The RCN has based much of its analysis of capitalism on the notions of exploitation and oppression, to which we counter the ideas of emancipation and liberation – hence the name of our main publication. However, we have been conducting discussions on capitalism’s third prop, alienation, and its antithesis, self-determination, understood in its widest sense. In the article below, by Allan Armstrong (RCN), which comes from Volume 1 of Internationalism From Below: Reclaiming a hidden communist tradition to challenge the nation state and capitalist empire, explores the relationships between exploitation, oppression and alienation, and between emancipation, liberation and self-determination.


Communists, and sometimes others on the Left, use three key terms to help us understand social relationships between human beings in class societies. These are exploitation, oppression and alienation.

Exploitation, oppression and alienation have become more developed in the later forms of class society, particularly capitalism. However, the ideologies used to disguise or justify class society have also become more sophisticated.

Exploitation occurs whenever and wherever there is a dominant class able to extract surplus labour or products from a subordinate class. Women became the first subordinate ‘class’ when patriarchal societies developed, following upon the demise of many earlier communal societies. In patriarchal societies, men as husbands and fathers were able not only to control their wives’, concubines’ and children’s surplus labour in the form of goods and services (including sexual), but were also to transfer women and children as their property to other men. Later class divisions developed on the basis of the social conditions initially brought about by the emergence of patriarchy.

When chattel slavery developed, the forcible extraction of surplus labour followed from the direct ownership of the slave by her or his master (or occasionally mistress). Under various tributary systems, such as those found in China and India, the subordinate classes, particularly peasants, were expected to pay imposed taxes in kind (goods), services or money to state-employed collectors. Under feudalism, another form of tributary society, serfs were forced to work directly on their lords’ land, and/or provide rents in services, kind or money.

Under capitalism, however, surplus labour takes the form of surplus value extracted from waged labour in the process of production. However, this surplus is only realised in the form of a payment (usually monetary) at a market away from the workplace. This is then distributed as profits, interest and rent in the process of exchange. This helps to disguise its origin.

There is another type of exploitation, the significance of which has become clearer as capitalism has conquered the planet and converted more and more of the natural world into private property. This is the human exploitation of natural resources, sometimes beyond their sustainability. This has also led to the degradation, in many places, of some natural circuits necessary for life, e.g. air, water and nitrogen in the soil.

All earlier forms of human society have, at times, had negative effects upon certain life forms (e.g. the large mammals driven to extinction by early bands of hunters) and natural environments (e.g. the forests of Iceland destroyed by early Viking settlers). However, capitalism’s inbuilt drive to accumulate has greatly extended and speeded up the human degradation of our environment.

There is also a strong link between capitalist exploitation and the development of the nation-state. A key function of nation-states is to ensure that capitalists can command labour and resources, as well as control the domestic market. Furthermore, capitalists’ demands for cheap labour, greater access to resources and extended markets, has been a major factor in the promotion of imperial projects by those ‘nation’-states most able to exert their power outside their own state boundaries.

Oppression occurs wherever a ruling class has developed a state with the power to enforce human exploitation upon the subordinate classes in society. Indeed the two things cannot be separated. Class societies and the state go together; exploitation and oppression go together.

Oppression is most effective when rooted in customs, laws and other practices, which are accepted or endured by the subordinate classes. These have been reinforced by the ‘soft’ state – e.g. religion and education (training) and state regulation of the media. In the past, organised or established religions could extend the role of this ‘soft’ state by the provision of charity to the ‘lower orders’. Capitalist states have, to different degrees, taken on this role through the provision of welfare.

However, all states also have a ‘hard’ aspect, reserving for themselves the right to enforce repressive measures. In different states, and in accord with the level of challenge the ruling class faces, these measures include the use of police and armed forces, psychological pressure and torture, the courts, fines, imprisonment and death penalties.

It is only under capitalism, however, that there appears to be a separation between an economic arena of production and a political arena of the state. This division has given rise to the notion of ‘free labour’ and ‘free elections’ under capitalism. These ideas were first promoted by Liberals, but accepted later by many Radicals and Social Democrats.

However, from the earliest days of waged labour, under capitalism, many of those directly affected felt their lack of freedom acutely. They had little difficulty seeing themselves as wage slaves, comparing their own insecure and impoverished lives with those of chattel slaves. Others considered their new industrial masters to be a ‘millocracy’ enforcing a new form of serfdom, following in the exploitative and oppressive footsteps of the older feudal landed aristocracy.

Once industrial capitalism and waged labour had become more firmly established, some workers became influenced by Ricardian socialism[1]see Ricardian Socialism. They opted for mutual associations or producer cooperatives, which they hoped could eliminate the effects of capitalist competition and lead to the creation of a producers’ commonwealth. Anarchists, following Proudhon, looked to non-state banks to provide credit. Others sought to create social republics to regulate production and distribution. State Socialists, following Lassalle, looked to the existing state to bring about the reforms they wanted.

Marx and Engels, though, understood that capitalism is a particular system of exploitation and oppression. They realised that the exploitation of workers in production requires a separate oppressive capitalist state. Neither side of this capitalist duality – the market or the state – can be used to eliminate the other. Marx and Engels appreciated that our emancipation from the exploitation of wage slavery, and our liberation from state oppression, under capitalism, has to be a process which involves struggle in both arenas. This involves the creation of independent class organisations, which confront those of the capitalist class.

The failure to fully appreciate the divided nature of exploitation and oppression under capitalism has led to a division on the Left between those who emphasise the importance of exploitation in the world of production and those who emphasise oppression by the state. Some see political struggles to democratise the state as reinforcing state control (e.g. Anarchists like Proudhon, Bakunin and the anarcho-syndicalists). Others see economic struggles over wage levels as being either a labour of Sisyphus (e.g. Lassalle and socialist propagandist sects like De Leon’s Socialist Labour Party drawing on his ‘Iron Law of Wages’), or the engine of political reform (Social Democrats, Left and Right). They have looked to the state to bring about their desired changes. In contrast, Marx and Engels outlined a strategy for independent working class organisations to work in and against capitalism in its workplaces, communities and state.

Under slavery and tributary systems including feudalism, the oppressive role of the slave owner, state official or lord is obvious. The slave owner or his slave drivers, the state’s tribute collectors and the lord or his henchmen were a real presence in the lives of the slave or the serf. There were always attempts to justify this exploitation and oppression, often involving religion, e.g. ‘the divine right of kings’, and the ‘god-given’ nature of the existing hierarchical order.

Under capitalism, though, workers appear to spend much time in a private realm. This can either be the capitalist workplace, where we are ‘free’ to choose our employer and to sell our labour power; or our homes and community, where we are ‘free’ to live and to buy and consume whichever commodities and services we choose.

However, even in capitalism’s ‘private’ world, there is a massive disparity in economic power. The employers have the freedom to draw up employment contracts and to set wages. We, as workers, without any other means of gaining a livelihood, have the ‘freedom’ to accept or reject these; or, at best, to modify their terms through collective organisation. Similarly, despite enjoying the same legal right as any other person to buy the commodities or services we desire, there is obviously a considerable difference between workers’ spending power and that of the bosses. This stems from the precariousness of workers dependent on the market or state for our labour and the continued deskilling of labour; compared to the capitalists’ ability to retain dividends, interest, rents, inflated salaries and bonuses for personal use, after they have deducted what they require for capital investment from the surplus value we have created.

But those ‘private’ economic social relations that we find in the workplace, home and community are sustained by the state. This is done through property and contract laws enforced in the courts. There is also extensive state regulation of personal relationships through legally defined appropriate sexual and family behaviour, and through specific welfare measures.

Furthermore, as in all pre-capitalist states, the capitalist state still maintains those repressive forces, which ensure that the conditions of exploitation are upheld, particularly when we mount any challenges to their existence. These state forces are more than prepared to invade this private realm, although they are far less ready to take such measures against the owners, even when they are responsible for the deaths of workers. They attack workers who picket or occupy ‘their’ workplaces. They intrude into working class communities, whenever we show signs of resistance. They will demand entry or physically break into working class homes, when they want to arrest people who defy a legal system designed to uphold ruling class property and control.

A key feature of all capitalist states has been the persistent attempts to delimit and police their territorial extent, the better to extract surplus labour within these boundaries and to dictate advantageous terms of exchange across them. This provides a particularly strong impetus to the formation of capitalist states as ‘nation’-states. And, wherever specific nation-states have had the power to extend the exploitation of cheap labour, valuable resources and markets beyond their own boundaries, then oppression has had to be stepped up, and the capitalist states involved have been remoulded for imperial purposes.

Alienation is another aspect of human existence found in all class societies. It is probably the least appreciated by communists and the wider Left, particularly its significance under capitalism. Alienation is the third ‘leg of support’ for all class societies. As with exploitation and oppression, alienation is both more developed, and takes specific forms, under capitalism. Alienation arises from our lack of control over the work we do, or how we do it. Alienation arises from our lack of control over the products or services we produce, maintain or help to distribute. Our relationships with other humans, within the capitalist economy, are distorted by the impact of commodity fetishism, which results from this. Thus, alienation arises because we are forced to relate to others through competition, rendering many forms of cooperation more difficult or impossible.

Alienation also arises from the power taken from us and appropriated by the state. The capitalist state creates its own forms of alienation. Just as social relations between people are perceived as relations between things (mediated by commodities and especially money); so, our relationships with other people are also distorted by the imposition of the capitalist state into our lives. One particularly prevalent form of alienation arises from the worldwide existence of ‘nation’-states. This is the fetishism of national identity, which alienates us from other humans, who are not of ‘our’ ‘nation’-state.

Indeed, if we consider the example of the UK state, which promotes British national identity as a form of ‘internationalism’, we can see just how alienating this can be. From the Conservatives through the Lib-Dems to Labour, all British to their core, a shared acceptance of ‘Britishness’ goes along with support for the British High Command and its role in NATO. This has led to countless wars, which have alienated us from many peoples of the world. It goes along with an acceptance of the British monarchy, which fronts the Crown Powers of a very undemocratic UK state. Under the UK’s unwritten constitution, privileged judges are permitted to make legal rulings, which protect the state’s officials from many of the laws imposed on the alienated majority. The Crown Powers, the UK’s very traditional class-distorted legal system, and all the mainstream parties, uphold the right of the bankers in the City of London to use the state to exact tribute from the alienated majority. We have seen this most clearly since the Financial Crash of 2008.

Thus, the UK state’s British ‘internationalism from above’ turns out to be a very limited internationalism confining its ‘self-determination’ to the interests of a British ruling class, including its English-British, Scottish-British, Welsh-British and ‘Ulster’-British components. Whenever the people in any of these three nations and part nation (Ireland remains partitioned) attempt to exert their own self-determination, the UK state and all the unionist parties join together to try to prevent this and to set people of one nation against the other – leading to another form of alienation.

Historically, the use of the concept of alienation by Communists in understanding the ‘National Question’ has been virtually ignored compared to the use of the concepts of exploitation and oppression. This is mainly because of the impact of orthodox Marxism, practiced by leading Second International Social Democrats and Third International official Communists, and often taken on board by many dissident Communists (e.g. Trotskyists) too.

Some of their political ideologues have claimed that Marx rejected the concept of alienation in his more mature works; whilst others have claimed that his later focus, from the time of Capital, was on the specific instance of commodity fetishism, turning his back on other notions of alienation. Therefore, it is no surprise that orthodox Marxism has not attempted to apply the concept of alienation to the ‘National Question’.

Ironically, although orthodox Marxism has made little use of the concept of alienation when examining the ‘National Question’, it has been quite prolific in its resort to the term which best describes the negation of this specific form of alienation – i.e. national self-determination. However, precisely because this type of self-determination is not related to its antithesis, alienation, it has been adopted by orthodox Marxism, in a much more attenuated form. Such thinking draws more on nineteenth century Radical and Liberal ideas of political democracy, than from any deeper understanding of the relationship between the development of capitalism and the nation-state and nationalism.

Positivist philosophical and Darwinian theoretical thought, which originated amongst Radicals and Liberals, strongly influenced the Second International’s ‘Pope of Marxism’, Karl Kautsky, when he addressed the ‘National Question’. He was particularly keen to develop an orthodox Marxism. Kautsky did oppose those more Social Darwinian exponents of social imperialism, who were becoming influential within the Second International. Social Darwinians thought that the ‘benefits’ of European ‘progress’ or ‘civilisation’ could be brought about through the state’s adoption of a ‘positive’ imperial policy. This often led them to turn a blind eye to the brutal impact of their own state’s actual imperial policies.

Kautsky and the orthodox Marxists, however, initially thought ‘progress’ had come about in western Europe and the white settler colonies, as part of an inevitable transition from feudalism to capitalism. Thus, they considered the more economically developed states, such as ‘Britain’/UK and Germany, to be further along the road of human ‘progress’, which others must follow. Similarly, they thought that capitalism must inevitably give way to socialism, and Social Democracy was on history’s winning side. This was a very reassuring ‘Linus blanket’, as the competitive impact of the ‘New Imperialism’ sucked society towards the barbarism of the First World War.

Kautsky believed that as states increased their level of economic development, the problems of national oppression would largely be overcome. However, he was aware of the anti-democratic nature of governments in many European states. These still did not provide equal political rights to the members of all their constituent nations or nationalities. This is why Kautsky was prepared to support the ‘right of national self-determination’ at the 1896 Congress of the Second International in London.

However, support for this right was largely understood by orthodox Marxists to be a temporary expedient, confined to more backward states. They believed that as these states increased their level of economic development, the ‘National Question’ would be solved. ‘Inevitable progress’ under an ideal capitalism would lead, not to particular national rights, but instead to general democratic rights. There might be a case for some limited forms of local or national self-determination, e.g. territorial autonomy within the state; but this would still be but a prelude to greater national assimilation within the dominant national culture, and hence lead to greater uniformity.

Contradictions arose because of this orthodox Marxist approach, particularly in the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, French, British and Swedish Empires. Austro-Marxists, Bundists and others also advocated cultural autonomy in their version of an alternative orthodox Marxism. Both wings of orthodox Marxism were challenged by thinkers and activists, such as Kazimierz Kelles-Kruz in Poland, James Connolly in Ireland and Lev Iurkevich in Ukraine, who went back to Marx and Engels’ later ‘internationalism from below’ approach.

However, even these ‘internationalism from below’ thinkers and activists, did not underpin their support for the exercise of self-determination with opposition to alienation. These people were dissidents within a Second International whose leadership mainly came from the principal imperial powers. These advocates of an `internationalism from below’ approach, like many later dissidents within and without the Third International, were still affected by elements of orthodox Marxism.

This is one reason why orthodox Marxism’s resort to Radical and Liberal political thinking on ‘the right of national self-determination’ has often been applied in a quite limited manner. Leon Trotsky’s attack on US President Wilson’s apparent advocacy of the ‘right of self-determination’ in his ‘Fourteen Points’, published in January 1918, was largely about exposing US ruling class hypocrisy in this regard. This was something that could soon be parried back, when it came to the infant Bolsheviks’ attitude to self-determination in Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia. As it was, an increasing ‘realpolitik’, in both the USA and USSR, led to the ‘right of national self-determination’ being largely ignored in practice by both states.

Since the Second World War, appeals to the ‘right of self-determination’ have often been rooted in the provisions of the UN Charter of 1945. This Charter enshrined that particular right, after US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt and UK Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, originally incorporated it into the Atlantic Charter in 1941, also with a great deal of hypocrisy. USSR Premier, Josef Stalin and others agreed to this in the Inter-Allied Council later that year, again hypocritically.

The concept of alienation, virtually ignored by the orthodox Marxists of the Second International, had remerged briefly amongst Communists in response to the 1916-21/3 International Revolutionary Wave, particularly in Georg Lukas’ History and Class Consciousness[2]see George Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (The MIT Press, 1971, Cambridge, USA). However, after the end of the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave, the Third International began to fall back on a more limited understanding of what constituted capitalism and, in the process, repeated the Second International’s orthodox Marxist marginalisation of the use of alienation. The concept of alienation largely fell off the political agenda, until the post-1968 political challenges.

Post Second World War national liberation struggles in the colonies, and anti-racist struggles, particularly in the USA, however, led to the appearance of wider notions of what constituted national self-determination than had previously been upheld by orthodox Marxists. Franz Fanon[3]see Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Penguin Modern Classics, 2001, London), Renato Constantino[4]see Renato Constantino, Neo-colonial Identity and Counter Consciousness (NcIaCC) (Merlin Press, 1978, London) and Cedric Robinson[5]see Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism – The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (The University of North Carolina Press, 2000, Chapel Hill, N.C,) were important writers in this respect. The independent marxist, Istvan Meszaros, was able to see the significance of this[6]see Istvan Meszaros, Forward to Renato Constantino, NcIaCC, op. cit.. He wrote a major work on alienation, soon after the new post-1968 challenge to the existing order.

During the second wave of feminism, in the 1970s, which was part of this wider post-68 challenge, Ann Forman made a persuasive use of the concept of alienation in her Femininity as Alienation[7]see Ann Forman, Femininity as Alienation: Women and the family in Marxism and Psychoanalysis (Pluto Press, 1977, London). This represents a clear extension of the use of the term to address another form of alienation, this time resulting from the continued oppression and exploitation of women under capitalism.

Istvan Meszaros[8]see Istvan Meszaros, Marx’s theory of alienation ( Merlin Press, 1970, London) and Bertell Ollman[9]see Bertell Ollman, Alienation – Marx’s conception of man in capitalist society (Cambridge University Press, 1971, Cambridge) have shown that Marx continued to emphasise the importance of alienation, carrying the concept over and refining it in his later writings, particularly Capital. However, in Marx’s original 1857 plan for Capital there were to be three further volumes, in addition to the three actually published. One of these was to be on the state[10]Michael A. Lebowitz, Beyond Capital. Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class, p. 12 (Macmillan Academic and Professional Ltd, 1992, Basingstoke) and The incomplete Marx – Felton C. Shortall. Therefore, there is still further work to be done, when it comes to relating alienation to oppression.

Communists have long broken from acceptance of the Radical and Liberal notion of ‘free’ labour, which underpins capitalist exploitation; and the notion of democracy being fully realised through ‘free’ elections to representative parliaments, still based on capitalist state oppression. Communists see the ending of wage slavery and the withering away of the state as the only way to achieve full emancipation and liberation.

However, there has been little attempt to come to a similar understanding of the limits of the capitalist version of ‘the right of national self-determination’. This would mean locating the idea of self-determination in the opposition to all aspects of alienation under capitalism.

Such thinking would need to go beyond the notion that the optimum ‘solution’ to the ‘National Question’ is the creation of a world of ‘nation’-states. The fetishisation of nationality, and hence of alienation between humans in different states, would still occur. The UN Charter goes no further than acting as a written justification for an ideal world constituted by nation-states, where every nationality has exercised its right of self-determination within the already existing global order. We need to understand the link between national alienation and the fetishism of nationality, which we experience under the capitalist nation-state, and all the other forms of alienation we suffer from under capitalism. This would also allow us to support a much wider notion of self-determination as the antithesis to all forms of alienation.

Furthermore, such an understanding could help Communists better appreciate one of the key forms that self-determination takes under capitalism – counter-cultural resistance and cultural celebration. The capitalist ruling class has developed formidable means to deal with our resistance against exploitation and oppression when we protest, demonstrate, strike, occupy or rise up. Their success in this regard can lead to quite long periods of lowered economic and political struggle, and apparent worker acceptance of their rule.

However, such is nature of the human creative mind that the reappearance of resistance often occurs first in the cultural arena. This resistance to alienation is harder to police, despite all ruling class efforts to do so. Counter-cultural resistance and cultural celebration are key components of attempts to assert greater national self-determination.

The Irish (cultural) Renaissance developed after the defeat of Parnell’s Irish Home Rule party in 1890, and the marginalisation of the tenant farmers and rural workers’ land and labour offensive. This renaissance preceded the renewed movement for national self-determination after 1905 and the growing Irish labour challenge heralded by the 1907 Belfast Dockworkers Strike and the formation of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1909. James Connolly was able to see the political significance of this cultural revival, and very much gave it his support.

The Harlem Renaissance developed after the defeat of the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave in the USA, in which black workers had played a considerable role. They were subjected to a vicious state and Ku Klux Klan led counter-offensive. The cultural renaissance, which first developed in response to this setback, preceded the rise of a new wave of worker militancy, associated with the new industrial unions formed during the New Deal period, in the aftermath of the Great Crash in 1929. Again, black workers played a significant part in these struggles. The black Socialist and later Communist, Claude McKay[11]see Claude McKay, was an important figure associated with this period.

A proper appreciation of the roots of alienation would go beyond another baleful legacy transmitted by orthodox Social Democrats and orthodox Communists. Both Kautsky and Lenin viewed the existence of many languages as a barrier to socialist organisation. In Kautsky’s case, he looked forward to the eventual replacement of Czech by German, whilst Lenin welcomed the ongoing replacement of Ukrainian by Russian. This was put down to the progressive role of capitalism in increasing social interaction, whilst the repressive role of the state and employers in promoting the language of the dominant ethnicity was downplayed. It was as if the existence of different languages, instead of making a vital contribution to a rich human culture, were themselves the cause of alienation, rather than the one-sided intervention of the state in trying to impose its chosen language.

In contrast, James Connolly, had a far better appreciation of the role of language. “I have heard some doctrinaire Socialists arguing that Socialists should not sympathise with oppressed nationalities or with nationalities resisting conquest. They argue that the sooner these nationalities are suppressed the better, as it will be easier to conquer political power in a few big empires than in a number of states” To which he answered, “It is well to remember that nations which submit to conquest or races which abandon their language in favour of that of an oppressor do so, not because of altruistic motives, or because of the love of the brotherhood of man, but from a slavish and cringing spirit. From a spirit which cannot exist side by side with the revolutionary idea.”

A wider appreciation of the idea of alienation and self-determination could also help Communists transcend that false individual/collective divide encouraged under capitalism. This has led to the promotion of a real contradiction between a limited form of personal self-determination (making consumer or lifestyle choices) and a wider appreciation of collective self-determination (e.g. national and sexual self-determination, culminating in the transcending of the remaining of forms of alienation, which are linked with the continuation of exploitation and oppression).

Marx clearly understood the dialectical link between the individual and collective. He saw one of the key roles of communism being to overcome this contradiction in a new society where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”[12]Chapter II. Proletarians and Communists and Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Penguin Classics, 2002, London). Capitalist social relations, and the liberal thinking arising from these, encourage the view that society is made up of individuals, who have to compete against each other to get on. Marx understood humans to be primarily social beings, who, in the process of overcoming their alienation, developed their own individuality through cooperation with each other.

also see:- internationalism from below


1 see Ricardian Socialism
2 see George Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (The MIT Press, 1971, Cambridge, USA)
3 see Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Penguin Modern Classics, 2001, London)
4 see Renato Constantino, Neo-colonial Identity and Counter Consciousness (NcIaCC) (Merlin Press, 1978, London)
5 see Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism – The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (The University of North Carolina Press, 2000, Chapel Hill, N.C,)
6 see Istvan Meszaros, Forward to Renato Constantino, NcIaCC, op. cit.
7 see Ann Forman, Femininity as Alienation: Women and the family in Marxism and Psychoanalysis (Pluto Press, 1977, London)
8 see Istvan Meszaros, Marx’s theory of alienation ( Merlin Press, 1970, London)
9 see Bertell Ollman, Alienation – Marx’s conception of man in capitalist society (Cambridge University Press, 1971, Cambridge)
10 Michael A. Lebowitz, Beyond Capital. Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class, p. 12 (Macmillan Academic and Professional Ltd, 1992, Basingstoke) and The incomplete Marx – Felton C. Shortall
11 see Claude McKay
12 Chapter II. Proletarians and Communists and Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Penguin Classics, 2002, London)