How did Karl Marx and Frankfurt School Advance the Ideas Initialized by the Enlightenment?

The early writings of Karl Marx showed that capitalist mode of production generates four types of alienation: alienation of man in the workplace; alienation of man from his product; alienation of man from his species life; and, alienation of man from man.

For human beings, work is a means of self-expression and development of one’s potential. In capitalism work ceases to fulfill this requirement.

The industrial unit divides the work of production into small fragments; it compartmentalises jobs such that each individual repeatedly performs the same differentiated and narrowly specialised task.

Partially Examined Life Ep. 70: Karl Marx | The Partially Examined ...

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Under these circumstances, work becomes a routine, if not a drudgery. At the same time, individual gets alienated from the end-product of their creation. They can no longer relate to the product that emerges from these factories.

Even though the worker through his labour creates all the product, from the simplest to the most complex machines, yet they appear to him as reified commodities in the market. He can no longer own them as his creations.

In fact he confronts these objects as a stranger and is dominated by them. Work thus becomes a mode of oppressing men. Instead of being a means of self-realisation and fulfillment, it is transformed into a repressive activity.

The instrumental rationality that governs the workplace also extends to the social space. The urban industrial towns in which men live also function on the principle of utility and need.


Men see each other as objects of use, value and relate to each other on that basis primarily. Their alienation is thus complete: it extends from the economic domain to the social and the political.

Marcuse characterised the post-enlightenment industrial society as “irrational” and “repressive”. Despite the apparent progress and increase in productivity, this society, in his view, was “destructive of the free development of human needs and faculties”. To many it may appear that political freedom is protected in this society and there has been an expansion in the liberties enjoyed by men.

Today there is more to choose from: many different newspapers, radio stations, TV channels and a whole gamut of commodities in the market – from different varieties of potato chips to motor cars and washing machines. Yet, men have no real capacity to make choices of their own.

Men’s needs are constantly shaped and manipulated by the media industry that furthers the interests of a few. It moulds and constructs images that determine the choices we make at home, in the market place and in social interactions.


In a world where “false” needs are fashioned by the media there is no effective intellectual freedom or liberation of man. Men act and participate as “pre-conditioned receptacles of long standing”.

Indeed through their actions they reinforce the instruments of socio-economic control and their oppression. According to Marcuse, the modern industrialized world constituted a “more progressive stage of alienation”.

Its seeming progress, “the means of mass transportation and communication, the commodities of lodging, food and clothing, the irresistible output of the entertainment and information industry carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumers more or less pleasantly to the producers, and through the latter, to the whole.

The products indoctrinate and manipulate; they promote a false consciousness which is immune against it falsehood. And as these beneficial products become available to more individuals in more social classes, the indoctrination they carry ceases to be publicity; it becomes a way of life.

It is a good way of life, it militates against qualitative change. Thus emerges a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behaviour”. More importantly, as men and women share in the same images and ideas there it less and less the possibility of challenging the present and seeking alternatives to it

For Marcuse as well as for other members of the Frankfurt School the Enlightenment had transformed what was once liberating reason, engaged in the fight against religious dogma and superstition, into a repressive orthodoxy?

It had done this by visualizing reason as an instrument of control; and, as a tool for gaining mastery over the world rather than critical reflection and reconstruction. Instrumental reason that was concerned primarily with efficiency, economy and utility could not be expected to liberate man or to construct a better world.

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