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.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Marxism and human nature, part 2: Anthropology and culture

If we are to gain the fullest understanding of ‘human nature’ it is not enough to confine our researches to the Marxist canon — we also need to draw upon the insights provided by contemporary science, above all anthropology and biology. Human beings are inseparable from nature: we belong, like all animal species, to natural history and are subject to natural laws.

That humans across history have a basic physical constitution which changes at an evolutionary pace is uncontroversial from a scientific point of view. In common with other living creatures, every human being has to breathe, to eat, to drink and to sleep. These were basic biological needs for early human species, for the very first Homo sapiens, and for contemporary people. We also possess reason, the capacity for language, and sexuality. We have emotions that are universal to all humans such as fear, anger and happiness, for which even the facial expressions are the same across all cultures. In short, the argument that there are no characteristics universal to all human beings is not serious.

Our species characteristics also, of course, impose boundaries. We have no species ‘need’ to swim, whereas some species of shark die if they stop swimming; nor can we suspend our need to breathe. As we touched on when discussing artistic progress, the reach of our human powers today is in many ways similar to our Paleolithic ancestors’: there is no evidence that we are more intelligent, or can see better, or have a superior sense of rhythm, etc. So these species characteristics define not only what we are, but what we are not: they create limits on what is human. In fact, every object that exists is constrained by limits imposed by its own nature. Marx made a similar point when he said that the way humans produce and their consciousness is “determined by their physical organisation”.

This physical organisation is the result of millions of years of evolution. But of course, there is rather more to us than that.

An anthropological view of human nature

About four million years ago in Africa, a group of primates evolved into a bipedal ape known as australopithecus. By about two million years ago, these apes had changed so far from their ancestors that later anthropologists named them a new genusHomo — whose first species was Homo habilis. By the time of Homo erectus, these early humans, taller than their predecessors, equipped with larger brains, fire and stone tools, showed a significant advance over other primate genuses in cognition and intelligence.

150–200,000 years ago a new phase occurred which produced our own species, Homo sapiens. From a genetic point of view, we have hardly changed since. And yet, it was only about 40,000 years ago that we saw the startling new stage in human development sometimes referred to as the Human Revolution. Although humans have broadly the same physical and cognitive makeup as other primates — the same body plan, senses, etc — something occurred to transform the early generations of Homo sapiens into a species that made complex tools, used symbols, possessed language, and engaged in complex social practices such as ritual burial and creating art.

As we have mentioned before, this time discrepancy has been described as the ‘sapient paradox’. Colin Renfrew, who coined the term, views the decisive leap as dating to 10,000 years ago, i.e. to the Neolithic Revolution — I would prefer to date it to the first flowering of artistic culture. Either way, the leap from early Homo sapiens to its art-making successors, and the subsequent further leap to the invention of agriculture, came too fast to be based upon evolutionary change. At the beginning of The Prehistory of the Mind, Steven Mithen imagines human development as a four-act drama, with the Human Revolution comprising the last scene of the last act: “after almost 6 million years of relative inaction, we find it difficult to make sense of this final, hectic scene.”[1]

The first surviving attempts to explain the nature of human beings were religious, often with a teleological cast: in the idealist view, the separation of humans from other animals was absolute. For Christianity, we humans are part of a plan that is taking us to a pre-ordained conclusion when all humans will be judged and everything will be resolved in a millenarian ‘end of history’. Teleology survived in some early materialist conceptions, for example in the persistence of the metaphor of the ‘Great Chain of Being’ — with humans sitting gloriously at the top of the tree of life — among revolutionary thinkers of the Enlightenment. The modern materialist view, by contrast, recognises that humans are members of the animal kingdom and a product of evolution. Our evolution was not part of an unfolding destiny initiated by a creator God, or as a gradual movement towards the realisation of an Idea (as in Hegel), or any other teleological goal. It arose from a process in which our species followed a particular path in response to its environment. What makes us unique is the active engagement of human beings with this environment, which both creates our consciousness and is driven onwards by it.

Engels made the first great Marxist contribution to anthropology when he conceived of human beings as the result of their own productive activity [2]. There have since been many attempts to explore human nature through archaeology, anthropology and genetics. Many materialist analyses have tended to stress the continuity between primates, early humans and Homo sapiens, whereas Marxists (along with those who might be described as “fellow travellers” such as Stephen Jay Gould) stress dialectical leaps and qualitative change.

Some recent materialist approaches, most notoriously the sociobiology movement that arose in the 1970s and later reinvented itself as evolutionary psychology, conceive human nature as essentially the product of the Pleistocene [3], our consciousness and behaviours having been determined by evolutionary adaptations. (Human nature in this view usually bears a wonderful similarity to the mentality of the US bourgeoisie). It is probably true that the human mind owes a great deal to adaptive processes, but the claims of evolutionary psychology are generally too rigid to explain what we know about the remarkable flexibility of human consciousness.


A more convincing view has been put forward by scientists who include Michael Tomasello, Colin Renfrew and Merlin Donald. This argument runs: 1) there has not been enough time for recent developments such as art to have arisen through evolutionary processes. 2) Human nature is highly adaptable, not fixed in a ‘Pleistocene’ hunter-gatherer mentality. 3) The human mind uses cognitive processes unique to our species and is a hybrid, changeable process rather than, in reductionist language, a kind of biological computer.

As Donald puts it:

One consequence of this idea is that ‘human nature’, viewed in the context of evolution, is marked especially by its flexibility, malleability and capacity for change. The fate of the human mind, and thus human nature itself, is interlinked with its changing cultures and technologies. We have evolved into the cognitive chameleons of the universe. We have plastic, highly conscious nervous systems, whose capacities allow us to adapt rapidly to the intricate cognitive challenges of our changing cognitive ecology. As we have moved on from oral cultures, to primitive writing systems, to high speed computers, the human brain itself has remained unchanged in its basic properties, but has been affected deeply in the way it deploys its resources. It develops in a rapidly changing cultural environment that is largely of its own making.[4]

We can detect in Donald’s language here and elsewhere a continuity — whether or not he is conscious of it — with the work of Marxists like Engels and Childe.

Donald talks of a ‘cognitive revolution’ that took place after the last speciation phase, that is, after the most recent major genetic leap of our species which produced Homo sapiens. He points out that our highly adaptive minds are capable of processes such as advanced mathematics or art, which would not have existed when the brain was evolving — this suggests that the human mind did not develop out of a series of specialist adaptive functions; rather, it offers a tremendous plasticity of potential, which we have been building upon ever since. As early humans became more socialised and interactive, with the sharing of tool-making skills, co-operative hunting, tending fires, building shelters, and so on, their path of evolutionary development came to depend more and more upon group co-operation, division of labour, and the sharing of learned knowledge. This led to increasingly complex social systems and what Donald calls “distributed cognition”, which flowered into symbolism and the use of language.

In this view of human nature, the process that made us capable of art was culture.

Human culture is a marketplace of ideas and images, feelings and impressions. Indeed, it is a vast cognitive network in its own right. The cultural network introduces an entirely new element to human life: immersion in a cognitive collectivity, or community of mind. This is perhaps the primary source of the enormous cognitive differences between human beings and our closest genetic relatives. Monkeys and apes solve the world alone; we do not. Human culture is based on the sharing of mental representations, and we are tethered to that network. It allows us to achieve things that are far beyond the capabilities of an ape, or that matter, a socially isolated human brain.[5]

New symbolic tasks will have required new uses of the brain, but such changes developed side by side with culture, without which no human being possesses language, knows how to make a handaxe, or creates art.

This new phase of human development subsequent to the speciation phase has been termed by Colin Renfrew the ‘tectonic’ phase, tectonics meaning the constructive arts in general. In this phase, he writes, “cultural innovation and cultural transmission have now become the dominant mechanisms.”[6] Culture did of course affect our speciation — it is highly likely that the use of tools and control of fire, for example, will have had an selective role — but culture became the decisive force given that our genotype has hardly changed since 60,000 years ago.

Culture is a much faster and more efficient form of development than evolution: it allows members of a species to learn from one another and pool their knowledge. Humans are not unique in possessing culture — it has been observed for example in the song-birds who learn their songs from their parents, in young chimps who learn tool use from adults, and in the bluetits who learnt to peck through the foil caps of milk bottles — but human culture is qualitatively more advanced than anything in the animal kingdom. Donald underlines this:

Culture... provides the only explanatory mechanism that can unlock the distinctive nature of modern human awareness. Without deep enculturation, we are relatively helpless to exploit the potential latent in our enormous brains because the specifics of our modern cognitive structure are not built in. Our brains co-evolved with culture and are specifically adapted for living in culture.[7]

Culture is learned, not instinctive or genetic, and the need to assimilate a complex learned culture is one reason for the extended childhood of our species. Through culture, our primate cognitive skills are transformed and expanded into social skills. The cultural transmission of information takes place as a process of cumulative change, labelled the ‘ratchet effect’, whereby an artefact or practice is invented by one individual or group, then modified by another, then that is modified by another, and so on. This mechanism allows fast and exponential technological progress.

What is the key to this process? The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello suggests that the key difference between human beings and other animals is their particular gift to identify conspecifics (i.e. members of the same species) as people with intentions and minds like ourselves: “the human child understands that other persons are beings like herself — in a way that inanimate objects are not, for example — and so she sometimes tries to understand things from their point of view.” [8] This ability to recognise the mental independence of others allows us to collaborate on cultural objects with a collective meaning, “built around shared intentions and beliefs” (Donald).

We share an inherited cognitive capacity similar to that of other primates and early humans, and everything we do must depend to some extent upon our physical neural systems and what they allow us to perceive and achieve, but our minds develop through something more: it is shared social processes that produce our humanised senses and consciousness.

This concept is not incompatible with the humanisation of the senses that Marx discusses in the 1844 Manuscripts:

On the one hand, therefore, it is only when the objective world becomes everywhere for man in society the world of man’s essential powers — human reality, and for that reason the reality of his own essential powers — that all objects become for him the objectification of himself, become objects which confirm and realise his individuality, become his objects: that is, man himself becomes the object… The specific character of each essential power is precisely its specific essence, and therefore also the specific mode of its objectification, of its objectively actual, living being. Thus man is affirmed in the objective world not only in the act of thinking, but with all his senses...

Just as only music awakens in man the sense of music, and just as the most beautiful music has no sense for the unmusical ear — is [no] object for it, because my object can only be the confirmation of one of my essential powers — it can therefore only exist for me insofar as my essential power exists for itself as a subjective capacity; because the meaning of an object for me goes only so far as my sense goes (has only a meaning for a sense corresponding to that object) — for this reason the senses of the social man differ from those of the non-social man. Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form — in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being.[9]

The social aspect is essential: a human cannot survive alone, and our society is the creation of collective activity applied to the raw materials of nature. A human being isolated from society (raised by wolves, perhaps), although still Homo sapiens, does not become a full person. As Eagleton put it, “becoming a person is a project, not a given.”[10]

Although the human brain is particularly large, it is not radically different in architecture to that of other primates. What distinguishes us, and makes culture possible, is our capacity for symbolisation. This capacity — which we will discuss in detail another time — probably developed out of our gift of mimesis, or imitation, which first served to help us create stone tools of consistent quality, and is the logical antecessor of language. Language, itself a higher and more precise form of mimesis, enabled us to store and share information efficiently (and, as a symbolic complement to this, to invent the art of narrative, of mythic story-telling, and its attendant arts of ritual, costume, and gesture/drama). Symbols are understood collectively via sets of conventions, but these are constantly changing.

One consequence of living in a world of meanings is that we are no longer one with nature like other animals — we begin to reflect upon our own meanings and our own nature, and become a subject for whom nature is an object. We are split or dual beings: part of nature, yet separate from it. In Marx’s words:

The animal is one with its life activity. It does not distinguish activity from itself. But man makes his life activity itself an object of his will and consciousness. He has a conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he is completely identified.[11]

Why is this important to our conception of human nature?

There are five main points.

Firstly, even if it is correct that our genotype has barely changed in 60,000 years, it is inadequate to think of human development as having been fixed during the Paleolithic, leaving us stuck with a hunter-gatherer mentality in a digital age. (The biologist Steve Jones has even claimed that human evolution has come to a halt.) The majority of biologists argue that human beings are, in fact, still subject to evolution. But the importance of culture means that we are changing in other ways at a faster than evolutionary rate — creating new needs, new wants, new capabilities. As Homo sapiens left Africa and confronted an ever wider range of environments, it was our flexibility as a species that enabled us to survive and prosper. As Marxists have always argued, we, like other animals, are not static organisms but always subject to processes of change, and able to change ourselves. This is why reductive attempts to ascribe every aspect of human nature to this or that gene — at its worst, in attempts to locate ‘genes’ for homosexuality or criminality — are completely misguided. Human nature, and culture, is the result of dynamic interaction between social and biological beings and their environment.[12]

Secondly, it stresses that human development is always social development, because humans are social beings. It is only through their interactions with others, from infancy onwards, that we develop our human capabilities. Art is in part a form of social communication. Whereas the bourgeois ideal is of a society of atomised individuals, society “does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelation, the relations within which these individuals stand” (Marx) [13]. As society changes, for example in the shift from one mode of production to another more advanced one, human social relations alter: our attitudes and beliefs, our perception of ourselves and others, our intellectual concepts, our institutions and so on are constantly reshaped. As Merlin Donald writes in A Mind So Rare: “The ultimate irony of human existence is that we are supreme individualists, whose individualism depends almost entirely on culture for its realisation.”[14]

Thirdly, our highly enculturated world, rich in linguistic and mythic symbols, metaphor and imagination, is currently the best contender for what allowed us to make the revolutionary step to the creation of art, and indeed to becoming behaviourally modern human beings.

Fourthly, it stresses our common humanity, our shared faculties and powers. All human beings alive today seem to be descended from a small population that left Africa about 70,000 years ago. It is quite possible that the thousands of languages ancient and modern, which are basically similar in grammatical structure and complexity, all ultimately derive from the language spoken by those emigrants. “A more plausible scenario [than dedicated genetic origins] is that all human cultural institutions rest on the biologically inherited social-cognitive ability of all human individuals to create and use social conventions and symbols” (Tomasello). Human beings are both immensely diverse and immensely similar.

Fifthly, this is a human nature full of creativity and potential. Human beings are not mere biological units, once described by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins as “survival machines — robot vehicles programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”[15] We are the sum of our being: built upon a biology that has been expanded and enriched by society, culture, history and environment. Our potential is limitless.


Art history is littered with brave attempts to use the latest scientific discoveries, ground-breaking in their time, to explain art. Neuro-science is still in its infancy, and we cannot declare the riddle of the sapient paradox solved, nor can we be sure that the ideas of Donald, Tomasello et al will not be superceded. Theirs are not the only views in the field, and, as always, there is no Marxist magic that can conjure final, ‘correct’ answers to such questions. But the arguments presented by the latest cognitive research are more convincing, from a scientific point of view, than the reductive alternatives [16]. They also sit comfortably with dialectical materialism — this will become even more apparent in the next post when we move on to the relationship between human nature and history.


[1] Steven Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind (1996).
[2] See Friedrich Engels, The Role of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876). His contribution was mostly ignored.
[3] It is not of course possible to talk of a single opinion within sociobiology or evolutionary psychology, but generalisations are necessary in a short article. Evolutionary psychologists have protested with some justification that they are being accused of a reductiveness they do not in fact espouse. So the difference is to an extent one of emphasis.
[4] Merlin Donald, ‘The definition of human nature’, from D. A. Rees and S. P. R. Rose, eds, The new brain sciences: Perils and prospects (2004).
[5] Merlin Donald, ‘Art and Cognitive Evolution’ from M. Turner (ed) The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity (2006).
[6] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).
[7] Merlin Donald, A Mind So Rare (2002).
[8] Michael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (1999).
[9] Karl Marx, Third Manuscript, 1844 Manuscripts
[10] Terry Eagleton, ‘Culture and Socialism’, International Socialism (March 2009).
[11] Karl Marx, First Manuscript, 1844 Manuscripts.
[12] Engels put it well many years ago: “Everything affects and is affected by every other thing, and it is mostly because this manifold motion and interaction is forgotten that our natural scientists are prevented from gaining a clear insight into the simplest things.” From The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876).
[13] Karl Marx, from Notebook II, ‘The Chapter on Capital’, Grundrisse (1857).
[14] Merlin Donald, op. cit.
[15] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976). Dawkins belongs to the reductionist camp in biology.
[16] For an excellent response to reductionist biology, see Steven Rose, Lifelines: Life Beyond the Gene (2005).

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
[11] Source: UN Millenium Development Goals (2000).