Species Being, Social Being and Class Consciousness

The aim of this contribution is to re-start the debate on class-consciousness. To take up again – as did Marx – the term "species being" makes it possible to grasp the fact that the movement of the proletariat, in its thinking about the perspectives for, and the construction of, a new society, is the result of the conscious action of our class, and, therefore, of both political reflection and willful action. This vision separates it from one that sees the revolutionary perspective as an automatic result of the growing pressure exercised by the economic crisis alone. The political action of the revolutionary class is the outcome of a process of questioning in which the degradation of its conditions of existence and political reflection intersect; it is rooted in the human needs denied by the functioning of capitalism. It is precisely through its efforts to satisfy its basic needs that the class can become conscious of the absence of any hope for their satisfaction in capitalist society, of its position as an exploited class, of its alienation within this system, and thus of the possibility of breaking loose from it. The process through which consciousness develops occurs by way of the exacerbation of the opposition between its social being and its species being – and it is these different notions that this article seeks to develop.

1) Species Being(1)

To speak of species being and social being means at the outset placing oneself on two different levels. When one speaks of species being, the reference is to a concept of human nature, and a concept is an abstraction. That abstraction only exists concretely when it assumes a form – a social form. If species being represents human nature, human needs, in a large and abstract sense, social being would be the way in which those general tendencies and those needs find a concrete form and expression; a form that is constantly changing and evolving in a dynamic interaction between the historical conditions and the praxis of the human collectivity that lives it. Social being, thus, reflects every aspect of the transformation that this praxis has on the objective conditions that make up the social environment, as well as the effect on the consciousness that the collectivity develops through its own practice. In that sense, it is mistaken to oppose species being to social being: one cannot exist without the other.

But can one speak of a "human nature" or is it created by the very activity of social being? In a sense, one must answer both questions in the affirmative. In effect it seems clear to me that the human species is marked by certain broad features, and that these are essentially the same in all epochs, in all cultures. At the same time, the forms in which these features express themselves depend on the social context within which they are placed. The life force and death force [pulsion], the drive to understand [pulsion épistémophilique] (the need to understand the world), the need to belong to a collectivity and to bond with other members of that collectivity, the need to give and to receive love, creative activity, the aesthetic quest, are all elements that mark our species from the cave paintings of Lascaux to its most formidable technological developments.What puts the human being perpetually in motion, what makes her never stop, what makes him never satisfied, is the quest for, and expression of, his species being through the mediation of her praxis. In that respect, one cannot speak of species being without inscribing it in history, that is to say, in the movement of continual transformation that man effects on his environment in the effort to satisfy his needs.

Here is how Marx defined species being in the 1844 Manuscripts: "To say that man is a species being, is, therefore, to say that man raises himself above his own subjective individuality, that he recognizes in himself the objective universal, and thereby transcends himself as a finite being. Put another way, he is individually the representative of mankind." "Man is a species-being, not only because he practically and theoretically makes the species – both his own and those of other things – his object, but also – and this is simply another way of saying the same thing – because he looks upon himself as the present, living species, because he looks upon himself as a universal and therefore free being." (2) "The animal is immediately one with its life activity; it is that activity. Man makes his life activity itself an object of his will and consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity directly distinguishes man from animal life activity. Only because of that is he a species-being."(3) "It is therefore in his fashioning of the objective that man really proves himself to be a species-being. Such production is his active species-life. Through it nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labour is therefore the objectification of the species-life of man: for man reproduces himself not only intellectually, in his consciousness, but actively and actually, and he can therefore contemplate himself in a world he himself has created. In tearing away the object of his production from man, estranged labour therefore tears away from him his species-life, his true species-objectivity, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him."(4) Marx defined a human nature, a human essence of man, which is situated beyond modes of production or features of the environment. One of the characteristics of alienation or estrangement, for him, is precisely the loss of this species being. The capitalist mode of production renders the product of production alien to the person who has produced it, thus making man alien to himself – and, therefore, to his human essence; that is to say, alien to the universal, collective, character of the human being, to his need for bonding, for creative activity, for knowledge, for self-consciousness and consciousness of his environment, as well as alien from his capacity to project himself into the future.

2) Social Being: The Individual Alienated By The Capitalist Socio-Economic Matrix

Social being is, therefore, the effort to manifest [révéler] species being, through a determinant social practice, and to satisfy its fundamental needs.

Throughout human history, there has been repression of human needs, exploitation, domination. These social relations have been situated in a context of real scarcity and the submission of human survival to the hazards of nature – even if these two elements have progressively evolved. The capitalist mode of production brought with it a number of fundamentally qualitative changes: for the first time in history, the human collectivity has developed the means to potentially put an end to scarcity, and has potentially succeeded in freeing its survival from the contingencies of nature. Capitalism has made it possible to free us from the reign of necessity. Alas, we know all too well the next chapter of this history. In order to survive, the capitalist system must preserve scarcity. There, resides a fundamental contradiction of the system: it contains within itself its own negation; its evolution and its very development imply its end. That contradiction between the development of the productive forces and the mode of production compels the capitalist system to produce not more freedom for individuals, but more destruction and a growing alienation. "The political economist tells us that everything is bought with labour and that capital is nothing but accumulated labor, but then goes on to say that the worker, far from being in a position to buy everything, must sell himself and his humanity."

In the same movement, there develops, on the subjective level, alienation. Alienation marks a break [coupure] between the activity of man and his species being: in his overall activity, the human being becomes alien to himself, alien to other humans, alien to what constitutes his human essence. He is reified and cut off from his links to nature. And the social relations in which she acts refract this reified image of a human-commodity. Her praxis is no longer the effort to reveal and give shape to her species being, but rather negates species being in an alienated relationship of man to himself. From being creative, human activity has become sterile, and the only perspective for individuals stuck in that social relationship is to … do nothing ("lazy" adolescents, the "whatever" generation). Alienation also entails a loss of the consciousness that the human being has of his species being and of his identity. But the "motor" that makes it possible for man not to lose himself in that alienated relationship to which his daily practice condemns him, is precisely his consciousness and an intuition of his unsatisfied species being. In decadent capitalism, man, overcome by his own creations, is no longer the master of them; she no longer controls the machine, but is controlled by it. The widening gap between the basic needs of one’s species being and their negation by the very practice of men, permits the emergence of a discontent that goes beyond simple economic demands, culminating in a questioning and in a quest for the satisfaction of real needs. The existence of species being, therefore, constitutes a key element in the process of the development of consciousness and of questioning by the proletariat, through the pressure that it exerts on even the most alienated individuals.

"The machine accommodates itself to man’s weakness, in order to turn weak men into a machine. …. [The capitalist] turns the worker into a being with neither needs nor senses and turns the worker’s activity into a pure abstraction from all activity."(6) "This estrangement partly manifests itself in the fact that the refinement of needs and of the means of fulfilling them gives rise to a bestial degeneration and a complete, crude and abstract simplicity of need …."(7) The activity of the worker, far from being a creative activity, where man realizes and affirms himself, is an activity that impoverishes him, "in which he mortifies his body and destroys his spirit." "The result is that man (the worker) feels that he is acting freely only in his animal functions – eating, drinking and procreating, or at most in his dwelling and adornment – while in his human functions he is nothing more than an animal."(8)

Marx tells us that we can see alienation at two levels. First, in the relation of the worker to the product of his labor: this latter becomes alien to him, and to produce it, man must become alien to himself and to other men. That is because the product of the activity of the worker belongs to another: the activity of the one who produces constitutes her own torment, but is a pleasure to another. The external world appears alien and hostile. Second, in the relation of the worker to the act of production: as an activity alien to man, the act of production creates in her a feeling of powerlessness and of submission, "activity becomes passivity, power becomes powerlessness."

Alien to his own nature, man is also alien to his real needs. And to complete this process, the dominant ideology unceasingly diverts the individual from his quest for his human essence and the satisfaction of his needs, and perverts those needs by providing them with false gratifications.

Let us take some innate features of the human personality, and see how they fare under capitalism today.

The duality of drives [dualité pulsionnelle] (life/destruction) implies a balance between two opposed forces, to which one must give a preponderant role to the life force [pulsion de vie]. True, the exact determination of the two is specific to each person, and depends on the individual’s own history. However, I think that the phase of decadence, and in particular the destructiveness that constitutes so important a feature of the functioning of capitalism, shatters that balance between the two drives in the direction of a preponderance of the destructive drive. In the ambient violence, and with its corollary of an absence of any [opposing] perspective, individual destructiveness is either directed towards the “other” or turned against oneself. We know that in our "civilized" societies, suicide is one of the principal causes of death amongst youth.

The need for bonding with another, and its gratification, is transmogrified under decadent capitalism into an immediate gratification in which the possession of "things" substitutes for the establishment of a bond with a love-object. Ideology thereby defines human nature by its opposite: the human being, by definition, social [grégaire], would be – thanks to capitalism – finally liberated from all his dependencies; we would finally become self-sufficient unto ourselves, and individualism would become the quintessence of individual freedom.

A first consequence of this concerns the way in which one's identity is formed; the modification of traditional benchmarks, the recomposition of classes, leads individuals to seek out substitute groups within which to belong: race, religion, region, with all the alienating features that such forms of belonging entail.

Because they are connected to a second consequence of the negation of bonds and dependencies – the defensive regression towards the most archaic modes of psychic functioning – one then ends up in the domain of the binary opposition (friend/enemy, in group/out group, good/bad), and in a narcissistic falling-back [repli] into self-referentiality. The “other” is not recognized as a person, at once different from, but -- at the same time -- as of equal value to oneself: she is the same or an enemy – all difference is intolerable. We are no longer within the perspective of a harmonious human community in its diversity, but instead that of a disparate conglomeration, threatening and without meaning. Such binary modes of functioning lead us to project onto the “other” a threat to ourselves: the stranger will be someone who directly endangers our life, either by coming “to take our food,” or by being a menacing criminal. These archaic mechanisms establish a dangerous situation in which the individual feels himself threatened. It is my view that the alarming [inquiétant] economic and social context tends to make that defensive, archaic, functioning predominant, and we have here a link between ideology and a real psychic phenomenon: in order to isolate individuals and to strengthen its network [dispositif] of social controls, the ruling class brandishes the threat of generalized insecurity represents by migrants, the young, gypsies, in short, everyone that can be made into the “other.” In exchange, increasingly “fragile” individuals stigmatize that “other” as the embodiment of what makes them so insecure, thereby reinforcing the distrust, the competition, between individuals, and – as a result – providing a justification for the ideology and the violence of the ruling class.

Another element through which this binary vision is articulated is the reification of the individual. The human being is a commodity, a tool, and must – like a machine – perform, run smoothly. Here too, ideology and a psychic mechanism are linked: in a binary vision, everything that is not good is necessarily evil – it’s the "logic" of all or nothing. Where capitalism leads us to be ever more competitive, the binary mechanisms respond in terms of idealization/breakdown: the least fault is a grave threat to our identity and to our place in society, and, therefore, we must continuously cultivate our body, our youth, our image, so as to try to emulate the ideal models with which society presents us, and which we must try to keep free of any contamination by negative elements. "Hide your aging, your madness, your depression, your sadness, your illness, so they will never be seen," that is the motto enjoined by our fears and by capitalist ideology!

Finally, the need for love and recognition has been perverted into a need for power and social standing, translated into the reign of private property. "Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists for us as capital or when we directly possess, eat, drink, wear, inhabit it, etc., in short, when we use it. Although private property conceives all these immediate realizations of possession only as means of life; and the life they serve is the life of private property, labour and capitalization. Therefore all the physical and intellectual senses have been replaced by the simple estrangement of all these senses – the sense of having."(9)

3) Class Consciousness

Therefore, there exists a tension, an intensely conflictual relation, between species being Therefore, there exists a tension, an intensely conflictual relation, between species being and social being. Decadent capitalism crushes and diverts human needs and their satisfaction to an ever-increasing degree. But, what must be stressed is that this conflictual relation is posed in a different way, depending on one's class. For the ruling class, if it wants to survive as a ruling class, it must maintain the status quo, and, therefore, has no other choice but to evolve towards ever greater madness (since its human needs are less and less met), and towards the hopelessness born of the absence of any real perspectives. The only thing that it can allow is reformism, that is to say, it can project a "capitalism with a human face," so much in vogue today, and the "alternative globalization" ["alter mondialiste"] movement, that is its reflection.(10) But, come what may, the ruling class can only continue to widen the gap between social being and species being, and to pile destruction on destruction. There will, then, develop all sorts of pathologies: of bonding, of self-estimation, with a withdrawal into oneself and the return of archaic psychic mechanisms (marked by a heightened division between good and evil, culminating in a frantic quest for the ideal and perfection; an intensified opposition between friend/enemy, and a brutal and intense violence directed at purported and phantasmagoric enemies. For the proletariat, by contrast, things are posed in a radically different way. Its very existence within capitalist social relations constitutes a contradiction, one that represents a potentially dynamic and transformative element. Besides, the survival of proletarians is not linked to the continuation of their status as a wage-working class, but, on the contrary, to their liberation [dégagement] from their role in capitalist social relations, leading to the constitution of a true human community, one that is classless. That is why, among other reasons, the proletariat is the bearer of a perspective both for itself and for the human community as a whole. That is also the difference between the class consciousness [of the proletariat] – which leads to the kind of questioning that can illuminate the very roots of [social] contradictions – and the "consciousness" of the bourgeoisie, which is not a real consciousness, inasmuch as that class must remain ignorant of what undermines its species being precisely so as to maintain itself as a ruling class. The sole perspective for the working class to free itself is clear-sightedness; the sole perspective for the ruling class is blindness.

It is in this double conflictuality – the one between species being and social being, and the one between recognizing itself as a class in order to negate itself as a class – that consciousness develops, and another perspective can be elaborated. Class consciousness is the mediation through which the collectivity can extricate itself from alienation, by going beyond the break [coupure] between praxis and species being. Class consciousness, thus, leads to a consciousness of being, Humanity rediscovered in the bond with other humans. As much as alienation cuts off the individual from his own needs and her own nature, just as much does class consciousness make it possible for individuals to experience their real needs through the concrete social activity that this consciousness produces. Just as species being is inseparable from the form it takes through the practice of social being, so class consciousness is inseparable from the activity that flows from it and that deepens it. Consciousness of being is the consciousness of the working class, consciousness of having is that of the ruling class.

I believe that to pose things in this way establishes the question of consciousness as a reaction to the totality of the conditions of life – and not just to the degradation of economic conditions. Here, too, we can see the necessary link {intrication] between subjective and objective conditions. It is not enough that economic conditions worsen for political consciousness to develop. The proletariat can certainly react to the degradation of its conditions of existence within the framework of its own alienation, by racist or patriotic reactions, etc. Thus, there is no mechanical, automatic, link between economic pressure and action of the proletariat. What makes it possible for the working class to extricate itself from its alienation, is the development of the political consciousness of its status in society, and of the negation of its human essence in the social relations within which the capitalist mode of production places it.

One can then ask how, in a context in which the reigning ideology has infiltrated all the pores of society to the point where it has perverted our very psychic functioning, a reaction of de-alienation can emerge. Just as the deepening of the economic crisis and the attacks on the material conditions of life are factors that clearly reflect the trajectory of the economy and its perspectives, the increase of alienation, the growing negation of the individual and her human, material, and psychic, needs, are a factor that impels individuals to question themselves, and to extricate themselves from the yoke that stifles them. The penetration of the law of value into all aspects of our lives and of our social condition, demonstrates to us – in a caricatural way – the commodity status of the human being, and thereby reveals its senselessness. Just as caricatural is the widening gap between human needs and the so-called needs defined by capitalism as being those of "civilized" individuals. That factor, increasingly perceptible and difficult to tolerate, is probably an important lever for the development of a consciousness of the perspectives and the functioning of the capitalist social relation. To pose the question of the development of political consciousness, and of communism, brings us back again to the question of human needs and the human essence of individuals. Species consciousness is the consciousness of the universal and social character of man. "When communist workmen gather together, their immediate aim is instruction, propaganda, etc. But at the same time they acquire a new need – the need for society – and what appears as a means has become an end. This practical development can be most strikingly observed in the gatherings of French socialist workers. Smoking, eating, drinking, etc., are no longer means of creating links between people. Company, association, conversation, which in its turn has society as its goal, is enough for them. The brotherhood of man is not a hollow phrase, it is a reality, and the nobility of man shines forth upon us from their work-worn figures."(11) "It can be seen how the rich man and the wealth of human need take the place of the wealth and poverty of political economy. The rich man is simultaneously the man in need of a totality of vital human expression; he is a man in whom his own realization exists as inner necessity, as need. Given socialism, not only man’s wealth but also his poverty acquires a human and hence a social significance. Poverty is the passive bond which makes a man experience his greatest wealth – the other man – as need."(12) A fundamental element on the proletariat’s path [to consciousness] is, therefore, its capacity to rise above its isolation, above competition and hostility towards others. Among other ways, that manifests itself from the moment that the class begins to struggle. The bonds and the necessary interdependence with others, as well as solidarity, are factors that reappear spontaneously when an open struggle is unleashed. And whatever its outcome, or the weaknesses of the movement, that collective experience always leaves its mark even when individuals return to their isolation. "The individual is the social being. His vital expression -- even when it does not appear in the direct form of a communal expression, conceived in association with other men – is therefore an expression and confirmation of social life. Man’s individual and species life are not two distinct things, however much – and this is necessarily so – the mode of existence of individual life is a more particular or a more general mode of the species-life, or species-life a more particular or more general individual life. As species-consciousness man affirms his real social life and merely repeats in thought his actual existence; conversely, species-life confirms itself in species-consciousness and exists for itself in its universality, as a thinking being."(13)

Far from sanctifying the "movement for the movement’s sake," we must, therefore, reaffirm the dynamic that is contained and deployed in the class struggle. It is the possibility of renewing the characteristics and needs inherent in the human essence. When we spoke of the social movements of 1995, we spoke of a new period. That did not imply the renewal of a wave of class struggle that would develop throughout Europe, but designated certain features, absent until then in earlier movements: a questioning, however confused, about the global perspectives offered by the society, and a participation in those class movements that did not entail an attachment to any specific demands, but rather to a global dynamic of uneasiness, of discontent, of a consciousness still confused as to the general nature of the deep roots of that discontent. In a certain sense, the movements of 1995 presented, in germ, the potential to go beyond the stage of an economic struggle [lutte revendicative] alone.

Another factor, which is a negative feature under the reign of the capitalist mode of production, but a dynamic factor in the development of the consciousness of the proletariat, is the fact that the technological progress of modern capitalism makes the role of human labor less and less vital and central to production. The industrial worker was already subject to the machine; he is now relegated by the latter to the rank of a an obsolete and superfluous object, merely swelling the ranks of the mass of the chronically unemployable. It is the importance of labor and know-how that are repudiated, but it is the very existence of the working class and its central place in production that is put in question. For the proletariat, the perspective of concretely glimpsing [entrevoir] a classless society is, therefore, contained in this fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production.

4) A Provisional Conclusion

Class consciousness is not stimulated by morality or utopian ideology. It is born of the suffering and exploitation of the working class, and in the quest, of that class, for the means for its own survival.

The evolution of the capitalist mode of production and the reign of its real domination, which extends its transformative power to the whole of the planet, and also to the very depths of our relations to the world, to nature, to other humans, has accentuated, in a spectacular way, the need to build a new society. On the one hand, for the first time in history, technological progress has made it possible for human beings to free themselves from the reign of necessity and scarcity. On the other hand, that very technological progress shows to what extent it can only lead to ever greater aberrations in the bonds that individuals have with their human, natural, and working, environment; to what extent those advances are the bearers of destruction and alienation. Indeed, those very advances show to what extent the activity of man has become a sterile activity, separated from his creative needs; at what point the direction in which the capitalist mode of production is heading compels human beings to close the gap between their deepest aspirations and the way in which they are gratified in society.

The concept of species being is a fundamental lever in the process through which the consciousness of that gap [écart] arises. The return to the fundamentally social, gregarious, nature of the human being, to her need for solidarity, constitutes the perspective for the rejection of the present socio-economic system, and also delineates the contours of what must be a new society.



1. "Species being" in English, L'etre generique in French, are the accepted translations of Marx's concept of Gattunswesen in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844).
2. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts(1844) in Karl Marx, Early Writings (New york: Vintage Books, 1975), p. 327.
3. Ibid., p. 328.
4. Ibid., p. 329.
5. Ibid., p. 287.
6. Ibid., p. 360.
7. Ibid., p. 359.
8. Ibid., p. 327.
9. Ibid., p. pp.351-352.
10. In continental Europe today, thoseo n the left who oppose the present forms of globalization, but who acknowledge that a certain globalization of the economy is progressive, style themselves not as anti-globalization, but as "alternative globalists," after alter mondalistes - a distinction not yet current in the Anglophone world.
11. Op. Cit., p. 365.
12. Ibid., p. 356.
13. Ibid., pp. 350-251.
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