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Where did Marx go wrong?
Mark Walker   Sep 17, 2004   Cyborg Democracy  

At the risk of simplifying: Marx erred in his view of human nature. Marx saw humans as having a nature that is social and productive. Various forms of impoverished economic and social life could corrupt this nature, with capitalism being the latest and the greatest of the corrupters. For instance, capitalism has the power to turn naturally productive humans into unproductive proletarians who are productive only through coercion (e.g.. through the threat of unemployment). Capitalism also has the power to turn naturally sociable humans anti-social, which is expressed in a variety of forms of conflict and violence.

In a post-capitalist society Marx thought that for the first time humans would realize their true natures, specifically, for the first time everyone would be fully productive and sociable. Of course many today smile at Marx’s vision, particularly the idea that the state would wither away with the death of capitalism. Given his view of human nature, the vision is not as naive as it might first appear. If everyone were to realize their nature to be productive then at least one very common justification for capitalism—that it curbs the natural tendency of humans to be unproductive free-riders in the absence of coercion—is decisively answered. So too is one very common justification for the state—that it curbs the natural tendency of humans to be anti-social in the absence of coercion. So while Marx’s vision of a post-capitalist society might look more plausible given this view of human nature, this hardly seems to matter, since his view of human nature is dead wrong.

How did Max get his view of humanity so wrong?

In part, the answer must be that like his master, Friedrich Hegel, his historical analysis of humanity was somewhat temporally circumscribed. Hegel and Marx analyzed humanity basically in terms of the transition to civilization and the development of civilization—a few tens of thousands of years on the outside. A complete history of humanity requires going back further in time: about 4.5 billions years further back. When we look at the development of the biological aspects of our being, as opposed to merely the development of human culture and civilization as Hegel and Marx concentrated on, we see how implausible this view of human nature is. Indeed, any Marxian today would be remiss not to account for the evolutionary history of the biological aspects of our being.

Of course, taking an evolutionary perspective might seem to favor capitalism. After all, how many times have we heard that capitalism is in effect sublimated natural selection? Nature is “red in tooth and claw” says Darwin; the Smithian defender might say that capitalism is “green in tooth and claw”. Capitalism, then, and not Marxism, is better in tune with our natures. Right? Hardly. One phenomena evolutionary theorists of humanity have had to struggle with is the incredibly cooperative, that is, social nature of human beings. And capitalism cannot take credit for sublimating our less social instincts, since humans have a history of social behavior that predates capitalism, and indeed, many of our primate relatives are also incredibly social. People also appear to be productive by nature: any view that says that people are idle by nature and are only productive with coercion is flat out wrong.

But, given that I said Marx had the wrong view of human nature, and claim that people are social and productive by nature, haven’t I just contradicted myself? No. The reason there is no contradiction here is that we must realize that people are also anti-social and unproductive by nature as well.

These “contradictions” in our nature can also been seen in our closest living relative the chimpanzee. Chimps are incredibly social beings but they are also at time anti-social. Jane Goodall reports how Chimps will form raiding parties to kill neighboring troops. (As she notes, such behavior looks like a precursor to the warfare so characteristic of human populations). A mere passing acquaintance with humans and chimps informs us that unproductive free-rider behavior is also part of our biological nature.

Given this “contradictory” nature, it might seem that we have to cede the victory to capitalism. The argument here might be that capitalism and the state work on the lowest common denominator: to the extent that we are productive fine, to the extent that we are not productive capitalism will force us to be; to the extent that we are social fine, to the extent that we are not social the state will for us to be. However, to accept this argument is to ignore Marx’s penetrating indictment of capitalism: capitalism brutalizes the human spirit.

This seems to leave us in a tragic dilemma: if we accept the system that best suits the lowest common denominator of our nature, then we must accept capitalism with all its flaws; on the other hand, if we hope to build a system that serves the higher aspects of our nature—our social and productive aspects—then we seem like we are invoking yet another unworkable utopia.

The way beyond this impasse is to accept Marx’s view of human nature as a normative rather than a descriptive theory. That is, we ought to remake the biological aspects of ourselves to be the non-contradictory beings that Marx envisioned: as beings who are more predisposed to being productive and social. Recent studies in motivation have shown how we might make some initial attempts to make people more predisposed to being productive (Richmond, 2004). The experiment in question made monkeys that did not distinguish themselves in terms of productivity to become highly productive.

Marx gives little content to the idea of being social but one way to make humans more social would be to make them more virtuous. I have described elsewhere (Walker 2003a) how we might remake human nature to be more virtuous but the outlines of the idea are easy enough to grasp: using genetic technologies we could engineer ourselves to be more just, to be braver, more truthful, and more caring for others. Finally, we don’t have to confine our attempts at re-engineering humans to our biology. I have also described elsewhere (2003b) how it would be possible to make people more altruistic by utilizing the natural tendency of humans to seek social recognition for altruistic behavior. The idea is to use technology to track the altruistic behavior of others, to create an Angelic Hierarchy. In this way our social lives might be less dominant by the competitive rewards offered by capitalism.

As I have said, Marx’s indictment of capitalism stands: capitalism alienates us from our true potential. With the use of technologies to remake our natures and our social world, Marx’s vision may yet succeed.


Richmond, Zheng Liu, Edward Ginns, et al., August 17, 2004 “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”

Walker, M. 2003a “Genetic Virtue”. Unpublished paper

Walker, M. 2003b “The Angelic Hierarchy”. Unpublished paper.

Mark Walker Ph.D. serves on the IEET Board of Directors, and is Associate Professor of Philosophy at New Mexico State University, where he occupies the Richard L. Hedden Endowed Chair.


while discribing the humen nature u claimed humen nature both as productive and non-productive your view are self controdictary therefore if we dont have any idea about the basic humen nature we cannot predict as which system is suitable to his nature.

nice written 😊

Im Doing a Masters at Charles Sturt University Australia.  I have a quesiton. Marxism, communism, and socialism governments have fallen and fall again and again and they are still falling today. The lesson here, is that the version of Marxism “False Consciousness” or that communism version pitched by them has failed when audited by its own people. Meanwhile Marxist thologins state “How capitalist - conservative hegemony tends to hold sway even in the theoretically open societies of contemporary democracies is a question that continued to preoccupy Marxists”

So even Marxists couldn’t understand why people accepted western a version of ‘false consciousness’ while history proved ‘the people’ rejected Marxist authored ‘false consciousness’. Do you put this down to governments implementaiton, or as you suggest, do you think it is a more fundamental flaw as you put it of Marx being “dead wrong”?

If as you say (and I agree) our contradictory human nature provides a natural need for capitalism (policing needed in every community) as a self serving motivator, to work and behave, how could Marxism ever have its day?


I think Marx’s fatal flaw was in thinking that is human nature. I think we have dispositions, such as being aggressive or passive, but most behaviors are far too complex to lump them in that camp. Personally, I think 99.9% of our behavior depends on our environment. The fact that we have similar behavior as a parent, can also be attributed to being raised in a similar environment by a person who indoctrinates their value system on the person. I think with technology replacing the need for labor in this century, were going to have the opportunity to put a few of those ideas to the test.

Decided to revisit this piece from eight years ago. It is comparable to the blind men and the elephant: the blind men feel a different part of the elephant, each reaching a different conclusion as to what it is they are touching. My thinking ultimately breaks down to Sarkar’s theories as a bedrock- an anchor:

“The Law of Social Cycles is a theory of Varna, arising out of the Indian episteme (Inayatullah, 2002). This law states that while people in any society are all relatively similar, they have generally the same goals, desires and ambitions but differ in the way they go about achieving their goals. An individual’s specific methods for achieving success depend on his physical and psychological makeup. Essentially, there are four different psychological types of people, warriors, intellectuals, acquisitors and labourers, who find basic fulfillment in four different kinds of ways.
Warriors, or Kshatriya in Sanskrit, have strong bodies, vigorous physical energy and a sharp intellect. Warriors tend to develop the skills that take advantage of their inherent gifts of stamina, courage and vigor. Their mentality is one that is not averse to taking physical risks. Examples of people in our society with the warrior mentality include: policemen, firemen, soldiers, professional athletes, skilled carpenters and tradesmen, etc. They all achieve success through their physical skills and a deep understanding of their profession.
Intellectuals, or Vipra, have a more developed intellect than the warriors, but generally lack the physical strength and vigor. Intellectuals are happiest when they try to achieve success by developing and expressing their intellectual skills and talents. Examples would be: Teachers, writers, professors, scientists, artists, musicians, philosophers, doctors and lawyers, and above all, priests.
Acquisitors, or Vaishya, have a penchant for acquiring money. If money can be made the acquisitors will find a way to make it. They are not considered as bright as the intellectuals, nor as strong as the warriors, but they are keen when it comes to making and accumulating money and material possessions. Such people are the traders, businessmen, managers, entrepreneurs, bankers, brokers, and landlords in our society.
Laborers, or Shudra, are altogether different from the first three groups. Laborers lack the energy and vigor of the warriors, the keen intellect of the intellectuals, or the ambition and drive of the accumulators. In spite of the fact that their contribution to society is profound - in fact, society could not function without them - the other groups generally look down upon and tend to exploit them. The laborers are the peasants, serfs, clerks, short order cooks, waiters, janitors, doormen, cabdrivers, garbage collectors, truck drivers, night watchmen and factory workers who keep society running smoothly by working diligently and without complaint.
According to Batra (1978), the West is currently in the age of acquisitors, also known as Capitalism. This age succeeded the ‘age of intellectuals’, which gave birth to the Enlightenment and the British parliamentary system. Before that the West went through the ‘age of warriors’ and the age of discovery. Feudalism, an earlier ‘age of acquisitors’, reigned before that. It had replaced the ‘age of intellectuals’, with restrictions on religious thought and also gave birth to the Renaissance period. Before that, Rome ruled the West under the aegis of warriors.
To Sarkar, each age would run its course, with the social motivity going too far, causing much grief to the majority of people (Sarkar, 1967). The situation could go on unchecked for a long time, before things got so bad that a spontaneous revolution and overthrow of the system took place. In fact, as this was the reason for social change, it was clear that no single class of people could remain dominant indefinitely. Social power was destined to pass from one class to next in the prescribed order, or cycle. The ‘age of warriors’, which brings strict order to society and a return to fundamental values, essentially leads to excessive focus on strong man rule and warfare. It is followed by an ‘age of intellectuals’, which bring a sense of liberation in the mental sphere but soon replace that freedom with the yoke of newer ideas. Over time this age merges into an ‘age of acquisitors’, which brings progress in the material sphere, but this is soon replaced by increased physical and mental exploitation. The Servile Wars spelled the doom of the Roman Republic. Labour conflict could be the undoing of Capitalism, according to this theory. And so the cycle moves on its endless round, until the civilisation ceases to exist or is taken over by a superior or more powerful civilisation.
Sarkar’s essential view on the implications of each age was to develop a way to avoid the dynamic of exploitation, when the social motivity of one class goes unchecked and too far (Sarkar, 1967). In such cases, it falls on moralists to accelerate the movement to the next age to shorten the exploitative phase of each age.
In Sarkar’s vision social progress is seen to be established on the basis of a new vision of human progress. Sarkar’s theory focuses on four basic ages of warriors, intellectuals and acquisitors, as well as a brief age of labourers. During such ages humanity has faced an eternal struggle with each epoch deteriorating into a harmful exploitative phase. Sarkar devises an exit strategy from such a development, based on the role of enlightened moralists, the Sadvipras. It is their role, based on their self-less virtues and ideation on the divine, to apply energy and accelerate social progress when the evolutionary process is caught up in a stasis whereby the ruling class has abandoned its original virtues and through an intense focus on their social agenda inflict misery on the other sections of society.”

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