Marx on Human Persons

What is it to be a human person? Primarily, we are living organisms that consume things: food, clothing, etc. These organisms are compelled to find or produce these things. At one time, maybe we could just find what we needed, but as our population grew larger, we were forced to create what we need. This pressure of our (material) needs forced us to consciousness. We became producers as well as consumers. The basic nature of humanity is to produce. It is not rationality, not political life, none of the things philosophers in the past thought.

The force of this material production is so strong that even the content of our reason is determined by these external conditions. Our ideas are created by material conditions, not the other way around.

They give us our ideas. We do not start with our ideas, and then create the artifacts in the world. The artifacts produce our ways of relating, all our social structures, our sense of truth and falsity, rightness and wrongness - everything.

Material conditions determine life and thought, because of the productive force that they imply. In every age, people have access to certain productive forces, which are applied by making use of the objects in which the forces are embodied. Animals, tools, machines: all these are objects - technology - which gives us productive force. But these objects demand that we adapt to them. Nomads, for example, that gain steam power, must cease being nomads. They would have to adopt a sedentary life, division of labour (not everyone can do everything), trading practices, and property institutions that are determined by factory production.

So, for every given set of forces, there is a certain "mode of production". Marx talks about the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal, and the modern bourgeois or capitalist modes. In the feudal mode, for instance, the person possessing the means of production (the machine-owner) and the person who labored with or upon those means (the serf) were connected by a relationship of personal responsibility. In the capitalist mode, however, there is no personal responsibility. Money (capital) has taken over. Employers have no responsibility to the workers, except the payment of money.

Capitalism (the mode of production we are in now, according to Marx):

Competition. Living under capitalism makes us think that competition is a good thing. Instead of cooperating, we feel it necessary to pit ourselves against others. Our fascination with sports is simply a mirror of our economic competition.

Inequality. A second effect is that we accept and even approve of inequality, particularly financial inequality. We think it is ok that some people are rich, and others are poor.

Material Wealth. Marx sees capitalism as the cause of the materialistic values of the West. Numbers, money, profit - that's all that counts. People work to get things. If something cannot be measured financially, it doesn't exist.

The Problem:

If we are what our systems of production and consumption dictate, and our systems enshrine competition, inequality, and the value of material wealth alone, we as human beings are going to be alienated.


Marx begins the Paris Manuscripts by discussing the forms of alienation we find ourselves in. There are three parts that constitute the alienation of labour:

1. The worker is related to the product of his labour as to an alien object. The thing he creates does not belong to him, dominates him, and only serves in the long run to increase his poverty.
2. Alienation also appears in the process of production and productive activity itself. The process itself is just a means to satisfy other needs. It is not part of his real life.
3. Alienated labour alienates man from his species. In alienated labour, we come under the illusion that we are just individuals struggling against other individuals. Furthermore, relationships between people have been replaced by relationships between things.
4. Nature itself is alienated from man.

So, Marx thinks that we need a new system, that would produce a new human being. In the communist system:

1. The person would have objectified his or her own individuality, irrespective of the commodity value of that object;

2. The process of production would be the direct satisfaction of human need, both the need of the maker's to objectify himself, and the need of another individual to use the object;

3. Instead of driving the species apart, we would recognize that we are all together. As the maker, I am confirmed in your thought and your love;

4. I have realized my own essence, as a communal being.

For Marx, this would mean the end of all sorts of things that we currently think are necessary.