Is human nature a problem for Marxists?

So I am very broadly speaking familiar with the idea that before the scientific phase of Marx's work he was more humanist, argued that human nature was being corrupted by capitalism. We are alienated from our species being, in so far as we are alienated from the fruits of our labour and other labourers.

I'm used to libertarian socialists saying that human nature is extremely malleable: that, given a social revolution, men and women will have a different, better, nature.

But how do we get from "this" - no-one gives a fuck, communism trough the barrel of a gun, if at all - to "that" - the vast majority of humanity, the working class, acting in its universal interests to create a better world for every proletarian?

Is this about economics, vanguards, or just some theoretical trajectory? How do we get to solidarity etc., given that we are almost entirely atomised by the economy and society?

I'm especially interested in answers which do not draw from the mass murder and failure of e.g. russian revolution (stalinism etc.) as a good, inspiring, turn of events, but seek revolution via the broad support and struggle/action of billions.

I do not consider stalinists communists. I consider them wannabe cops.

  • Maybe in a future emergency more connected government will materialise. Aug 9, 2023 at 21:28
  • emergency sounds bad @ChrisDegnen
    – user67155
    Aug 9, 2023 at 21:28
  • 3
    Not on their terms. Marxists do not believe in any fixed "human nature", it is just an artifact of the environment and cultural inertia (means of production and the superstructure). Disrupt the inertia, change the environment, and the requisite "nature" will follow. How do we get there? Indoctrination, or, more charitably, 'proper' education of the next generation. Once the political power is at hand (by iron and blood if need be) that should not be a problem. "Of the past let us wipe the slate clean... The world is about to change its foundation", as they sing in the Internationale.
    – Conifold
    Aug 9, 2023 at 21:32
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    About Stalin not being a true Communist: every time Communism has been tried, it has led to grotesque abuses and mass murder, and Communists always defend their ideology by saying "that wasn't real Communism". Capitalism is always judged by it's failures in the real world with real, fallible human beings, but Communism is only ever judged by it's imaginary ideal implementation in an ideal world with ideal human beings. Aug 10, 2023 at 0:36
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    @user66697 Stalin defended his ideology by murdering people who didn't approve of it.
    – g s
    Aug 10, 2023 at 1:15

2 Answers 2


The short answer is: through the dialectic, or the process of the action and reaction of historical materialist processes.

Hegel's picture of the dialectic was the manifesting of Absolute Idealism, cumulative progress in a discourse of ideas, towards the Absolute, the perfected or stable idea. Marx described himself as turning this upside down, placing Hegel's ideas on their feet, by looking to material historical conditions as the mode of discourse. Discussed here: Relation of dialectics, as of Hegel and Marx, toward Enlightenment liberalism

For Marx, human nature is not fixed by the past, but in the constant process of being manifested. The only stable outcome, is the perfecting of the human character, through liberation from the discourse of class struggle. For him the rise of communist utopia was as inevitable as the fall of feudalism, which is to say mutual aid between states with the new system in opposing those trying to live in the past was still important, but that humans would thrive in the new way to be would make the shift there inevitable, except to elites and autocrats.

I would look to sociologist Emile Durkheim's picture of anomie and social decohesion, to make sense of Marx's picture of alienation. And to game theory, free-rider problems, and maintaining unstable equilibria. I also like Socrates contrast of sophists who enable others, to philosophers who follow their daimon, their conscience, in relation to game theory agency. Marx's identifying of problems in his time was, pretty good, arguably. His solutions, didn't really work. But with these additional tools, I'd say better sense can be made. For instance building mutual aid networks can be part of:

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

-Buckminster Fuller

I see Marx not as saying we are intrinsically good, but that we are intrinsically cooperative, for mutual benefit. And in that, I think he was right. What he missed is that for hives to succeed, freeriders absolutely cannot be sustained. And that is a subtler category than 'capitalist'.

It is in catastrophes, that we really find out how strong a community is. As David Graeber observed in Debt: The First 5000 Years, the real basis of the wealth a community has is nutual trust, as every bank run has laud bare.

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    I think I am finally starting to understand what deconstruction means... So, Marx commented on Hegel, because Hegel was recently in the past and people were aware of him. If Hegel hadn't existed, Marx would have commented on someone else. Marx's message wasn't set by Marx, it was set by contrasting with earlier messages. So this is perhaps why Marx was saying that human nature isn't a thing, it is just a reaction to other things. Maybe? Or, I'm completely stupid.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 11, 2023 at 2:16

The short answer, no. "Human nature" does not cause any sort of problem for marxism. For more information look into "The Leviathon" by Thomas Hobbes or modern (after 1980s) studies on cultural anthropology. What you end up finding are two significant points.

  1. Even if "human nature" is assumed to be some form of Randian self-interest, the function of the state of any society can serve as a mechanism in which this does not matter in practicality. This is tied in with "the ring" story of Plato.

  2. The presupposition of Randian-style self-interest is likely a cultural artifact in the modern era and there is at least some evidence that shows this is not true and that such a presupposition has been created culturally, rather than being a natural state of affairs. Serious archeological and anthropological research seems to show that humans, on the contrary, are quite capable of getting along with eachother and do not necessarily act in self interest.

The more interesting question to be posed, is if "human nature" poses a problem for Marxists of the anarchistic variety, or those who do not support a leadership through centralized authority. Theoretically, small pockets of such societies can be made, however the anthropological and philosophic problem for more libertarian leaning Marxists is that organizations which are thoroughly decentralized have a strong propensity to fail due to a severe vulnerability of rising factions.

  • i mean specifically the revolutionary moment less than the state
    – user67155
    Aug 11, 2023 at 7:29
  • so while a vanguard may be necessary, i certainly like to think that in russia there was far ranging and general action and solidarity by the working class
    – user67155
    Aug 11, 2023 at 7:46

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