‘Dialectics of Human Nature in Marx’s Philosophy’ reviewed by Chris Byron

Dialectics of Human Nature in Marx’s Philosophy

Palgrave Macmillan, New York and London, 2012. 244pp., $85 / £55 hb
ISBN 9780230341463

Reviewed by Chris Byron

About the reviewer

Chris Byron recently defended his dissertation on a new reading of Marx’s theory of exploitation …


At first glance Marx seems to have held conflicting views about human nature. In his earlier works he regularly employs notions like “species-being”, “human essence”, and “human nature”. However, after his Theses on Feuerbach, philosophers debate whether a Marxian theory of human nature is even possible given Marx’s new historical materialist framework.

Several camps have emerged within this debate. Some, like Ernest Mandel, believe that what Marx wrote in his youth is continued and further adapted in his later works. Thus, the term “species-being” may be jettisoned, but the concept remains in Marx’s mature works. Others believe that not only is a static theory of human nature impossible in any serious historical materialist account of human development, but that Marx explicitly rejected such a theory in his Sixth Thesis. There is also a camp, that I believe Sean Sayers occupies, that says that although Marx’s theory of human nature is fluid, it still ensures the retention of his humanist views, and a humanist philosophy in general. Finally, there is the camp, notably occupied by Norman Geras, that tries to show that human nature is not logically inconsistent with Marx’s Sixth Thesis, but does not offer a positive account of what Marx’s theory of human nature is. Considering these camps have been developed and fortified over several decades, it is not only surprising but also a breath of fresh air to find a completely unique and genuinely new contribution to the debate.

Even if Mehmet Tabak were to fail in his project, which he does not, the sheer ingenuity and unexplored territory he is able to develop within former traversed roads, warrants the reading of this new book (his first). Even if you disagree with him, his shrewd theorizing will force you to reflect. Tabak’s “main purpose” for writing this book is to “outline Karl Marx’s philosophical system.” This has been done before. What makes Tabak’s writing so intriguing is that for him “[h]umanism … is the basis of [Marx’s] dialectical historical materialism,” and “human nature, thus, constitutes the primary standpoint of [Marx’s] thought … because man is the subject and the main substance of the historical objective totality” (vii). Marx’s theory of the mode of production is usually and curtly presented as comprising the forces of production, which entail developed social relationships around them, giving rise to or conditioning a certain ideological superstructure. The productive relations are usually seen as the base of society. Tabak however wants to base Marx’s system on Marx’s theory of human nature. Marx has a particular view of mankind, which in relation to the material external world, conditions the entire mode of production. This leads to the further conclusion that all dialectical moments in Marx’s system (e.g., alienation, bourgeois society, the economic structures of society, and the conditioning of the superstructure), are derived from a process of mankind’s activity, and its realizations and negations.

Tabak is an adept dialectical thinker. He believes that if readers do not understand Marx’s theory of human nature, they will inevitably misapprehend his entire system. Thus, it is paramount to ascertain Marx’s theory of human nature. For Marx there are two constant determinants in history: human beings and nature. Thus Marx has to develop a theory of the human being within his theory of history. Marx’s concept of human nature “is a dialectical composite of essence and existence” (3). Essence is a permanent characteristic that gives something its identity. The essence of human beings is their active and productive powers that can shape the external world. When humans are able to exercise their essence they are “active subjects responsible for the processes of self-determination” (4). This productive and active activity changes the external world, and after a while starts to change human beings and their social relationships. This leads Tabak to conclude that “Marx’s conception of human nature … operates on two different, interrelated axes: the axis of the permanent and changing human characteristics and the axis of the inner and external characteristics” (7). Human essence is the constant “inner nature” of human beings. It exists alongside the fluctuating external world which shapes part of mankind’s overall human nature. This dialectical relationship constitutes our overall human nature. Thus Tabak is able to retain a static and a fluctuating component, vindicating the claim that Marx did hold fast to a trans-historical theory of human nature, albeit human nature in any particular historical moment would be nuanced and different.

Once Tabak has outlined his theory of human nature he employs it to resolve some of the primary debates within academic Marxism: e.g., the theory of historical materialism, determinism of structure and agency, alienation, Marx’s theory of the state, and Marx’s theory – or lack thereof – of justice and morality.

One instance of a resolution is found in his analysis of Marx’s theory of morality. Tabak suggests we see Marx’s critical dialectic as being comprised of “three interrelated … phases.” First is the criticism of actually existing society (i.e., an immanent critique). Second is the call for revolutionary action within a society. And finally, seeking a resolution “of the conflict between essence and existence” which requires an understanding of human essence and human nature (140). Each of these steps is interrelated dialectically, and thus each step requires a theory and a praxis that constantly informs the other. One can see how understanding Marx’s theory of human nature is paramount. If we are to criticize society we need a basis for our criticism (e.g., that our essence is not being expressed). And if we are to engage in revolutionary praxis that resolves the tension between essence and existence, we must understand human essence, and engage in a revolutionary praxis that seeks its realization.

To explain how he uses the theory of human nature to resolve the tensions in each academic debate is beyond the scope of this review, but even when his resolution is tentative, it is always enlightening and ingenious.

Whether or not one accepts Tabak’s conclusions about human nature, he offers enough quotations from Marx (about one third of the book in fact), to justify the claim that this was Marx’s view of human nature. Although one possible criticism is that Tabak does not spend enough time elucidating what is distinctively human in mankind’s productive activity apart from citing a few passages from Marx.

There are two other criticisms that need to be considered. First, even if he is right about Marx’s view of human nature, it does not always seem clear that human nature warrants the dominant position he gives it in certain Marxist debates. When Tabak resolves issues of historical materialism and structure and agency by placing mankind as the subject of history, with a constant human nature, he seems to be violating another one of his conclusions: his agreement with Marx that capitalism is alienating and that it involves an alienated process of production that comes to dominate the essence of man (his free productivity). If one is to be true to Marx’s historical method, then the elaboration of theories like historical materialism and Marx’s conception of structure and agency, may require the predominance – in this historical moment – of something other than the human subject, since capitalism is an alien force that mitigates the expression of our human essence. Whereas Tabak remains steadfast in retaining the human subject as the engine of Marx’s system, even when his essence is engaged in alienating activity (78, 105).

The second criticism worth mentioning concerns Tabak’s use of quotes. It is often the case that the reader is given the impression that Tabak is presenting some position of Marx’s that he held in Capital, or in his mature years, when in reality sentences are popping in from numerous other sources, like The Holy Family, or various rough drafts Marx left behind. This is not a problem if Tabak is right that the young Marx is not much different than the old Marx, and his theory of human nature is consistent throughout, but if the reader holds a different position, the quote chopping does not help his account. And even if Tabak is right that Marx’s theory of human nature remains constant, he needs to justify his interlacing of quotes on economics, the state, etc., since it is fairly clear that Marx was constantly changing his mind about these issues.

Nevertheless this is a much needed contribution to the debate about Marx and human nature. Its value lies not only in Tabak’s account of human nature, but also in the way he resolves various problems in academic Marxism. Even those readers not interested in Marx’s theory of human nature, but in Marx’s theory of the state or morality, will find fresh material in Tabak’s book. 

3 June 2013

One comment

  1. While I come to the same ultimate conclusion as Chris Byron — that the new interpretation of Marx’s system by Tabak is vital for our Marxist discourse — I disagree with Bryon’s reading of Tabak. Bryon rightly points out that Tabak’s reading of human nature in Marx integrates the concept in a much thorough manner than Norman Geras. Yet, he completely glosses over the connection Tabak makes with Hegelian philosophy. Not one mention of Hegel in the whole review! Perhaps Tabak’s greatest strength is that he reads Marx as a true Hegelian; not as someone who gives mere lip-service to Hegel. When Tabak writes about the separation between essence and existence, permanency and change, and internal and external, he has grounded those concepts in both Hegel and Marx.

    I also think Byron’s two criticisms result from a erroneous reading of “Dialectics of Human Nature in Marx’s Philosophy.” Given his first criticism, it does not appear Byron fully understands the actual argument purported by Tabak. Byron writes, “Whereas Tabak remains steadfast in retaining the human subject as the engine of Marx’s system, even when his essence is engaged in alienating activity.” To me this results from a misunderstanding, because while capitalism is alien and external, it is also a human product, and therefore, dependent upon human essence and human nature. It is we who create and sustain the monster through our own productive activity! Alienated labor is still ontologically predicated upon human nature, and therefore human nature remains the grounding, or starting point, for any discussion. It is merely that alienation is a particularization of human nature that is separated from human essence. Byron seems to be saying that capitalism can be said to fulfill human essence in Tabak’s reading of Marx. While it is true that production is a particular expression of human nature, it is a dark and twisted particular; Byron neglects that human essence needs to be liberated in his criticism of the book; though he mentions revolutionary emancipation in the sixth paragraph.

    His second criticism appears to be unfounded and likewise based upon a misreading. Perhaps he read the book in a different manner than I did, but I thought Tabak tried to show the symmetry between the late and early Marx. I was never under the impression that Tabak was solely quoting from the late Marx. Byron labeling this “quote chopping” is a little unfair in my humble opinion. Each and every quote is meticulously cited, so the reader has the option of following the sources, as I commonly do when reading a text; this is not obfuscation on the part of Tabak to bolster his position.

    As I said in the beginning, I admire Byron’s praise for this work. Yet, I think he needs to read it over again and tease out some of the nuances in light of Hegelian philosophy; the book will come together as a more complete whole and make much more sense.

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