Needs to the left, needs to the right

| 12th April 2019
The Communist Manifesto and a letter from Marx on display in the Treasures Gallery
Outlining a system of needs from both ends of the political spectrum.


“These questions about the system of needs…- at what point is this to be dealt with,” a weary German philosopher scratched into a manuscript during the final days of April, 1846.

Need has been identified as foundational to theories impacting personal development and social reform by thinkers from seemingly diametrically opposed ideological and theoretical positions.

I want to advance a very particular theory of need, set within dialectical and systems thinking. This theory of need, I hope, could inform improvements in personal wellbeing, the impact of groups and teams, and indeed how we better organise society to meet the needs of its members while rejuvenating and existing within the limits set by the natural environment.


Before I launch into a deeper explanation of this theory I want to share how my appreciation of 'need' began with the writings of a libertarian - one-time lover of the right-wing radical Ayran Rand, no less - and resulted in a radical re-reading of the philosopher and communist Karl Marx.

The fact that two extraordinary and entirely oppositional minds argue that human need is foundational adds credence to my claim that need is a truly foundational concept. 

Professor Nathaniel Branden (1930-2014) began as a practicing psychotherapist in a small practice in New York in 1954, and would later be widely recognised as an authority on self-esteem, and a best selling author. He is also a former lover and ‘disciple’ of Ayran Rand, the author of Atlas Shrugged and one of the most influential proponents of an extreme free market, individualist libertarianism.

Branden offers his expertise on self-esteem to improve the self, yet acknowledges the importance of social contexts on individual wellbeing. He argues that self-esteem is “a profound and powerful human need”; “a fundamental human need”; “an urgent need” adding “we cannot fully understand the meaning of self esteem apart from understanding what about as a species gives rise to such a need.

He argues that “our need for self esteem is the result of two basic facts, both intrinsic to our species”; “We depend on our survival and our successful mastery of the environment on the appropriate use of our consciousness; our life and well being depend on our ability to think ... [and] there is a critical element of choice - therefore of personal responsibility.”

Self esteem is a fundamental human need, but, as I interpret his work, human need is fundamental to self-esteem. Branden, in what has been described as his masterpiece, describes “the six pillars of self esteem” and each relates directly to the subject identifying and meeting her own needs.


To give just a few examples. The first pillar described in the book is “the practice of living consciously”, which is important because “for all species that possess it, consciousness is the basic tool of survival - the ability to be aware of the environment in some form, at some level, and a guide to action accordingly”. To be conscious is to ask: “Do I know what needs or desires I may be trying to satisfy?”

The second pillar is “the practice of self-responsibility” and the first “realisation” is described as: “I am responsible for the achievement of my desires”. The third is “the practice of self-assertiveness” and here he states: “Self assertiveness means honouring my wants, needs, and values, and seeking appropriate forms of their expression in reality.” And so on.

While Braden focuses primarily on the personal, he does not ignore the social or the historical. “Self esteem”, he argues, “is the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness. There is no society on earth, no society even conceivable, whose members do not face the challenges of fulfilling their needs - who do not face the challenges of appropriate adaptation to nature and to the world of human beings”.

Branden’s Six Pillars of Self Esteem, came to my attention during a period of my own life when I felt low self-esteem was limiting my efficacy as an activist. I developed an intellectual and practical interest in human needs when following the advice of this book in the practice of writing out, over and over, the following sentence stem: “If I brought more awareness to my deepest needs and wants -”.

This may have proven particularly useful or interesting for me and not easily generalisable to others. However, it led me to view the world from a different standpoint, including my interpretation of my own needs and actions as a private individual and as an activist.

Political theory

In order to encourage people to activism we need to acknowledge that, rather than saving them, we are asking them to make significant changes or sacrifices to help us meet our own needs, primarily the need to escape the anxiety that comes with our sense of responsibility for preventing climate breakdown and ecological crisis.

Beginning from the standpoint of human need allows for a more complete and useful understanding of ourselves, the teams we work with, the societies in which we find ourselves - and indeed in the practice of change at all these levels.

With the concept of need at the forefront of my mind, I was excited and intrigued to discover a compelling case that human need was also foundational to a political theorist who sits at the very opposite ideological and political spectrum to Branden. 

I was meeting a friend to watch a film at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on the Mall and finding myself with a half an hour without distraction was seduced by its bookshop.

There on the shelf was a copy of a book titled The Theory of Need in Marx by Professor Agnes Heller, who I discovered later is an authority on Karl Marx’s concept of need, and in particular his proposition of a “system of needs” (hence the opening quote), of “absolute needs”, artificial needs and of “radical needs”. The book was first published in 1976. My discovery of Marx’s system of needs was therefore something of a coincidence.

Consistent philosophy

Heller provides particularly valuable insights into this proposition of a system of needs, as an academic who has a profound grasp not only of Marx but also of Hegel and the complex dialectical approaches they each take to philosophy.

She has studied Marx’s entire opus closely and has been able to extract a clear, coherent and consistent philosophy of need in his work.

As Heller argues, Marx could be accused of starting from the standpoint of need when extrapolating his entire philosophy and political project. But to even begin to understand Marx in this way means to undo and unravel almost everything that is ‘known’ about Marx, about his communism.

Seen through Marx’s concept of need, the USSR was never a communist state and indeed was barely even at the beginning a serious attempt to realise Marx’s political vision.

Heller establishes that Marx hoped and fought for a society in which all human needs would be identified, met directly, and expanded. This is the defining feature of a communist society. This sets it apart from capitalism, which meets the needs of capital (i.e. for profit).

Marx argued that the mode of production - industry - would be directed towards human needs in a rational way and the very purpose of this work would be to meet and enrich us as human beings.

Clear vision

Marx wrote in his early Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844: “We have seen what significance, given socialism, the wealth of human needs has, and what significance, therefore, both a new mode of production and a new object of production have: a new manifestation of the forces of human nature and a new enrichment of human nature.”

Indeed, throughout his work Marx advanced a very clear vision of this future, post-capitalist, society centred on meeting the real needs of its members.

There is no single essay where Marx sets out this proposition. Indeed he studiously avoided presenting any kind of utopian “blueprint”, live to the need of future generations to design and create this society without the interference of dead philosophers who would be limited to and by a capitalist way of knowing.

However, Agnes has been able to identify where Marx does refer to and characterise a needs-centered society. Here, Marx theorised a society where all humanity lived in common with a shared project of working with nature to meet our real needs, and to discover our own individual needs, wants and desires:

“Socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature...human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom.”

Vital need 

Marx argued that a society truly focused on meeting individual needs would do away with alienation; the alienation between workers competing in the labour market; the alienation between the worker and the product of her labour; and the alienation between society and the individual from nature (the object of human labour).

Marx famously posited a labour theory of value. He argued that in capitalist societies the value sought after by investors and capitalists was actually created through the engagement of labour power (rather than smart investment decisions, or from simply extracting it from nature). Labour in capitalism is always exploitation, always alienated, and therefore pretty awful.

However, in his vision of a needs-centred society labour was the free activity of human beings in meeting their own needs, as individuals, as groups and as whole societies. Needs centred work would become fulfilling, pleasurable, irresistible.

He argued: “Let us now picture to ourselves, by way of change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied and the combined labour power of the community ... the total product of our community is a social product.

“Labour becomes essentially intellectual labour, the field for the self-realisation of the human personality. It thus becomes the vital need, and hence it also assumes a dominant role in the structure of needs. In this conception, there never can arise any question about ‘why’ human beings work.”

Communist society

Marx’s theorising of work, production and the needs-based society bares directly on ecological concerns. He strongly believed that a future communist society would increase the rate of productivity only to reduce the absolute rate of production itself, this would free humans from labour to pursue their own activities, their own dreams.

This means that future socialist societies would not be dependent on ever increasing exploitation of the natural environment, producing an increasing array of material goods in an ultimately futile attempt to outrun capitalism in providing consumer goods for the masses. In fact, people living in communist societies would move beyond and above material needs into the realm of intellectual and spiritual fulfilment.

As Hellen observes: “Marx actually thought ... that for individuals in a society of associated producers, material needs occupy a subordinate role in the structure of needs, so that the development of a system of individual needs becomes possible notwithstanding their qualitative and quantitative ‘equality’.”

The second part of this sentence, as I understand it, suggests that we do not all need to own the same stuff, or the same amount of stuff, or to even earn the same wages. Instead, we will all have the freedom and the resources to develop and meet our own needs, our own freedom of self-expression and fulfillment.

Finally, the claim that Marxism and communism necessities statist control, or centralised power, or endless committee meetings, is falsified by an accurate interpretation of Marx’s understanding of a system of human needs. For Marx, a future society would allow for the collapse of private interests, in competing interests, and therefore for each individual to have to protect their own interests at all times.

Deep-going revolution

Instead, each and every human being will embody the needs of the human species en totum. While each individual will express an idiosyncratic and perhaps even unique life and set of needs, this will be possible in a society based on the collective, rational work of meeting absolute needs (food, for example) and maximising free time (and abundant resources) so that each is then free to do as they wish.

In Marx’s words:  “[E]very individual expresses the needs of all other individuals and it cannot be otherwise. In ‘socialised’ man, the human species and the individual represent a realised unity. Every individual represents the species and the species is represented in every individual. The needs of ‘socialised’ human beings determine production - and this means that the human species itself makes decisions.”

Marx argued the transition between capitalism to communism would be revolution, adding “a deep-going revolution can only be a revolution in basic needs.”

Marx’s vision of communism is and has always been fiercely resisted - and has perhaps been all but defeated. In the fray it has almost always been misunderstood and misrepresented. This falsification and demogation has often been inflicted by those claiming to be Marxists and socialists. Those flying the Marxist banner have given ecologicalists more than enough cause to be distrustful, even fearful, of anyone even talking about Marx.

Marx advocated for a society in which the individual is free to discover their individuality. This could not be more different from the communism of the Soviet Union and how it appears in our films, books and school history lessons. Curiously, Marx’s vision of a society of free, creative individuals is in fact not that different from aspirations of the libertarian Branden, who as psychotherapist seeks for his clients and for each of us “individuation” and freedom to be ourselves.

Dialectical thinking

This resistance often derives from the influence of the most powerful, defending their interests. But it also comes from within each of us. This is because we have become so alienated, so entrenched in capitalism, that we can hardly believe that Marx’s vision of the future - where we sit surrounded by nature learning to play musical instruments - seems unattainable at best, and downright undesirable for most.

As Hellen writes: “We ourselves cannot imagine any social order in which the need for material goods can become saturated relatively easy and where the individuality of needs develops exclusively through non-material needs."

The argument that Marx’s need for a future communist society will never be met is powerful. It may seem to us today that we are further from socialism than when Marx was scribbling into his notes back in 1846. But this is also to admit that our own needs - our full wealth of needs - can never be met.

On a personal and on a political level this is to admit defeat, to suggest that our own needs are too great, or should be subservient to the needs of capital, or are impossible to attain. To admit this, as Branden may have recognised, is crushing to our self esteem.

In the next phase of this series I will be exploring the evolution of dialectical thinking, through organisational science and into systems theory. (Marx’s material dialectics is a significant staging post on this journey, but it is not the final destination). I do this because I believe that key concepts from each phase of development of this set of concepts can provide useful in our exploration of human needs. Marx argued that “theory is actualised in a people only in so far as it actualises their needs.”

This Author 

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist, founder of Request Initiative and co-author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries (Oxford University Press)He tweets at @EcoMontague. 

Read, Why we need 'ecolocracy'

Read, An introduction to 'ecolocracy' - pt.2

Read the On The Nature of Change (OTNOCseries.

Image: The Communist Manifesto and a letter from Marx on display in the Treasures Gallery. British Library/©Sam Lane Photography.

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