Marx considered labour as essence of humans that makes us different to other animals. But how is it more concrete than other things ? Isn't it labour situational, I mean something that forcefully to made us do ? Why not labour is an abstract concept?

  • "labour" is an abstract concept. Of course, there are many human activities that fall under the general concept: labour. Jul 1, 2022 at 11:48
  • Labour in the sense of systematic goal-oriented transformation of nature. In this sense it transforms humans as well.
    – Nikos M.
    Jul 1, 2022 at 15:09
  • Goal oriented? Does nature follow any goal except the survival? Then how's labour even goal oriented?
    – Schnoz
    Jul 1, 2022 at 16:47
  • @Schnoz goal-oriented in the sense of consciously transforming nature to achieve a certain goal, eg build a bridge.
    – Nikos M.
    Jul 1, 2022 at 18:19
  • @Schnoz you have to remember that Marx and Engels write in a period where it has become clear that the conscious use of tools to transform nature is a decisive step in transition from ape to human
    – Nikos M.
    Jul 1, 2022 at 18:24

2 Answers 2


For Marx (and Locke before him) labour is the one constant of human life. If we want to live we have to eat, and if we want to eat we have to do labor. There's nothing 'forced' about that, unless you consider hunger an outside force. Even in Locke's State of Nature (or the Garden of Eden for that matter) one has to get up and go pick the fruit from the trees; that's labor. Even the feudal lord, gentleman slave-owner, or fat-cat industrialist — all of whom seem to sit idly in their mansions — have to do labor. There are products to be sold, raw materials to be bought, things to be shipped, managers and muscle to hire so the peons keep in line. Even Buddhist monks have to leave their meditations each day to walk into town and beg for a bowl of rice.

  • Without labor there is no production
  • Without production there is no consumption
  • Without consumption there is no life

Would that we lived in a world where magical faeries brought us meals every day. But then I suppose we'd just be exploiting the labor of magical faeries...

Locke held that since labor is essential for the continuation of human life, then the products of labor — the things we produce with our own efforts — should be treated as though they are part of our bodies. Thus we have a Natural Right to own, keep, and use the property we produce. Marx extended this to say that laborers — serfs, proletarians, etc.; all the low-status people who physically produce things — also have a Natural Right to the property they produce. Capitalists exploit those people (violate that Natural Right) by paying them far less than the actual value of the products of their labor, keeping the rest as profit.

In the modern (capitalist) world the concept of labor has been rendered abstract because of commodification (ala Marx). Commodification means that the process of exchanging goods and money is treated as a relation between objects, not as a relation between people. In other words, if we put down a downpayment on a house we think: "I just exchanged money for a home" (object for object). But in reality we got that money by expending someone's labor (ours or our employees'), and that house is the product of labor of a bunch of other people. So on that level we are exchanging labor for labor — a social interaction, not an object interaction — and the pertinent question would be whether the exchange is fair to all parties involved. By commodifying we obscure the social relationship, and the question of fairness disappears like a great capitalist magic trick.

  • Thanks for answering. I'm agreed to everything you just wrote. But how is it just Human's only essence, I mean animals do such kind of labour as well. And as I understand dialectical materialism, not everything can be depended on just one cause, situation that we are rn can be effected equally by different different things that are going around us. One cause can't be bigger or smaller than other. Then why did marx go against his own logic which was dialectical materialism when he just focused on labour and turned it in to economical determinism ?
    – Schnoz
    Jul 1, 2022 at 17:46
  • Are humans as what we are just by labour as a fix idea ? If not then how is it even an essence because when we talk about essence we look for a single fix idea to describe us, and in reality that's what impossible to define a human in. You can't define a human through a single fix idea as to call it their essence.
    – Schnoz
    Jul 1, 2022 at 17:54
  • I suggest to read the original essay of Engels on this matter
    – Nikos M.
    Jul 1, 2022 at 19:19
  • @Schnoz: Animals live hand to mouth (so to speak); their labor is only for immediate sustenance. Humans have the capacity to labor for the future and to labor collectively, producing excess that can be stored, traded, etc. Surplus labor is the source of all wealth. What changes over the course of time is the technology and organization of labor. DM merely states that in every era there is dialectical relation between those who actually do labor and those who control the technology of labor. That can (and does) change over time. Jul 1, 2022 at 20:33
  • @Schnoz: And labor does not define what it means to be human. Labor is necessary but not sufficient. It's a box we have to check if we want to continue living, but (unless one is a slave) there is a lot more to life than mere labor. Jul 1, 2022 at 20:35

TLDR: Human labor involves planning, coordination and the communication of abstract ideas as well as mastery over nature. Labor is human consciousness expressed in concrete action.

Here's a helpful passage in Marx's own words:

The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. It is just because of this that he is a species-being. Or it is only because he is a species-being that he is a conscious being, i.e., that his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity. Estranged labor reverses the relationship, so that it is just because man is a conscious being that he makes his life activity, his essential being, a mere means to his existence.

In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as his own essential being, or that treats itself as a species-being. Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. An animal produces only itself, whilst man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product. An animal forms only in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty.

An import piece of context here is that Marx is reacting against Hegel's absolute idealism. Marx is a materialist. For him ideas have no essence above or outside the material world.

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