Marx saw human nature as a construction of social and economic activity. This is the concluding part of a two-part op-ed
While Adam Smith developed his theory of the market-economy based on a timeless view of self-interested individuals, Marx based his theory of communism on a relational and historical view of human beings.
According to Marx, human nature is socially constructed from the everyday social and economic activity humans are immersed in, and they continuously remake the world and themselves through their activities.
Marx claimed that “the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual ... it is the ensemble of the social relations.” Modern man appears self-interested not because of any essential nature, but because that’s the way man produced modern society and themselves, through socio-economic activities.
In Marx’s dialectic view, history is an open-ended process of social self-production. Politics is class struggle over processes of social self-production, the ability to steer those processes in one direction or another and thus, shape the world and the kind of person we will become.
Humans have freedom in social self-determination/collective ability to shape the world, not individually to be whatever they want to be.
According to Marx: “The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence (which) determines their consciousness.”
The working people should develop class consciousness based on class oppression and exploitation by the bourgeoisie capitalists. If ethnicity, nationalism, consumerism, “aspirational American dream,” still seem to animate the working class, that’s because they are in the grip of a “false consciousness” planted by the ruling class.
The social construction of human beings is essential to the ideology of communism. For the success of a classless society with common ownership of economic resources, human beings must transcend their old identities and self-interested selves.
Marx said that a communist revolution will not only sweep away all previous structures of oppression and exploitation, but also all the related psychological and moral supports.
A reconstruction of social environment is all that is required for ushering in a better humanity.
Of course, Marx was too great a mind to have such a simplistic view of human nature. In many places of his voluminous work, we can find his belief in “human nature in general.”
Also, few people of the 19th century exceeded Marx in enthusiasm for a scientific worldview. He was a great admirer of Darwin, and he was aware that there is biological unity in a species. Marx and Engels did not systematically lay out their view of human nature and morality, perhaps in awareness that the state of scientific knowledge was inadequate for such an endeavour.
Moreover, there is a big contradiction between alienation, which is a cornerstone of Marxist critique of capitalism, and the social construction of human nature.
Why can’t human beings be socialized into a capitalist system? Why is the need for freedom and meaning, which are sources of alienation in capitalism, immutable nature of humans, and self-interest is not?
However, it is plain to see that success of the communist ideology rests on social construction of human nature and morality. This is one of the main reasons nature vs nurture has been the biggest debate in all social sciences, humanities, and politics till today.
Scientists, thinkers, scholars, some of whom had Marxist leanings, others not, developed whole fields of research based on the premise that human beings are products of environment that can be reconstructed by humans.
Opposing that view were scholars who argued that human beings are natural creatures like all animals, and much of human psychology, morality, capability, are biologically hardwired by evolution.
Aiming to build a new equal man by changing economy and society is the height of naive arrogance.
In the final sniper scene of the film Enemy at the Gates (2001), commissar Danilov, whose love of Tania was unrequited, says to the hero Zaytsev: “Man will always be man, there is no new man. In this world, even a Soviet one, there will always be rich and poor. Rich in gifts, poor in gifts. Rich in love, poor in love.”
Since the 1960s, biology and evolution have been taking over more space in all social sciences with every passing year. Undoubtedly, the environment plays a critical role in all human development, but man has inherited a natural substrate that is not greatly affected by environment.
At the same time, there is great variation between individuals in a group due to biological endowments. Variation in physical abilities are plain to see, but it is becoming increasingly undeniable that highly critical mental attributes, like intelligence also have a biological substrate and thus, variation.
Marxists of today now accuse the encroachment of biology in society as a scientism, undeserved faith in the ability of science to illuminate subjects that are not amenable to scientific rationality.
It is kind of ironic because Marxism itself was a great example of scientism, imposing a grand theory pretending to be science, upon all human history, society, and economics.
Shafiqur Rahman is a political scientist.
Also read: "What Marx got right"