Thursday, 4 March 2010

Marxism and human nature, part 4: Universal vs historical

As we mentioned in the first post, objections to the historicist view of human nature have come from Marxists as well as other critics. They argue that if ‘human nature’ is historical, it cannot also be universal. We have responded by pointing out that it is both universal and historical, general and particular. For us, this raises a particular question: if human nature is historically conditioned and therefore changing, how can we appeal to a universal human nature to explain the ubiquity of art and its continued appeal across time and space? Surely the people of the Paleolithic had a different nature on some level to people who have had their nature altered by thousands of years of history?

We suggested an answer when we asked ‘does art progress?’, and so will approach the question from a slightly different angle here. We have argued that there are certain characteristics of human beings based on biology, which are relatively unchanging and universal, and others which are rooted in particular historical conditions. In practice, even the universal biological needs take a historical form.

The foundations for universal human characteristics were laid by evolutionary processes. As the archaeologist Colin Renfrew observed in Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind:

Our species dispersed from Africa with our modern and genetically determined structure of body and brain at birth essentially established, with a capacity for language and for childhood learning, accompanied by a shared cultural heritage that was already significant. This included toolmaking competencies, the use of fire and cooking, the skill and know-how to make clothing and adornments, and perhaps also the knowledge and skill to make boats. They possessed and shared a considerable range of social skills, successfully mediating interactions within social groups and exchanges between them[1].

Every human society on earth can be traced back to the Homo sapiens that emerged in Africa 200–150,000 years ago, and the small population that emigrated to the rest of the globe from about 70,000 years ago. Contrary to the multi-regional theory of evolution, it now seems conclusive from DNA evidence that humans did not evolve in a number of centres more or less simultaneously, but are all genetically related to that same ancestral population. It should not then be surprising that humans everywhere have shared characteristics.

But after that [Renfrew continues], the different groups of humans, as they dispersed and went their ways over the generations, were no longer in contact. Human dispersal took place quite rapidly along the southern shores of Asia to Australia, and then north to eastern Asia. At the same time human populations reached western Asia and then Europe. Only the Americas, as well as Oceania, had to wait tens of thousands of years before receiving a human population...

It is clear that there was little or no contact between the continents. The different branches of these great dispersals were no longer communicating with each other... There were many different trajectories of cultural development.

If human nature is constantly being renewed by the processes of culture and history, surely this will have implications for our common humanity, and people from later societies will, after thousands of years, have been reshaped to the point that Paleolithic art, for example, no longer makes any sense to them, regardless of the fact that evolutionary change has been negligible? (We have repeatedly turned to the example of the Paleolithic, but only because its art is the most distant from our own. The argument applies to all art that is separated from a given society by huge tracts of time and space.)

To address this we must first look a bit harder at what history does to human nature.

The changes wrought in human nature by history

Let us look at Renfrew’s concept of material engagement, which is compatible with Marx and Engels’ view that humans shape their own physical and social nature through interaction with the objective material world.

Renfrew uses a couple of useful examples which cast light upon our present question. The first, which we have touched upon before, is the measuring of weight — this is not a genetic inheritance but a social discovery. Before we can measure weight, we must begin with an awareness of mass and differentiations of mass, which we perceive by raising different objects with our hands and arms, etc. From that we can abstract a concept ‘weight’. Only then can we proceed to producing actual measures and the invention of fixed weights such as ancient Egyptian deben or English pounds. But even the production of measures requires a society that has developed its economy to the point that such measures would be useful, even necessary. It is highly unlikely that Homo sapiens 150,000 years ago had systems of weights and measures — not because they were intellectually incapable of inventing them, but because they had not yet stumbled upon either the concept or the need.

Renfrew’s other example is the use of gold as a universal measure of value. Before the advent of paper money, and later electronic money, gold and other precious metals were used as the physical, objective expression of an abstract concept of value, usually in the form of coins. This had obvious consequences for art, as artworks drew upon the newfound association of these materials with social status, rarity and wealth. Gold especially (in some societies, a comparable role was played by colourful feathers, etc) came to be seen as inherently valuable. Yet the status of gold depended upon its role as a ‘universal equivalent’: a commodity against which the relative values of other commodities were measured. One pound of gold was equivalent in value to so much grain, so much silver, etc. (In a sense, every commodity is a symbol — a symbol of value, of the human labour expended upon it.) The universal equivalent could only arise once commodity production itself had developed. Thus an entire concept entered into the field of human assumptions and became a social reality as the result of the development of productive forces across history.

As a third example we might add the human capacity for work, which has also seen considerable change over the course of history — there is an excellent discussion of this in Chapter 3 of Sean Sayers’ Marxism and Human Nature. European colonialists complained regularly about how ‘lazy’ and unreliable indigenous peoples were as workers, and capitalists at home had considerable trouble training dispossessed peasants in the arduous work schedule of the industrial age. Anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins have argued that far from struggling every minute of their lives in a grim fight for survival, people in hunter gatherer societies normally spent about three to five hours a day acquiring and preparing food — the rest of the day was spent talking and sleeping in what we would now call ‘leisure’. Schooling the members of the new working class in what was expected of them by profit-hungry capitalist employers brought about a new phase in human nature. People in industrial society have a dramatically greater capacity for work than hunter gatherers. They often complain about how busy they are, and other factors such as alienation come into play. But they also complain when the accustomed levels of activity are lost, such as after being made redundant.

What we see from these examples is that dramatic changes in human behaviour can be brought about by historical change (itself nothing more than the story of human action upon nature and ourselves). The people of more recent ages generally have concepts and productive powers that were unknown to their ancestors and which have profound consequences for social relations, ideas, etc.

But it would be absurd to claim that we become completely different beings simply because we have invented a system of weights and measures, or have started using gold coins. The important point is that such advances do not make us a new species, inherently more intelligent or differently abled to people from earlier societies. The differences are cultural. To cite Renfrew again: “the changes in human behaviour and life that have taken place since that time... sedentism (settled villages), cities, writing, warfare — are not in any way determined by the very limited genetic changes.”[2]

The people of ancient times could easily learn the concepts and capacities of contemporary societies should they somehow be transplanted into them. Our diverse cultures grew from the same capacities for language, for symbolisation, for culture. When we see Magdalenian art, we recognise and understand symbolisation in practice and can apply the same general rules to trying to interpret it, even though the symbols take a different form to our own. The capacity for symbolisation is a process that is a common human inheritance.

Universal human nature

In the posts so far we have concentrated upon only very basic needs such as hunger and sexuality in building the case for universal elements in human nature. If these are the only universal aspects of human nature then this seems a very meagre basis for explaining the ubiquitous appeal of art across the ages — not least because all other animals share the very same needs. As Marx noted, “Certainly eating, drinking, procreating, etc, are also genuinely human functions. But taken abstractly, separated from the sphere of all other human activity and turned into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal functions.”[3]

Renfrew’s summary of humanity quoted above is a starting point for our explanation of why there is more to us than this.

To our basic biological needs and primate physical constitution we may add human powers and capacities that, once Homo sapiens had experienced the Human Revolution via the enculturation process described by Merlin Donald and others, are common to all peoples at all times. Sánchez Vázquez explained how Marx, drawing upon Hegel, set out in the 1844 Manuscripts a conception of humans as social, productive beings who realise themselves through praxis, i.e. acts of labour by which we transform the given world and ourselves. He wrote:

While animals relate one-dimensionally to the world in a decisive, immediate, and individualistic way, man’s relationship to it is multiple, mediated, and free. As a human being, his wealth is measured by the extent of his relations with the world, that is, by the extent to which he feels the need to appropriate reality in an infinite number of ways...

Different types of relations between man and the world have been forged and reinforced in the course of his socio-historical development: practical-utilitarian relations with things; theoretical relations; aesthetic relations; etc. In each one of these relations the attitude of the subject to the world changes because the need that determines it changes, and the object that satisfies the need changes at the same time...[4]

We forge our own humanity only by objectifying and affirming our human “essence”; we are at once subject and object, for we become a human subject only through externalising ourselves. We are also social beings, “not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society” [5] — we are dependent upon co-operative interaction with others. We use language, create symbols, live within complex social relationships, and practice a sophisticated culture. We overcome our “purely animal, biological existence”, because, as Allen Wood pointed out:

Marx says that the human being is a species being ‘in that he makes his own species his object’ and ‘ behaves toward, is conscious of or relates to (verhält sich zu) himself as to the present, living species... Marx is referring to the fact that any man or woman not only belongs to the human species, but is also aware of doing so, and that this awareness itself is a distinctly human characteristic. No doubt other animals recognise members of their own kind as potential mates, helpers or rivals, but it is doubtful that any of them have a concept of their own species as such, or of themselves as members of a species or kind.[6]

Unlike animals, we continue to produce even when feeling no immediate physical need — our labour is truly free only when we are free of necessity. For us, labour is a natural and essential activity. We take the objective world and work its materials into the image of our own essential powers through works of art.

Wood also notes:

Animals may feel pleasure or pain, they may lead lives which are contented or happy, or full of suffering, fear and disquiet. But only a man or woman is capable of experiencing life as something full or empty, worthwhile or worthless, meaningful or meaningless.

This is why humans, alone among species, may become alienated from their labour and from their society — and why Marxism seeks to create the conditions for a worthwhile life for everyone. This is always possible, however grim the world may become, because we have never reached the final point of human development. Our nature is conscious, plastic, self-forging and creative.

This is the vision of universal human nature, conceived in all its richness and expansiveness, as well as its potential for suffering, by Marxism. And this underlying nature — in an infinite number of socially mediated forms, and itself very slowly transformed by evolutionary change — has been common to Homo sapiens since at least the Human Revolution. A consequence of our acquisition of self-awareness, it is the thread of common powers, the ‘essence’, that binds us all from the Paleolithic to the present however diverse our societies become.

Man is a species-being, not only because in practice and in theory he adopts the species (his own as well as those of other things) as his object, but — and this is only another way of expressing it — also because he treats himself as the actual, living species; because he treats himself as a universal and therefore a free being.[7]


By his term ‘species-being’, Marx refers not only to individual people but to the common essence that creates an “intimate connection” (Wood) between all people. In his later writings Marx stopped referring to the human ‘essence’, but there is no reason to think he ever disowned the concept. Like so many other ideas, he did not fully develop it because he needed to prioritise economics.

Marxism does support a concept of a universal human nature, but one very different to reactionary conceptions often held up as ‘evidence’ that socialism is not possible. It is not idealist, or reactionary, or a-historical, although the other available conceptions fall at one or more of these hurdles. It is a scientific conception, because it observes biological and social facts and seeks to locate them in history. Its open-ended view allows for the infinite capacities of human beings which have barely begun to be realised.

Culture and history have wrought immense diversity and change upon the social relations of what is essentially the same family of humans across the world. But historicity and relativity do not mean that there is no universal human nature — only that it varies in its particular forms.

[1] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Marx, ‘Estranged Labour’, 1844 Manuscripts (1844).
[4] Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez: Art and Society: Essays in Marxist Aesthetics (1965, English transl. 1973).
[5] Marx, Introduction, Grundrisse (1857–61).
[6] Allen W. Wood, Karl Marx (1981).
[7] Marx, ‘Estranged Labour’, 1844 Manuscripts (1844).

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