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[Chalice]The Specter of Marx[Chalice]
Labor, Alienation,
The Caterpillar and the Silkworm

Presented October 18, 1997, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.

Here are all the events that might make you feel that it is necessary to return to Marx and read him again:

. . .when you begin to think, feel and experience these things, then comes upon you this growing sense that you need to go back to Marx, to read and think with him again.

And let me confess now that although I certainly did not realize it as a child, the fact is that ever since I was conscious and thinking about things I've always lived in a certain proximity to Marx. This is largely due to the fact that the place where I first started to think about things was western Pennsylvania, a place where so many different types of people were drawn because of work, work in the coal mines and steel mills, and so a place where people quite naturally come to think and talk about work, about different types of work, about how these different types of work are related not only to money and to class, but also to what might be considered the ease and the quality of ones life. And who else, after all, what other philosopher, made these same concerns about the relation between work and human life, the subject matter of his thought, the subject matter of philosophy, other than Marx?

Back in western Pennsylvania, my grandfather was for a time a coal miner and was for his entire adult life a pipe fitter in a Westinghouse factory. And so many of my friends and especially my friends with non-Anglo-Saxon last names like Marinelli, Slezak, Marchik, Dombrowski, Bartlemucci, Mileca, Carfanga, had grandfathers from various old countries who had come to this country to work the mills and mines. My grandfather taught me my first lessons about work. He told me a hundred times what it was like to earn your living by hard physical labor and he told me a hundred times to get an education so that I could earn my living through the exercise of my mind, not the strenuous work of my body. I don't know exactly what my friends were told by their grandfathers, but to some extent we didn't need the words to get the lesson. We learned about work from our grandparents simply by looking at them. We could see the scars on their bodies, their stooped backs, their bent hands, could hear the deep cough coming from the black lungs of those Pennsylvania coal miners. And when we got a bit older we saw those same grandfathers disappear much earlier than their wives. Recently, I had an experience I had before. I was back home at the funeral of a sister of my grandfather. She was 104. No one could even remember her husband because he died so long ago. Now I've been in this same situation many times, so at the luncheon after the funeral I asked: "Did you ever notice that the women around here tend to outlive the men by say, twenty or thirty years? Now why is that?" People just seemed to take it as a given that thats just the way it is. No one mentioned work.

But myself and my friends (Can I say the grandsons?), we understood as kids that our grandfathers had struck that ultimately capitalist bargain: they'd sold their lives, hour by hour, to hard, unenjoyable work. They received in their turn money, money to provide the kids with food, clothing and education so that perhaps they wouldn't have to strike the same bargain, wouldn't have to give over so much of their lives to monotonous, hard, physical work.

This is really the central concern of Marx's thought. He is much less concerned with the idealistic vision of a future communist utopia than with the real, physical reality of work and of workers in a capitalist system. Marx's genius as a thinker is that he takes the highly complicated metaphysical speculations of Hegel and puts them to work in analyzing the concrete situation of the worker in the way an existentialist philosopher would do. Without his Hegelian heritage Marx's thought wouldn't be nearly so penetrating and thought provoking. But without his existentialits's passion and concern for the concrete situation of the worker, Marx's thought wouldn't be, well, Marx. Because it is this overriding concern for the well being of the worker in capitalism that makes Marx Marx.

Hegel posits reality as a process through which one thing comes into relation with another thing. Through that relation the original thing becomes, well, aufhebung is what Hegel says, an extraordinary German word which means, all at the same time: cancel, abolish, change, transform, and preserve.

Marx takes Hegel's metaphysics and applies it to the actual life of the worker in capitalism. What happens in capitalism is that the labor of the worker within capitalism is abolished and preserved at the same time in that it is transformed into something else. It is transformed into a thing, like a product owned by someone else, or into an increment of time, like an hour valued and paid for by someone else. Either way, the labor of the worker is turned into something else that is owned by someone else. In capitalism, my labor is mine in that it is bought from me but also something that is not mine in that it becomes a thing that can, must and will be bought by someone else. Now in observing that the labor of the worker is aufheben in capitalism, Marx is not interested, like Hegel, in unveiling the secret of the essence of all time and reality. He is, however, very interested in describing the effect of this on the life of the worker, on what philosophers would later call the worker's existential condition. In capitalism the end result of this aufhebung is what Marx will call over and over again alienation. The worker becomes alienated from what he himself produced, from the product of his own labor that is actually owned by someone else. He is alienated from the owner of his labor, who thinks of him as a thing from whom he buys a certain thing, a certain quantity of labor for a certain time. And the worker is alienated from himself as a person because he has poured himself and his time and energy into a thing, into a product or into an hour of wage labor, and sold it as a thing.

Coal mines steel mills these are places of aufhebung. These are places where people abolished and preserved themselves at the same time, transformed themselves into increments of time bought by someone else and yet surfaced every day as the same people to pick up their pay checks and go home to their real lives. Coal mines and steel mills are also and at the same time, Marx would insist, places of alienation. Places where those ultimately unthinglike creatures, humans, were turned into, or allowed themselves to be turned into, things, for money.

Of course coal mines and steel mills are mostly things of the past in our culture. The great majority of people have occupations that do not involve this type of hard, physical labor. Yet I am sure that there are still many jobs and many lives which involve basically trading hours of the day for an income upon which to live. Marx talked not only about the workers who drill, build and carry, but also about those who perform all day repetitive, uncreative and monotonous tasks, and he knew that the number of these people would multiply as capitalism advanced. People with jobs like this what would they say about what Marx calls alienation? How do they feel alienation in their own lives and how do they overcome it? And how many people in our culture now with repetitive, uncreative and monotonous work, how many people basically trading hours of their life for money how many are now women? And if it is true that many of the women in the work force are in the work force in an alienated way, performing alienated labor, then from a feminist perspective, in terms of the sake of women, is this really an advance?

Of course in what we now call "late capitalism," the lion share of the most laborious, repetitive, uncreative and monotonous jobs are held by working poor far beyond the shores of our country, far beyond where we can see them and could think about them. How many of these third-world workers are women, and how does Marx's analysis of alienation apply to them? And if this is what "late capitalism" has come to, this strategy on the part of first world companies to avoid the power of labor unions by finding new working poor in distant lands; is this anything other than what Marx called the owner's enlightened ability not to show off its wealth and share it, but to calculate proficiently so as to maximize its wealth? And would labor unions have been caught by surprise when this started to happen to them if they had read their Marx, which means in this case if they had better understood the battle they are in and the foe they are fighting? And if late capitalism has also largely separated these mostly far off people with their miserable monotonous tasks from us, from the first world consumers of their products who enjoy a vastly different and better type of work; can't we see in this that other tendency of capitalism Marx warned us about, its tendency to make us forget that whatever type of work we do, we are all workers, its tendency to alienate us from our fellow workers.

But perhaps aside from calling to mind our community with all the workers of the world, Marx's thought concerning work and alienation really doesn't have much to do with us. As I've been putting this talk together in my head for several weeks I've been thinking about you, the members of the congregation, as workers. We're not exactly a band of coal miners, steel workers, factory workers or data processors, are we? This of course is not unusual for middle class and upper middle class white people in our country today. Far from having mindless and monotonous work, far from simply trading hours of our lives for money, we are business people, doctors, lawyers, artists, riverboat captains, teachers, professors, insurance people, nurses. Thank goodness capitalism has advanced so that what Marx says about work and alienation doesn't apply to us. "Oh, We happy few, we band of brothers," as Shakespeare has Richard the Fifth say.

I've been thinking about us, us white-collar brothers and sisters. Let me return to Pennsylvania in order to come back to you, the friends and members of this congregation. Growing up, this metaphor of white-collar was both physical reality and goal. White-collar: to be able to wear a shirt to work that would get dirty in five minutes if you were doing manual work but which would not get dirty because you weren't doing physical work, you were doing mental work. To be white-collar was the goal, a goal my grandfather imparted to me when he told me to earn my living by using my brain not my brawn, a goal imparted to many of us in many ways by our working class, blue collar grandparents and/or parents.

I said at the beginning that back in Pennsylvania as kids we lived in the vicinity of Marx. True, but we didn't know Marx or read him. He was in fact among the last people anyone would ever read, because he was a communist. Perhaps our ignorance of Marx is one reason we saw our goal as simply using our minds, not our bodies, as simply becoming white-collar. Because to Marx this transition to a type of labor that was not so physically tough and was more intellectually challenging, not so monotonous, was really just the beginning of what he wanted work to be for us humans of the future.

Marx distinguishes between what he calls "living" or "objectified labor" and "living labor capacity." Objectified labor is work, the labor we actually do and get paid for. It's more difficult to determine what Marx means by "living labor capacity," but it is related to his consistently elevated view of the dignity of humans. I think he means by "living labor capacity" the full range of things that a person can do, the full range of qualities and talents that a person possesses. I think that his view of "the living labor capacity" as the full extent of our human potential is why he compares humans to silk worms. And Marx asks, ""What is the relation between objectified labor and living labor capacity?" He says not only that our actual labor, our actual work, falls far short of our living labor capacity, the full range of all that we can do and all that we are, but that it actually alienates us from our living labor capacity, it makes us neglect and forget our true potential and talents as a human. It means that we silk worms sell all our time and use all of our energy to remain caterpillars forever.

Our living labor capacity, the full range of who we are and what we can do and be, do we get to live this out fully in our work, or does our work really still steal from us the time and the opportunity to do this? Now this question comes more directly and critically to us white-collar folks, and it too is Marx's question.

Let me open up what troubles me about this question by telling you about the person who has been my best friend since sixth grade. Like many people I grew up with he's the grandson of an immigrant coal miner and the son of a blue collar factory worker. Jim was taught the same goal as I was and he has achieved it. Always quite talented in math and science, and actually the main reason why I myself passed those subjects in high school, Jim is now a chemical engineer working for Alcoa back home. He's made it to the white-collar promised land. The only problem is, you see, that Jim is very creative, thoughtful, witty, social, a great conversationalist, has great communication skills, is a great writer. He's not particularly passionate about science and though he's successful is not particularly happy with his work and finds it the way he finds most of his fellow engineers: dry and uninteresting. I don't know any better way to describe his unhappiness with his work than to say that his actual work is hardly the right vehicle for him to fully live out all the talents and passions and everything that I know him to be. I'm sure he feels something like a great disparity between his job as an engineer and the full range of who he really is, and Im sure he would agree that his work actually alienates him from parts of himself. Im sure that he would agree that his work doesn't bring him great happiness and fulfillment and is not the full living out of all the talents and qualities he has, but then again, this was not the goal when we were growing up. The goal was to be white-collar.

It's not good, I know, to dwell on the past and to have regrets, but I wish I could go back to that study hall in 7th grade when, alongside Jim, I read Marx for the first time. I wish I could have had the wisdom to read him well I'd tell him to take all his talents and all his passions and his wit and go be a sports writer or a play by play announcer. They are after all white-collar workers, too. But now all I'm left to do is to think about the Jim I know as one of the most funny and creative people in the world and the Jim who's the frustrated engineer and think about what Marx says about the silk worm and the caterpillar. And I'm left thinking of that most haunting line in Marx where he says the worker in capitalism becomes only a part of himself, a working thing, and that he tries to make a meal for himself of this thing, but really capitalism makes a meal of him. And perhaps the worst thing is that if I tried to explain this to people back home, say to our grandparents and parents, if I tried to talk about the parts of Jim I feel his career as an engineer is eating away, no one would understand. They would say, "What are you talking about? He's very successful. He has a good job as an engineer, and he even owns his own house and, I hear, drives one of those Infinities or Lexuses or something."

You'll have to excuse me for this long excursus into the personal. Perhaps Im really only talking about my friend Jim or perhaps there is no guarantee for anyone that being white-collar means that our work is really the full living out of all that we are. It's a troubling question for me and for my mostly white-collar congregation which I've read Marx to open, which is, after all, my work, the only work I ever really wanted to do.

Unlike Jim, my father was already white-collar, an engineer, and as a kid I watched him destroy himself with his white-collar work. All I wanted from work is that it enable me to live out who I am, that it enable me to keep thinking and writing about life. I think I understood in a more existential way than simply reading Marx that since you give so much of your life to work that you have to have work which enables you to become who you really want to be.

This doesn't mean, however, that I escape Marx. Marx thinks a great deal about the relation between work and sacrifice, about work as sacrifice, about the sacrifices involved in ones work. When I think about all I've had to do to have the kind of work I have, about all the sacrifices I've made; when I think about the fact that really all I have in my life is work, that at 36 still I have no wife and no kids and am still afraid of having them because of my work; when I feel that I really haven't accomplished anything; when I know that though there are many places I want to visit, there is only one place I want to live and that I don't live there because of the work I chose; when I have this feeling of growing unease about my semi-charmed kind of life, then I may well find myself articulating this unease about my life in terms of alienation, saying that my preoccupation with work has alienated me from other parts of myself, other dreams and things I want to be and do. And when I find myself thinking like this, say late at night, unable to sleep, then I know that one of the ghosts whose presence in my head will not let me sleep bears the name of Marx.

©1997 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 1997. The Specter of Marx, (accessed July 16, 2020).

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