Few thinkers have had as powerful an intellectual impact on human life as Karl Marx. His work was a prodigious attempt to derive the laws that govern the behaviour of human beings, to understand what men are and how they come to act as they do.

Marx theorised that humans create forms of economy that enslave people, but it is within humanity’s power to liberate itself from the forms of consciousness that induce this passivity. By addressing economic conditions, in the movement from primitive communism through class society to global communism humanity can become free. Marx held that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (1). As a clear-eyed critic of the social and political effects of capitalism Marx has few peers, his reading of capitalism as an economic system disrupting all aspects of human life recognised how politics and society undergo continual transformations in the face of the combustible energies of the market. Marx perceived that the real affect of markets running unrestrained is to disturb established social relationships and forms of moral life, including those of the bourgeoisie. Yet within his vision of a communist society there are problems in how to arrive there, problems that require some concept of the moral progress of humanity. This paper will seek to ask if, beyond his historical materialism, Marx has a view of moral progress in history. And where it is found, to ask we why should expect history to be progressive in moral terms.

The German Ideology

In developing an answer to this question, The German Ideology (2) provides an important articulation of Marx’s theory of history. Among the important concepts addressed is the distinction Marx made between idealist and materialist approaches to philosophy and history. Marx often referred to other philosophers as ‘ideologists’ that is, writers who focus on ideas rather than material conditions, centring their analysis on the role and development of ideas in human history. To Marx ideas are secondary to, and epiphenomenal of, material conditions. Marx states that “the first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. The first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature” (3). Humanity is a part of nature according to its basic needs such as hunger and thirst, but not reducible to nature because of consciousness and the human ability to reflexively unify itself with reason. Questions of morality run up against this paradox that humanity lives with. Marx is sure that unity is inscribed within the unfolding of the riddle of history, that a mediated, harmonious community between humanity and nature and within humanity is an historical inevitability. Marx hopes to explain how society can be formed to obtain a truly humanised world in placing the material conditions of life as the focal point of social and historical analysis.

To Marx, technological abilities are fundamental to man’s nature. Men are what they are according to the work that they cannot avoid engaging in, not through immutable inner principles of their nature. Social organisation is conceived in labour and the creation that preserves or accentuates life. Marx’s idea was not of avoidable human error rescued from the darkness of illusion and folly by an enlightenment torch. Timeless truths, such as those of Hegel, were erroneous views. It is needs that determine ideas, and not ideas that determine needs. Man’s capacity for technology was the vehicle toward a certain type of social organisation, from which new ways of living are born. Inventions transform the needs and ideas of life that gave rise to them in the first place, creating new desires, new inventions and re-ordering society anew. In answering philosophical questions about the re-ordering that ushers in freedom, Marx urges the need to put theory into practice. Theory and critique must begin with an analysis of how these material conditions have developed and how ideas (both the result of and justification for these conditions) have emerged because of these material conditions. Any attempt to address ideas without understanding the nature and development of material life is an inversion of cause and effect and a profound and dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of society and history. Imagining the advent of human emancipation, whether by speedy revolution or in a series of stages, the idea of humanity’s reappropriation of its human essence begs the largely unanswered questions within Marx’s view of the end of history as to the forms of moral progress required of an imagined emancipated humanity. If in Marx’s terms what it means to be radical is to take things at their root, then an interpretation of human nature, of the human condition, lies at the root of the possibility of moral progress.

Within The German Ideology, the questioning of ontological claims is an important theme. Within Marx’s early writings, the influence of, and contrast with, Ludwig Feuerbach is clear, including how each conceptualised ‘species-being.’ For Feuerbach (4), species-being is the idea that human beings can understand themselves as members of a species, that they have ideals regarding what their species is capable of, and can act on these ideals in order to create a society that celebrates our common human nature. Feuerbach was critical of institutions such as Christianity because they depended upon an ideal conception of humanity yet toiled to prevent people achieving those ideals by debasing human beings through ideas such as that of original sin. For Feuerbach, the key to creating the good society was to make people aware of the nature and roots of Christianity in human ideals and how it was related to our common species-being. By doing so, Feuerbach argued, people could create the conditions for a humanistic society, one oriented to achieving our common ideals. For Marx, this notion was incoherent on two levels. Firstly, species-being is less a conceptualisation of human nature, more a reflection of humanity’s productivity and sociality. Secondly, the good society is not reliant upon people recognising their species-being, it is based on material life, on individuals actively modifying material conditions in order to make a good society. By acknowledging their common condition, humanity then seek to coordinate change of their existing social and economic condition. Following Feuerbach, Marx reasons that just as humans create religions, so too they create their state.

As with God, the state becomes a refined entity that induces fear and inscrutability. Humans forget that the faculty for freedom is theirs. As with gods, alienated institutions are forgotten to be the human constructions that they are. The issue is less that these reifications occur, that man is responsible for creating the entities of God and state, more that this predilection is reproduced in new forms by man and is liable to continue to do so. The distinction Marx draws of that which sets us apart from other animals is of man as a “species-being,” a “universal and therefore free being” (5) capable of “free conscious activity.” The story of human essence is estranged in history. Human beings have a latent nature or essence which can only be realized under the proper conditions, those of labour in free productivity. For Marx this will happen because “the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution” (6). In asking how it is possible to make these material conditions if the worst aspects of human society continue to preclude its feasibility, history is the key to understanding, patterning an intelligible, inexorable goal within humanity’s development, as it frees itself from the distortions that impose its alienation. Without the conditions that contain the seeds of freedom, workers are alienated from their own essential humanity. Because they are alienated from their own nature, they are also alienated from one another, competition replaces co-operation, exchange usurps trust. In this first critique of economics, Marx notes that human beings cease to recognise their common human nature in one another as capital becomes the estranged and dominating realisation of the human essence. In the aim of the ultimate freedom and universality of humanity, an understanding of this essence of human beings as ‘universal’ beings, and the domination denying its possibilities, needs to be viewed as a stage in the process toward liberation, of history leading to towards communism.

The Human Essence

According to Wood (7), within Marx’s philosophy alienation can be understood as “the condition of people who either experience their lives as meaningless or themselves as worthless, or else would do so if not duped by consoling illusions” as well as a practical problem rooted in material conditions. Humanity has suffered alienation in every historical cycle of the growth-process, reaching its lowest ebb in the bourgeois era when man in the form of the wretched proletarian factory worker “became a totally abased, dehumanized being, an Unmensch” (8). Human self-realization, becoming fully human, was seen by Marx as a problem that existed within the fabric of the self-realization of the species at the end of history and not as a task an individual person could resolve alone. This is an idea that is spelled out in Marx’s view that a wage labourers life is dehumanised in comparison to a ‘human’ communist existence. This description of the human essence residing within social relationships does not preclude the view that there is something special about humankind that sets it apart from the rest of nature. To reach the conclusions he did, Marx seems to laud the human essence in a way that entails a view of human moral progress in its achievement. Understanding the causes of alienation demands some knowledge of what humans require to lead meaningful lives and the social conditions required to meet those needs. It is human to experience life as meaningful or meaningless, to understand alienated life as dehumanised. Marx conceives of a meaningful existence as one lived in correspondence to the human essence. Consequently, his theory of alienation relies upon a view of human nature that visualises man in communist society as a progressed being morally. Without such moral progress, the achievement would not be witnessed.

After 1845, Marx more commonly uses the terms Gemeinwesen (‘community’ or ‘commune’) or Gesellschat (‘society’) than the term Gattungswesen (‘species-being’ or ‘species-essence’) thus stressing the cooperative character of man, of a sociality common to all human societies. Marx frequently speaks of human development in progressive terms, that “a human life which is self-affirming, self-confirming and self-actualising is a meaningful life” (9). Alienation is thereby the separation of individuals from their human essence, a description of human beings outside of harmony. In the German Ideology, Marx states that “the calling, vocation and task of human beings is to develop themselves and all their capacities in a manifold way” (10). That “man makes his own species his object” indicates that his object may be the goal or purpose of determining his species essence to constitute a meaningful life, his affirmation successful to the extent that I have “grasped myself as man” (11). A fulfilling human life is characterised by the development of essentially human capacities, but the content of human self-actualisation in a fully realised human society is never explicitly illuminated. The intricate expression lies in Marx’s view of the alienation in present capitalist society as the condition of being unable to actualise oneself. The systematic causes for current bourgeois society being unable to maintain a sense of meaning (without the aid of illusions) are found in material conditions.

In Wood’s view (12), although Marx contends that alienation will give way to communism, it is a distortion of Marx’s view of what humanity is and what communist society will be to assume he believes in, envisions or desires a static society in which all human conflict is eradicated. Consequently, this is a place where Marx can become misinterpreted, when there can be a simplification of his ideas into that of an idealised communist society where conflict has disappeared forever. To Marx, humans are natural beings, they are part of nature. A human is a “conditioned and limited being like animals and plants” (13) and our survival depends upon our relations to these objects. Where humans are separated from nature, their essential powers exist drives and tendencies towards labour, towards production, within his desire to dominate nature and creatively transform it and satisfy human wants, express human aspirations. Everything in human life is traced back to this fact, our social and political forms, our ideas and our values, all can be connected to the human tendency to fulfill our productive powers. History proves this to be so. Making our history intelligible requires an understanding of this fundamental human aspiration, the exercising of our productive creativity. Yet if it is is our desire to dominate nature and this is a natural drive or tendency then could it not be the case that it is our wish to dominate one another? How can Marx’s idea that we are conditioned beings like animals and plants be reconciled with our desire to dominate the nature that includes humanity itself?

The Pursuit Of The Ideal

The themes drawn out of The German Ideology have a profound bearing upon two characteristics of the last two centuries that have radically shaped human history. The extraordinary achievements within the development of the natural sciences and technology, and the profound ideological battles that have shaped and blighted the lives of enormous numbers of people, in nationalism, racism and totalitarian revolutions of left and right. In contrast to Marx’s critique of the ideologists, Berlin (14) believes that the objective material truths of such atrocities are ideas that begin in people’s heads. They rely upon a notion of man and upon notions of the relations between men, of that which they can or should be. These ideas contain moral frameworks, and moral thought requires the close of examinations of human relations, and the systems of values that these relations are based upon. In light of the violence of modern human history that has come about due to technological progress and ideological battles, it is a critical quest. Understanding the seeds of these ideas is of primary importance in comprehending the nature of oppression, injustice, folly and cruelty in human relations. To what extent are these relations rooted within the human condition? And to what extent is it possible to organise a rational society free of such relations?

Marx’s interpretation of these questions contained the belief that solutions to the problems of mankind existed and that they could be realised. History is a sequence of events moved by conflicts in the realm of both ideas and reality and embodied in revolution, war, disorder and human suffering. Ultimately, following upheavals and setbacks, the human drama would give way to rational society, reason would triumph and universal harmonious cooperation would exist. The ceasing of the class war, and the institutions, the ideas that set one group against another will subside in revolution that gives way to communism. Institutions and ideas useful to all will instead exist. Mankind is moving inexorably towards a place where class is conquered, where distortions are vanquished and society is organised upon a rational basis. To state that conduct is either right or wrong is synonymous with describing it as promoting or hindering the advance of humanity toward the rational and classless society. Universal human values such as justice, mercy, freedom are not the appeal, that belongs to the march of history. Rational men will not argue about ends, only technological means. Human liberty consists in the systematic mastery of whatever resists human needs, externally or within the human passions. And this mastery is an intelligible goal of history. This is a technological theory of the development of social life, a historical account of the physical and mental life of men placing humanity on an evolutionary path that determines all ideas, beliefs, wishes, fears and hopes at any given stage. Universal truths are therefore incongruent to Marx’s ideas about man and society as there is nothing timeless in the lives of man, all truths exist in relationship between men’s thoughts and the objects about which they think. But where in this view of thoughts and objects can we see empirical facts or hopes of humanity’s moral progression? Are there not aspects of men that change nought despite material and technological advances? Where do the evidenced destructive tendencies of man’s nature fit into the freedom of communism?

In seeking the goal of human liberation, in history delivering the communist society there are critical obstacles standing in the way of the realisation, one of which is the contestability of the ‘goods’ of the harmonious society. Are we really able to leave the ‘appeal’ to freedom or in the hands of the march toward history? Where total liberty exists for one group, oppression has been the lot of another. Though Marx understood this, his theory of the end of history flounders on the notion of a whole that is both unattainable and conceptually incoherent given the impossibility of the great goods living together. Though within man, there is a basic identification of good and evil, solutions to moral dilemmas create new situations which bring their own problems requiring resolution in an endless, cyclical process. Values are not wholly universal, every human society in every era possesses its own ideals, standards, ways of life, thought and action (15). Each, within time and place, has its own centre of moral gravity. There is a perpetual tension between the historical forces and the profound moral conviction of the ‘goodness’ of natural man. A central tenet of the teleological view of history is the expectation of an eventual convergence upon a universal civilisation. This view impoverishes the cultural diversity in which the incommensurable possibilities of human nature express themselves.

According to Berlin, “we are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss” (16). This would preclude the possibilities for unity. So the conception of human history as a single, universal process of struggle toward the light is a fallacy. That history is a story of struggles is crucial to Marx, but that they will be ultimately resolved via technological progress is the fallacy that rests upon his idea of what man can become in an attainable rational society. Within his vision of communism, with a state that has withered away and a society enacting freedom, rationality and cooperation, are we allowing too much faith in humanity? Is this a reason why the communist vision is not detailed, because it is actually unimaginable? Communism, states Marx “turns existing conditions into conditions of unity” (17). Yet this claim for unity may be a peculiarly human trait, possibly a dangerous delusion, a remnant of a Judeo-Christian legacy hangover.

The Myth Of Moral Progress

The faith in a harmonious future can be seen as a Christian legacy along with a belief in moral progress. According to McCarthy, in replying to the thoughts of Tucker (18) and Wood (19) that Marx has does not have a moral theory, this is a German intellectual legacy. But beyond this sphere of influence, argues Gray (20), Marx’s secular thought seems to be traceable back to inherited aspects of a Christian teleological viewpoint in its assessment that history has a pre-determined purpose. Communism is a theory of progress that contains the seeds of humanity’s salvation. This is an idea that entered western thought with Christianity and has affected it ever since. The essence of Marx’s ideal lives in the the midst of a clash between an ideal of harmony and the diversity of human values. But the values of a centrally planned regime or the free species within a classless society will contain an enormous variety of depictions of the good life. The redemptive consolation of theories of moral progress in which the growth of technological progress empowers humanity to improve its condition falls down in the face of the impossibility of extinguishing the evils within the human condition. Instead, we may only derail them in the continual cycle of order and disorder and the reality of swarms of individuals each struggling with their own passions and illusions. Unlike technology and science, morality is neither cumulative nor irreversible. The affairs of humanity do not act like this. Though human knowledge increases in real terms, the progress of moral civilisation is difficult to evidence in the same way. In fact, whilst the growth of technology can simultaneously improve the material conditions of many it may result in exacerbating the savagery of the worst of human desires for domination and destruction. Though humanity has departed from nature by virtue of consciousness, it does not entail that we have lost the instincts upon which our survival once relied. We remain animals. Exorcising those traits has little evidence in history.

Politics exists to achieve its goals in a world of ceaseless conflict, not a promise of unity with nature. To the claim that there has been a moral progress in history, an example often used is that of slavery. The successful passing of the Slavery Abolition Act during Marx’s lifetime in 1833, criminalised a barbourous, inhuman practice, but did not extinguish the inhumanity of servitude. Marx’s insists that assertion that the abolition of slavery will not be achieved without the steam engine or the spinning jenny but this may miss an important point. Can we truly say within our technologically progressed world, slavery has been abolished? Can it not be argued that slavery has not become re-produced in new ways? The forms that slavery have taken have merely altered, right up to their modern-day incarnations in human trafficking and bonded labour. There is also danger in believing that moral progress has been made in this instance and that this is an irreversible trend. The campaign to abolish slavery was an essential, unarguable good that alleviated incalculable amounts of human suffering but it is not necessarily a demonstration the value of a universally progressive, irreversible moral human imagination. Dreams of completely eradicating the worst excesses of the human condition, of forms of cruelty and barbarity, coercion and power falter on the enduring contradictions of human nature. Renouncing this view may be failure to fully understand the defects of society as the flaws of human nature. Instead, they are witnessed as the result of an oppression which will end. Without guarding against the possibilty of a future in which economic and material conditions regress to the kind of precipices evidenced in the twentieth century we may again be surprised by the breathtaking ‘inhumanity’ of humankind. Though the belief in technological progress is undeniable and, barring cataclysmic events, probably irreversible, the imposing of such faith onto moral progress is erroneous. Humanity’s use of technology has been, and is likely to remain, destructive as well as creative. We can deny our natures, but we cannot fully and irreversibly overcome them. All we can do is create the conditions to protect life against the worst of human excesses. And it is here Marx’s thought becomes essential. His view of the conditions in which we live can be the motor to resisting the worst excesses, a praxis for each culture, each age.

Berlin has written that ideas of harmonious societies rest upon an error in thinking that assumes all the central problems of men are “in principle soluble…. the solutions form a harmonious whole” (21). But among the universal features of human life, it seems is conflict. Humans desire incompatible things, such as freedom and security, and this is discordant with the powerful appeal of harmony. The longings of a society free of class struggles collapses in the face of the enduring contradictions within human needs. The imperfections of human nature are not seen by Marxist thought as flaws, they are viewed almost as signs of repression, part of a history from which we must rouse ourselves in the quest for autonomy. Marx’s belief that material endeavour can transform the human condition does not build human fallibility into a theory of communist society. The conflicts within the human condition leave us in a fight that cannot be won, a drama of many acts that cannot begin its realisation of classless harmony. Within the values of a communist future the possibility to expand our imagination and potentiality may also be fatal when viewed as a vehicle for conduct. A communist vision is an illusion that spells dangers if its pursuit embodies a belief that no sacrifice is too great in order to bring about the harmonious society. Yet it remains a fascinating, penetrating and disconcerting question to ponder whether we can live without such a future social imaginary.

Vertiginous faith in moral progress may be ill-suited to coping with the dangers that beset us. Instead stoical determination can prepare the groundwork to choose between tragic choices and incommensurable values. There are many moral conflicts that cannot be resolved, in contradiction to moral philosophies that seek their compatibility. But belief in a moral harmony does not rest on experience, it rests upon faith: “we find the same common assumption: that the answers to all the great questions must of necessity agree with one another: for they must correspond with reality, and reality is a harmonious whole. If this were not so, there is a chaos at the heart of things: which is unthinkable. Liberty, equality, property, knowledge, security, practical wisdom, purity of character, sincerity, kindness, rational self-love, all these ideals…. cannot (if they are truly desirable) conflict with one another” (22). Humans will no more cease to be religious than they will cease to sexual or violent. This fact precludes the feasibilty of real moral progress. Humans will probably be subject to their own folly and irrationality as much as they are to reason and peace. The idea of an advancing human condition arriving in a communist society may more demonstrate a need for a coherent narrative, of a need for meaning-making that is itself a stubbornly entrenched aspect of the human condition. The thought of this loss, of the illusions of moral progress, is psychologically threatening as it entails a life that has no overarching meaning or direction. This is the human tragedy that is Darwin’s discovery. It is interesting how Marx allies his theory of history with the theory of natural selection stating that “Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle. … Despite all shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, ‘teleology’ in natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow but its rational meaning is empirically explained” (23). It seems crucial to question how Marx views the two theories as compatible when the critical point within Darwinist thought is that of the total lack of meaning in history. If the possibility of a harmonious society was not possible to realise, if there was no movement, however piecemeal, however tortuous, from ignorance to knowledge, then we would be left with history as a meaningless, purposeless succession of events, a possibility that is continually hard to bear for the human mind.

From the view of a naturalistic philosophy, evidencing the facts of human history so far, there is an implausibility in Marx’s account of the human species that contains an unverifiable form of humanism. Humanity is either the name of a distinct animal species, with distinct powers of mind and an uncertain future, in the shadow of Darwin’s great discovery, or it is the name of a class of being constituted as distinct by its Creator, with purpose and a predetermined destiny. Without the Creator, there is radically insufficient empirical reason to believe in the historical moral development of mankind that Marx’s ultimate vision requires. What is seen is randomness, an ebb and flow of social development at different stages without an overall discernible pattern. Populations progress, blossom and become powerful before regressing, withering and weakening. Causes can be found, predetermined destiny cannot. Berlin is clear that Marx’s system of thought depends upon metaphysical presuppositions. “History is not the succession of the effects of men on their external environment or of their own unalterable constitutions” argues Berlin, “its essence is the struggle of men to realise their full human potentialities; and, since they are members of the natural kingdom (for there is nothing which transcends it), man’s effort to realise himself fully is a striving to escape from being the plaything of forces that seem at once mysterious, arbitrary and irresistible, that is, to attain mastery of them and of himself, which is freedom” (24).


Marx states that “we know only a single science, the science of history. One can look at history from two sides and divide it into the history of nature and the history of men. The two sides are, however, inseparable; the history of nature and the history of men are dependent on each other so long as men exist” (25). In his vision of the communist society and the forms of moral progress required to arrive there, Marx has drawn the division between the history of nature and the history of men without reckoning for possibility that he has assumed away the destructive capacities of the human condition. A truer acknowledgment of our common condition may consist in the intactable problem of human conflict. Marx’s normative concept of man as a spontaneously productive being whose self-realisation would liberate him from alienation involves the humanisation of the world that man has created, the ‘resurrection of nature.’ However, if conflict is part of being human, a fact that means there can be no universal humanisation, and no resurrection of nature as we already are nature. If this is the case then rather than the imaginary of the communist society, moral and political priorities are required, choices have to be made in the continual work required to avoid the extremes of suffering by maintaining a precious, precarious equilibrium between sometimes intolerable choices. The decency of a society depends upon it. There is no escape from hard moral choices, dictated by the forms of life and society and times in which such choices reside. It is maintaining the uneasy equilibrium of humanity that is the work of a morally motivated and decent society. In the words of Isaiah Berlin, “Man is incapable of self-completion and therefore never wholly predictable; fallible, a complex combination of opposites, some reconcilable, others incapable of being resolved or harmonised; unable to cease from his search for truth, happiness, novelty, freedom, but with no guaranteee…. of being able to attain them” (26).

Word Count 5,110.


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