The Early Marx on Needs
Following the first widespread dissemination of Marx’ s
early writings, his treatment of human needs was often
taken as the basis for a critique of the ‘false needs’ created
by capitalism and its consumer culture. 1 ‘True needs’ for
meaningful social interaction were counterposed to the
‘false needs’ for ever more consumer goods. 2 Along with
this went a tendency to construe the very idea of natural
needs, needs given by our physiological nature, as an
artifact of capitalist social relations. 3
As the post-war boom has given way to a succession of
major recessions in the advanced capitalist countries over
the last twenty years, and the absolute impoverishment of
parts of the Third World, the critique of consumerism has
come to look increasingl y irrelevant. Correspondingly more
recent work on Marx’ s conception of human needs has
tended to emphasise their basis in our natural physiology.
This enables the degree to which they are satisfied to
provide a simple but solid standard against which to condemn capitalism for its periodic reduction of masses of the
world’s population to poverty.4 Ted Benton (1988) has recently attempted to use such a ‘naturalistic’ conception of
human needs, in which the distance between human and
animal needs is reduced and animals’ needs are also given
normative weight, to argue for an ecological content to
Marx’s thought. 5
Both lines of interpretation, then, look to Marx for a
conception of our ‘true needs’ , although in the one case the
implicit model of human need is something like the need for
friendship, while in the other it is more like the need for
cooked food. In this paper I will argue that Marx does have
a concept oftruly human needs. I will side with the first line
of interpretation and against the second in seeing these
needs as qualitatively distinct both from animal needs, and
from needs as they are experienced by humans under
capitalism. However, by contrast with the first line, I shall
argue that Marx does not see the needs experienced by
humans under capitalism as ‘perverted’ or ‘distorted’ versions of truly human needs. Rather, capitalism, or at least
commodity production, is the means whereby truly human
needs are constituted, albeit in an estranged form which can
only be overcome through the abolition of both capitalism
and commodity production.
Marx ‘s concept of need has to be understood in the
context of his philosophical anthropology, that is, his general
theory of man. 6 As a first approximation, for Marx man’s
essence is constituted by his needs. So he says in the Notes
Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993
on lames Mill (1844) that: ‘ … the need for a thing is the most
obvious, irrefutable proof that that thing is part of my
essence’ (NJM 267, MEW 452).7
It was in the Notes on lames Mill (1844), the Economic
and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) and The German
Ideology (with Engels, 1845-6), that Marx worked out his
philosophical anthropology. 8 Hence this paper will concentrate on the role that needs play in the anthropology of
these texts. This leaves open the question of whether in his
mature economic works Marx operated with substantially
the same anthropology and the same concept of need. In fact
I believe that he did, but at all events it seems safe to say that
an understanding of the anthropology of the 1840s cannot
fail to throw light on his concept of need in his later
Marx’s way of developing his philosophical anthropology
is first of all to derive the most essential characteristics of
man, or the human being, by contrasting man to the animals.
Then he tries to show that in man as we know him these
characteristics are only realised in a self-stultifying way.
This enables him in turn to contrast man as we know him
with man as he could be, if those characteristics were
realised properly. As a result, he can portray man’s present
condition as ‘inhuman’ without resorting to an entirely
arbitrary conception of what counts as human.
Human activity as species activity
What then distinguishes man from the animals? Marx’ s
most fundamental answer is his universality. In the terminology of the 1844 Manuscripts, man is Gattungswesen, that
is, a ‘species-being’. Gattung means species, but also type
or kind, so we could equally translate Gattungswesen as a
‘type-being’ ora ‘kind-being’.9Wesenmeans ‘essence’, but
also ‘a being’ (as opposed to the generic term ‘being’
meaning ‘existence’). From now on I shall translate it as
‘essence’ for consistency, but we have to remember that for
Marx it means not only an essence but also a being, a
creature who has an essence.
Marx expounds the idea of man as a species-essence
with a threefold definition:
Man is a species-essence, not only because (1) he
practicall y and theoretic all y makes the kind [Gattung]
– both his own and those of other things – his object,
but also – and this is simply another way of saying the
same thing – because (2) he relates to himself IO as the
present [gegenwartigen], living species, because (3)
he relates to himself as a universal and therefore free
essence. (EPM 327, MEW 515).
I shall concentrate on the practical rather than the theoretical
side of this preliminary definition, that is, on what Marx
elsewhere calls species-activity, or kind-activity. I I Speciesactivity means the activity characteristic of a species-essenceY I shall take the three parts of the definition of
species-activity in the following order, different from Marx’ s,
so as to show how they are connected to one another: (1) he
relates to himself as the species, (2) he relates to himself as
a free essence, as a free being, (3) he makes the kind his
(1) Species-activity is first of all ‘relating to oneself as
the species’, that is, I take it, participating in the life of the
species as a whole by producing something for other human
beings and in turn enjoying what others have produced for
The interchangeD both of human activities in the
course of production and of human products with each
other is equal to the species-activity and the speciesspirit whose real, conscious and true existence consists in social activity and social enjoyment. (NJM
265, MEW 450-51)
(2) So, for Marx, ‘human’ and ‘social’ are virtually
equivalent terms. But mutual production and consumption
are not all that he means by species-activity, otherwise it
could be said that ants engage in species-activity, or that
ants have a society, and Marx would deny this. What is
unique about human species-activity, for Marx, seems to be
that the activities of production are directed, that is, men not
only act on nature, but they act on their own actions.
The animal is immediately one with its life-activity.
It does not distinguish itself from it; it is that activity.
Man makes his life-activity itself into an object of his
willing and consciousness. He has conscious lifeactivity. It is not a determination with which he
immediately merges. Conscious life-activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life-activity .
Only because of that is he a species-essence …. Only
because ofthat is his activity free activity. (EPM 328,
So species-activity is firstly the activity of producing things
for other human beings and enjoying the products of other
human beings, and secondly it is activity which is consciously
directed, and thus free. Marx never really clarifies the link
between these two aspects of the idea of species activity, but
it seems to be that, in the case of humans , as opposed to ants,
individuals are not assigned by their own nature to anyone
particular productive activity. Therefore on the one hand
they must be capable of a whole range of alternative
productive activities, yet on the other they must have some
say of singling out one of those activities as the one to
engage in, at anyone time, in order to coordinate with other
individuals. The way they do this is by language, and
language brings in its train consciousness and the conscious
direction of activities. Here is how Marx and Engels sketch
the connection in The German Ideology:
Language is as old as consciousness, language is
practical, real, consciousness that exists for other
men as well, and only therefore does it also exist for
me; language, like consciousness, first arises from
the need, the necessity [NotdUlft] , of intercourse with
other men. (CW5 44, MEW2 30)
(3) Now consciously directed activity can be called
universal in the sense that once human beings are capable of
redirecting their activity they can in principle redirect it
over and over again. But it also involves a universality
within each of those activities. The conscious direction of
activities has to be their direction in accord with general or
‘universal’ concepts. So it must be activity which has
general concepts, as it were ‘built into it’. Specifically, this
must mean that when human beings act on things they do not
act on them as unique particulars, but as examples of the
kinds (or species) to which those things belong. Their action
on a thing is ‘mediated’ through the general concept of
which they are treating the thing as an instance. I suggest
that this is what Marx means by the third aspect of his
definition of species-activity, the idea that it is activity
which makes the species, or kind, its object. If I burn a log
for warmth I am treating it as an instance of firewood. My
action on the log is mediated through the concept of
‘firewood’, and the object of my activity is the log as a piece
of firewood. If instead I sit on it I am treating it as ‘a stool’ .
If I throw it away I am treating it as ‘rubbish’, and so on. In
this sense species-activity is activity which takes ‘universal
To summarise, the unifying characteristiC of speciesactivity is what can loosely be called its ‘universal’ quality.
This quality recurs in each of the three parts of the definition. Species-activity is universal (1) in that it is social, (2)
in that it is consciously directed and so free, and (3) in that
it is mediated by general concepts.
Human property as essential objects
For Marx, the essence of man consists in the first instance
in his characteristic activity, namely species-activity. From
this starting point, it is possible to see how the essence of
man could also consist in his characteristic needs. An activity is defined partly by its objects, by what it is activity on:
the objects which it uses, consumes, or produces. It is also
defined by its motivation, by what it is activity for. So, just
as we can talk of the’ essential activities’ of a being, those
activities which are definitive of its essence, we also can talk
of its ‘essential objects’ (the objects of those activities) and
also of its ‘essential motivations’ (the motivating sources of
those activities). I think it is this idea of essential human
motivations that Marx tried to convey with the term ‘needs’. 16
Need, essential activity and essential object, in other
words, must be understood to form a single complex for
Marx. Need is the subjective component of activity, just as
the object is its objective component. This suggests that,
just as human activity is distinguished from animal activity
by its universality, and its objects by their universality, so
Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993
L 0 Q)
human needs should be distinguished from animal needs by
To see what the idea of universal needs involves, we
have to say something more about what Marx means by
man’s essential objects, the objects of species-activity. I
said that an activity treats a thing as a ‘universal object’ in
that it treats it as an example of a kind, as when I use a log
as a stool. Here the universality is purely ‘intentional’: a
matter of what I treat the thing as, or use it for. Characteristically, though, human beings impose this universality on
the physical structure of the things which are the objects of
their activity. For example, we construct a chair. Now the
universality which we ‘impose’ on the log by sitting on it
has been built into the chair. A chair embodies in its structure
a certain class of individual actions which count as ‘using
this thing as a chair’, in that it is designed to facilitate that
class of actions. It is the physical analogue of a concept. 17
Furthermore, this built-in universality is a general characteristic of the things which human beings produce for
each other. The structure of a chair means that in principle
any human being, any being capable of making the kind its
object, can use it.
So man’s essential objects are universal both in the sense
that they embody the universality of a class of standard ‘use
actions’ in their physical structure, and in the sense that they
can be used in principle by any human being.
Now according to Marx through working on nature to
create a world of such universal objects, through, as it were
‘humanising nature’, man progressively ‘objectifies’ his
inherent universality, that is, ‘objectifies’ himself as a
It is therefore in his working-up of the objective
world that man really proves himself to be a speciesessence. This production is his active species-life.
Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993
Through it nature appears as his work and his reality.
The object oflabour is therefore the objectification of
the species-life of man: for man doubles [verdoppelt]
himself not only intellectually, in his consciousness,
but actively and actually, and therefore looks at
himself in a world he has created. (EPM 329, MEW
Such objects are what Marx calls ‘human property’,
‘true property’, or ‘inner property’, terms which have a
positive not a negative meaning for him. Human property is
the objectification of our species-essence in the physical
world. It is the objects used, produced, and consumed by
species-activity. It is, as he puts it: ‘ … the existence
[Dasein] of essential objects for man, both as objects of
enjoyment and of activity’ (EPM 375, MEW 563).
Thus human property comprises the products of human
species-activity which can fulfil human needs. Human
property and human needs are correlative terms, and both
are equally definitive of the human essence. This is made
clearest in the passage from which I quoted at the start,
which contrasts this ‘inner property’ with ordinary private
property. It describes two private property owners each of
whom experiences a need for the other’s object:
The longing for each of these objects, i.e. the need
for them, shows each private-property-owner
[Privateigentiimer], makes him conscious, that he
has another essential relation to the objects apart
from that of private property, that he is not the
particular essence which he takes himself to be but a
total essence, whose needs stand in a relation of inner
property to all products, including those of another’s
labour. For the need for a thing is the most obvious,
irrefutable proof that thing is part of my essence, that
its being is for me and that its property [Eigentum] is
my property, the peculiarity [Eigentiimlichkeit] of my
essence. (NJM 267, MEW 452)19
Human needs as essential motivations
Their connection with human property gives us a first
handle on what Marx means by human needs. If we now
look at what Marx has to say about them directly, we can see
him again concentrating on the characteristic of universality.
Sometimes Marx expresses this by contrasting the mobility
of human needs with the physical, immediate, or fixed
quality of animal needs:
It is true that animals also produce. They build nests
and dwellings, like the bee, the beaver, the ant etc.
But they produce only what they or their young
immediately need [bedarj]; they produce one-sidedly,
while man produces universally; they produce only
under the domination of immediate physical need,
while man produces even when he is free from
physical need and only truly produces in freedom
from such need. (EPM 329, MEW 517)
In so far as man is characteristically human, his activity is
motivated by needs which are not simply given by his
physical constitution. They are not ‘immediate’. Instead
they are mediated by species-activity itself and the world of
objects it produces. In the course of history, the social
interchange of productive activities and products becomes
more complex, and human needs develop along with the
new objects which are produced. Marx calls this the ‘education of the senses’:
Not only the five senses, but also the so-called
spiritual senses, the practical senses (will, love, etc.),
in a word, the human sense, the humanity of the
senses – all these come into being only through the
existence [Dasein] of their objects, through humanised nature. The education [Bildung] of the five
senses is the work of all previous world history. Sense
which is trapped by crude practical need has only a
restricted sense. For a man who is starving the human
form offood does not exist, only its abstract existence
(Dasein) as food does. (EPM 353, MEW 541-2)
Obviously Marx is not saying here that the mere production of a new object gives rise to a need for it. His picture
must be of needs, activities and objects developing in close
interaction with each other, and it does not commit him to
anyone of them providing the motor of development. His
point is their interdependence. It is easy to see that the
objects we produce depend on the needs we experience.
Marx is arguing that the dependence goes the other way as
well: whether we can experience a need depends on whether
the objects that correspond to that need have become
available to us. 20
The result of this whole process is that needs tend to
become refined. They become less like the hungry man’s
need for food and more like the musically cultivated person’s
need for music.21 At the same time needs tend to diversify
and mUltiply. Mann’s needs become ‘many-sided’ along
with the diversification of production (NJM 268, MEW
454), and this results in what Marx calls ‘the rich man and
rich human need’ (EPM 356, MEW 544):
Developed society produces man in all the wealth of
his essence, the rich man who is profoundly and
abundantly endowed with all the senses as its constant reality. (EPM 354, MEW 542)
Insofar as needs become refined on the one hand and manysided on the other, they become in effect needs which can
only be satisfied by the products of other human beings, by
the objectifications of species-activity. In this sense human
needs are more and more needs for other human beings.
Marx connects the idea that human needs are our needs for
each other with a conception of human need as expressive.
He says that:
The rich man is simultaneously the man in-need-of
[Bedibftige] a totality of human life-expression; he is
the man in whom his own realisation exists as inner
necessity, as necessity [Not]. (EMP 356, MEW 544)
Human beings express themselves through the creation of
universal objects, and so the need for human life-expression
is the need to create such objects for other human beings, i.e.
to create objects that can in principle satisfy the needs of any
human being, thus to satisfy other people’s needs as such,
regardless of who those people are. The individual does not
become a universal altruist, but experiences the creation of
a universal object, one which can in principle satisfy the
needs of any human being, as a need in itself. An inventor
or a scientist could serve just as much for a present-day
example of expressive need as an artist. More generally,
Marx suggests that a point could be reached at which all
labour results from such an ‘inner necessary must [Not]’
(NJM 278, MEW 263).22
For Marx, then, human needs are constitutive of our
essence as human beings. This contrasts with a tradition of
thought that runs from Plato and the Stoics up to Kant and
Nietzsche in which needs were antithetical to our essence as
free beings, and the multiplication of needs associated with
civilisation meant only the multiplication of ways in which
man’s will was controlled and unfree. In Kant, motivation
by needs and inclinations is heteronomy, and the free will
determines itself in abstraction from all such motivations.
For Marx instead the refinement and diversification of
needs is of the essence of man. Accordingly his freedom
consists in this elaboration. It is only social conditions that
make us experience things otherwise.
Marx and Engels make this clearest in a discussion of the
categorical imperative in the German Ideology:
The only reason why Christianity wanted to free us
from the domination of the flesh and ‘desires
[Begierden] as a driving force’ was because we
regarded our flesh and our desires as something
foreign to us; it wanted to free us from natural
determination only because it regarded our own
nature as not belonging to us. For if I myself am not
nature, if my natural desires, my whole natural character, do not belong to myself – and this is the
doctrine of Christianity – then all determination by
nature – whether through my own natural-character
[Natiirlichkeit] or through so-called external natureappears to me as a determination by something alien,
a fetter, a compulsion used against me, heteronomy
as opposed to autonomy of the spirit. (CW5 254,
The reason that we experience our needs and desires as an
external imposition on us is that social conditions, ‘worldly
relations’, are such as to frustrate them, to ‘fix’ them, as
Marx and Engels put it (CW5 255, MEW2 237). By contrast,
communists’ strive to achieve an organisation of production
and intercourse which will make possible the normal satisfaction of all needs, i.e. a satisfaction which is limited only
by the needs themselves’ (CW5 256, MEW2 239).24
Conditional exchange and labour
for an income
This brings us to the question of what it is about present
‘worldly relations’ that prevents this normal satisfaction,
and makes us experience our needs as external to our
essence and opposed to our freedom. In fact everything I
have said so far on species-activity, human property and
human needs is only half of the story for Marx, to the point
that I have been forced to draw partly on his descriptions of
Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993
a future socialist society in order to elaborate it. The central
point he attempts to make in the 1844 Manuscripts is that all
these three aspects of the human essence have come into
existence in a way which is self-contradictory, in an ‘estranged’ or’ alienated’ way. This is because they have come
into existence through what Marx calls’ exchange’ (Tausch)
or ‘barter’ (Tauschhandel). The point about ‘exchange’, as
opposed to the general concept of’ interchange’ (Austausch),
which I used in introducing species-activity, is that it is
conditional. It is the exchange of products between two
parties in which each gives his product to the other only on
condition that the other does likewise. 25
Conditional exchange is the way that species-activity
comes into existence, principally because it allows the
interchange of products to take place outside the narrow
range ofthe family or the primitive tribal community. What
you can exchange with one person, you can in principle
exchange with anyone else, so that exchange can ultimately
establish an interchange of products between the whole of
the human race. But just this capability of establishing an
interchange with strangers while continuing to treat them as
strangers, as alien, is what makes conditional exchange, and
the form of species-activity it introduces, self-contradictory.
Marx expresses this by describing a transition from an
apparently solitary ‘man for himself – in a stage of savage
barbarism’ (NJM 274, MEW 459), producing purely for his
own needs, to man producing for conditional exchange. 26
When he produces for his own needs his labour is not
species-activity any more than that of a beaver is. No
universality is involved. The object produced by his labour
is at the same time the object which he uses. When he begins
to produce for exchange, his activity becomes, potentially
at least, species-activity. But although it is species-activity
in that it is the production of objects which will satisfy the
needs of other human beings, this is not the producer’s
primary pUlpose in engaging in it. His primary purpose is
still to satisfy his own needs, only now indirectly through
exchanging his products for the products of other people. If
he adopts the purpose of producing objects which will
satisfy their needs, this is only a derivative purpose, an aim
which he adopts because he must attain it in order to attain
his primary aim. Since for Marx an activity is partly defined
by its purpose, he expresses this by saying that the producer’s
activity has changed its character. Whereas before it was
simply labour for subsistence now it has become ‘labourfor-an -income’ :
When the relation of exchange [Tausches] is presupposed, labour immediately becomes labourjoran-income [ErwerbsarbeitJ27 … Labour [that is, labour before exchange – AC] was indeed the immediate source of subsistence but at the same time the
activation of his individual existence. Through exchange, his labour became in part a source of income.
Its purpose and mode-of-existence have become
different. [EPM 268, MEW 454]
‘Labour-for-an-income’, then, is contradictory in that its
objective character as species-activity is at odds with the
subjective purpose of the person doing it. 28
Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993
Private property and domination
by the object
Just as the producer’s activity now has a different character,
so does the object he produces. Previously it was produced
simply as an individual means of subsistence. It was not
human property at all in Marx’s sense. Now it is produced
for other human beings, so it is human property. Yet from
the point of view of the producer it is produced simply as a
means of exchange. Previously the producer produced in
isolation from other individuals – they did not appear on the
scene at all. Now he produces for them, but since he
produces his product as a means of exchange he must also
produce it as something actively withheld from them. If my
exchange is conditional I must withhold my product from
you until you agree to give me yours in return, and you have
to do likewise. Marx expresses this by saying that the object
is now produced as ‘private property’. It is private property
in that it is human property which is at the same time
privatus, excluded from the use of the other. 29 Thus private
property as object is the counterpart oflabour-for -an-income
as activity (along with its ancillary activity, the activity of
exchanging). It has the same contradictory or estranged
character as that activity:
Exchange or barter is the social species-act, the
community, social intercourse and integration of
man within private property, and for that reason it is
the external, alienated species-act. It appears as harter
just because of this. (NJM 267, MEW 453)
Furthermore, when the product is produced and exchanged
as private property, the conditionality inherent in exchange
gives it, in a certain sense, a power over its-own producer.
This is because by A’s making his act of giving B his
product conditional on B’ s doing the same, A uses his
product as a means to gain control over B’ s activity. On the
other hand B is doing just the same thing to A. This means
in turn that A’s attitude is not whimsical or malicious: it is
only by both offering to give B his product and threatening
to withhold it, that A can get B ‘s product from him. Unless
A has something which B needs to offer in exchange for B ‘s
product, A’s need does not constitute an ‘effective demand’
for that product, as economists have put it since Adam
Smith. So A must use his product as a means by which to
exert power over B, thanks to its capacity to satisfy B’s
needs. B is in the same position with respect to A.
The thing that gives your need for my possessions a
value, a worth, and an effect in my eyes is simply and
solely your possession, the equivalent of my possession. Our reciprocal product, therefore, is the
means, the mediator, the instrument, the acknowledged power of our mutual needs over each other.
(EPM 276, MEW 461)
Since each party uses his own product as a means of exerting
power over the other, each is in turn reduced to a means for
the other to produce what he needs. Each is forced by the
other to produce his own product, in the sense that unless he
does so he cannot satisfy his own need for the other’s
product. The instrumentality inherent in conditional ex-
change makes instruments of the exchangers as well as of
their products. The last stage in this argument is that,
because I use my product as a power over you, forcing you
to produce your own product, your own product in turn
becomes a power over you. That is, you find yourself in a
position where, in order to satisfy your need for my products, you must produce your own product.
In your eyes your product is an instrument, a means
whereby to master my product and hence to satisfy
your needs. But in my eyes it is the purpose of our
exchange. It is you who serve as the means, the
instrument, in the production of this object which is
my goal, just as conversely you stand in the same
relation to my object. But (1) each of us really does
behave in the way the other regards him. You have
really turned yourself into the means, the instrument,
the producer of your own object so as to master mine.
(2) Your own object is merely the sensuous husk, the
hidden form of my object. For its production signifies, seeks to express, the acquisition [Erwerb] of my
object. Thus you have really become a means, an
instrument of your object even for yourself… (JM
277, MEW 462)
or, in summary form:
The means is the true power over an object and hence
we each regard our own products as the power each
has over the other and over himself, i.e. our own
product has stood up on its hind legs against us: it had
seemed to be our property, but in reality we are its
property. (NJM 276, MEW 461)
This domination by the object becomes much more inescapable once we have not just two people exchanging but a
complete social division of labour based on conditional
exchange. Then each individual only produces one thing
and has to satisfy all his needs by exchanging that product:
The more production becomes many-sided, i.e. the
more needs become many-sided, the more the activity
of the producer becomes one-sided, the more completely labour falls into the category of labour-foran-income until, finally, no other meaning is left to it.
(NJM 268-9, MEW 454)
So another way of putting this domination of the producer
by his object would be to say that he is dominated by his
position in the social division of labour. This is how Marx
and Engels put it in the German Ideology (CW5 47, MEW2
The social constitution of domination
by the object
It might be argued against Marx that the exchangers are only
‘compelled by their product’ in the sense in which a human
being is when he is in the ‘savage state’ producing entirely
for his own (animal) needs. After all he too is in a situation
where he can only satisfy his needs by producing his
products. So he too finds his needs compelling him through
the intermediary of the product, in the sense that he must
produce the product ifhe is to satisfy them. Why should the
fact that the’ conditional chain’, that begins with his needs
and ends with his compulsion to produce, passes via the
product and the need of the other person make things different?
Marx’s answer might have been that the satisfaction of
a being’s intrinsic needs does not constitute a compulsion
on that being. On the contrary, it is that being’s essential
activity. To say that beavers are ‘compelled’ to build dams
by their need for fish supposes that there is something else
they would rather be doing, that they have some other inner
urges which are more essential to their nature than dambuilding. The separation between means and ends which
makes it possible for the means to appear as compelled by
the ends simply does not exist for the animal, or for man ‘in
the savage state’ , producing for himself. In q,rder for means
to separate out from, and stand in opposition to, ends, the
two have to be incarnated in objects which I take different
attitudes, and it is just this separation which conditional
If I produce something for my own needs, there is no
clear line between production and consumption. Suppose I
am living directly off the fruits of nature and I have to peel
a fruit before eating it, does the peeling constitute an act of
production of ‘peeled fruit’ or is it part of the consumption
of the fruit? Is gathering fruit, or hunting for game, a
separate act of production or an initial phase of consumption? On the other hand, when I satisfy my needs indirectly
through conditional exchange with others, production and
consumption are clearly defined by their different objects.
Production is what I do to the object I am going to exchange,
consumption is what I do to the object I get in return.
Conditional exchange also makes my productive activity
‘instrumental’ in a quite new way, for the object which I
produce no longer has any inherent connection with my
needs. It is connected to them only insofar as others are
willing to give me something in exchange for it which will
satisfy my needs, thus only via the wills of other people.
With the development of exchange:
It becomes wholly contingent and inessential whether
the relationship between producer and product is one
of immediate enjoyment and personal needs, and
whether the activity, the act of working, involves the
Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993
fulfilment of his personality, the realisation of his
natural talents and spiritual goals. (NJM 269, MEW
So my production of my product becomes completely
separate from my satisfaction of my need.
When in addition the means to the satisfaction of a need
is in the possession of another consciousness who is deliberately using it to force me to act in accord with his will
rather than mine, then I can come to experience producing
my own product in order to gain that means as a ‘compulsion’ .30
To put it another way, it is only because the other person
uses my activity as an instrumental way to produce the
object which he needs, that I come to use my own activity
in an instrumental way too. As Marx says, ‘each of us really
does behave as the other regards him.’
So the compulsion with respect to his own object which
each party experiences in the exchange relationship is not
simply the consequence of a compulsive quality of his own
needs which is transmitted through a chain of necessary
conditions for the satisfaction of those needs, achain ending
with his production of the object. Rather, the compulsion is
constituted in the relationship of conditional exchange
itself. The inherent externality of a conditional exchange
relationship is reproduced in an ‘externality’ in the way in
which each exchanger relates to his own product, and to his
Egoistic need as alienated need
This self-external quality of productive activity is what
Marx refers to when he calls productive activity within the
relations of private property’ estranged’ or ‘alienated’ labour.
As Marx describes it:
… to the labourer the maintenance of his individual
existence appears as the aim of his activity; his actual
doings count only as a means to this end. He thus
activates his life to acquire the means of life. (NJM
269, MEW 454)
Rather than say more on alienated labour, though I want to
concentrate on what conditional exchange means for the
way in which human need comes into existence for Marx.
One way he puts this is that human needs come into
existence as egoistic or self-interested need. This is need
which is actively counterposedto the needs of others. While
animal need is not even conscious of the needs of others and
properly human need is the need to satisfy the needs of
others, here the individual is conscious of the needs of
others, but only as something alien to his own. Egoistic need
is the counterpart of alienated labour and private property.
It is human need as it is experienced within an exchange
economy, within ‘civil society’.
Egoistic need develops alongside the social division of
labour mediated by conditional exchange, in other words
alongside the increasing transformation of activity into
labour-for-an-income. Labour-for-an-income means:
the determination of the labourer by social needs
which are alien to him and a compulsion on him, to
Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993
which he submits from egoistic need, from necessity
[Not]; for him they mean only a source of satisfaction
of his pressing-need [Notdwft] while for them he is
only the slave that satisfies their needs …. Thus the
greater, the more developed the power of society
within the private property relation, the more man is
egoistic, unsocial and estranged from his own essence.
(NJM 269, MEW 454)
The association of egoistic need with ‘necessity’ in the last
quote connects egoistic need with the idea of compulsion by
one’s own object. The exchange relation results in each
person experiencing the production of their own object as a
kind of compulsion. His need for the object which he
produces is a ‘compulsive need’. It is a need which he
himself experiences as impinging on him externally. We
could describe such needs as ‘estranged’ or ‘alienated’ in
the same way that Marx describes labour-for-an-income as
estranged labour. 31
Since my need for my own product is not based on my
direct use of it but on my ability to exchange it for others,
this compulsion also takes the form of needing to have the
product, to hold it exclusively. The ‘fundamental presupposition of private property’ is that man ‘only produces in
order to have’ (NJM 274, MEW 459).32 Exclusive possession is the absolute prerequisite of conditional exchange.
Once barter has developed into exchange mediated by
money, my compulsive need for my product becomes
subordinate to my compulsive need for the money for which
I can sell it, so that Marx can say that ‘The need for money
is … the true need created by the modern economic system,
and the only need it creates’ (EPM 358, MEW 547).
When Marx extends his analysis from production for
exchange to capitalism, he develops two forms of this need
for money. Capitalism is essentially conceived as production for exchange in which one section of society (the
capitalists) come to personify money and its power, while
the rest (the workers) personify labour-for-an-income or
estranged labour. Correspondingly, egoistic need in the
capitalist becomes the need to accumulate money as such,
while in the worker it becomes reduced to the need for
enough money just to maintain himself as a worker. Yet
despite this asymmetry, both conceptions of need are simply developments of the basic idea of egoistic need as
constituted in simple exchange: the need for your own
object, made compulsive through your relation to another
with whom you hope to exchange it.
To conclude, when Marx talks of ‘worldly relations’ being
responsible for the fixing of our needs as an alien power
over us, I suggest that it is the exchange relation that he has
principally in mind. For Marx, human need is constituted in
exchange society in a self-contradictory or estranged form,
just as species-activity and its objects, human property, are.
On the one hand, human need is the need for the products of
other human beings; on the other it takes the form of a need
counterposed to the needs of others. On the one hand it is
need which through its universality expresses the freedom
intrinsic to species-activity; on the other it takes the form of
a compulsive need which is opposed to freedom. On the one
hand, it is the need for interchange with other human beings;
on the other it takes the form of the need to possess an
By extension, Marx’s positive conception of needs in
‘truly human society’ or socialism does not amount to a list
of what will or will not count as needs for human beings in
such a society. It is simply the idea that in such a society
needs will no longer have the contradictory form that they
necessarily take in a society based on private property and
conditional exchange – the kind of society in which alone
they can be constituted and developed.
Thus the term ‘species-activity’ does not mean the activity
characteristic of any species, but specifically the activity characteristic ofthe human species, of that species whose characteristic activity incorporates the species in its intentional content;
of that species which is a species ‘for itself’.
Del’ Austausch. Marx evidently does not mean to limit this to the
conditional exchange of private property, introduced below.
Cf. EPM 328, MEW 516: ‘free conscious activity is the speciescharacter of man. ‘
Hegel in the Philosophy ofRight suggests that when I use a thing
to satisfy a need I cease to recognise its particularity and relate
to it in a universal way. ‘The thing is reduced to a means of
satisfying my need’ (§59A), and so to an instance of the class of
things which could satisfy that need. There seems to be a
difficulty here: if a bird eats a worm (rather than a stick), does it
treat the worm as food and so ‘make the kind its object’? Perhaps
Marx would have said that to treat it as food in the sense intended
here it must have a concept of food, and so must be conscious.
Thus I shall claim that Marx does not use ‘needs’ in the way
standard in modem English, to mean requirements for survival
or for well-being, although of course human needs in Marx’s
sense are generally also, as a matter of fact, such requirements.
Marx’s term comes from the language of psychology and
political economy, as, for example, taken up by Hegel into the
Encyclopaedia Philosophy of Spirit, §431-5, 471-3 and the
Philosophy of Right § 189-95, rather than from the language of
Cf. Hegel’s descriptions of the tool in the System of Ethical Life
as the’ persistent rule of labour’ (Harris and Knox p. 113, Lasson
p. 428) and as a ‘corporeal sign’ (Harris and Knox p. 115, Lasson
Cf. EPM 352, MEW 541: ‘when objective actuality becomes
everywhere for man in society the actuality of man’s essential
powers … all ohjects become for him the ohjectification of
himself, become objects which confirm and actualise his individuality, become his objects.’
Regrettably the Early Writings translation omit5 the ‘crucial phrase
‘inner property’ (cf. CW3 218). The contrast between inner and
outer property is also cast between ‘true property’ and exclusory
property (NJM 276, MEW 461), or else between ‘truly human
and social property’ and private property (EPM 333, MEW 521),
or between ‘the meaning of private property’ and the estranged
form in which it exists (EPM 375, MEW 563; cf. the reference
to the ‘essence of private property’ at EPM 261, MEW 446).
Marx’s conception of inner property as the objectification of
species-activity derives from Hegel’s theory of property as the
objectification of the free will in the Philosophy of Right (e.g.
§41). The contrast between outer and inner property is a descendant of Hegel’s opposition between possession (‘external
power over something’) and property (‘ that I, as free will, am an
object to myself in what I possess and only become an actual will
by this means’, §45). While possession is particular, property is
rational and so implicitly universal (§49). However, while Hegel
generally associates the satisfaction of needs with possession
and particularity (§41A, 45, 49, 59), Marx, in a Feuerbachian
inversion, identifies needs with his ‘true’ property. Elsewhere I
hope to show that the contrast between inner and outer property
is the seed of Marx’ s later opposition between productive forces
and relations of production.
I am grateful to Michael Inwood, Mike Martin, Danny Goldstick
and the editors of Radical Philosophy for comments on an earlier
version of this paper. I have used the following abbreviations:
NJM = Notes on .lames Mill (in Early Writings, ed. Colletti),
EPM = Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (in Early
Writings,ed. Colletti), CW =Marxand Engels: Collected Works
(with volume number), MEW = Marx-Engels Werke (with
volume number; if no number is given, the Erganzesband). I
have modified the translations cited on a number of occasions.
All emphases in quotes are Marx’s.
I have in mind, for example, the writings of Erich Fromm and
See, for example, Heller 1974, pp. 31-3.
For example, Geras 1983, pp. 104-6.
See especially pp. 255-7.
Marx’s term Bediilfnis is generally translated as a ‘need’ in
English editions of his works, occasionally as a ‘want’ or a
‘requirement’. There is only one other term which he uses which
is sometimes translated as ‘need’. This is Not (meaning necessity, exigency, distress). Marx only uses this very occasionally.
What I want to look at here is Marx’s use of Bediilfnis and of the
terms closely related to it (hediilfen, hediilftig, Bedibftigkeit).
When I talk about’ Marx’ s concept of need’ I mean strictly the
concept that Marx expressed by Bedibfn is and these related terms.
I translate Marx ‘s Mensch and menschlich in the traditional way
as ‘man’ and ‘human’, and use the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘his’ with
them. Although the German Mensch is more gender-neutral, this
translation seems to reflect Marx’ s intentions more closely than
adopting deliberately gender-neutral formulations.
McLellan 1969, pp. 107-11, points out that Feuerbach is probably the source of Marx’ s idea that the essence of a thing is given
by its objects. For example in Principles of the Philosophy of the
Future (1834) Feuerbach says that: ‘What a being [Wesen] is,
however, is recognised, only through its object; the object to
which a being nect:ssarily relates is nothing but its own revealed
essence [Wesen]’ (7, Vogel p. 9, Schmidt p. 40). Cf. Hegel’s
definition of essence as ‘relation to itself only by being relation
to another’ (Enc.vc/opaedia Logic § 112, Garaets et aI., p. 175,
Suhrkamp, vol. 8, p. 112). Marx’s difference here is that he
relates man’s essence specifically to the objects of his needs.
I shall refer to the first two texts collectively as the 1844
In his 1843 Critique of Hegel’ s Philosophy of Right Marx occasionally contrasted Gattung with Art as genus to species (e.g.
Early Writings 88, MEW 1 231), but he does not seem to intend
such a contrast in the 1844 writings.
In the 1857 introduction Marx does not seem to go further than
this, asserting that, although products and needs presuppose
each other, ‘production is the real point of departure and hence
also the predominant moment’ (Grundrisse, p. 94).
Sich zu sich selhst verhalt: an alternative translation would be
‘treats himself’ or ‘behaves towards himself’.
Here I only follow Marx, who says elsewhere that the whole
character of a species ‘is contained in the character of its lifeactivity’ (EPM 328, MEW 516).
The implication is that art -objects are the most developed
example of ‘universal objects’. Marx seems to be drawing on
Kant’s aesthetics, in which beauty consists in the formal (hence
universal) qualities of an object, and in which the appreciation
of such objects does not mean their individual consumption, so
that they are available for others too.
Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993
This is the same idea as he later expresses in the Critique of the
Gotha Programme by saying that in the higher phase of communism labour becomes ‘life’s prime need’ (Selected Works, Vol.
3, p. 19, MEW19 21).
Geras (1983, p. 62) sees Marx as operating with a ‘physiologically given’ concept of human nature here, but the passage is also
consistent with the view I have derived from the 1844 writings,
in which the human essence appears in the progressive universalisation and social mediation of needs which may be initially
simply physiologically based urges.
This last passage was admittedly crossed out in the text.
Marx implicitly contrasts Tausch (exchange) and Tauschhandel
(barter) to wechselseitiger Austausch (mutual interchange) in
NlM 269, MEW 455. But his usage is not entirely stable, since
on NlM 266, MEW 451 and again on NlM 274, MEW 459 he
usesAustausch where he evidently means conditional exchange.
It might be said that any kind of interchange of products must be
conditional in some sense. Marx’s response might have been
that when my production for others becomes in itself a need for
me, then it becomes conditional on others producing for me only
in the minimal sense that unless they do I will not survive, or at
least not as a person motivated by such a need. As long as I
remain such a person, however, I will be motivated to produce
for others without ‘making conditions’, in the way that a composer who ‘lives for work’ does.
If this is a historical transition it suggests an original state of
nature in which human beings produce for themselves in isolation from each other. This would contradict Marx’ s usual view
that ‘the more deeply we go back into history, the more does the
individual, and hence also the producing individual, appear as
dependent, as belonging to a greater whole’ (Grundrisse, p. 84).
In his later works Marx thinks of conditional exchange as
starting on the borders of such early societies.
Alternative translations might be ‘labour-for-a-living’ or ‘labour-for-gain’. In this passage Marx immediately qualifies
labour-for-an-income as ‘estranged’ (entfremdete). As I shall
suggest below, it becomes the estranged or ‘alienated’
(entausserte) labour of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The distinction between labour and labour-for-an-income foreshadows that between concrete labour and abstract
labour in Marx’ s mature works. It corresponds to that between
‘labour’ and ‘industry’ in Sir lames Steuart, for whom industry
is ‘the application to ingenious labour in a free man, in order to
procure, by means of trade, an equivalent’ (Inquiry, p. 33, cf. p.
37). Marx acknowledges Steuart’s ‘industry’ as the sources for
his own ‘abstract labour’ in the Contribution to the Critique of
Political Economy, p. 58.
Similarly in the Introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit,
Hegel says that a form of knowledge is contradictory in that its
conception of its object is at odds with its conception of the
subjective act of cognition of the object (Phenomenology ofSpirit,
See the analysis of the contrast between human and private
property in note 19 above.
Subsequently individuals might transfer the same sense of
compulsion to those areas of life in which they continue to
produce for themselves (cooking for example). My reconstruction of Marx here is obviously inspired by Hegel’s dialectic of
mastery and servitude (Herrschaft und Knechtschaft) , in which
the servant’s relationship to the object he produces is transformed by his relationship of subordination to the master
(Phenomenology of Spirit, pp. 117-19). On my reading, Marx
represents the relationship between conditional exchangers in
the Notes on lames Mill as a kind of mutual master and servant
relationship, in which each threatens the other (though not with
violent death, as in Hegel, but with refusal to satisfy a need).
Marx himself concludes his account of domination by the object
with an apparent reference to Hegel’s master-servant relation:
‘If our mutual servitude (Knechtschaft) to the object appears at
the beginning of the development in actuality as the relation of
Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993
mastery and slavery [Herrschaft und Sklaverei], that is only the
crude and frank expression of our essential relationship’ (NlM
277, MEW 462).
I owe the formulation’ alienated needs’ to Helier 1974, ch. 2.
Cf. EPM 352, MEW 540: ‘all the physical and intellectual
senses have been replaced by the simple estrangement of all
these senses – the sense of ha vi ng. ‘
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