How humans make themselves

Issue: 117

Paul Blackledge

Sean Sayers, Marxism and Human Nature (Routledge, 2007), £20.00

Is there a human nature, and is it a barrier to socialism? For generations of reactionaries, the existence of class based societies generally, and capitalism specifically, has been evidence enough to answer yes to both of these questions. Some Marxists have responded with the argument that the myriad of different cultures in which people have lived over the past few millennia actually suggests that there is no human nature.

While this approach is a useful counter to those who can’t see beyond the narrow horizons of their own time and place, denying the existence of human nature not only flies in the face of modern science—Stephen Jay Gould once pointedly countered this claim with the suggestion that human history would have been rather different if we had the ability to photosynthesise—it also leads to irresolvable relativism, whereby no two ways of life can be judged more or less in tune with our needs.

Another response to the claim that we are by nature capitalistic has been to argue that human nature, forged over millions of years as our ancestors evolved to live in communal foraging groups, is essentially socialistic. Unfortunately, while this approach might offer a powerful basis from which to condemn capitalism, it is less clear how it is able to explain the horrors of the 20th century, let alone the rest of the history of civilisation.

In Marxism and Human Nature Sean Sayers attempts to provide a sophisticated Marxist answer to the problem of human nature which avoids the pitfalls associated with assuming either that it is fixed or that it does not exist at all.

The starting point for Sayers’ book, as it is with most Marxist examinations of human nature, is Marx’s sixth thesis on Feuerbach. Here Marx argued that “the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each individual. In reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” This statement has often been read as proof that Marx dismissed the concept of human nature. But Norman Geras’s Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (written long before Geras joined the B52 liberals) convincingly showed that Marx was in fact rejecting Feuerbach’s confusion of human nature with its modern historical form.

Marx argued that, because Feuerbach abstracted “man” from real history, he assumed exactly that which must be proved: that the contemporary form of behaviour is universal. Marx repeated a similar argument two decades later when he criticised the English utilitarian Jeremy Bentham for his “naivety” in assuming “that the modern petty bourgeois, especially the English petty bourgeois, is the normal man”.

Against this approach, Marx argued that any analysis of human nature “would first have to deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as historically modified in each epoch”. Developing this point, Geras suggested a distinction be drawn between “human nature” as a relatively constant entity which exists across history, and “the nature of man” as the historical aspect of our make-up including the “all-round character of human beings in some given context”. The plausibility of this argument stems from the way that our needs for food and water, etc, are more basic and less historical than the culturally constructed ways in which we produce to meet those needs. However, according to Sayers, Geras pushes this division too far, suggesting a too clear cut division between nature and nurture.

Sayers argues that Marx is best understood as embracing what Sayers calls “a historical form of humanism”. He basis this interpretation of Marx on the latter’s claim that, by working purposefully together on nature to meet their needs, people not only change the world around them, but also change themselves. As Marx wrote in Capital, “Through this movement he acts upon nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.”

Following this suggestion, while Sayers agrees with Geras’s claim that there exist “certain needs and characteristics which are common to all human beings”, he insists that Geras makes the mistake of believing that these can usefully be understood as being separate and distinct in practice from our “socially and historically developed desires and preferences”. By contrast, Sayers claims that even something as basic as “hunger always takes a social form”. Moreover, any social theory that roots itself in a static model of universal human nature will be both unable to explain the complexity of human history and too abstract to underpin an adequate ethical critique of capitalism.

This failing is perhaps most obvious in Geras’s attempt to reinterpret Marx as a moral philosopher. According to Geras, in his essay “The Controvery about Marx and Justice”, Marx’s morality is evident in his claim that communist society would subscribe to a form of distributive justice based upon the needs principle: “From each according to ability, to each according to need.” Geras suggested that Marx’s great contribution to moral theory was to recognise that as the forces of production developed through history so did human needs and capacities.

Consequently, for Marx, the standard of human need is a historical standard of reasonable need dependent upon the productivity of labour within society, where what is reasonable under communism would be decided upon by some democratic procedure. While there is not much to criticise in this argument as far as it goes, Sayers points out that it does not go nearly far enough in conceptualising human nature historically.

Marx, Sayers argues, was not interested in judging capitalist society against some absolute standard of human wellbeing, whereby the development of the forces of production allow for the increasing possibility that we might be freed from labour to realise our potential. Quite the reverse, Marx was interested in how we remake ourselves through work, and how the future potentialities of humanity emerge from this remaking of our nature. Sayers suggests that Marx condemned capitalism, for instance, “not solely in terms of universal human needs, but also of needs and capacities which have been made possible and developed by the gigantic growth of productive power under capitalism itself”.

Superficially, this argument might read as a variation of the point already made by Geras. However, it differs in an important way. For, according to Sayers, the development of the productive forces creates not merely new needs and capacities for individuals; it also reshapes our individuality itself. For instance, it was the development of the forces of production under feudalism that underpinned the emergence of capitalist relations of production, and which in turn gave rise to the development of modern individualism and concomitant notions of freedom, equality and human rights.

The problem with capitalism, of course, is that these notions of equality and human rights tend to be defined such that our freedoms only reach as far as our wallets allow: we’re all equal before the law, but the aim of the law, as the classic English liberal philosopher John Locke argued, is the preservation of property, and our rights are the rights of property owners. In practice this means that the less property you have, the less rights and freedoms you have.

While this difference is evident every time we go shopping, it is most apparent at work where the “freedom” most of us have from the ownership of the means of production entails, in the first instance, that we are compelled to work for someone else to make ends meet. This real loss of freedom is then compounded in the workplace, where competition and “a manager’s right to manage” translate into a process whereby we are put under constant pressure to increase our productivity, both by the introduction of new technology and by working harder.

Socialism, according to Marx, is rooted in the struggle entailed by this situation. The idea of freedom, which was the rallying cry of the classic bourgeois revolutions, becomes in the context of capitalist exploitation a site of conflict. On the one hand, capitalists and their apologists use it to legitimise the right of capital to dominate labour; on the other hand, when workers take up the demand for freedom they tend to challenge this right.

This is evident on a daily basis, from the recent dispute in Royal Mail to the struggles against Nicolas Sarkozy’s reforms in France. In both cases the freedom of capital and the freedom of workers are in conflict. These examples illuminate the way in which, when workers pick up the concept of freedom, the unfreedoms of bourgeois society begin to become apparent. Moreover, in making the existing concept of freedom their own, workers also transform its very nature. If the only way to defend their freedom is through collective action, then workers develop a need for solidarity against management.

It is this new need which transforms both the idea of freedom and (potentially) the workers’ own natures. Because the victory of their interpretation of freedom can only be guaranteed by their collective success in the struggle for control over the production process, it must be won not just against the political power of the state, but also against the economic power of capitalists. Because the victory of the workers in this struggle can only be won collectively, their individuality can cease to be competitive in nature. As Marx argued in the Communist Manifesto, in this new context “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

This emergent need for solidarity was, for Marx, the basis for socialism. He believed that the modern working class developed at a specific point in history, and became conscious of itself as a distinct group within society through its struggles over the working day, etc. These struggles not only exposed the sham freedoms of capitalist society, but also showed the existence of an alternative way of life through which a deeper freedom might be realised. For Marx, the core of the socialist project was the movement from below which began to realise, in a limited form, the negation of capital. “In order to supersede the idea of private property”, he wrote, “the idea of communism is enough. In order to supersede private property as it actually exists, real communist activity is necessary.”

Marx suggested that workers not only feel compelled to struggle against the power of capital, but that in so doing they also begin to create modes of existence which offer a virtuous alternative to the egoism characteristic of capitalist society generally—and more particularly, working class life within that society.

As Marx wrote, “When communist workmen gather together, their immediate aim is instruction, propaganda, etc. But at the same time, they acquire a new need—the need for society—and what appears as a means has become an end. This practical development can be most strikingly observed in the gatherings of French socialist workers. Smoking, eating, and drinking, etc are no longer means of creating links between people. Company, association, conversation, which in turn has society as its goal, is enough for them. The brotherhood of man is not a hollow phrase, it is a reality, and the nobility of man shines forth upon us from their work-worn figures.”

As Sayers points out, it is on the basis of this movement from below rather than from some abstract concept of right that Marx condemns capitalist society. Marxism, therefore, “does not involve a moral approach to history; but rather a historical approach to morality”.

It is this historical method which makes it almost impossible to fit Marx into the categories of either traditional social science or modern moral theory. Because both of these approaches tend to reduce human nature to its dominant modern selfish form, they can only understand morality as an imposition against our desires. Indeed, according to Marx, for all its power modern moral theory is best understood not as part of the cure for the ills of capitalism but as a symptom of our alienated existence. Modern moral philosophers, writing from the standpoint of a world in which production is for profit in the marketplace, tend to naturalise the historically specific alienated way that capitalism splits our productive activity from the satisfaction of human needs.

As result they are unable to agree upon an account of the meaning of life by which they might resolve apparently intractable ethical dilemmas.

By contrast, because Marx recognised the historical nature of capitalism, he was able to look to a process whereby capitalist alienation might be overcome. The struggle against alienated labour, by aiming to take production back into the hands of the producers, offers the possibility of restoring meaning to our lives. This possibility is, moreover, a product of history. Because Marx understood humans to be social and historical creatures, he recognised not only that our nature is in a constant process of evolution, but also that there can consequently be no absolute universal moral standards by which society and individuals might be judged. Indeed, this would be a pointless task, for the only ideals that matter are those that are fought for by interested groups within society, and these emerge through history.

This is not to say that Marxism does not include a deep ethical dimension. If in England in 1649 and in France in 1789 the ways of life which competed for hegemony within society were represented by royal absolutism on the one hand and egoistic bourgeois individualism on the other, it was the bourgeois individualism that embodied a progressive expansion of the realm of freedom.

However, from the beginning, bourgeois individualism was contradicted by spontaneous acts of solidarity whose social basis is in the collective struggles of workers at the point of production. If the low level of the development of the forces of production meant that this movement existed initially only in embryonic form, the expansion of industry strengthened its basis. The importance of the development of the productive forces to the socialist project is thus less about reaching some mythical point of abundance than it is about creating a class of people whose freedom is dependent upon building forms of solidarity which contradict the egoism of capitalist society.

And if the extent of the resistance through which this solidarity is realised may ebb and flow, it is from this historical perspective that Marxists base their critique of capitalism, and it is on the wager that the resistance might generalise into a movement that possibly will triumph against capitalism that we base our political work and our hope for an alternative to the present system. This is the historical and ethical basis for Marx’s claim that socialism can only come through “the self-emancipation of the working class”.