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Irving Howe

Book Review

Human Nature: The Marxian View

(August 1946)

From New International, Vol. XII No. 6, August 1946, pp. 189–191.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Human Nature: The Marxian View
by Vernon Venable
Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1945, $3.00

This book, written as a doctoral thesis, has as its purpose the presentation of what Marx and Engels said about the problem of human nature. It is a difficult task, for nowhere did Marx or Engels, perhaps precisely because of their views, write any rounded exposition on human nature. Mr. Venable has therefore patiently collected paragraphs here and phrases there, read the texts with evident care and attempted to present Marx’s beliefs on human nature.

The reorganization of familiar material in a somewhat unconventional pattern presents certain difficulties and challenges. One maybe familiar enough, for instance, with the classical Marxist description of the rise of industrial capitalism viewed as socio-economic history; but approach the same matter while attempting to derive Marx’s conception of human nature and you realize how very much the study of history depends on the purpose for and viewpoint from which it is conducted. I mention this shift in perspective because it seems a little difficult and at present not especially necessary to reach any binding conclusion about the value of this book: there is not enough relevant material with which to compare it. And, in addition, Venable has written in typical doctorate style, his work being full of heavy academic jargon which is foreign to the spirit of the very subject he discusses, and full, too, of the timorous hesitancy which is characteristic of the American professor. Nonetheless, since it is virtually a pioneer work, at least in English, the book requires the attention of all Marxists.

It is clearly easier to say what Marx did not believe human nature to be, than what he did believe. Venable’s first section is therefore the familiar retelling of the Marxian case against any a priori theory of human nature, any static conception of immutable essences applicable to all times and conditions regardless of social level or economic organization. That human nature is flexible, amenable to change under varying social conditions and – as far as we can tell today – not predetermined or pre-limited by innate categories which make a classless society impossible by definition; all this is, or has been until very recently, quite commonly accepted. The approach of modern anthropology and sociology has buttressed this relativist emphasis. (Though it should be noted that in the current trend away from scientific method and rational inquiry to various forms of intuitionalism the withdrawal of the intellectuals characterized as the “failure of nerve” there has been a recrudescence of static and reactionary instinct theories of human nature). But between Marxism and even the most historically-minded of the pragmatists there remains an important difference of approach even on this matter: Granted that human nature is a flux and is variable, how is one to explain the forms and directions of its change? Contemporary liberal American sociology and anthropology flounder badly on this question; they lose themselves in an unrelieved relativism in which the investigator merely points out that differences in human behaviour exist in various societies, but make no attempt to move beyond that necessary descriptive prelude. This kind of barren relativism of the liberal school (e.g. Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture) can become as absolutistic as the most insistently absolutist approach to human nature.

For the Marxist – and in pointing this out Venable does an excellent job – man is by definition a social animal; he differs from other animals in that he doesn’t merely use nature, but masters it and to an extent controls it. Such activity is necessarily social, even in the most primitive societies. And as Engels says in a remarkable sentence: Not only does labour change man, not only is it a necessary condition of human existence, but labour created man himself. It is literally impossible to think of a human being outside of some labor relationship, apart from some social context. But it is not labor in the abstract with which we are concerned; it is rather with various social relationships, productive patterns which determine the forms and kinds of divisions of labor which impress upon each generation or group of generations its distinctive character.

The method of historical materialism, then, insists that what man is at any given time – how he lives, loves, dreams, thinks, “projects,” and idealizes – is determined basically by the kind of society in which he lives. But this is not where the problem ends; it is where the problem begins.

Human Nature and the Historical Process

Venable, in the second half of his book, attempts to discover what in the actual historical process determines the course of human activity and results in the complex known as “human nature.” He does not content himself with a mere general statement about the crucial influence of environment factors, but proceeds to break down these factors into four categories: 1) the general nature of labour itself, which involves the application of the biological organism to external surroundings; 2) the social relationships within which that biological organism functions, that is the totality of class relationships which, rising upon certain productive levels, result at any given time in the society that encompasses and delimits individuals; 3) the natural objects of labor such as raw materials, “unworked nature”, etc.; and 4) the instruments of labor utilized by factor 1) upon factor 3) within the framework of factor 2). Now this scheme does not create hard and fast categories, or at least shouldn’t; it is intended as a method of isolating various aspects of the historical process in order to study them and subsequently better to form an integrated conception.

There is no predetermined rule which informs us which of these always unequally weighted factors (separable, be it noted, only for purposes of inquiry: in actuality, they deal with a total process) is most important at any given time. An undue emphasis, let us say, on the instruments of labor may lead to a technological heresy in historical approach; correspondingly with others. It is here that the skill, intelligence and insight of the investigator enters; and it is here that the need for specific research and historical material cannot be replaced by mere reliance upon method itself.

The problem of human nature, then, is inseparable from – is, in measure, the same as – the problem of the social relations which prevail within a society. But, it may be asked, is there not a general biological foundation, a continuity in type which exists regardless of societal forms and which is independent of them? Are there not universal urges and instincts which remain unchanged? The question is not a meaningful one, in our opinion. For it is impossible to conceive of a human being outside of conscious society; and what we believe to be generic traits of humanity are merely the summary observation of partially continuous characteristics which – since societies are themselves in a continuum and not unrelated replacements – cannot be isolated from social relationships. The conception of a generic biological being with formed characteristics outside of society may be useful as an analytical myth, in the sense that Rousseau’s social contract theory was once so useful, but it has no other basis: one cannot conceive of man without thinking of him as part of some form of society, for it is that which gives him his unique status as man. It is from this point of view that Marxists must categorically reject as historical methods all approaches which construct supra-historical categories, be they idealist imperatives or libidinal drives. “The human essence”, wrote Marx, “is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual; in its reality it is the ensemble of all social relations.”

Scientific Basis of Marxist Idealism

One other interesting problem is raised by Venable which has a special applicability to the present day. Did Marx and Engels, E0r all their insistence on realistic description, have a utopian conception of human nature? Didn’t Engels write, in his Condition of the Working Class in England of the Londoners who “have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature”, of “a hundred powers which slumbered within them”? Wasn’t the conception of “alienation” which is so central to his system an idealist wish-thought? If one views the matter from a mechanical standpoint, one is forced to say that Marx and Engels did have an idealist approach after all (Max Eastman once discovered this all by himself!) for then one must deny the existence of potential qualities which occasionally spring up in human behaviour. These qualities arise not from some hidden source of good buried deep in the human soul, but from the fact that even under capitalism certain forms of activity permit cooperation and decency, as for instance class solidarity among workers. Marxism is not merely descriptive; it is frankly and unashamedly directive and normative in its approach. It deals not only with what is, but with what can and should be – and only pedants can therefore deny its claim to scientific stature.

But its normative aspects deal with possibilities that are real in the context in which they are raised, which is why Marx rejected the Utopian Socialists. It is meaningless to make the directive statement, “Let us prevent the sun from shining,” because thus far it is impossible for man to control the sun; but it is correspondingly meaningful to say “Let us abolish unemployment by constructing a socialist society.” Marxism is thereby scientific in that it deals with real possibilities, and directional and partisan in that it favors certain of those possibilities. Marxism is not merely a political-economic method; it is a call to arms, a summation of the greatest ideals of human history within the framework of a relevant program rather than an irrelevant utopia; it is material science and directive morality united.

In the above paragraphs, I have tried to suggest some of the provocative problems raised by this book. The reader should be warned, however, of its deficiencies as well: it is scholastic and pedantic in its approach; it deals not with the tradition or method of Marxism but only with the actual writings of Marx and Engels themselves and therefore does not discuss the challenges to Marxism offered by other theories; and above all, its scholasticism prevents it from appreciating the role of revolution as the major and triumphant historical factor which transforms human nature in the most extraordinary way. The Great French, the American, and the Russian Revolutions have been the climactic points of modern history; and it is to them, rather than to anything else, that one must turn in order to understand modern man.

Within these limits, however, Venable has written a useful work. It should stimulate more original and bolder thinkers to a creative and integrated work on Marxism and human nature. In the meantime, it deserves the attention of every serious Marxist student.

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