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Marxism Human Nature, and Social Change

Martha Gimenez is associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is the author of numerous essays and contributor to studies on population theory, Marxist feminist theory, and U.S. politics of racial/ethnic enumeration. She is founding editor of the Progressive Sociologist Network (PSN) and Progressive Population Network (PPN).

Sean Sayers, Marxism and Human Nature (London: Routledge, 1998), 203pp., paperback

At a time when politicians, academics, and media pundits celebrate the demise of Marxism as a credible school of thought, and hegemonic “postisms” (e.g., poststructuralism, postfeminism, post-Marxism) have succeeded in producing a generation of young academics for whom everything (themselves included) is “socially constructed” and open to “deconstruction,” in an endless game of shifting identities and “stories,” a book about Marxism and human nature seems hopelessly outdated. It is, however, precisely at this time that this book should be welcome, not only because it is full of illuminating insights that dispel many common stereotypes about Marx and Marxism, but also (and most importantly) because it demonstrates how Marx’s theory of human nature, and its social and moral implications, offer a necessary alternative to the current “antinomies of bourgeois thought” (e.g., essentialism vs. anti-essentialism; humanism vs. antihumanism; determinism vs. social constructionism). (I have borrowed this phrase from Georg Lukacs in History and Class Consciousness.)

Sayers’ aim is to present and defend an historical account of human nature, its conditions of emergence, development, and fulfillment, and its moral and social implications. Based on the works of Marx and Hegel, this is an important contribution to Marxist philosophy and Marxist social science as well. The substance of his argument is that neither those who negate the reality of human nature nor those who posit the reality of a universal human nature offer an acceptable account. Human nature is both historical (i.e., relative to the mode of production within which it emerged and develops) and universal, insofar as every mode of production shapes the world in its own image. As modes of production change, human nature changes accordingly because “the whole of what is called world history is nothing more than the creation of man through human labor” (Marx, cited in Sayers, 4). This is a historical and dialectical account, based upon Marx’s inversion of the Hegelian dialectics and the main premises of historical materialism—which states that human beings are self-produced, active creatures who, by their very nature, are compelled to transform nature to satisfy their material needs; in the process of doing so, they change nature and change themselves, producing and reproducing themselves physically, socially, and intellectually as they acquire new needs, powers, and capacities.

Labor is at the very center of this historical and dialectical account of human nature and, as people develop their powers and capacities through labor, the conditions under which people work acquire ontological significance as well. How philosophers and social scientists view labor and its place in people’s lives shapes their understanding of human nature and their moral judgements about society.

Those whose conception of human nature removes it from its historical conditions of possibility become apologists for the status quo, for they impute to an abstract, ahistorical, universal human nature the effects (upon human development and social life) of historically specific oppressive and exploitative social relations. Marxism, on the other hand, postulates an internal and essential (rather than external and contingent) relationship between human nature and its historical context. This is the material basis for the emergence of values and moral standards suitable for evaluating modes of production in light of their ability to further or thwart human development.

The organization of the book reflects these two aspects of human nature. In the first part, focused on work and human nature, Sayers sharpens his arguments in the process of critically assessing utilitarian, hedonist, and libertarian views on human development and the meaning of work. In the second part, he presents the Hegelian philosophical foundations of Marx’s method, and the political and moral implications of Marx’s theory of human nature, exposing the theoretical and methodological basis for Marxism’s claim to be a critical theory: i.e., a theory of society that is also a theory of politics and an ethical outlook.

Against utilitarian and hedonistic views of human nature that posit human beings as utility or pleasure seekers, interested only in the quantity of pleasure they can get, regardless of its source, and J.S. Mill’s critique of this quantitative approach, which posits a distinction between higher (i.e., intellectual) and lower (i.e., physical and sensual) pleasures, Sayers argues that these views are one-sided and therefore unsatisfactory as realistic accounts of human nature. Mill’s views in particular, positing the educated, intellectual, and artistic life above physical or manual labor and satisfaction of sensual needs, reflect the historical reality of class societies, in which the division between intellectual and manual labor rises from—and is continuously reproduced and often intensified by—the class structure and the social and technical division of labor. In reality, Sayers argues, both intellectual and manual labor, the so-called “higher” and “lower” forms of life, are of the essence of human nature and human activity: people cannot pursue intellectual endeavors without first satisfying their basic needs and physical activity, whereas manual labor requires intelligence, knowledge, and reflection. The division between intellectual and manual labor is the historical product of the development of the forces of production in class societies; it reaches new depths today in the effects of global capitalism on the world’s workforce. The development of the productive forces creates enormous material and intellectual wealth and growth of the intellectual and creative possibilities open to the privileged few, while simultaneously condemning increasingly large proportions of the population to a life of poverty and, because of unemployment and underemployment, forced idleness and stunted physical and intellectual development.

Hedonism and utilitarianism are also open to criticism, because of their portrayal of people as passive consumers. This, Sayers points out, is an impoverished view of human nature that minimizes the fundamental role of labor in human life. True, labor today is alienating and oppressive for most workers but, under socialism (a society organized for the satisfaction of human needs rather than capital accumulation), labor will lose its alien character and become the source of self-realization for all. Furthermore, Sayers argues, labor is not the only source of self-realization; leisure is just as important. Life should include all sorts of activities besides work, such as fun, recreation, satisfaction of sensual and artistic needs, and the development of those potentialities not actualized in the context of work. It is just as one-sided to give primacy to intellectual over manual labor as it is to assume that human nature can attain its historically possible levels of development only through work. Full human development requires the all-around development of our capacities and powers for work and for enjoyment of our intellectual and physical potential.

Sayers postulates a dialectic between work and leisure as a historically developed need that ought to be fulfilled if people are to attain the development of their powers and abilities.

As people engage in activities to satisfy their needs, they develop new skills and knowledge which, in turn generate new needs, new activities, and further self-development, mastery over their conditions of life, and self-realization. Given the alienating conditions in which most people work—for many people, work is simply a means to earn a living while “real” life begins outside work—it is not surprising that hedonist views of work as painful deferred gratification, and libertarian views such as those of Gorz (who argues that people need to be liberated from work), seem more accurate in their depiction of work than the idea that there is a need to work. To those who would argue against that notion, Sayers points out that the concept of alienation presupposes the need to work which, though denied under capitalist conditions, resurfaces in the extremely negative effects of unemployment, in people’s eagerness to develop their creative potential after work, and (as shown in research findings about people’s attitudes towards work) in people’s reluctance to give up work even without income loss. The need to work, as we experience it today, is a historical product of the development of the forces of production and, concomitantly, the development of human capabilities and knowledge; that it is historical does not mean that it is false or unnatural, because all attitudes and feelings towards work reflect the mode of production and the kinds of constraints and possibilities it opens up for people. The need to work is an integral part of human nature as it historically develops through labor.

The same reasoning applies to leisure. The concept of leisure (as we understand it today) had no meaning in the past, when leisure was not the creative space that romantic critics of industry and technology dream about, but most likely the time to satisfy sensual pleasures and sleep. The creative use of non-work time is a modern development which, paradoxically, reflects the need to work; people whose work lives are less than satisfactory seek fulfillment during their leisure time. Another manifestation of the need to work is the extent to which people today (particularly the younger generations) are reluctant to accept meaningless work just because it is necessary for survival or because one has a duty to work. The greater the education and skills of the workforce, the more demanding they are likely to become. But one wonders how far those demands can go under the conditions imposed by world capitalism, which allows capital unprecedented freedom and mobility. Another question that comes to mind is the fate of alienated labor under socialism and whether the dichotomy between work and leisure will remain. Sayers postulates the historical emergence of leisure as a need dialectically related to the need to work, but responding to related (though somewhat different) concerns. But the need for leisure today reflects, to a large extent, the deeply alienated nature of most working conditions, including white-collar and professional work. And, regardless of future technological advances, we cannot assume that all necessary but relatively unpleasant or dangerous work will be eliminated. The contrast between work, no matter how nonalienated, and leisure or non-work time is therefore likely to remain under socialism, though attenuated in comparison with present conditions and perhaps responding more to the demands of our physical nature, rather than our needs for intellectual self-realization.

The question of women’s domestic labor is briefly addressed: noting how feminists differ in their evaluation of domestic work—some reject men’s alienated work and impute greater value to domestic work, while others find it stultifying and argue that women need to work and should seek paid employment—Sayers, agreeing with the latter, argues that women, like men, experience the need to work. He postulates that this need also arises from changes in the productive forces affecting all workers under capitalism. Economic necessity, while indeed an important cause of the rise in women’s labor-force participation, is not the only (nor the main) reason why women, including those who could afford to be full-time housewives, seek employment. Domesticity, given the conditions of life and growth of human capabilities in the twentieth century, is not a sufficient source of self-realization for modern women. Besides, the privatized world of home and family can never compensate for the alienation of work and the solution is not to retreat into the fantasy of the “haven in the heartless world,” but to struggle for socialism, where people can truly develop their powers in a social setting and where the socialization of domestic work and childcare will thoroughly change men’s and women’s relationship with each other and to work (178).

Sayers’ arguments rest upon his grasp of Marx’s method; in this sense, his book is not only about Marxism and human nature but is an object lesson in how to use Marx’s method to understand human nature and its implications. Sayers offers a very clear and useful discussion of Marx’s method in relationship to the philosophical and methodological significance of Hegel’s often quoted statement, “What is rational is actual and what is actual is rational” (Hegel, cited in Sayers, 95). For both Hegel and Marx, there is a unity between actuality (i.e., the world as it is) and rationality; for both, rationality is not transcendent but historical, for human reason develops in relationship to the world; for both, the relationship between actuality and rationality is dialectical, contradictory, and changing. For Hegel, however, the rationality of the actual (meaning that actuality is orderly, patterned, manifesting elements, laws, and tendencies which can be discerned through scientific study) is at the same time evidence that rationality is realizing or actualizing itself in the world, so that what is, is what it ought to be—hence the “mystical shell” covering the “rational kernel.”

Marx, on the other hand, starts from actuality or reality and it is on its basis that he explains human reason, consciousness, and ideas. Marx retains the Hegelian dialectics of the unity between actuality and rationality (or between existence and consciousness) but, from the standpoint of historical materialism, it is existence that determines consciousness. The social world does not reflect the self-realization or actualization of human consciousness or human rationality; it is the dynamics of the world itself—its changes, development, and contradictions—which explain changes in the forms of consciousness, ideas, and reason.

The unity between actuality and rationality or, for Marx, existence and consciousness, is a unity in contradiction such that, as the contradictions in the social world unfold, people’s experiences and activities change, new needs and corresponding aspirations, interests and critical ideas, emerge to challenge previously accepted forms of thought and social relations. As Sayers points out, before criticism is expressed in ideas “it exists first of all in fact. Only later it is apprehended by consciousness and reflected in thought” (109). It follows that when Marx critiques capitalism and postulates the desirability of socialism, he is doing so not on the basis of transcendental moral values, notions of justice, or a transcendental reason, but simply on the basis of the scientific analysis of its own tendencies and contradictions, as manifested in changing social relations and forms of consciousness.

Having established the dialectical nature of Marx’s method, Sayers proceeds to demonstrate, through the examination of the role of moral values in Marxism, the problems inherent in attempts to understand Marx’s work while rejecting its Hegelian roots and, consequently, its dialectical ontology and mode of theorizing. Analytical Marxists, he argues, achieve only misunderstandings and misinterpretations when they apply antithetical, positivist assumptions to Marxism. Marxism’s claim to be both scientific and political is considered, by Analytical Marxists, a source of confusion and incoherence. For them, that Marxism historicizes justice, right, morality, and values entails a hopeless relativism that makes it impossible to apply those standards outside the system in which they emerged or to critique the system as a whole (not just deviations from its laws or value system). From their standpoint, capitalism can be critiqued, and socialism supported, only on the basis of ahistorical, transcendental notions of justice, self-realization, and human development. But it is wrong to divide Marxism into a value-neutral scientific theory of history, and a political and ethical outlook based on transcendental values such as, for example, justice and self-realization (113); these are false alternatives. Dialectically, Marxism as a theory of history is not incompatible with ethics and politics; these are not logically independent aspects of Marxism but integral aspects of its analysis of the capitalist mode of production. Notions of morality, justice, and fairness (as they emerge within capitalism) reflect the aspirations, needs, and interests of different groups and social classes. This is why the critique of capitalism and the socialist vision do not rest on either relativist or transcendent notions but on historical notions of morality, fairness, and justice that reflect the nascent needs, aspirations, and interests of those classes that are destined to build the society of the future. Dialectically, morality is a unitypposites; it is always relative to a given mode of production, but also universal or “absolute” because “in every stage the essence of man is realized, however imperfectly” (Bradley, cited in Sayers, 118-119).

There are other important topics discussed in this small but very rich text, such as the meaning of progress, the nature of socialism, and the relationship between alienation and globalization. Those teaching courses on Marxist philosophy and Marxist theory will find this clear, exceptionally well-written book an excellent text for graduate students, and a welcome source for deepening their own understanding of Marx’s method and its usefulness as a tool for social analysis and political thinking. This book is particularly useful also for exposing the weaknesses inherent in the false and rigid theoretical alternatives students are offered in theory courses today, between the natural and the social, the universal and the relative, and the essential and the inessential. It is important to bring back the Marxist alternative, the historical understanding of human nature and social reality that stresses the dialectical, concrete unity of the universal and the particular, and the natural and the social.

Finally, as we near the end of the millennium, while global capitalism relentlessly tears the world’s communities apart and qualitative social change seems beyond our reach, it is important not to have this reminder of key aspects of Marx’s work overshadowed by our concern with political economy.

It is important to be reminded of the nature of our human nature, of the role of labor in our self-realization, and of the dialectical interaction between structural change, contradictions, and the emergence of new needs, aspirations, and powers. This book reminds us that, though we live under conditions not of our own choosing, it is we, in the end, who make history.


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