In this novel treatment of an old topic, Norman Geras has found himself facing in two diametrically opposite directions: within the Marxist tradition, there are those who wish to deny legitimate room for any concept of human nature; and there are others who, so far from wishing to deny the attribution of common characteristics to human beings, think such statements about human nature to be merely self-evident, banal and therefore no integral part of a Marxist perspective. In spite of having to direct his attention to both these groups at once, Geras has avoided developing an intellectual squint by producing a precise and sharply focused discussion. As might be expected from the no-nonsense analytical style and the largely exegetical approach, he is more successful in the narrower task of disposing of the opponents of human nature than in dealing with those who insist on its irrelevance to Marxism.
Geras’s book is an excellent example of the development of a distinctively Anglo-Saxon approach to Marxism.footnote1 Perry Anderson has recently pointed out persuasively that ‘today the predominant centres of intellectual production seem to lie in the English-speaking world, rather than in Germanic or Latin Europe. . . . the traditionally most backward zones of the capitalist world, in Marxist culture, have suddenly become in many ways the most advanced.’footnote2 In the fields of economics and history there has long existed a steady stream of substantial contributions from English-speaking Marxists. But only recently has this been matched by essays which bring to bear on Marxist concepts the procedural standards and analytical methods of philosophy as practised in the Anglo-Saxon world. Allen Wood’s Karl Marx, Gerry Cohen’s book on historical materialism and many of the articles in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs are among the numerous examples of this trend.
Allied to philosophical precision, there is in Geras’s book a refreshing commonsensical materialism. Much recent western Marxism has under
This short book (it is barely over a hundred pages) aims to do two things: to show that Marx did not reject the idea of a human nature and also to show that he was in fact right not to do so. On the first score, Geras succeeds completely. His main target here is the widespread influence of Althusserian ‘anti-humanism’ in disseminating the belief that Marx’s emphases on historical specificity and historical change preclude him from holding any general conception of human nature. In the face of a lot of evidence to the contrary from the whole body of Marx’s work, those who wish to deny the existence of a human character that is constant have relied mainly on Marx’s Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach. And it is to an extended discussion of this text that Geras devotes the first third of his book. The relevant part of the thesis reads: ‘The essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.’ Geras separates out three possible interpretations of Marx’s meaning: (1) that in its reality the nature of man is conditioned by the ensemble of the social relations; (2) that in its reality human nature, or the nature of man, is manifested in the ensemble of social relations; and (3) that in its reality the nature of man is determined by, or human nature is dissolved in, the ensemble of social relations. And his argument is that the first sense does not exclude a concept of human nature in that the dependence declared by it is not complete and that therefore the character of human beings must depend on something else as well and can be due in part to stable, natural causes. Nor does the second sense carry the implications that the opponents of human nature would want to see: for the reference to a social and historical diversity in no way tells against the concept of a human nature since there is nothing in the thought to say that such diversity does not contain permanent characteristics inherent in each human being. But the third sense above does involve the denial of a human nature and this is the reading of the Sixth Thesis that Geras is
Curiously, however, the one point where Geras seems to overstate his case is in attempting to use as evidence for his thesis Marx’s well-known criticism of Bentham in Capital. Marx here says: ‘To know what is useful for a dog, one must investigate the nature of dogs. This nature is not itself deducible from the principle of utility. Applying this to man, he that would judge all human acts, movements, relations, etc. according to the principle of utility would first have to deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as historically modified in each epoch. Bentham does not trouble himself with this. With the dryest naivethc) he assumes that the modern petty bourgeois, especially the English petty bourgeois, is the normal man.’ This statement of Marx’s is surely completely ad hominem: the hypothetical construction means that this passage only commits Marx to a concept of ‘human nature in general’ if he were a utilitarian—which would certainly need some arguing for.