Marx, Nietzsche, Freud #3 Heather DeLancett Spring 2012 – Prof.


On the Uses & Abuses of History in Three Prominent History-Shapers: Marx, Nietzsche & Freud

In this course we have examined three remarkably influential thinkers whose theories on human nature significantly sculpted the philosophy, psychology, and political frames of reference in the 20th century. As we continue into the 21st century, the societal analyses and meta-questions posed by Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud continue to inform our intellectual investigations. Each of these revolutionary thinkers had been, in their own minds, physicians of their cultures; each sought from his own domain, (of economics, philosophy, and psychology), to diagnose the core issues of disease which he saw manifested in the troubling symptoms everywhere around him. These men, our turn of the 19th/20th century “Philosophers of Suspicion” as Prof. Welsh calls them, share many characteristics, not least of which is that they were each driven well beyond moderation to work fervently, and often feverishly, towards a path to a new vision of humanity. From their writings, we can find ample evidence that each of these men were deeply invested in personally being - in themselves, in their work, in their insights - a bridge to the next phase of a better, more consciously understood, less superstitious type of human development and freedom. Each rejected the traditional religious values and regarded these metaphysical explanations of reality as systems of control which blinded the masses to those uncomfortable truths which he worked to bring forth into the public sphere of consciousness. Paradoxically, though these men were striving for their lives to be meaningful

catalysts for creating a new possibility for future human unfolding, each relied heavily on often rather questionable and speculative claims about human history as fundamental foundations for their theoretical frameworks. It is my intention within this paper to briefly compare and contrast some of the specifically strange “historical” assumptions that were so fundamental to each thinker’s framework, and to explore whether our current historical perceptions, more than 100 years later, can view their speculative historical assumptions as trivial to their larger theories of human nature, or if they are dealbreakers.

Karl Marx - Past & Future
Karl Marx’s “materialist conception of history” envisioned a dialectical human historical process unfolding and moving toward a worldwide anti-capitalist revolution that would usher in communism, abolish private property, end class struggle, and finally bring an end to history itself. Marx’s view of the past focused on the types of relationships and social structures that humans formed as determined by the material conditions and the modes of production of goods employed during each time period.1 Marx envisioned the earliest societies as examples of “primitive communism” – the time of hunter/gatherer and small agriculture tribal communities with little to no formal leadership, no concept of private property beyond a few individual possessions, and, like other animals, unable to bend nature to their wills.2 Having taken various courses in anthropology, biology and history, it seems there is sufficient evidence to believe that Marx’s vision of these historical egalitarian ancestors is a bit romanticized, naïve and simplistic. The rest of animal kingdom are anything but egalitarian and set up elaborate pecking order rituals and dominance games, while adeptly manipulating material conditions to their wills and adapting to those they cannot change. Studies in primate psychology typically reveal


See “Historical Materialism” entry: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms. Accessed April, 24, 2012. 2 See “Communism” entry, under sub-heading “Historical Development of Communism,” ibid.

how similar humans are when it comes down to the basics of mammalian politics. There is also ample evidence of unequal accumulation of wealth, established hierarchy lineages, and social tensions regarding possessions even among the remaining contemporary hunter-gatherer societies such as the !KUNG people of the Kalahari region.3 This vision of the past that Marx proposes is vital to his proposed theories because he wants us to imagine a future that is something like this romanticized simplicity returned – in spirit, but not means of production. Some of the most persistent criticisms of Marx’s works are based on whether Marx was primarily wrong about human nature. Considering the failures of socialist states to achieve any “communist ideal” during the 20th century and the corruption and abuses of the “State” which limited human freedom rather than liberating it, I think this is a valid critique and worthy of great consideration when evaluating Marx’s recommendations and prescriptions for individual and social health. Marx realized that it would be difficult for us to imagine human nature free from the symptoms of alienation brought on by Capitalism within the first few generations after the revolution. However, after a century has passed, it seems that there is a widespread paranoia of alienation due to the controlling mechanisms of “Big Brother” rather than “Big Capitalist.”4 Marx also acknowledged that Communism must take place in industrialized societies, nearly simultaneously and globally, in order to be effective and to be able to provide enough food and wealth for everyone without mandatory labor. A series of failed attempts by primarily non-industrialized societies during the 20th century does not necessarily invalidate Marx’s message and societal analysis. However, the transformations within Capitalism that he did not foresee which move us forward into the 21st century involve a vastly interconnected international world trade market (even between Capitalist and Communist states), which shows few


See examples and elaborations in such sources as: Marjorie Shostak. Nisa The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, (2006 special edition) Boston: Harvard University Press 4 Though there is perhaps more popularized awareness that these two entities may in fact be the self-same.

signs of relinquishing private property, sharing means of production, redistributing capital, or communally sharing political authority and influence – between Nation states or within them.

Friedrich Nietzsche - Past & Future
Friedrich Nietzsche began his academic studies as a philologist and his foundation as a classics scholar shines through in his works of philosophy. He traced the origin of words and of meanings back into historical time and sought to offer explanations for their changes through time which we take for granted and are largely unconscious of during our common language usage. In his works “Genealogy of Morals” and “Beyond Good and Evil” he espouses his theory on the development of the dualism originally found in Hegel’s “master/slave” dialectic. Though both Marx and Nietzsche relied heavily on certain themes borrowed or inherited from Hegel, Nietzsche imagines our pre-history very differently than Marx does. For Nietzsche, our ancient ancestors were always divided between the strong and weak, the noble and the plain, the natural lion-like predators and the natural docile, subservient sheep. Nietzsche proposed that the natural order of dominance and submission relationships between these two types was only transformed in relatively recent times due to the accumulated effects of resentment concentrated via religion, specifically Christianity. For Nietzsche, human nature throughout our history has been simply a self-serving Will to Power which takes many forms and masks as each individual adapts to his or her place in the local pecking order. As much as this Ancient Greece loving philologist examines the past, he also is very future directed. Nietzsche imagines that the icing on the cake of human nature is the Will to Power manifested as the Will applied to Self-Overcoming. The philosophers of the future, he envisions with no small amount of grandeur, will be the radically brave attempters, experimenters and tempters that lead to a higher type of humanity: the Ubermensch, or Overman. Nietzsche explores what this type of ideal Ubermensch will be faced with in his novel “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”

Common critiques of Nietzsche are directed at his classifications of these noble masters and resentful slaves which are the only two types of characters populating Nietzsche’s historical analysis. At worst, Nietzsche is accused of promoting the interests of the predator types he describes as “blond beasts” and for inspiring and glorifying Nazi ideals of a eugenically superior race. There are certainly passages in Nietzsche’s works which could be interpreted that way. However, a careful reading of these works reveals, in my opinion, a dialectical thesis-antithesis-synthesis formula that the author is applying to himself. He gushes with enthusiasm and fervor and excitement as he describes the qualities of the strong, noble and beautiful self-directed definers of meaning as he invokes these qualities in himself. He berates, whines, despises and is disgusted by the thought of the poor, weak, wretched creatures that use religion and morality as a crutch of resentment as he works out his own anguish and anger about his religious upbringing and continuing fervor for eternal things. The synthesis - the idea that the process itself of these forces moving in history - actually is what deepens our souls and gives us meaning and merit above and beyond the brute animal consciousness of the blond beasts and the clever deceits of the priestly manipulators of morality of the past. The synthetic product of this simplified thesis (noble, strong) and antithesis (weak, priestly) is what drives Nietzsche’s vision and insistence of the new type of human to emerge in the future. When Nietzsche says that every philosophy is really reducible to a personal confession to the specific prejudices of the philosopher,5 he may have meant to be read in this way more than we academically tend to evaluate. As history, Nietzsche’s descriptions are interesting thought experiments but weak due to oversimplification. As philosophical and psychological descriptive phenomenological process, Nietzsche helps us to face the noble beast and the manipulative coward that dwell within us all.


Ed. Walter Kaufmann. Basic Writings of Nietzsche – Beyond Good & Evil. (New York : Random House, 2000. Pg. 203).

Sigmund Freud – Past & Present
Sigmund Freud developed a grand meta-theory of human development as corresponding to stages of human sexual development. His psychological model of the mind – consisting of the Ego, Id, Unconscious and Super-Ego – still endures in psychoanalytic practice and common parlance. Freud proposed that we each individually receive impressions from the external world during early childhood which shape our personalities for life. These early impressions are profoundly formative on our individual development, much more so than most all external event impressions that occur when we are older and less psychologically malleable. However, these childhood events are obscured from our memories due to a sort of amnesia. This state of “amnesia” prevents us from being able to access and psychologically work through these early childhood traumas and memories because they are now located in the Unconscious realm of the mind. Freud’s recourse to history, or more appropriately pre-history, is used to explain why humans feel an innate sense of guilt, the formation of the Super-Ego, incest taboos, religion and our ideas of God, and even the origin of civilization itself. In “Totem and Taboo” Freud writes about how he imagines the original human ancestors. Like some other large primate species, Freud asserts that one dominate male possessed all of the females of the tribe. Eventually, due to the strong libidinal urges towards sexual gratification, the other younger males banded together and killed this dominant genetic “father figure” that had previously possessed all the females and sired them all. Then, like an apple in the mythical garden, they ate him and a sense of shame arose in the psyche. Freud proposed that we all feel a sense of internalized lingering guilt from this act of original sin committed in the very early development of our primitive species development and links this with the amnesia of childhood. We do not remember the original shock of this action and cannot access it because it is a part of our Unconscious, but over time it has emerged from repression in the formation of the Super-Ego moralistic

principle which we have transferred onto the Judeo-Christian and other patriarchal fatherly God forms. He also proposes this pre-historic act as the origin of the incest taboo; the young males (now bonded in their guilt but with free access to the females) made a pact amongst themselves to prevent any one of them taking on the original dominating alpha-male role and agreed to put limits on mating privileges. The original fear of the dominant male, Freud suggests, has been transferred to animals and God. Freud continues on with this historical assumption and continues to develop it through other works, especially “Civilization and its Discontents.” Of each of the historical imaginings imported into theoretical frameworks that we’ve considered here, Freud’s is by far the strangest. It is also the most radically implausible and used by the writer the most extensively to support numerous branches of his meta-theory. There are many possible critiques of these assertions. The critique I currently find the most interesting points out some parallels between Freud and Plato: When we read Plato, we studied the great attack on this traditional system of social behaviour as the basis of the best life. Plato takes issue with the social, conventional, traditional nature of the Homeric sense of the self and of appropriate behaviour. He does this, above all, by seeking to internalize our sense of ourselves, by offering an image of the psyche as a dynamic conflict between the different levels and by stressing that a virtuous life depends, more than anything else, on achieving a psychic harmony between the competing elements, in which there is a clear authority over the destructive elements. In that sense, although his terminology is different from Freud's, Plato is clearly initiating a project in some interesting ways very like Freud's.6 Johnston thinks that Freud somewhat purposefully ignores time periods when social group approval and recognition/ shame were the primary mechanisms of behavioral control. Johnston refers back to classical literature where internalized guilt was not an important theme or concept and Freud’s notion of the Super-Ego just doesn’t seem to fit. I think this is one of many potential issues with Freud’s reliance on such speculative historical transferences of the psyche.

Ian Johnston. On Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. (June 1999) Accessed April 24, 2012.

Having looked at these uses and abuses of history through these thinkers’ theories, I personally feel more confident about my own theoretical inconsistencies. I marvel that men as widely influential as Marx, Nietzsche and Freud can be taken so seriously despite leaning their theories on such shaky historical foundations. I applaud them for having such audacity, whether they were conscious of it or not. This analysis has been helpful to me in taking these giant thinkers down from the pedestals that academia has raised them upon. At the same time, it has perhaps encouraged some of my own audacious history weaving-conceiving. As Nietzsche insists: To be sure, we need history. But we need it in a manner different from the way in which the spoilt idler in the garden of knowledge uses it, no matter how elegantly he may look down on our coarse and graceless needs and distresses. That is, we need it for life and for action, not for a comfortable turning away from life and from action or for merely glossing over the egotistical life and the cowardly bad act. We wish to serve history only insofar as it serves living.7 But now awash in all the details of the information age where new historical discoveries are made daily, we must insist one step further as we seek to mold the future. I think we should only seek to serve history insofar as it serves us in living well, and philosophy is a perfect vehicle for defining the values we aim to find from our historical lineages and legacies. These “Philosophers of Suspicion” all affirm that we will only see what we want to see anyway – why not choose well what we look for?


Friedrich Nietzsche. “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” from Untimely Meditations. Accessed April, 24 2012

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