Marx and Freud: Human Happiness and Human Nature

May 13, 2019 by Essay Writer

At the root of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud’s differences regarding the nature of human happiness are their almost diametrically opposed models of human nature. Freud describes human nature in terms of universal, instinctive drives, the fulfillment of which constitutes happiness in its most basic form; Marx believes humans to be the only creatures capable of expressing themselves through labor, and posits that this distinctly human self-expression is fundamental to true human happiness. At their most fundamental level, Freud and Marx can be separated by a single assumption: the idea that humans are essentially different from animals. Marx embraces it, seeming to relish the idea of human exceptionalism and dismissing animalistic pleasures as a means of happiness for man; Freud, with the influence of Charles Darwin weighing heavily on his thinking, refrains from making such a distinction, instead understanding man as simply another product of natural selection.Freud explains human nature through a universal system of unconscious drives, which compel humans to engage in activities such as reproducing, eating and committing aggressive acts. These drives – which presumably stem from the Darwinian process of natural selection, and therefore have (or had, in the evolutionary environment) some adaptive value toward the ends of survival and procreation – are common to all human beings, regardless of their external surroundings.Marx’s concept of human nature is more ambiguous. Unlike Freud, Marx does not hold instincts like aggressiveness as inherent human qualities; rather, he explains violence and greed as byproducts of a flawed social and political system. Under Marx’s theory, the defining characteristic of man is his consciousness, both on the individual and social levels. At the individual level, man’s consciousness is manifested in his capacity to change nature through some form of labor, and to express himself in the product of that labor.While animals are also capable of changing nature, often in a seemingly beautiful or expressive fashion, Marx separates the human activity of labor from the actions of animals by defining labor as a conscious rather than an instinctive act. Because the product of human labor arises from the individual’s thoughts, it is an “objectification” – the expression or transformation into an object – of the laborer’s very self:A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labor-process we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the laborer at its commencement.Under this theory of human nature, self-realization through free and productive labor is the essence of individual human happiness. Note that Marx consistently places the highest value on activities and behaviors that are exclusive to humans; any pleasurable activity that an animal is capable of experiencing cannot bring man true happiness. In a description of the effects on a worker from alienation of labor (that is, coerced labor whose product is not an expression of the laborer himself), Marx portrays simple pleasurable activities as subhuman:As a result, therefore, man (the worker) no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but 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… Certainly eating, drinking, procreating, etc., are also genuinely human functions. But in the abstraction which separates them from the sphere of all other human activity and turns them into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal.Marx’s basic model of human nature and happiness, then, is inherently incompatible with Freud’s. While Marx insists that men can only achieve satisfaction by striving to express themselves in ways that remove them as far as possible from animals, Freud considers human happiness nothing more than the fulfillment of animalistic desires and the avoidance of pain.Due to the nature of physical urges, human happiness in Freud’s model is difficult to maintain. His description of the pleasure principle is suggestive of a substance addiction:One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be “happy” is not included in the plan of “Creation”. What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree, and it is from its nature only possible as an episodic phenomenon. When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it only produces a feeling of mild contentment.Freud’s use of “scare quotes” around the word “Creation” suggests that he believes the human desire and satisfaction mechanisms are a product of natural selection, passed to the human species from a primate ancestor, and ultimately from a much simpler organism. Indeed, the influence of Darwin’s The Origins of Species is felt throughout the book, as Freud depicts human behavior without the exceptionalism that Marx and other writers display.In fact, one of the only essential differences Freud describes between man and animal is that the latter lacks the “…struggle between Eros and Death, between the instincts of life and the instincts of destruction.” He does not offer an explanation for what he perceives as the lack of a death drive in animals. However, it is worth noting that contemporary research in the field of evolutionary psychology, if available to Freud, may have allowed him to better understand the Darwinian logic behind these drives, likely guiding him toward the conclusion that humans are driven by instincts no different from those an animal experiences. For example, what Freud understands as a “death drive” – a self-destructive instinct that, in Darwinian terms, seems unlikely to be adaptive – may actually be a misunderstanding of the aggressive instincts that compel humans to seek status. Still, even considering this slight ambiguity, Freud’s portrayal of human nature indicates a belief that man is little more than a highly intelligent animal.In addition, when Freud notes that man does not seem to be designed for happiness, he predicts an important claim of modern evolutionary psychology: that a capacity for prolonged contentment without need for stimulation would not be adaptive. Humans who crave sexual activity and material wealth may never be truly satisfied, but they do propagate their genes.A comparison between Marx and Freud’s views on the nature of human happiness can be further illuminated by an examination of the roles society plays in each of their analyses. Both philosophers describe modern society as generally harmful to human happiness, but for different reasons, and with different normative conclusions.Marx views capitalism as destructive to laborers. His complaints about the capitalist system are myriad, but as they relate to the topic at hand, his foremost grievances are labor alienation (in which workers, exchanging their labor for sustenance-level wages, manufacture products that are not of their own design and therefore do not reflect their selves) and private ownership of property. Marx, describing what he believes to be the “essential connection between private property, greed, the separation of Labor… etc,” suggests that man’s social ills are not facts of human nature, but products of the political-economic system.Marx’s analysis of human nature allows for a profound optimism regarding the prospect of a utopian society. For example, his belief that humans have the unique capacity for collective identification – for an awareness of their nature as part of a larger species – is characteristic of Marx’s understanding of human nature, and central to his belief in the possibility of a successful communism:Man is a species being, not only because in practice and in theory he adopts the species as his object (his own as well as those of other things), but – and this is only another way of expressing it – but also because he treats himself as the actual, living species; because he treats himself as a universal and therefore a free being.Because man is capable of adopting the species as his object, Marx believes, a suitable socio-economic system would allow him to exist without ego, greed or envy. The “species-being” concept, then, is inextricably linked with the idea of a perfectly selfless collectivism.Freud, on the other hand, grants humanity no such favor. While he believes as well that modern society is psychologically harmful, he leaves little room for improvement. In his reasoning, most of man’s undesirable characteristics are inherent and therefore cannot be prevented by a new social system; likewise, the problems that societies bring upon humans are not specific to any society, but intrinsic to civilization itself.Freud’s analysis of the conflict between human nature and society, in essence, is that the demands of social life force man to deny his primitive desires, causing frustration, anxiety and neurosis. This model is clearly irreconcilable with Marx’s, as Freud demonstrates when he rejects Marx’s criticism of private property:…I am able to recognize that the psychological premises on which [communism] is based are an untenable illusion. In abolishing private property we deprive the human love of aggression of one of its instruments… but we have in no way altered the differences in power and influence which are misused by aggressiveness, nor have we altered anything in its nature. Aggressiveness was not created by property… If we do away with personal rights over material wealth, there still remains prerogative in the field of sexual relationships…Because he holds aggressiveness and competitiveness to be constants, inherent to human beings, Freud dismisses the idea that the abolition of private property could eliminate these problems. Again, his argument is supported by anthropology and evolutionary science; the drive for status, it is widely held, is inherent in all humans as well as many animals. Chimpanzees, whose societies feature none of the characteristics that Marx bemoans in ours, regardless display a predilection for aggression and domination, with the “alpha-male” enjoying the greatest sexual access to females. Marx’s idea of a collectivist utopia is difficult to reconcile with the Darwinist understanding of human nature; while some amount of altruism is certainly possible (as in kin selection, for example, or nonzero-sum reciprocity), true species-wide collectivism simply could not be adaptive on the individual level.In recent decades, the humanist theories of both Marx and Freud have been subject to various claims of refutation. Marx, in light of the worldwide collapse of socialism, is said by many to have fundamentally misunderstood human nature; Freud’s psychological theories have been disputed by the contemporary evidence of neurobiological processes. But Freud’s analyses of human happiness and human nature, however flawed they may be, demonstrate a greater understanding of their evolutionary origins and functions.

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