Species Being and Social Being

A Response to Rose


Rose’s article is particularly welcome, because it situates our discussion at the very heart of one of the issues that should most concern revolutionaries today: the development of consciousness. Moreover, there is no hint in Rose’s article of the economic reductionism that has haunted much of the communist left, and which has insisted that a catastrophic economic crisis -- provided it occurs at an historic moment when the working class has not been defeated and is not yet ideologically mobilized by the capitalist state – will generate the class consciousness necessary for a revolutionary upheaval. Thus, in the ICC, we basically held the view that class consciousness would spontaneously develop within the proletariat as a result of a catastrophic economic crisis, in a situation where the working class had not already been defeated by capital. It seems to me, that both elements of this vision were mistaken. The vision of the ICC assumed that a political defeat inflicted on the working class, the triumph of the counter-revolution, was necessary to consolidate the rule of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat, and thereby prevent the development of its class consciousness. Such a vision failed to grasp how in the epoch of state capitalism, capital’s ideological control over the working class, its complex web of control mechanisms, its very capacity to shape the mode of subjectification of the proletariat, meant that its political power was no longer dependent fundamentally on coercion, as had been the case in the epoch of capital's formal domination, or throughout the ascendant phase of capitalism. Thus, neither simple force and violence nor a prior political defeat of the working class has remained the condition for capital’s control of the socio-political landscape. Indeed, the power of capital increasingly depended on what Gramsci had termed hegemony, which was a cultural and ideological phenomenon as opposed to one based primarily on coercion. Moreover, it also seems clear that even a catastrophic economic crisis, and a sharp and lasting decline in the standard of living of the working class, does not in the epoch of capital’s real domination necessarily entail a development of class consciousness on the part of the working class. Indeed, nationalism, fascism, xenophobia, and ethno-racism, can perhaps assure the hegemony of capital even under conditions of “barbarism.” Rose’s article makes clear that the development of consciousness is no automatic result of even the most catastrophic economic crisis; that what is at stake is a complete upheaval in social being, one that is in no way guaranteed by even the most devastating economic crisis.

It seems to me, that this is the point of departure for Rose’s article. On what basis can we expect class consciousness to develop if we cannot depend on a devastating economic crisis, even in the absence of a bloody counter-revolution, to necessarily generate it? For Rose, the existence of a species being that stands in sharp contrast to the social being of humanity under the conditions of capital’s real domination, is the answer. The article argues that beneath social being, and its multiple historical forms, there is a species being, what Marx defined as a human nature, a human essence, which is innate to the species. I find this philosophical anthropology, with its concept of an essential human nature that will constitute the basis for the development of class consciousness, unconvincing. It is the very existence of this species being, and the claim that the existence of such an innate or a-historical human nature is integral to Marxism, that I question. Indeed, for me, with respect to the human species, there is only social being, in its multiple historical forms. Rose says that a "large part" of our identity, of what I have in other articles termed our existence as subjects, "is inscribed in a determinate material, social, historical, context." In the broadest sense, I would say virtually the whole of our subjectivity or identity as human beings is historical, social, and cultural. As biological creatures there are elements that are neither social nor cultural, certain innate needs and drives, but in that regard I am a minimalist, and more to the point, even with respect to these innate needs and drives, the forms that they take are not biologically given, but socially and culturally shaped, and historically variable. Beyond even those innate needs, everything else that constitutes us as subjects seems to me to be historical, social, and cultural, the product of our interaction with our environment and other individuals and classes. Whereas, with other species, changes in their being are historical only in terms of the long sweep of the evolutionary process, with human beings, the transformation of their being, their "nature," their subjectivity and identity, is a social not a predominantly biological process. The material conditions that generate transformations in the social being of humans, including the factor of contingency, of the aleatory, are the focus of Marxist theory – of both an historical materialism worthy of the name, and of a revolutionary politics directed to the transformation of the social being that capitalism has impressed upon us.

But what of Marx’s own claim that man has a species being? This was clearly Marx’s view in 1844, a view consonant with his Young Hegelianism of the time. Indeed, that vision seems to me to be integrally linked to a Hegelian philosophical anthropology and philosophy of history, a vision that Marx would largely – though never completely – overcome. The first problem with this vision is that any historicity of species being is a once only phenomenon. It is generated with primitive communism (or with the birth of the human species) and then becomes both innate and unchanging; that is, it then loses its historicity. Human being, in the form of species being, once it emerges, then becomes fixed and a-historical. For me, such a vision constitutes a formidable obstacle to the historicity of human being and social relations that I believe is constitutive of Marxism as a theory. The Hegelian provenance of the young Marx’s conception of species being, Rose’s reliance on the Paris manuscripts of 1844, also leads to a teleological vision of history, in which the end or goal is fixed at the outset, and in which history becomes a narrative of a loss of the paradise of primitive communism, man’s alienation in class society, and the regaining of paradise (albeit on a "higher" level) through the communist revolution. Such a teleological vision, such a philosophy of history, even when Hegel is stood on his feet, bears an uncanny resemblance to Jewish-Christian eschatology, in which the historical process is pre-ordained, and in which, on the one hand, humankind's freedom to produce itself (one of the bases of Marxism, for me) is implicitly denied, and on the other hand, the "fact" of contingency, the aleatory, in history is replaced by determinism (to me the mortal enemy of Marxism). While the messianic tradition has been, and can be, a rich source for the historical memory of the working class today, it must be separated not just from its theological, but also from its metaphysical integument, if it is not to become an ideological straitjacket, an obstacle to the project of human liberation. It is the combination of teleology and determinism, together with what I see as its reliance on an a-historical view of human nature, that I find at the basis of this concept of species being, despite the disclaimers that Rose has made.

Does this mean that we must dispense with concepts such as "alienation" and human "nature"? Not at all! But, these concepts need to be refunctioned so that they are prospective, not retrospective, historical not a-historical. Capitalism alienates us from the potential to explode the prevailing forms of social being; from the possibilities to be other than the subjugated beings that inhabit the world shaped by the law of value (the forms of social being so clearly described by Rose in her article). Capitalism denies us the possibility of creating/producing new forms of human nature – forms that are not trapped in the prevailing modes of subjectification. The concept of species being, in my opinion, blocks the way to the very historicity of human being that holds out the promise of the revolutionary transformation that can break the links to both the pre-given and existing forms of subjectivity in which humans have been historically trapped.

It is the very trajectory of capitalist development that provides the material bases for that promise, even as that same trajectory also contains the no less real threat that the project of human liberation will be thwarted. Let me, then, briefly sketch the bases for a vision of the development of class consciousness not bound to a concept of species being. One of the insoluble contradictions of capitalism is that on the one hand, it provides for levels of control of the subject population, and especially of the working class, that go way beyond what force and violence alone make possible; it provides the bases for an hegemony which includes the very "construction" of the subject that the capital accumulation process requires. On the other hand, however, capital's necessity for constant technological development and innovation, for the development of the productive forces, including the most important productive force, the collective laborer, requires a considerable degree of freedom and autonomy for the subject, lest technological and economic stagnation result. This latter was the fatal weakness of both Nazism and Stalinism in their competitive struggle with Anglo-American capital. The very weakness of those regimes vis à vis their democratic rivals was fatally exacerbated by the coercive political and ideological structures with which they sought to counteract the economic strength of Anglo-American capital. Those coercive political and ideological structures were not simply due to the need to try to overcome historical techno-economic deficits; they actually reflected a grave weakness of the control mechanisms relative to their imperialist rivals, and compromised the very effort to overcome Anglo-American capital both on the world’s markets and in a military struggle. One feature of the power of Anglo-American capital was precisely its ability to harness the creativity and innovative potential of the collective laborer. Yet, that very capacity, even in the increasingly limited form permitted by capital today, that very element of freedom and autonomy, that has been the historical fruit of centuries of struggle against class oppression, and of working class struggle against the depredations of capital, the historical memory of which the collective laborer can draw on today, constitutes a basis upon which resistance to capital and its control mechanisms can arise now and in the future. Because capital has, through a complex historical process in which contingency has played a powerful role, produced a human subject, the collective laborer, marked by a mode of subjectification entailing unprecedented degrees of freedom and autonomy, together with no less unprecedented possibilities for control on the part of the ruling class, and because the accumulation process denies a capital entity the ability to completely suppress those elements of subjectification entailing autonomy on pain of losing the competitive struggle with potential rivals, a "ground" for the development of class consciousness is both the product of the historical trajectory of capital, and an ineliminable element of its present functioning. That historical mode of subjectification, and not any kind of species being, for me, provides a basis for optimism, despite the increasing barbarism of capitalism in the present epoch. It is surely no guarantee, but it provides a material basis, a contingent historical space, for resistance, and, indeed, an ideological and political challenge, to the hegemony of capital. In my view, it provides a more solid theoretical basis for understanding the possibilities for the development of revolutionary class consciousness than does the theory of a species being.

Mac Intosh


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