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Marx on Private Property and Human Nature

For Marx, consciousness is a feature of mankind that provides him/her with immense capacities, but as with any other biological trait, the material and historic conditions in which consciousness exists—influences its way of thinking. The material conditions and the means of production have a direct influence over human consciousness; the class in control of the means of production can therefore also control the means of mental production in a manner that forces the class that lacks ownership of these means—to become subjected to the class that owns these means.1 The form of class relations that I want to investigate in particular, is the consequences institutionalised land ownership—i.e. private property. From a Marxist critique, I will attempt to interpret the implications that an institution of private property has on human nature, and how as a consequence, the worker became alienated from the product of his own labor.

Marx defines that the definition of human nature is contingent on historic and material conditions of any given period. The most general and basic form of social activity that define human nature include: the production of means of subsistence, production of new needs, reproduction of men and family, social intercourse, and consciousness.2 The maintenance of all these social activities must be fulfilled on a “daily and hourly” basis as it has been a necessity for “thousands of years…merely in order to sustain human life.”3 This process can generally be described as a relation between man and nature, which for the most part, consists of an exertion of man’s labor—“a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.”4 Through these actions, not only does man alter his material conditions, but also his relation with nature, and his consciousness.

For Marx, consciousness is the main feature that allows social activities to come about, which like language, arises only “from the need, the necessity of intercourse with other men”.5 Consciousness is therefore what Marx calls a ‘social product’, it is a feature that allows man to be conscious of his own instincts, a capacity that no other animal has.6 This capacity for social activity allows man to produce his own tools, material conditions, and modes of production; the developments of these activities is what constitutes the notion of Marx’s historical materialism. Consciousness determines human nature in its historical and material conditions—and vice versa.

A change in material relations that man has with nature, will inevitably alter human nature in one form or another; with the advent of private property, a historic turn in human social relations occurs; as Marx states, “civil law develops simultaneously with private property out of the disintegration of the natural community.”7 The “disintegration” of social relations commenced with the application of civil law in the social intercourse, which was first notoriously well devised by the Romans. The application of civil law, is an example of how a product of man’s consciousness transformed the relation that man has with nature, other men, and himself. With the advent of civil laws, the Roman Empire established a form of social relations that not only altered human nature, but also established a new form of material and mental production. It is to no surprise that Marx polemicises the Romans and refers to them as ‘capitalists’,8 which can be exemplified by what Cicero, a Roman politician, wrote in 44 BC (emphasis is my own):

Fine establishments and the comforts of life in elegance and abundance also afford pleasure, and the desire to secure it gives rise to the insatiable thirst for wealth. Still, I do not mean to find fault with the accumulation of property, provided it hurts nobody, but unjust acquisition of it is always to be avoided.9

Cicero along with the noble class, dictated the ownership of private property with the intention to “hurt nobody,” and who as a property owner, was also thoughtful enough to legislate a law that forbids any other Roman citizen to “unjustly acquisition” his private property. Cicero had a reason behind this motivation; by legislating private property into the civil code, it paved the road to a social intercourse in which two types of classes can come about: a class that owns private property, and a class that does not. As Marx states:

The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. .10

What the two classes share in common, is that both rely on products of nature; but under the institution of private property, the produce of nature is accessible only through privately owned land. Since the motivation of every class it to make a living and provide oneself with the means of subsistence in order to stay alive, the property-less class will inevitably turn to the class that owns private property as a source for means of subsistence. The necessity for selling one’s own labor under the institution of private property, more often than not, is sanctified as a “ruling idea” by the dominant class; which demonstrates how the consciousness of certain members of society can alter human material conditions, social relations, and human nature.

The implication of not possessing property under the institution of private property means that a worker can no longer own the whole product of his own labor, and instead, is obligated to sale his labor-power to his landlord for a wage. The wage-worker’s labor-power therefore becomes a commodity under the disposal of the owner, insofar as the owner owns the means of production and the land on which the worker exerts his labor. Since not all labor belongs to the worker, the land owner has control over how much he can pay for the worker’s labor and how much he can keep in his pocket. The worker’s labor becomes what Marx would define in Capital I, as variable capital—a quantity of the worker’s objectified labor-power that varies in value based on the change in the form of the means of production (i.e. constant capital; steam engines, various tools, machinery, etc.). A change in these modes of production provides a better opportunity for the land owner to extract more surplus-value out of the labor of his workers.11

Under the institution of private property, labor becomes objectified and transformed into what Marx calls a commodity form. The transformation of human labor into a commodity form, can only occur under certain social and material conditions; it is only possible when social labor becomes fragmented into specialisations that workers conduct independently from one another12; but one prerequisite for this transformation always remains—the institution of private property. If private property did not exists in the first place, the worker would have no need to sell his labor to someone else, but instead, would exert his labor only to the extent that he thinks is necessary to live.

The consequences of labor being transformed into a commodity form under the institution of private property, are twofold; at first, it causes a social division of labor where each individual does a single compartmentalised task without any relationship to the task of others; second, the worker becomes alienated from the product of his own labor. Here, ‘being alienated from ones own work’ and ‘not owning the product of one’s own labor’—become interchangeable expressions. The social division of labor causes an alteration in human nature since “man’s own deed becomes an alien power apposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him.”13 Under the division of labor, man becomes preoccupied with the sole task of producing a particular commodity as apposed to doing one “thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner…without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”14 Marx argues that private property ought to be abolished for the reason that it forces the workers to become alienated from their own labor by being forcefully subjected to an alienating force that transforms their labor into an objectified labor-power commodity.

As was demonstrated with the Romans: the advent of private property, and the worker becoming alienated from the product of his/her own labor, had a consequential relationship in human human history. Alienation from one’s own labor, alters human nature in ways that are beneficial to the class that owns private property on which the labor of others can be easily accumulated as a surplus. Marx believes that the only way to stop being alienation from the product of one’s own labor, is to abolish private property altogether, along with all the forms of class exploitation under which the institution takes place. The abolition of these alienating social institutions, can un-alienate mankind from nature and restore social relations that mankind has with one another.

  1. Karl Marx, The German Ideology. Prometheus Books, 1998. p. 67 

  2. Karl Marx, The German Ideology. Prometheus Books, 1998. p. 47 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Karl Marx, Capital I. Penguin Classics, 1992, p. 287 

  5. Karl Marx, The German Ideology. Prometheus Books, 1998. p. 49 

  6. Karl Marx, The German Ideology. Prometheus Books, 1998. p. 50 

  7. Karl Marx, The German Ideology. Prometheus Books, 1998. p. 99 

  8. Karl Marx, The German Ideology. Prometheus Books, 1998. p. 46 

  9. Cicero, De Officiis, I.25 

  10. Karl Marx, The German Ideology. Prometheus Books, 1998. p. 67 

  11. Karl Marx, Capital I, Penguin Classics, 1992, pp. 314-5 

  12. Karl Marx, Capital I. Penguin Classics, 1992, p. 57 

  13. Karl Marx, The German Ideology. Prometheus Books, 1998. p. 53 

  14. Ibid