Marx was notoriously vague about future society. It is ironic, then, that in the minds of most laymen he is often associated with a very specific utopian vision. As anyone familiar with Marx’s works will know, no blueprint for this vision actually exists. Nevertheless, it would be very misleading indeed to suggest that Marx left us no clues as to his thought on the future. The clues are there in much of what he wrote about the past and the present, in his analysis and criticism of class society, in his exposure and condemnation of exploitation. And the evidence is such that, despite all the feuds, debates and discussions about what Marx did or did not say or did or did not mean, there is almost universal agreement as to the value he hoped future society would promote: human self-realization. It is therefore important that advocates of Marx’s vision should take seriously and respond to criticism of this ideal. In his recent book, Making Sense of Marx, Jon Elster provides a list of eight objections which, though not exhaustive, includes most of the basic points raised by critics and constitutes a useful framework for assessment of the viability or non-viability of the self-realization ideal. Let us examine the eight objections in turn.

First, with Marx’s famous ‘hunter in the morning, critic in the evening’ passage in mind, Elster raises what we might call the depth/breadth issue. He writes: ‘There is a trade-off between depth and breadth of achievement that prevents an individual from doing as well in all the fields within his competence as he can do in any of them.’ footnote1 Although there is obviously more than a grain of truth in this idea, the problem is not as straight-forward as a ‘trade-off’ whereby any gain in breadth must necessarily be a loss in depth. It is quite conceivable that, up to a point, familiarity with a range of subjects will enhance specialized knowledge in any particular area. In support, I would like to call upon a somewhat unlikely ally, Adam Smith: ‘When the mind is employed about a variety of objects, it is somehow expanded and enlarged, and on this account a country artist is generally acknowledged to have a range of thoughts much above those of a city one. The former is perhaps a joiner, a house carpenter and a cabinetmaker, all in one, and his attention must of course be employed about a number of objects of very different kinds. The latter is perhaps only a cabinetmaker; that particular kind of work employs all his thoughts, and as he had not an opportunity of comparing a number of objects, his views of things beyond his own trade are by no means so extensive as those of the former’. footnote2 Although it is not entirely clear, Smith seems to be arguing that, in this instance at least, breadth actually contributed to depth. But even without such an assumption, we might ask whether there is not something almost counter-intuitive about the idea that people must or even can choose either breadth or depth. Everyday experience presents us with so many instances of people who do a number of things (often quite well), and so few instances of people who excel at one single thing and are wholly inept at everything else.

Admittedly, if we take the point to the extreme, the possibility of absurdity is there. You will never have a nuclear physicist/concert violinist/master carpenter/architect rolled into one. footnote3 But surely no one, given the possibility, would spend every moment of their active life concentrating on one activity—even if this were the way to maximum achievement in their field, rather than a recipe for burn-out and nervous breakdown. Is the idea of individuals who are good at, and get satisfaction from, several activities so far-fetched? Is it not possible to imagine a person who is engaged in scientific research, has a taste for music, possibly plays an instrument, enjoys some physical activity, sometimes builds model aeroplanes, and does a bit of plumbing—for himself and neighbours—on the side? Do we not, in fact, regularly encounter such people (I am sure Alec Nove has a whole range of talents) and find them less than superhumanly amazing? Is it also not remarkable that such people are usually from certain income brackets and not from others? Is this not the problem Marx was addressing rather than whether a person can be a cook, drive heavy lorries, fill teeth and repair aero-engines?

Secondly, Elster wonders whether a society devoted to the ideal of self-realization might not ‘exclude or stigmatize those who prefer the passive pleasure of consumption’. footnote4 Again, the creation/consumption distinction is too starkly drawn as if we were dealing with elements in a zero-sum game. For consumption and creation can and do enrich each other. All too often Elster’s criticisms rely on reductio ad absurdum argument of this kind. Elsewhere in this connection, for example, he remarks that in a society made up entirely of creators there would be no consumers of creations (‘If I want to read a book, I write one myself’). footnote5 But to suggest that people have the potential to be creative, that they should be given the opportunity to develop their creative capacities, and so on, does not entail putting everyone in isolation chambers where they can create endlessly. Marx spoke of the development of all the human senses: ears, eyes etc; and the capacity for intelligent consumption is an aspect of human nature which must be allowed to develop in conjunction with ‘pure’ creativity. In any case, is there not a creative, participatory element to consumption? You cannot appreciate a piece of music if your mind is wandering at the time—there is a difference between hearing and listening—and you cannot appreciate it if you have not had the opportunity to develop your capacity for enjoying music. Even the decision to listen to one piece of music rather than another is a self-expressive choice. Is there not, similarly, a passive element in creativity? In order to create you must have thoughtfully absorbed the creations of others. There can really be no such thing as pure creativity any more than pure passivity. That is why Marx emphasized the development of a rich, many-sided individuality, the development of all the human senses, and so on.

Is it really controversial to suggest that anyone, given the opportunity, will engage in some form of self-expressive activity to some extent? Surely a person who wants only to consume is as inconceivable as a person who wants only to create. What is conceivable is that people may be forced by circumstances to develop only ‘passive’ or only ‘active’ aspects of their personalities. ‘If the circumstances in which the individual lives allow him only one-sided development of one quality at the expense of all the rest, if they give him material and time to develop only that one quality, then this individual achieves only one-sided, crippled development. No moral preaching prevails here.’ footnote6 Marx based his advocacy of ‘many-sided’ lives for everyone on an empirical assumption: namely, that, conditions permitting, human beings will choose to participate in a range of activities (manual, mental, creative, ‘passive’, etc.). This assumption is open to empirical refutation. The critic might undertake to show that there exist a whole number of people who prefer to devote their entire time to one single form of activity, people who want to do nothing but write all the time, people who want to do nothing but read all the time, and so on. The kind of criticism which does not seem justified is the suggestion that Marx himself advocated the exclusive development of any one aspect of human nature.

Thirdly: ‘The ideal of self-realization,’ Elster warns, ‘is one that easily can degenerate into narcissism and self-indulgence.’ footnote7 After all that has been said about the importance, to Marx, of society in the make-up of individuals, after the almost exaggerated emphasis placed on the fact that he said human beings could not be defined in abstraction from society, it seems absurd that his ideal of self-realization should be associated with narcissism. Admittedly, in the case of some thinkers—Stirner comes to mind—self-realization did seem to border on narcissism, but Marx spent more time criticizing such views than he did in promoting his own. (Anyone familiar with Marx’s depiction of self-realizing activities as the most damn seriousness, the most intense exertion, etc. will find the charges of self-indulgence and narcissism doubly absurd.) Elster goes on to say, in a way reminiscent of Mill on happiness, that an obsession with self-realization may be self-defeating in as much as it is only by doing other things that we can achieve it. An important point, but not one that renders self-realization incoherent as an ultimate goal.

Fourthly: ‘Work, in modern industrial societies, offers limited scope for the kind of self-realization Marx had in mind.’ footnote8 In Elster’s view, the often repetitive, monotonous and boring nature of industrial tasks, as well as the fact that they are generally performed under conditions of coordination and supervision make them inimical to free, creative activity. No doubt if people in future society have to spend most of their time doing repetitive, monotonous and boring things, they will have little opportunity for self-expression and self-realization. (It is not so clear that coordination and supervison are equally inhibiting. Can coordinated and supervised activities never be self-expressive? I am thinking, for example, of musicians in an orchestra.) The issue raised by this fourth objection is closely linked to another discussed by Elster earlier in his book, viz. did Marx think people in communist society would realize themselves in work or outside of it? The various texts seem to be inconsistent in as much as ‘three suggestions can be distinguished in Marx. According to the first, work will become “the prime need of life” . . . According to the second, work will become superfluous in communism . . . Finally, there is the view that man will realize himself outside work . . . ’ footnote9 Although there are definite inconsistencies in Marx’s writings in this regard, they are not as glaring as Elster (and others) suggest. Putting aside the untenable idea that in communism work will become superfluous—as far as I know this idea appears only in the Grundrisse, or in any case never subsequent to the Grundrisse—the suggestion that labour will become life’s prime want and the demand for as much free time as possible are not wholly irreconcilable. After all, Marx did not think people would be counting blades of grass in their free time. People would no doubt choose to spend part of their time in relaxation, idleness, and what Elster calls ‘passive consumption’, but it is unlikely that everyone or even anyone would choose to spend all their free time in this way. People engage in all kinds of activities—some of them extremely demanding, strenuous and tiring—in their free time now. The important distinction to be drawn here is not one between activity and inactivity (work and idleness), but between activity determined by external necessity (things we do only because we have to for some reason or other) and activity determined by internal necessity (things we do because we want or need to, where this want or need is dictated by our personal characteristics). It is clear from many passages that Marx hoped future society would minimize the first kind of activity—this would include Elster’s repetitive, boring and monotonous tasks—and provide maximum opportunity for the second. If we make work and free activity opposites by definition we will clearly be unable to reconcile them, but we do not have to define the terms in this way and there is evidence to show that Marx himself did not. Take, for example, the following passage: ‘It seems quite far from Smith’s mind that the individual, “in his normal state of health, strength, activity, skill, facility”, also needs a normal portion of work, and of the suspension of tranquillity . . . Smith has no inkling that [the] overcoming of obstacles is in itself a liberating activity—and that, further, the external aims become stripped of the semblance of merely external natural urgencies, and become posited as aims which the individual himself posits—hence as self-realization, objectification of the subject, hence real freedom, whose action is precisely, labour.’ footnote10 We might go still further and say that even activities determined by external necessity may become more pleasurable in future society. Partly because of the conditions in which they are performed and partly because the tasks will be performed by people who have the opportunity to do many other things as well: ‘It is self-evident that if labour-time is reduced to a normal length and, furthermore, labour is no longer performed for someone else, but for myself, and, at the same time, the social contradictions between master and men, etc., being abolished, it acquires a quite different, a free character, it becomes real social labour, and finally the basis of disposable time—the labour of a man who has also disposable time, must be of a much higher quality than that of the beast of burden.’ footnote11 The sceptics may remain unconvinced, but perhaps they will go so far as to accept that ‘one cannot settle a priori the extent of compatibility between labour and creative fulfilment.’ footnote12