Extract from: Alex Callinicos (1983) The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (Bookmarks)
The oldest argument against socialism -- that it is contrary to human nature -- is also the most popular. Socialism is a good idea, people say, but it will never happen, because you can’t change human nature. Any attempt to create a society free of poverty, exploitation and violence is bound to run up against the fact that human beings are naturally selfish, greedy and aggressive.
The argument presumably goes back to the old Christian concept of original sin. Man (people who talk about human nature tend to forget women completely) is a fallen animal, born with the mark of Cain upon his brows, whose only salvation lies outside this world in the grace of God. Adam Smith used a secular version of this argument to explain why the emerging capitalist society of eighteenth-century Britain was natural and inevitable. He traced the origin of the market economy to the ‘propensity in human nature ... to truck, barter and exchange’.
These ideas are alive today. Smith’s free-market economics lives on in monetarism. All sorts of ‘scientific’ theories seek to prove that competition and war are inherent in human nature. For example, the pseudo-science known as sociobiology claims that human beings are really animals squabbling over patches of ground. The ramifications of this sort of idea are endless. It has been used to prove, for example, that women are naturally inferior to men, condemned by biology to cook the food, make the beds, and mind the children.
Marx cut across the whole idea of an unchanging human nature in his sixth ‘Thesis on Feuerbach’, where he declared that ‘Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.’ In other words, there is no such thing as ‘human nature’ in the abstract. Rather, as society changes, so also do the beliefs, desires, and abilities of men and women. The way people are cannot be separated from the sort of society in which they live. So in order to understand how people behave, we must first analyse the historically changing ‘ensemble of social relations’. ‘My analytic method’, Marx wrote towards the end of his life, ‘does not proceed from Man but from the period of society given by economics.’
Although Marx thus rejected the notion of an unchanging human nature, he continued to believe that human beings in widely differing societies share certain things in common. Indeed, it is precisely these common properties which explain why human societies change, and with them the beliefs, desires, and abilities of the people composing them.
Marx’s thoughts on the subject were developed at length in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, where he takes over Feuerbach’s concept of ‘species-being’, but gives it a radically different content. To quote [Marx’s] ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, ‘the essence of man ... can with him [Feuerbach] be regarded only as “species”, as an inner, mute, general character which unites the many individuals only in a general way.’ For Feuerbach what binds people together in society is love, the natural and unchanging sentiment which attracts individuals to each other.
For Marx, however, ‘labour [is] the essence of man’ and the basis of society. Man is a labouring animal. ‘It is just in his work upon the objective world ... that man proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality.’
Like the other animals, man is a part of nature, and, like them, he is motivated by the need to survive, and to reproduce himself. But what sets human beings apart from other animals is the wide variety of ways in which human beings can meet their needs. This is possible because human beings are conscious and…