Friday, June 10, 2005

Philosophy: Karl Marx and Human Nature

Posted by AmishThrasher at 8:20 am
Karl Marx:
Does he believe in a fixed human nature?
Karl Marx’s theory of alienation comes about through the alienation of the defining feature of humanity at the hands of a mode of production, in capitalism. While the defining feature of the human species is fixed regardless of the mode of production currently employed by a society, the implications of such underlying characteristics vary tremendously based on socio-economic and historical (i.e. class and mode of production) situations.

So is there a conflict between this and the notion humans have no fixed nature?

To answer this question, we will need to take a closer look at the Marxian view of human nature.

Characteristics of a Species
To understand Marx’s beliefs on alienation, we must first look at a significant area of his argument, and look at what distinguishes a species. So what is the unique features of the human species, according to Karl Marx? What distinguishes ‘animal’ characteristics then, and how are they distinct from ‘human’ characteristics?

Animal Distinctions
“The animal is immediately one with its life activity”, explains Marx. “It is true that animals also produce. They build nests and dwelling, like the bee, the beaver, the ant, etc. But they produce only their own immediate needs or those of their young; they produce only when immediate physical need compels them to do so, … they produce only themselves, … their products belong immediately to their physical bodies, … [and] only according to the standards and needs of the species to which they belong”. Some other examples of animal functions, albeit ones shared with man (and thus not to be included under ‘unique animal characteristics’), include “eating, drinking, and procreating, or at most in his dwelling and adornment”.

In other words, the character of animals is one of instinct, and animals produce accordingly. So how is the character of the human species – the underlying ‘human nature’ – different to this?

Human Distinctions
According to Marx, “Conscious life activity directly distinguishes man from animal life activity”. What this means is that, where animals aren’t conscious and, thus, live (and labor) off needs and instinct, the human character is that we are conscious. From this, there is some critical flow-on effects for Marx’s theory. “Only because of that is he a species-being. Or, rather, he is a conscious being … Only because of that is his activity free activity”. In simpler terms, the implications of the fact humans are conscious beings, potentially, flow on to freedom of life activity, and therefore labor.

As I mentioned earlier, man does share needs (eating, drinking, procreating, dwellings, etc.) with animals, yet human labor is also distinct (beyond merely being conscious), because “man produces even when he is free from physical need and truly produces only in freedom from such need”. Marx, when presenting the characteristics of animals, made several contrasts with human potential, based on fixed human characteristics. These resulting ‘ideal’ characteristics of human labor include that “man reproduces the whole of nature;” and is “capable of producing according to the standards of every species and of applying to each object its inherent standard”. So human characteristics aren’t just consciousness, or free and conscious activity, but also include (what could be described as) free, conscious, and creative labor. And a final distinction is that “man freely confronts his own product”.

To illustrate the above difference, I’ll use one of Marx’s examples (a beaver). Beavers build dams out of instinct, when the need arises, and they do so the only way beavers know how to build them. In contrast, humans evaluate and plan their lives, and their labor. Certainly buildings like The Great Wall of China, the Mayan and Giza pyramids, The Eiffel Tower, The Statue of Liberty, and other landmarks are not just magnificent by human standards, but they are magnificent by the standards of any creature on earth. But beyond buildings, many great works of mathematics, science, art, poetry, music, film, fashion, philosophy, and other efforts of creative labor, rather than just being instinctive means to various ends, are to humans often ends in themselves.

The problem of alienation enters the picture when we take a look at a key quote, Marx gives us a definition of human nature that states “The whole character of a species, its species-character, resides in the nature of its life activity." We have seen, above, that consciousness is the defining characteristic in human nature, and that the human ideal is to express this through creative labor. Unfortunately, in the real world, there are bills to pay. So, under the capitalist mode of production (or the ‘political economy’), Marx believes the proletariat will not get to live out the human ideal, as human nature – in the form of human life activity – is different to the human ideal.

What happens as a result is that “the worker places his life in the object; but now it no longer belongs to him, but to the object.” The result is that “the product of labor does not belong to the worker, and if it confronts him as an alien power, this is only possible because it belongs to a man other than the worker." Further flow-on effects include the fact that it “reduces spontaneous and free activity to a means, it makes man's species-life a means of his physical existence."

This is where alienation comes into play. This view of alienation is based on the alienation of a fixed ideal, or potential, within humans at the hands of human nature, in the form of an economic system. And this potential is fixed, based on the underlying characteristic of humanity – consciousness – even if an economic state does alienate it; like a seed has the fixed potential of producing a tree, even if it lands on a rock. So while fixed human characteristics aren’t the only – or major – element at play in alienation, they do form part of the basis of it.

Is there contradiction then?
The points outlined above are essential in understanding the further question of whether there is conflict. Do fixed, defining characteristics and human potential contradict with Marx’s assertion that human nature is fundamentally historical?

As I stated earlier, my reading is that the two are clearly separate things, though both could be called “human nature”.

Considering the question in verbal terms, take the possible statement “Marx contradicts himself when he says he believes human nature is fundamentally historical, because he shows how human nature is fixed”. In philosophical standard form, given the two are separate, that statement would therefore look like “S is contradictory in stating x, because he shows how y”. Using the same logical form, you could say someone is contradictory in stating “how much water is in the river bed” (x), because they showed y – “it never rains in the river bed (even though it rains upstream)” (y), so it is far from a deductively valid form. Furthermore, calling both x and y “human nature”, if they are clearly separate things, is nearly a textbook example of equivocation.

Under Marx’s life activity defining human nature argument, as a mode of production determines people’s life activities, a mode of production determines people’s nature. And as modes of production are historical, human nature is, by Marx’s definition, historical.

Where things become murkier is when we consider the fact that humans as conscious affects their life activities in a significant way, i.e. the two separate things are intertwined. As we have already seen, alienation is a product of the inherent contradiction between the two. And this is true, but you will note the key word fundamentally in the quote “human nature is fundamentally historical”. To use a metaphor, imagine we decided that the nature of a reservoir is determined by how deep the water is.

It’s a good hypothesis: an empty reservoir is very different in nature, to one which is deep enough for canoeing, swimming, and fishing, to one which has burst its banks and is flooding nearby towns. Following from this, how deep the water is in a reservoir is fundamentally determined by how much it rains in its catchment area. This doesn’t mean that the height of the dam wall doesn’t play a critical part in shaping the reservoir, or determining the reservoirs fixed capacity, or what defines reservoirs from lakes, or rivers. But the height of the wall doesn’t determine if the reservoir is filled, or dry; rainfall fundamentally does. A wall X m. high, with a capacity of y megalitres doesn’t mean it’s filled in a drought.

Getting philosophically deeper, there are two ways we can look at human nature. My reading of Thomas Hobbes was that he set out what he thought human nature was like, and then sought to explain circumstances (a common power) that would neutralize it. This is summed up in the quote “…it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre…”. To re-use my earlier metaphor, Hobbes focuses at his dam wall, and seeks ways to fill the reservoir. In contrast, Marx focuses on the water in the reservoir, and theorizes how much water it has held in the past, and what needs to happen in the future, while acknowledging the fact that there is a wall there. It is a quite subtle difference, yet a highly significant one in terms of understanding this question; the Marxian approach fundamentally focuses on life activity, as opposed to fixed defining factors of humanity.

Marx was known for having a witty turn of phrase, where he’d present complex ideas in a pithy, entertaining manner. This is probably an example of this, where what he said sounds good, was technically true, but misleading rather than being outright contradictory.

Misleading in the sense that it implied there is no fixed factor that affects human behavior; when there is, or downplaying the relationship of fixed human factors on human behavior. Yet, like the reservoir and the weir, human consciousness can coexist with historically (mode of production) determined human behavior.

In Conclusion
So, in conclusion, alienation is caused by the conflict between a historical mode of production (in capitalism) and the fixed factor that defines what it is to be human, as opposed to animal (i.e. consciousness). And consciousness is the ‘dam wall’ of human behavior (and therefore nature), yet the historical mode of production is key in determining what behaviors come about as a result of our consciousness. In fact, it is fundemental to it. So, while Marx could have phrased himself more clearly, what he stated was technically true, albeit quite misleading.

I originally worked with the translation published in Fromm, Erich, “Marx’s Concept of Man”, New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. . However, for the purposes of typing this essay, I used an online version published at (last accessed May 21st, 2003); while some words were naturally translated differently, it was a very similar translation, and saved work in re-typing text from the book. Thus the quotes used in this essay are from this source, however are footnoted based on the page that the given quotes appeared in the book version.

Hobbes, Thomas, “Leviathan”, Chapter XIII, online version downloaded from

Phillips, Ross and Oakley, Tim, “Reason &Argument”, February 1996, Monash Philosophy,