In any capitalist society, a disconnect between an individual’s selfhood and her labor will arise. Ask any college student and you’ll hear about the never-ending questions that go something like… What career do you want with your degree? What field are you looking into? Where do you want to work once you graduate? Inevitably accompanying that question comes intense anxiety for the student themselves. Yet, this isn’t an issue only experienced by college students— questions concerning one’s career never cease to end. They usually present in different forms, most often as self-reflecting questions the working-class subconsciously ask themselves every day… Man, what am I doing with my life? I just have to get to the weekend! I hate my job but my kids need food on the table. According to Che Guevara, capitalism moves people away from expressing their interests without even knowing it. And even beyond alienating people from their interests, the interrelation between a person’s ability to produce, save, and organize, which are vital elements of a revolution, are also damaged under capitalistic systems. People are disconnected from their labor because even if they are working in a field they are interested in, capitalism separates the individual from the products of their labor and likewise, disconnects them from their sense of self and purpose. Martizen-Sanez writes,
“The distinction that people experience between communal interests and individual interests arose because in capitalist society, human beings lacked the control of the distribution of the products of their labor and were treated as a means to an end rather than an end; their relations were reduced to purely economic relations, and the difference between an animal and a human existence had become unintelligible” (Martinez-Saenz, 24).
This alienation under a capitalist system is something Marx and Guevara shared in concern. If the individual is alienated because of oppressive external conditions under capitalism, then the individual will inevitably lose touch with self. So, not only are workers frustrated with the inability to reap the fruits of their labor but they are forcibly stripped of any identity of selfhood.
Marx talks of this exact same issue in his manuscript Alienated Labor. Petrović writes of this when considering Marx, stating,
“The alienation of the results of man's productive activity is rooted in the alienation of production itself. Man alienates the products of his labor because he alienates his labor activity, because his own activity becomes for him an alien activity, an activity in which he does not affirm but denies himself, an activity which does not free but subjugates him. He is home when he is outside this activity, and he is out when he is in it” (Petrović, 241).
Labor becomes alien to the worker who is completely disconnected from their work. Yet perhaps even worse than Marx could have predicted, “home,” where “he is outside this activity” is arguably no longer even a space where his selfhood can be reconnected in the United States. Labor has not only alienated the worker from his work but has created such extreme conditions that almost all spaces are now alienating in this country.
Marx and Guevara weren't the only ones to recognize the divide capitalism causes between labor and passion, capital and self. W.E.B. Du Bois, Huey Newton, and Paul Robeson all observed not only the social differences in the Soviet Union and Mao’s People’s Republic of China, particularly related to race, but also the differences in how the working people of these places viewed and digested their labor. While we can obviously recognize the differences in their ability to reap the fruits of their labor compared to US workers (or any workers under capitalism or neoliberalism), less often do we examine the psychological relationship a Marxist revolution enables. The psychological relationship being the connection one has between his labor and his selfhood.
Du Bois immediately recognized the safety and welcome he felt when he visited the Soviet Union. Yet, even beyond those social changes, he was also able to observe a new dynamic among the working people. “Du Bois applauded the Soviet program, which had made of the working people of the world ‘a sort of religion,’ a form of scientific idealism he posited as being indispensable to progress” (Carew, 54). The Soviets were dedicatedly connected to their work— producing historically groundbreaking results (we mainly consider the scientific ones), but they also psychologically pushed an entire population onwards with the same unifying intensity exhibited in religion. Du Bois’ idea that work can create a motivating spirit in the people is something he also observed in China: “Du Bois saw ‘a fable of disciplined bees working in revolutionary unison. Cataloging the public places, restaurants, homes of officials, factories, and schools visited,’ he saw only ‘happy people with faith that needs no church or priest’” (Carew, 61). Once again we have this reference to a sense of drive, pride, and motivation so unifying that it is comparable to the togetherness brought on by religion. Workers had faith in their labor and therefore did not struggle with the questions that I examined earlier in this piece. Work in Marxist societies erases the disconnect that laborers otherwise have between their selfhood and work-life in capitalist systems.
Huey Newton also observes the connection between selfhood and labor that America lacks when he visited The People’s Republic of China:
“While there, I achieved a psychological liberation I had never experienced before. It was not simply that I felt at home in China; the reaction was deeper than that. What I experienced was the sensation of freedom as if a great weight had been lifted from my soul and I was able to be myself, without defense or pretense or the need for explanation. I felt absolutely free for the first time in my life-completely free among my fellow men. This experience of freedom had a profound effect on me, because it confirmed my belief that an oppressed people can be liberated if their leaders persevere in raising their consciousness and in struggling relentlessly against the oppressor… To see a classless society in operation is unforgettable. Here, Marx’s dictum— from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs— is in operation” (Newton, 348, 352).
Again, Newton mentions this psychological liberation that is almost spiritual or religious in nature. The societies that America paints as those in which people are forced to work for “hours without reward,” in reality actually provide a sense of freedom and liberation for one's selfhood through Marxist labor structures, the antithesis to everything we’re told in school. Yet it cannot be a coincidence that all of these African-American revolutionaries observed such similar feelings of liberation. Undoubtedly, the widespread feeling of disconnect that I described earlier in America’s working culture, is the exact opposite in cultures that have experienced Marxist revolutions. In places where Marxist revolutions have occurred, a feeling of intense connection to one’s labor arises.
Du Bois and Newton do not speak of the mysticality of an un-alienated society randomly.
Petrović also accounts for the same role the rejection of alienated labor has in a spiritual setting: “In this sense, Marx… speaks about communism as a society which means ‘the positive supersession of all alienation and the return of man from religion, the family, the state, etc., to his human, i.e., social life (existence)’” (Petrović, 424-425). If alienation between a worker and his work is ended, he will be able to return to his truest human condition and existence. In the same sense that Du Bois and Newton observed, ending alienation in labor, returns the man to his truest self.
Paul Robeson, a local hero for my fellow Princeton, New Jersey residents, found this connection so powerful (that along for obvious social reasons) he moved his family to the Soviet Union for a period of time. This reinforces the notion that Marxist revolutions create spaces for marginalized people to not only experience less racial prejudice than in the States, but also a complete liberation of selfhood. A liberation that can remove the constraints of not only racial oppression, but of the realities that all working class people experience in the United States: the inevitable disconnect between selfhood and work, or labor-alienation, that is inevitable in capitalist-based systems.
Che Guevara’s idea of the “new man,” is the alternative that American workers need. In America’s capitalist hellscape, not only are adult workers disconnected from the fruits of their labor and individual sense of belonging and purpose, but the youth population is as well. We tell our youth they have to work to survive, but when they produce the tools of their survival they are completely stripped of the fruits themselves. Instead, the products of their labor go to the bourgeoisie so that this system can continue. And not only are people physically disconnected from the products of their labor, but they are psychologically disconnected from their labor as well. This makes it nearly impossible to love or find meaning in one’s job, regardless of one’s theoretical interest. Instead, American workers work only to put food on their families’ “tables” (arguably the vicious cycle doesn’t even allow that). It's a twofold issue that creates a never-ending cycle that is intentionally impossible for the working-class American to escape. Make the working-class person work a job that only gives him enough to keep him in an endless cycle of crises until he no longer love his work and can no longer love himself.
Yet if we have a revolution in this country, if our workers are able to embody Guevara’s vision of the “new man,” the connection between laborer and labor can be reformed. Martinez-Saenz quotes Guevara who said,
“The relation of economic controls to moral incentives is more subtle than indicated. Moral incentives, if they are truly the individual’s incentives, cannot be directed from above. That is why the many Cubans ask, ‘How can you plan voluntary work? Is this not a contradiction in terms?’ What types of economic controls are compatible with a system of moral incentives? Recognition of this issue has emerged in two forms. First, an understanding that moral incentives are directly related to the level of education and the nature of one’s employment, and this is reflected in Cuba’s intensive educational effort, particularly in technical training. Second, experimentation with a new worker organization and system of emulation whose aim in part is to stimulate greater participation and eliminate bureaucratic controls” (Martinez-Saenz, 22).
Guevara clearly lays out these two steps that are important to understand in order to truly alleviate the disease of worker alienation. America, however, is nowhere close to adopting the steps Guevara saw for the people of Cuba: a revolution must take place first. This issue, therefore, is actually deeper than just a singular failure of capitalism. We know that it will be the working-class that unites to create a revolution in this country. Here we see the perfect connection: it is a working-class issue that can only be alleviated by the working-class themselves. It will take a revolution led by the working class to instate a positive relationship between workers and work. The myth of the “American Labor Shortage” shows the dissatisfaction the working class has with the exploitation of their labor. Now, more than ever, the working class must band together to revolutionize a system that does not work for them. To not only create a place where they can reap the fruits of their labor, but where workers can love their work and reject alienation.
 Martinez-Saenz, Miguel. “Che Guevara’s New Man: Embodying a Communitarian Attitude.” Latin American Perspectives 31, no. 6 (November 1, 2004): 15–30. https://doi.org/10.1177/0094582X04270639. (pg 21).
 Martizen-Saenz, 21
 Carew, Joy Gleason. Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008. muse.jhu.edu/book/6044.
Carew, Joy Gleason. Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008. muse.jhu.edu/book/6044.
Martinez-Saenz, Miguel. “Che Guevara’s New Man: Embodying a Communitarian Attitude.” Latin American Perspectives 31, no. 6 (November 1, 2004): 15–30. https://doi.org/10.1177/0094582X04270639.
Newton, Huey P., and Fredrika Newton. Revolutionary Suicide: Reprint edition. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.
Petrović, Gajo. “Marx’s Theory of Alienation.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 23, no. 3 (1963): 419–26. https://doi.org/10.2307/2105083.
Ella Kotsen is an undergraduate student at Bryn Mawr College. She is majoring in English and double minoring in History and Growth & Structure of Cities. She plays Division III women’s basketball and has received Centennial Conference Academic Honors. Her main subject of interest is in geopolitics and understanding the historical implications of colonization in Latin American countries. She is interested in Marxist literary theory and enjoys the work of Fanon, Eagleton, and Althusser. Ella also writes for her own independent blog where she produces opinion pieces, book reviews, and audio-based interviews.
This article was republished from the Youth league.