According to Agnes Heller, the concept of needs “plays the hidden but principle role” (Heller 1976, 27) in Marx’s thought. Marx never defines ‘need’, but uses it as a value category judged differently throughout his work. The most important category of value for Marx is ‘wealth’, which acts as the condition for the unfolding of human needs. It serves as the ground for the free development of all aspects of the self, so Marx criticises the capitalist mode of production through the positive valuation of a humanity ‘”rich in needs’”(Heller 1976, 43-7). Taking this as a starting-point avoids the too-easy division between the ‘early’ and ‘later’ Marx. As Heller points out, Marx’s later critique of political economy presupposes the category of need from his earlier humanist philosophy (Heller 1976, 38). This suggests that Marx’s anthropological distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘socially produced’ needs remains in place throughout his writing, but with different points of emphasis.

For the young Marx, the natural needs for food, warmth, clothing, and shelter differ from those of animals because humans and animals produce differently. Animals produce things only when physical needs compel them to. Human beings, however, produce even when it is not necessary. In doing so, we push back and socialize nature, but we only truly produce when we are free from physical need (Marx 1975, 329). Thus, capitalism unnecessarily reduces social needs to meet the mere need for survival. Heller, however, points out that ‘natural’ needs have a socially-produced character, so only social needs exist, but nature remains “the existential limit to the satisfaction of needs” (Heller 1976, 33).

The mature Marx modifies the social/natural distinction, beginning with a circular definition of need. The commodity is a thing which “satisfies human needs” (Marx 1990, 125). Heller observes that “[s]atisfaction of a need is the sine qua non of any commodity” (Heller 1976, 23) because there is no value (exchange-value) without use-value (need-satisfaction), but use-values (goods) can exist without value (exchange-value) if they satisfy a need (which is what defines a use-value). Since use-values satisfy needs, workers sell their use-value (labour-power) to meet the systemic need for the production of surplus-value and the valorisation of capital. Capitalist social relations cease to exist if labour-power does not produce surplus-value and the capitalist does not buy labour-power. Thus, under capitalism, labour exists only to satisfy “the needs of self-expansion of existing values” at the expense of the labourer’s own needs for development (Marx 1990, 620-1).

Needs became a popular topic of discussion among ‘Marxist humanist’ thinkers working on Marx’s anthropological categories. The concept is used in various context-specific projects, such as defending the humanistic Marx against McCarthyite and Soviet distortions (Fromm), and criticising the false needs created by post-war consumer society (Marcuse), the ‘official Marxism’ of Eastern European regimes (Heller), and the welfare state (Nancy Fraser).

For Fromm, Marx’s highest aim is humanity’s spiritual emancipation and the full realisation of our individuality (Fromm 2004, 2). To illustrate this, Fromm distinguishes between ‘real’ and ‘artificial’ needs based on Marx’s distinction between fixed ‘drives’ and merely relative ‘appetites’ (Fromm 2004, 51, 24). Our drives (hunger, sexual urges) are an integral part of human nature, but their form and relation to their object is culturally determined. Appetites are not integral but tied to the mode of production of a given society. For example, the need for money generated by the expansion and production of needs in capitalist society becomes “the inventive and ever calculating slave of the inhuman, refined, unnatural, and imaginary appetites” (Marx 1975, 358-9).

For Fromm, artificial needs for consumer goods restrict our individuality by playing on the appetites. This alienates us from our real needs by reducing our relation to the world to use and consumption, turning us into a “self-conscious and self-acting commodity” (Marx 1975, 336). Fromm thinks our real need to become fully developed human beings can only be satisfied socially. Our creative self-realisation—as individuals and species-beings—requires us to open ourselves to others and the world with love and solidarity. This reveals the inseparability of subject and object as we become reconciled with others and, by extension, humanity is reconciled with nature (Marx 1975, 347).

Like Fromm, Marcuse distinguishes between true and false needs (Marcuse 2002, 7), but with a slightly different emphasis. For Marcuse, the difference is between ‘vital’ (food, clothing, housing) true needs and ‘one-dimensional’ false needs. Meeting our true needs is the condition for satisfying all our needs, individually and collectively. False needs seem like they are tailored to us, empowering us to make autonomous choices by appearing to flatten differences of race and class. Really, however, false needs offer only “repressive satisfaction” (Marcuse 2002, 9), forcing us to conform to a repressive society. Their satisfaction allows capitalist society to equalise social distinctions and flatten critical thinking, reabsorbing all opposition to stabilise the system by satisfying the false needs it has itself created (Marcuse 2002, 10).

Marx denied that the working classes would identify with capitalism. Marcuse, however, thinks consumerism has integrated them into new forms of social control. This impedes the development of a truly rational social order by transforming the structure of the human personality so we recognise ourselves in the things we buy (Marcuse 2002, 11). To challenge this, Marcuse thinks that individuals must determine their own needs for themselves when they are free from repressive conditions. However, deciding on true needs requires us to know what they are without being manipulated. Liberation involves recognising and rejecting the system of false needs, replacing it with a new system of true needs.

Agnes Heller certainly argues that we should reject manipulated needs, but she thinks that social change can only come through the development of ‘radical needs’—basic needs for creative self-objectification and community. Capitalist society creates these needs, and they are necessary for it to function. However, radical needs are essentially unsatisfiable within capitalist society, which impoverishes our needs by reducing them to the “need to have” (Heller 1976, 57). This generates the antagonistic force of radical needs. The dominant classes experience the need for ever-increasing quantities of private property and money, while the working classes are deprived of every need in order to satisfy the need for survival. However, Heller thinks that working classes are no longer the exclusive bearers of radical needs.

Nancy Fraser’s use of empirical data and case-studies houses an implicit theory of need (Fraser 1989). Fraser avoids identifying real, artificial, or radical needs. Instead, she focuses on ‘needs talk’, an ambiguous discourse about needs that is neither inherently emancipatory not repressive. This allows her to distinguish between ‘thin’ basic needs and ‘thick’ service or policy needs that can only be debated in relation to thin needs. ‘Needs talk’ is the medium for political debate between groups unequally equipped with discursive and non-discursive resources. In liberal societies, these groups compete to establish their needs, legitimate them, and render them hegemonic. Thus, Fraser’s aim is to politicise the interpretation of needs in the face of two challenges: the ambiguous sphere of the ‘social’, and the welfare state’s ‘juridical-administrative-therapeutic’ apparatuses (JAT).

The ‘social’ is the space in which needs can be politicized. It has the advantage of expanding what counts as ‘political’ and encompasses ‘runaway’ needs that domestic and market institutions cannot define. However, the social is also where successfully politicized needs are translated into bureaucratically-manageable claims administered by the JAT. The JAT is an impersonal bureaucracy that interprets our needs for us by separating them from our rights. Welfare claimants are required to interpret their own needs in terms of predetermined criteria—often laden with gendered assumptions—and offered corrective ‘therapeutic’ solutions that privatise socially-produced problems. Fraser’s solution is that we become able to interpret and retranslate our needs into social rights, struggling for the meaning and political status of our needs.