In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels present their view of human nature and the effect that the economic system and economic factors have on it. Marx and Engels discuss human nature in the context of the economic factors which they see as driving history. Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, explores human nature through his psychological view of the human mind. Marx states that history ‘…is the history of class struggles’ (9). Marx views history as being determined by economics, which for him is the source of class differences. History is described in The Communist Manifesto as a series of conflicts between oppressing classes and oppressed classes. According to this view of history, massive changes occur in a society when new technological capabilities allow a portion of the oppressed class to destroy the power of the oppressing class. Marx briefly traces the development of this through different periods, mentioning some of the various oppressed and oppressing classes, but points out that in earlier societies there were many gradations of social classes. He also states that this class conflict sometimes leads to ‘…the common ruin of the contending classes’ (Marx 9).
Marx sees the modern age as being distinguished from earlier periods by the simplification and intensification of the class conflict. He states that ‘Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps… bourgeoisie and proletariat’ (Marx 9). The bourgeoisie, as the dominant class of capitalists, subjugates the proletariat by using it as an object for the expansion of capital. As capitalism progresses, this subjugation reduces a larger portion of the population to the proletariat and society becomes more polarized. According to Marx, the polarization of society and the intense oppression of the proletariat will eventually lead to a revolution by the proletariat, in which the control of the bourgeoisie will be destroyed. The proletariat will then gain control of the means of production. This revolution will result in the creation of a socialist state, which the proletariat will use to institute socialist reforms and eventually communism. The reforms which Marx outlines as occurring in the socialist state have the common goal of disimpowering the bourgeoisie and increasing economic equality. He sees this socialist stage as necessary for but inevitably leading to the establishment of communism. Human beings, which are competitive under capitalism and other prior economic systems, will become cooperative under socialism and communism.
Marx, in his view of human nature, sees economic factors as being the primary motivator for human thought and action. He asks the rhetorical question, ‘What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed?’ (Marx 29). For Marx, the economic status of human beings determines their consciousness. Philosophy, religion and other cultural aspects are a reflection of economics and the dominant class which controls the economic system. This view of human nature as being primarily determined by economics may seem to be a base view of humanity. However, from Marx’s point of view, the human condition reaches its full potential under communism. Under communism, the cycle of class conflict and oppression will end, because all members of society will have their basic material needs met, rather than most being exploited for their labor by a dominant class. In this sense the Marxian view of human nature can be seen as hopeful. Although human beings are motivated by economics, they will ultimately be able to establish a society which is not based on economic oppression.
Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, presents a conception of human nature that differs greatly from that of Marx. His view of human nature is more complex than Marx’s. Freud is critical of the Marxist view of human nature, stating that ‘…I am able to recognize that the psychological premises on which the [communist] system is based are an untenable illusion. In abolishing private property we deprive the human love of aggression of one of its instruments…but we have in no way altered the differences in power and influence which are misused by aggressiveness, nor have we altered anything in its nature’ (Freud 71). Freud does not believe that removal of economic differences will remove the human instinct to dominate others. For Freud, aggression is an innate component of human nature and will exist regardless of how society is formulated. He sees human beings as having both a life instinct (Eros) and an instinct for destruction. In Freud’s view of human reality, the source of conflict, oppression, and destruction in human society is man’s own psychological makeup. Because of Freud’s view of human nature as inherently having a destructive component, he does not believe that a ‘transformation’ of humans to communist men and women will be possible.
Marx’s belief that the current capitalist society will evolve into a communist society is not supportable under Freud’s conception of human nature because the desires of human beings are too much in conflict with the demands of any civilized society. This conflict does not exist because of economic inequalities, according to Freud, but rather because it is in human nature to have aggressive desires which are destructive to society. Freud’s approach to the possibility of reducing conflict among humanity focuses on understanding the human mind, the aggressive qualities of human nature, and how human beings’ desires can come into conflict with the demands of human society. He does not believe that the problems of human conflict, aggression, and destruction can be solved by a radical reordering of society as the philosophy of Marx suggests. Instead, Freud looks inside ourselves to explore these problems. At the close of his work, Freud states, ‘The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction’ (Freud 111).
Freud does not offer any radical solutions to human aggressiveness, but rather 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 a prophet, 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 only suggest that there is some possibility for the improvement of the human condition and society, but also warns that our success at overcoming destructive instincts may be limited. Marx offers a radical philosophy which also sees conflict as one of the constants of prior human existence. Unlike Freud, Marx believes that the aggressive and conflict-oriented aspects of human nature will disappear under the communist society which he sees as the inevitable product of capitalism. This is the hopeful element of Marx’s philosophy. However, if communism is not seen as inevitable or the possibilities for reducing human conflict before a socialist revolution are considered, then Marx’s view of human nature locks humanity into constant conflict. If the future is to be like Marx’s version of history, then there is little hopefulness in this view of human nature.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Ed. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1961. Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York: International Publishers, 1994.
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