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 understandably devoted attention to the role of theory and of ideology—often at the expense of the more evidently materialist aspects of traditional Marxism. Of late, this emphasis has been contested: Abercrombie, Hill and Turner have questioned the thesis of a dominant ideology and insisted that Therborn’s work on ideology, for example, understates the extent of economic and political constraints (NLR 142); or again, Brenner and Ramas wish to modify Michèle Barrett’s stress on the ideology of female independence by pointing to the severe limitations imposed on working-class women by the demands of pregnancy, childbirth and infant care (NLR 44). In the same vein, although of course much more generally, Norman Geras argues that the more mundane material facts of human existence are neglected by Marxists at their peril. It is a commonplace that western Marxism, for historical reasons, has had a tendency towards idealism, a purer and purer theory replacing the apparently declining opportunities for successful practice. Indeed, the long quarrel between those favouring structure as opposed to subject or subject as opposed to structure—a quarrel so central to much of western Marxism—often has very idealist overtures on both sides. For both the Althusserian and the Lukacsian traditions have little regard for empirical material. Thus work which manages to confine both philosophical rigour and respect for the self-evident realities of material life is extremely welcome.

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 concerned to contest. He does not deny that the words could bear this interpretation, but insists that, in the context of Marx’s other writings, such an interpretation is totally implausible. Given that Marx had held the view as early as 1843, well before he was a historical materialist, that ‘man is the world of man, the state, society’ and the insistence on basic human needs in The German ideology itself, Geras has no difficulty in establishing his point. More interestingly, he also shows convincingly that Marx does not depart from the view in his later writings.

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.

The final chapter of the book is more open to question. Here Geras wishes to demonstrate not only that Marx did not reject a concept of human nature, but that he was in fact right not to do so. This is a large topic. Although Geras successfully refutes a variety of objections to the view that there is a constant human nature—e.g. that this is an inherently reactionary opinion—the very brevity of his treatment raises a number of questions. The central one is the distinction between facts and values. This distinction is part of the main Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition and one that Geras subscribes to—though this is never stated very clearly. Since Marx himself evidently did not subscribe to such a view, there is inevitably a certain amount of reconstruction to be done in giving an account of Marx’s theory involving such terms—and this would demand much more space than Geras allows himself. Thus he claims that any genuine materialism must insist that human beings are ‘absolutely continuous with the rest of the natural world.’ But at the same time he admits that they have linguistic, productive and reasoning capacities that ‘make possible a transformation of the environment that no other earthly species is capable of.’ More importantly, Geras’s espousal of the fact/value dichotomy leads him to suppose that important claims about human nature can be construed as empirical non-normative hypotheses. As an example, he suggests that people will in general be happier if they have the opportunity to give vent to the breadth and variety of activity that Marx thinks to be characteristically human. But it is difficult to interpret statements involving the concept of happiness without supposing that they involve value judgements. For happiness is not a value-free concept such that one can first define it and then choose whether to consider it a good. This approach leads to a separation of theory from moral judgement that is quite uncharacteristic of Marx. To say of Capital that ‘whatever else it is, theory and socio-historical explanation, and scientific as it may be, that work is a moral indictment resting on a conception of essential human needs, an ethical standpoint, in other words, in which a view of human nature is involved’, is surely not an accurate description of how Marx at least conceived his work. In what is primarily conceived of as an exegetical commentary this divergence should be made a lot clearer.

Finally, a more general point as to why this book is welcome. For too long the left in general has abandoned a whole series of powerful concepts which reactionary thought has then been able uncontested to manipulate to its advantage. A whole series of socially progressive measures have been presented—quite implausibly—as having the authority of the Judaeo-Christian tradition behind them. Nationalism, also, has been an alien phenomenon for Marxists, and one that they have taken a long time to come to terms with. A narrow-minded approach has too often neglected the fact that the area of persuasive definitions is also an area of vital political struggle. The Right has been able to give the impression that it has a monopoly of religion, of naturalism, and even of ‘human nature’. In the last case, at least, Norman Geras’s incisive analysis has shown them to be wrong.