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.

Bibliography

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/

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What is Identity Politics

Within political discussions the phrase ‘identity politics’ is thrown around frequently. Rarely, however, is it ever defined by either adherents or critics of it. Instead the phrase seems to operate as a catch all buzz word for whatever features one likes or dislikes about contemporary and historic social movements focusing on the liberation of particular oppressed groups, such as women, queers and people of colour.

As I’ll be speaking about identity politics a lot in the future, I thought it would be helpful to start by defining the phrase itself. What we’ve come to call identity politics was initially developed within the feminist, gay liberation, and anti-racism social movements of the 1960s and 1970s new left. These social movements developed out of a reaction to sexism, homophobia, and racism within both the left itself and society at large. They organised along lines of identity, such as being a ‘women’, ‘gay’, or ‘black’, and sought to conceptualise and combat the particular kinds of oppression suffered by these groups. The many different versions of the politics of identity these social movements developed had in common three core beliefs. These beliefs in a simplified form are,

1. Structures of oppression produce shared experiences and identities among the oppressed. For example, white supremacy has produced a social group known as ‘black people’. Members of this social group are united by being positioned within society as ‘black’ and as a result of this societal positioning thinking of themselves as ‘black’ and experiencing anti-black racism throughout their lives.

2. The shared experiences and identities of an oppressed social group can be used as a basis for building a social movement aimed at the liberation of said social group. This usually takes two forms.

First, developing political consciousness by showing how experiences of oppression at the level of the individual are not isolated apolitical incidents, but are rather components of a society wide structure of oppression. A concrete historical example of this is feminist consciousness raising groups. In these groups women would meet and discuss every day experiences of patriarchy. As Carol Hanisch put it famously in 1969,

“One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. . .I went, and I continue to go to these meetings because I have gotten a political understanding which all my reading, all my “political discussions,” all my “political action,” all my four-odd years in the movement never gave me. I’ve been forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman. I am getting a gut understanding of everything as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings I had in “other people’s” struggles.” (Hanisch 1969)

Second, producing positive group identities in order to help people unlearn the negative self-conceptions which oppressive social structures instil in them. For example, transphobia teaches trans people to hate and be ashamed of themselves. A positive notion of trans identity can help combat this. Other examples of this are notions like ‘sisterhood is powerful’, ‘black is beautiful’, or ‘#blackgirlmagic’. These positive group identities are important not just because they improve people’s mental health but also because they contribute to the development of the confidence, self-worth, and agency that oppressed people need to abolish their oppression.

3. The liberation of an oppressed social group must be achieved by the oppressed group themselves.

This isn’t to deny that people outside these oppressed groups can and should play a positive role in struggle. Rather, it is to affirm the importance of self-emancipation and the central role oppressed groups should have in struggling against their oppression.

My understanding of what identity politics is comes from how the term was used within the Combahee River Collective Statement, which was written in 1974 and published in 1977. The Combahee River Collective were an influential black feminist group in Boston, which also contained numerous black lesbians. In the statement the collective outlines their particular version of black feminism, which sought to fight white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism and homophobia simultaneously. This was grounded in the idea that “the major systems of oppression are interlocking”, such that, “[t]he synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.” As a result, they sought to “combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face”, rather than only fighting on a single front, such as racism. Since the 1970s these ideas have been developed into what is now called intersectionality.

Of particular importance to the collective was the manner in which personal experiences of structures of oppression contribute to the development of political consciousness. For them,

“There is also undeniably a personal genesis for Black Feminism, that is, the political realization that comes from the seemingly personal experiences of individual Black women’s lives. Black feminists and many more Black women who do not define themselves as feminists have all experienced sexual oppression as a constant factor in our day-to-day existence. As children we realized that we were different from boys and that we were treated differently. For example, we were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being “ladylike” and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people. As we grew older we became aware of the threat of physical and sexual abuse by men.”

Initially these experiences made them have “feelings of craziness”. This was changed through consciousness raising groups in which they learnt to understand and analyse their experiences within a feminist framework. They write,

“In the process of consciousness-raising, actually life-sharing, we began to recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from the sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression.” (Quoted in Heyes 2016).

The collective also placed importance of their identities as black women. They write, “focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity”. The core of their politics was thus the view that, “[b]lack women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of our need as human persons for autonomy.”

Later in an interview, co-author Barbara Smith said on the term ‘identity politics’,

“I think we came up with the term. . . I never really saw it anywhere else and I would suggest that people if they really want to find the origin of the term that they try to find it any place earlier than in the Combahee River Collective statement. I don’t remember seeing it anywhere else.” (Quoted in Breines, 2007, 129)

I cannot confirm Smith’s remark that they were the first to use the term “identity politics”. What I can say, however, is that when I use the term “identity politics” I am doing so in the manner that they did.

Bibliography

Breines, Winifred. 2007. The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement. Oxford University Press.
Hanisch, Carol. 1969. The Personal is Political. 
Heyes, Cressida. 2016. “Identity Politics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The Combahee River Collective. 1977. The Combahee River Collective Statement.