Sep 1, 1980

Marx’ Social Man

“The problem with this is that Marx’s materialism entails that people come together only because of material factors.”

“Alienation, Sociality, and the Division of Labor: Contradictions in Marx’s Ideal of ‘Social Man’.” Ethics89(January 1979):82–94

The author claims that Marx’s view of estrangment contains a basic contradiction. On the one hand, Marx believed communism would abolish such alienation and that man’s sociality would become truly actualized. On the other hand, Marx believed that the source of man’s social nature was the division of labor, which was also the source of estrangment; if communism abolished estrangment by abolishing the division of labor it would have to abolish man’s social nature!


The basic contradiction of capitalism, according to Marx, was that capitalism was at once the most social and cooperative form of production and yet its organizing principle was one of egotism and self-interest, as individuals’ interactions with one another is based on divided, opposed, and separated interests. Capitalism magnifies and brings to a head estrangment which began once people took on different occupations and tasks, and thus different ideas, outlooks, desires, and interests. The division of labor continues as physical labor is separated from mental labor, the individual is separated from the state, and people become one-sided and stunted. This increasing division of labor is directly related to the introduction and subsequent blossoming of private property, since the latter allows and hastens people’s separation from one another and is an essential ingredient in the broad and complex exchange relations that contribute to continued estrangment.

Given this analysis, it is easy to see why Marx thought communism’s abolition of estrangment would mean the abolition of the division of labor and private property. People will then produce what, when, and where they want and would do so only on the basis of human needs, as opposed to on the basis of some narrow conception of interests.

The problem with this is that Marx’s materialism entails that people come together only because of material factors. Marx explicitly states this in The German Ideology: people come together, not on the basis of culture, moral ideals, political institutions, religion, etc., but because of the necessity of cooperation which is derived from the need to maintain and reproduce themselves as individuals and as a species. Cooperation means social relationships, which means a division of labor. Once these social relationships take on a peculiarly human form where the genesis of productive skills are not just biological, then needs expand, specialization begins, the division of labor becomes more complex, and interdependence widens. As the sphere of interdependence involves more and more people, man becomes more social. The abolition of the division of labor in communism would thus mean people would not need to cooperate or be social. Given Marx’s analysis, a purely voluntary (no coercion of necessity) association of producers is a contradiction. If everyone’s capacities are all fully developed, and scarcity is abolished, men would not need each other and the automatization of individuals would begin.

There are only two ways out of this dilemma: either admit that Marx was not serious that communism would actualize social man, or admit that Marx would have to concede there are other bases for sociality then material ones. Both of these alternatives are unattractive. If we take the former, what is so advantageous about self-sufficient individuals with all their powers developed so that they do not need anyone? Perhaps a society of such people would end estrangment, but it would do so at the cost of promoting pure egoism. The second alternative would mean that cultural and/or social needs would bring communist persons together. Cultural needs would be needs to learn from one another, to expand one’s potential by associating with others who have similar needs. But it seems a pious hope that such needs by themselves will achieve the harmony Marx hoped for, and it violates the spirit of Marx’s materialism to make such an idealist assumption. Social needs would be the need for the company approval, affection, etc., of others—in general, a broad gregarious tendency. But Marxist assumptions require that such a general tendency be given specific content by historical details in order to vindicate the claim that such gregarious tendencies will bring people together harmoniously. However, the absence of thing-oriented and physical needs make it unlikely that it could be given such content. Marx’s theory requires that social relationships in the absence of any material basis would not be very complex, which implies that communist society would become very primitive. So no matter which turn we take, Marx’s dilemma remains insoluble.