Marx’s view of human nature

October 9, 2012

IN HIS article "Marx vs. the myth of human nature," Paul D'Amato--a socialist whom I have the upmost respect for--makes the traditional but categorical mistake of informing his readers that Marx held no static view of human nature.

For D'Amato and many other Marxists, the essence of man is an expression of the social relations he finds himself born into, reflected back onto society. While this may be an interesting philosophical position to take, it is not the position Marx held, at least not exactly.

Although Marx wrote tens of thousands of pages, fortunately, his comments on human nature are brief and not too abundant. When they are compiled together, starting with Notes on Mill, all the way to Capital, Volume III, a consistent, but slightly changing, view begins to emerge.

Marx held a consistent view that our human nature was expressed in a drive to spontaneously and creatively produce products in a manner that is conducive to social and individual satisfaction. (It can be argued that this view is in line with his third Thesis on Feuerbach, but developing that argument is outside the scope of this reply.)

The individual satisfaction comes in the satisfaction of the other. The reason it's so important for Marxists to remember that this is Marx's view of human nature is that, otherwise, his theory of alienation is rather untenable.

Marx's theory of alienation posits, in the crudest terms, that man is alienated from the product, the production process, his fellow man, and ultimately himself. If there is no static sense of self, or this ahistorical element to mankind, than the final moment of alienation (alienation from self) is essentially nonsensical.

If the self is but a variable mirror of the reflections of the society one happens to be born into, as D'Amato claims, then we can never be alienated from ourselves.

This loss of alienation and rejection of human nature is all too reminiscent of the Althusserian turn in Marxism; and if one is concerned with reigniting humanism into Marxism, it's paramount that we delve back into our theoretical underpinnings of Marx's concept of man, in order to give credence to the claim that man ought not to be alienated.

Due to space constraints, I am unable to quote the dozen or so passages where Marx highlights his views of human nature, but I can offer one in particular. A passage in Capital, Volume III, marking one of the final works of the "mature Marx"--as anti-humanists and Althusserians would refer to him--reminds us of Marx's quest to un-alienate man, by fulfilling his ahistorical human nature:

In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilized man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase.

Freedom in this field can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature.

And this notion of freedom is what any Marxist humanist, and I presume socialist, ultimately desires.
Chris Byron, University of North Florida

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