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.

Social Justice & Not Making Assumptions

Something that worries me when I browse online left wing spaces is how often social justice enthusiasts will dismiss a person because they assume that this person is privileged and has never truly suffered or suffered oppression. Often this assumption is made merely because of a particular belief they have, or because of their appearance and name, or because of their position within structures of oppression e.g. being white or male.

There are several problems with this.

1. Oppressed people are not a hive mind and disagree with one another. So you can’t assume, say, that someone isn’t trans or gay merely because they disagree with a current orthodoxy on the left. For example, I’ve had radical queers assume I’m heterosexual merely because I support gay marriage. Or I’ve seen people assume that a sex worker isn’t one just because they disagree with another sex worker on what legislation best serves the interests of sex workers. Worst of all, these kinds of assumptions usually go alongside claims that a person can’t speak about a topic because they don’t belong to the relevant group, such as being gay. This then creates a culture in which people are pressured to out themselves in order to have a right to an opinion, which they may not want to do for legitimate reasons like avoiding backlash from people they know.

2. You cannot infer a person’s identities or experiences of oppression merely by looking at people or their name. Obviously people don’t generally look gay, queer, disabled, mentally ill, neuro-atypical etc. Nor do people look like they’ve suffered oppression.

Take me. People often assume from looking at or listening to me that I’m a privileged cis straight man. In fact I’m agender, pan sexual and disabled. I grew up with an abusive homophobic father and was severely bullied at school for being effeminate, disabled and intelligent. I’ve suffered from depression, anxiety and social anxiety. I was regularly suicidal from the ages of 11 to 21 to the point where my new years resolution was consistently just to survive. Yet because I look a certain way, and think things like it’s a good idea not to get angry in political discussions, people assume I’ve never suffered oppression and don’t know what it feels like to talk to someone who holds oppressive views about you.

3. People can experience incredibly traumatic events that don’t constitute the typical society wide structures of oppression like homophobia or racism that social justice enthusiasts focus on. For example, a man raped by a woman, someone who was bullied because they were the new kid at school or wore glasses, someone who was emotionally abused by their mother, or someone who finds it hard to make friends and so spends all their time alone. Left wing people seem to forget that not all oppression or harmful events belong to a society wide structure that negatively affects people of a particular identity. Moreover, people of all backgrounds can and do experience mental illness, which is, regardless of one’s privilege, an awful experience.

So in short, please don’t generally make assumptions about people just to score political points or dismiss ideas you can’t be bothered to argue against. You don’t know what the person you’re talking to has gone through. You don’t know the kinds of experiences they have had. So play it safe, don’t make assumptions about people.

 

‘But Libertarian Socialism Is Not Voluntary!’ – A Response

The main objection by the capitalist against the proposition that wage labour is not voluntary in virtue of it being an un-meaningful choice between work for a boss or die is that libertarian socialism is also involuntary for the same reason. One’s choice is work for the collective or die. Even if there is a very good welfare system which ensures that people work far less some people will have to work because society needs the items required for survival such as food, medicine and clothing. Thus the choice is still work for the collective or ultimately we will all die as a result of starvation, sickness and so on. David Friedman nicely summaries the  response to the socialist as “[t]hat is true enough, but it is equally true of any system of public property”. (pp.14 The Machinery of Freedom)

The problem with this argument is that it misunderstands the motivating force in the libertarian socialist argument against the anarcho-capitalist. The motivation is that something is not a domain of freedom or liberty in virtue of it being voluntary. The point of the argument is to motivate further justification. If the anarcho-capitalist says x is justified in virtue of it being voluntary we respond by saying that voluntary is a very ambiguous term and raise the question ‘what is it to meaningful consent when the conditions under which people do consent are hazardous and as a result people lack realistic alternatives to entering into a labour contract’ Therefore we need further justification for capitalist businesses being legitimate.

One cannot simple state ‘it’s voluntary’ because while something being voluntary is a necessary condition for something being a domain of freedom it is not a sufficient condition because something can be voluntary but nonetheless limit freedom. For instance, a woman may voluntary enter into a marriage and proceed to have no say in household decisions and be ordered around by her husband. It is true that she has the capacity to leave the marriage but while she has the right to leave the marriage she lacks the means to do so. This is because she doesn’t have good qualifications and previous work experience and so cannot gain access to a job with a large enough salary to support both her and her children. Therefore she stays in the marriage for purely financial reasons relating to the economic safety of herself and her children. But it does not follow from the fact that she chooses to stay in the marriage because it is the best option available to her that her husband is a) treating here justly and b) that her husband is not limiting her freedom. All that follows is that the woman believes that staying with her husband is superior to the alternative. The libertarian socialist argues that many workers are in a similar position. They have the right to leave their job but they lack the means due to the predictable result of them leaving their job being poverty and at worst death as a result of illness or starvation. But the fact that they choose to stay in their job, as it is the best option available to them, does not entail the conclusion that a) their company, boss, manager and co-workers treat them justly and b) that their company, boss, manager and co-workers are not limiting his or her freedom. Even if we alter the marriage scenario such that the women has the means of leaving it does not follow from this that her husband does not limit her freedom since it is still the case that she has no say in decision making and is ordered about by her husband. The same is true of an employee who has the means to work for another firm or perhaps even create their own firm since they still have little to no say in decisions and simple take orders from above irrespective of their own thoughts on the matter. In short the fact that a person has the right and at best the means to leave x does not entail that the proposition that while within x their freedom, liberty and autonomy is not being infringed upon. Therefore, to justify something as a domain of freedom one must offer further reasons beyond ‘x is voluntary’.

The motivation behind the argument is therefore the seeking of justifications which apply explicitly to capitalist firms and not any allegedly voluntary contract one can imagine. The libertarian socialist seeks reasons for why it is that hierarchy in the workplace is legitimate and how it is that management structures are legitimate. In order to do that anarcho-capitalists cannot simple reply ‘it is voluntary’ but must offer reasons for why it is necessary, beneficial and is not in violation of principles of autonomy, morality and human dignity. That is why libertarian socialists make the argument.

In comparison to anarcho-capitalits libertarian socialists do not argue that the workplaces we advocate are moral, justified and domains of freedom in virtue of the fact that they are voluntary. That is a component given that Kropotkin and other anarchists talk often of ‘free contract’, which is what anarcho-captialists often refer to as voluntary association. But libertarian socialists go further and outline how their workplaces meet the requirements of the dictates of liberty, anarchism and ethics. Libertarian socialists will for instance explain why the valuing of autonomy, self-management, active participation and creative work are important. They will then proceed to explain how horizontal organisation ensures that workers are not controlled by their superiors, that consensus forms of decision making ensure that there is no or significantly less tyranny of the majority or minority, that the sharing of unappealing work ensures that certain workers are not significantly dis-empowered by performing repetitive and uncreative tasks. It is because libertarian socialist workplaces in theory and in practice have embodied these values that they are legitimate and not simple because they are voluntary.

Thus our argument is not saying that the ambiguity of free contract does not apply to the workplaces we advocate but only capitalist workplaces. Rather, we are merely pointing out that ‘x being voluntary’ is not the sufficient condition of something being a domain of freedom. We say not only are our workplaces voluntary but they also embody the principles of justice and fairness. Indeed most of the internal debate among socialists is whose preferred economic system would best embody these principles. The communist says that market economies result in alienation or that Bakunin’s collectivism would be authoritarian because it keeps a wage system of sorts. Then a mutualist may respond by arguing that communism would result in the tyranny of the commune against the individual and would not support reciprocity enough. An advocate of participatory economics may then point out that mutualism does not put enough emphasis on the sharing out of empowering and dis-empowering work. All this discussion occurs despite all the participants believing that others have the right to live in the economic system which they prefer providing that it is voluntary.

The point being that anarchists and socialists understand what the discussion is in fact about. What economic system is most in line with the principles of ethics. Anarcho-captialists, and capitalists in general, fail to understand this and so respond with an irrelevant objection and proceed to fail to properly outline the jointly sufficient conditions of something being a domain of freedom and how it is that capitalist workplaces meet these conditions. The debate ought to be about the legitimacy of hierarchy, authority and power and what does or does not limit the autonomy of the individual.

Critique of Stefan Molyneux’s arguments for Self-Ownership & Private Property

In a question and answers video Stefan Molyneux answered the following question: “Where is the logical step between humans exhibiting ownership of themselves and self-ownership becoming a universal principle? How do property rights emerge simply from exclusive usage of our bodies?” Before we address Stefan’s response let us first understand what the question is in […]