Marx on Freedom and Human Nature


Marx 1.2: Freedom and Human Nature Revolutionaries often say things like this:
They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom! It’s a good slogan, but what does it mean? If they kill you, haven’t they also taken
your freedom? Are all these random minions any more free
under a Scottish king than under an English one? Are you less free if your rulers wear suits
of armour and serve divinely ordained monarchs than if they wear suits of, idunno, whatever,
and serve the divinely ordained ‘free’ market? The answer to these questions depends on your
concept of freedom and whose freedom you care about. Marx took the radical approach of calling
for the freedom of all human beings. In this, he was opposed by almost all liberals
and conservatives of his day – who usually wanted to exclude people who were non-European,
non-white, women, working-class, and so on. For Marx, freedom was at the core of what
it means to be human. And the only way for everyone to be free is
through real democracy and socialism. This is not something that the apologists
of capitalism can accept. But what is freedom anyway, and why is it
so important? Let’s see what Marx has to say. [Queen – I Want To Break Free] Marx’s concept of freedom is rooted in his
views on consciousness. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts
of 1844, he writes that: Man makes his life activity itself an object
of his will and consciousness. He has conscious life activity. (…) Conscious life activity directly distinguishes
man from animal life activity. Only because of that is he a species-being. Or rather, he is a conscious being, i.e. his
own life is an object for him, only because he is a species-being. Only because of that is his activity free
activity. Marx says this in later works as well, including
Capital. For example, in Volume 1 of Capital he writes
that: We presuppose labour in a form in which it
is an exclusively human characteristic. A spider conducts operations which resemble
those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction
of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect
from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs
it in the wax. (…) Man not only effects a change of form
in the materials of nature; he also realizes [verwirklicht] his own purposes in those materials. And this is a purpose he is conscious of… Apart from the exertion of the working organs,
a purposeful will is required for the entire duration of the work. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of
the work and the way in which it has to be accomplished, and the less, therefore, he
enjoys it as the free play of his own physical and mental powers, the closer his attention
is forced to be. For Marx, the labour process ‘is the universal
condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed
condition of human existence’ and ‘is common to all forms of society in which human
beings live’. Marx thinks that human beings, unlike other
animals, have consciousness. Consciousness, he thinks, is unique to humans,
universal among them, and distinctive of human beings as a species. Consciousness is an internal capacity that
enables humans to reflect upon, deliberate on, direct, and change their activities as
needed. This capacity makes it possible for humans
to consciously direct their own activity, and this makes it possible for us to be free. At this point you might be thinking, doesn’t
all of this presuppose some idea of an invariant human nature that Marx rejects? In the Theses on Feuerbach, Marx famously
criticises Feuerbach for wanting to resolve the “religious essence into the human essence”. To do this, he abstracts from society and
history to find the origin of religious ideas in a static and ahistorical concept of the
human essence. This becomes something that ‘can be comprehended
only as ‘genus’, as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many
individuals’. Against this, Marx argues that ‘the human
essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social
relations’. The powers of consciousness that Marx thinks
make freedom possible and important are not the kind of static and ahistorical property
that thinkers like Feuerbach make use of. It is not some ‘internal, dumb generality’. Marx distinguishes between ‘human nature
in general’ and ‘human nature as historically modified in each epoch’. For Marx, as we’ve said, consciousness is
a kind of internal capacity that humans share. This capacity, however, is developed and expressed
differently in different contexts and forms of society. Consciousness enables humans to be free, but
only under the conditions that allow it. So, what does it mean to be free? For Marx, you are free in an activity if and
only if you consciously self-direct that activity. This requires having both the right internal
capacity – consciousness – and external conditions that allow you to use that consciousness
to direct your activities. So, when people work for slave owners, overseers,
or bosses, they’re not free because they can’t control their activities themselves. Just like you’re not really free when you
live under kings and queens – no matter which country they’re from. Freedom is important, Marx thinks, for two
reasons. Firstly, it’s a particularly important and
valuable mode of human development and flourishing – for more on that, see the previous video
in this series [link thing]. Secondly, freedom positively impacts the development
of many other human powers. Unfree labour is, Marx writes, ‘external
to the worker, i.e. does not belong to his essential being’. In such labour, the worker ‘does not confirm
himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop
free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind’. It is ‘therefore not voluntary but forced,
it is forced labour’. The idea here is that when you carry an activity
out freely, rather than being forced, you’re able to enjoy it much more. When you are free, you’re also able to develop
the different powers you use in that activity much more than if you’re not. This idea is supported by a number of psychological
studies on autonomy, which show that the experience of self-direction has numerous benefits for
human well-being and even for productivity. Furthermore, the benefits seem to hold across
different societies, including ones which do not necessarily value self-direction explicitly. And look, you probably don’t need science
to tell you this. Lots of students, scientists, artists, small
business owners work incredibly hard and love what they do. And one of the reasons why they love and prefer
their jobs to ones that require less work, is that they have more control over what they
do and how. I think that pretty much any job I’ve ever
had would have been much better if we didn’t have a boss and could run the show ourselves. Freedom is a question of who’s in control
of your life. Do you control your activity, your life, or
is it controlled by someone or something else? Now, if we’re being honest with ourselves,
we know that we’re not all that free. We know that much of our lives is run by fear
of bosses and governments. They decide the rules we have to follow. They change the rules when it suits them and
they can get away with it. And they can punish us if and when we refuse
to follow orders. If we don’t follow orders at work, we can
be demoted, have wages docked, be fired, and so on. If we don’t follow the laws of the state,
we can be fined, imprisoned, and worse. We’re not free – at least not yet. But we can change that. And one of the things we need to change that,
is to understand what makes us unfree. As we’ll see later, Marx argues that one
of those things is capitalism. We can’t just destroy economic structures
– any society needs to feed, water, and house its people. We need to replace these institutions with
others. But which others? The utopian socialists thought that dreaming
up a perfect new world and convincing people would be enough – especially those with
lots of money and power. No need for class struggle, no need for revolution,
no need to worry about fascism, backlashes, and other reactionary violence. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels
criticise the utopians because they lack a scientific understanding of capitalism, the
society they want to replace. They therefore neglect the importance of class
power and class struggle to changing society and think appealing to kind-hearted capitalists
will work to convince them to introduce socialism. As a result, the utopians’ plans become
unrealisable and they end up working against the only social force – the working class
– able to take us to socialism. This idea is actually pretty intuitive. You often can’t cure something if you don’t
have a diagnosis of it. If you don’t know what the problem is, how
can you find a solution for it? If we want to understand what a free society
looks like, we first need to understand what makes us unfree. One of those things is capitalism. In this episode we’ve seen how Marx thinks
that “free conscious activity constitutes the species-character” of human beings. In the next, we’ll see how capitalism’s
alienation “tears” this “species-life” away from us. In other words, we will see how we are made
unfree by capitalism. Thank you for listening. Please like/share/subscribe for more of our
stuff, click on the notification bell if you want. If you have any questions, please ask them
in the comments and we’ll try to answer them either there or in a Q and A video.

13 thoughts on “Marx on Freedom and Human Nature

  • Hey Red Plateaus, this is a well researched video, and very lucid as well. There are, however, a couple of concerns I had with your (and probably Marx's) argument.

    Firstly, the notion of 'consciousness' should be further elaborated upon if one is to qualify it as that which marks humans separate from other species/animals (and as a result, its relationship with social organisation of production and reproduction). In his essay, 'The Animal in the Study of Humanity', Tim Ingold argues that it is not our consciousness per se that makes us standout – rather, it is our capacity for 'thought' (as that composed of symbols, signs, and language). Many species, other than our own, are conscious of their surroundings and in fact respond to specific situations by assessing them thoroughly. They are not driven purely by an instinct that commands a pre programmed set of actions, for no species would be able to survive if that were indeed the case. Their actions are thus in tune although not completely determined with what they are conscious of. I thus think that 'consciousness' requires further discussion.

    Secondly, are all humans conscious? And conscious in what sense? Those suffering from mental disorders may have incoherent thoughts, or no thoughts at all. A child is not capable of thought till a certain. Is she still 'human'? What is our basis for creating this population/species called 'human'?

    I guess I am just prompting you to clarify these in order understand whether the whole thesis of freedom/species-being/so on rests on unqualified or qualified grounds.

  • Thanks to everyone for watching! We do not have a Patreon, but if you're looking for a worthy cause please consider supporting Anarchopac. She is a disabled trans woman who has been making invaluable YouTube content for years. Her PhD will advance our common understanding of the development of anarchist revolutionary strategy. Link: https://www.patreon.com/anarchopac/overview

  • anarchopac recommended your channel to me.
    I must say your videos offer a new ideas and have very high production value.
    Great work and keep exploring these thought provoking ideas.

  • I've started reading volume one of Capital with a friend. I'm finding the early chapters difficult to read and that his writing could be more accessible, but otherwise he's a really good analyst. I look forward to seeing your future videos. This was really clear and your visuals are great.

  • This is a brilliant introduction into Marx's philosophy. I really love the way you spend a lot of time looking into the metaphysics/ethics of Marxism, therefore making his economic thought seem more well grounded.

    This was worth every second of my life, thx!

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