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Chris Byron (2013) Marx’s Human Nature: Distinguishing Essence from Essentialism

Chris Byron (2013) Marx’s Human Nature: Distinguishing Essence from Essentialism

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Published by Sanja Petkovska
Marx’s Human Nature: Distinguishing Essence from Essentialism

Chris Byron
Marx’s Human Nature: Distinguishing Essence from Essentialism

Chris Byron

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Published by: Sanja Petkovska on Oct 11, 2013
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Marx’s Human Nature: Distinguishing Essence fromEssentialism
March 1, 2013 by MHI Leave a Comment Filed underPhilosophy/OrganizationTags:alienation,humanism,Louis Althusser,Ludwig Feuerbach,Marx,Norman Geras  Chris ByronIt is safe to presume that most children have no idea what they want to be when they grow up. It isequally safe to presume that those that claim to know what they want to be when they grow up willchange their minds. Finally, it is safe to presume that “in the social production of their existence,[these children] inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production” (Marx 1970, p. 20).The impact of the totality of these social relations, and their dominance over the aging child, willnecessarily conflict with his human nature.[1]Despite contrary opinions, Marx has much to tell usregarding human nature, its alienated expression under the capitalist mode of production, and itsrelation to essence. In this essay I will make three arguments. 1) I will argue that Marx did have a view of human nature, and then I will show what it is. 2) I will then demonstrate the necessity interconnection between human nature and Marx’s theory of alienation. 3) Finally, I will argue thatMarx is both an essentialist – in regard to human nature – and remains true to his sixth Thesis onFeuerbach, that “the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, itis the ensemble of the social relations (Engels, 2010, 82).” The standard opinion is that a philosopheris either an essentialist or sees essence as fluid. In true dialectical fashion, Marx is both. Recognizingthe validity of this new position allows us to see simultaneously that while society conditions ourhistorical essence, it is our human nature which is alienated.
Marx and Human Nature: The Ground Rules
 It is noteworthy that a Marxian theory of human nature has been rejected by many notable Marxscholars, including “Tom Bottomore, Robert D Cumming, Eugene Kamenka, Louis Althusser, Vernon Venable, Robert Tucker, Kate Soper, Colin Summer, and Sidney Hook; to name but a few”(Geras 1983, pp. 49-51). The simplest way to refute this myth is to compile a list of Marx’s statementsregarding human nature, from youth until death, and to compare and contrast his views. It is alsoimportant to remember that human nature is that quality that is
human, a quality thatseparates mankind from other animals. Qualities that
we share
with other animals (e.g., hunger) aremerely 
aspects of our animal nature
. Any theoretical speculation that Marx makes regarding theuniqueness of mankind is of potential use in developing a Marxian theory of human nature.
Compilation of Marx’s Statements on Human Nature
 For the sake of space, some of Marx’s comments will be neglected, specifically those that overlap(e.g.,
On the Jewish Question
does not develop species-being in a new direction from the workspreceding and following it). Also, it is important to compile his views in chronological order, so thatone can see his development. Many philosophers believe that the sixth Thesis on Feuerbachprecludes a Marxian concept of human nature, because they believe there is an epistemological break that occurs. Yet if we read Marx in chronological order, we see that he made use of a theory of human
nature before and after the sixth Thesis. Thus, it certainly did not prevent Marx from holding onto aconcept of human nature. And even if an epistemological break did occur, human nature was not jettisoned.Marx’s “Notes on James Mill,” written in 1844, was his first essay dealing with human nature. In it we get a first glimpse into his philosophical use of species activity:Species-activity and the species-spirit whose real, conscious and authentic existence consists insocial activity and social enjoyment. Since the essence of man is the true community of man, men, by activating their own essence, produce, create this human community, this social being which is noabstract, universal power standing over against the solitary individual, but is the essence of every individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth. [Marx 1992, pp. 265-6].If we translate “essence” here as human nature – as some translators have done – then Marx isessentially saying that human nature is the ability to produce and flourish within a community thatserves the community and oneself in a mutually gratifying way. When
camera obscura
productiverelations (e.g. capitalism) begin to take effect, “our products are not united for each other by the bond of 
human nature
(Marx 1992, p. 275).Let us suppose that we had produced as human beings. In that event each of us would have doubly affirmed himself and his neighbor in his production. (1) In my production I would have objectifiedthe specific character of my individuality and for that reason I would both have enjoyed theexpression of my own individual life during my activity and also, in contemplating the object, I wouldexperience an individual pleasure, I would experience my personality…(2) In your use or enjoymentof my product I would have the immediate satisfaction and knowledge in my labor I had gratified ahuman need, i.e. that I had objectified human nature … (3)…I would have directly confirmed andrealized my authentic nature…Our production would be as many mirrors from which our natures would shine forth. This relation would be mutual: what applies to me would also apply to you. [Marx1992, pp. 277-8]For Marx, human nature cannot be divorced from production, nor production from human nature.Humans have a drive to spontaneously and creatively produce products in a manner that isconducive to social and individual satisfaction. In producing a unique product, man affirms hisuniqueness, and in distributing it he gratifies someone else. And through that gratification, hefurther gratifies himself. Simultaneously, the same producer depends upon the same relationship of unique production and exchange from someone else. Therefore what was unique to him is in reality common to all. While the “Notes on James Mill” mark one of the earliest points in Marx’s philosophicaldevelopment, there was not too much variance from this position later. The next moment of bothphilosophical development and human nature development can be found in his
The Economic and  Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
 EP Manuscripts
 EP Manuscripts
are Marx’s first serious endeavor into the political economy of Adam Smith,David Ricardo, Jean-Baptiste Say, etc. The
camera obscura
of man’s human nature, as discussed inthe “Notes on James Mill,” is fully fleshed out in Marx’s essay on “Estranged Labor.”
Bringing outMarx’s view of human nature in this work is slightly more difficult than in the “Notes on James Mill.”Marx is determined to reveal the dialectical contradictions in all categories of economic thought (e.g., value, wage, rent, etc.) and their relation to man’s essence. Therefore, in establishing the negation of man’s essence when confronted with bourgeoisie relations, an affirmative understanding of man’sessence can only be elucidated from a careful negation of the negation made by the reader.In order to fully flesh out this picture, though, it is best to begin with the affirmative statements of human nature. Marx (2007, p. 74) states, “man is a species being, not only because in practice and intheory he adopts the species as his object (his own as well as those of other things), but – and this isonly another way of expressing it – also because he treats himself as the actual, living species;
 because he treats himself as a universal and therefore a free being.” He goes on to compare thesimilarities between man and animal, but notes a distinction, namely that man’s “species character”is productive life “in the character of its life-activity” as free and conscious. That is, free production –production without anything but nature’s material constraints – is what characterizes the activity of man from that of other species. Whereas life-activity for the animals is identical to the animalessence, free man makes life-activity “the object of his will and of his consciousness.” Thisdistinguishing aspect makes man a species-being. Man sees his species as an object that his freeproduction will consciously and freely take into account, thus confirming his kinship as a species- being. The lexicon is different, and productive consciousness is added in as a universalizing aspect of man’s essence, but nonetheless the theme is quite in line with his “Notes on James Mill.” A criticism could be raised: Marx is incorrect to consider production a uniquely human activity. Herejects this carefully. For Marx, animals only produce out of need, for themselves and theirimmediate kin (i.e., birds produce nests), whereas man produces “even when he is free from physicalneed and only truly produces in freedom therefrom.” Marx is reinforcing the point that whereas thelife-activity of an animal is ingrained and perfunctory, man’s life-activity when free is a confirmationof his species-being via our freedom to produce objects that transcend mere sustenance needs (Marx2007, p. 76). Ultimately man’s freely produced product is the objective confirmation of his essence,and its reception in society is
a fortiori 
objective confirmation of his species-being.In 1845, Marx and Engels met in Paris and drafted their first book together:
The Holy Family, orCritique of Critical Criticism.
 As Engels recalled later about the
The Holy Family
, they wanted todevelop “the science of real men and their historical development” (Marx and Engels 1975, p. 8).Marx and Engels also explicitly refer to human nature in this book. When their claim of humannature is combined with Engels’s recollection, it necessarily implies that the two thinkers believedthat they could develop a science of real men that included the notion of human nature as a part of that science. Marx and Engels explicitly used the notion of human nature when referring toalienation under the capitalist mode of production:The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement…Theclass of the proletariat feels annihilated in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and thereality of an inhuman existence. It is … abasement the indignation at that abasement,an
to which it is necessarily driven by the contradiction between its human
andits condition of life, which is the outright, resolute and comprehensive negation of that nature. [Marxet al. 1975, p. 43]They believe human nature to be the antithesis of the estrangement and degradation that the laborerfeels under the capitalist mode of production. Human nature is negated in the conditions of life thatcapitalism requires them to labor under. The significance of this passage is that Marx is taking hisconcept of human nature from his “Notes on James Mill” and merging it with his theory of alienationdeveloped during the previous year.The next work of Marx’s to consider man’s essence can be found in the “Theses onFeuerbach
 written in 1845. These were written on a single sheet of paper, never meant forpublication. Presumably Marx had written them to work out his own ideas. Engels published themafter Marx’s death, believing that they could augment his own work on Feuerbach and serve as ahistorical reminder, documentation of when Marx began to develop his theory of historicalmaterialism (Engels 2010, p. 8).Critiquing Feuerbach’s
 Essence of Christianity
and his views of man, Marx wrote:Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is noabstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled: 1. toabstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to

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