How does “Modern Times” illustrate Karl Marx’s theory of Alienation?


Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece Modern Times (1936) is often hilarious, frequently silly, and always a profound social commentary. This is made clear from the film’s first scenes, which follow Chaplin’s classic Little Tramp character as he works an assembly line in a terrifying Orwellian factory. It is a satirical take on the dehumanization of workers at the hands of technology and progress, and an equally clear illustration of the theory of Alienation, a concept put forth by famed sociologist and philosopher Karl Marx.

The theory, as defined by Frostburg State University, states, “in modern industrial production under capitalist conditions workers will inevitably lose control of their lives by losing control over their work. Workers thus cease to be autonomous beings in any significant sense.”

It essentially refers to the depersonalization of work. People no longer learn a trade and open a shop to directly attend to and service the needs of others, instead becoming human cogs in a larger machine of mass production.

There are four types of alienation identified within the Marxist theory. The opening sequence of Modern Times illustrates each of them in its own whimsical way:

Alienation of the worker from the work — from the product of his labour

The products the Little Tramp is working on are not his possessions, they belong to the capitalist organization. By watching the film it’s impossible to tell what he’s even working on; he simply tightens bolts on objects as they pass by. He becomes alienated from the product of his labor as it passes by him and disappears, becoming property of a larger object which he does not control or own.

Alienation of the worker from working — from the act of producing

The Little Tramp has no control over the production process. The speed at which the parts approach him on the assembly line is dictated by an overseeing manager in an office. A few darkly humorous moments show this omniscient figure commanding someone to ramp up the speed, and The Little Tramp and his coworkers are required to keep up. None of the pacing is up to him, and the mindlessness of his work detaches him from the actual work he’s doing. He becomes a human machine. This is made literal in the scene where the Little Tramp gets sucked into the machine, rolling along the cogs as if he himself were a piece of equipment.

This point is furthered in the film’s iconic “feeding machine” scene, when the Little Tramp is selected to demonstrate a machine that feeds workers while they work, eliminating the lunch hour. The product is supposed to increase productivity for the company since their workers never have to stop. Illustrating the theme, the one moment during the day which is supposed to be the property of the worker is taken away to another machination. This also eliminates a social element to work which is raised in Marx’s fourth type, below.

Alienation of the worker from himself, as a producer

Creativity is a fundamental part of human nature. Eliminating any requirement of natural thought or intellect, as is the case with The Little Tramp’s job, is destructive to a person’s well-being. In no way does he interact with nature or with his own mind. Instead he’s performing a monotonous and repetitive task ad nauseam.

Alienation of the worker from other workers

As mentioned above, the lunch hour is the main social time for workers in this type of environment. It’s their break from the labor and their only interaction with each other. Eliminating it removes all social components of the job, making it purely mechanical.

The job being performed requires no interaction with other employees. There is no collaboration or social cooperation necessary. Each individual has their own task to perform, and they repeat it in isolation all day long. This is essentially what leads to The Little Tramp’s breakdown, twitching around town and turning anything that remotely looks like a bolt with his wrenches. It’s an inhuman way to work.

Chaplin’s intent to illustrate Marx’s theory of Alienation is successful. He shows an environment that is very unappealing, extremely inhuman, and unfortunately realistic. Though the science fiction elements of the factory (mainly in the form of the dictatorial boss who spied on employees, even in the bathroom) were not a reality in the 1930s, the growing dehumanization of occupations was true. It was the Depression, and people were happy to take work regardless of its nature. This led to capitalist organizations employing people they knew were desperate for work, forcing them to operate in such robotic manners, as Chaplin saw it, growing the company with little regard for the needs of the individual.