Human Nature by Karl Marx And Thomas Hobbes

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In recent years a number of democratic movements have failed, leading to the study of political institutions. Yet, within these studies very little attention has been given to human nature, whereas throughout history the nature of politics has been discussed in regards to human nature. It is wise to consider human nature when studying politics since political acts or impulses can be understood as a consequence of the interaction between human nature and the environment. For the purposes of this essay, I will define human nature as 'the state of human beings outside civil society....' or 'conceptions of human life which 'clarify what is explained by nature as opposed to what is explained by convention, and what is justified in each way.' The focus of this paper will be on Karl Marx's and Thomas Hobbes’ views and perceptions on human nature. These are two philosophers who have contributed greatly to the theory of human society. Marx paved the way for a socialist revolution which eventually lead to communism while Hobbes introduced the concepts of the state of nature and social contracts. Although these philosophers differ in their conceptions of human nature it is possible to draw similarities and differences in their works. In this essay I will be comparing the views of Marx and Hobbes, particularly focusing on their understanding of human nature and how this impacts the way they believe society should be governed.

Hobbes was an English political philosopher who is one of the founders of modern political philosophy. Throughout his work, Hobbes highlights the idea that it is not in human nature to want to seek life among other individuals. Yet, the only way to live peacefully is if all men come together to create an absolute sovereign entity to govern over them. Hobbes developed his idea of the state of nature in the context of the English Civil War and equated the state of nature to a state of war. He describes this state of war such that “the life of man [is], solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. He argues that all men receive their rights from nature and have the right to live. In this state of nature, men are self-interested and are motivated by the pursuit of power, the right of nature. Hence, humans are motivated by appetites and aversions and have ends in mind that they aim to attain by any means necessary. Consequently, men will have the desire to meet similar or the same ends, such as food and shelter, eventually leading to a state of conflict and competition since there are finite resources. Hobbes argues that men are equal in their power and states that even the weakest has the strength to kill the strongest through secret machination or by confederacy (Hobbes, 1901). He also makes the point that men do not trust one another and gives the example that at night we lock our doors and carry arms while traveling in order to defend ourselves, showing that humans are distrustful by nature (Hobbes, 1901). Hence, the equality in the state of nature combined with finite resources and inherent distrust in other men will result in a perpetual state of conflict.

Hobbes’ state of nature is descriptive rather than normative, he does not believe that there is anything wrong with these desires that make us inclined to be at war with one another and it is simply the state of nature. However, he does indicate that without a common power to mediate and distribute resources, men will be in a constant state of war. He argues that what inclines man to desire peace is the fear of death. Hence, man is influenced by reason and able to come to an agreement on terms of peace, referred to as the laws of nature. According to Hobbes these laws of nature are to seek peace and follow it and to suppress our desire to meet ends by any means necessary, so long as others do the same. Men lay down their rights to nature in their second law of nature by either: renouncing it, indicating that they no longer have the right to do whatever it takes to preserve themselves, or by transferring it, placing this right into someone else's hands. Through transferring this right to a common power that is agreed upon by all (through contract), both laws of nature are followed. Through mutually covenanting to surrender to sovereign power, the authority will also direct us to keep our word on the covenant that established authority. Hobbes argued that the best way to ensure utility was through instilling a monarchy and by exercising absolute power with a sovereign that does not have a responsibility to answer to the law and will act in accordance with society's best interests. However, by examining world history throughout the 20th century it is very evident that this utopian conception of a kind and good-willed leader is quite unlikely and rather optimistic, in contrast to Hobbes’s view on human nature.

However, although the laws of nature necessitate that men seek peace, and the most ideal way to do this is through contracts, the fact that men are power-hungry will always threaten the validity of these contracts. Therefore, a covenant is only valid if there is a common power enforcing the terms of it. The contract is between men rather than between men and the sovereign. This is why men give up their freedom in order to maintain peace and also gain protection, given by the sovereign. Overall, Hobbes believes that men are unable to act in a just way under complete freedom, and therefore it is necessary to have a common power that will ensure the following of the natural laws, providing a peaceful and secure life for the people.

On the other hand, Marx can be recognized not only as a German philosopher, sociologist, economist, historian, and journalist but also as a revolutionary since his work created the foundation for a number of communist regimes in the twentieth century (Wolff, 2017). His theories on capitalist society, class struggles and exploitation have also touched upon the idea of human nature, or lack thereof. According to Marx, there is no concept of human nature, but rather human nature is a product of the nature of the economic system. He argues that there is a way humans behave under a capitalist society. A change in the economic system would consequently result in a change in human nature. The idea that human nature is based on societal rather than biological factors is key in understanding Marx. He distinguished between animals and humans by stating that animals are driven by instinct whereas humans are driven by conscious life activity or work (Fetscher, 1973). Marx argues that humans are suffering from alienated labor, in the sense that humans do not produce in accordance with true abilities but rather blindly (Wolff, 2017). Proletariats are forced to sell their labor and are stuck in a continuous circulation in which they are selling their commodities (labor) for lower than the value of the commodities they produce. Marx also notes that humans are not purely concerned with desire and need but are actually active and creative (Sayers, 2005).

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In contrast to Hobbes, Marx does not believe that the need to produce/reach desired ends is based on reason but instead related to operating in the material field. He describes the material creative activity as our species activity and man's spiritual activity (Sayers, 2005). Marx again compares humans to animals and makes the distinction that animals are driven by their direct instincts and are able to satisfy these needs immediately whereas in work, humans are detached from the product, and therefore, the link to nature is broken. Hence, cooperation among individuals can transform nature. However, so long as there is a strict division of labor and the bourgeoisie (anyone with the capability to take control over production) maintains their power over means of production and continues exploiting the proletariat (the producer and exploited member of capitalism), causing class division, individuals will not be able to fully form their identity and will continue to be alienated from society (Fetscher, 1973). Proletarian is essentially stuck in this circulation and they must continue to contribute to it in order to survive, as it is their only means to commodities. Marx also points out that in a society based on class, nature is used to pin individuals against each other rather than create a bond (Fetscher, 1973). Although it appears that the proletariat is working to benefit themselves, in reality, they are selling their labor to capitalists (Zwolinski & Wertheimer, 2017).

As previously mentioned, human nature is malleable according to Marx. Therefore, a change in the economic system could reunite individuals with their ability and capabilities of being creative beings. He states that the human urge to go beyond the current system of oppression will eventually lead to Communism (Wolff, 2017). He views capitalist society, characterized by class struggle, as a highly necessary step to eventually result in communism (Wolff, 2017). Essentially, much like Hobbes, Marx believed that by having greater power, in this case, the government, in which goods are publicly owned and distributed for the greater good this sense of alienation can be eliminated (Marx & Engels, 1974). Although Marx does not explain clearly how communism would be executed it can be inferred that common power, such as the government, would be necessary for its functioning, as Hobbes also suggests when explaining his ideal form of governing.

Hobbes and Marx were alive during very different periods of time and both were heavily influenced by the climate of the time. Not only did both philosophers contribute to society, but they also touched on the idea that mankind continues to evolve in an advantageous way. Hobbes was alive during a time of war and hence was deprived of the basic need for security. Similarly, Marx was exposed to the exploitation present in capitalist societies, and therefore developed great criticism towards the system. Nonetheless, Marx held a somewhat positive view in the sense that although such exploitation was occurring, it would not continue forever and would eventually lead to the fall of capitalism, making capitalist society an essential step in the process.

The difference between Hobbes and Marx lies in their conception of the social contract among individuals. Hobbes assumed men would willingly give up their right to freedom to a common power, in order for the sovereign to protect and facilitate a peaceful society. Whereas Marx promotes a communal society proposing communist ideals since he has experienced the isolating nature of having a ruler. Hobbes emphasizes the idea that men are constantly in competition for resources and are willing to do whatever is necessary to obtain said resources. In Leviathan, Hobbes explains that appointing a common power is needed to govern and create regulations in order to produce a civilized society (Hobbes, 1901). Although Marx also agreed that a common power is necessary, in his definition the power was more vested in the people rather than a sovereign, nonetheless a sovereign would be necessary as well. That being said, Hobbes also saw the importance of communal action over individuality, but in a different way than Marx. The most major difference between Hobbes and Marx is how they define human nature altogether. Marx believed that human nature is a product of societal conditions, while Hobbes views human nature as something inherent. It is clear they had differing views on how society should ideally be structured as well as human nature, nonetheless, they both aimed to establish more civil society and ultimately improve it.

To conclude, according to Hobbes human nature is inherently selfish and the state of nature is essentially a state of war in which men will constantly be in a struggle for power and resources; the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes, 1901). He does not view this state of war as a negative but rather simply the way it is. On the other hand, Marx rejects this idea of an inherent or biological human nature and believes that society has created the nature of humans. He further contends that the uniquely human capacity for rational action is also a result of society. Marx was greatly opposed to capitalism as he believes that it brings out greed in men. Although Hobbes and Marx differ in a range of views they do agree on the idea of a common power to control or organize human beings. Nonetheless, they also have quite different views on how this common power should behave, what their duties are, and the role that they play in shaping or manipulating human nature. The differences in their understanding of human nature and the way that it is assumed or developed can be as a result of the different time periods in which they lived as well as their varying views on other relevant philosophical concepts. Nonetheless, both philosophers, despite their differences, had a very similar goal, which was to make improvements to the community by manipulating human nature that would facilitate a more peaceful and efficient society.

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Human Nature by Karl Marx And Thomas Hobbes. (2021, September 26). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/human-nature-by-karl-marx-and-thomas-hobbes/
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Human Nature by Karl Marx And Thomas Hobbes [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 26 [cited 2024 Apr 18]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/human-nature-by-karl-marx-and-thomas-hobbes/
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