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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Where did Marx go wrong?

Mark Walker

Cyborg Democracy

September 17, 2004

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.


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