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Differentiation, decomposition, alienation, estrangement: these words appear again and again in Marx’s writings as descriptions of the failures of capitalism. For him, an emphasis on community and equality was the solution to the degrading atmosphere of competition that he observed around him. Much of his work could be interpreted as an attempt, often through critiques of the divisions he observed in capitalism, to imagine and describe a social order characterized by unity. Only in this future society could his implicit and elusive concept of human nature be finally realized.
In Marx’s writings, it is clear how private property and the division of labor lead to the alienation of man from man and from the product of his labor. The capitalist mode of production creates a society in which men compete for personal gain and use each other for egotistical ends, even to the point of inventing artificial needs in others in order to profit from them. Private property unjustly cuts off a piece of the external world from the worker who produced it, creating unnatural divisions in nature. The labor that allows for this private wealth is “hostile and alien;” instead of producing a product that satisfies real human needs, it becomes an indirect means to satisfying those needs. Furthermore, the capitalist system strips men and objects of their individual history and complexity, reducing them to a single trait” their exchange value.
The personal implications of this economic situation”man’s alienation from himself and from nature” are more complex and less distinct. Marx claims that in the capitalist system, the wage laborer experiences a “loss of reality” during his labor. While he works, he numbs himself to the external world in order to continue. These theories were based on the conditions of urban factories during perhaps the most miserable stage of the Industrial Revolution: workers were cut off from sunlight and fresh air, and exposed to fumes and constant noise during a working day that could easily exceed 12 hours. Repetitive and dangerous work often led to deformity, illness, or injury. Laborers could not consider this setting their “real” life and continue living sanely. The worker only lives outside of work, but these scarce hours are marked by exhaustion and the unending struggle of poverty. The appalling conditions the worker must endure clearly alienate man from even his animal nature; no creature in nature would voluntarily remain in conditions that caused such physical harm. However, Marx’s primary proof of man’s alienation from himself is his inability to engage in uniquely “human” activities, which he has neither the time nor the resources to enjoy. These “conscious life activities” are enumerated as reading books, dancing, loving, traveling, and learning, among others. These modes of self-expression and self-development are not options for the wage laborer.
At the other end of this extreme, the ruling classes enjoy a heightened experience of life, at the expense of the oppressed proletariat. The rich have the time and resources to develop their own talents, use their intellect, and cultivate a greater appreciation of the external world. However, the capitalist degrades himself when he defines his human worth by his property and possessions. He wastes his wealth on extravagance, treating it as something to be annihilated for instant gratification. He shows himself to be a “sacrificed and empty being” when he uses his prosperity simply to display power, instead of as a means to pursue “conscious life activity.” The cruel subordination of others that this unjust power allows is as inhuman as the worker’s inability to love and learn.
Despite these harsh critiques of society, Marx does not propose that civilization inherently alienates man from the external world. He realizes that “the forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present.” The development of art and music, for example, has cultivated our eyes and ears. Marx recognizes the cultural contributions of the ruling class throughout history; even the capitalist system has admirably created an international culture and a degree of interdependence between nations, both of which have promoted a kind of intellectual emancipation. Until the arrival of capitalism, it was only the inequality characterizing civilization, caused partly by a lack of awareness of “species-being”, that was unjust. Uncivilized man was a slave to “crude practical need,” but we now have the means of production to produce abundance and satisfy everyone’s needs. However, capitalist society, despite the wealth that efficient industry allows, creates even greater perversions in nature in the way it divides and objectifies men, nature, and commodities, reducing them all to the common denominator of exchange value. Where former societies simply distributed wealth unfairly, thus failing to actively promote human development, the entire structure of capitalism was based on divisions that destroyed community and alienated man from external nature. In a Marxian society, however, the prosperity and other benefits of bourgeois culture would be preserved but shared, whereas the inequalities and divisions would be eliminated, in order to unite “two sides of one whole (133).” In this new social order, the isolating competitiveness of capitalism would disappear, to be replaced by harmony and collective effort. The ideal society that Marx envisions sheds light on his understanding of human nature, as well as that of man’s complex relationship to nature itself.
If Marx did not have some concept of human nature, he would have no justification for valuing one kind of society over another. Clearly, he envisions a state of affairs that would do justice to humanity. Though he claims, “the human essence…is the ensemble of the social relations,” he obviously does not think that human beings can “adapt” to the kind of conditions and interactions that the wage laborer endures in the capitalist system. There must be an inherent human nature that is somehow violated and that will ultimately rebel against this situation. A clue to this conception of an innate, though malleable, human nature can be found in the statement, “the relation of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being” (83). Though relations between men and women have changed outwardly, there is an element of mutual need and mutual regard that has varied little throughout history. Furthermore, he implies that socialist society will not alter this state of affairs. To the extent that this relationship can be considered a constant in human nature, he seems to suggest that certain human attributes can be assumed.
Marx proposes that throughout human history, we have controlled nature to satisfy our needs, thus creating “humanized nature”. By changing the external world, we also change ourselves. But unlike animals that instinctively behave in accordance with nature, we act consciously. Marx hopes that, though we have the choice not to act in harmony with nature, we will decide to take a respectful role towards nature and create a sustainable environment for ourselves. In this society, we would interact with nature instead of simply using it for our own ends.
While many philosophers would make human nature a slave to nature through innate “instincts”, Marx rather seems to put the two concepts on some kind of equal footing, as though nature and human nature were neither equivalent nor conflicting, but rather two complementary concepts. Describing socialism, he states, “thus society is the consummated oneness in substance of man and nature” the true resurrection of nature” the naturalism of man and the humanism of nature both brought to fulfillment.”
With this kind of humanism, there is no need for religion, for there is no need to ponder anything “higher” than our own noble existence. With enough effort, true freedom could be achieved in this life, among men, instead of only in heaven. It seems that humanism thus becomes an exaltation of some kind of human essence that deserves dignity. This human dignity could only manifest itself when men themselves choose to treat nature and each other with respect.
Nonetheless, Marx’s concept of “fulfillment” is left vague in his writings. Is it the fulfillment of an intrinsic human essence, an innate potential of humanity that has yet to be realized? On the other hand, he also maintains that “the nature which comes to be in human history… is man’s real nature.” It is unclear whether human nature can be found in the past or in the future. However, it is undeniable that Marx was looking ahead with great hopes and expectation towards a drastically different future. Whereas the idea of human nature usually connotes some kind of continuity with the past, he was more interested in human potential, and ultimately seemed to conceive of human nature as a forward-looking yearning towards a particular kind of society. Paradoxically, it seems that to remain in or regress to the past, to a crude “state of nature” is actually to deny human nature, which is undergoing a constant evolution. Instead of defining men with certain fixed characteristics, Marx emphasized humanity’s continuous desire for freedom, both physically and intellectually. It is part of human nature to strive towards this goal, to move beyond “crude practical need”, though the form of this striving may change. Seen in this light, the drive to pursue uniquely human activities could be the impetus for the ruling class to implement unjust systems of distribution. The resulting cruel behavior would not be part of human nature; it is instead a perversion of nature, the result of the capitalist model of society. However, though this desire for self-determination is perhaps the stronger feeling, Marx believes that ultimately, the even more deeply ingrained aspiration towards harmony and unity will prevail. Without eliminating the freedom that other models of society have created for the rich, socialism would create a balanced interdependence among men and between civilization and nature. To a certain extent, humanity has been incomplete up until now because civilization has opposed itself to nature. Marx, on the other hand, foresaw a new unity between society and nature that would finally fulfill human nature.
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