Marx, People and Society

These days it is fashionable to write long, confusing, dull books about Marx. The qualifications for the job are a commitment to Leninism, a selective bibliography and a capacity for dialectical distortions. The search to discover what went on in Karl Marx’s mind has beaten the question of what a Scotsman wears under his kilt as the number one talking point in trendy pubs. To play the game you don’t have to be a socialist – but it helps if you learn by heart the required Leninist clichés. Thanks to these modern Marxist scholars we have not just one Marx but many: Hegelian Marx, Young Marx, Mature Marx, not to mention Dead Marx who passed his words of wisdom beyond the grave to Young Lenin. One of the favourite topics of those who treat Marxism as a spectator sport is what they call ‘Marx’s ontology’ (his conception of the nature of Man).

Marx’s view of ‘human nature’ is essentially different from all others because it is historical (seeing people as socially developing beings) and dialectical (seeing humanity and Nature as two parts of the same whole). Marx speaks of ‘reality’ as being both ‘naturally human’ and ‘humanly natural’. The idealist philosophers had always constructed their own model of the human race and placed it in Nature. It was not coincidental that these models corresponded to the ideals of the ruling class of the day. Thus, capitalist philosophers depict humanity as selfish, lazy aggressive and incapable of co-operation. Unlike the Utopian Socialists, Marx did not construct an ideal being to fit into a preconceived pattern of socialist society. His conception involved two questions, firstly, what are the general characteristics of a natural being, and secondly, what are the specific characteristics of a human being? He divided these human attributes into dialectically interdependent powers and needs.

Marx associates three powers and needs with human life; work, eating and sex. He did not say that people must work or eat or have sex in one way as opposed to another in order to be ‘natural’, but simply that these activities are in the nature of their being. The attributes of ‘Species-Man’ are more extensive, for it is these that separate it from the unthinking animals. Marx’s concept of human nature, then, is concerned with natural and specific attributes of homo sapiens, not the particular moral predilections of the philosopher.

But he doesn’t leave it that. Marx’s view was that in private property society, an especially under capitalism, people are alienated from their real selves (or, to borrow a Feuerbachian term, alienated from their human essence). By alienation is meant – not surprisingly – the absence of unalienation, people living in accordance with their species and their nature: Socialist society. This is where the Redbrick intellectuals lose Marx’s point entirely. He was not concerned with alienation as some kind of existential void to which ‘modern man’ is doomed. The existentialist, Hyppolite, has it wrong when he writes that alienation is a ‘tension inseparable de l’existence’ and is inherent in ‘la conscience de soi humaine’. Marx consistently relates alienation in property societies to socialist unalienation:

[Communism is] “the complete return of Man to himself as a social (i.e. human) being – a return become conscious, and accomplished with the entire wealth of previous development.”

This will mean:

“the positive transcendence of all alienation – that is to say, the return of man from religion, family, State, etc, to his human, i.e. social, mode of existence.” (1844 Manuscripts).

In his only complete outline of his theory of alienation, Marx indicated four relations which cover the whole of human social existence. Firstly, people are said to be alienated from their activity. Marx especially refers to productive activity, for that is the most important form of human creativity:

” . . . labour is external to the worker, i.e. it does not belong to his essential being: that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not a home. His labour is therefore not voluntary but coerced; it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.” (1844 Manuscripts).

Secondly, Marx explains how we are alienated from the product of our labour:

” . . . the more the worker by his labour appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in the double respect; first, that the sensuous external world more and more ceases to be an object belonging to his labour – to be his labour’s means of life; and secondly, that it more and more ceases to be means of life in the immediate sense, means for the physical subsistence of the worker.”1844 Manuscripts).

The third relation of alienation, according to Marx, is that people are alienated from each other because of class divisions and inevitable social conflict:

“Just as [Man] estranges himself from his own activity, so he confers to the stranger activity which is not his own . . . a man alien to labour and standing outside it . . . the capitalist or whatever one chooses to call the master of labour.” (1844 Manuscripts).

Finally, men and women are alienated from their species-being:

“In tearing away from the object of his production . . . estranged labour tears from him his species life, his real species objectivity, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his organic body, nature, is taken from him. Similarly, in degrading spontaneous activity, free activity, to a means, estranged labour makes Man’s species life a means to his physical existence.” (1844 Manuscripts).

There have been those who have questioned whether these early writings of Marx (only published in English in the early 1930’s) should be treated as being consistent with his later developed theories, Clearly, any of Marx’s writings, taken in isolation and detached from socialist conclusions, can be futile and even misleading. Used by socialists in the battle to free the working class from the world of capitalism, the concept of alienated people – with its dialectical negative, unalienated humanity – is a vital aspect of a coherent Marxist theory. For trendy academics the exercise is about as vital as a fortnight’s holiday in Highgate Cemetery.

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