Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud on History How has human life come about

Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud on History
How has human life come about to be in today’s form, and where is the modern society headed to-these questions cannot be answered without reflection on the history of our civilization. In the heyday of industrial revolution and scientific progress, the three thinkers- Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud-appeared as secular messiahs of the modern age and set out to answer these potent questions. Each of them came up with their unique understanding of history and what it means for us today. Although all three are dissatisfied with the modern human condition- Marx and Nietzsche are optimistic about the ability of human action and will to control-if not direct-the drive of history. However, in Freud, this sense of normativity and optimism is lacking.
In this essay, I explain Marx’s, Nietzsche’s and Freud’s individual take on the conception of history. Consequently, I delve into their relative similarities, differences, and try to explain each of their limitations.
For Marx, the history of human civilization is the “history of class antagonism.” Prehistorically, humans lived in a condition of primitive communism where natural resources-or the mode of production- was commonly owned and utilized. As human society prospered, the mode of production was owned by a certain class, naturally creating a class that is deprived of it and has to depend upon the former. Human history is driven by the struggle between these two conflicting classes, sometimes in the form of “freeman vs slave” or “patrician vs plebeian”, and this has continued till the capitalistic age when the bourgeoisie are opposed against the proletariat. But Marx’s audacity is to proclaim that this historical cycle would come to an end following communism. Through the abolition of private property, the class antagonism which had survived historically would come to an end. Communism was to bring about, so to speak, the end of history as it aimed to abolish any “religion, morality, truths”, and create a new society.
Nietzsche understands human history as the continuous process of unravelling of human creativity and vitality. In that sense, humans are always “imperfect”, and constantly bettering themselves. Evoking the biologically deterministic worldview, Nietzsche writes, we humans have transcended the apes and animals, but that alone is not the purpose: humans have to transcend themselves. By the notion of transcending, here, Nietzsche is not referring to some evolutionary metamorphosis, but the constant, critical, examination of human conditions and its improvement. Under this examination, conception of even religion and morality become the subject of scrutiny. Any “super terrestrial hopes” are to be given up. The religiously derived ethics of “Thou Shalt” should be tossed away.
With this constant need for criticism, the value Nietzsche confers to history becomes a pragmatic one. “Excess of history is harmful to life”, says Nietzsche. History, if important for anything, is for showing us how the past was, always, imperfect in some way. The cycle of civilization is never complete, as some “historical beings” dream of attaining salvation when in the end. Any fascination with the once glorious and “classical” past, which he terms as monumental history, reduces present living to just a bare-living because all that is being done in the present is praising of the glory of the past. People’s reverence to their culture and tradition, or history in the antiquarian sense, is, to Nietzsche, equivalent to intellectual death. For his Ubermensch is supposed to plunge into the unknown dangers and thrive in such adversity; affinity with history only limits people to their horizon. But above all, Nietzsche’s prime worry seems to be the post-enlightenment complacency of human society, the idea that scientific progress was, in some way, the culmination point of human civilization. But no, even “science needs supervision.” And if there is a goal of human life such as happiness, the concept of which goes back at least to thinkers such as Aristotle, then it can only be attained by human’s capacity to “feel unhistorical.”
Among our thinkers, perhaps, Freud’s theory of human history is the most radically based on a biologically deterministic worldview. Freud says, the primal human being’s life was motivated solely by the necessity for genital satisfaction and the necessity for work. Unlike in other animal species, for humans, sexual drive was no more a seasonal thing. It became a prime medium to denote relationships and organize families. While for the male, it was important to keep the “sexual object” around them, for the female, such communion gave protection to her baby. Upon this family structure, humans then set out to do their work for survival-be it hunting or gathering.
This original force which guided human species in its formative period, according to Freud, is also the force that permeates both our history and thinking. But under Freud’s psychoanalytic methodology, thinking is not so much a simple category; it can be divided into the conscious and the unconscious. Our ego, what appears to be the sentient “feeling of our self” is essentially “deceptive” as it is connected to the domain of the unconscious, the hidden part of mental entity. Under this view, religion becomes a mental construction that emerged at some point in time, rooting out of one’s unconscious “infantile helplessness.” Happiness and pleasure, which we have set for ourselves as a goal, is derived from the “prototype” of genital love. And his most crucial diagnosis comes here- our ego and its “residue” stand in stark contradiction to the way our civilization has historically evolved. Civilization demands some form of order, obedience, and aims to “unite” all human beings. Freud doubts that this can go hand in hand with the libidinal inertia and instinctive aggressiveness that drives us. He proclaims, it essentially opposes the “program” of civilization.
Freud agrees with Marx in the sense that, both see, in the progression of human history, a struggle between man and nature. However Marx thinks that “nature’s forces” are tamable; that, progress in science and industry have been such that scarcity in nature can be overcome. But Freud thinks that the human body is essentially feeble and nature can never properly be “mastered.” This feebleness is precisely what, Freud thinks, constructs the basis of our civilization, with its need for “family”, the “state”, and, to a degree, faith. Freud also does not think of humans, like the “communists” would do, as some “wholly good” being corrupted by “private property.” The human being is always directed by, if anything, its primal aggressiveness and libido and does not have agency in the way Marx thinks.
Perhaps Marx shares much in common with Nietzsche because of his ability to be skeptical of the modern capitalist condition. Or to put in more technical way, Marx is a “critical” historian, someone who is not content at the apparent self-sufficiency of the moment, which Nietzsche so admires. But Nietzsche’s prime dissatisfaction with someone like Marx comes with the latter developing a theory of history which puts communism as the end goal. Nietzsche writes, if historical phenomenon is explained “intellectually”, it becomes sterile. Any such theory comes with its own biases and delusion and limits people’s “horizon” or creativity.
Nietzsche and Freud come closest to each other in criticizing-if not lamenting about-Christian morality and its impact in history of western civilization. Although both are critical, each give different reasons to do so. Nietzsche thinks there is never a set in stone moral standards in the world, something like the notion of “Thou Shalt” that Christianity would promote. Such religion derived morality, conjoined with a monumental view of the religion, only “burdens” the present and makes it docile. But Freud’s concern is different from Nietzschean “lack of cultivation” that religious morality can promote. To Freud, the concept of “universal love” which has so oriented the ethics of western society sounds very superficial. Under his psychoanalytic take on love, it can only have a “genetic justification” and embody sexual instrumentalism.
But, overall, to have conflicting theories about history is, itself, a testimony to how each of these theories might have inherent deficiencies. In that sense, the theories of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are not immune. For Marx, perhaps, the mistake had been to think that history should progress in such a precise, systematic, and deterministic manner. Nietzsche’s critique of such a theorization, the idea that there is a rhythm to history and successors have to abide by it, is quite powerful. But if the goal of human civilization is to just look ahead for the future, can this future exist without a past? If humans ought to create “new” values, it has to be new relative to something in the present or past. And when does the “new” begin and where does it end? These questions Nietzsche does not answer.
Finally, in our third thinker, one finds the reduction of humans into automated bodies, dictated by some bio-psychic force. One can question, however, how much of that applies to Freud himself. Even after his bouts on the intrinsic pessimism of contemporary human civilization and its history, one does not know, really, what is to be done for better. One seems to loose direction, and be wrapped in a descriptive theory, perhaps metaphysical by today’s scientific standards, and it does not orient human history with a certain forward objective. However, Marx and Nietzsche, at least, deserve credits for this.