Marx’s Human Nature: Distinguishing Essence from Essentialism

Chris Byron

It is safe to presume that most children have no idea what they want to be when they grow up. It is equally safe to presume that those that claim to know what they want to be when they grow up will change their minds. Finally, it is safe to presume that “in the social production of their existence, [these children] inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production” (Marx 1970, p. 20).

The impact of the totality of these social relations, and their dominance over the aging child, will necessarily conflict with his human nature.[1] Despite contrary opinions, Marx has much to tell us regarding human nature, its alienated expression under the capitalist mode of production, and its relation to essence. In this essay I will make three arguments. 1) I will argue that Marx did have a view of human nature, and then I will show what it is. 2) I will then demonstrate the necessity interconnection between human nature and Marx’s theory of alienation. 3) Finally, I will argue that Marx is both an essentialist – in regard to human nature – and remains true to his sixth Thesis on Feuerbach, that “the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations (Engels, 2010, 82).” The standard opinion is that a philosopher is either an essentialist or sees essence as fluid. In true dialectical fashion, Marx is both. Recognizing the validity of this new position allows us to see simultaneously that while society conditions our historical essence, it is our human nature which is alienated.


Marx and Human Nature: The Ground Rules

It is noteworthy that a Marxian theory of human nature has been rejected by many notable Marx scholars, including “Tom Bottomore, Robert D Cumming, Eugene Kamenka, Louis Althusser, Vernon Venable, Robert Tucker, Kate Soper, Colin Summer, and Sidney Hook; to name but a few” (Geras 1983, pp. 49-51). The simplest way to refute this myth is to compile a list of Marx’s statements regarding human nature, from youth until death, and to compare and contrast his views. It is also important to remember that human nature is that quality that is distinctly human, a quality that separates mankind from other animals. Qualities that we share with other animals (e.g., hunger) are merely aspects of our animal nature. Any theoretical speculation that Marx makes regarding the uniqueness of mankind is of potential use in developing a Marxian theory of human nature.

Compilation of Marx’s Statements on Human Nature

For the sake of space, some of Marx’s comments will be neglected, specifically those that overlap (e.g., On the Jewish Question does not develop species-being in a new direction from the works preceding and following it). Also, it is important to compile his views in chronological order, so that one can see his development. Many philosophers believe that the sixth Thesis on Feuerbach precludes a Marxian concept of human nature, because they believe there is an epistemological break that occurs. Yet if we read Marx in chronological order, we see that he made use of a theory of human nature before and after the sixth Thesis. Thus, it certainly did not prevent Marx from holding onto a concept of human nature. And even if an epistemological break did occur, human nature was not jettisoned.

Marx’s “Notes on James Mill,” written in 1844, was his first essay dealing with human nature. In it we get a first glimpse into his philosophical use of species activity:

Species-activity and the species-spirit whose real, conscious and authentic existence consists in social activity and social enjoyment. Since the essence of man is the true community of man, men, by activating their own essence, produce, create this human community, this social being which is no abstract, universal power standing over against the solitary individual, but is the essence of every individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth. [Marx 1992, pp. 265-6].

If we translate “essence” here as human nature – as some translators have done – then Marx is essentially saying that human nature is the ability to produce and flourish within a community that serves the community and oneself in a mutually gratifying way. When camera obscura productive relations (e.g. capitalism) begin to take effect, “our products are not united for each other by the bond of human nature” (Marx 1992, p. 275).

Let us suppose that we had produced as human beings. In that event each of us would have doubly affirmed himself and his neighbor in his production. (1) In my production I would have objectified the specific character of my individuality and for that reason I would both have enjoyed the expression of my own individual life during my activity and also, in contemplating the object, I would experience an individual pleasure, I would experience my personality…(2) In your use or enjoyment of my product I would have the immediate satisfaction and knowledge in my labor I had gratified a human need, i.e. that I had objectified human nature … (3)…I would have directly confirmed and realized my authentic nature…Our production would be as many mirrors from which our natures would shine forth. This relation would be mutual: what applies to me would also apply to you. [Marx 1992, pp. 277-8]

For Marx, human nature cannot be divorced from production, nor production from human nature. Humans have a drive to spontaneously and creatively produce products in a manner that is conducive to social and individual satisfaction. In producing a unique product, man affirms his uniqueness, and in distributing it he gratifies someone else. And through that gratification, he further gratifies himself. Simultaneously, the same producer depends upon the same relationship of unique production and exchange from someone else. Therefore what was unique to him is in reality common to all.

While the “Notes on James Mill” mark one of the earliest points in Marx’s philosophical development, there was not too much variance from this position later. The next moment of both philosophical development and human nature development can be found in his The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (EP Manuscripts).

The EP Manuscripts are Marx’s first serious endeavor into the political economy of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Jean-Baptiste Say, etc. The camera obscura of man’s human nature, as discussed in the “Notes on James Mill,” is fully fleshed out in Marx’s essay on “Estranged Labor.” Bringing out Marx’s view of human nature in this work is slightly more difficult than in the “Notes on James Mill.” Marx is determined to reveal the dialectical contradictions in all categories of economic thought (e.g., value, wage, rent, etc.) and their relation to man’s essence. Therefore, in establishing the negation of man’s essence when confronted with bourgeoisie relations, an affirmative understanding of man’s essence can only be elucidated from a careful negation of the negation made by the reader.

In order to fully flesh out this picture, though, it is best to begin with the affirmative statements of human nature. Marx (2007, p. 74) states, “man is a species being, not only because in practice and in theory he adopts the species as his object (his own as well as those of other things), but – and this is only another way of expressing it – also because he treats himself as the actual, living species; because he treats himself as a universal and therefore a free being.” He goes on to compare the similarities between man and animal, but notes a distinction, namely that man’s “species character” is productive life “in the character of its life-activity” as free and conscious. That is, free production – production without anything but nature’s material constraints – is what characterizes the activity of man from that of other species. Whereas life-activity for the animals is identical to the animal essence, free man makes life-activity “the object of his will and of his consciousness.” This distinguishing aspect makes man a species-being. Man sees his species as an object that his free production will consciously and freely take into account, thus confirming his kinship as a species-being. The lexicon is different, and productive consciousness is added in as a universalizing aspect of man’s essence, but nonetheless the theme is quite in line with his “Notes on James Mill.”

A criticism could be raised: Marx is incorrect to consider production a uniquely human activity. He rejects this carefully. For Marx, animals only produce out of need, for themselves and their immediate kin (i.e., birds produce nests), whereas man produces “even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom.” Marx is reinforcing the point that whereas the life-activity of an animal is ingrained and perfunctory, man’s life-activity when free is a confirmation of his species-being via our freedom to produce objects that transcend mere sustenance needs (Marx 2007, p. 76). Ultimately man’s freely produced product is the objective confirmation of his essence, and its reception in society is a fortiori objective confirmation of his species-being.

In 1845, Marx and Engels met in Paris and drafted their first book together: The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism. As Engels recalled later about the The Holy Family, they wanted to develop “the science of real men and their historical development” (Marx and Engels 1975, p. 8).

Marx and Engels also explicitly refer to human nature in this book. When their claim of human nature is combined with Engels’s recollection, it necessarily implies that the two thinkers believed that they could develop a science of real men that included the notion of human nature as a part of that science. Marx and Engels explicitly used the notion of human nature when referring to alienation under the capitalist mode of production:

The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement…The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence. It is … abasement the indignation at that abasement, an indignation to which it is necessarily driven by the contradiction between its human nature and its condition of life, which is the outright, resolute and comprehensive negation of that nature. [Marx et al. 1975, p. 43]

They believe human nature to be the antithesis of the estrangement and degradation that the laborer feels under the capitalist mode of production. Human nature is negated in the conditions of life that capitalism requires them to labor under. The significance of this passage is that Marx is taking his concept of human nature from his “Notes on James Mill” and merging it with his theory of alienation developed during the previous year.

The next work of Marx’s to consider man’s essence can be found in the “Theses on Feuerbach,” written in 1845. These were written on a single sheet of paper, never meant for publication. Presumably Marx had written them to work out his own ideas. Engels published them after Marx’s death, believing that they could augment his own work on Feuerbach and serve as a historical reminder, documentation of when Marx began to develop his theory of historical materialism (Engels 2010, p. 8).

Critiquing Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity and his views of man, Marx wrote:

Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations. Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled: 1. to abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract – isolated – human individual. 2. Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as “genus”, as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals. [Marx 1992, p. 423]

This note is, prima facie, a refutation of the previous views held by Marx regarding human nature/essence. Yet this is the case only prima facie, and not upon contemplation. For now the thesis is worth mentioning because it is possibly a view of human nature. The concept of essence is taking on a new meaning that should be distinguished from human nature. For many anti-humanists Marxists, this is a point at which Marx’s concept of essence is snowballing into anti-humanism and a rejection of an ahistorical essence.

The next statement made by Marx regarding human nature can be found in The German Ideology, written in 1845–46. Dialectical arguments, and the negation of categories juxtaposed to other categories, are no longer part of Marx’s prose or practice. Marx makes one explicit statement regarding what is distinctly human, and not just animal”

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life. [Marx et al. 1970, p. 42]

This is very much in line with Marx’s refutation of ther claim that animal nature is productive as well, for he goes on to point out how the material world around man conditions what he can produce for subsistence. Whereas a spider can only produce a web, and a beaver a dam, a human can build a home in a cave, a tree, or grassland. Most of The German Ideology is written with a sarcastic and flippant tone. It’s safe to say that the opening sentence of the passage quoted above is one of Marx’s – many – casual dismissals of the preceding ideas of German Idealists. Moreover, as indicated in the EP Manuscripts, for man to begin to distinguish himself via abstract thought and religion, his essence must first be objectified in production, which requires its own subjective abstract thought. As Marx points out later, “the production of ideas, on conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life” (Marx et al. 1970 p. 47). And this material activity is initially free and necessary production. Historically man is first and foremost a producer, and second (third, fourth, etc.,) an ideologue.

There is little doubt that volume 1 of Capital was Marx’s magnum opus. Capital is the culmination of a lifetime of research which astutely brings together a lot of his earlier works into a comprehensible system. The majority of the book serves as a scathing critique of bourgeois political economy. However, despite the claims of an epistemological break, made by Althusserian Marxists, there are passages about human nature in the book that only confirm Marx’s previous position. For instance, after going into painstaking detail about the use-value and exchange-value of commodities, Marx (1990, p. 133) states that “[l]abour, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labour, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself.”

The ahistorical aspect of this claim is paramount. For Marx what is a use-value is often historical. For instance, a bow and arrow have no use-value to a taxi cab driver in New York City, and a taxicab would have no use-value for the Bushmen. Moreover, in capitalism, commodities’ exchange-values are expressed in terms of a universal equivalent,  money, which is an entirely recent phenomenon. What remains ahistorical, though, are man’s creative labor and his need to labor.

Marx’s chapter on “The Labor Process” recalls home earlier statements he made regarding the uniqueness of man’s labor – especially compared to other animals – and universal aspects of species-being (i.e., essence, or human nature). In the labor process, man “sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his body…in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs…he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature” (Marx 1990, p. 283). Marx then wants us to understand the labor process ahistorically:

[Let us] presuppose labor in a form which it is an exclusively human characteristic. 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. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realizes a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be. [Marx 1990, pp. 283–4]

Previously, Marx had discussed human nature and had gradually, over many years, developed his theory of human nature that entailed man’s free and conscious productive capacity. It is in Capital that he affirms this theory and synthesizes it with his entire view of human nature. Marx gives shape to what he previously only alluded to.

David Harvey (2010, p. 112) points out that, “in his earlier works Marx made much of the idea of a distinctly human ‘species being’ … . This idea takes a backseat in the formulations of Capital, but it does occasional exercise a shadowy influence.” He goes on to cite the same passages I have cited.

As Harvey points out, this is very much a return to previous views, with the same hints of quasi-idealism – mediated by materialism – that can be found in The EP Manuscripts and the “Notes on James Mill.” Marx is not being a rigid materialist determinist; instead, he is pointing out a dialectical relationship between the material world, ideas, and their fruition (or lack thereof). Within the labor process, the material world informs us to a degree of what we can make, i.e., the ancient Aztec laborer cannot fathom an igloo in abstract thought, nor can the Eskimo fathom an adobe, but the actual moment of fathoming is the creative element that distinguishes man from other animals. Whether or not he succeeds to put the ideal into material reality is a process of praxis.

Marx makes one more reference to human nature, explicitly, in a chapter on the so-called “labor fund” and the transformation of surplus value into capital. The comment is made in a footnote, in a critique of Jeremy Bentham. The footnote is unabashedly biting and insulting to Bentham.

The principle of utility was no discovery of Bentham. He simply reproduced in his dull way what Helvétius and other Frenchmen had said with spirit in the 18th century. To know what is useful for a dog, one must study dog-nature. This nature itself is not to be 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 1970, p. 758]

Akin to his assault on the Hegelians and German Idealists in The German Ideology, Marx is at pains to reiterate his central criticism of philosophers. They continue to represent man’s relation to philosophical categories of thought as it appears at the present historical moment and not ahistorically. Utility under capitalism is an odious way of sorting out what is useful to humans, when it fails to consider that capitalism itself is a camera obscura of human nature. No matter how utilitarian we make capitalism, man’s nature is not in conformity with the capitalistic labor process. Marx posits that the Utilitarian never takes the time to deal with “human nature in general,” which would alert him or her to the odious nature of capitalistic Utilitarianism; but since Marx has already done so, he can see through the mirage that Utilitarian philosophy put before him.

There are other quotes regarding human nature to be found in the Grundrisse, volume 3 of Capital (which I’ll save for the end), and Theories of Surplus Value. None of them diverge from the path already established. When all of Marx’s views on labor, species-being, species-character, human essence, and human nature are considered together, we come across some very consistent themes of what is unique about man, distinguishable from the other animals. Some of these terms were utilized in his more idealistic work, and others in his more realist work, but the common theme remains consistent. Man can produce. Man can produce with ingenuity. Man will produce for subsistence and free expression. Man’s free and conscious production serves to gratify himself and his fellow man, and in so doing confirms what is singularly human. Thus, this is Marx’s view of human nature, when human nature is considered to be what is unique to the homo sapiens.

Human Nature and Alienation

Generally it is prudent to develop Marx’s theory of alienation against the backdrop of the thinkers he is responding too (e.g., Hegel and Feuerbach). Theories akin to alienation can be found dating back to Psalm 135 of the Bible. When wrestling with the ideas of German philosophers, usually system builders, to fully understand the thoughts of one thinker it is necessary to know what they are not saying and who they are responding to. However, developing the Marxian theory of alienation in this way would require more than is necessary for the point of this argument. Thus, Marx’s theory of alienation can be dealt with in isolation, and Feuerbach and Hegel will be primarily ignored.

When Marx first began reading the works of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and other mainstream economists, he drafted The EP Manuscripts. Much of the text is comprised of reversing the theories of Smith and Ricardo, telling the story from the point of view of the proletarian, i.e., the class that owns no means of production and sells its labor-power for a wage to the capitalist class. Marx is not yet rejecting the theories of his predecessors; he is pointing out their social-positional bias and justification of a system that is not perennial, but historical. The most popular essay in the book is Estranged Labor (or alienated labor). Ultimately in this chapter, Marx is taking the categories of bourgeoisie economic thought (e.g. wage, profit, value, wealth, etc.) and dialectically negating them against the species-being of man, or as I am arguing, man’s human nature. This means Marx is not seeing man in a vacuum, but he is also not seeing man as merely a social product without historically transcendent qualities. If man was only the latter, then there would be nothing stable to negate political economy against – in such a divisive fashion – since political economy would be the synthesis of man in his historical moment.

The EP Manuscripts consistently point out that the bourgeois political economists begin with the fact of private property and extrapolate economic “laws” from them. They never take the time to explain where private property (a historical social relation) came from, and, given its obvious temporal nature, private property cannot be explained in terms of timeless natural laws. Marx’s theory of alienation begins with seeing the worker as a commodity in this social ensemble. A commodity is an item on the market which serves some use. In capitalism the labor class is one such commodity. Labor is mostly readily abundant and it serves the value of generating profit and working the privately-owned machines of the capitalist class. Marx (2007, p. 69) thus informs us that, in revealing his theory of alienation and labor’s historically specific alienated being, he is giving us “actual economic fact[s].”

Political economy, Marx is convinced, never looks at itself from the point of view of labor, and thus hides the process of alienation. Labor is dichotomous. On one side – bourgeois – it produces unprecedented luxury, on the other side– that of the laborer – it produces privation, deformity, idiocy, and a cog-like existence (Marx 2007, p. 71).

These are the results of the historic moment of production; but there is alienation to be found in the actual act of production. Marx (2007, p. 72) say that “the product is after all but the summary of the activity of production. If then the product of labor is alienation, production itself must be active alienation, the alienation of activity, the activity of alienation.” The worker’s alienation from the product is laid out as the first of four primary aspects of alienation. The activity of alienation is the second.

This second feature of alienated activity is that the act of production is not under the laborer’s control. In capitalism, it is under the control of the capitalist. The worker does not get to exercise his intrinsic nature in work, but takes orders from the alien forces of the market and his capitalist exploiter. In so doing, Marx writes, in one of his most humanistic passages:

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 feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. [Marx 2007, p. 72]

The evidence Marx posits as proof of this first aspect of the theory of alienation is that man avoids work “like the plague” once he leaves work. If spontaneous work is the consummate fulfillment of man’s intrinsic nature, he ought to revel in it; but by being denied his essential being, he recoils from more labor. Since what is essentially human is now negated, man therefore only feels free and active in his “animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating…what is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.” This ultimately leads to “self-estrangement” (Marx 2007, pp. 72–3).

The third aspect of alienation is that man is alienated from his species being. “In practice and in theory he adopts the species (his own as well as those of other things) as his object, but – and this is only another way of expressing it – also because he treats himself as the actual, living species; because he treats himself as a universal and therefore a free being.” In capitalism, man no longer produces for the fellow members of his species; this form of producing is foreign to him. His only reasons for producing now are to satisfy his individual means of subsistence. In abstract political economy, and in the real world, workers now work for themselves as individuals, and not for their class or species. “Free, conscious activity,” as man’s characteristic form of labor, is nonexistent; labor is now coerced, and since it is now performed in a perfunctory manner, it ceases to be “conscious activity.”

The fourth aspect of alienation is a direct corollary of the previous problems. If man is alienated from his species being, he is consequently alienated from his fellow species, i.e., other men. Marx (2007, p. 77) points out that, if “that man’s species nature is estranged [alienated] from” him, then it necessarily follows that he is estranged from other men, as all men share the same “essential nature.” And that essential nature is to produce as a species-being.

Marx is seeing alienated labor in a historical moment predicated upon specific social and material conditions. Alienated labor is not insurmountable, nor is it necessary. Marx believes the act of producing one’s product for one’s fellow man, of one’s own free and conscious volition, is an objective measurement of the consummation of man’s fulfilled life activity. If man is a species-being, man can return to free production through class struggle. Marx retained this adamant view that man was not always alienated into his late years. Thus, he states in the Grundrisse:

What requires explanation is not unity of living and active human beings with the natural, inorganic conditions of their exchange of matter with nature, and therefore their appropriation of nature; nor, of course, is this the result of an historical process. What we must explain is the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active being, a separation which is posited in its complete form only in the relationship between wage labour and capital. [Marx (1857–8)]

It is the disunity of man from his natural way of life that is fully consummated under the capitalist mode of alienated production.

I contend that human nature plays a necessary role in the Marxian theory of alienation. The EP Manuscripts read in a very dialectical fashion. Marx is constructing a dialectical argument. Ultimately, he is stating that man is alienated from the product of his labor, the act of production, his fellow man, and thus himself. All four moments in the productive process lead to the amalgamation of his single theory of alienation. The whole qualitative experience of alienation cannot be consummated without four moments of alienating activity. Thus it takes four contradictions to lead to the consummation of alienation. But what are these contradictions, or negations, to be weighed against?

Marx’s theory of alienation is contradictory if one believes that he holds no view of human nature. Moreover, human nature can serve as the backbone, or crux, by which to clash the categories of political economy against. This viewpoint is true for several reasons.

Primarily, to posit that man is alienated from himself, as Marx does several times, is to posit that there is an ahistorical self to man. If man’s essence is nothing but the totality of his social relations, then man cannot possibly be alienated from himself, as there’s no static self to be alienated from. To put this more clearly, if Marx is not an essentialist, and believes there is nothing at root essential in the human being, then the necessary conclusion is that Marx believes man to be absolutely a product of his social environment. There is no dialectical relationship between human nature and nurture, and the forms each of these take in a fluid existence. Individual man is always a mirror of the entire social ensemble he finds himself in. Thus, instead of being alienated from himself, as Marx states, he can only be puttering along, and perhaps even flourishing. There is no static state of man on which to weigh the claim that he is alienated from himself; and yet Marx makes this very claim with polemical force.

The second reason why human nature is required to justify Marx’s theory of alienation comes in his reflection that man is alienated from his fellow man. If man loses the life activity of species being, Marx explicitly concludes that he is alienated from all fellow men, because this activity is in conformity with all mankind’s essential nature. This means that if man were to again produce in a species-being fashion, then it would be in harmony with his essential nature. This leads to the next necessary conclusion, that whether man is living under communism, or alienated capitalism, his essential nature remains rigid. What is fluid is how it gets expressed.

Finally there comes the third reason, which is commingled with two aspects of alienation. Man is alienated from the product and the activity of production. Being alienated from the activity of production means that man is producing products of alienation. If Marx does not believe this has to be the case, he must believe there is an alternative. Moreover, he also believes this alienated activity is leading to an animal-like existence, where what is human is lost and all that is left is fulfillment of animal sentiments. At issue here is what is a human expression, as distinct from animal expression, and how it is related to production and products.

To have a view of some characteristic of what humans do that differentiates them from all other species, is to have a view of human nature. As we have seen above, Marx does believe that ways of producing that are free and conscious, with species-being in mind, are distinctly human properties. What Marx is doing, in pointing out the alienation of man via his product and his productive activity, is showing that something that is fundamentally human is being denied and that this leads to an animal existence. He believes that only other animals produce in a fashion whose sole aim is means of subsistence. Ultimately, the claim that man is alienated from his product, his production process, his fellow man, and himself, is to imply that what is now estranged has been or could be harmoniously united. In order for us to achieve unity for man, in his social-being, we must have a positive view of man that transcends the alienated historical moment we find him in. This is a view of society that best expresses our human nature.

The Sixth Thesis

The most consistent and famous way to rebut all claims about a Marxian human nature is to point with vigor to Marx’s sixth “Thesis on Feuerbach.” Other claims are made, too, such as the claim that an epistemological break occurred, and obscure references to a more True/Mature Marx. I will focus only on the sixth Thesis, because the literature that refutes the claim of an epistemological break is rampant.

The sixth Thesis is:

Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations. Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled:

1.To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract – isolated – human individual.

2. Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as “genus”, as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals. [Marx 1992, p. 423]

There are a number of ways approaching this thesis and all of them have been consummately dealt with by Norman Geras in his book Marx and Human Nature. I do not want to reiterate what was already perfected. However, recognizing that there are serious issues with this thesis, and a view of essence, essentialism, and human nature, and seeming contradictions, I want to propose more than what Geras has left us with. If essence is “no abstraction inherent in each single individual [but] in…reality…the ensemble of social relation,” we must jettison the theory of alienation, because there is no static self for man to be alienated from. There is a similar quotation from The Poverty of Philosophy, which basically mirrors the sixth Thesis. John Bellamy Foster, quoting from The Poverty of Philosophy along with the sixth Thesis, concludes that, “rejecting all essentialism (apart from the practical, transformative nature of humanity itself, as Homo Faber),” Marx gave us his sixth Thesis. “[I]n other words, human beings did not consist of some fixed human nature residing in each individual, but rather, as he was to argue later, all history was nothing but the development (that is, self-development) of human nature through social intercourse” (Foster 2000, p. 113).

All the comments about human nature to be found in volumes 1–3 of Capital are either in contradiction to this thesis, “or” this thesis is in contradiction to all three volumes of Capital. But Marx can be rescued from the appearance of contradiction by getting at the essence of what he means by essence (ironically). In other words, there is no contradiction in accepting both the sixth Thesis and his claims in Capital, a position perhaps uncharted in Marxism.

These confused readings, constant contradictions, and mental gymnastics can all be avoided if Marx is read as being a rigid essentialist who sees a fluctuating essence to man. At first glance, this a contradictory view too, but as always Marx is consistently taking contradictions and developing new understandings within the framework of the old contradiction (i.e., he is basically thinking like a dialectician).

What is essential to man is already outlined above; and when this essential aspect of man is not met, he is alienated. Man is in fact Homo Faber (as Foster would claim), but the way in which man is essentially expressing life activity to the fullest, freest, and most consciously, consistent with his human nature, is to be Homo Faber in a way that confirms species-being. Fortunately, one other Marxist, Alex Callinicos (1984, p. 70), affirms this view, in a more lucid expression: “Under capitalist society, the worker is compelled to sell his strength and his skill to the capitalist. As a result he controls neither the products of his labour, nor his labour itself. What should be his life-activity, through which he affirms his humanity, or ‘species-being’, becomes a mere means to an end,” and becomes alienated from his “human nature.”

If this expression of human nature, shared by Callinicos, is what we qualify as essentially human, then what are we to make of the claim that Marx sees essence as always changing? And this claim cannot be completely ignored, as it crops up too many times in all areas of his analysis.

For Marx, essence and essentialism are distinct but united. Essentialism, however, must fundamentally play a role in how we are to view man’s essence at a given time. Essence is also to be expressed by man’s adaptation to his material circumstances, which are regionally unique and historically changing. Thus, we must blend the rigidness of essentialism and its expression against the backdrop of the socio-political society man finds himself in. In so doing, these constant phrases of man “developing” and “transforming” his “human nature” and/or “human essence,” reach a synthesis. Man’s essentialism is developed and most importantly expressed differently, not because it itself is different, but because circumstances, social relations, material factors, etc., are different.

Thus, the missing link between a constant Marxian human nature and this contrary view held by the previously mentioned authors is expression. How human nature is expressed in a particular socio-economic environment is going to be a part of the total essence of man. No matter what mode of production we view man in, his human nature remains an essential component of his capabilities and needs, but its expression can be alienated, mitigated, or flourishing. The essence of man must consider the expression of human nature in conjunction with other socio-economic particulars of a given historical moment (i.e., dialectically).

This is precisely why Marx fought for socialism and why any socialist ought to fight for socialism. Instead of seeing Marx as conducting some kind of epistemological break, or changing his mind about human nature and essence, we need to see him as developing a new theory of essence in general. One of the final chapters in volume 3 of Capital confirms this point of view – the point of view that Marx never went back on:

In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilized man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature. [Marx 1991, p. 959]


Marx still has much to tell us today. In fact, until capitalism is surmounted we cannot surmount the theories of Marx. But in order for Marx to tell us what we need to be told, we have to understand him and his theories as he intended them to be understood, and we must resolve the apparent contradictions that crop up (when they can be resolved). For any Marxists or socialists that want to retain the Marxian theory of alienation, the final moment of alienation (alienation of the self) needs to be reconciled with his theory of essence. Marx’s theory of human nature is the reconciliation of what the self is. Simultaneously, we need to address the issue of man’s essence under capitalism and recognize that, although man is completely perverted, exploited, and alienated under capitalism, this essence of crippled man is not what makes him essentially human, and it is certainly not what separates us from other animals. If we recognize human- nature as man’s essential component and social relations as part of his historical essence, we solve the apparent riddle both in the contradiction of alienation and the contradiction of Marx’s sixth Thesis.


Callinicos, Alex. 1984. The Revolutionary Ideas of Marx. London: Bookmarks.

Engels, Frederick. 2010. Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy. New York: International Publishing.

Foster, John Bellamy. 2000. Marx’s Ecology. New York: Monthly Review.

Geras, Norman. 1983. Marx and Human Nature. London: Verso.

Harvey, David. 2010.  A Companion to Marx’s Capital. New York: Verso.

Marx, Karl. [1857]. Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, part 1 (section of Grundrisse). Available at

_______. 1970. A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. New York: International Publishers.

_______. 1990. Capital: Volume I. New York: Penguin.

_______. 1991. Capital: Volume III. New York: Penguin.

_______. 1992. Early Writings. New York: Penguin.

_______. 2007. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Mineola: Dover.

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. 1975. The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

_______. 1995. The German Ideology. New York: International Publishers.

[1] Masculine nouns and pronouns will be used throughout this essay. This choice was made only for the sake of clarity, as the quotes by various authors are all masculine too.

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