Marx’s Theory Of Alienation in Notes From The Underground
Karl Marx wholeheartedly believed that work is what makes us humans; however, in the nineteenth-century, Europe, as well as the rest of the world, consumed workers to the point of them being alienated from the whole society, from their own selves, as well as from the products that they make. The workers spent their days just to make the minimum wage, yet they could barely afford their basic needs. Worst of all, when workers return home, they have to sleep or rest so they can return to work the following day and finish their tedious jobs that never end. It was better for the state to keep the workers distracted so they could produce more commodity to the bourgeoisie who owned the mines and the factories. The thing is, workers never felt alive because jobs consumed them physically and mentally. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto (1848) argued that workers have nothing to lose but their chains, and if they actually unite they could legitimately stop the ongoing social injustice. In literature, throughout history, the theme of alienation is usually connected to the critique of social classes or capitalism. In this essay, I will discuss how the theme of alienation is somewhat connected to social injustice by providing examples from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, and how Doestoevsky predicted many of the horrors of 20th-century totalitarianism.
According to scholar Mariama Murief, in her essay ‘Psychosocial Alienation as Dehumanization: Dostoevsky and Tolstoy Revisited’, she explains how the Industrial Revolution prevented laborers from living their lives, which resulted in alienation and a complete state of dissociation. She stated that ‘During the nineteenth century, when philosophers like Karl Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche posited their ideologies on human social life, economy, politics, etc. this concept of psychosocial alienation came into focus as a mode of existential predicament because of its fatal pessimism that effectively exploited human psyche and lifestyle. According to these philosophers rapid urbanization and industrialization are some of the major issues responsible for the development of psychosocial alienation among mankind. They believe that capitalistic and materialistic innovations undoubtedly elevate the standard of living, but in disguise, these aspects basically hamper the true essence of human beings by making them more mechanical or more artificial. As a consequence, feelings of isolation, anguish, impatience, worthlessness, bitterness and hatred infect the inherent morals or values of human beings creating a psychosocial vulnerability in them. Gradually, along with the philosophers, different psychologists, artists and literary figures have recognized this demeaning feature of alienation and therefore made the effort to raise awareness among the masses about its catastrophic effects or consequences through their works’.
These philosophers were fully aware of the fact that urbanization is depriving people from having a sense of individualism; in fact, it was a modrenized slavery and their master is the upper class society. To further explain Marx’s theory of Alienation, we should understand how he viewed the human nature. Marx argued that humans need to be productive in order to feel powerful; however, labor manipulated this power to the state’s favor. Despite how feudalism had a dominating class and subordinators, the peasants still owned their own lands. The power dynamics were balanced between different social classes, and dialectical materialism was under control. Later on, the bourgeoisie thrived on more products, meaning more conspicuous consumption, owning and taking the land of the poor. The state introduced a new form of alienation and segregation to the laborer. A man no longer felt powerful with his own instruments or while producing products. A person turned into how much he makes and how many hours he worked rather than a human being. This shift of power dynamics made the person feel quite alienated from nature, society, and from his own self.
In Fyodor Doestoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, the protagonist was facing social injustice, yet he does not want to take any action to change his state. The novella is the stream of consciousness of the underground man who thinks he is the only one who is struggling. Meanwhile, his inability to acknowledge that there are many people who struggle in the same way increased his sense of alienation. He thinks he is “a rat”, because he fully believes that everyone is happily abiding to the social norms without giving it a second thought.
The underground man condemns the fact that a person has to spend his/ her life working and not questioning the life choices. A person starts to turn into a working machine. If you are sick, you will consult a doctor with even giving it a second thought. This gives people no meaning of life. This absurdity makes you feel alienated. A man is powerless towards what society’s regulations and rules that he has to abide to. This is the sole reason why the underground man felt alienated and an outcast. He has to isolate himself from this mundane life cycle, where pain is not felt or any kind of feeling other than fatigue from work. The underground man explains ‘[n]ow I live out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and entirely useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything and that only a fool can become something. Yes, sir, an intelligent man in the nineteenth century must be, is morally obliged to be, principally a characterless creature; a man possessing character, a man of action, is fundamentally a limited creature”. (4) He explains how fools are the ones who achieve things in society, but those who are intelligent usually end up being imprisoned, limited and barely achieve anything. He goes on by stating that “I repeat, I repeat emphatically: all spontaneous men and men of action are so active precisely because they’re stupid and limited.” (13)
The underground man further explains how society forces you to believe that 2+2=4, and you do not have the right to believe otherwise. Furthermore, you have to pursue certain dreams and have certain ambitions in order to thrive. This is not how life should be lived, according to him. The underground man supports individualism rather than utilitarianism. Dostoevsky was way ahead of his time and predicted many of the 20th-century totalitarianism and suppression. Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China and other dictators tried to systematically direct and change human behavior into obedient machines. Doestoevsky even predicted the terrifying reality of capitalism in the 21st-century.
Both Marx’s theory and the novella are highly related. Marx viewed capitalist societies as monsters who feed on products and consumerism; meanwhile, the underground man believed that society wants you to do everything systematically so they could keep you distracted. Both theories are valid and co-related. All in all, it is debatable for everyone whether to support the ideas represented in the novella, which is a philosophical stream of consciousness of an isolated man, and actually relate it the theory. However, both Marxism and the novella were first introduced in the same era, which makes them associated in a way.
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