||Marx and Engels on Human Nature, 1844-1884||Its relation to a Culture of Peace for the 21st Century|
In his early writings, the Economic and Philosphical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx considered what he called our "species-being", i.e. human nature, in terms of labor: "animals also produce. They build nests and dwelling, like the bee, the beaver, the ant, etc. But they produce only their own immediate needs or those of their young; they produce only when immediate physical need compels them to do so, while man produces even when he is free from physical need and truly produces only in freedom from such need; they produce only themselves, while man reproduces the whole of nature; their products belong immediately to their physical bodies, while man freely confronts his own product."
Marx understood that capitalism, by imposing "estranged labor," had alienated us from our own nature: "Estranged labour, therefore, turns man’s species-being - both nature and his intellectual species-power - into a being alien to him and a means of his individual existence. It estranges man from his own body, from nature as it exists outside him, from his spiritual essence, his human existence."
It is very important to keep in mind that Marx and Engels considered labor to be a natural and desirable activity of the human being. Over the course of history, labor has been made burdensome by the alienation imposed by slavery, feudalism and capitalism. Marx and Engels would have disagreed strongly with Trotsky when he claimed that "as a general rule, man strives to avoid labor. Love for work is not at all an inborn characteristic ... One may even say that man is a fairly lazy animal."
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels consider that many basic social relations are determined not by human nature but by economic relations and they can be transformed by revolution, including private property, labor, personal freedom, the family, education, the status of women, nationalism and religion.
Marx and Engels followed closely the scientific developments of the late 19th Century in evolution (for example, Darwin) and anthropology (for example, Morgan) as well as the other sciences and considered what they could teach us about human nature. Toward the end of his life, in 1884, Engels summed up his findings in a major book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. He showed how these institutions had changed over time, clearly through social evolution and not through biological evolution.
Engels pointed out, in his chapter on Barbarism and Civilization that when social institutions are very strong, people come to take them for granted as if they were part of human nature: "The more a social activity, a series of social proceses, becomes too powerful for men's conscious control and grows above their heads, and the more it appears a matter of pure chance, then all the more surely within this chance the laws peculiar to it and inherent in it assert themselves as if by natural necessity."
Engels could have been describing the situation today in countries like the United States where sociobiologists are quoted by the mass media and by university professors to say that capitalism is "natural", that certain races (or men) are superior to other races (or women), that intelligence is inherited, and that violence is part of human nature.
The ruling class tends to use human nature arguments when all else fails. Today, the mass media closely linked to the ruling class justify war as well as male domination by claiming that it is intrinsic to human nature, just as in the 19th Century they justified slavery by "human nature" arguments. For a scientific rebuttal of the claim that war is determined by human nature, see the Seville Statement on Violence.
Marx and Engels did not fall for these myths. Instead they sought to understand how over the course of history capitalism had evolved, certain races had gained power over others, men had gained power over women and violence had been institutionalized and perpetuated by the state. They believed that this could all be changed by revolution.
Education about human nature is essential to education for a revolutionary culture of peace. Insofar as people are fooled by myths concerning human nature, they are less likely to take part in revolutionary action. They will think, "What's the use in trying to build socialism if capitalism is part of human nature," and so on. To be empowered, people need to realize the true cultural potential of humanity to create a new society of peace and justice.