Marx’s concept of the human

Rex Dunn begins his three-part exploration of Marx’s essentialism, the nature of the epoch, decline and transition

‘Human nature’ - Erica Simone and Jaci Berkopec

The CPGB’s Mike Macnair recently challenged me to present a developed concept of the human instead of ‘dropping’ ideas piecemeal via my articles for the Weekly Worker. So this is my response.

But why bother in the first place? I shall answer that question by asking two others. If Marx was to suddenly reappear today, what would he say now about the results and prospects for the transition to socialism - upon which the future of humanity depends? Would he be quite so optimistic?

I have divided my response up into four sections:

1. An introduction to Marx’s essentialism, which provides a framework for the concept of the human.

2. Evidence of essentialism in Marx’s writings.

3. A consideration of its scope and application. Do we adopt Hillel Ticktin’s ‘narrow’ view (which confines itself largely to changes in the economic base of society) or should we take the ‘wider’ view (which includes base/superstructure)?

4. If we take the ‘wider’ view, then there are some big questions which the left should be asking itself and seeking answers to.

1. Essentialism

In his book, Essentialism in the thought of Karl Marx (1985), Scott Meikle reminds us that there are three main aspects to Marx’s work: (i) his dialectical method; (ii) his dialectical theory of history, linked to the base/superstructure model; (iii) at its centre is his analysis of the value form, which leads to his “systematisation of the laws of capitalist economy”. This is based on the metaphysics of essentialism, derived from the ideas of Aristotle, although Marx gives this a materialist form. On the other hand, philosophy oscillates between Aristotelian essentialism and the atomism of Democritus and Epicurus (the idea that reality is based solely on “atomistic small-bits that combine and repel in the void”; but this does not explain the “existing nature of things, species and genera”.)

Many Marxists side with Democritus and Epicurus (because they were consistent materialists). But this can lead to the abandonment of dialectics: ie, dualism between subject and object (compare structuralism). Therefore, argues Meikle, dialectical materialism can only be recovered by a return to essentialism: the basis of Marx’s conception of the real nature of things, which “connects with [his] view of history as process, which will (barring accidents) lead to the full realisation of human society and therewith fully realise the social nature of mankind: a process which will produce for the first time true humanity”.1 By so doing, Marx introduces the category of telos: “The form … towards which an entity develops by its nature, unless its development is interrupted (either by external accident or, in the case of a nature which contains a constitutive contradiction, by the way in which that contradiction develops).”2

For all of the above reasons, I would argue that we must take the ‘wider’ view of Marx’s essentialism as opposed to the ‘narrow’ one. This is because it gives due emphasis to the question of consciousness. (At the same time we must try to avoid erring on the side of subjective idealism or vulgar materialism.) Consider the following quotation by Meikle:

The history of human society is the history of the value form: first its process of coming-to-be; second its life and development to the level of a world system; third, its passing-away and supersession. (2) At the same time, the history of class society is the history of forms of extraction of surplus labour; first based on dependence or unfree labour; second, as based on the supply of human labour under the value form (wage labour); third, as based on production of freely associated producers. (3) The entire process is that of the realisation of the final form (completion) and the nature or essence of human society and, pari passu, the realisation of the social nature of humanity.”3


There are only two possible forms that the product of social labour can take: either it is exchange value (it has the commodity form) or it is not. Correspondingly there are only two fundamental ways in which the division of activities can be achieved: first, by some sort of directly social regulation, either customary or conscious, which applies in societies where the product is not exchange value; secondly, by the blindly working averages of the price form, which applies to societies based on the market, where the product appears under the value form: ie, it is an exchange value.4

When Meikle uses the expression, “either customary or conscious”, he is referring to primitive communism as well as communism propre; whereas when he speaks about “blindly working averages”, he is referring to capitalism. But, as István Mészáros reminds us, for Marx the transition to communism must be consciously undertaken by a revolutionary class - the working class - because it “will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men”.5

2. Evidence

Bearing in mind the idea that his work must be seen as an integrated whole, an early example of Marx’s essentialism can be seen in his 1844 Paris manuscripts. In the third manuscript, for example, he introduces his idea of man as a “species being”: ie, a work in progress, whose telos is to transition from “non-human man” to “human man”, objectively as well as subjectively. Later, of course, he would insist that this is contingent upon the maturation of the necessary material conditions, without which such consciousness is impossible; because man must overcome alienation and all the other impediments which prevent him from making his “senses human”:

... the senses of social man are different from those of non-social man. Only through the objectively unfolded wealth of human nature can the wealth of subjective human sensitivity - a musical ear, an eye for the beauty of form: in short, the senses capable of human gratification - be either cultivated or created. For not only the five senses, but also the so-called spiritual senses, the practical senses (will, love, etc), in a word, the human sense, the humanity of the senses - all these come into being only through the existence of their objects, through humanised nature. The cultivation of the five senses is the work of all previous history. Sense, which is a prisoner of crude practical need, has only a restricted sense … thus the objectification of the human essence, in a theoretical as well as practical respect, is necessary in order to make man’s senses human and to create an appropriate human sense for the whole of the wealth of humanity and of nature.6

The next example of Marx’s essentialism comes from his Theories of value, written towards the end of his life. It concerns his distinction between unproductive and productive labour, in relation to the need for “aesthetic realisation”, which is a “fundamental human value”. Paradoxically, during the period of mature capitalism, it becomes an end in itself.

Compare his idea of the artist as the harbinger of man as homo aestheticus in a future communist society; because he/she feels the need to create impractical aesthetic objects, based on the play with form, which, as the Marxist aesthetician says, enables the content of the work to ‘shine brightly through’. On the other hand, art’s autonomy (in this sense) is only partial; therefore it is not guaranteed; because, if things remain as they are, it is increasingly “subsumed under capital”, as a commodity, which leads to the decay of art. Art is seen purely as an investment, etc:

Milton produced Paradise lost for the same reason that a silk worm produces silk. It was an activity of his nature. Later he sold the product for £5 [therefore he was an unproductive labourer]. But the literary proletarian from Leipzig, who fabricates books … under the direction of his publisher, is a productive labourer; for his product is from the outset subsumed under capital, and comes into being only for the purpose of increasing that capital.7

Here Marx looks back to Hegel: in particular, the latter’s notion of the “inevitable decadence of art in modern times”:

The paralysing effects of the division of labour, the increasing mechanisation of all forms of activity, the engulfing of quality in quantity - all these typical characteristics of bourgeois society Hegel recognised as inimical to [art], even after he acknowledged capitalism to be the essential foundation of progress.8

But for Marx, of course, the bourgeois epoch is not the end of history. The telos of art - which is integrally bound up with that of the human - depends, in turn, on the achievement of communism.

3. Scope and application

Apropos the scope and application of Marx’s essentialism, I think it is appropriate to identify the nature of the epoch which we are now living in. Unlike Trotsky, we cannot describe this as the epoch of wars and revolutions any more. Rather we must describe it as the epoch of capitalist decline and transition, with or without the social revolution. But in the absence of the latter, the question becomes, transition to what?

Ticktin tends towards a ‘narrow’ view of Marx’s essentialism, because, as a political economist, it is logical that he confines his study of decline and transition to objective developments within the economic base of society. But, by so doing, he is in danger of underestimating the subjective factor: ie, the necessity for communist consciousness and how this can be achieved. In a recent article for the Weekly Worker, he argues that the transition has already started under capitalism:

… socialism does not come about simply through a revolution - if that were the case it would never happen. Socialism comes into being because the basis of it already exists within capitalism. In other words, the socialisation of the means of production actually starts to take place within capitalism ...

Logically one could get to a point where the society was so socialised, although nominally capitalist, it would be very easy to change it. You would not even need what we call a revolution. But that is not true today, and no-one would want to wait until that time, because one would expect a whole series of unwelcome events, including wars, acts of oppression, etc. Millions more might yet die. So that is not an option, and no socialist has ever put it forward ...

So we cannot wait until that time, even though the transition is already in process ...

When a society has entered into decline, in dialectical terms the contradictions cannot be solved. The point about a contradiction, as defined in Marx’s more Hegelian version, is that the poles interpenetrate and lead to a supersession. But today the poles are not interpenetrating - they are conflicting, and we therefore get crisis after crisis. This gives us a classic example of a society which has to be superseded, but cannot be superseded, at a particular time. What we are getting is the gradual replacement of market operations with proto-planning forms ...

[But] given the decline of capitalism and the coming into being of socialism, it is undeniable that there is a greatly enhanced bureaucratic apparatus. We saw this in the Soviet Union in an extreme form, but it exists throughout the world today. It exists not just in the state, but in the major enterprises - extensively …9

In a second article, Ticktin discusses the difference between real socialism and the Corbyn/McDonnell version, which is anything but. For the first time, there is more than a hint of the need for a conscious struggle for socialism: ie, he puts forward a demand that there must be “control from below”:

You might put forward a demand like, ‘There should be control from below, and managers should receive the same wages as ordinary workers’ ... a necessary feature of socialism, which entails self-management throughout society, from top to bottom, and movement between positions, whereby people are trained to take part in the planning and management apparatus, as monotonous, soul-destroying jobs are abolished. This is not just an ultimate aim: it is one which needs to be brought into being …10

But then he lapses back into objectivist mode: the transition to socialism is inevitable, because it is a dialectical necessity: “Socialism is a very different system which is bound to come about, which is in the process of coming about.”11

Division of labour

However this begs the question - how will the workers develop the necessary consciousness to raise the demand for self-management, as a first step towards the overthrow of the managerial bureaucracy? Will it develop spontaneously?

But the workers have to understand the need for this; despite the fact that, as Marx says (starting with his Economic and philosophic manuscripts), they suffer from four - big - impediments to their acquisition of communist consciousness. These are inherited/thrown up by capitalist society: private property relations, alienated labour, commodity fetishism; and a hierarchic division of labour (which separates intellectual from practical labour, for the purpose of increasing the accumulation of capitals). The last is the most important; because, as long as it continues, the harder it is for the masses to understand the other three. Otherwise their day-to-day practical struggles against the system will not result in communist consciousness, which requires theoretical as well practical labour.

In this instance, left to their own devices, the workers will not question the reformist’s bogus idea of ‘market socialism’. This argument is reinforced by the fact that, after years of austerity, many workers now have a new appetite for nationalism, linked to anti-immigration demands, which are deemed to be responsible for low wages, job losses, cuts in social welfare, etc (as the Brexit vote shows). Therefore, somehow, this ‘mind-crippling’ division of labour has to be abolished throughout society as an integral part of the revolutionary process itself; otherwise, management will remain in the hands of ‘experts’, even after capitalism is overthrown. Thus the transition to socialism will fail.

It would seem that Ticktin falls into the trap of ‘ascribing’ communist mass consciousness to the working class: ie, he skates over the problem. He is in good company, because Marx does the same thing! (See the later section on the ‘gaps’ in Marx.) Marx, of course, was imbued with the same spirit of rational optimism, inherited from the enlightenment. This is clearly evident in these famous words from the Communist manifesto (1848):

… the nihilism of the bourgeois mode of production is at the same time its greatest historical merit. All that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind. It is necessary and progressive to break illusions and to piteously tear asunder the ‘motley ties’ that bind man to the old social forms.12

Do we need to be reminded about what has happened so far in the last 150 years? Two imperialist world wars; the holocaust; the post-war boom; the rise of corporate capitalism; Vietnam (etc); 1968; the turn to neoliberalism; the free market and globalisation (production outsourced to countries like China, where labour is cheap, discipline is stronger, etc); as well as the creation of a huge reserve army of labour at home; the rise of parasitic finance capital, which is responsible for massive inequality everywhere; also the financial crash of 2007-08 (which led to the present strategy of austerity: ie, make the masses pay for a banking system which caused the crisis in the first place). But the masses allowed austerity to be imposed upon them; despite all the pain and suffering, which continued for five years. Now it has led to a revival of rightwing populism; in particular, among the white working class - the so-called ‘left behinds’. Last, but by no means least, we have the ongoing destruction of the environment itself; which is arguably the greatest threat to mankind.

The ruling class and its experts have no intention of dismantling the hierarchic division of labour, upon which their system is based. As long as this continues, there is no guarantee that the process of capitalist decline and transition will lead to socialism. Rather it could lead to something worse: eg, human nature could be altered somehow (see later sections). But it is more likely that the ongoing destruction of the environment on a global scale will lead to the collapse of civilisation as we know it - certainly if control over the system remains in the hands of the present managerial bureaucracy. (As Marx says, “Either socialism or barbarism”.) Thus it is not good enough for Ticktin to argue that “humanity has to go through a whole series of stages, which are in effect inhuman, in order to get to socialism ...”13

Ad infinitum. In accordance with Marx’s own essentialist framework, the notion of “coming-to-be” and “passing away”, associated with the notion of telos or “the form … towards which an entity develops by its nature” (barring accidents), this must also apply to man himself as a “species being” as much as it does to the mode of production (including the rise of the value form, until it finally universalises itself over the whole of society with the attainment of its final form, capital …). But the telos or final form of man as a “species being” (the transition of “inhuman, unsocial man” to “human, social man, objectively, as well as subjectively”) is contingent upon his attainment of necessary consciousness, whereby man is able “to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind”: ie, a consciousness on a mass scale which is adequate for a consciously-led social revolution; without which there can be no transition from capitalism to socialism. Meanwhile the system undergoes its own decline and transition; albeit to something else. Logically this will be worse than even a declining capitalism. Therefore the window of opportunity for the telos of man as a “species being” is just that: it is a window of opportunity rather than an infinite possibility.

Given all that has happened since the Paris Commune of 1871, one is entitled to argue that surely now is the time for man “to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind”. This has not happened, despite the fact that, as a categorical imperative, it has become more important than ever. Instead, apart from Marx’s four impediments, during the 20th century capitalism, in its mature and declining forms (ie, long after its ‘sell-by’ date), went on to invent - and continues to reinvent - a fifth impediment to communist consciousness, beginning with reified consciousness thrown up by the commodity form, first outlined by Lukácsin History and class-consciousness (1923).


It should be pointed out that, upon close inspection, Lukács does not present an entirely ‘vulgar materialist’ account: viz a reaction to the idea that man’s domination of nature is not necessarily progressive; because technology, as long as it remains in the hands of capital, becomes more and inimical, both for man and the environment. This, of course, leads to “historical fatalism: ie, the elimination of man and social activity”, etc. (compare the bourgeois positivists, who argue the opposite).

Lukács’s theory of reification may be summarised as follows:

(i) Building on Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism in Capital Vol 1, he argues that “The essence of the commodity structure is that … a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a phantom objectivity, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal [the real] relation between people.”14

(ii) We are now living in a society based on mass production/mass consumerism, whereby, thanks to innovations in technology, “this form [has become] dominant, permeating every expression of life”, compared to an earlier, immature capitalism, “wherein [the commodity] only makes an episodic appearance”, which is “essentially one of quality ... Where the commodity is universal it manifests itself differently from the commodity as a particular, isolated, non-dominant phenomenon.”15

(iii) The commodity dehumanises the worker, “cripples and atrophies his soul” - as long as he does not consciously rebel against it - despite the fact that his/her “humanity and soul are not [really] changed into commodities”:

Even his thoughts and feelings become reified ... By such means, a ‘status consciousness’ is created that is calculated to inhibit effectively the growth of class-consciousness. [This fragmentation amounts to] a purely abstract negativity in the life of the worker; [it is] objectively the most typical manifestation of reification, [which becomes] the constitutive type of socialisation. But for this reason, it is raised to consciousness and where it can be breached in practice ... [Yet we are still left with] the unmediated consciousness of the commodity, [which raises the question of finding the correct form of material mediation, appropriate to the situation, whereby] the conflict between the (immediate) interests of the individual and the (mediated) interests of the class that have been arrived at through experience and knowledge.16

The theory of reification, therefore, provides a basis for what I call the fifth impediment to consciousness. Reification is amplified via Adorno’s theory of the culture industry - not just based on mass production/mass consumerism/advertising, but also on mass entertainment. This argument is further extended by Debord’s theory of “the society of the spectacle” (one could add Marcuse as well, but I shall leave him out here!).

Lukács, of course, places his emphasis on the universalised commodity form, linked to technology (which is constantly revolutionising itself) - enter the age of mass production, based on the factory assembly line, specialised tasks for the worker, etc: in a word, mass consumerism. By contrast Adorno and Debord place their emphasis on mass consumerism, new forms of mass entertainment and the mass media. Therefore the worker not only suffers from reified consciousness, whereby the commodity “dehumanises, cripples and atrophies” his “soul”: all this is reflected back at him 24-7 via advertising, mass entertainment (film, TV, DVD, You Tube, etc.), not forgetting news/propaganda - all of which are controlled by private corporations. Under these circumstances, given the existing division of labour, it is difficult to ignore the negative impact of the mass media on consciousness, especially the new digital media: ie, the tablet and the internet (which I shall discuss later). Thus the resulting “spectacle” becomes “the very heart of society’s real unreality”, in the form of “news or propaganda, advertising [and] the actual consumption of entertainment”.17

The situation is not helped by the fact that today large sections of the intelligentsia are in the grip of a new wave of bourgeois positivism or technological utopianism: the idea that all this opens up a brave new world under capitalism - which will somehow morph into ‘post-capitalism’, along new possibilities for the human:

The Czech word robotnik traditionally designated a serf, a forced labourer; in Karel Čapek’s science fiction in the 1920s, the robot was “an artificially intelligent agent concocted out of protoplasm”; but now robots, which manufacture both cars and unemployed workers [what to do with them?], already supplement both human and cuddly animals in providing emotional support for the aged and the unwell.18

More fiction than fact! But there is more to worry about than ‘ye of little faith’: those of us who have succumbed to the curse of rational pessimism, followed by submission to such negative theories as reification; the culture industry, culminating in ‘the society of the spectacle’!

The answer is not to be found simply by reasserting the opposite (ie, faith in rational optimism): for example, the notion that a transition to socialism - without the achievement of communist consciousness - is somehow possible. We are also living with the historic consequences of the failure of the Leninist strategy of the vanguard party: under the wrong conditions, we know that this can lead to acts of voluntarism, dictatorship of the party, violent upheavals, ending in defeat. (Based on his own experience, this is what Lukács is reacting to in History and class-consciousness). The fundamental problem of how the masses are going to achieve the necessary communist consciousness for a successful transition from capitalism to socialism is not helped by the ‘gaps’ in Marx, concerning what sort of material mediation is required.

In the light of all of the above, I think that there are six problems which Marxists need to address and I intend to do that in the next article in this series.


1. S Meikle Essentialism in the thought of Karl Marx Illinois 1985, pp1, 3-4, 9.

2. Ibid p179.

3. Ibid p5.

4. Ibid p94 (my emphasis).

5. I Mészáros The power of ideology London 1989, p273.

6. K Marx Economic and philosophical manuscripts third manuscript, ‘Private property and communism’, London 1992, pp353-54.

7. K Marx Theory of value, productive labour, quoted by II Rubin in Essays on Marx’s theory of value Montreal 1982, pp262-63.

8. M Lifshitz The philosophy of art of Karl Marx London 1973, p14.

9. H Ticktin, ‘Period of decline and transition’ Weekly Worker October 6 2016.

10. H Ticktin, ’Confused reformism’ Weekly Worker November 24 2016.

11. Ibid.

12. K Marx. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ SW Vol 2, p37.

13. H Ticktin, ‘Period of decline and transition’ Weekly Worker October 6 2016.

14. G Lukács History and class-consciousness London 1990, p83.

15. Ibid pp84-85.

16. Ibid pp172-73.

17. G Debord The society of the spectacle New York 1995, thesis 6, p13.

18. S Shapin, ‘More than machines’ London Review of Books December 1 2016.