It is commonly thought that Karl Marx rejected the idea of human nature. As I will show, this is false. What Marx rejected was the idea that there is such a thing as an abstract eternal human essence which exists outside of society. Rejecting a specific conception of human nature is not however the same is rejecting human nature in and of itself. Marx in fact has his own particular conception of human nature.
Marx holds that there are certain characteristics which, except in cases of pathology, all humans across all societies have in common. These are things like the fact that humans need food, water and sleep to survive, that humans reproduce through sex, that humans have brains and so on.
For Marx one of the most important of these common characteristics is that humans have consciousness. With this consciousness humans think about themselves, other people, and the world in which they live. They make plans for the future and reflect on past events. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx writes
The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It is not distinct from that activity; it is that activity. Man makes his life activity itself an object of his will and consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity directly distinguishes man from animal life activity. Only because of that is he a species-being. Or rather, he is a conscious being, i.e. his own life is an object for him, only because he is a species-being. (Marx 1992, 328)
One of the most important forms consciousness takes is humans consciously using their capacities in a creative self-directed manner in order to satisfy their desires for certain states of affairs, such as no longer being hungry or making a beautiful statue. In volume 1 of Capital Marx writes,
A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cells in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour process, a result emerges which had been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally. Man not only effects a change in the form of the materials of nature; he also realizes his own purpose in those materials. And this is a purpose he is conscious of, determines the mode of his activity with the rigidity of a law, and he must subordinate his will to it. This subordination is no momentary act. Apart from the exertion of the working organs, a purposeful will is required for the entire duration of the work. (Marx 1990, 284)
Labour so understood is for Marx “an exclusively human characteristic” which “is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live.” (Marx 1990, 284, 290) Or as Marx puts it in volume 3 of Capital, human beings must “wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life. . .and he must do so in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production.” (Marx 1991, 959)
Since these common characteristics are constant across all human beings (excluding cases of pathology) they must stem from certain basic facts about human biology. It is this human biology, alongside nature itself, which are the starting points for human activity and so the parameters in which it occurs. As Marx and Engels write,
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. (Marx & Engels 1968, First Premises of Materialist Method)
Crucially, these “natural bases” – human nature and the natural environment – are modified “in the course of history through the actions of men”. Hence Marx’s distinction between “human nature in general” and “human nature as historically modified in each epoch.” (Marx 1990, 759). Marx’s idea simply put then is that humans are all composed of the same fundamental raw materials but what these raw materials are shaped into differs across time and place. Importantly, the nature of the raw materials places definite limits on what they can be shaped into.
One of the main factors which modifies and develops the raw materials of human nature is society itself. This occurs because humans are social animals who are born into and live within societies. Human nature thus cannot be conceived of outside of society since it is always within and through society that human nature is expressed. Importantly, these societies differ hugely from one another and are themselves composed of diverse elements. Each individual human therefore experiences a particular historically specific social world which shapes them as people in distinct ways.
Let us take hunger. All humans experience hunger. However, humans always experience hunger through social relations and so people in different societies experience hunger differently. A human living in contemporary England is hungry for chips bought from their local chicken cottage. A human living in a Comanche society in the eighteenth century will, in contrast, be hungry for buffalo killed last hunting season. As Marx notes in the Grundrisse,
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 . . . (Marx 1993, 92)
The same point can be made with countless other examples. So, yes humans reproduce through sex but how they reproduce through sex differs across societies and within societies. There’s a fundamental difference between sexual reproduction within a protestant nuclear family and a hippie free love orgy during the 1960s. Both of these are in turn different to sexual reproduction within the bedroom of a 15th century Ming emperor. And so on.
Society is not the only thing which modifies humans. Individual humans also develop the raw materials of their physical brain and body as they engage in actions. On Marx’s view, when a human labours they not only change the natural world but also change themselves. For example, when I make a sandwich I not only change the natural world by slicing up bread and cheese, but also develop my sandwich making abilities. As Marx writes famously in volume 1 of Capital,
By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. (Marx 1887, The Labour Process or the Production of Use Values)
Through engaging in labour we also develop new wants, desires, and motivations. When I first eat a sandwich I’m merely trying to satisfy my need for food. But upon eating the sandwich, and realising I like the experience, I develop a new need for sandwiches in and of themselves. My sandwich based desires are in turn shaped by the development of my sandwich making skills. I may start off being perfectly content with a plain boring sandwich, but as my sandwich making powers grow I find myself becoming aware of new sandwich possibilities and wanting sandwiches with different ingredients, or sandwiches of different sizes, or sandwiches which are cut up in different ways. As Marx writes in the German Ideology, “the satisfaction of the first need. . . leads to new needs”. (Marx & Engels 1968, First Premises of Materialist Method)
In summary, Marx holds that there is such a thing as human nature but that this human nature is always mediated through society and so how human nature is expressed is different across and within societies. Thus, if we’re looking for things all humans have in common we can notice certain cross-cultural and trans-historical features. But we can also look at these same universal human features in a different light and notice the varied and distinct ways they exist within different societies at different moments in history. Marx lets us view humans as both unchanging and changing at the same time.
Marx, Karl. 1887. Capital Volume 1. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Marx, Karl. 1992. Early Writings. London: Penguin
Marx, Karl. 1993. Grundrisse. London: Penguin
Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. 1968. The German Ideology. Moscow: Progress Publishers.