On one hand, Marx is a staunch materialist: he bases his theory of history on dialectical materialism, and denies any metaphysical realities above and beyond the material conditions that make human society the way it is. In the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy he states:

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

On the other hand, in his theory of alienation, he speaks of a human species-essence, and that the capitalist mode of production alienates humans from their species essence, their innate mental essences and their plurality of interests.

Doesn't attributing anything essential or inherent to human beings contradict his above quote that human society and consciousness is ultimately driven by material conditions?

To put it colloquially, in his theory of historical materialism, Marx seems to be saying "human is as human does", so how can he speak of any essences outside of whatever outward apparent state humans are put in because of the surrounding economic and material conditions?

  • 1
    I think this question is conflating metaphysical materialism with the meaning of the term with respect to dialectical materialism. Once one admits the existence of a "superstructure" and so forth, there is a causal relation between the physical (material) state of affairs and cultural paradigms, intellectual life, etc...I'm failing to understand the contradiction/tension. Could you elaborate? Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 10:41
  • In your last paragraph, you're essentially stating an identity relation, whereas I think marx views "does" and "is" as implying one another. Contrary to other philosophers who believed that it was intellectual life affecting the material, marx reversed the viewpoint. Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 10:43
  • Marx? Most of what that guy said was so wrong in so many ways that it's like trying to build a house built on top of wet fettucini, it looks good, smells good, but it's a nutritional building block and not a structural one. Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 22:54

2 Answers 2


One should keep in mind two points. First, historical materialism in its traditional form is later Marx, taking final shape in Das Kapital, the theory of alienation is young Hegelian Marx of 1844 Manuscripts, and the "species-essence" is borrowed from his left Hegelian predecessor, Feuerbach. In 1845 Theses On Feuerbach Marx reinterprets him in the general spirit of "demythologizing" the Hegelian Geist:"Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations". Compare to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: "Precisely because Hegel starts from the predicates of universal determination instead of from the real subject, and because there must be a bearer of this determination, the mystical idea [Geist] becomes this bearer". The alienation theory of young Marx was developed by Lukac in 1920s.

Second, even late Marx is not a plain materialist but a dialectical materialist, and, as Hegel wrote and Marx emphatically accepted, the dialectical movement through sublation of contradictions "is the root of all movement and life". So Marx's dialectical matter is self-driven, multi-faceted, and at certain levels of organization capable of undergoing qualitative transitions, in which it acquires emergent properties. These properties are then subject to emergent laws that are irreducible to, and have certain autonomy from, the base laws they emerged from. Thus, Marx's materialism is non-reductive (one could say militantly anti-reductive in its revolutionary drive). Life, sentience and society are such emergent structures, and the social "superstructure", including culture, ideology, and the "ensemble of the social relations", is the autonomous, but material, realization of the historical Geist.

Some critics, e.g. Berdyaev, did charge the dialectical materialism with hylozoism (live matter-ism), suggesting that the matter like that is the spirit by another name, just a few sublations short of becoming the Nature-God of Spinoza and Goethe, and perhaps getting there along the Hegelian spiral staircase. But what distinguishes dialectical materialists from most hylozoists is their insistence on the ontological priority of the basic over the emergent, in the context of historical materialism, of the means of production over the social and cultural superstructure. What this usually means to Marx is that while the latter is autonomous and may exert some feedback influence on the former, this influence is incomparably weaker than the one going the other way, and at most may effect speed ups/slow downs or perhaps detours in the march of history, but not alter its materially determined thrust and direction.

  • Makes sense, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy however was published in 1859, so not so late. Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 17:49
  • For the base part: it contrasts what I've been taught: the life-activity per se (or practicing) is considered as matters, as opposed to consciousness as forms, this is how Marxism is considered to be materialism.
    – Yai0Phah
    Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 6:43
  • The following is extracted from The German Ideology: Even this pure natural science is provided with an aim, as with its material, only through trade and industry, through the sensuous activity of men. So much is this activity, this unceasing sensuous labour and creation, this production, the basis of the whole sensuous world as it now exists, that, were it interrupted only for a year, Feuerbach would not only find an enormous change in the natural world, but would very soon find that the whole world of men and his own perceptive faculty, nay his own existence, were missing.
    – Yai0Phah
    Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 6:49
  • Frankly and simply, a good answer.+1 I think the OP has lost his way somewhere I don't know :)
    – user13955
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 5:05

I agree with Conifold in that the key to this apparent contradiction is in the Fifth Thesis on Feuerbach:

"Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations".

To Marx, the "species-being" of humans is their ability to collectively change the world. Not such abstractions "inherent in each single individual" like "greed", "acquisitiveness", "competition", "will of power", etc., which make up the hollow kernel of so many wannabe criticisms of Marx, but the social essence of human activity, the fact that we "work" together to make the world different from what it is.

Thence alienation is, as Marx puts it, the fact that

As a result, therefore, man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.

In this system, the individual human being becomes an object, a "hand", to use the terminology fashionable when Marx wrote Das Kapital, and, as such, is de-humanised; he is no longer "working together to make the world different from what it is", but merely serving as a tool for those who rent his humanity for a wage.

This is, in my vision, how Marx speaks of a "human essence", and still keeps a "materialist" view of things.

  • Can I ask you, then, according to you, such as "greed" or "acquisitiveness", "competition" are "abstractions inherent in each single individual"??? For example, Marx starts with analysis of good in human society and its feticism to them. ( and to money ). Then, "greed" is more socially affected rather than something a-priori attached to human being itself?
    – user13955
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 5:12

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .