k EngelsIn The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels present theirview of human nature and the effect that the economic system and economicfactors have on it. Marx and Engels discuss human nature in the context of theeconomic factors which they see as driving history. Freud, in Civilization andIts Discontents, explores human nature through his psychological view of thehuman mind.
Marx states that history “…is the history of class struggles” (9).
Marx views history as being determined by economics, which for him is thesource of class differences.
History is described in The Communist Manifestoas a series of conflicts between oppressing classes and oppressed classes.
According to this view of history, massive changes occur in a society when newtechnological capabilities allow a portion of the oppressed class to destroythe power of the oppressing class. Marx briefly traces the development of thisthrough different periods, mentioning some of the various oppressed andoppressing classes, but points out that in earlier societies there were manygradations of social classes.
He also states that this class conflictsometimes leads to “…the common ruin of the contending classes” (Marx 9).
Marx sees the modern age as being distinguished from earlier periods bythe simplification and intensification of the class conflict. He states that”Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostilecamps… bourgeoisie and proletariat” (Marx 9). The bourgeoisie, as thedominant class of capitalists, subjugates the proletariat by using it as anobject for the expansion of capital. As capitalism progresses, thissubjugation reduces a larger portion of the population to the proletariat andsociety becomes more polarized.
According to Marx, the polarization of society and the intenseoppression of the proletariat will eventually lead to a revolution by theproletariat, in which the control of the bourgeoisie will be destroyed. Theproletariat will then gain control of the means of production. This revolutionwill result in the creation of a socialist state, which the proletariat willuse to institute socialist reforms and eventually communism.
The reforms which Marx outlines as occurring in the socialist state havethe common goal of disimpowering the bourgeoisie and increasing economicequality. He sees this socialist stage as necessary for but inevitably leadingto the establishment of communism. Human beings, which are competitive undercapitalism and other prior economic systems, will become cooperative undersocialism and communism. Marx, in his view of human nature, sees economicfactors as being the primary motivator for human thought and action. He asksthe rhetorical question, “What else does the history of ideas prove, than thatintellectual production changes its character in proportion as materialproduction is changed?” (Marx 29). For Marx, the economic status of humanbeings determines their consciousness. Philosophy, religion and other culturalaspects are a reflection of economics and the dominant class which controls theeconomic system.
This view of human nature as being primarily determined by economics mayseem to be a base view of humanity. However, from Marx’s point of view, thehuman condition reaches its full potential under communism. Under communism,the cycle of class conflict and oppression will end, because all members ofsociety will have their basic material needs met, rather than most beingexploited for their labor by a dominant class. In this sense the Marxian viewof human nature can be seen as hopeful. Although human beings are motivated byeconomics, they will ultimately be able to establish a society which is notbased on economic oppression.
Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, presents a conception ofhuman nature that differs greatly from that of Marx. His view of human natureis more complex than Marx’s. Freud is critical of the Marxist view of humannature, stating that “…I am able to recognize that the psychological premiseson which the communist system is based are an untenable illusion. Inabolishing private property we deprive the human love of aggression of one ofits instruments…but we have in no way altered the differences in power andinfluence which are misused by aggressiveness, nor have we altered anything inits nature” (Freud 71). Freud does not believe that removal of economicdifferences will remove the human instinct to dominate others.
For Freud, aggression is an innate component of human nature and willexist regardless of how society is formulated. He sees human beings as havingboth a life instinct (Eros) and an instinct for destruction. In Freud’s viewof human reality, the source of conflict, oppression, and destruction in humansociety is man’s own psychological makeup.
Because of Freud’s view of human nature as inherently having adestructive component, he does not believe that a “transformation” of humans tocommunist men and women will be possible. Marx’s belief that the currentcapitalist society will evolve into a communist society is not supportableunder Freud’s conception of human nature because the desires of human beingsare too much in conflict with the demands of any civilized society. Thisconflict does not exist because of economic inequalities, according to Freud,but rather because it is in human nature to have aggressive desires which aredestructive to society.
Freud’s approach to the possibility of reducing conflict among humanityfocuses on understanding the human mind, the aggressive qualities of humannature, and how human beings’ desires can come into conflict with the demandsof human society. He does not believe that the problems of human conflict,aggression, and destruction can be solved by a radical reordering of society asthe philosophy of Marx suggests. Instead, Freud looks inside ourselves toexplore these problems. At the close of his work, Freud states, “The fatefulquestion for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extenttheir cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of theircommunal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction” (Freud111). Freud does not offer any radical solutions to human aggressiveness, butrather sees it as something that humans must continually strive to overcome.
He states “…I have not the courage to rise up before my fellow-men as aprophet, and I bow to their reproach that I can offer them no consolation…”(Freud 111). Freud can not offer some vision of a human utopia, but can onlysuggest that there is some possibility for the improvement of the humancondition and society, but also warns that our success at overcomingdestructive instincts may be limited.
Marx offers a radical philosophy which also sees conflict as one of theconstants of prior human existence. Unlike Freud, Marx believes that theaggressive and conflict-oriented aspects of human nature will disappear underthe communist society which he sees as the inevitable product of capitalism.
This is the hopeful element of Marx’s philosophy. However, if communism is notseen as inevitable or the possibilities for reducing human conflict before asocialist revolution are considered, then Marx’s view of human nature lockshumanity into constant conflict. If the future is to be like Marx’s version ofhistory, then there is little hopefulness in this view of human nature.
Works CitedFreud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Ed. James Strachey. NewYork: W.W. Norton, 1961.
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York:International Publishers, 1994. Category: Philosophy
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