Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Marxism and human nature, part 1: Is there a universal human nature?

In the two recent posts discussing whether or not art gets progressively better, our argument depended upon a particular view of ‘human nature’. One of the theoretical keystones of this blog is that art is the objectification and affirmation of our essential powers in concrete, sensuous forms. Defining these requires a general concept of human nature.

What we mean by ‘human nature’ is, broadly, the characteristics, needs and powers of Homo sapiens. There is no doubt that humans alive today can on some level enjoy the art of all other humans — even those who lived many thousands of years ago on a different continent, and for whom social context is scanty or non-existent. This suggests there must be something that is universal to all human beings despite our immense variation and development across history.

‘Human nature’ is an especially complex question and Marxists have provided conflicting answers. Even if we accept that human nature exists, a multitude of other questions arise. How does human nature differ from that of other animals? Does it have characteristics which are relatively constant, or aspects which are historically conditioned, or both? What is their relationship? Does it contradict historical materialism to suggest there are aspects of human nature that are constant across history?

To address these questions we shall examine Marx’s own views, contemporary anthropology, and the question of historicity. Although we may seem to be diverging from the subject of art, we need a theory of human nature as one of the philosophical foundations upon which specifically artistic structures can be built.

The sixth ‘thesis on Feuerbach’

Let us begin with what Marx himself thought. Marx did not generally write up the philosophical fundamentals behind his theory — these have to be surmised from his political and economic writings. We therefore do not have a tract in which Marx systematically sets out his beliefs on human nature, and must reconstruct his view based upon what writings we have.

A common (though inadequate, as we shall see) starting point for the discussion is the sixth of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach. The ‘theses’ are eleven short philosophical remarks that criticise the materialism of the German thinker Ludwig Feuerbach. The term Marx uses, here translated as the ‘human essence’, was menschliche Wesen, which may reasonably be interpreted as intending some conception of human nature [1].


Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence.

But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.

Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled:

1. To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract — isolated — human individual.
2. Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as ‘species’, as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals.[2]

While Marx and Engels owed a great debt to the materialism of Feuerbach, Marx criticises him in the Theses for conceiving religion abstractly instead of in a historical context.

We begin with this text because a number of Marxists, not to mention other commentators, have taken it as evidence that Marx was opposed to the concept of human nature. One of the most influential was Louis Althusser (1918–1990), who took the ‘anti-humanist’ position that there was no underlying human nature or essence beside the necessity for us to engage in productive relations with our environment and with other humans. In For Marx, he wrote:

Marx rejected the problematic of the earlier philosophy... a problematic of human nature (or the essence of man) [which implied] (1) that there is a universal essence of man; (2) that this essence is the attribute of ‘each single individual’ who is its real subject.[3]

Drawing upon the text of the Sixth Thesis, critics have posed three main arguments:

1. Marx criticises Feuerbach for understanding human essence to be “‘species’, as an internal, dumb generality”.

2. The second sentence states that “the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual”. If it is not inherent in each individual, it cannot be universal.

3. Marx defines the human essence as “the ensemble of social relations”.

A counter-response to these interpretations was made by Norman Geras in his 1983 book Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend [4] — the ‘legend’ being Marx’s supposed rejection of human nature. Geras’s overall conception is inadequate because it is not sufficiently historical — more on that later — but his response to Althusser and the others is comprehensive. He subjects the text of the Sixth Thesis to close scrutiny, which we needn’t go into in detail, and demonstrates that it is ambiguous. This ambiguity may be forgiven, seeing as it’s one of a few draft notes which Marx never attempted to publish. Geras offers alternative interpretations in answer to the points above, which I paraphrase below:

1. “Marx takes Feuerbach to task for conceiving man’s nature only as species, as a dumb generality unity individuals in a natural way. Marx does not say it is not these things... Feuerbach is mistaken not because he views man in terms of ‘inner’, ‘general’, ‘species’ (or ‘natural’) characteristics but because he views him exclusively in those terms.”

2. “This seems quite categorical and so, keeping still to the letter, it may be. But even keeping to the letter, it need not... For, ‘A is no B’ can also have the force ‘A is no mere B’. It just depends on what it is that follows... I could say, ‘Language is no individual possession; it is a social and collective phenomenon’, without supposing, absurdly, that it is not individuals who know and speak, to that extent ‘possess’, a language... In identifying man’s ‘nature’ with the social relations at large, Marx’s intention might have been that it is entirely other, but that it is ‘more’, than something inherent in each single individual.”

3. “The peculiarity of this proposition has often been remarked upon. Marx asserts an identity where none seems possible: between a totality of relations on the one hand, and the make-up of entities that are related by and within it on the other... Marx’s statement is elliptical and his meaning far from transparent.” Geras goes on to offer five possible interpretations of what Marx might have meant, which include both a denial of human nature and the opposite.

It is not necessary here to try and prove that the Sixth Thesis supports the idea of human nature; it is enough to point out that it does not clearly oppose it. Even if it did oppose it, that would merely show that Marx “delivered himself of a freak remark” out of alignment with his other comments on the question. As Geras points out, if a statement may be read in two ways, where A is heavily supported by other material and B is not, it is perverse to insist upon B as the ‘correct’ reading. Therefore instead of spending too much energy upon the minute dissection of one very brief and ambiguous text, it is more fruitful to refer to Marx’s work as whole.

Marx’s conception of human nature

There are many instances in Marx’s writings where he makes either implict or explicit reference to a concept of human nature. In The German Ideology, Marx set out the principles of historical materialism:

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself — geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.[5]

A little later he adds:

We must begin by stating the first premise of all human existence and, therefore, of all history, the premise, namely, that men must be in a position to live in order to be able to “make history.” But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which today, as thousands of years ago, must daily and hourly be fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life... In any interpretation of history one has first of all to observe this fundamental fact in all its significance and all its implications and to accord it its due importance.

This early statement on materialism was written in response to those who would separate real, concrete human beings from history and set up an “antithesis of nature and history” [6]. Marx clearly recognises, along with many philosophers before him, that there are certain human characteristics which are universal and relatively constant, a set of needs upon which the “first historical act” is predicated. He does not accept that there is a schism between humans and nature:

Man is directly a natural being. As a natural being and as a living natural being he is on the one hand endowed with natural powers, vital powers — he is an active natural being. These forces exist in him as tendencies and abilities — as instincts. On the other hand, as a natural, corporeal, sensuous objective being he is a suffering, conditioned and limited creature, like animals and plants.[7]

Humans therefore are material, animal, natural beings with objective physical needs, both a distinct part of nature and inseparable from it. Our needs, wants and desires are not external forces imposed from outside ourselves; Marx makes this clear in The German Ideology where he criticises the Christian desire to “free us from the domination of the flesh”:

Christianity... regarded our flesh, our desires as something foreign to us; it wanted to free us from determination by nature only because it regarded our own nature as not belonging to us.

For if I myself am not nature, if my natural desires, my whole natural character, do not belong to myself — and this is the doctrine of Christianity — then all determination by nature — whether due to my own natural character or to what is known as external nature — seems to me a determination by something foreign, a fetter, compulsion used against me, heteronomy as opposed to autonomy of the spirit.

Incidentally, Christianity has indeed never succeeded in freeing us from the domination of desires.[8]

In the same work, Marx describes the proletarian as “one who is not in a position to satisfy even the needs that he has in common with all human beings”, one whose “position does not even allow him to satisfy the needs arising directly from his human nature”.

Men have history because they must produce their life, and because they must produce it moreover in a certain way: this is determined by their physical organisation; their consciousness is determined in just the same way.

There are human characteristics, determined and limited by their “physical organisation”, which are common to all human beings all times and cultures. All humans for example feel hunger and thirst, specific needs which can only be met by food and drink. In this sense, there is such a thing as a universal human nature.

Marx provides a number of examples across his writings of general human needs, capacities or powers. These include language, which is a universal human capacity: it “is as old as consciousness, language is practical, real consciousness that exists for other men as well, and only therefore does it also exist for me”. He mentions “the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men”, “relations between the sexes”, “eating and drinking, housing, clothing and various other things”. He observes that “people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity.”

We could go on and on producing further quotes to illustrate the point. Marx recognises that there is a human nature based upon objective physical needs which is defined and limited by our physical constitution as a particular species of animal.

Norman Geras points out that this conception of universal human needs is not a marginal theoretical question, but an extremely practical one, underlining the most fundamental goal of socialism, “acting as a norm of judgement and of action”:

The necessity of social revolution is justified in the light of basic human needs in the following stricture which is directed specifically at Feuerbach: ‘He gives no criticism of the present conditions of life. Thus he never manages to conceive the sensuous world as the total living sensuous activity of the individuals composing it; therefore; therefore when, for example, he sees instead of healthy men a crowd of scrofulous, over-worked and consumptive starvelings, he is compelled to take refuge...’

Instead of healthy men... people whose need for rest and need for food are insufficiently met, their health wanting. This is in line with the normative usage of human nature... adverse judgement upon social conditions which fail the very needs common and intrinsic to humankind...[9]

One of Marx’s criticisms of capitalism is that millions of people’s most basic biological needs — let alone higher needs such as the need for creative fulfilment — are not met. 1.02 billion people in the world suffer from malnutrition [10], and 1 billion do not have access to clean drinking water [11]. Socialists condemn such shocking failures precisely because people have needs and potentialities that are being abused or left unfulfilled. All of these problems “have an irreducible human-natural component”... “of general and basic human needs, in this case unsatisfied, disregarded, thwarted, sometimes savagely repressed” (Geras).

The Marxist conception however, including “the necessity of social revolution”, cannot be reduced to our basic biological constitution alone. To limit it to this would resort to the “essentialist” view theorised during the Enlightenment, which strictly demarcates nature and society. Enlightenment philosophers hoped that by identifying timeless characteristics universal to all human beings they could work out precisely what sort of society was required in order to meet human needs. Although progressive at the time, this is another “antithesis of nature and history”. Marx’s conception is very different — our basic physical needs can only ever be experienced by concrete human beings existing in definite social relations and historical conditions. Furthermore, our active participation in our own history creates new needs and therefore changes and extends human nature itself. We will examine this in detail a little later.

Before that we need to further expand our conception of human nature. Clarifying what Marx himself believed is an important starting point, but he had only a fraction of the data available to us today, and we should not simply take his word for it. So in the next post we shall approach the question from the field of anthropology.

[1] Readers of German can find the original text at Wikisource.
[2] Marx, Theses on Feuerbach (1845). These were published with editing by Engels in 1888.
[3] Louis Althusser, ‘Marxism and Humanism’ from For Marx (1965).
[4] Although this is a useful book, Geras today is a liberal apologist for imperialism. He joined self-styled ‘leftists’ like Nick Cohen in supporting the invasion of Iraq and was a founding signatory of the Euston Manifesto.
[5] Marx and Engels, Part 1A of The German Ideology (1845).
[6] Marx and Engels, Part 1B, op. cit.
[7] Marx, Third MS, ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General’ from the 1844 Manuscripts.
[8] Marx and Engels, Chapter 3 of The German Ideology (1845).
[9] Geras, op. cit.
[10] Source: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations at www.fao.org/hunger/en/
[11] Source: UN Millenium Development Goals (2000).


Ben Gage said...

will have to reread this, thanks for your work...

Anonymous said...

I was doing my final paper relevant to this subject I was trying to prove society has great impact on individuals rather than their inherent traits : it is great help to me:) thanks

Eugene Hirschfeld said...


That's great, I'm always pleased to be helpful.