Return to the Debate on Species Being
Reply # 1: A conflict within

Rose thinks my concept of human nature is based too much on biology. Yet my text was meant in part as an argument against biological determinism. I concluded that our biological heritage gives us impulses and desires that are far too contradictory for any predictions on the future of mankind to be based upon. Nor do they give us a sufficient explanation of our past. I was led into this by Rose's own emphasis on an invariant concept of species being. The only thing which is recognizably invariant is our biological base, which hasn't undergone any major changes for at least a 100 000 years. Or at least, that's what's assumed. What is invariant besides that, I'm not sure. What about collective consciousness, Rose says. I agree, that is an essential part of human nature, but is it invariant? Is human collective consciousness not a product of human history and therefore, by definition evolving? At the latest conference of IP, a comrade, in defence of an historically invariant concept of species being, pointed to the fact that a play by Sophocles, written thousands of years ago, can still move us to tears today, or that we can still admire the cave paintings of pre-historic men. We must indeed recognize the flowering of human potential in societies much older than ours. That this potential, in different societies, in part develops the same things, is not surprising and indeed shows a strong communality between us and humans from earlier times. But whether it means that our species being is unchanging is another matter. Still, it's a good thing to point out. It shows that our history is not a linear process, it goes through peaks and valleys, losses and gains. In that sense, the metaphor I used to make my point in my earlier article --that we have the same species being as the earliest humans and yet are different, as an adult is different from the child he once was and yet the same-- is somewhat lacking, in that it applies the natural, predictable course of a human's life to the unpredictable course of humanity. Still, the metaphor captures something that is real. We are the same and yet different, and through all the gains and losses, there is a growing up, an expansion of human consciousness and its potential.

It seems to me that "human essence" is inherently unstable. If we want to establish how it differs from the species being of other mammals, it is not to our social nature we should point, or our need for affection, our capacity to care for others, sometimes at the risk of our individual survival … we share those traits with other species. Just this week there was a report on the remarkable talent for cooperation of chimpanzees. What is unique about humans is constant change. What characterizes our species being is that it is always in a state of becoming. Some may call it our curse, but we can't live in the moment. In any "now," there's past and future. Other species can only change by adapting to the changing natural environment, mainly through the biological mechanism of natural selection (though some other species do also evolve culturally somewhat). But we adapt our natural and social environment to us and change ourselves in the process. That’s why I titled my earlier contribution to this debate "Human nature: a work in progress". That progress is now blocked by capitalism, so the conflict of our times is not just one between productive forces and relations of production, but also between capitalism as a man-made environment, propelled by an inner dynamic to autonomize itself from human needs, and our human nature whose essential feature – becoming -- now requires the destruction of this obsolete social construction.

While in my replies I emphasize the unstable essence of species being, Rose, in her texts, emphasizes the stable essence, the bond we share with humans from other eras and other areas and even other classes. I agree that this is as real as our bond with our earlier and future selves. Are we then talking about two sides of the same coin? Maybe, but then we must recognize that the coin has two sides. Rose doesn’t do that in my opinion.

There's a lot we agree upon. I agree with her position that the development of revolutionary consciousness cannot solely be explained by economic crisis and the misery it brings. This misery impedes the satisfaction of the primary needs for food, shelter and security for ever more people and thus explains the inevitability of increasing social convulsions, but it doesn’t explain why these convulsions can lead to communism. It is only because communism meets fundamental needs that flow from human nature and that are blocked by capitalism, that it can become real. That human nature goes beyond "class," yet because of its position in society, only the working class experiences this conflict in such a way that its struggle can overcome the alienation that prevents communism's realization.

That we agree upon. In her latest text, Rose also expresses a more nuanced view as to the historicity of human essence. Despite her critique of my analogy between human essence and a person’s growth, she develops a similar view, stressing that her position is not ahistorical, since she considers "that the very foundation of human nature is (…) in transformation". I agree, but this seems an (unexplained) turnabout from an earlier text in which she wrote: "there is no transformation of species being but of the social form in which species being expresses itself". The latter position is contained in her point of departure, the contradiction between a constant "species being" and a variable "social being." Despite the fact that the essence of our being is being social, social being is for Rose quite different from this essence. Not separate, though: she sees “no separation between species being and social being but a conflictuality between them". One can't exist without the other, but there is a contradiction between them that can only be resolved in communism. Then, presumably, species being and social being will be one.

So social being is the specific social form in which species being exists in any given period. A true self, deep inside, but mixed up and covered up by the alienations of that period. Rose thinks that humans under capitalism are increasingly alienated from their true self and as a result less and less conscious of their real needs. She also thinks that it is consciousness of those real needs that is the motor of communist revolution. How does the working class overcome that apparent contradiction? That question remains unanswered in her text. You could get away with it by claiming that revolution is not a conscious process, that the working class is driven by these real needs even while being less and less conscious of them, but I think that Rose would disagree with such a mechanistic view. It's true that the assault on those needs increases as real domination develops further and as capitalism's crisis intensifies, but that still doesn’t explain how the fight to fulfill them can develop if the awareness of them continuously declines. I think that at least part of the answer is that increasing alienation is only part of the story of human consciousness under capitalism. At the same time, there was also a development of human nature under capitalism, of individual as well as social consciousness, the development of a rational understanding of the world, and this development has created a new potential that clashes with capitalism because the latter impedes its realization. I guess that Rose would answer this short-hand explanation, by saying that the only thing that changed was man's "social being," that his "species being" remained the same. I disagree. I think that the way in which humans collectively try to make sense of their world is integral to their collective consciousness, which is integral to their species being. What "species being" means to Rose remains, even after this text, relatively vague. She sums up some of its invariant characteristics: "the need for love, for recognition, for linkage, for belonging, for creativity, for knowledge…" but she has to recognize that this is only part of the picture, which leaves all contradictions conveniently aside, like a personal ad, so she clarifies that she doesn’t mean that human nature is devoid of violence, aggressiveness and so on. But she suggests that "organized human society" holds this dark side in check. Yet it is also "organized human society" which actualizes this dark side, which is the main perpetrator of violence and cruelty. Rose further adds that it's not surprising that, with the dynamic of capitalist crisis moving toward massive devalorization, these violent manifestations of human nature come to the fore. I couldn't agree more. But that leaves the question of how revolutionary consciousness can develop wide open. We can’t solve it by believing that our true self will overcome alienation in the struggle and liberate itself. As attractive as this vision is, it does not do justice to the complexity and contradictory nature of our human essence, nor to the necessity for that true self to evolve, for collective consciousness to change as a result of the action and reflection of the working class. Barbarism realizes human nature as much as communism does, only different aspects of human nature which will make it evolve in a different direction. So the questions remain. We know that capitalism's crisis can only deepen and that its impact will be increasingly violent and destructive. How will that affect class consciousness? Rose’s approach has the merit of broadening the question, of seeing class consciousness as a manifestation of human nature, as opposed to a mechanistic, predictable, response to its socio-economic conditions. This is crucial because in our times more than ever, the working class is not only attacked as variable capital whose value and price capitalism seeks to push down the more it sinks into crisis, but also as humans whose habitat is threatened by capitalism’s perpetuation and whose vital needs and potential increasingly clashes with the reality of capitalism in crisis. If we can get rid of the sterile framework of a constant species being and a variable social being, we can begin to examine which changes in the objective context affect which aspects of human nature and how that relates to the development of class struggle. The revolution does not so much realize species being, as it allows it to change in a certain direction, breaking the obstacles that stand between this change and the potential for it that has historically developed in our species being. The main obstacles are those that hold back collective consciousness, and class consciousness, which is its most promising part. The way we make sense of the world is a fight within our species being. That’s why it's so radical. That’s why a pro-revolutionary minority is so important. Whether our species will recognize, in the face of the mounting absurdities of capitalist society, the necessity and possibility of revolution, whether it can fit that into the way our collective consciousness makes sense of the world, and thereby shapes it, is not a given.


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