Sunday, August 09, 2009

Karl Marx & The Jewish Conception of Work

Man is born to toil. ~Job 5:7

All man's toil is for his mouth. ~Ecclesiastes 6:7

ט לַעֲשׂוֹת-רְצוֹנְךָ אֱלֹהַי חָפָצְתִּי; וְתוֹרָתְךָ, בְּתוֹךְ מֵעָי 9 I delight to do Thy will, O my God; yea, Thy law is in my inmost parts.' ~Psalms 40:9


In "Estranged Labor," Marx observes:
    What constitutes the alienation of labour?

    Firstly, the fact that labour is external to the worker – i.e., does not belong to his essential being; that he, therefore, does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence, the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labour is, therefore, not voluntary but forced, it is forced labour. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, it is shunned like the plague. External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is a labour of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Finally, the external character of labour for the worker is demonstrated by the fact that it belongs not to him but to another, and that in it he belongs not to himself but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, the human brain, and the human heart, detaches itself from the individual and reappears as the alien activity of a god or of a devil, so the activity of the worker is not his own spontaneous activity. It belongs to another, it is a loss of his self.

    The result is that man (the worker) feels that he is acting freely only in his animal functions – eating, drinking, and procreating, or at most in his dwelling and adornment – while in his human functions, he is nothing more than animal.

    It is true that eating, drinking, and procreating, etc., are also genuine human functions. However, when abstracted from other aspects of human activity, and turned into final and exclusive ends, they are animal.
Marx is also of the opinion that this estranged labor occurs when one works for the 'other'- other than oneself. In this category he includes other men but also God.
    All these consequences are contained in this characteristic, that the worker is related to the product of labour as to an alien object. For it is clear that, according to this premise, the more the worker exerts himself in his work, the more powerful the alien, objective world becomes which he brings into being over against himself, the poorer he and his inner world become, and the less they belong to him. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains within himself. The worker places his life in the object; but now it no longer belongs to him, but to the object. The greater his activity, therefore, the fewer objects the worker possesses. What the product of his labour is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself.
What's fascinating is that Marx is completely right. But that is precisely why work in the way he defines it is not the way we see work in Judaism.

From his inception, man is created in the image of God. Thus, for him to work and to serve God is to strive to gratify himself and to fulfill himself as that image of God. Rather than being estranged from his labor and feeling that "the more man puts into God, the less he retains within himself" it is precisely the opposite. The more man puts into God, the more he is himself. For man carries a piece of God within himself; it is the soul. The more we toil, the happier we are- whether that be toiling in Torah or in this physical world- because ideally that is a fulfillment of who we are meant to be as people. (Obviously, if you are working at a job you hate, you are fulfilling Marx's vision of the world.)

In Psalms 40:9 we state that we delight to do God's will; His law is in our inmost parts. Thus, the law is natural to us. It is within us, inside us, a part of us. In various other places we declare that we wish our will to be like God's will. Why, you ask? For precisely the reason that Marx is delineating. If the law is part of us then we will not be alienated from it. There will be no such thing as the 'alienation of labor' for what we are laboring for will be part and parcel of what is our inmost and utmost expression of self. To serve God and to labor in His work is who we actually are; it is a fulfillment of the self. This is why we pray that labour not be external to us- that our will indeed be God's will, that God circumcise our hearts, that we delight in His law.

If this is not the case and we are indeed alienated from God's will, then work and service to Him will indeed be a form of alienation and of course we will rebel. This is precisely the reason, therefore, that our law and work is framed within this way- because the Torah knows this is true. If we see the law as part of ourselves, within ourselves, an extension of ourselves as people created in the image of God it will be a joy to us. If we see it as outside of ourselves, we shall indeed be alienated, resentful and angry; this will lead us to view the profit of our endeavors as outside ourselves for a master in whom we bear nothing in common- that oppressive God who forces us to do His will.

I've been on both sides of this feeling- feeling that it is my greatest joy to do God's will and also seeing it as something oppressive and forced on me that in no way expresses who I am as a person- so I know that the alienation one experiences, from work and from God, is a sad and difficult thing. Kareit is a form of this alienation; that's what it means to be cut off. I wonder sometimes if we all taste a miniature piece of kareit when we feel like the law is absolutely cruel/ incomprehensible and cannot see God in it at all. At that point in time we must force ourselves to keep it, because we certainly wouldn't of our own initiative.


RT said...

An unexpected post!
I never thought I would revisit(not of my own volition anyhow!) Karl Marx or any of his works in the USA.. And yet,here I'm ,reading this post. Gosh,I'll never forget his claim that religion is "the opium of the masses" . We were taught that both the idea of God and capitalism alienate the human species; that human beings must negate money and private property at all cost in order to reach the state of greatest self-actualization; that socialism is the answer to every human problem . What rubbish! Nothing is more precious in this world(at least to me,as a practicing Jew) than having faith in The Creator and learning to emulate His ways.
Thanks .

Chana said...

I think Marx's works were misinterpreted. In and of themselves they are quite brilliant- the Marxism and Communism that came to pass and the world of Stalin and Lenin, the Gulag and bloodshed are awful. But an ideal world founded on Marx's principles would be very lovely- what he was trying to do was remarkable. Anyway, love you lots, RT.

MYG said...

I think Marx had too much time on his hands... He should have gotten a job... :-)

Walter Sobchak said...

Marx's writing has two aspects - descriptive and prescriptive.

His observation and interpretation of what he was seeing around him in Industrial Revolution Europe was incredibly keen and perceptive. Workers were oppressed, capitalism was running rampant, religion for the most part was and is the opium of the masses.

Like many philosophers and historians, Marx attempted to put these observations into a philosophical framework, in his case dialectical materialism, and this turned out to be a failure in retrospect. That is not necessarily a failure of Marx.

In many ways this situation reminds me of reading Mordechai Kaplan's "Judaism and Civilization". There is a descriptive component which is amazingly spot on, yet Kaplan's predictions turned out to be completely off.

The Talmid said...

What's fascinating is that Marx is completely right.

Says who? The strange thing is that I agree with your next paragraph.

I happened to put up a post (here: ) on about the importance of work as it relates to the mitzva of tzedaka in this week's parsha. (An earlier post on the Rambam on working is here: ).

The meat of the matter is the Torah Temima, Breishis 2:16: it is improper for man to derive benefit from this world unless he engages in socially useful labor as a quid pro quo for the enjoyment received.

So working has a useful purpose in and of itself as part of living a Torah lifestyle.