Return to the Debate on Species Being

Number 43 of Internationalist Perspective launched debate about species being. This discussion seems fundamental to us because, beyond this concept of species being, what is at stake is what impels the proletariat to revolt against its very conditions of existence. In other words, how can we understand that, from the state of alienation in which the capitalist mode of production plunges our class, a political consciousness could emerge, allowing it to overthrow the established order and to create a society on completely new bases? In his commentary on volume II of Capital, Maximilian Rubel writes: "The point [made by Marx, concerning the smashing of capitalism] is clear: capitalism can and must destroy itself as a result of its own 'material' law. With respect to the law of creative revolution, it is not inscribed in the material conditions, but in revolutionary man." (1) Who is this "revolutionary man," how does he emerge, how does he constitute himself? In short, if the evolution of capitalism impels it to an exacerbation of its internal contradictions, does that mean that the perspective of its own destruction necessarily engenders the creation of a communist society? For some revolutionaries, the schema is quite simple: the worsening of material conditions engenders an absolute pauperization, with that pauperization, in its turn, impelling the proletariat – the revolutionary class – to create a new society. However, that schema raises many questions today. Are we necessarily going towards an absolute pauperization and is that the condition for the passage to communism? Pauperization, absolute or relative, can lead to a quest for individual solutions, to a heightening of competition between workers, and not necessarily to the search for collective solutions based on a vision of other social relations between men. Pauperization can lead to despair, and not lead to a flourishing of the creative, emancipatory, capabilities of the proletariat. This is not the time for unfounded claims, for unshakeable certainties, but rather a time to reopen the question of consciousness and communist revolution through a deepening of our understanding of the conditions for their emergence. The debate about the concept of species being, far from being a philosophical or ideological debate, is integral to the above tasks.

Critiques were formulated in connection with this concept of "species being". (2) Therefore, this text will be an attempt to continue this debate. In particular, I want to reconsider two points: What we mean by "species being" and how it is connected to a historical perspective; and the process of de-alienation.

Species being and its historical expression

A first point concerns the term, species being, itself. I am not particularly attached to the words, themselves. They are those used by Marx in the Manuscripts of 1844. On the other hand, that which I defend is the existence of a "human nature", a "human essence", the "humanity" of Man, i.e., elements that make it possible to characterize and to differentiate mankind from other living species. Man is not only the strict result of a biological determination, of his adaptation to his material environment. He is also a being made of drives and needs which will find their expression and their realization (or their inhibition) in the historical-social context in which man, as social being, interacts with his environment, and submits to and transforms them. To speak of a "human nature, essence, or species being..." only makes sense if one examines how the humanity of man finds its concrete expression. In this sense, there is no separation between species being and social being, but rather a conflict between them, a contradiction which will be able to find its resolution only in the practices of a society with fundamentally different material and social bases than those in which we now live, with its scarcity and exploitation of man by man.

Thus, Sander, in his response in IP # 43, seems to accept the existence of a "species being," but one has to ask what exact content he gives to this concept. It seems to me that he mixes different biological elements - particularly genetic – and social practice. By doing that, it seems to me that he places himself halfway between my own framework and that, developed by Mac Intosh (also in IP # 43), that there is only social being. I could summarize Sander's position by quoting him: "Capitalism changed our species being, not through ideological influence but by creating new social practices, which create a new understanding by men of the world. So species being is very different today from what it was under 'primitive communism' yet it is still the same, in the same way as a man is different from the child he was, yet still the same person." This vision does not seem to me to position itself clearly in relation to the question: does a "human essence" exist, "human characteristics" which cross epochs and societies and thus, can one accept a concept which would be, for Mac Intosh, a-historical? For me, species being corresponds to certain fundamental needs that exist in human nature. Man seeks to realize them, to concretize them, but he can do so only in human society, i.e., in his activity of perpetual interaction with the world and with other men. That is why the form of realization follows the actual development of economic, cultural, social, and historical forms imposed by the context in which that realization seeks to express itself. There is, therefore, no transformation of species being but rather of the social form in which species being expresses itself. Thus, I agree with Sander when he says that the choices of the working class are not predetermined and that it can have a say in shaping these choices. When he raises this question to understand "why men have made such horrible and suicidal choices during history," I think that he raises a fundamental question, to which there is a twofold response. It is clear, that to speak of the human essence does not mean that there is a kind of human nature cleansed of all violence, an angelic human nature, without conflict, an idealized human nature. Among the features of human nature, there is aggression, competition, even hatred. But the precise form under which those features express themselves depends, in large part, on the determinant social context in which these features are actualized. It is what psychoanalysts mean when they distinguish between drives and the outlet of drives. For example, for Freud, it is culture that civilizes man. In other words, it is the existence of an organized human society that compels its members to inhibit, sublimate, or give a socially acceptable expression to their needs and drives; which permits them to pass from the simple act of discharge of a tension to a thought process. This line of thought can also be linked to other discussions: in a capitalist society dominated by the necessity for massive devalorization, that is, destruction, it is no surprise that social relations are characterized by a growing violence and that the act supersedes thinking and symbolization. (3) Moreover, in the very development of his activity, man creates social relations to which he has given no thought. His activity has an impact on his environment, and that environment compels him to adapt to it, to develop practices of adjustment and defence that can go against his own long-term interests. Here is the indissoluble link between need, realization of that need in a social form, and a determinant historical context.

This leads me to take up what seems to me to be a contradiction in Mac Intosh's text. This text rejects the existence of a human nature: "Human being, in the form of species being, once it emerges, 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 " (p. 7). However, in the preceding paragraph, Mac Intosh says to us: "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 needs and drives, the forms they take are not biologically given but socially and culturally shaped, and historically variable" (p. 7). These citations allow us to suppose that Mac Intosh certainly acknowledges the presence of a "human nature" in the form of drives and innate needs. He then makes the distinction between these elements and the form in which they will find expression. I can only agree with this view of things: that's precisely the reason that there is for me no separation between species being and social being. The human being is a social being. He does not exist in abstract form, but entirely in the social, historical and cultural forms in which he deploys his human activity. By contrast, where Mac Intosh seems to attach needs and drives to only the biological sphere, I enlarge the sphere of needs and drives: the need for love, recognition, bonding, belonging, creativity, knowledge, all characterize what, from the point of view of his psychology, his reflection and his consciousness of himself and the ambient world, makes man above all a social being endowed with a subjectivity which can lead him to modify his behaviour, sometimes in opposition even to his own biological survival. Mac Intosh will then come back to a concept of "human nature" while reaffirming that it must be understood in a historical, and not a-historical sense. I would like to know Mac Intosh's view on this matter and how he would articulate a general concept (one which could then also be described as a-historical) and a vision of the movement of historical transformation. Are we as far apart as Mac Intosh makes it seem, or is it more a question of distancing himself from a term – species being -- too tainted by the debate between Hegelians and non-Hegelians?

Another question concerns the word "a-historical." To speak of history implies that one refers to a particular context, a context that is itself transformed through the interactions between natural events and human intervention. It’s a matter, therefore, of a movement of transformation and interaction. But does movement exclude a synchronization of certain elements that are both constant in their bases and yet evolving? In other words, in speaking of a human essence, in what way is it "a-historical" if one believes that the very basis of the human nature of man is to seek a concrete realization, and, therefore, that it is – as a function of the historical, the socio-economic, and the geographical, context --always in the process of transformation? Does the recognition of the human essence of man entail, as Mac Intosh claims, "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 …and the regaining of this paradise through the communist revolution" (p. 8)? Once again, such a criticism relates to the separation between species being and social being whereas, for me, one cannot exist without the other. Man is unceasingly in search of the materialization, the actualization, of his species being, of the translation of his human needs in his link with his environment. It is what makes history a moving process, a movement impelled partly by the reciprocal interaction between man and his social context, in the perpetual search for the realization of his humanity. In that, to return "to man as he was before" would not make any sense: before what? Man cannot live outside of time: temporality is a fundamental given of his human essence; in fact, time anchors him to his origins, in a genealogy, in his own biological evolution. The idea of a return to a lost paradise would imply that there would have already been a paradise, it confuses primitive communism and communist society and it maintains that man can remove himself from time, and satisfy his needs in an abstract context, which is a negation of the human essence of man. Jacques Camatte in Bordiga et la passion du communisme arrives at precisely that point: "the metamorphosis that modern man, the wage-working proletarian, undergoes in an economy based on private property is a departure from the human essence, to which members of primitive society were closer. Alienated by the commodities for which he sells himself, his time and his labor-power; the proletarian alienates himself from "man." He is simply a commodity, a physical object without life (...) To re-cover himself, to go from being a non-man, to a man, the alienated worker will not go back to the person, to the individual, he was before, closing a useless and stupid cycle which would have no other perspective than a second and eternal sale of himself as a slave, but will re-conquer, with his class and for all of society and mankind, the quality of man not as a singular individual, but as part of the new humanity of communism." (4) I can only agree with Mac Intosh when he calls for the redefinition of the concepts of alienation and human nature that "must be defined so that they are prospective and not retrospective." (p. 8) That is precisely the position that I am defending: species being is a being-in-becoming, and what impels the alienated proletariat towards a break with the old social relations, and the creation of a new society, is the quest for the satisfaction of human needs, of its human nature.

In that, I want to dissociate myself from the more pronounced "biological" definition that Sander seems to bring to species being. He seems to attach much of our human tendencies to the genetic roots of mankind and I certainly do not follow him on this path. Thus, when he takes the example of jealousy or suicide, since these phenomena traverse historical and cultural periods, it is because they are a part of our genetic heritage, of our biological patrimony. Freud defines the "drive" by saying that it is a concept that is at the intersection of the somatic and the psychic. And this seems fundamental to me in understanding how, man (but not man alone), has intrinsic, objective and subjective, elements, biological and emotional. If we take the example of jealousy, we can say that it is the crossroads of two fundamental needs: the need for reproduction and self-preservation - fundamental biological needs - and the need for love, bonding - psychic needs, just as fundamental. Sander gives too much importance, in my opinion, to the genetic aspect, thus reducing the definition of species being to only the biological needs of the species. What then to make of other elements like "collective consciousness" or other subjective elements? Do they form part of species being? There again, as MacIntosh says, we all have to redefine the content that we bring to concepts.

The process of de-alienation

This is, of course, the fundamental question, the one at the origin of this debate on species being! How can the collective worker, alienated in an increasingly profound way by the modes of subjectification imposed by the real domination of the capitalistic mode of production, become conscious of his alienation and develop a political consciousness enabling him to extricate himself from this alienation and to envision completely new human relations?

For Mac Intosh, this development of consciousness arises from a contradiction internal to capitalism, between the subjectification produced by the dominant system and the space of freedom and autonomy imposed by the use of continuously developing technologies. Of course, capitalism contains a fundamental contradiction: that of the necessity for the existence of a working class and that of the necessity, for the very survival of the collective worker, to deny themselves as a class-for-capital, to destroy the global capitalist social relation, to destroy the relations of domination, of exploitation, imposed by the ruling class and governed by the law of value and private property. From this fundamental contradiction, a series of others result and we see the tendencies and counter-tendencies which develop within capitalism.

Nevertheless, two questions arise here: what "autonomy", what "freedom"? Does Mac Intosh tell us when the practices entailed by these two terms can be exercised within the capitalist framework? Within the internal contradictions of the capitalistic mode of production, what is the engine that propels the collective worker to consider his situation as unacceptable to the point of letting go of all the illusions that he still has? The vision of the ICC provided a simple answer to this question: the economic crisis plunged the exploited into a situation of precariousness and of absolute pauperization such that they were constrained, to ensure their own survival, to destroy the chains which bound them. If we take into account the objective factors in the revolutionary movement of the proletariat, we also need to dissociate ourselves from a deterministic vision binding the development of a political consciousness to economic contingencies alone, as Mac Intosh correctly points out. He then points to factors endogamous, and not exogamous, to the worker: the experience of freedom and autonomy that would bring about an awareness of the capitalist shackles. In a certain sense, this vision is linked to the debate about "new technologies" in IP # 44: do we regard science and technology as separable from the operation of the law of the value and/or do we see certain types of behaviour as counter-tendencies within capitalism that could provoke actions which would be able to challenge the sacrosanct law of the value? Does Mac Intosh think that the freedom and autonomy necessary to the use of capitalist technology constitutes an experience of "freedom of being" and a "real autonomy," there where the penetration of the law of the value in all the domains of our activity, including our conception of the world and of ourselves, has invaded the whole of life? More generally, this brings us back to the question of the emergence of a new society: does it find the beginning of its expression within capitalism's contradictions or does it require a profound break with all the ways of thinking, all the modes of activity, produced under the yoke of capitalism?

For my part, it is the second vision that I defend! It is evident that the process of the development of consciousness, at the outset, is born of the multiple experiences of the class: the pressure of the economic crisis; distress vis-a-vis the omnipresent destructiveness of capitalism; the absence of any perspective; the development of forms of work which would allow us to foresee other ways of doing it. But, the question, for me remains: why, at a particular moment, does one want to live otherwise; what is it that can propel the collective worker, not to want to kill the competitor for his job, but to call the very system into question? What leads an individual to say that the point that has been reached is now unacceptable? Certainly not objective criteria! Moreover, it is only in the break with the established order, and not within the framework of it, that the workers can have the experience of freedom and autonomy, and this break occurs in the movement of open opposition to the ruling class: the class struggle.

To conclude...

This debate raises fundamental questions in relation to the emergence of the political consciousness of the proletariat. For me, it is about a complex process that utilizes both objective elements (the lived experience of capitalist contradictions, exclusion, exploitation, the pressure of the crisis...) and subjective ones. Nevertheless, the conception of human needs, in the species sense of the term, in the sense of the human essence, remains a fundamental concept that explains why alienated individuals seek to de-alienate themselves. As pointed out by Bordiga, capitalism made of man a non-human individual, in a situation of alienation from himself and his human nature. Man has always sought to give a social form to his basic needs. That is the engine that can push him to seek an adequate social form for the expression, and the realization, of his needs in a society with fundamentally different human relations than those in which he is alienated. When we say that it is in living his inhumanity that man seeks to again find himself, one can only turn to the concept of a human essence.



1. Le Capital - livre Il Economie - notes et variants principes d'une critique -- M. Rubel, Ed. La Pleiade, p. 1652.
2. See the responses of Sander and Mac Intosh to my article on psecies being in IP #43.
3. See FD "With the Crisis of Capitalism, What is the Perspective for a New society?"
4. Jacques Camatte, Bordiga et la passion du communisme, Ed. Spartacus, pp. 175-176.

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