Marx and Human Nature

by Benjamin Studebaker

Marxism is not generally my focus on this blog, but given that we’re spending a week on Marx in one of my grad school courses, I hope the reader will allow me to indulge myself in some further thoughts on Marx in addition to those I offered earlier in the week. After this, I’m moving on–there should be no more Marx for a while. I had a new thought today that I didn’t have several days ago, one that identifies a key contradiction in Marx’s work that I previously overlooked.

When Marx explicitly discusses human nature, he typically argues that our nature is determined by the nature of the economic system. There is a certain way we behave because we live in a capitalist society as opposed to a communist one or a feudal one. For Marx, if you change the nature of the economic system (say, switch from a capitalist system to a communist system), you change the sociological climate in which people are raised, and consequently human nature changes. This notion that human nature is socially rather than biologically produced, and that consequently it is dynamic and ever-changing, is central to Marx’s theory of history and his ideas about how civilization progresses.

However, Marx also develops a critique of capitalism, and in that critique, he proposes a theory of alienation. According to the theory of alienation, capitalism is bad because it alienates human beings from a variety of things, including their “species being”. Marx claims that human beings have a drive to be creative and productive, and that the division of labor and capitalism rob them of these opportunities, alienating them from their true selves. Here Marx (perhaps inadvertently?) proposes a conception of the person, a human nature. In order for us to be alienated from our species being, there must be some component to us that is inherent prior to our socialization. If our nature were entirely determined by the economic system, men under capitalism could not be alienated because their nature would perfectly suit the system under which they operated. There would be nothing for them to be alienated from. The very idea that alienation is happening at all relies on there being something that exists outside of social context, something in human beings that is objective and unchanging.

It must be said that Marx wrote about alienation much earlier in his career than his writings on the mechanisms of social change. It may be possible that Marx is not intending for the theory of alienation to be reconciled with his later work, but for it to be superseded by that work. But even if this is the case, the two pieces of work are still in contradiction. Marx’s possible awareness of this contradiction and possible decision to drop the theory of alienation is not in itself instructive as to which Marx is closer to the mark. By definition, the older Marx must believe the older Marx to be more correct than the younger Marx, but this does not tell us which Marx to prefer.

In determining which Marx is better, we must recognize that each Marx proceeds from wholly different assumptions about human nature. The theory of alienation is dependent upon the conception of the person Marx offers in his depiction of the “species being”. The extent to which we find it persuasive is the extent to which we find that theory of human nature persuasive. We may think that some kind of alienation is possible, albeit not precisely the sort Marx envisions, because we have differing conceptions of human nature from Marx, but in order to agree with some version of the theory of alienation we must have a broadly fixed view of what human nature entails.

In contrast, agreeing with Marx’s theory of history requires that one hold the view that human nature is quite malleable. Otherwise, it would be impossible for human nature to proceed from the economic system given that the economic system changes. That which is fixed cannot be determined by that which fluctuates.

It’s often overlooked, but this contradiction within Marx’s body of work offers an excellent opportunity to think critically about our conceptions of human nature. There are many Marxists who casually find both the theory of alienation and the theory of history persuasive. These individuals must recognize that in the face of this contradiction, one or the other must be dropped. In order to find both theories appealing simultaneously, these Marxists have avoided a critical examination of their own thoughts on human nature.

A sufficiently engaged reader might well be curious as to what my own view is on the human nature question–what thoughts I have offered on it publicly can be found here. For my present purposes, I think it suffices to point out that Marxists who believe they agree with both the theory of alienation and with the theory of history hold contradictory views and need to reassess.  Those of us who are not Marxists can also find something worth thinking over. If you’re not a Marxist but believe that human nature is malleable, you must ask yourself what forces you believe are at play in determining that output, and come up with some reason as to why the causes Marx lists are not at the very minimum among the causes you acknowledge. By contrast, if you’re not a Marxist but believe that human nature is fixed, it must be conceded that it is possible for human beings with a fixed nature to be placed in a social context that is psychologically poisonous to them in some way. While you could still debate whether nature is fixed as Marx says it is (you might have a very right wing conception of the person that holds that capitalism fits man’s nature perfectly), the idea that there could be alienation of some kind in a given society seems unavoidable on the assumption that nature is fixed. A fixed nature will necessarily relate to different social structures in different ways, and alienation is surely one possible outcome of that relationship. A right winger with a fixed view of human nature still sees alienation, he merely sees it in different kinds of systems and arising in different sorts of ways. In that respect, the libertarian who thinks the Soviet economic system was against man’s nature is in some small way a wee bit Marxist himself.