What makes us human?

Does human nature exist? Does it run against the grain of the communist project? Michael Malkin addressed the CPGB's Communist University and gave some answers. This is the first of two articles

What goal lies at the end of all our endeavours? It is the self-emancipation of the working class, and with it of all humanity, from the alienation and oppression, the slavery and all the other anti-human shit that are inseparable from the capitalist mode of production. In short we aim to create the conditions in which human beings can finally become truly human.

I make no apology for saying that the vision of creating a classless society of freely associating producers who, by collectively satisfying their needs through social labour, can become real, human, rounded individuals, realising their potentialities to the maximum possible extent, has a specifically moral character.

You do not even need to be a Marxist to recognise that the capitalist mode of production represents the very antithesis of this vision of humanity’s potential. Driven by the competitive necessity of creating ever more value and profit, capitalism’s ceaseless compulsion to endlessly develop the forces of production for their own sake can only bring about the alienation, the atomisation, the physical and mental dehumanisation, including, for that matter, of the exploiters themselves.

I want to set out this vision of human liberation in terms of a specifically Marxian view of human nature and to show that this category, far from being a bourgeois concept totally antithetical to communism, as we were once taught, far from being at best just a manifestation of the ‘Feuerbachian’, ‘early’ Marx, to be disowned by his ‘later’, ‘scientific’ alter ego, remained a central facet of Marx’s doctrine about the way that humankind and society work.

For the benefit of Althusserians, let us begin with a couple of passages which indubitably originate from the period after the so-called ‘epistemological break’ and which, to my mind at least, provide some eloquent testimony to the continuity of Marx’s thought about the category of human nature.

The first is from the Grundrisse and this is what Marx says: “What is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasure, productive forces, etc, created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, as well of humanity’s own nature? The absolute working out of his creative potentialities … which makes the development of all human powers as such the end in itself” (K Marx Grundrisse London 1983, p488).

The second passage is from the third volume of Capital, where Marx speaks of “socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, human nature” (K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1962, p800).

Beyond this sphere of production, which “still remains a realm of necessity”, there “begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can only blossom forth with this realm of necessity as its basis” (my emphasis ibid). Marx’s vision, therefore, is of the development of the richness of human nature (ie, the totality of human potentialities in each individual) as an end in itself. It constitutes the “true realm of freedom”.

The supersession of capitalism by socialism will make it possible for the first time for human beings to live in a way that befits their humanity: first, in terms of their self-realisation as individuals and the full development of their powers within the context of social labour: ie, “the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labour therefore no longer appears as labour but as the full development of activity itself, in which natural necessity in its direct form has disappeared, because a historically created need has taken the place of a natural one” (K Marx Grundrisse London 1983, p325).

Examples could be multiplied, but the point is surely clear.


The question then arises, does Marx posit the existence of a category called ‘human nature’ whose content consists of certain generic, constant and intrinsic attributes common to all humanity, regardless of the historical epoch or the mode of production or the social formation in question? (Here, by the way, I paraphrase Norman Geras, whose book Marx and human nature [Verso 1983] deserves careful study).

The answer is yes, but then along come certain self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy and tell me that I am a bourgeois deviationist. No dialectical materialist, let alone Marx himself, could possibly accept the existence of any category that is unchanging.

I shall deal with these and other objections later. All I would say at the moment is that it is an enriching and exciting experience to go back and read Marx without the standard-issue ‘official communist’ goggles that many of us once wore.

For Marx, one subject was of consuming interest, and it was to occupy him in one way or another throughout his life: what does it mean to be a human being? Not a human being in relation to a god, spirit or any other supernatural entity - as I have said elsewhere, it is my opinion that Marxian materialism is philosophically incompatible with any form of religion or metaphysics.

Not an “abstract being squatting outside the world”, but “in the world of man, the state, society” (D McLellan [ed] Karl Marx: selected writings Oxford 1977, p63 - hereafter KMSW).

He rejects as “speculative distortion” any reading of history which assigns a special, preordained role or destiny to “Man” in the abstract. From beginning to end, Marx’s view is anthropocentric, but it is rooted in the study of “real individuals, their activity and the material conditions of their life, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity” (K Marx, F Engels The German ideology Moscow 1976, p36f - hereafter GI). His perspective is always concretely historical and social.

The philosophical basis of Marx’s approach to the question, first expounded in the Economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844, remained, I would argue, essentially unchanged. Marx calls it “consistent naturalism or humanism” and says that it is distinguished from both idealism and materialism and constitutes at the same time their unifying truth” (KMSW p104).

Naturalism, in this context, rests on the proposition that understanding humanity means understanding the relationship between humankind and nature, a relationship mediated through our purposeful productive labour. Exercising our natural powers in order to satisfy our needs, we enter into productive association with one another so as to harness the forces of nature. In this continual process, we transform not only nature, but ourselves.

To think of nature now as something abstract, something that can in any sense be dissociated from human existence and human activity is nonsense. Nature has effectively been ‘humanised’ by homo faber - man the maker.

Why does Marx call this consistent naturalistic approach humanism? Precisely because “nature taken abstractly for itself - nature fixed in isolation from man - is nothing for him” (K Marx Early writings London 1975, p161). Obviously the natural world existed billions of years before humankind appeared on the scene. Unlike Engels, however, Marx spends no time cogitating over cosmological questions or what the world was like in that pre-human period. History for Marx begins with us, with the productive, social interaction of human beings with their natural environment.

I would go somewhat further and argue that Marx’s “consistent naturalism or humanism” constitutes a synthesis or dialectical fusion of idealism and materialism. Classical German philosophy inherited from Descartes and Kant a preoccupation with epistemology - ie, with the problem of how we know things, and the conformity of our cognitive acts with reality. Idealists and materialists alike devoted much of their work to exploring the relationship between thought and reality, between the thinking subject and the object of thought. For Hegel and the idealists, human existence had its centre in the heads of human beings and reality was, in effect, a product of thought.

For the old materialists, on the other hand, objective reality existed outside and independent of human consciousness: they accepted a Lockean, empirical model of cognition, according to which our knowledge of reality came about through a process of cause and effect, whereby the mind registers sense impressions (effects) imprinted on it by the action of external stimuli (causes).

The question arises at this point as to what extent Marx’s naturalistic materialism was itself a theory of knowledge. He was not inclined to waste time debating what he thought were abstract problems: “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but a practical question. Man must prove the truth - ie, the reality and power - the this-sidedness [Diesseitigkeit] of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question” (‘Theses on Feuerbach’ KMSW p156).

In fact, for Marx, the whole epistemological question was not a real question at all: the ‘problem of knowledge’ was in effect a “problem of knowledge about knowledge” (see A Schmidt’s monograph, The concept of nature in Marx [1971], for an interesting approach to the question). The problem is an inherently abstract and scholastic one because ‘pure’ thought and ‘pure’ knowledge are speculative fantasies. To pretend that we can ever ‘step outside ourselves’ and somehow view the world ‘as it really is’, independently of our knowledge of it, is simply absurd. It is futile to try and separate “man, the cognitive being” from man as a totality.

In their different ways, the idealists and the old materialists were both wrong, but both points of view had some truth in them. Hegel and the idealists were right when they asserted that the individual subjective consciousness plays a role in constituting reality through acts of perception and the formation of knowledge.

Interestingly, Lenin himself makes this point in his Philosophical notebooks, when he writes that “consciousness not only reflects the world. It also creates it ... Philosophical idealism is only nonsense from the standpoint of crude, simple, metaphysical materialism. From the standpoint of dialectical materialism, on the other hand, philosophical idealism is a one-sided, exaggerated development of one of the features, aspects, facets of knowledge into an absolute, divorced from matter, from nature, apotheosised” (my emphasis, VI Lenin Collected Works Vol 39, Moscow 1961, pp212, 363).

In this ‘absolutised’ form of idealism the constitutive function of consciousness was exaggerated to the point where the real world was reduced to a derivative status and became essentially the product of human thinking. Idealism exalted subjectivity and suppressed objectivity.

Feuerbach and the enlightenment materialists were right when they asserted that the natural world exists independently of human consciousness, that there is always what Marx called an objective “natural substratum” on which human consciousness works - but the old materialists’ theory of knowledge was flawed by its passivity, which reduced human consciousness to the status of a receptor of sense impressions. Materialism exalted objectivity and suppressed subjectivity.


The consequence of this suppression of subjectivity was that “in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism - which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such” (‘Theses on Feuerbach’ KMSW p156). The question which exercised Marx was how to bring together the correct aspects of idealism and materialism and eliminate their respective defects. His own account of naturalistic materialism is precisely such a synthesis.

Despite the fact that only a few decades ago it would have been abject heresy to do so, I would have no hesitation about placing Marx firmly in the humanist tradition, in which Protagoras asserts that “man is the measure of all things”, in which Shakespeare writes of the human being as “noble in reason, infinite in faculties, in action like an angel, in apprehension like a god”. Difficult now, of course, after the unspeakable horrors of the 20th century, to recapture the confidence and optimism which imbued Marx’s humanism - his profound conviction that human beings, as conscious agents understanding nature’s and history’s laws could free themselves from their alienation and enslavement under capitalism and usher in a world where it would at last be possible to become truly human.

In the course of analysing the classical economists, Marx sketched some notes and comments on James Mill, which I believe contain the kernel of his views about human nature: “Since human nature is the true communal nature of man, men create and produce their communal nature by their natural action; they produce their social being, which is no abstract, universal power over individuals, but the nature of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own enjoyment, his own wealth. Therefore this true communal nature does not originate in reflection: it takes shape through the need and egoism of individuals - ie, it is produced directly by the effect of their being ... Men, not in the abstract, but as real, living, particular individuals, are this nature. It is, therefore, as they are” (KMSW p115).

This is a world away from a merely biological determinist or reductionist approach. To say that at every stage of its existence homo sapiens must eat, drink, find shelter and all the other means necessary to reproduce itself as a species is just a banality. Human nature, by contrast, while self-evidently resting on these inescapable and unchanging preconditions for continued existence, articulates itself in a complex dialectic of interaction between individuals and the collective: “The individual is the social being. His manifestations of life ... are therefore an expression and confirmation of social life ... Man, much as he may therefore be a particular individual ... is just as much the totality” (K Marx, F Engels Collected works Vol 3, Moscow and London 1975, p299 - hereafter CW).

Or, as Marx puts it in the Grundrisse, “Man is in the most literal sense of the word a zoon politikon, not only a social animal. But an animal which can develop into an individual only in society” (KMSW p346).

At the heart of this dialectical relationship between the individual and society, whereby human beings define and express themselves only in and through their relationships with others, is another dialectic - the reciprocal interpenetration between human needs and human powers. Marx on the one hand goes so far as to identify the human personality with labour-power, which he calls “the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality of the human being” (K Marx Capital Vol 1, Moscow 1983, p164). At the same time, he also stresses the literally definitive role of needs when he says that “their needs, consequently their nature, and the methods of satisfying their needs” are what bring human beings together in productive association (CW Vol 5, p437).

So here we have some useful working material for a discussion of Marx’s naturalistic and humanist - and at the same time materialist conception of human nature. It could surely not be more obvious that Marx is specifically not talking about any set of generic, eternally immutable characteristics in some way or other implanted in human beings from outside (by god, for example) - the prime basis of the standard denunciation of human nature as a category from within the old ‘official communist’ tradition.

So the question arises: in what way are human beings really distinguishable from other animals, whose existence also inevitably revolves around the problem of satisfying their needs by exercising their powers?

Of course, human beings are animals, whose evolution from other organisms - leaving aside the academic details - is uncontested, except by fundamentalist crackpots of one kind or another. No communist would seriously argue that we were created by god or came to earth in spaceships. The question is, what kind of animal are we?

As the Russian proverb has it, we eat in order to live; we do not live in order to eat. And there is a truth in that folk adage, as the wealthiest bourgeois, sated yet dissatisfied by a life of luxury, would attest. One of the achievements of Marx’s naturalism is to broaden the scope of natural phenomena, so that all aspects of humankind’s striving towards the expression of its being - our spiritual as well as our physical needs - are conceived as belonging to the natural order of things. For Marx, however, the spiritual does not arise from our relationship with an autonomous power dwelling in a suprasensuous heavenly realm: it is a development of our natural powers, our capacity for creative, imaginative self-expression, our appreciation of beauty and so forth. Just as there is no created hierarchy of being in which humankind occupies a supreme place, so there is no hierarchy of powers in human beings themselves. All our natural powers, from the ‘lowest’ to the ‘highest’, are, or should be, exercised in the process of living. That, to come back to it once more, is Marx’s vision of what it means to live a truly human life under communism.

Criteria such as the use of tools or social, cooperative labour, once advanced as distinctively human attributes, do not hold water, as a few hours spent quietly in your garden will testify. Watch the birds use stones and the ants build nests. Necessarily to simplify the matter somewhat, Marx fixes the distinction between animals and human beings in terms of consciousness (with the emphasis solidly based on language), and more specifically on our capacity for “free, conscious activity”.

As he and Engels put it in The German ideology, “men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation ... Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical, real consciousness that exists for other men as well, and only therefore does it also exist for me; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity of intercourse with other men ... Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all” (GI pp37, 49).

The emphasis here on human beings’ productive and social relation to the natural world and to each another - “there exists a materialist connection of men with one another, which is determined by their needs and their mode of production, and which is as old as men themselves” (ibid) - is the cornerstone of Marx’s thinking about human nature, the locus of those generic, intrinsic attributes which transcend particular historical epochs.

Though from a vastly different perspective, Marx agrees with the author(s) of that biblical narrative which sets out the Judaeo-christian perspective on human nature: “In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19).

But, whereas Genesis depicts work as a punishment, tied up with all the guilt and shame of the ‘fall’ of our proto-parents, Adam and Eve, for Marx it is a simple material fact, which he refers to as “the everlasting, nature-imposed condition of human existence ... independent of every social phase of that existence or rather common to every such phase” (Capital Vol 1, p179). Conscious, free, productive labour, the metabolism [Stoffwechsel] between human beings and nature - a central and enduring metaphor in Marx’s thought - constitutes the nexus of social activity where we define ourselves as a distinctive species. It is, or rather it could be and will be, far more than an onerous physical necessity. Through work we can and will express and develop our distinctive human nature, with all its potentialities, to the full. Work itself will become life’s greatest want.

By contrast, “the animal is immediately one with its vital activity” and “not distinct from it. They are identical ... Man makes his vital activity itself into an object of his will and consciousness. He has a conscious vital activity. He is not immediately identical to any of his characterisations. Conscious vital activity differentiates man immediately from animal vital activity” (KMSW p91).

Using consciousness per se as a criterion for distinguishing human beings from other animals is not, of course, uncommon. It is often linked with intellectual powers of induction, deduction, analysis and synthesis to denote the sort of characteristically rational human activity supposedly absent in all other animals. Whether such activity is limited to us is rather more of a moot point than might at first appear. The important thing to note about Marx’s definition is the emphasis he places on “free, conscious activity”. Although need is still a primary, physical determinant of our sensuous activity, we exercise our powers with a freedom and diversity foreign to animals.

“The practical creation of an objective world, the working-over of inorganic nature, is the confirmation of man as a conscious species-being ... It is true that the animal, too, produces. It builds itself a nest, a dwelling, like the bee, the beaver, the ant, etc. But it only produces what it needs immediately for itself and its offspring; it produces one-sidedly, whereas man produces universally; it produces only under pressure of immediate physical need, whereas man produces free from physical need and only truly produces when he is thus free; it produces only itself, whereas man reproduces the whole of nature. Its product belongs immediately to its physical body, whereas man can freely separate himself from his product. The animal only fashions things according to the standards and needs of the species it belongs to, whereas man knows how to produce according to the measure of every species and knows everywhere how to apply its inherent standard to the object; thus man also fashions things according to the laws of beauty” (ibid).

The distinction is encapsulated in a memorable passage in Capital: “A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this: that the architect first raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi and to which he must subordinate his will” (Capital Vol 1, p174).

Free, conscious activity - but what do we, as Marxists, actually mean by consciousness? If we had this whole week to talk about it, we would not even scrape the surface of the mind-body problem, for example.

Take the American philosopher, Daniel C Dennett, a prominent advocate of the solutions proposed by mechanistic materialists such as Lamettrie and Cabanis, with whose work Marx himself was familiar. Dennett tells us that human consciousness can be reduced to physiological, biochemical processes in the brain and central nervous system (see D C Dennett Consciousness explained London 1991; and Kinds of minds London 1996). Some Marxists, particularly those who get their ideas about materialism from a crude reading of Engels, may find this approach attractive as a scientific way of disposing of mind-body dualism. They should resist such temptations.

The implications of such a reductionist approach to this intractable problem are almost incalculable. It entails, for example, a fundamental redefinition of human identity. If our thoughts and feelings are really nothing more than “molecular and chemical motion in the brain” (as Engels expresses it), then in what sense can we talk coherently about human individuality or a sense of self, of individual human freedom, agency or responsibility? Marx is often accused (ignorantly and incorrectly) of being a thoroughgoing ultra-determinist, but, if people like Dennett are right, we are left with a biological ultra-determinism that robs humanity of most, if not all, of its meaning.

True, without a brain and nervous system, we would obviously have no minds at all. To suggest, however, that mind is purely and simply identical with the operations of the brain and central nervous system seems absurd. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that it were possible to take the brain and spinal chord from a fresh cadaver, supply them with the necessary blood and oxygen, and subject them to appropriate electrical stimuli, thus replicating sensory perception and generating something akin to ‘thought’. In theory, this artificial reproduction of the physiological mechanisms of the brain would satisfy all the mechanists’ requirements for the existence of a mind. But it would be risible to maintain such a position.


Although there can be no thought unaccompanied by mechanical and chemical processes in the brain, these processes alone cannot surely explain the specific nature of thinking, nor serve as anything approaching an adequate definition of the mind. Yes, the mind is a “property” of specifically organised matter - ie, a “property” of the human brain (Engels) - but this explanation, while necessary, is by no means sufficient. My crude example of the ‘brain in the jar’ points to the source of the mechanists’ distortion of materialism: they look at material-physiological processes undialectically, in isolation from the totality. The brain exists not in a jar, but in the head of a human being, whose mind and consciousness are constituted out of complex, interactive social processes, not just self-contained, physiological ones.

Another illustration: suppose we followed the example of the holy Roman emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, and took a normal, healthy newborn child, supplied it with all the physical requirements for survival, but kept it for 10 years in total isolation, without language or any other form of contact with another human being. It might have a brain working in such a way as to comply with the mechanists’ requirements, but could this poor creature really be said, in any meaningful sense, to have a mind at all? Surely not, or at least not a human mind.

It seems to me uncontroversial for a Marxist to say that there is a distinct, objective and irreducible reality to the mind - something qualitatively different from the mere operations of the brain, and that the essence of this reality is to be found in social intercourse mediated through language and other forms of communication.

This is certainly what Marx appears to have thought, though he says relatively little about the subject. He repudiated the materialism of Lamettrie, just as he did the vulgar materialism of Lamettrie’s disciples among his own contemporaries, such as Vogt, Büchner and Moleschott. The terms of this repudiation are significant: “In its further development materialism became one-sided ... sensuousness lost its bloom and became the abstract sensuousness of the geometrician. Physical motion was sacrificed to the mechanical or mathematical ... materialism became hostile to humanity (KMSW p152).

It is this hostility to humanity in crude determinist materialism that most repels Marx, precisely because it sees the human being only one-sidedly, ignoring the dialectic of that sensuous, practical (subjective-objective) engagement with the natural world and with one another that characterise Marx’s own naturalistic conception of what it means to be human.

I am conscious that in discussing the problem of mind-body dualism elsewhere - in my own feeble, layman’s terms - I have been unfair to Descartes, whose message surely is that, though the human body may be viewed as a machine, investigable and explicable in terms of purely scientific/mechanistic laws and processes, the human being is something that is someone - qualitatively different.

Machines can mimic animals - they can even mimic human beings - but they cannot be mistaken for them. The division between the realm of matter (res extensa) and the realm of the mind or the soul (res cogitans) can, I believe, justifiably be seen as creating a fundamental dualism, with an implicit hierarchy of being in which the mind/soul (occupying the higher place) is meant in some way to direct or control the operations of the ‘lower’ sphere of the body and sensuality.

This dualism in Descartes’ philosophy is an undeniable reality and stems essentially from his continuing belief in god. But it is wrong to portray it in purely negative terms. Dennett tells us that, because Descartes was a believer, when it came to tackling the problem of the mind, he “flinched”. He had no other choice, since his theism made it necessary to place the mind/soul in a sphere above and beyond empirical, scientific investigation. Dennett seems to be accusing Descartes anachronistically of some kind of intellectual or moral cowardice - to put Dennett’s vulgar reductionist materialism crudely, why didn’t Descartes have the guts to junk god and ‘admit’ that human beings are just complex machines, whose every facet is investigable and explicable in terms of biochemistry? But surely the point is that Descartes’ view of humankind, as reflected in his thinking about the mind, is that there is something definably different about human consciousness, something that definitively sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

There is no denying, of course, that the Cartesian viewpoint locates the human personality, and our sense of identity, firmly in the realm of the mind, so that most people are still primarily aware of themselves as individual, isolated egos. The ‘innermost’ part of myself, what I think of as ‘the real me’, is literally a disembodied concept. Marx rejects this position entirely and looks at the question in a characteristically naturalistic and holistic way.

Far from being relegated to some kind of ‘lower’ place in the hierarchy of being, the body is rehabilitated and reintegrated, but not in any sense into a passive or contemplative relation with nature or with other human beings. Consciousness is social or it is nothing. The sense of self, of one’s personal identity and ‘otherness’, is not something static and complete with which we are born: it is a relation and a process. It is conceived neither idealistically in terms of some kind of infused knowledge derived from the mysterious operations of the mind, nor is it conceived as a phenomenon derivable and explicable in terms of mere physiological events.

We first come to know ourselves not as isolated beings but through our interaction with others: “Since he comes into the world neither with a looking glass in his hand, nor a Fichtean philosopher, to whom ‘I am I’ is sufficient, man first sees and recognises himself in other men. Peter only establishes his own identity as man by first comparing himself with Paul as being of like kind. And thereby Paul, just as he stands in his Pauline personality, becomes to Peter the type of genus homo” (Capital Vol 1, p59, note 1).