Denying human nature

Michael Malkin concludes his two-part article by taking on the Marxist critics of Marx

Anyone who argues, as I have done, that there is an authentic, Marxian concept of human nature, and that, furthermore, this category is pretty much at the core of Marx’s doctrine of historical materialism and of his materialist dialectics, must expect to face considerable criticism from other Marxists.

The objections to the notion of human nature from within Marxism have been well documented in Norman Geras’s very readable and useful book, Marx and human nature: refutation of a legend (Verso 1983, pp89-116). Sean Sayers’s monograph, Marxism and human nature, is also useful in this respect (Routledge 1998).

Broadly speaking, the argument takes one of two forms: objections in principle to the category itself, and particularly in the context of the undoubtedly negative role it has played and continues to play in bourgeois ideology; and objections derived from an interpretation of Marx’s own writings. It has to be said that the latter do not really bare close scrutiny, though we must deal with them. The former are rather more substantial and also more generally familiar.

First, critics - especially those who imbibed the orthodox Marxism-Leninism of ‘official communism’ with their mother’s milk - say that human nature is an irretrievably reactionary concept, consistently employed by bourgeois ideologists to defend existing social institutions based on capitalist relations of property and power and to claim that communism, however theoretically desirable it might be (though they certainly do not deem it desirable), is simply impossible.

Ruling ideas

Of course, this line of thought has a long history. Remember Hobbes, who in his Leviathan (1651) buttressed his argument for the state by depicting a world in which, without the state, there would be “no arts; no letters; no society; and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Life was a jungle dominated by fratricidal strife, a war of all against all. This was “the natural state of things”. We find the same line constantly reiterated by the ideologues of the ruling class. They seize on facets of existing (alienated) social relations under capitalism (greed, selfishness, inequality, bigotry and so forth) and erect them into eternal, immutable laws of nature. ‘This,’ they tell us, ‘is how people are, and you’ll never change it.’

As if to demonstrate that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas - ie, the class which is the material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force”, we find the same arguments deployed when, in the canteen or the pub, we talk to ordinary folk about the vision of a socialist or communist society (K Marx, F Engels The German Ideology Moscow 1976, p67 - hereafter GI). We have all heard them say, ‘It’s all very well but …’ - the ‘but’ in this case being the ‘fact’ that human nature, in its supposed egoism and selfishness, somehow precludes the possibility that people might struggle side by side, sacrificing, if necessary, even their own lives for the liberation of humanity from capitalism. Yet when you take the conversation further, I have yet to find anybody who cannot, from their own personal experience, think of people who, in their own quiet way, by what Wordsworth calls “those little unremembered acts of kindness and of love”, constantly make a nonsense of this consciously debased and debasing view of humankind.

The problem with arguments denying the existence of human nature per se on purportedly Marxist grounds is that they so often rest on palpably false premises. We encounter Aunt Sallies by the dozen, the classic case being that to argue for the existence of human nature means ipso facto positing the existence of some universal, immutable, abstract and ahistorical entity, which in some way embodies the ‘essence’ of humanity. Quotations from the Economic and philosophical manuscripts, with their Feuerbachian language of “species-being” and “species-consciousness” are used anachronistically (and cynically) to ‘prove’ the opponents’ case against human nature, which in the end tends to rest on what Althusser contended was the ‘theoretical anti-humanism’ of the ‘later’ Marx.

But they do nothing of the kind. Nowhere in his writings will you find a concept of human nature that corresponds even remotely to this travesty. The “premises” of his historical materialism are human beings “not in any fantastic isolation and fixity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions” (GI p43). It is puzzling why some people who regard themselves as Marxists seem to find a difficulty in absorbing the basic tenets of historical materialism. The answer, it would seem to me, is to go back to Marx himself, rather than seeing him through the lens of manuals and textbooks: “It is not consciousness that determines being but social being that determines consciousness”.

In this context, I would argue, “social being” is nothing other than the collective, dialectical relationship between human beings and the natural world. Far from being grounded in some kind of abstract ‘essence’, conceived ahistorically, it is rooted in a material, historical analysis: “It is quite obvious from the start that 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” (GI p49). In “working over” the natural world to satisfy their needs, human beings define, delineate and express themselves, but they also change not only their environment but themselves. Human nature, conceived in terms of humankind’s relationship with nature, of our needs and the powers we employ to satisfy them, is a constant substratum, but part of a historically developing process.

To say that because bourgeois politicians and ideologists lie about human nature we should reject the concept per se is madness. They routinely lie about all manner of things. How much real content, as opposed to merely formal flummery, do we find in such categories as ‘freedom’, ‘rights’ or ‘democracy’, as propounded by bourgeois society? Tony Blair ‘democratically’ sent thousands of British troops to Iraq to guarantee the ‘freedom’ and the ‘rights’ of Iraqis by bombing, shelling and shooting them. Two million people at home protested against the lies which were used to justify imperialist aggression. Day by day the deceit unravels. There is the sense that society is on the move; that the post-communist hubris, all the fatuous liberal crap about the end of history and so forth, is dissolving. Pax Americana as always means the use of military force to secure global US hegemony.

Common needs

Surely, at this stage, the point is not to shy away from the notion of human nature, but to expose the falsity of the way in which the class enemy abuses the category as one of the weapons in his ideological armoury against socialism? Any socialist or communist worthy of the name must surely accept that there are certain needs common to all humanity right across the globe and right now; but also that these needs have not changed and are unlikely to change in the historically foreseeable future. When, in the case of millions of people, these needs are either not satisfied at all, or only partially satisfied - because of the existence of capitalism and class society, because of the demands of a global capitalism that is entering a period of crisis - then real human suffering is the consequence. The task of socialists and revolutionaries is self-evidently to change society in such a way as to ensure that these human needs are fulfilled, to the greatest possible extent. The universal needs of human beings, the things which constitute our human nature in relation to the natural world and one another, form the basis of our concrete political demands, of our programme.

A second, related, objection to human nature as a category is that it is intrinsically ‘idealist’. I have problems with labelling concepts in this way, but … yes and no. Yes, in relation to how it is used in bourgeois ideology, detaching human beings from their real material existence and endowing them, in the christian tradition at least, with a god-given (regrettably ‘fallen’) nature from which they can only be ‘redeemed’ by divine intervention - of course; but no, in relation to how it should be correctly understood in Marxist terms. We make no separation between history and society on the one hand and human nature on the other. Naturalistic materialism, naturalistic humanism, means accepting that human beings are a species of animal, subject to a concrete range of biological and physical determinations. What we are is not something predetermined or implanted in us by ‘god’; what we are is about how we live as social animals, how we work together to produce the things we need.

A third objection on grounds of principle is that human nature is an inherently ‘unscientific’ category, in that it cannot be subjected to the sort of materialist, empirical investigation which we were all once taught must be a hallmark of ‘official communist’ Marxist-Leninist science. Of course, all concepts, ‘scientific’ or otherwise, can be abused - emptied of their content or even turned into their opposites.

If we want to talk about ‘official communist’ Marxism-Leninism and science, then allow me to mention the name of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko - not, god help us, to get a cheap laugh or to score some easy points. There was nothing laughable about the way in which Lysenkoism, if we can call it by such a grand title, held back and diverted the development of science in the Soviet Union.

His virulent rejection of Mendelian genetics as ‘bourgeois’ science and therefore ‘bourgeois’ ideology, endorsed by Stalin and the central committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1948, meant that biology in general and genetics in particular became a battlefield of ideological struggle in the cold war. Those scientists who opposed Lysenko were pilloried and dismissed. Laboratories were closed on the grounds that they were nests of bourgeois deviation. Lysenkoism persisted long after the death of Stalin. Who can forget Nikita Khrushchev prating on about the possibilities of growing maize anywhere, even in the permafrost? It is all too sad to talk about, even now.

The point is that human nature as a category was denounced, actually years earlier, as ‘bourgeois’ and ‘unscientific’ in just the same way. If you look at the hallowed pages of the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) (1938) - the bible of ‘official communism’ for decades, every dot and comma of it minutely censored and key chapters written by JV Stalin himself - you will find no mention of human nature. Similarly, if you plough through all 891 pages of such standard textbooks as O Kuusinen’s Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism (1961) you will search in vain among sections denouncing “objective and subjective idealism”, the “pseudo-philosophy of science” and so forth for any engagement with the category of human nature.

What we find in these sad, mildewed tomes is another kind of lie. Where the bourgeois ideologists use human nature as a weapon to deceive us into believing that socialism is simply unrealisable, the ideologists of ‘official communism’ either suppressed the category altogether or told us that it was a mere decadent manifestation of a dying bourgeois ideology. By this stage though they could not suppress Marx himself - the works had, after all, been published in their millions - but they could and did ignore the ‘embarrassing’ bits in their dogmatic, catechetical, wooden account of what Marxism was about. As the ideology of a powerful state, ‘official communist’ Marxism-Leninism meant exactly what the CPSU wanted it to mean. No more, no less. The ‘meaning’ changed with time and its demands, but Marx himself was in many key respects just a dead letter.

Is it bending the stick too far to suggest that another, fourth, reason why ‘official communist’ Marxism-Leninism rejected the notion of human nature on grounds of principle was not just because of the explanatory but also because of the inescapable moral and normative significance of Marx’s thought? We enter the contentious world of facts and values - realms which must, according to conventional philosophy and ethics, somehow be kept strictly separate from one another.

‘Facts’ are (we are told) empirically verifiable; other statements are not and are therefore cognitively useless. Of course, I oversimplify, but how can this be? I am no philosopher or intellectual, but it strikes me that even the most supposedly obvious, objectively true and ‘factual’ statements can be disputed. ‘Facts’ are not always what they seem to be. What matters in the present case is, first, whether we can establish an empirical basis for the existence of certain facets of our life which we can label ‘human nature’; and, secondly, if we can, then what consequences does this have in terms of our conduct, our social relations?

The existence of certain intrinsic (essentially timeless in the historical framework) human needs - actually far surpassing the mere biological determinants of reproduction and continued physical existence - appear to me to be self-evident. Tell me that the caveman and the cavewoman did not experience aesthetic, intensely personal, as well as ‘practical’ satisfaction from their creation of tools, garments and all manner of useful artefacts, let alone such things as paintings, whose ultimate significance we can only guess at, and I will not believe you. Even then, what Marx calls the “working over” of nature meant far more than the mere struggle for survival. Surely the need to explore, to concretise and ceaselessly to extend our potentialities is what makes us human?


There is a level of biological determination in the species which remains unaffected by social, economic and political changes; and even beneath the surface of such changes, we discover - in literature, for example - the reflection of an essential continuity and homogeneity in human experience. To have been in love in the third century BC is the same as being in love today. Most people would argue that such universality is actually a precondition for great art. Eternal ‘truths’ are few and far between, but there are certainly eternal ‘facts’, if by those we mean the recognisably shared experiences and feelings of people separated by centuries or even millennia, experiences the description of which in paintings, sculpture or books enrich our own lives today.

When we stand in awe in front of a great work of art, we think not just what a great achievement it is, in terms of its historical and artistic origins, of its creator’s place in the class society of the time, the material and cultural resources available, such facts as patronage and so forth. We also surely think, what could this great painter or sculptor have done in a society free from alienation, in the “true realm of freedom”?

On the theoretical level, when it comes to the general problem of the task of ‘reconciling’ facts and values in Marxism, for once I would turn to Leszek Kolakowski, whom nobody could accuse of being on our side of the barricades. He writes that, with Lukács, “Marxism does away with the dichotomy between facts and values, for it is identical with the self-knowledge of the working class; that class comprehends the social process in the very act of revolutionising the world, so that in this one privileged case the understanding and the making of history appear as one single act” (L Kolakowski Main currents of Marxism Vol 2, Oxford 1978, p374).

As he goes on to say, “The characteristic feature of Marxism is that it is neither purely descriptive nor purely normative, nor a combination of descriptive and normative judgements, but claims at once to be a movement and an act of understanding - the self-awareness of the proletariat in the act of struggle. Knowledge of the world, in other words, is an aspect of changing it: theory and its practical application are one” (ibid). A touch of irony, perhaps. With Kolakowski, one never quite knows. But even the devil speaks the truth sometimes.

Turning albeit briefly to a couple of the objections to human nature based on an interpretation of Marx’s own works, the case is pretty weak. For example, some opponents argue that, since Marx tells us that history is “nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature”, it is therefore incoherent to talk about general and enduring facets of human nature itself (‘The poverty of philosophy’ CW Vol 6, p192). Even the most stubborn of Marxist dialecticians ought to be able to get their heads around the fact that something can both change and remain the same. Transformation is not logically incompatible with the existence of permanent and generals facets or attributes. However great the impact of humanity’s transformative labour on the natural world, for example, there will always remain important aspects of our environment that we cannot change. When it comes to the language of ‘mastery’, heed Engels’s warning in The dialectics of nature and remember also that the temporal framework of historical materialism is historical, not geological.

Likewise, as we shall see presently, when Marx criticises bourgeois ideologues for making socially and historically conditioned features of a specific mode of production into “eternal laws of nature and reason”, what he is arguing against are false generalisations employed for ideological, political purposes (D McLellan Karl Marx: selected writings Oxford 1977, p234 - hereafter KMSW). To suggest that he is thereby condemning all generalisations per se is just daft. In Capital, for example, in the course of an attack on Bentham, we find the following: “To know what is useful for a dog, one must study dog nature. This nature itself is not to be deduced from the principle of utility. Applying this to man, he that would criticise all human acts, movements, relations, etc by the principle of utility, must first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch” (K Marx Capital Vol 1, Moscow 1962, p571, note 2 - hereafter Capital).

To “deal with human nature in general” is to do exactly what I have sought to show Marx doing. The concept of human nature, both explicitly and implicitly present in his naturalistic materialism, provides the explanatory framework on which he later built his theory of history, a theory which shows how “human nature in general” is “modified in each historical epoch”.


If we look back for a moment to the arguments on principle advanced by Marxists against the existence of a category of human nature, we ought perhaps to say something about the relationship between Marx and Darwin - for the various politically motivated simplifications and perversions of Darwinism have done the most to discredit human nature as a concept which Marxists and revolutionaries can usefully work with, let alone propose as a cornerstone of Marx’s historical materialism.

That Marx and Darwin should have been linked is hardly surprising. In his graveside tribute to Marx in 1883 Engels makes the parallel explicit: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history; he discovered the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat and drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, religion, science, art, etc” (K Marx, F Engels Selected works Vol 2 Moscow 1951, p153).

It is well known that facets of Darwin’s theory have been and still are being perverted into a reactionary and dangerous social doctrine, which claims to provide a naturalistic and scientific account of human society. As we shall see, Marx was one of the first people to identify and criticise this tendency to abuse Darwinism for social and political ends.

There were, of course, aspects of Darwin which Marx found in some ways supportive of his own work. In a letter to Lassalle in 1861, Marx wrote that “Darwin’s book [The origin of species] is very important ... Despite all deficiencies, it not only deals the death-blow to ‘teleology’ in the natural sciences for the first time, but also sets forth the rational meaning in an empirical way ...” (K Marx, F Engels Selected correspondence, Moscow 1982, p115 - hereafter MESC).

In Capital, Marx suggests an affinity between his investigation of production and Darwin’s enquiries into the natural world: “Darwin has interested us in the history of nature’s technology - ie, in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organisation, deserve equal attention?” (Capital Vol 1, p352, note 3).

The materialist and anti-teleological dimension in Darwin’s work understandably attracted Marx, as did the notion of cooperation as well as struggle in the biological world. In general he accepted the burden of Darwin’s thesis and supported its judicious use, but there was a flaw in Darwin’s approach which opened up the possibility for a great deal of mischief. Darwin himself had acknowledged in his Life that the parson Thomas Malthus’s work, An essay on the principle of population, had inspired him in formulating his theory of evolution. In fact Darwin described his own concept of the ‘struggle for life’ as being the doctrine of Malthus applied to the whole of the animal kingdom. The notion that the ‘struggle for life’ was the key to Darwinism was propounded by men like the German neo-Kantian philosopher, FA Lange, with whom Marx was in correspondence in the 1860s.

Although himself content - in Capital, for example - to use the ‘struggle for life’ as a metaphor, Marx resisted any attempt to build a social theory on Darwin’s supposed Malthusianism. Marx regarded Malthus with the deepest suspicion because his theories about human population lacked a basis in historical fact and showed no insight into the impact of humanity’s social, productive activity on the natural world.

As early as 1862, this time in a letter to Engels, Marx had pointed out the weakness inherent in Darwin’s application of Malthus to the natural world: “Darwin ... amuses me when he says he is applying the ‘Malthusian’ theory also to plants and animals, as if with Mr Malthus the whole point were not that he does not apply the theory to plants and animals but only to human beings ... It is remarkable how Darwin recognises among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’, and the Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes’s bellum omnium contra omnes and one is reminded of Hegel’s Phaenomenologie, where civil society is described as a ‘spiritual animal kingdom’, while in Darwin the animal kingdom figures as civil society ...” (MESC p120).

In other words, by “applying” Malthus’s doctrine to animals and plants, Darwin had imported into his theory of evolution Malthus’s very questionable propositions about the way human society works. A vicious circularity arises when people come along and claim to have ‘discovered’ in Darwin a ‘proof’ that their own way of looking at society has the force of a natural law. Engels sums up this legerdemain in a letter to Lavrov: “The whole Darwinist teaching of the struggle for existence is simply a transference from society to living nature of Hobbes’s doctrine of bellum omnium contra omnes and of the bourgeois-economic doctrine of competition, together with Malthus’s theory of population. When this conjurer’s trick has been performed, the same theories are transferred back again from organic nature into history and it is now claimed that their validity as eternal laws of human society has been proved” (MESC p368).

This “conjurer’s trick” of projecting aspects of human society onto nature and then miraculously rediscovering them as eternal laws was something I mentioned a little earlier and remains a favourite trick of all manner of bourgeois thinkers and writers to justify the status quo, allowing the apologists of capitalism to maintain that the unpleasant outcome of the ‘struggle for life’ which most people are condemned to endure is just an unavoidable natural necessity.

One such apologist was FA Lange himself, whose error is made clear in an important letter written by Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann in 1870: “Mr Lange has made a great discovery. The whole of history can be brought under a single great natural law. This natural law is the phrase (in this application Darwin’s expression becomes nothing but a phrase) ‘struggle for life’, and the content of this phrase is the Malthusian law of population or, rather, overpopulation. Thus, instead of analysing the ‘struggle for life’ as represented historically in various definite forms of society, all that has to be done is to translate every concrete struggle into the phrase ‘struggle for life’, and this phrase itself into the Malthusian ‘population fantasy’. One must admit that this is a very impressive method - for swaggering, sham-scientific, bombastic ignorance and intellectual laziness” (MESC p225).

To grasp the truth of Marx’s criticism we need to take a brief look at some of the ways in which Darwinism was subsequently abused. The British philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) - a complex and contradictory character if ever there was one - inflated what Marx called “sham-scientific, bombastic ignorance” into a full-blown theory of social Darwinism and in the process unwittingly opened up the way to horrors far more serious than “intellectual laziness”. Like many liberal or libertarian intellectuals, Spencer talked a lot about individual freedom in the abstract, but in his copious ethical writings this amounts to nothing more than the freedom of the jungle, where the “survival of the fittest” (Spencer’s phrase, not Darwin’s) is the only law.

Spencer’s odious musings must have been music to the ears of the Manchester manufacturers. All attempts at social reform are dismissed as futile, since they only “try to make up for the defects in the constitution of things ... and to supersede the great laws of existence”. Public education particularly was anathema to him and was purely a matter of “parental responsibility”. Those parents who cannot educate their children “must be left to the discipline of nature, and allowed to bear the pains attendant on their defect of character”.

Leaving things to the discipline of nature, to the law of the jungle and the survival of the fittest just about sums up Spencer’s contemptible ethics. Of course, it is quite ‘natural’ that those who enjoy wealth and power will be more ‘fitted’ to survive than those who lack these advantages. It is not, however, the “discipline of nature” that orders things in this way, but the “discipline” of a specific social system. In Spencer’s hands, ‘the survival of the fittest’ means nothing more than sauve qui peut. It is a callous and complacent tautology, based on no scientific authority, Darwinian or otherwise. What Spencer’s ethics do accomplish, however, is to endow the notion of ‘fitness’ with a spurious moral dimension, in so far as those who are ‘fitted’ to survive evidently deserve to do so on the grounds that they are in some way better than those who are not.

So far as I know, Spencer did not get around to suggesting that those least fitted by nature for survival, such as the physically and mentally handicapped, should be exterminated. He would have been content to let them die a ‘natural’ death, though at the least possible cost to the taxpayer. It was left to another social Darwinist, Adolf Hitler, to give nature a helping hand in this respect and to propagate a crazy racist ideology similarly based on the pseudo-Darwinian ‘science’ he had picked up in the doss houses and cafes of Vienna. Of course, blaming Darwin for Hitler is ridiculous - just as ridiculous, in fact, as blaming Marx for Stalin.


What makes this brief excursion into pseudo-scientific lunacy relevant to our discussion? Simply the fact that we need to be reminded of the grave moral dangers of drawing facile parallels between animals and human beings. For Marx, human beings have a number of things in common with animals, but, as we have seen, there is no room for doubt that human beings are qualitatively different from the other animals with whom we share the planet. As a species, we are sui generis.

The “one single science” capable of comprehending the implications of this fact must, therefore, result from a fusion of natural science and that study of humanity as social, productive beings which Marx calls the “science of man”. Its starting point must be the study of humanity’s productive activity, because it is industry which is “the real historical relationship of nature, and therefore of natural science, to man” (KMSW p93f).

Here we will find the definition of what it means to be a human being, to share in what we can rightly call our common human nature.