Marx’s Human Nature: Distinguishing Essence fromEssentialism
March 1, 2013 by MHI Leave a Comment Filed underPhilosophy/OrganizationTags:alienation,humanism,Louis Althusser,Ludwig
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.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
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