Philosophic dialogue: New perspectives on Marx’s Humanist Essays

November 10, 2020

Editor’s note: The San Francisco Bay Area Local of News and Letters Committees held a meeting on “Marx’s Humanist Essays: New Perspectives for Today from Philosopher-Activists” on Oct. 11, 2020, focusing on Karl Marx’s 1844 essay, “Private Property and Communism.” Below are the three presentations on why Marx’s 1844 Humanist Essays (also known as his Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts) are critical to meet the total challenges to humanity today. The three presenters are Alex, a high school student; Faruq, a former prisoner, participant in the Pelican Bay Hunger Strikes to abolish indeterminate solitary confinement; and Urszula, a long-time Marxist looking at 1844 anew from a feminist perspective.


My favorite part of this essay is Marx’s critique of crude communism. Crude communism seeks to abolish private property without changing (or even addressing) the whole social structure in which it exists.

This is relevant to today’s currents of class reductionism which exists in at least two forms: 1) “existing socialism,” which claims to have abolished private property by nationalizing most means of production, and 2) opposition to so-called “identity politics,” proposing that class is more important than any other oppression in society, be it race, gender, nationality, etc.

Karl Marx in the 1840s

Marx starts the essay by observing that societies in which private property is not yet developed may not be more free. For example, ancient Rome, when private property existed only in its nascent form, was not a free society. Although commodities were produced, the prevailing form of labor was slave labor, that form of class antagonism.

The Soviet Union claimed to have abolished classes by abolishing private property and thus became socialist. Yet Marx clearly says that lack of private property is not socialism. He critiques Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s position and calls efforts to just abolish private property a road to creating a society in which the community is a “universal capitalist.”

The point of Marxism is abolition of capitalism, not an improvement of it by making it more “equitable.” “Radical” positions, such as Social Democrat ones, aim to improve existing conditions or reduce the harm that capitalism causes. But limiting our vision to “reducing harm” serves to perpetuate the view that capitalism is our only option and prolongs the harm it causes.

This harm is in no way limited to depriving workers of necessary personal property, or of any way of making a living. The most pernicious harm consists in reducing labor, which Marx says is a human life activity in any society, to merely a way of earning a living, of barely surviving.

To the extent that class reductionism sees in labor mere lack of property and not a perversion of our human essence, our free life activity, it is an inadequate response to capitalism. Class reductionism cannot get us beyond capitalism.



I was reading “Private Property and Communism” and came across Marx’s statement, “Heretofore [the objective existence of industry] was not conceived in its connection with humans’ essential being, but only in an external relation of utility…”

This blew me away. That little word, “heretofore,” is the pivot that turned the view of all of human history completely around. Think about it for a moment. Try to wrap your mind around that idea. Who else looks at industry in this way? As an “open book of humans’ essential powers”? This really made me think about industry in a whole new way. Wow!

Thousands of Los Angeles, Calif., teachers and other school workers strike and march in a steady rain on Jan. 14, 2019. These teachers are from the Sunset Gauntlet school district. Photo: Unite Here.

What are “humans’ essential powers”? The standard argument presents machinery as capital, as a wondrous thing necessary to increase productivity. We endow the machine with our intellectual powers. But it is only by stripping capital of its power to determine our social relations that we can finally face humans’ essential powers as not mere utility, but a determination of the development of our humanity. As Marx puts it later (in the Grundrisse):

“… when the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces etc., created through universal exchange? … Where man … strives not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?”

Capitalism crushes our humanity, our human essential powers. Capitalism creates poverty. Many people’s spirits have been so crushed they can’t think past getting the next meal. Many are so poor, they argue with one another over one or two dollars. It’s never a large amount, but even such pittance is significant to them. They no longer have the time or the inclination to see the larger picture. Since bare survival is so immediate for them, they can’t look further than their own individual existence.

Young people are our hope, because they are not as ready to accept the world they are born into. Malcolm X as a young man wanted to play a trumpet. He was told, “sit down, Black people do not play a trumpet.” Such comments are repeated millions of times to youth who might be trying to realize their innate talents. School was never a comfortable place for me. I had too much energy, I wanted to be outside. Nowadays, I would have been put on Ritalin to suppress my restlessness.

Heretofore, science has been used to develop machinery designed to constrain the free development of humans’ essential powers. Science as utility, or external tool, separates the human from their immanent connection to nature. Only science that is one with life, says Marx, can realize industry’s “connection with humans’ essential being.” Any success in creating a better world turns on that struggle to realize our human essential powers in our everyday life.



“The direct, natural, and necessary relation of person to person is the relation of man to woman.” – Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism”

I was shocked that a reaction to this statement could be, “Marx is transphobic.”

Marx is asserting a “direct, natural” connection between men and women. But his point is that it is not the “direct” and “natural” aspect of that relation that makes it human. What makes it human is what humans make of their direct nature. What they consciously understand their nature to be. What is essentially human is to freely determine one’s life activity, i.e. freely determine their relation to their own nature as well as what is called “external” nature. For Marx “external” nature is humans’ “inorganic being.”

Protester at Pakistan International Women’s Day Aurat March 2019. Photo: Ema Anis, copyright Amnesty International

When Raya Dunayevskaya was talking about this statement, she paraphrased it something like this (my recreation of what I remember her saying): forget the relation to your class enemy. Denying humanity to your enemy is easy to understand. Look at the relation to someone you love.

There is no shortage of proof of how completely unhuman, even inhuman, love relations can be. Look at all the domestic abuse in all the varieties of love relations. (Most of today’s societies refuse women the status of being fully human by having actual laws that control reproduction, either limiting or encouraging it.)

In popular conception, a lover is an object of your affections. Even earlier than this, when Marx talked about love he said, when you love someone it is the first time you become an objective being, you really discover something outside of yourself that is not merely your “inorganic nature.”

How does love become a fully human relation (regardless of gender)?

There is a recognition of the power of love in a statement from Bob Marley, frequently heard from Faruq: “one love.” It has a long history of expressing human solidarity in the Black community in distinction from internal political oppositions.

I see in this a recognition of the power of treating another human being as fully human. “One love” is not limited to “relation of man to woman.” One Love, as human solidarity on the ground, has a larger meaning. What love means to you, how you love, determines your humanity in relation to all other human beings and to nature.

This is how I read Marx as he continues to elaborate (I choose to translate the German word “Mensch” to humans, not “man”): “From the character of this relation follows how much humans as species-being(s), as human(s), have come to be themselves and to comprehend themselves…. [I]t therefore reveals the extent to which humans’ natural behavior has become human, or the extent to which human essence in them has become a natural essence — the extent to which their human nature has come to be natural to them.”

Human essence, the capacity to freely determine our life activity, has to become mutually recognized as mine and my loved one’s essence. The essence of man is not strength or ability to provide. The essence of woman is not motherhood or caring. The essence of either is freely determined life activity, whether in protecting or caring.

That is why “needing a human being as a human being” measures the extent to which our human essence has become our natural essence, the extent to which our human nature has become natural to us.

–Urszula Wislanka

One thought on “Philosophic dialogue: New perspectives on Marx’s Humanist Essays

  1. Greetings from Dublin, Ireland!

    Three excellent and really interesting presentations.

    I’m not sure if Urszula and Faruq remember me from N&L Chicago in the late 1980s-2000. It’s great to hear their voices and to be introduced to Alex’s.

    Alex, keep going!! Your thoughts, observations and experiences have inspired me today.

    Kindest regards,

    Thomas Dunning (aka Tom Williamson)

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