The cover of Sean Sayers’s new studyfootnote displays a black-and-white photograph of Karl Marx, the bushy dark patch of his mouth in arresting contrast with the encircling white halo of beard and hair. The book proposes an argument as bold, graphic and firmly delineated as its cover, though with something of the same lack of tint and nuance.

For such a full-bloodedly Hegelian Marxist as Sean Sayers, the concept of human nature poses something of a dilemma. On the one hand, his Hegelian humanism spurs him to oppose those anti-humanist leftists who reject the idea of human nature completely; on the other hand, his Hegelian historicism results in a notion of human nature so thoroughly historicized that it is hard to know quite how it can be spoken of as a ‘nature’ at all. The idea of a historical human nature has something of an oxymoronic ring to it. Sayers’s case, forcefully if unoriginally, is that human nature, for Marx, is no stable, universal essence but a social, historical, developing process. At times, he describes human nature simply as the totality of these historically evolving powers, needs and capacities. But this is not quite what is usually meant by a nature. By ‘nature’, we mean those features of a thing which arise from the kind of thing it is, the genre to which it belongs, not just from the contingencies it undergoes. Sayers is rather keener on the social than the natural, but he does not seem to see that ‘nature’ refers to the way that our fellow creatures bear in on us at a level even deeper than sociality, in the very material constitution of our bodies. It was this that the early Marx called ‘species-being’. Laying eggs belongs to a hen’s nature, as tearing its feathers in a fight does not. Tearing its feathers involves its nature, since feathers and perhaps some kinds of conflict are natural to a hen, but to claim that anything a hen does is of its nature is to empty the term ‘nature’ of significance. It may make sense to say that someone is cruel by nature, but it would be odd to say that someone dropped a tea-spoon by nature, unless we meant that such carelessness was typical of him. If one holds that an empirical description of how things contingently evolve is all that we can stretch to, then one would be well-advised to drop the confusing use of the word ‘nature’ altogether.

Culturalists and historicists may want to claim, improbably, that there are no such natural features of humanity; or that there are but that they are scarcely significant; or that, while somewhat significant, they do not define the peculiar nature of humanity; or that such universal features always come fleshed out in social form. Sayers champions the latter two cases, which few Marxists or non-Marxist humanists would doubt anyway; he also accepts, some of the time at least, that there are permanent, transhistorical properties of humanity. Thus, having at one point dismissed the ‘romantic’ attempt ‘to circumscribe a fixed sphere of “natural” or “true” needs’, he later concedes precisely this, acknowledging that ‘there is a relatively unchanging core of purely biological needs’. Elsewhere, he seeks to modify his case yet again by insisting that the distinction between ‘true’ and ‘false’ needs is a historically relative affair, as though it were a historically relative judgement that the need to drink is in general more important for human beings than the need to drink while wearing a crimson-spotted tie. But his attempt to cling nominally to a notion of human nature while effectively historicizing it away leads his study into a more general kind of ambiguity, which, at times, veers close to simple confusion. Social relations ‘provide the necessary framework’ within which alone human nature may develop, which suggests a distinction between the two, but, at the same time, ‘human beings are social and historical beings through and through’, which might be taken to imply that their ‘nature’ simply is a matter of social relations. If this is so, then there is a logical problem in determining what is a matter of social relations. The empirical species known as humanity, perhaps; but this is hardly a nature in any cogent sense of the term.

To describe human beings as social and historical through and through, however, may not mean that they are nothing but their history. It may mean, more persuasively, that their transhistorical or universal features are as socially instantiated as all their other features. Sayers must presumably mean something like this, thus softening his otherwise rather hard-nosed historicism, since he acknowledges that human beings are, among other things, natural organisms equipped with certain relatively unchanging features. Indeed, no one could reasonably doubt this; the quarrel over ‘human nature’ cannot be over whether one accepts this fact or not, but over how strongly it should figure in a historical account of the species. Human beings, Sayers uncontroversially observes, are not ‘merely’ natural organisms but self-transforming historical creatures. This leads him to reject Martha Nussbaum’s self-consciously essentialist attempt to draw up a list of basic universal human needs which could act as politically criterial: demands such as the promotion of human autonomy, Sayers somewhat questionably claims, are too vague and general to be of much use. On the other hand, with notable inconsistency, he acknowledges that such minimal, universal demands as freedom from torture, starvation and injury can, in themselves, provide the basis for a powerful critique of capitalism. It is just that he does not consider that such demands exhaust the claims of Marxism. Obviously not; but the point is not whether Marxism is reducible to such claims—who ever thought it was?—but how much moral and political weight is to be ascribed to them. And, here, Sayers’s position is symptomatically unclear, torn as it is between a Hegelian-historicist belittling of timeless natures and a proper political sensitivity to the explosiveness in current global conditions of simply insisting that everyone gets enough to eat.

The natural, then, is granted its place; but what Sayers bestows with the one hand he customarily retracts with the other. This universal aspect of humanity ‘must not be regarded in isolation as a pure timeless essence, for human nature is also something which has developed historically’. To claim that human nature has developed historically may be to imply that there is an identifiable thing called human nature which has undergone a history, a significantly different case from the book’s efforts elsewhere to identify these two notions. And to reject the idea of human nature as a timeless essence, on the grounds that human nature is ‘also’ something which has developed historically, is to re-instate the very duality which one is striving to overcome. Sayers is reluctant to characterize what he recognizes to be the universal, relatively unaltering features of humanity as a ‘timeless essence’, but it all depends on what you mean by timeless essences. Death is not timeless in the sense that my death will occur at a certain time and in a certain culturally specific mode, but it is indeed timeless in the sense that we do not die simply because we belong to a specific historical period or set of social circumstances. Death, and other such universal aspects of humanity, is not an essence in the sense that it is the underlying source of all our historical fashioning, of which that history is then a mere phenomenal expression, but it is surely an essence in the sense that it is of the essence of the kind of entities we are, a constitutive, ineradicable dimension of our natures.