Return to the Debate on Species Being
Reply #2: An Innate "Human Essence" Would Be A Straitjacket

In her "Return to the Debate on 'Species Being,'" Rose has clearly indicated the stakes of this discussion: what is it that will propel the working class to revolt against its very conditions of existence? We all agree that a devastating economic crisis, even one that plunges the working class into an unprecedented misery, is no sure basis for the emergence of a revolutionary class-for-itself. Indeed, as the 1930's demonstrated, and as the current power of nationalism, racism, and xenophobia, show, those conditions could even consolidate the power of capital. It seems clear that Rose bases her vision of the appearance of "revolutionary man" on the existence of a purported "species being" which lies below the encrusted layers of our "social being," the forms of subjectification [assujettissement] that capitalism has impressed on the working class, and which constitutes the basis from which the working class can launch a revolutionary challenge to capital. That concept of species being is one that the young Marx, the Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts, articulated. It is a concept that owes much to both Hegel and Feuerbach – and it is a concept that I believe Marx largely came to reject because it is rooted in metaphysics, and constitutes a direct challenge to the historicity of being that I believe is, and must be, the basis of a materialism worthy of the name. A thorough examination of both Marx's critique of Feuerbach, and the insufficiency of his so-called inversion of Hegel's idealist dialectic, (1) lies beyond the scope of this brief response, though it is an issue that I believe it is necessary to explore in depth at some time in the near future.

Rose both wants to insist on the existence of a species being, a "human nature," and to claim that its historical expressions are variable. However, what meaning can species being or human nature have if it is not innate and a-historical? And if the historical expressions of that species being are dependent on a changing "historico-social context," isn’t this the very meaning of social being? It seems to me that if we are to escape the trap of metaphysics, then we must reject any concept of humankind as having a fixed nature. As a creature that constantly transforms itself, all visions of a transhistorical human being must be rejected. Indeed, the only form in which we can know humankind, once we reject the recourse to metaphysics, and an originary or founding subject, (2) is in its social being. That is precisely the basis for Marx's critique of Feuerbach, and, I might add, of the implicit autocritique of his own position in the 1844 Manuscripts. So, in the original version of his "Theses on Feuerbach" (1845), Marx controverts Feuerbach and tells us: "But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations." (3) Thus, only a year after articulating his Feuerbachian vision of humankind's species being, Marx recognized that the essence of man is to be found in his ensemble of social relations, that is, in his social being. In The German Ideology, written by Marx and Engels at that same time, Feuerbach is criticized for having posited " 'Man' instead of 'real historical man.' " (4) So, where Feuerbach – and the Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts too – "stops at the abstraction 'man,' " and fails to conceive of men "in their given social connection," The Marx of The German Ideology embarks on a vision of humankind as having no being other than its social being – a social being that is historically variable. It is just that vision that I believe is the basis of a materialist understanding of being.

Where, then, does this leave us with respect to the prospects for a revolutionary challenge by the working class to the social being of humankind in capitalism, with respect to the prospects for a human Gemeinwesen, for communism? In my view, we cannot count on a species being hidden beneath our social being to rescue humankind from the horrors of decadent capitalism. Rather, we must look at aspects of the social being that capitalism has impressed upon humankind, and especially upon the collective laborer, for the veritable basis for the revolutionary overthrow of the system based on wage-labor and value production. That social being, the mode of subjectification that now characterizes humankind, entails alienation and reification, but it also entails a potential for overcoming that condition. That potential, however, is not to be found in some innate species being that humans possess, but rather in the very contingent and historical conditions that have shaped our social being under capitalism. There are no guarantees here. Communism is not the outcome of some teleological process impressed upon the nature of reality, as Hegel believed, or as certain "Marxists" have claimed. Indeed, as Marxists have long known, for any mode of production, the class struggle can end either in revolution or the ruin of the contending classes, as Marx insisted in the Communist Manifesto, in socialism or barbarism, as Rosa Luxemburg recognized in the midst of the inter-imperialist carnage of World War One. However, the same contingent and historical process that has subjected humankind to the reification that is one hallmark of capitalism, also contains the possibility of revolution. Just as there are elements of our social being that trap us in our alienated state, and threaten to foreclose the prospect for revolution, so too are there elements of that selfsame social being that point towards the emergence of a revolutionary alternative to capitalism. As I indicated in my response to Rose’s first article on species being (see IP # 43), capitalism both constitutes humans as alienated and subjugated, and, at the same time, as a necessity of the process of value production itself, with its imperative of the development of the productive powers of humankind, is also compelled to historically concede a measure of autonomy and freedom to the subject, specifically to the collective laborer. Therein lies the basis for materialist optimism. A thorough evaluation of both the elements of our social being that point towards increasing barbarism, and those other elements of our social being that are indicative of revolutionary possibilities, is an urgent task for revolutionaries.

Mac Intosh


1. See Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976), pp. 102-103.
2. Such a founding subject constitutes the basis of the concept of "man" that has shaped the capitalist epoch, from the Cartesian cogito to Feuerbach's abstract man, to Freud's image of man, with his innate "drives," to Levi Strauss's understanding of the invariant structure of the mind. The concept of species being articulated by Marx in 1844, seems to me to be still embedded in such a vision.
3. Karl Marx, "Theses on Feuerbach" in Karl Marx/Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), p. 4, my emphasis.
4. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology in Ibid., p. 39.

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