When Kautsky Met Marx

Kaul Kautsky met Marx in 1881. At the time Kautsky was a journalist in the German social democratic movement. He would after Marx’s death become its most influential theorist. Kautsky was nervous upon meeting Marx. He’d heard many stories of Marx’s temper and was afraid of embarrassing himself in front of his hero. This fear came true when Kautsky said to Marx that young socialists were “ardently awaiting the speedy appearance of the second volume of Capital”. To which Marx replied curtly, “me too”. When Kautsky later asked whether it was time to publish Marx’s complete works, Marx responded that they would first have to be completely written.

They nonetheless, from Kautsky’s point of view, had a lively conversation on a variety of interesting topics. As a result, Kautsky left “highly satisfied” and this “feeling grew even stronger” with each visit. Kautsky remarked that Marx’s goodness “made as strong an impression on me as the enormous compass of his knowledge and the sharpness of his mind. Even the few hours that I spent with Marx were sufficient to make me clearly conscious of the force of this mighty personality which overpowered at the same time as it enchanted.”

Marx had a very different view of Kautsky. In a letter to his daughter Jenny from April 1881, he described Kautsky as “a small minded mediocrity, too clever by half, industrious in a certain way, busying himself with statistics from which he does not derive anything intelligent, belonging by nature to the tribe of Philistines.”

Kautsky met his hero. But his hero did not like him.

Source: McLellan, David (ed). Karl Marx: Interviews and Recollections (Barnes and Noble Books: 1981), 153-156


The Left and the Politics of Writing Style

A lot of leftists write in a very technical, academic, and pretentious manner. Why do they do this?

I’ve come up with three reasons. First, and most obviously, people mirror how those they read or talk to communicate. They read a book and find themselves copying its language, or they have a conversation and end up talking more and more like their conversation partner. This is just what humans do. They copy each other. In the case of the left this means copying words like “means of production”, “rupture”, or “the ideological state apparatus”.

Second, people gain a sense of superiority and self-worth from communicating and thinking in a highly academic fashion. Through their speech they are able to demonstrate that they, unlike most people, have read famous authors and can effectively deploy the latest fashionable jargon. Doing so is especially important for gaining in-group currency among other like minded individuals. If you cannot name drop the right authors and concepts then you’re clearly not well read enough and lack intellectual depth. People often learn this habit at university where in seminars and essays they try to please and impress the academics who assess them. Indeed, at many universities the academics insist as part of the marking criteria that their students write in this manner.

Third, when you communicate in an unclear pretentious manner it is very easy to say things that you yourself don’t properly understand, let alone your audience, but which have the appearance of insight. This ability proves useful when you are searching for something to say in an argument or are struggling to phrase an idea in writing. Instead of carefully and painstakingly trying to articulate an idea as clearly as possible, you opt for the easier approach of writing a long sentence full of as much jargon as possible.

Defenders of these styles of communication may insist that these things occur in all sub-cultures. Mountain climbers, for instance, will use terms that you will not hear out of their circle, such as ‘free solo’, and may try to gain in-group status through their knowledge of all the right climbing language. While all groups of friends develop in-jokes and slang that outsiders will not understand. The inward facing nature of in-group language is not a problem for these groups, so why should it be an issue for the left? The answer is that most groups are happy to only communicate amongst themselves and have no need to do otherwise. The radical left is not such a group. They aim for the abolition of systems of power by the oppressed themselves. Building up to such a point of revolution requires that millions of people come to understand these systems of power, that an alternative is possible and desirable, and that there are effective means to make this alternative a reality. With such an emancipatory mission, the left cannot afford to be inward facing. It must, if it is to achieve its goal, reach broader audiences and grow its numbers. As a result, the usually harmless creation of in-group language through mirroring becomes a problem. This is especially so when what is being copied and reproduced, academic leftist language, is impenetrable to most people alive and difficult and time consuming to learn. Given this, how we write is not politically neutral. Writing unclearly about issues of importance prevents people from understanding these issues. This helps perpetuate oppression by preventing the oppressed from improving their knowledge and so gaining the understanding required to change society.

Some may argue in response that some ideas are just too complex to be expressed in clear simple terms. While this is true in many cases, the only way to know if it is true in a particular case is to actually try and write about the topic clearly. I frequently find when I do so that my expression of the idea in complex terms was not a sign of deep insight, but instead a mask to hide my own lack of understanding. Hence why a mark of true understanding is so often the ability to explain something complex in a clear manner.

Second, writing clearly is a skill which is only developed through practice. It is not something that you can just do. A musician does not learn to play well unless they practice. The same is true with writing. Those who write in a technical academic manner choose to devote their energies to developing their ability to communicate in this style. Hence why they find it easier to write like this than write clearly. They practice writing unclearly and then wonder why they find it so hard to write clearly. The only way to change this situation is to consciously put in the hours developing a clear writing style. I have spent much of my time deliberately trying to unlearn how my education taught me to write and aim in videos to communicate academic ideas in a manner that is accessible to non-academics. Whether or not I’ve succeeded at this is for others to decide.

Marx Believed in Human Nature

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 1848, 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, Early Writings, p328)

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, Capital Vol 1, p284)

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, Capital Vol 1, p284, p290) 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, Capital Vol 3, p959)

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, German Ideology, 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, Capital Vol 1, p759). 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, Grundrisse, p92)

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, Capital Vol 1, 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, German Ideology, 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 (1990). Capital Volume 1. Penguin
Marx, Karl (1887). Capital Volume 1. Moscow: Progress Publishers. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/index.htm
Marx, Karl (1991). Capital Volume 3. Penguin.
Marx, Karl (1992). Early Writings. Penguin
Marx, Karl (1993). Grundrisse. Penguin
Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich (1968). The German Ideology. Moscow: Progress Publishers. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/

Marxism Reading List

Pdfs/epubs of most of these books can be found on b-ok.

Primary Sources

Part 1

Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto 
Marx, Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (very short)
Marx, Wage Labour and Capital (short)
Marx, Thesis on Feuerbach (very short)

Part 2

Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme
Marx, The Civil War in France
Marx, Letters to Zasulich (clarifies important points about Marx’s theory of history and views on Russia)
Marx, Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy (very short)

Part 3

Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
Marx, Grundrisse 
Marx, Capital Volume 1 

Secondary Sources

Anderson, Kevin – Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies
Fromm, Erich – Marx’s Concept of Man (short)
Heinrich, Michael – “Je ne suis pas marxiste” (very short)
Heinrich, Michael – An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital
Lebowitz, Michael – Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class
Ollman, Bertell – Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society
Raekstad, Paul – The Democratic Theory of the Early Marx 
Tabak, Mehmet – Dialectics of Human Nature in Marx’s Philosophy

Marxist Theory

Ollman, Bertell – Dance of the Dialectic
Lebowitz, Michael – The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development
Lebowitz, Michael – The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: The Conductor and the Conducted
Wood, Ellen  Meiksins – Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism


David Harvey’s lectures on Das Capital
Raymond Geuss’ lectures on Marxism
Red Plateaus’ video series Marx on human development, freedom, alienation and socialism