In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx makes it clear that he opposes a view of the human being and human nature which states that human beings are necessarily greedy and selfish. However, he does not oppose the selfish nature of the human being by stating that human beings are naturally altruistic and good. Rather, Marx believes that human beings and how human beings act are conditioned by the structure of economics and society, that is, how we relate to what he terms means of production. In other words, we can adjust our relation to economy and society so that we produce a positive form of the human being. In the following, I will argue in favor of Marx’s rejection of the greedy and selfish nature of human beings by demonstrating how different organizations of society create different images of the human being.
In order to understand Marx’s claim that human beings are not necessarily selfish, it is first necessary to understand Marx’s deeper claim that there is no human nature as such. That is to say that we cannot say that the human being is inherently greedy, but also at the same time, we cannot say that the human being is inherently good. Marx, instead, presents a vision of human history which is above all determined by particular economic arrangements of society. These economic arrangements of society may be based on selfishness and exploitation, but these are particular arrangements of society and not a definitive statement on what the human being is.
For example, consider the fundamental division in capitalist society between the bourgeois and the proletariat. The Communist Manifesto states the following: “Society as a whole is more and more splitting into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — bourgeoisie and proletariat.” (p. 32) The very existence of two hostile camps, of two sides in the class struggle, demonstrates that Marx opposes any type of definitive statement about what the human being is: this is because human beings, in this phase of history according to Marx, are either bourgeois or proletariat, and these two sides are completely opposed to each other. The human race itself is split along two different traits and qualities in this model. In this sense, Marx is correct in saying that human beings are not inherently greedy, because he opposes the simplified model that states “human beings are X”. The concept of class struggle itself shows that human beings can either be exploiters or exploited, for example. The problem is not with the human being and his or her inherent nature, but rather how society is ordered and structured.
Marx makes this clear when he distinguishes between bourgeois society and Communist society. He writes that “in bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.” (p. 34) What Marx is not doing here is trying to state that the bourgeois society is not an instance of human organization. This would be an absurd thesis, since society is composed of human beings. Rather, Marx is asking us to make a choice between which kind of society we wish to live in. Both societies are equally “human”, they are ways in which human beings have decided to relate to the world around them. But what Marx is critiquing is the ethics of these societies. A society where living people are dependent and where no individuality exists is for Marx an example of the bourgeois society. This is the society where capitalism and economy dominates. Marx wants to question the values of this society and what it holds to be important.
Marx makes clear that historically what has occurred is not that human beings are inherently greedy or that they are inherently good, but rather that our social arrangements have been structured around exploitation: “One fact is common to all past ages, viz. the exploitation of one part of society by the other.” (p. 42) Here, since the structure of exploitation is argued to be common in all history, it could be argued that Marx is saying that human beings are not inherently good, but the exact opposite: they are inherently bad, because exploitation is a common feature of human societies. However, this also would miss the argument Marx is making, since a society based on exploitation is also a society where those who are exploited also exist. Marx’s fundamental question is the following therefore: he asks if we want to live in a society that is premised on exploitation or one that is not premised on exploitation.
Those who oppose Marx would state that it is impossible to eliminate exploitation. However, in one sense, Marx is making a similar claim, because he is stating that the history of human society is a history of human exploitation. What Marx is truly asking therefore is the following: if we understand that the history of human society is structured in this way, can we not find an alternative and change it? Must we become fatalists who accept some eternal essence to the human being as greedy and exploitative? But must we also accept that there are human beings on the other side of the conflict who must always be victims? Marx rejects both of these premises and asks us to consider change.
For these reasons, Marx opposes the greedy and selfish nature of the human being by opposing any essential nature of the human being. We need to understand how our societies have worked historically. Furthermore, we have to understand that these social forms are unjust and that exploitation and injustice are part of human history. However, and this is the key point, this does not mean we are doomed to repeat this same history. By learning our shared history and the structure of our social problems, we can change them through critical intellectual thought and action.