A Marxist Perspective on Human Nature

Of all the reactionary squawking against the theory of Marxism, of the need for and viability of revolution, no worry is more prevalent than that of “human nature.” According to the capitalist, human beings are fundamentally greedy, ego-centric beings who can only be compelled to act with the promise of profit. This understanding has it that “free market” capitalism is a natural by-product of this greed, this social-Darwinist thirst for dominance and material extravagance, and that any system that ignores this essential “human nature” is doomed to corruption at the top and lethargy from the bottom. Bourgeois propaganda concerning the history of socialism would seem to advance this understanding, being that the combination of “evil red despots” and lack of “motivation” supposedly rendered Marxism obsolete as a model for social organization. Yet, when one looks at history without a Conquestian lens, we see that there was indeed something in “human nature” that allowed for work without the blatant commodity fetishism and market-place scheming of modern capitalism. Furthermore, there is cause to believe that there is more to the human condition than mere greed.

Capitalist “Human Nature”: Hobbes and Smith Come Up Short

What is this “human nature” that the bourgeois critics speak of? What are its characteristics? What are its components? The capitalist would contend that naked self interest in the form of overwhelming material greed is at its base, and to express this need, human beings naturally turn to exploitation. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market-place” asserts the role of Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” and therefore without capitalism, without an organized system of exploitation based in rules, human life would be “nasty, brutish and short” as Hobbes asserted about life for pre-civilized humans. Yet Hobbes’ morose understanding of human society falls into the same pitfall that the bourgeoisie’s self-serving analysis of human nature. Pre agricultural societies, in which society was organized in a primitive accumulation mode of production, were not nearly as “nasty, brutish and short” as Hobbes would have thought, according to both historical accounts and anthropological studies of modern hunter-gatherer tribes. In the same way, the bourgeoisie has been disproven in their understanding of the impossibility of socialism, being that socialist economies were able to do in Russia and Albania in decades what capitalism took some two hundred years to accomplish. The failure of these stabs at “human nature” is that not only are they unable to account for all of those activities that human beings undertake which don’t yield a profit, but they see human nature as being static, and not as something that adapts itself to material conditions. Ergo, such metaphysical analysis is useless for understanding such a fluid and diverse phenomenon.

Marx on Species Being: the “Human Nature” to Produce

So, what is this “human nature” if not some abstracted, unchanging, metaphysical phenomenon? The answer is that if human nature is anything, it is the dynamic means by which human beings adapt themselves to meeting their specific needs. What are these needs that human beings face, that their very nature must adapt to fulfill them? Firstly, there are the obvious essentials: food, water, shelter, etc. But is that enough for a higher animal like us humans to be satisfied? Is it enough to merely survive? Marx asserted that there is a higher need to fulfill what he referred to as the human being’s “species being.” The species being of human beings, that makes them unique within the animal kingdom, is production, the ability to adapt the environment to their purposes rather than merely live in it. Human beings are defined by this production and therefore need to produce, and when they are alienated from their production, they know only despair. But wait, one might ask, what of the “happy worker” who is exploited and utterly alienated from the products of his labor, yet persists with a grin? Isn’t he being alienated from his species being, yet is able to go on working? The answer is that, although he is indeed being alienated from that which he produces in the workplace, there is another production that he is able to undertake to fulfill this need. So what is produced outside of the workplace that fulfills this person’s Species Being? The answer is that this worker also participates in social production; the production of his social reality outside of work.

Human Interaction as Social Production

What is this “social production?” How does the worker “produce their social reality?” The answer is that the building and maintaining of relationships with people constitutes social production. As one produces friendships and animosities, maintains bonds of kinship and comradeship, raises children and is raised by elders, they work to produce and maintain a network of connections which constitutes their social life. This is production in that a person must actively work to construct this social reality, rather than merely live within preordained social circumstances, as is the case with other forms of production. Just as we cannot pick up steel off of the ground for our tools and buildings, but must refine it from ore in the environment, we cannot gather friends and acquaintances from our social reality without working to build those specific relationships. Human beings are social creatures, and in order to achieve social production, they incorporate their individual efforts into the cultural superstructure of the society in which they live.

Ideology as Social Reinforcement

In order to be accepted into society and to have a chance to express their need for social production, human beings are often coerced into following the prevailing ideology in their society. The typical worker reaches a point in which, even if they are fully aware of the injustices they face in their social circumstances, they must make the choice between sacrificing their social relationships to oppose exploitation, or else prostrate themselves to the powers that be. Given these options, many retreat to more socially acceptable means of resistance, or worse, throw up their hands and submit to the hegemony of the capitalist class. Workers are made to accept the capitalist system’s ends of extravagance and means of plunder not because they agree with these means and ends, not because they are greedy and savage, but because they are made to feel that they have no choice. If they stand up, they risk standing alone and if they dare to rebel against their boss or their government, they risk being socially and economically outcast and rendered unable to continue their social production. A parent will work long hours at minimum wage in order to support their children, enduring hardship and injustice every step of the way with little complaint for fear that they will lose their job. A worker in a colonized country will be deterred from anti-colonialist activity if they are made to think that rebellion on their part will cost the lives of their loved ones. Can we blame them for their weakness? When given the choice between being alienated from their production at workplace and being able to maintain friendships and family relationships, or risking the inability to achieve either end, can we truly blame the victim of coercion under capitalism for conformity when they have so much to lose? To say yes is to demand that a human being cease to be human. The prevailing ideas in any age are those of the ruling class, and when that class rules both the social and economic destinies of those subjected to its power, it is expected that human beings would adapt their nature to this set of circumstances.

Two Dimensions of Social Production: Need to Depend and Need to Be Needed

In what ways does social production manifest itself? Or better yet, what specific social needs does social production endeavor to fulfill? The first of these needs is the need to depend, to know that one is not alone and, if necessary, can depend on help or companionship from others if the need arises. Despite any disdain for social intercourse or misanthropic notions that a person may profess, we all at some level are terrified of being alone and unable to rely on other people. Ask anyone what is worse: breaking your leg on a crowded subway platform or breaking your leg on a hiking trip alone in the wilderness? They would naturally respond that the latter is worse, being that at least you can be sure that an ambulance will arrive to take care of you in your injured state. We need to be assured that our cries for help will be heard and answered. We need to know that we aren’t alone, and in that way, we depend on one another.

The second need, the need to be needed, is manifested in the nurturing nature of human beings. Just as the first need is, in a social sense, to have parents and siblings to depend on, there is the opposite and equal need to be depended on, to be the parent and sibling to those in need. The biological determinist would claim that children are brought into this world solely as a means of passing on their parents’ DNA, yet this understanding ignores a fundamental social need for these children. Yet, one may argue, not everyone has children. How can child rearing be considered a social need if there are those who choose not to have or adopt children, who would not seem to be bound by this “need to be needed?” The answer lies in the existence of stand-ins for children in the context of this nurturing need. Why do people own pets? Why do people take jobs in low-paid care-work and teaching, where there would not seem to be any real economic incentive to go into this profession? Why are there people who raise plants just to see them grow, and sob when they wilt? It is not for profit, not for greed or dominance, but because we have a need to do so ingrained in our very social nature.

Conclusion: Human Nature is Social

The capitalists would argue that human beings are compelled by self interest alone, yet they cannot fathom that self interest is dialectically related with the interests of the masses in society. We are defined by others, and serve as a means of giving others definition. It is in our very nature to depend on one another, as it is also in our very nature to be depended on by others. At the end of the day, human beings cling to one another not merely for the purpose of exploitation, which serves to oppose a human beings pursuit of their production ends in the social and material sense, but to fulfill their common needs. We have and always will need one another, and considering this, communist revolution is essential for safeguarding our collective interests against the few who would alienate us from these interests.

Categories: Media & Culture, Science, Theory, U.S. News

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