Marx on the Human Being
October 31, 1995
Before turning to the Marx material, I discussed some aspects of the conceptions of "reason" held by Schopenhauer and Hegel.
In Schopenhauer's terminology, reason (German: Vernunft) is one component of human intellect. In its most general sense, intellect is the possession of non-human animals, in the form of perception. What distinguishes humans from other animals is the ability to form abstract concepts. Using these concepts, we escape from the "here and now" of a world of mere perceptions. Compare this with Feuerbach's view that the human being is "species being," that is, being which thinks of itself as species. Schopenhauer does not require of reason's concepts that they be reflective of the self, only that they be universal, as opposed to particular perceptions.
Hegel's conception of reason is more complex, in that it is less a faculty of individual human beings than it is a world-historical force, whose ends are unwittingly carried out through the otherwise-insignificant desires of individual humans. Reason is described as "substance," "infinite power," "infinite material," and "infinite form." Moreover, both "spirit" and "matter" are said to be governed by rational principles.
We may try to put Hegel's view in perspective by comparing it to Aristotle's telological world-view. For Aristotle, change is the passage from potential to actual. The acorn is a potential oak tree, and the mature tree is the realization of the potential of the acorn. The potential is the material element, while the acutality is the formal element of a substance (the oak tree). In a sense, the form is the "reason" the acorn develops as it does into an oak.
It is easiest to conceive of Hegel's "reason" as the formal end guiding the development of world-history. What develops is "spirit," which Hegel contrasts with "matter." Although the behavior of matter is itself guided by rational principles, history is concerned with the unfolding of the end of reason through the behavior of self-conscious beings. The end itself if the consciousness of spirit that it is free. One way of describing this end is as the realization of the "idea" of freedom. It is the idea which is the actuality, the form, and it is the actions of human beings in the realm of natuer which are the potential, the material, which work their way toward this realization. Thus we can understand reason as form; but what about reason as "substance," "material," and "power?"
One might wish to identify form, substance and power. The form is the essence, what a thing is, and in this way it is the substance of the thing. Moreover, because it is the end of change, it is the power which activates the product of change. But philosophers generally have held that the material, the potential, element is unformed, is that which only takes on the form. So how could reason be the material which is informed by itself?
In the arena of history, the answer is that spirit is the material, and that spirit is inherently rational. Spirit is said to be "self-contained existence." It is consciousness that finds itself as its object. What occurs in the process of history is no more than the perfection of self-conscousness in the recognition of its freedom, its self-contained existence. The form, the idea, the rational element of spirit is knowledge of itself. And the material is spirit which does not yet recognize itself.
This idealist view of human destiny was roundly criticized by Feuerbach. He was willing to grant that the human being is distinctive because of its recognition of itself as belonging to a species, as having more than individual significance. A kind of self-consciousness is thus the hallmark of the human being. The problem is that idealists like Hegel locate the essence of humanity in something not human, in a being which is pure consciousness. In this way, humans become alienated from their own essence. Feuerbach's solution to the problem of human aleination was the overthow of religion, whose conception of God the embodiment of human alienation.
As was noted earlier, Marx criticized Feuerbach for failing to clear up the source of human alienation. He held that the basis of alienation is not at all conceptual, but rather lies in concrete relations between individual human beings and both nature and other humans. The problem lay in his failure to recognize that human nature is essentially active, not contemplative, and the concurrent failure to recognize that the most significant human action is carried out through co-operative activities.
The human being is a part of nature, and the re-shaping of nature is the outcome of human activity. Co-operation allows large-scale production, and in the nineteenth-century industrial society such production had reached its high point. But the success was hollow througout, for in the attaininment of the means to actualize the potential of humanity, humanity itself was lost. It had become fundamentally alienated.
Nature is shaped through the activity of workers, who churn out an endless stream of objects in the great factories. But immediately these objects are lost to the worker: they are taken away and sold. In return the worker receives wages, which barely (if at all) enable the worker to survive. In this way, the worker becomes a slave to the object. His existence is dedicated solely to the production of the object, which in turn is the only means of his survival. The humanity of the worker is placed into the object and then taken away. Every increase in value, refinement, power, etc. in the object impoverishes the value, refinement, power of the worker. The more of a commodity a worker produces, the less its expense in the marketplace, the lower the wages of the workers producing them. Marx proclaimed this a law of economics ("political economy"), and it may be illustrated by the present economy, where increases in "productivity" lead to lower wages and greater unemployment.
The activity of labor becomes degraded as well. One would rather do anything than do one's jobl Life becomes animalistic, concerned primarily with consumption and reproduction. And the purpose of work is only to perpetuate this miserable existence. Human life becomes inhuman, because human activity is no longer species activity. There is no regard for the universal, for humanity itself, only for the perpetuation of individual existence.
This brings out the final aspect of alienation. More important than the alienation of the worker from his object and from his own activity, he is alienated from master for whom he toils. What is drained from the worker is appropriated by the factory owner in the form of private property. It is the ownership of private property which makes all this alienation possible in the first place, and the elimination of alienation, the elevation of humanity to its rightful place, can only take place through the elimination of private property.
Thus Marx's position is communistic. In the absence of private property, work would be done for the common benefit. In another one of the "Paris Manuscripts" of 1844 (which contains the piece on "Alienated Labor" just discussed), Marx penned a utopian vision of a communal society.
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