W. Peter Archibald, Marx and the Missing Link: "Human Nature".
Until a few years ago, the established view was that the historical materialism of Marx's post-1845 corpus, in particular the volumes of Capital, was devoid of any theory of human nature. The social-reflex theory of orthodox Marxism, buttressed by the "theoretical anti-humanism" of Louis Althusser and structuralist Marxism in general, was dominant in the academy.
Now the widely accepted view is that even Marx's most scientifically oriented works posit throughout an undergirding concept of human nature. It is in this relatively new theoretical context that Peter Archibald has written Marx and the Missing Link: "Human Nature," a voluminous study which seeks to check out the suppositions of Marx's undergirding idea of human nature against the twentieth-century findings of the social sciences.
Archibald's book is divided into four main sections: Part I "Re-reading Marx for the Individual and the Psyche"; Part II "Human Nature as Modified in each Historical Epoch"; Part III "Human Nature in General"; and Part IV "Evaluating Marx's Theories of Human Nature Empirically." It begins from four major premises--that (1) Marx had "an elaborate conception of human nature--which was not simply philosophical and sociological, but psychological"; that (2) he "believed these psychic processes to be common to individuals in all periods of history"; that (3) these inner workings include "complicated structures such as need hierarchies and processes such as social comparison and 'frustration-aggression'"; and (4) that for Marx "the explanatory importance of such general processes is by no means restricted to the level of the individual--[but is essential to understanding] Marx's explanations for most of the structural social processes with which he was concerned." (2-5).
These general principles define the theoretical framework for all of Archibald's analysis, and his study is essentially concerned not to justify them on the basis of Marx's own texts, but to empirically assess their constituent claims in the light of the anthropological, psychological, and sociological evidence. No one that I know of has attempted such a broad social-scientific check of Marx's theory of human nature before, and Archibald's work is impressively prodigious and well-informed in the sources it brings to bear on his project. It is basically sympathetic and faithful to Marx's position, but is not afraid to criticize it nor to propose desired amendments. It is a book which seems to represent an immense amount of work.
The main compositional drawback of the book, perhaps difficult to avoid in such an enterprise, is its sprawling, rambling structure of presentation, which piles point on point and reference on reference with no clear thoughtline of argument, nor cumulative development of theoretical case. Nevertheless, useful points are frequent, especially on counteracting factors not taken into account by Marx's too simplified doctrine of class struggle. The book's most valuable contribution lies, I think, in its recurrent exposure of psychological processes preventing worker class consciousness and collective action, inhibiting factors which Marx was inclined to overlook in his overriding commitment to social revolution (e.g. people's tolerance of deprivation and frustration, and their disinclination to function on a level of rational class action).
There are, however, some major gaps and lapses of explanation in Archibald's analysis. For example, the basic concept of "hierarchy of needs" is one which Professor Archibald attributes to Marx throughout his study. Yet he never defines need in such a way as to distinguish it from want (despite a chapter on the subject), nor explains at all what "hierarchy" means in framing the relative motivational place and importance of different "needs" (cf. 83ff, 235). Marx's concept of the historical development of needs also lacks here any systematic theoretical integration, though it is in this direction most of all that historical materialism has a contribution to make in understanding what needs are and how they change. As with other central concepts "knowledge", for instance (cf. 120)--the meaning of very basic concepts is left unexplained at the general level. A looseness of theoretical bearings becomes in consequence pervasive. Since Archibald's analysis does not concern itself either with justifying his concepts on the basis of Marx's texts themselves (where "hierarchy of needs," for example, never occurs as a concept Marx uses), things become rather unstuck. There is much talking around points without much getting down to them with any rigor of defined principle--continually moving from what Marx's position allegedly is to empirical testing of it by the subsequent scientific literature without really explaining what precisely these positions are.
There are also some fundamentally misleading formulations spotted through the book. On page 98, Marx's belief in "classical conditioning" is said to be shown by his famous question: "How could the worker come to face the product of his activity as a stranger, were it not that in the very act of production he was estranging himself from himself?." Marx's point here is, rather, that the worker's alienation from his product, which is owned by the capitalist, is determined by a deeper, overlooked alienation from his labour power itself, which is owned by the capitalist prior to the product. This is not a point about classical conditioning, but about ownership structures. On page 33, Archibald states that "the value of the specific commodity, labour power, is heavily determined by the needs of individual workers." In fact, the value of labor-power is not determined by needs, for Marx, but by the socially necessary hours of labor-power required to reproduce it. Workers need air, but that does not figure in the cost of their labor-power on the market. Again, on p. 217 Archibald reports that Marx's awareness of the problem of proliferating "unproductive" workers was confined to "a few overseers, clerks and engineers." This is doubly wrong. First of all, Marx saw the labor of "overseeing" and "superintendence" as productive in its planning and directive functions, and conceived of "engineers" as primary bearers of "society's greatest productive wealth, scientific labour-power." He also more than once declared (in Capital and the Gotha Program, for example), that clerks in the form of "accountants" would be essential workers in any post-capitalist social order. Secondly, Marx did frequently refer to the problem of proliferating unproductive functionaries in modem capitalism, from soldiers, judges and capitalist apologists to jugglers and prostitutes, "a horde of unproductive parasites" he called them in Theories of Surplus Value, and he attacked the problem as politically significant in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
In all, despite its problems, this is a book whose sense of direction is sane and reliable and whose scholarship is industrious.
University of Guelph
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1990|
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