On Human Nature

Date: 13 February 2023

Author: Indescribled

Tags: N. America, Philosophy

Human nature is often a point of attack for anti-communists - they say that communism cannot work because it is incompatible with human nature; that humans are naturally greedy. They believe that a small number of people will always end up gaining control with their own personal interests in mind, tossing the rest of humanity to the wayside. The anti-communist argument that human nature is greedy is incorrect as it denies the fact that our nature changes over time according to the material conditions we live under. Capitalism is a system that encourages and rewards greed, accumulation, and exploitation - it is no surprise that many people see the current wealth inequality in the world and assume human nature as a whole is greedy. Could the opposite be true - that human nature is inherently good and cooperative. While not anti-communist, this does fall into the thinking that human nature is always one thing, unchanging. We ask ourselves the only logical question - what did Karl Marx say on the topic?

Karl Marx

Marx, in his usual fashion, never came out and clearly said “human nature changes”. However, he did write about it in many more indirect ways - which we will be exploring here:

“M. Proudhon does not know that all history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature.”
-The Poverty of Philosophy

What Marx is describing here is a dialectic relationship between human nature and history. History acts upon human nature, and vice versa. While this does not actually describe WHAT human nature is, it is clear that it is changing.

“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.”

Now, Marx is criticizing Betham for applying one formulation of human nature to the entire history of humanity. We can look to Mao for further insight; in On Contradiction, he makes the point that just because one contradiction can be solved by a certain method does not mean that others can be solved by the same one - or taking the understanding of human nature at one specific time does not mean that it is the same at every time. Marx’s criticism of Bentham begins to outline his thoughts on human nature: that it cannot be studied as one, single thing, but as something that is constantly changing - both between and during modes of production and historical epochs. Now, we can begin to try and understand the specifics of human nature.

“Labor, then as the creator of use values, as useful labor, 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.” 


“I am being assured that after I return [from hospital] I shall be fully able to work, and being unable to work is indeed a death sentence for any man who is not an animal.” 


These two are paired together because they both are discussing labor. In both, Marx strongly emphasizes the importance of labor - for the entire existence of human life and as an integral part of our lives. Marxists do not argue for the abolishment of labor, the end of work. We are fighting for a world without private property, without one class exploiting another. There will still be labor, but not as we understand it in capitalism today. The key distinction is that performing labor is not necessarily the same as selling labor power to a capitalist, selling chunks of your day and your life away only to be able to survive. Marx’s statements are that it is human to labor, to work. What form such labor takes can be quite varied: raising children is labor, teaching is labor, learning is labor, building, farming, and so many more actions are labor - while under capitalism they are often not considered as such because we do not sell our labor-power to do many of them. The takeaway: survival is an intrinsic part of human nature, which we achieve through labor. With no labor, there would be no human existence. Labor is necessary for survival. 

“The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power and has in it the semblance of a human existence. 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, to use an expression of Hegel, in its 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.” 

-The Holy Family

One of the largest contradictions under capitalism is that of private property and social labor. We come together to work at companies, factories, restaurants, businesses, etc., but the result of our labor goes to whoever privately owns the property, and we get only a small portion. Due to the contradiction of private property and social labor, Marx is here describing a resulting contradiction - one of human nature and the societal conditions. The two are incompatible, a “comprehensive negation” of human nature. What exactly is being negated? The aforementioned part of human nature that is to labor, and the ability to receive the benefits of such labor.

We are left with a problem - how is it different to say human nature is to labor than human nature is greedy or human nature is cooperative? In each case, it is defined as one static thing. From reading these Marx quotes and an understanding of dialectics, our theory is that human nature is twofold:

Bourgeois/Modern sources

Despite potentially being influenced by bourgeois society, there are serious philosophers trying to understand such a complicated topic. Their work should not be dismissed simply because it may come from a bourgeois institution, they may line up with what Marxists say or even give further insight. To start, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy mentions five varying thoughts on the expression of human nature:

The first holds that human nature can always be explained in one way. Such an explanation believes it is static and unchanging because the implication is that these social organizations are completely excluded, meaning human nature will never change to include their possibility. It also rejects history itself and the evidence of egalitarian societies that have existed throughout human development. While it is not explicitly stated in the definition, these explanations often mean socialism and communism cannot work, because they believe the singular explanation of human nature is greed.

The second seems to seek one ultimate theory of human nature, that can be added to over time. Again, the theory here is one of a static and unchanging nature. What would be changing is our understanding of it, but if we had omnipotence then there would be one singular explanation. By chasing one “true, normative, ethical theory”, the expectation is that the theory, once found, will fully explain human nature. Can such a theory ever actually be achieved?

The third is interesting and does actually imply that it is possible to change human nature, but that it is immoral to do so - meaning that changing it would be an intentional act that someone, or some group, engages in. When not attempting to alter it, the understanding holds that it does not change. Further, it rejects dialectical connectivity by attempting to isolate humankind from the material world.

The fourth is seems to mean that bringing up whatever human nature really is can actually be harmful. It is uncertain if the understanding here implies human nature is static or changing - more so that it may be dangerous to even attempt to consider or discuss. Either way, it is a rejection of a scientific mindset, similar to the idealism perpetrated by the Catholic Church in old times where attempts at understanding the world were considered witchcraft and evil.

Finally, the consideration is given to the lack of existence of human nature at all; potentially implying that there is no overall general guiding principle in any way in regard to human action. The conclusion here is definitely not that human nature is changing - because it is non-existent.

There are countless more interpretations, here are a few from Introduction to Philosophy:

“No man voluntarily pursues evil, or that which he thinks to be evil. To prefer evil to good is not in human nature”
- Socrates, pg 79

No one who knows that the result of honesty is always positive would choose wickness when s/he is aware it has a negative reward”
- Ọrunmila, pg 79

Ethical naturalism argues that performing good actions fulfills human nature, while performing evil actions distorts it
- pg 248

Conservatism maintains that human nature is fundamentally flawed and that we are driven by more selfish desires than by empathy and concern for others
- pg 360

As a whole, there are only a few of the non-Marxist considerations of human nature that could even remotely imply change. The vast majority seem to mean that human nature is one thing - unchanging and static. Some of the explanations are general, while others go into more specifics and actually state if it is good, bad, or something else. The only consensus seems to be that there is no consensus among philosophers.

In conclusion, the communist stance is that human nature does change - in general and in particular. Human nature is not greedy, as some philosophers or bourgeois sources would say. As Marxists, as dialectical materialists, we understand that our world influences our thoughts and that all things are in motion - including human nature. We’ve probably all heard “Communism works in theory” and the implied or stated continuation of that is that it fails because of human nature. Combatting and understanding anti-communist propaganda is necessary to be able to discuss these topics with friends, family, coworkers, and others.