Fly on the Wall—Marx: Diagnostician of Destiny

Karl Marx reveals himself as quite the psychologist when we research him that way; he divides needs and wants as one would computer fonts, some based on the essence of our humanity as creative beings and some, for lack of a better word, as essentially oppressed by nonsensical cultural wing-dings.  To Marx, social reality makes us who we are even as we inhabit an illusion that our essence transcends our circumstances.

As one of the first sociological theorists we cover in undergrad courses, it’s worth allowing Marx (in Fromm, 1968) to summarize his sense of the interior lives of people in his own words:

“Every man speculates upon creating a new need in another, in order to force him to new sacrifice, to place him in a new dependence, and to entice him to a new kind of pleasure …  Everyone tries to establish over others an alien power in order to find there the satisfaction of this own egoistic need.  With the mass of objects, therefore, there also increases the realm of alien entities to which man is subjected.  Every new product is a new potentiality of mutual deceit and robbery.  Man becomes increasingly ‘poor’ as man …  This shows subjectively, partly in the fact that the expansion of production and of needs becomes an ingenious and always calculating subservience to inhuman, depraved, unnatural and imaginary appetites.”

Whereas food and shelter and entertainment go back to the stone age, much of our daily concern as consumers transcends these basic needs.  Who can be sure that our sense of ourselves and others also hasn’t fallen prey to market forces whereby we see our relationships and our education as something alienated from our deeper longing for a life worth living?  To cross-examine our motivations and desires is central to employing what C. Wright Mills famously termed the sociological imagination.  From here we can reassess normative expectations associated with that most navel-gazing of disciplines: psychology.

Marx’s complex dialectical theories reduce, like a sauce in a skillet, to a surprisingly simple sense of human nature.  To him, we are all creative beings who can only be fulfilled when we exert control over our labours and our loves.  Mutual control, but control of our destiny nonetheless.  Of love he claimed that “that which is life, all that is immediate, all sensuous experience, all real experience, of which one never knows beforehand whence and whither” begins and is furthered through relationships with others.  Love, you might say, is the original workplace where workers either run the show or are dictated to from on high.  Anyone who knows a person who was in an arranged marriage gets a sense of this.  But often, said Marx, we are not so aware of the fetters acting on our being.  Just as biology is not destiny, culture is not our destiny either once we separate it from our individual identity, something especially difficult to do when we live in a culture that claims to privilege individual agency above structural restraint.  It’s like we live in a shoe but we don’t know that we do, until we take a census of our shoe closet.

Far from envisioning merely a factory society pleasantly managed by the working class in their own interest, Marx the psychologist sometimes sounds more like a theorist seeking caring and intimate social relations as the highest form of revolutionary fervour.   Labours of love, indeed.  He wrote that “the immediate, relation of man to woman…  The relation of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being” (Marx in Fromm, 1968).  Quite progressive for the 19th Century where patriarchy tended to see a wife as less than the most important aspect of a man’s life!  As part of reclaiming our identities from the marketing machine of capitalism Marx the therapist says that we need to learn to truly be with other people that we may bond over our common humanity and create a better future.  Sounds like a prescription any therapist would approve of!

Meanwhile, if we squint a bit, the notion of personality types might map onto Marx’s notion of economic classes.  To him the key ones were the owners of industry and culture, the bourgeoisie, and the meek but potentially powerful labourers who have no say over the goals of their industry, nation, or society: the proletariat.  But a third class was crucial too, what he called the lumpenproletariat.  These denizens of cultural marginality were often vaguely criminal roustabouts who resisted unionization and a complex analysis of the social conditions that led their lives to get that way.  This group seems more psychological than economic in makeup, and it certainly implies that Marx wasn’t just writing about economic matters: he was talking about how we feel and act as humans.  Perhaps within ourselves we contain some of all three of Marx’s classes, if we’re honest.  Thus, one might arrive at a question to add to a homemade personality test question: “I am incapable of being honest with myself when answering personality test questions.”

A 1960s era Marxist psychologist named Erich Fromm noted that, as above in the arena of the economy, so below in our humble minds.  “Eros and love of life are the two central strivings of the unalienated man.  They are given in human nature and manifest themselves under social circumstances which give man the possibility to be what he could be” (online).  We cannot expect a fulfilled interior life when saddled with an oppressive structural reality.  In rare instances of clarity, a sense of the power of context appears; arriving at the deck of an old house, I once saw a child burst into tears of anguish and when adults asked why she was so upset she replied, “I stepped on the nail again!” Clearly, this poor little girl’s parents had failed to create a safe and loving context for their daughter.  And even though a brain scan would have revealed symptoms of various maladies in that moment, the cause of her complaint was, quite literally, structural.  Sometimes what appears as an excess of anger or anxiety has nothing to do with the person in question and everything to do with a sad or unfortunate context.

Thus, to Marx the problem of our being divorced from creativity in our labour is paralleled in our minds where we may not be able to fulfill our creative potential.  We tend to seek and define our happiness through marketplace goods and superficial appearances: our treats, our highest ambitions, are often as far from the heart and mind as a loaf of bread is from a sandwich.  We have to create our desires for ourselves, but shopping makes it seem like everything is better when it’s done for us.  Likewise, Chatbot AI appears to some like a better thing than delving into coursework and writing an authentic essay.

Seeing that our psychological reality is the product by and large of our society’s moment in history allows us to tease out what really matters, in any time and place, within our human lives.   Although we cannot expect the world to change on a whim, we can (as therapists are wont to remind their clients) certainly change the way we interpret our surroundings.  Simply knowing that the world could be otherwise, after all history shows countless different versions of society, economy, and belief, allows us to find distance between unhappiness and our sense of identity.  In schooling, we at the least can choose electives that match our true tastes, even if many of our core classes are more about a future career than the flowering of our intellect.  Small flowers crack concrete, as the saying goes, and to hold fast to what we really desire can be more liberating than wearing a sandwich board in a protest march.  Every symbolic step we take is part and parcel of the active creation of our identity; maybe this is the great value of personality tests.  They allow us to assess how we may be seen to ourselves and others that we can better grow towards a measure of how we wish to be seen.  After all, creativity in its core begins with wishful thinking as we wile away hazy moments between the rote machinations of our daily lives.

Marx’s psychology, unlike present-day neurobiology that can seem more rigid than any asylum straitjacket, is one of evolutionary flow, not chemicals and adaptation.  “Since Marx’s whole psychological thinking is dynamic, and not behavioristic-descriptive, those character traits and character concepts have to be understood in the dynamic sense” (Fromm, 1968).  Adapt though we must, at times, it’s where we fly free in our minds and our writing that we can truly illustrate our best possible selves.  And AU can be the launching pad for just such a personal journey to the stars of our dreams.

Fromm, Erich.  (1968).  ‘Marx’s Contribution to the Knowledge of Man’.  Retrieved from
Marx, K.  In Fromm, Erich.  (1968).  ‘Marx’s Contribution to the Knowledge of Man’.  Retrieved from
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