsheet to determine your required contribution, instead of reward, we feel resentment.

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    Can you unpack this a little bit more? (Why is this is a persuasive answer to the question for you? I'd be very interested too about how some of this might relate to an interpretation of Marx's writing?)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jul 21, 2016 at 0:12
  • A better explanation is the horse in the story, Animal Farm. The animal who contributed the most was the horse. In the end, he showed only a slight dissent and they eliminated any mention of him after his death. Jul 21, 2016 at 0:47
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    @SensiiMiller Valid points. But under capitalism, you are only worth your job role and nothing else. Let's say that you are software developer, you are a valuable, but you're nothing more than a tool, on par with the hardware and the software that you work with, and you will be discarded like an old copy of Windows 2000 the moment a cheaper developer is found. Your humanity, your identity as a a person, as a member of a community, is irrelevant. You are a coder, and a cheaper coder was imported from another country, so you're thrown in the trash bin. Where's the individuality in that? Jul 21, 2016 at 16:49
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    Your job is NOT who you are. Your labor, whatever it is, is a trade of your skills and time for the things you need and want. Money is just a simple medium to exchange your goods and services for the goods and services you want and need. It makes it so I don't have to program for the gas station to fill my gas tank, or code for the groceries. Your job is what you do so you can be whom you are outside of work. Jul 22, 2016 at 16:43
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    @sensii miller: Soylent Green is a satire on capitalism showing how capital turns people into commodities; Death of a Salesman shows the emptiness of the American Dream, and so it goes; whilst I appreciate your own personal experience of business, I'm not sure how this adds up to theorising political economy; otherwise we'd say good footballers know more about projectile motion than Newton (they do, of course, but not in the theoretical dimension). Jul 26, 2016 at 23:50

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