Friday, 26 February 2010

Marxism and human nature, part 3: Human nature and history

For centuries, reactionaries have contended that there is a universal human nature that predisposes us to selfishness and conflict. Today this claims scientific confirmation from a narrow, reductionist approach to genetics, according to which human behaviour is essentially pre-determined. The political implication is that problems such as inequality and violence can never be solved by social change.

As we’ve argued, a universal human nature does exist, but not as reactionaries describe it. On that basis we could just as well argue, given the relative egalitarianism of human society for the great (classless) majority of its history, that human nature is predisposed to socialism. This would be no more correct than the bourgeois view that human nature is essentially capitalist.

The Marxist response to the debate has taken two main forms, summed up by the Marxist academic Sean Sayers:

On the one hand, it is sometimes said that we should reject the notion altogether and adopt an ‘anti-humanist’ or ‘anti-essentialist’ stance. Others argue that this leads to a disastrous sort of relativism. We must hang on to traditional Enlightenment humanism, they insist, for social theory and critical values can be defended only on the foundation of universal and timeless features of human nature.[1]

Marx rejected a ‘timeless’ or ‘essentialist’ view of human nature, but that doesn’t mean rejecting human nature altogether. Marxism takes neither of these positions: instead, argues Sayers, “Marxism involves a historical and social account of human needs and powers, and this leads to a historical form of humanism.”

Rather than define human nature in terms of innate, fixed characteristics, or deny it exists at all, Marxism recognises that human nature can only properly be understood as a combination of universal and particular — historical — elements.

Human nature and history

Marx proposed that there was a set of universal human needs, the satisfying of which was the first act of history:

Life involves before everything else eating and drinking, housing, clothing and various other things. The first historical act is thus the production of means to satisfy these needs. And indeed this is a 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... Therefore in any conception 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.[2]

History is predicated upon meeting, in Norman Geras’s words, an “enduring imperative of essential human needs”.[3] This is fine as far as it goes. However there is much more to human nature than this. The weakness in Geras’s account is that he does not sufficiently historicise human needs, thus making the same mistake that Marx criticised Feuerbach for in the Sixth Thesis. As our forces of production expand, so too do our powers as human beings. The process of history means that we not only satisfy existing needs but create new needs, wants and capabilities which arise in particular societies from particular processes. As Marx wrote in Capital, a correct view of human nature would first have “to deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as historically modified in each epoch”.[4]

We see a simple example of a physical need that was created through historical process every time a European craves chocolate or caffeine. Neither of these commodities were known in Europe until the expansion of capital into the ‘New World’ in the fifteenth century. As a mental need, Sayers gives the example of leisure, which only became a distinct concept after the appearance of classes who did not have to work, and in contra-distinction to the historically unprecedented intensity of labour expected of the masses in a society that had become industrialised.

Marx’s theory sees history as a broad movement of progress to successively higher, i.e. more advanced, forms (though not in a rigid way — see my article on progress). Given that history is created by people, this means that people too are not fixed in nature — they are expanding their productive forces and developing new capacities. Marx explicitly rejected “the concept of man, man as conceived, the essence of man” as speculated by idealist philosophy. Instead, he believed that humanity “acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.”[5]

Norman Geras responds with the reasonable observation that “to declare of anything that it changes does not commit one to the view that everything about it changes or that it has no enduring features”. Every aspect of our humanity undergoes change, but there are aspects of our humanity which change only at an evolutionary pace, that is, at a pace that means we have barely changed in a biological sense since the Stone Age.

Geras does acknowledge social mediation in his book, but he deliberately plays it down, and therefore strays too far towards essentialism. We may abstract a universal human essence for the purposes of argument, but no real human being is abstract — he or she is always concrete. Likewise, no human essence exists independently of historical mediation. There is a dialectic between the two that Geras misses, a totality that insists that even our most basic needs are conditioned by successive modes of production, new social expectations and institutions, etc.

The historical character of human needs

Let’s look at that a little more closely.

Marx commented that “our desires and pleasures spring from society; we measure them, therefore, by society... Because they are of a social nature, they are of a relative character”.[6] The point was made specific by the biologists Levins and Lewontin in their book The Dialectical Biologist, for example in their discussion of hunger:

Eating is obviously related to nutrition, but in humans this physiological necessity is imbedded in a complex matrix: within which what is eaten, who you eat with, how often you eat, who prepares the food, which foods are necessary for a sense of well-being, who goes hungry and who overeats have all been torn loose from the requirements of nutrition or the availability of food.

Throughout history, what people eat has been determined by their place in their economy and the way in which that economy produces and distributes food. What people can eat is biologically determined; what they do eat is quite another matter. If what people eat is historically, socially, and individually determined, why they eat is equally so determined. Biologically, ‘eating’ and ‘drinking’ are the physical acts of nutrition. In actuality, eating and drinking have very variable relations to that biological necessity... What begins historically as an act of mere nutrition ends a totally symbolic one. The cold lunch packed by the Israelites on their flight from Egypt became a feast packed with historical and religious symbolism as the Passover Seder, which through historical accident became a Last Supper, ending finally as an act of religious mystery, engaged in by hundreds of millions of Christians, with no nutritive consequences at all. In human culture there is not one meaning of eating and drinking, but the qualitative transformation of a single physical act into an immense array of social and individual meanings.[7]

Hunger is a constant biological fact for all human beings, about which certain things will always be true: e.g. it is a physical consequence of lack of nourishment, our bodily degeneration gets worse the longer it goes on, and it will kill us if left unaddressed. But our experience of hunger is also about the totality of our experience of that hunger, a totality that depends on particular social and historical conditions. This was what Marx meant when he wrote:

Hunger is hunger, but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth.[8]

To separate the need from its concrete expression is to make it merely abstract — hunger as never experienced by any real person.

Sexuality too is a fundamental biological urge — every human being who has ever lived is a product of it — yet to consider it as such without reference to how people actually experience it is to fail to understand it at all. All actual sexuality is concrete, i.e. it is experienced in specific ways by living people. The strict biological purpose of sexuality is to reproduce — but how does that explain practices like masturbation, or sado-masochism? The institution of marriage is one way in which human sexual relations are structured socially, but it has not necessarily always existed, nor does it mean the same thing to members of a feudal dynasty that it does to workers in an advanced bourgeois state. The notion of ‘romance’, so closely tied up with sexuality in modern Western minds and touted in a million bad novels and magazine columns, is not ‘human nature’ but is the kitsch offshoot of an art movement of the late eighteenth century. Men consume pornography far more than women, yet reference to fundamental urges cannot explain why — instead we must understand the historical rise of disproportionate male power, which is a social phenomenon. There is no biological drive that ‘explains’ the porn industry.

So in order to understand the various forms in which sexuality is expressed, we have to understand how it is conditioned by the power structures of class and the family, and how it relates to thousands of years of oppression of women, itself a historical phenomenon based upon the social upheavals of the Neolithic Revolution. Sexuality therefore is a good example of how our animal constitution has become redefined by social and historical experience.

For these examples, hunger and sexuality, a basic biological need exists without which the particular forms would not arise, but by itself that tells us nothing. As Sayers argues, “there is both a universal and a particular, a natural and a social, aspect to human nature.” In practice, human needs and history are inseparable, and neither can be understood without the other:

According to the historicist approach, by contrast, it is not possible to distinguish what is natural and what is social... There are not two distinct and externally related components here: a universal need on the one hand and a series of socially developed preferences on the other. There is only one thing: a socially modified need.

The development of human needs

Because they are historical, human needs, wants and capacities are constantly changing. Sayers points out, “What are luxuries for one generation become necessities for the next.” We have progressed from hunting and gathering, through slavery and feudalism to capitalism and, in some countries, further to some form of socialism. From peasants tied to a narrow strip of land who have barely strayed more than a few miles to the nearest market town, we have become citizens of a globalised economy, with culture from around the world available at the click of a mouse or a TV remote control. As modes of production are overthrown, ideas of what constitutes ‘human nature’ are overthrown with it, and entire new classes are born. Thus Marx observed that “the English working men are the firstborn sons of modern industry,” and are “as much the invention of modern time[s] as machinery itself.”[9] These new classes are accompanied by new ideas of how humans should behave and what they can achieve.

Capitalism has been particularly effective at atomising traditional relations and forcing people into ever wider networks of social relations. In the process it has changed the way we think in all sorts of ways. The modern emphasis on fast-paced living, on youth, on being up-to-the-minute, on the need for artists to be constantly ‘original’, etc, are all cultural expressions of capitalism’s dynamic of growth and expansion. More profoundly, it made possible our modern conceptions of freedom, individualism and human rights — ideas that arose from the struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism. Marx’s criticism of capitalism was that although it created immense productive forces capable of meeting all human needs, the inequalities of class society meant that millions of human beings continued to live in degrading conditions. Capitalism therefore, while making an expansive, creative new concept of human nature possible, is unable to deliver on it.

According to Marx’s theory of history, of course, capitalism will itself in turn be superseded by a more advanced form of society. It is one of the contradictions within capitalism that it creates a new human need which will ultimately overthrow it: as the proletariat is confronted by the limits upon freedom and human rights within a society constrained by private ownership of property, they develop the need for solidarity and collective action. This potential was realised for the first time in 1917, and most recently in Venezuela.[10] The new social forms that result will indicate a further step in human nature, where our massive productive forces are turned towards meeting all human needs and fulfilling our limitless potential. Here is Sayers again:

This new form of society is valued not just because it will be a more productive and wealthier society, but also because it is a society in which the individual’s social products and social relations will no longer confront him as alien forces, and in which the potentialities for self-development and self-realisation created by the growth of productive forces in present society will be realised.

In this new society, our ideas of what human nature consists of, and can achieve, will be radically different to the narrow-minded pessimism that passes for intelligent comment in bourgeois periodicals.



[1] Sean Sayers, Marxism and Human Nature (1998).
[2] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Part 1A of The German Ideology (1845–6).
[3] Norman Geras, Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (1983).
[4] Marx, Chapter 24 of Capital, Vol. 1 (1867).
[5] Marx, Chapter 7 of Capital, Vol. 1 (1867).
[6] Marx, Wage Labour and Capital (1847).
[7] Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist (1985). The article ‘What is human nature?’ comes highly recommended.
[8] Marx, Introduction to Grundrisse (1857).
[9] Marx, Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper (1856), cited by Sayers.
[10] The process in Venezuela is still underway, and US imperialism is slowly encircling the country in the hope of preventing its completion.

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