Friday, May 18, 2018

2921. Marx and Human Nature

By Karsten J. Struhl, Science & Society, January 2016  

ABSTRACT: Marxists often dismiss the idea of human nature, claiming either that, for Marx, there is no human nature or that Marx had only a historical concept of human nature. A more care- ful reading reveals that Marx, in fact, had a robust trans-historical concept of human nature as well as a historical one. These two concepts operate at different levels. The trans-historical concept refers to the general form which human social activity takes, while the historical concept refers to the specific forms of human social- ity and individuality within a given historical epoch. What Marx’s trans-historical concept explains is how it is possible to have human nature in its historical form. Furthermore, it provides the ground for Marx’s ideal of human flourishing implicit in his vision of a communist society, components of which are supported by Kro- potkin’s reconstruction of evolutionary theory and more recent developments in evolutionary psychology. 
 A few years ago, a good friend of mine who considers himself a politically committed Marxist and who also writes about Marxist theory, was puzzled when I told him that I often begin my discussion of Marxism in my classes with an analysis of Marx’s theory of human nature. “Marx had no theory of human nature,” he insisted. For him, the only intelligent thing to say about human nature from a Marxist point of view is that there is no human nature. I mention this encounter because claims of this sort are often made by those who consider themselves Marxists. One of the motives for this claim is that Marx’s analysis of history and of social relations is historical through and through and that, therefore, any appeal to an innate or trans-historical human nature would lose what is crucial in Marxist analysis. 

There is a second motive for dismissing the idea of a trans-historical nature, which is more specifically political. It is not unusual to hear people say that socialism may be a fine idea in theory but that human nature is against it. Human nature, so the story goes, is greedy, selfish, competitive, and aggressive. Human beings are innately motivated by power and desire for dominance. Therefore, any attempt to establish a society based on collective cooperation and social equality will, in reality, simply produce another form of hierarchical society and, because it is so at odds with our human nature, is doomed to failure. The temptation, then, is for those committed to the socialist project simply to dismiss these claims and to counter them with the claim that there is no human nature. 

There is a third motive for Marxists to challenge the idea of a trans-historical human nature, which is that it seems so obviously false from the standpoint of historical analysis. One does not have to be a Marxist to recognize that social institutions do change historically and that human behavior has changed through various historical epochs. As Harry Magdoff and Fred Magdoff have observed, “what has usually been referred to as ‘human nature’ has changed a great deal during the long history of humankind. As social systems changed, many habits and behavior traits also changed as people adapted to new social structures” (Magdoff and Magdoff, 2005, 19). Given this observation, it might seem that the concept of human nature is, in fact, meaningless. “It is, of course, doubtful whether the concept of ‘human nature’ means anything at all. . . . Not only has so-called human nature changed, but the ideology surrounding components of human nature has also changed dramatically” (Magdoff and Magdoff, 2005, 21). 

That Marx and Engels themselves believed that the concept of human nature is meaningless is often based on an interpretation of certain key passages from the corpus of their writing. Probably the passage that is most cited in defense of this position is Marx’s sixth thesis on Feuerbach: “Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the essence of man is not an abstraction inhering in each single individual. In its actuality, it is the ensemble of social relations” (Marx, 1994e, 100). István Mészáros draws from this the conclusion that “Marx categorically rejected the idea of a ‘human essence’” (Mészáros, 1970, 13–14). Mészáros also insists that, for Marx, “nothing . . . is ‘implanted in human nature.’ Human nature is not something fixed by nature” (Mészáros, 1970, 170). Another commonly cited passage is from The German Ideology: The mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of physical existence. Rather it is a definite form of activity of those individuals . . . a definite mode of life. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with what they produce and with how they produce. (Marx and Engels, 1970, 42.) 

The implication for understanding human nature seems to be that human characteristics, beyond the physical, are determined ultimately by the way in which work is organized; and, we might add, by the class relations and various other social, political, and ideological institutions that develop through that organization of work. As these change, so does what people incorrectly ascribe to “human nature” also change. As more explicit evidence for this interpretation of Marx, another passage is often cited: “All history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature” (Marx, 1963, 147). 

However, not all Marxists who reject the idea of a trans-historical human nature argue that the concept of human nature is meaningless. Specifically, they argue that Marx has a historical concept of human nature. This line of argument offers a somewhat different interpretation of the passages cited above. For example, the sixth thesis on Feuer- bach might suggest that while human nature (the human essence) is not something “inhering in each single individual,” it is something else. That something else is “the ensemble of social relations” which exists in any given historical period. And as this ensemble of social relations changes from one historical period to another, we can say that human nature changes. Consider again the passage from the German Ideology quoted above. If what human beings are “coincides with what they produce and with how they produce,” then once again human nature changes in the sense that as the organization of work and its attendant social and political institutions change, so what human beings are changes. Finally, Marx’s comment that “all history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature” can be interpreted as saying that the referent of the term “human nature” is continuously transformed. Thus, on this interpretation of these passages, “human nature” is not a meaningless term, since it does refer to some real phenomena, phenomena that change over history. While what we call “human nature” is mistakenly taken to denote something transhistorical, the term properly refers to the ensemble of social relations, to the ways in which human beings produce, and to the set of needs, capacities, character traits, and behavioral patterns that exist within a given historical epoch, and specifically, within a given phase of a mode of production. Since these social relations, ways of producing, needs, capacities, character traits, and behavioral patterns change historically, it is appropriate to say that human nature changes. This is what is meant by the historical concept of human nature.

My purpose in this paper is not to deny that Marx had a historical concept of human nature; I want, however, to argue that Marx’s historical concept of human nature is grounded in a robust trans-historical concept of human nature. This claim, however, may seem paradoxical. Since human nature as trans-historical is generally understood to be something innate within us and, therefore, immutable, how can human nature also be historical, which entails that it can change? 

I want to show first the way in which, for Marx, the historical concept of human nature is derived from the trans-historical; second, how Marx’s understanding of human nature resolves the above-mentioned paradox; and, third, the way in which both the trans-historical and the historical concepts of human nature provide the ground for an understanding of human flourishing that can only be realized in a socialist/ communist society.1 Finally, I shall conclude with some reflections on the viability of Marx’s concept of human nature and its implications for the possibility of a post-capitalist society. 

The Historical and the Trans-Historical: Their Relation to Each Other 
Let me begin with some observations on the passages indicated above on the basis of which Marx is often interpreted either as claiming that the concept of human nature is meaningless or that it is a strictly historical concept. Norman Geras, in his Marx and Human Nature, has offered a different reading of these and other such passages. For example, he suggests that a reasonable alternative reading of the second sentence of Marx’s sixth thesis on Feuerbach — “the essence of man is no abstraction inhering in each single individual” — is that the human essence is not merely an abstraction inhering in the individual. He offers an analogy with language to make the point. “I could say, ‘Language is no individual possession; it is a social and collective phenomenon’; without supposing, absurdly, that it is not individuals who know and speak, to that extent ‘possess,’ a language” (Geras, 1983, 33). Of the third sentence of the sixth thesis — the human essence “is the ensemble of social relations” — Geras argues that it might reasonably be interpreted as saying that “the nature of man is conditioned by the ensemble of social relations” or that it is manifested in the ensemble of social relations” (Geras, 1983, 46). Here again, he uses an analogy with language to make the point, noting that while “it is a capacity whose very mode of expression is a social one,” it would be wrong to conclude that “with regard to language, nothing is inherent in the individual, in the type of brain, for example, that is his biological endowment” (Geras, 1983, 48). Thus, on Geras’ interpretation, just as the capacity for language both inheres in the individual organism and is conditioned by and manifested in a social form, so is there a human nature which, while conditioned by and manifested within one’s social relations, also inheres in the human individual. Geras offers similar observations about the passage cited above from The German Ideology — each mode of production entails a definite form of life, and, therefore, “as individuals express their life, so they are . . . [which] coincides with what they produce and with how they produce.” Once again, the passage can be easily interpreted as meaning that there is a human nature which is manifested through a given mode of production and as implying that it would manifest itself differently in another mode of production.2 

While Geras does not explicitly discuss the passage quoted above from the Poverty of Philosophy — “all history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature” — I would suggest that it can also be interpreted to allude to something trans-historical. On this interpretation, the idea that human nature is continuously transformed means that there is a core trans-historical human nature which undergoes various transformations throughout history. There are a number of other passages in Marx’s writing which lend support to this interpretation. For example, in Capital, Volume I, Marx, criticizes Jeremy Bentham in a footnote: 
To know what is useful for a dog, one must study dog-nature. This nature itself is not deduced from the principle of utility. Applying this to man, he that would criticize 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. (Marx, 1967, 609.) 
The question, then, is: how are we to understand what, for Marx, is “human nature in general” as separate from the way it is “modified in each historical epoch”?

Neither Marx nor Engels ever wrote a treatise on human nature, although Engels comes closest to it in a short essay which considers how the human species might have evolved from its primate ancestry (Engels, 1950). Nonetheless, it is possible to reconstruct Marx and Engels’ understanding of “human nature in general” by consider- ing what is entailed by their discussion of historical materialism and their vision of communism. For Marx, the distinguishing feature of the human species is our unique form of production. In fact, Marx and Engels declare that human beings “distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence” (Marx and Engels, 1970, 42). In effect, the first primates who were able to produce what they needed for their subsistence began human history. It was “the first historical act” (Marx and Engels, 1970, 48). The process by which humans beings did this, what distinguished them from other animals, required the development of tools by which they transformed nature and created specific objects that satisfied their needs. But through this process, something remarkable happens. They not only satisfy their initial biological needs but create new needs. “The second point is that the satisfaction of the first need . . . leads to new needs; and this production of new needs is the first historical act” (Marx and Engels, 1970, 49). But how could the creation of new needs also be “the first historical act”? This makes sense only on the assumption that they are both aspects of the same process. Productive activity produces not only a product which can satisfy the original need but simultaneously produces new needs within the producers. Thus, the process by which we transform the material world is simultaneously a process by which we continually create within ourselves new needs and, thus, can be said to change our nature, which, in effect, creates a “second nature.”3 Furthermore, as we change the material world, we also develop, in addition to these new needs, new capacities and new ways of relating to nature and to each other. In all, “by thus acting on the external world and changing it, [man] at the same time changes his own nature” (Marx, 1967, 177). In sum, our historical “second nature” is rooted in our trans-historical nature as producers. 

There are several other things that make human production unique. While certain species of animals also produce (beavers, bees, etc.), they, for the most part, do so instinctively in a set pattern, whereas human production is flexible and can be based on specific judgments about how to treat the materials that are to be transformed. “The animal builds only according to the standard and need of the species to which it belongs, while man knows how to produce according to the standard of any species” (Marx, 1994d, 64). Furthermore, human production involves imagination, planning and conscious goal-directed activity, which are capacities which Marx takes as unique to the human species. Here is the famous passage from 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 raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. . . . He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works but also realizes a purpose of his own . . . (Marx, 1967, 178.) 
There is another important thing to say about human production, which is that it is fundamentally social. The producer is not first an individual producer who only secondarily associates with others. Production itself is an inherently social process. “A certain mode of production . . . is always combined with a mode of cooperation” (Marx and Engels, 1970, 50). This can be understood in several ways. First, the organization of production is a historical process involving learning and tools that have been transmitted from one generation to another. Second, every previous historical form of production has involved some division of labor — division between mental and material labor, a gender division of labor, class divisions, racial and ethnic divisions, and a division which assigns different individuals to different tasks in the specific production process and in society as a whole. 

Third, human consciousness, intrinsic to production, is itself social, as human consciousness is only possible through language, and language is inherently social. “Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all” (Marx and Engels, 1970, 51). Finally, human production is fundamentally social because human beings are fundamentally social animals. As Sean Sayers puts it: “We are inherently and essentially social beings. We develop our natures . . . only by participating in society. . . . Sociality is inscribed in our very biology” (Sayers, 1998, 7). 

What this means is not simply that we like to hang out with one another but that our very sense of individuality and the kind of individuality that we have depends on the form of society in which we live. “The human being,” Marx writes in the Grundrisse, “is in the most literal sense a zoon politikon [political animal], not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can only individuate itself in the midst of society” (Marx, 1973, 84).4 Thus, the forms of sociality and the forms of individuality are intimately connected.5 As the mode of production and our forms of sociality and individuality change, it follows that human nature, in the historical sense of that term, will also change. Furthermore, these forms of sociality and individuality involve much more than material production and a division of labor. We produce our social, political, and ideological institutions. We produce art, philosophy, morality, and religion. These are all social products, and they are all part of the process by which the forms of sociality and of individuality specific to a given society develop. They require a set of social roles within which are generated certain role-specific social needs. In effect, each form of sociality produces a specific form of individuality, and the forms of sociality and individuality together function to help reproduce the mode of production and its attendant social and political institutions. The struggle to transform these institutions is a struggle to create institutions within which there are new social roles, new social needs, with new psychological dispositions and attitudes, new capacities, new character traits, and new behavior patterns, in all, new forms of sociality and individuality. As these change so does human nature. Thus, our historical nature is rooted in our trans-historical nature as social producers.6

We are now in a position to resolve the paradox mentioned above. If human nature is something trans-historical, how can it also change? The answer is that the fundamental characteristic of human nature as socially productive activity is also the activity by which we change our nature. Still, what is this nature that is changed if our fundamental nature is trans-historical? The answer here is that the two concepts — the trans-historical and the historical — operate at different levels. The trans-historical concept refers to the general form which human social activity takes — social production in the widest sense of the term. The historical concept refers to the specific forms of human sociality and individuality organized around the mode of production within a given historical epoch. Thus, the fundamental general and trans-historical feature of human nature, social production, makes it possible to transform our human nature understood as historically specific forms of human sociality and individuality. Furthermore, although we can speak about certain general forms of sociality and individuality manifested in a particular historical time period, each class and indeed each social group has, to a large extent, its own forms of sociality and individuality, which are bound up with the more general forms of sociality and individuality that most individuals in a given society share.7 

However, this still leaves us with a fundamental question. At what level of abstraction does the trans-historical concept of human nature reside? What explanatory work do we want it do? 

Does the Trans-Historical Concept Have a Significant Explanatory Function? 
In the previous section, I quoted Sean Sayers’ claim that “we are inherently and essentially social beings” and that our “sociality is inscribed in our very biology.” It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Sayers does not think that the general concept of human nature has much explanatory power. Specifically, Sayers claims that the general concept of human nature can “constitute only the abstract philosophical starting point for Marx’s social theory” since “in concrete conditions, there is no human nature in general. The bare abstract concept of human nature, in general, is not a sufficient basis on which to understand concrete social conditions in their specificity” (Sayers, 1998, 155). His support for this claim rests on his observation that our biology and our sociality interpenetrate, and it is impossible to separate them out and oppose them to each other. . . . For example, hunger always takes a social form. It is not possible to isolate a universal and general need for food. (Sayers, 1998, 155.) 

Sayers’ position, then, poses a fundamental challenge to what I am claiming in this paper. If he is correct, then while Marx does have a trans-historical concept of human nature, it is one that does not have very much explanatory work to perform. This would mean that the historical concept of human nature was primary and that the transhistorical concept was simply the backdrop within which it operated. It would be like saying that a Shakespeare play needs to be performed on a stage, which would not add very much to its interpretation. 

Certainly, in one sense, Sayers is correct. It would be a mistake to use the general, trans-historical concept of human nature to explain concrete social conditions or determine why a specific need took a specific form, and certainly our social nature always manifests itself in a particular historical form. It is also certainly correct that the general trans-historical concept of human nature is an abstraction from concrete social reality. However, that does not make it only an “abstract philosophical starting point” any more than the abstraction of “value” as socially necessary labor time is, for Marx, merely a philosophical starting point of his critique of political economy. What Marx’s general, trans-historical concept of human nature can explain is how and why it is possible to have human nature in its historical form; that is, how we can assume that our forms of sociality and individuality continually change and also why we can assume that those changes are brought about by changes in the mode of production. It explains how and why we as active, socially productive creatures continually transform ourselves, how and why we are continuously developing new needs and capacities and new forms of sociality and individuality; and why we can expect that socialism and then communism will bring about a further transformation of our needs, capacities, and forms of sociality and individuality. Furthermore, given that we are biological as well as social beings, we can assume that our active, socially productive nature and our ability to continuously transform ourselves must be rooted in our biology in some way. As Terry Eagleton, in his criticism of Sayers’ book, writes:

If human beings really are such social, dynamic, transformative animals, then this already tells us a great deal about the kinds of abiding capacities they must possess. Any creature which can continually create new needs for itself is unlikely, for example, to have the kind of body which does not allow it to engage in intricate semiotic processes, deploy tools in particular ways, enter into complex social relations with others of its kind, and the like. We now have a whole set of procedures for distinguishing between such animals and, say, slugs or squirrels, which is just what is traditionally meant by the talk of “nature.” (Eagleton, 1999, 154.)8 

Consider again Sayers’ example of hunger, which always takes a social form. Does it follow from this that “it is not possible to isolate a universal and general need for food”? There are, at least two ways, in which we can. First, while the specific kinds of food that we might like are conditioned by the society in which we live, there are certain kinds of food which other species of animals can eat but which we cannot or would not. Second, while there is a variety of food which human beings can eat and while which foods appeal to their palate will be conditioned by their social relations, no human beings could survive without eating some kind of food that is within the range of the human organism.9

There is yet another significant explanatory function which Marx’s trans-historical concept of human nature performs: it provides a way for us to understand the ideal of human flourishing that is implicit (and sometimes explicit) in Marx’s ideal of a communist society. 

Human Nature and Human Flourishing 
There is a huge controversy over Marx and Engels’ understand- ing of morality and ethics. In some passages, they seem to reject the possibility of a universal morality. One of the most significant discussions of morality occurs in Engels’ Anti-Dühring, where he observes that morality has historically represented class interests and that moral concepts like “equality” and “freedom” take on a different meaning depending on which class uses them. He further insists that neither bourgeois nor proletarian morality has an “absolute finality” (Engels, 1978, 726). Still, Engels is ambivalent, as he also claims that proletarian morality represents the communist future, in which there will ultimately be a “really human morality, which stands above class antagonisms” (Engels, 1978, 726–270). And Marx, in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: An Introduction, asserts that revolutionary criticism rests on “the categorical imperative to overthrow all those conditions in which man is a degraded, enslaved, neglected, contemptible being” (Marx, 1994b, 34). Thus, both the early Marx and the later Engels can simultaneously insist on the relativity of morality to class interests and the possibility of a morality which transcends class interest — a “really human morality.” This presents a kind of paradox, for how can morality be simultaneously relative to class interests and universal? There have been a number of attempts to answer this question. However, for the sake of space, I shall not survey or comment on these attempts.10 Instead, I wish to offer my own solution. This is to draw a distinction between morality as a set of rules and ethics as an analysis of human flourishing. I want to suggest that implicit in Marx’s understanding of communism is a universal ethics, which is a normative ideal of human flourishing, and that this ideal is based in large part on his understanding of human nature. This normative ideal of human flourishing is intimately related to an ideal of self-realization in that human flourishing requires the fullest realization of our faculties and capacities. For Marx, the full realization of these faculties and capacities is denied by capitalism, at least for most people, since capitalist society pits individuals against one another so that one person’s gain often requires another’s loss, and, given its immense inequality, most people lose. 

In contrast, socialism/communism is “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Marx and Engels, 1994, 176). It is also a society in which ultimately there is no longer a division of labor, which means not only the abolition of class division, but also the end of the division between mental and manual labor, of the allocation of work by gender, race, and ethnicity, and even of the way work is distributed into specific tasks in “which each person has a particular, exclusive area of activity” (Marx and Engels, 1970, 53). The point, then, of socialism/communism in contrast to capitalism and previous class societies is that each individual is able to develop their many-sided talents and potentials, both physical and mental. Human beings could, then, for the first time in history, realize “the full development of human mastery over the forces of nature . . . the absolute working out of [their] creative potentialities . . . the development of all human powers as an end in itself ” (Marx, 1973, 488). 

There is also, in Marx’s commitment to the ideal of human flourishing, a dialectical relation between the historical development of human needs and of human capacities, since as human beings develop their capacities they also develop a need to exercise these capacities, which in turn leads to new capacities and again the need to exercise these new capacities. Thus, Marx says that in the more developed second stage of communism, human beings will be able to work according to their ability freely insofar as “labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want” (Marx, 1994c, 321). In sum, socialism/ communism is ethically superior to capitalism since it makes possible a higher degree of human flourishing and self-realization. The question now is whether or not this normative ideal is grounded in Marx’s trans-historical concept of human nature or in his historical concept. 

Sayers, while discounting the explanatory power of the transhistorical concept of human nature, nonetheless also sees in Marx an ideal of human flourishing and self-realization. “Marxism involves a humanist critique of capitalism, based on the moral ideal of self- realization” (Sayers, 1998, 9). However, it should not be surprising that Sayers would ground this normative ideal in the historical concept of human nature. Sayers argues that the needs and capacities that capitalism denies and that would be realized within socialism are themselves historical developments, specifically, they are developments within the capitalist mode of production.

Human nature cannot provide an absolute and trans-historical moral yardstick. When conditions are criticized for being “inhuman” or “degrading,” it is an inescapably historical and relative judgment that is made. . . . There is no question, therefore, of holding capitalism up against an absolute and ideal conception of what is “human” and finding it wanting. (Sayers, 1998, 126.) 

For example, Sayers argues that the needs for and attitudes to work are not trans-historical. “Attitudes to work, all attitudes toward work . . . are social historical products. They are created by and reflect the mode of production in which they occur” (Sayers, 1998, 35). The specifically modern need to work and to have fulfillment in work grows out of the way human activity is organized within the capitalist mode of production. Citing Rousseau and the contemporary anthropologist Marshall Sahlins to support his position, Sayers claims that hunter-gatherers probably did not have a need to work beyond what was necessary for subsistence. “Thus the modern need to work is a historically developed need” which is, nonetheless, “a real and ineliminable feature of contemporary psychology” (Sayers, 1998, 53). Of course, work in capitalist society is alienated, but the idea of alienation holds out the possibility of work without alienation. Alienated labor, then, is, on Sayers’ account of Marx, “a stage in the process of human development and self-realization” (Sayers, 1998, 89). Alienated labor produces the need for unalienated work, which is work as a fulfilling activity in its own right, not for the abolition of work itself. However, the point is that this need could not have emerged before there was alienated labor, which, on Sayers’ account, is the historical product of capitalism. 

There is also, for Sayers, a parallel need for leisure. The need for leisure is a need for rest but also for creative activities outside of work. Here again, Sayers argues that the need for leisure in the modern sense is, like the need for work, a historically developed need which derives from the capitalist mode of production. “Leisure in its modern sense — a sphere of positive non-work activity enjoyed by the mass of working people — is a modern phenomenon and a product of modern industry” (Sayers, 1998, 73). 

It seems to me that Sayers’ specific analysis of the need for work and leisure as historically developed is at least partly correct. It is correct in the sense that capitalist society has developed specific kinds of needs for work as creative activity in the specific arena we call “the workplace” precisely insofar as these needs are denied by alienated labor and assert themselves whenever possible in the niches that capitalist workplaces occasionally allow.11 It is also correct in that, given the alienated forms of work within the workplace, there is a need for leisure as rest and creative activity outside the workplace as well as a need for mindless entertainment. That is, Sayers is correct in claiming that these needs as they manifest themselves in the capitalist society have emerged in capitalist society. It is unlikely that hunter-gatherers separated their “work” and “leisure” in this way, and it is likely that these needs in the way they are constructed by capitalism will carry over at least to the initial phase of socialism/communism. 

However, this does not entail that the trans-historical concept of human nature plays no role. The need for some kind of creative and socially useful activity which can develop our powers and capacities is built into Marx’s general idea of human beings as socially productive. If Marx is correct, we can assume that these needs asserted themselves in some form in hunter-gatherer societies and throughout recorded history. If Marx is correct, it is precisely because humans are trans- historically social producers that these more specific needs for creative work and creative activity in leisure in their modern form can emerge in capitalist society.

Furthermore, it is not clear how Marx (or Sayers) could derive an ethical ideal for human flourishing purely from the needs and capacities that develop historically within capitalist society. The problem is that capitalism produces a number of needs and capacities, some of which are not needs or capacities which we would wish to develop in a socialist/communist society, e.g., the need for aggressive violence and destruction. The problem is also that the purely historical understanding of human flourishing and of self-realization cannot tell us which of the needs and capacities we want more fully to realize. Terry Eagleton poses the problem this way: 

By what criteria do we determine which historical capacities are beneficent and which are not? Which of the potentials which capitalism is currently obstructing should be fostered and which should not. . . . To reply that we should actualize only those capacities that make for socialism is simply to beg the question, since if socialism is valuable because it is a positive form of self-realization, what is to count as such positive self-realization still needs to be determined. (Eagleton, 1999, 156.)  

 Marx’s vision of communism adds still other characteristics to the trans-historical concept of human nature since it assumes that people can develop the qualities necessary to sustain communism. If human beings are to work freely according to their ability, it is assumed that human beings can develop a motivation to work that no longer requires material incentives. 

These would include not only the motivation to work so as to exercise and develop our creative capacities but also the capacity to derive significant pleasure from the way in which our work makes a social contribution, without any hidden egoistic intentions. If human beings are to be able to take from the common stock whatever they need, we can assume that they will develop qualities that lead them to take no more than they really need, with attention to and concern for what other people need as well. If human beings are to sustain a society in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all,” they must be able to so identify with and care about others that they are motivated to want others to equally develop their capacities and are motivated to aid them in doing so. If the state is at least to begin to wither away, we can assume that people are able to internalize certain fundamental social and moral norms to such an extent that they require very little external compulsion to obey these norms. It is hard to see how these capacities would simply emerge from the conditions of capitalism or why, if they are simply historically constructed, they ought to be fostered and encouraged. In fact, these needs and capacities often seem to emerge spontaneously within capitalism and against capital, which, in turn, wages a continuous campaign against them. This provides additional evidence for the hypothesis that they are a component of our trans-historical human nature whose fulfillment would lead to a heightened human flourishing and self-realization of our species. 

Bertell Ollman has suggested a number of other qualities which an individual oa future communist society would require, among them that the individual no longer thinks in terms of what is “mine” or “yours”; that human beings have not only overcome class antagonisms but that they have also overcome religious, national, and racial divi- sions, which means that they no longer have such identifications; and that when someone has harmed another, they will feel such anguish that the society will need to console them, not to punish them (Oll- man, 1979). After enumerating these and many other qualities of the communist individual, Ollman makes the following observation: 

The extraordinary qualities Marx ascribes to the people of communism could never exist outside the unique conditions which give rise to them. . . . One can only state the unproven assumptions on which this flowering of human nature rests. These are that the individual’s potential is so varied and great; that people possess an inner drive to realize all this potential; that the whole range of powers in each person can be realized together; and that the overall fulfillment of each individual is compatible with that of all others. Given how often and drastically the development and discovery of new social forms has extended accepted views of what is human, I think it would be unwise at this time to foreclose on the possibility that Marx’s assumptions are correct. (Ollman, 1979, 91.) 

I think that Ollman is correct. I think it would be unwise to foreclose on the possibility that our trans-historical nature has these capacities, and, I would add, that they can serve as part of the basis for a normative ideal of human flourishing even if they can never be completely realized. However, we cannot rest our analysis here, as it might be equally unwise to foreclose on the possibility that Marx here is being overly optimistic about the potentialities of human nature. Does the possibility of a socialist/communist society require that we make such optimistic assumptions about human nature? Is there any way to substantiate these assumptions? I will consider these questions in the last section of this paper. Before I do so, however, I want to consider a way to add ammunition to Marx’s trans-historical concept of human nature and the ideal of human flourishing which it entails. 

Marx and Kropotkin 
Let us return to Marx’s understanding of the inherently social nature of our species. I have pointed out that this does not merely mean that we wish to hang out with one another but that production is an inherently social process, which means that the distinguishing trans-historical feature of our species is that we are social producers. However, this claim does not in itself give us any reason to assume that certain forms of sociality and individuality are better than others, e.g., that communist/socialist forms of sociality and individuality are ethically superior to capitalist social relations and its attendant forms of individualism and competitiveness. I, therefore, suggest that we need to supplement Marx’s analysis of our social nature with two additional and related claims. The first is the claim that there is an innate tendency within our species to mutually aid one another. The second is that there are innate tendencies for empathy and altruism. The first claim is explicitly supported by the analysis and arguments of Petr Kropotkin in his classic work Mutual Aid (Kropotkin, 1976). The second claim, it seems to me, is implicit in Kropotkin’s analysis. Furthermore, both these claims have been given support by recent developments in the field of evolutionary psychology. 

Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid was published originally as a series of articles from 1890 to 1896.12 The initial impetus for these articles was provided by an article published by Thomas H. Huxley, entitled “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society” and which, since Huxley was a major interpreter and proponent of Darwin’s theory, provided a scientific respectability for the Social Darwinist interpretation of “survival of the fittest.” In that article, Huxley characterizes prehistoric men as “savages” in which “beyond the limited and temporary relations of the family, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence” (Huxley, 1976332). 

What Kropotkin does in his series of articles is to offer a different interpretation of the concept of “survival of the fittest” based both on his fieldwork in Siberia and on his analysis of the implications of evolutionary theory. He offers the following thought experiment. What is more likely to enable a species to survive — mutual aid or ruthless competition among its members? A moment’s reflection should make it clear that the former has a greater survival advantage than the latter, as animals who can support each other, work together, and protect each other are more likely to survive and reproduce than those who are constantly at each other’s throats. He then proceeds to provide a number of examples from the animal kingdom in which, among members of the species, cooperation, and mutual aid is the norm. While admitting that competition sometimes exists, he insists that it is limited to exceptional situations, as “natural selection, continually seeks out ways for avoiding competition as much as possible” (Kropot- kin, 1976, 74). What makes a species fit to survive, then, is precisely the opposite of Huxley’s view.

“Don’t compete! — competition is always injurious to the species, and you have plenty of resources to avoid it!” That is the tendency of nature, not always realized in full, but always present. That is the watchword that comes to us from the bush, the forest, the river, the ocean. “Therefore combine — practice mutual aid!” That is the surest means for giving to each the greatest safety, the best guarantee of existence and progress, bodily, intellectual, and moral. (Kropotkin, 1976, 75.) Kropotkin’s reasoning, however, goes beyond a general analysis of “survival of the fittest” within the animal kingdom. He recognizes that it is important to make a separate argument concerning the human species. This argument takes three forms. The first is that since the general tendency of nature is toward mutual aid, it would be odd “if men were an exception to so general a rule: if a creature so defenseless as man was at his beginning should have found his protection and his way of progress, not in mutual support, like other animals, but in a reckless competition for personal advantages” (Kropotkin, 1976, 77). The second part of his argument draws on the observations of anthropology which, on the basis of studying groups of human beings that might resemble our prehistoric ancestors, directly challenges Huxley’s assumption that human existence was a continuous Hobbesian war of each against all. “As far as we can go back in the paleo-ethnology of mankind, we find men living in societies — in tribes similar to those of the highest mammals. . . . Societies, bands, or tribes — not families — were thus the primitive form of organization of mankind and its earliest ancestors” (Kropotkin, 1976, 79). Thus, instead of families or individuals constantly at war with each other, the beginnings of human organization required highly communal and cooperative forms; in effect, mutual aid. Finally, as Darwin himself had suggested, human beings are most closely related to “some comparatively weak but social species, like the chimpanzee” (Kropotkin, 1976, 79).13 

While there is much more to say about Kropotkin’s argument, I think that I have said enough to indicate why it provides reasonable support for the claim that natural selection has built into our nature a tendency to cooperate and practice mutual aid. Furthermore, as added support for this claim, I offer the following observation by the eminent paleontologist, evolutionary theorist, and Marxist thinker, Stephen Jay Gould: “I would hold that Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to cooperation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals” (Gould, 1997, italics added). Finally, as I mentioned earlier, there is some interesting contemporary work in evolutionary psychology which provides added credence to Kropotkin’s position. For example, Martin Nowak, who is director of the program for evolutionary dynamics at Harvard, has applied mathematical analysis to studies which observe the strategies and reactions of subjects who play various versions of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. On the basis of this analysis, he argues not only that natural selection favors cooperation but that cooperation is one of the three basic forces of evolution, the other two being mutation and natural selection (see Nowick, 2008, 579; 2006, 1560–63). 

It is unlikely that an innate tendency for mutual aid and cooperation could exist if the participants did not also have an innate tendency for empathy and altruism. The developmental psychologist Martin L. Hoffman has demonstrated that even very young children manifest empathetic distress when confronted with the suffering of others and that children at a later stage empathize with others even when they have no direct experience of them, even with entire groups of people who are suffering (see Hoffman, 2000, ch. 3). Hoffman also argues that there are innate altruistic dispositions, mediated through empathy, which cannot be reduced to egoistic motivation and which are the result of what was necessary for our species to survive through our evolutionary history. “It follows that if survival requires altruism as well as egoism . . . then the physical structures and genetic formations for altruism must have been selected and eventually become part of the evolving human organism” (Hoffman, 1981, 124). 

However, we should notice that what is innate is a tendency to be cooperative, altruistic and empathetic. That there are such tendencies does not preclude that there are opposing tendencies. Recall that Kropot- kin writes that the tendency to avoid competition is “not always realized in full,” and Hoffman, in making the case for “innate altruistic dispositions, mediated through empathy,” also says that “survival requires altruism as well as egoism,” which would imply that there was a selective evolutionary pressure for both. In short, even if the innate tendency for cooperation is predominant, it might coexist with an innate tendency for competition; an innate tendency for altruism might coexist with an innate tendency for egoism, and an innate tendency for empathy might coexist with an innate tendency for agonistic behavior. 

What Are Innate Tendencies?
Before proceeding, I need to clarify what I mean by a “tendency” in this context. To say that there is an innate tendency is not to affirm biological determinism. Biological determinism of psychological dispositions and behaviors would imply that genes would uniquely determine these dispositions and behavior. While there are certain kinds of structures in the brain, such as sensory cells, which are determined by specific genes, most brain structures are the result of an interaction between genes and the environment. One way to understand this interaction is to think of genes as determining certain potentialities for various forms of cognitive processing, psychological dispositions, and behaviors. As Gould puts it, “The issue is not universal biology vs. human uniqueness, but biological potentiality vs. biological determinism” (Gould, 1977, 252).14 From this point of view, the various positive and negative features of human nature are encoded not as biologically determined necessities but as biological potentialities. “Violence, sexism, and general nastiness are biological since they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviors. But peacefulness, equality, and kindness are just as biological — and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish” (ibid., 257). The implication of this is that psychological dispositions and behaviors are socially and historically constructed out of a range of genetic potentialities. The proof that there are such potentialities is that human beings do manifest these traits, at least sometimes. 

However, there is a third way of understanding the relation of our evolutionary genetic inheritance to our psychological dispositions and behavior in a given historical epoch, which is to say, to the forms of sociality and individuality which exist in that epoch. Perhaps while genes cannot uniquely determine our psychological dispositions and forms of social behavior, they do more than simply provide bare possibilities which are then inscribed by historical and social relations. It may be possible that genes provide the “seeds” for certain impulses and tendencies which exist in all human societies. What this would mean is that in any set of social relations, there is a certain probability of these tendencies being realized in some socially organized form. Within a network of certain social relations, the probability of their realization may be low relative to another set of social conditions. But the probability will nonetheless be significantly more than zero. Both Kropotkin’s analysis and some recent work in evolutionary psychology support the idea of a tendency in this sense, and Kropotkin’s arguments provide reasons to think that the tendencies for mutual aid and cooperation, for empathy, and for altruism are the predominant ones. However, I do not think we can discount other opposing tendencies built into the human genome, tendencies perhaps for competition, for agonistic behavior, and for selfishness.15 Would admitting the possibility of such tendencies undermine the socialist/communist project? 

Concluding Reflections: The Case for a Cautious Optimism
Are there any reasons to assume that there are certain tendencies in human nature which, if allowed free reign, could threaten the construction of socialism/communism? Here I must be very tentative in my remarks. Consider why a tendency to cooperate might have a selective advantage, why it might enable the species to survive in its earlier stages of development. The most obvious reason is that cooperation would help the members of the species work together to secure the necessities of life and that it would more enable them to protect one another. But there is at least one other possible reason, which is that cooperation within a tribal unit might make the members of the tribe more efficient in combatting and even aggressing against another tribal unit. I used to discount this possibility, persuaded by anthropologists like Ashley Montagu that among hunter-gatherer societies fighting to defend or invade territory is quite rare (Montagu, 1976, 249–50).16 However, a number of other studies have challenged this image of the peaceful hunter-gatherer. The anthropologist Carol Ember has reviewed these studies and calculates that 90% of hunter-gatherer societies engage in warfare, and 64% of them do so at least once every two years (Ember, 1978, 239–248). Of course, since these studies rely on indigenous groups existing today, we do not know to what extent we can extrapolate from these studies to understand what human social life might have been like for our prehistoric ancestors. Still, while these studies do not in themselves prove that there is within the human genome an innate tendency for aggressive violence, they at least raise questions about whether aggressive violence can be expected to disappear entirely with the abolition of class and other divisions. 

A second reason to be concerned comes from Marx’s historical concept of human nature. This might at first glance seem odd, since the main thrust of Marx’s historical concept is the recognition that human nature changes over historical time and, therefore, that the forms of sociality and individuality which reinforce and reproduce capitalism — e.g., competition, selfish individualism, lack of concern for the well-being of others, desire for power and dominance, an instrumental attitude toward work — will be replaced by socialist forms of sociality and individuality. However, Marx himself recognized that there is a danger that the needs, psychological dispositions, and habits that reinforce capitalism will carry over to the attempt to construct socialism/communism, and it is not likely that they will be quickly extinguished. They may all too easily be transmitted to the next generation. As Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves . . . they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service” (Marx, 1994f, 188). We can then anticipate that some of the competitive and antagonistic needs, dispositions, and habits developed by capitalism will attempt to reassert themselves and, if care is not taken to counter them, might succeed in undermining the socialist/communist project. 

There is a third reason for taking seriously the possibility that there are such opposing negative tendencies, which is called “the precautionary principle” and which was often invoked by those involved in the anti-nuclear and ecology movements long before 2007 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Emergency (IPCC) issued its report on the role of human activity in global warming and climate change. The precautionary principle states that if there are some reasons to think that something might cause significant harm, then, even if there is no definitive scientific proof, it is warranted to take certain precautions to prevent that harm.17  Thus, if there are some reasons to think that there might be certain tendencies in human nature which could threaten the construction of socialism/ communism, the possibility of these tendencies should be taken seriously, even in the absence of compelling evidence. 

Nonetheless, I think there are, at least, two reasons for optimism, but it must be a cautious optimism. First, following Marx’s analysis of human nature, there is a good reason to assume that human beings are indeed social producers who continually develop new needs and capacities, and there is also good reason to assume that the need for creative activity as an end in itself is at least latent within human nature. Second, following the analysis of Kropotkin and of some recent work in evolutionary psychology, there is a good reason to assume that human beings have innate tendencies to develop dispositions for mutual aid, cooperation, empathy, and altruism and that these tendencies are more than likely the predominant ones.

The task of constructing socialism/communism will be to provide social institutions and conditions which can develop, nurture, and organize our positive tendencies, both those that are innate and those which have been historically constructed, into socialist/communist forms of sociality and individuality. It would further have the task of removing obstacles that would prevent these positive tendencies from being realized and of finding ways to channel or sublimate our negative tendencies into acceptable and perhaps even positive forms.18 But it would be a mistake to think that these negative tendencies will easily disappear. Even if they are not built into the human genome, they are unlikely to disappear in the early stages of socialism and could thereby corrupt the goal of creating a society in which our creative and social capacities would flourish. Norman Geras offers the following words of caution:

If socialism, at any rate, will be still a society of human beings, much about them will be recognizably the same. We have nothing at present but the emptiest of speculation to tell us that the common faults and vices might disappear or all but disappear; that everything that is productive of grave mischief belongs to the discontinuities of history, with the societally generated, and nothing of it with our underlying human nature. (Geras, 1998, 105.) 
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1. Marx never used the term “socialism” for the society that he envisioned, since he wanted to distinguish his understanding of that society from the utopian socialists. However, he did distinguish between two phases of this society and Lenin called the first phase “socialism.” In this terminology, which many Marxists now use, socialism is the transition to communism. For the purposes of this paper, I will refer to Marx’s understanding of a post-capitalist society as “socialism/communism” unless I want to refer specifically to Marx’s understanding of the later phase, in which case I will use the term “communism.” 
2. I cannot do justice in the space of this paper to Geras’ carefully reasoned analysis of plausible alternative interpretations of the sixth thesis on Feuerbach, whose discussion occupies the entirety of Part II of his book. 
3. It is this “second nature” which, although acquired, manifests itself for a long enough period of time to give the appearance of being innate. The idea of a “second nature” goes back at least as far as Aristotle for whom virtues, which are acquired dispositions to act in certain ways, become so stable that they become a part of one’s nature. Herbert Marcuse uses the term “second nature” to denote the way in which certain socially acquired needs become so vital to the human being that they become “biological” in that, if they are not satisfied, they would cause significant dysfunction. “. . . certain cultural needs can ‘sink down’ into the biology of man. We could then speak, for example, of the biological need of freedom, or of some aesthetic needs as having taken root in the organic structure of man, in his ‘nature,’ or rather ‘second nature’” (Marcuse, 1969, 10, italics added). 
4.  In the context in which Marx is writing, “political animal” means more broadly “social animal.” 
5. By the “forms of sociality” I mean those forms of social behavior which are inscribed within the social institutions, social norms, and social roles of a society. By “forms of individuality” I mean the ways in which human beings develop a sense of individual identity as well as their psychological dispositions, attitudes, needs, capacities, character traits, and behavior patterns. The point is that the forms of individuality grow out of and develop within the forms of sociality and, in turn, help to reinforce and reproduce the forms of sociality. 
6. One other reason that Marxists tend to discount the idea of a trans-historical human nature is that they fear it as a specter of biological determinism. However, it is equally possible to understand our trans-historical nature as a cultural universal. David Laibman (2015) argues that what defines this cultural universal is our universal capacity for symbolic reference, which makes possible a superorganic existence relatively free from biological determination, thus replacing biological evolution with cultural evolution. Laibman connects this symbolic capacity with Marxism in several ways — that it is itself formed in the social labor process; that it provides the basis for the immanent tendency to develop the productive forces; and that it also provides the basis for progress in the direction of equality, solidarity, and human fulfillment. None of this is to deny that we remain biological creatures, and I would suggest that our ability to use symbolic reference must in some way be encoded in our genetic makeup. I would also add that our human symbolic capacity is a necessary component of our capacity for social production as Marx understands it. How else could the “worst architect” be able to raise “his structure in the imagination before he erects it in reality”? 
7. Erich Fromm has called these general forms of sociality and individuality the “social char- acter” of a given society. He defines “social character” as “the nucleus of character structure which is shared by members of the same culture” and whose function it is “to mold and channel human energy within a given society for the purpose of the continued functioning of the society” (Fromm, 1962, 78–79). 
8. For another criticism of Sayers’ rejection of the significance of Marx’s trans-historical concept of human nature, see Byron, 2014. Byron argues that Sayers ignores certain passages from Marx that challenge his interpretation, passages that acknowledge the labor process as the condition of human existence independent of its specific social form and which also draw a clear distinction between the human labor process and the labor process of other animals. 
9. Marx does say that “for the starving man food does not exist in its human form but only in its abstract character as food. It could be available in its crudest form and one could not say wherein the starving man’s eating differs from that of animals” (Marx, 1994, 75). However, what the human being can eat even in its “crudest form” is not what every other species of animal could eat. 
10. I cannot resist, however, mentioning one attempt to resolve the paradox bySteven Lukes.“My suggestion, then, is this: that the paradox in Marxism’s attitude toward morality is resolved once we see that it is the morality of Recht that it condemns as ideological and anachronistic, and the morality of emancipation that it adopts as its own” (Lukes, 1985, 29). 
11. For a discussion of how workers whose work is degrading and alienating to the extreme can find ways to make their work more self-directing and creative see Garson, 1994. 
12. The articles were first published in book form in 1902. 
13. Molecular genetic studies have corroborated Darwin’s suggestion. We nowknow that humans share 98.4% of their DNA with both common and pygmy chimpanzees. In fact, our genomes are so close that Jared Diamond has proposed that we think of Homo sapiens as one of three species “of the genus Homo on earth today,” as the “third chimpanzee” (Diamond, 1993, 25). 
14. This article was first published in Natural History, 85:5 (May), 1976. 
15.  Consider the way the term “tendency” is used in Marxist economic discourse. Marx argues that there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall within capitalism. However, this tendency can be countered by other opposing tendencies.
16.  Montagu cites such groups as the Eskimo, the Hadja of Tanzania, the Comanche and Shoshoni Indians who seem not at all to be territorial. He cites other groups which are territorial but not very aggressive or defensive about their territory: e.g., the Kwakiutl, the Ituri Pygmies, and the Kung Bushman. 

17.The more recent 2014 report of the IPCC expresses an overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity plays a major role in causing global warming and climate change. The urgency of the need to address this problem now goes way beyond the precautionary principle. 
18 This suggests the need for a research project that would take two forms. The first is more clearly to identify the various components of these negative tendencies and to determine what kinds of economic, social, and political conditions and interventions could reduce, ameliorate, and transform them so that they would not threaten the construction of socialism/communism. The second is to identify the ways in which these negative tendencies can impede the struggles against capitalism and to consider the kinds of social movements and political organizations that could help to reduce, ameliorate, and transform them. 
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