‘Human Nature’ and Revolution

For two years now the comrades of IP have developed a debate inside their group on the “humanity” of man “Nature” against “essence “ or “species being” in opposition to the “social being” of Homo sapiens: the bulky exchange of theoretical arguments to which this discussion is geared could make the sarcastic spirits (among us) smile, too quickly, inclined to see only a Byzantine gloss on the gender of angels; a revolutionary pastime of intellectuals awaiting the next wave of assault of the proletariat against the capitalist fortress. These good-hearted mockers should, however, take into account the objectives of this debate. They are indeed clearly declared by its protagonists (mainly Rose, Sander and Mac Intosh) and represent an exit from academism.

The goal of the debate, Rose wrote in her initial contribution in IP # 43 (autumn 2004), “... 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”.

In their first “responses” to the text of Rose, Mac Intosh and Sander mark a total agreement in principle with the initiative of their Brussels comrade and share its basic thrust: “Rose's article”, writes Mac Intosh, “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”. At the heart of his own response Sander is even more pointed: “We think that neither party nor crisis make the working class revolutionary. Does that mean that we don’t have to consider human nature? Or is the opposite true? If the working class doesn't automatically make its revolution because its income and social security are collapsing and the party shows them the way, what does give it the will, the motivation, the insight, to do it? Don’t we have to look beyond the economic grievances of the working class to find the answer to that question? And does that not lead us to consider other core aspects of human nature in the working class that are oppressed by capital and that create the desire to break that oppression”?

In summary, the stakes of the debate, therefore, are to link the “desire” for revolution to fundamental needs inscribed in human nature. Here, again, is what Sander writes in his new article in IP # 45: “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”.

This demonstrates, I think, the interest of this discussion. I benefit from the opportunity to note that the articles in IP, although they are not specifically written for the network, actually relate to it in a general way. Many, it is clear, resonate directly with the discussions which are taking place within our collective. That we should take into account not only the contributions conceived for the network but, further, the texts (at least several of them) published in the reviews of the groups within the international collective, is indeed what the example of IP indicates (and that also goes for Echanges and Movement as well as for the texts of RGF, Jacques Wajnszstejn or Loren Goldner, and others too posted on various web sites). The resonance of which I speak is particularly manifest with regard to “human nature”, the subject of which, two years ago, occupied our attention. On the whole, one can even say that that moment in the life of the network has reverberated amongst the IP comrades among whom, without any doubt, it already manifested itself.

I thus invite myself into the discussion within IP with the assurance of being well received. At the outset, I inform you that there will be no question of entering into all the ramifications of the discussion, in truth quite considerable. To do that would exceed in any event my capacities and I think it's more “beneficial” to limit myself to two points which I consider nodal, therefore, most important in my eyes, for the unfolding of the debate.

1. Species Being and Biological Being

Does there exist, “beneath social being”, as Mac Intosh says, a “species being”, a “human nature” or a “human essence” - unalterable so that the various historical forms of human socialization would be, through their very diversity even, its realization or materialization? These changing forms would always express the same generic principle. Mac Intosh disputes this theoretical position - which Rose defends -, advancing moreover that it would be alien to the thought, if not of the young Marx (Writings of 1844), at least for the Marx of maturity. Sander, for his part, though his position tends in the direction of Mac Intosh’s, made some concessions, dare we say of a “centrist” type, to the position of Rose.

Let us acknowledge that it is not so easy to summarize the dispute. To begin, I believe that it is necessary to state the obvious. All the participants should easily agree on one point: the existence of a biological being of Man. This, without question, is unalterable, immutable. Invariant, at least as long as the human genome does not undergo a modification, as monsieur de la Palice would have written in his time. And if that was the case, it is, of course, even more so for the biological being that concerns us. We have known, since Darwin and Mendel, the fundamental natural mechanism of this modification of genetic composition that results in speciation. Concerning all living species including humans, there is a response to exceptional conditions: gene changes on the level of an individual within a population, inside a species, and progressive diffusion of the new genetic characteristics if - and only if - the subject carrying the modifications and their descendents acquire from this a higher adaptive potential to the natural environment of the aforementioned population. Man, the development of his society and her capacity to adapt to external nature with the best interest of the needs that they themselves recognize, to some extent “disqualified” the Darwinian process, at least since the emergence of Cro-Magnon man, the only alternative hominid acknowledged today on the four corners of the Earth. As Sander recalls in his contribution - but it is well known - our biological core has not changed (or has changed very little) since the higher Paleolithic era, that is to say for a hundred thousand years. It is not that genetic changes ceased, but they no longer have any effect (they are not diffused). We are however, in 2006, on the eve of a crucial “revolution,” that of the capacity to produce clones to replace the natural mechanism and to modify the human genetic inheritance directly. However, let us repeat, if this capacity is realized, the biological being that will result, will no longer be ours. Thus: the biological core of Man is, within his “nature”, that which does not vary. Then, if species being is not identical to biological being, though it depends on it, despite everything (even Marx affirms it), what indeed can it be? It is what differentiates mankind from other animal species. The difference is already apparent (morphology, anatomy...) with the eyes and further with the internal medical composition (metabolism, biochemistry of the vegetative functions and, of course, genetics), and it is according to all that that the naturalists have defined the human taxonomy. But the real difference lies in the aptitudes for consciousness, the consciousness of men and all that results from this on the level of their being able to transform the ambient nature around them and to develop complex modes of sociation. This human faculty would be unique in the whole of the animal kingdom.

If I use the conditional mode, it is because it is important, nevertheless, to be nuanced. The accumulation of scientific knowledge indeed obliges us today to limit this privilege to our species. Many animal species among the mammals and the birds, even the reptiles, develop rather elaborate social systems. A manifest sign of that elaboration is to be found in the co-operation between subjects, for hunting, for example, or the defense of populations against predators. One observes this among wolves, rats, as well as the raptors dear to Spielberg the film director, and, as Sander further points out, to chimpanzees. Beavers also join together to act on their natural environment. Co-operation unquestionably supposes a state of consciousness that manifests itself through a communications system (semiotic) between subjects. Man, it is certain, is the only animal to have a spoken language, but language, and the cognitive dispositions allowing it, are not his alone. Everyone is aware of the experiments carried out in laboratories with chimpanzees and which, successfully, demonstrate the presence of the aptitude for language in our close cousin primates: they cannot speak because the anatomy of their throat does not allow it; nevertheless, all that is necessary for language, and even a well articulated language, exists in their brain. Another famous example, are the dolphins, very social animals which are able learn, by a system of sophisticated whistles, complex rules without any human intervention. This learning is what we designate as training and man is far from being the only animal to practice it: from the window of my apartment, I often observe the relatively complex set of gesticulations and mimicry deployed by the parent pigeons in order to teach their young the art of flight. Such examples can be found by any “scientific” amateur observer, without searching very far.

The arguments abound. Thus, the creative forms of intelligence must necessarily exist in the cerebral cortex of crows because these birds are capable of solving difficult problems consisting of untying small ropes set by men and thwarting all their traps. The fabrication of tools has for a long time been held as an unquestionable frontier (Homo faber) until one identifies this property of consciousness (or intelligence) beneath the human species, not only in fossilized hominids: Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, Homo georgicus...) but in primates (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas). The faculty of modifying a tool, to improve its efficiency, according to particular modes of employment, and, according to the results of experimentation, to even manufacture a second tool starting from the first, is found in chimpanzees (in the laboratory, at least, because, within their natural environment, these animals do not exploit these possibilities; but they could). We humans also tend to consider cultural activities as the private field of our species; but the example, rather recently discovered, of certain African populations of elephants returning on fixed dates to pay their respect to their diseased forefathers seems to refute that prejudice: the metaphysical feeling of life after death in the milieu of the elephants, that a shocker, no?

What cannot be ignored is that many current biologists tend to appreciably reduce the gap between man and other animals. Put another way, to establish in a profound way what was not formerly tolerated (even by Darwin) man in her animality. Certain avant-garde thinkers today already propose that we accord the status of “person” to the chimpanzee and that we thus grant the rights as man to them! Joking aside part, what constitutes human specificity is defined now less by absolute originality than by a degree of development of consciousness, sociality, co-operation, language, etc. That said this higher degree of performance is undeniable in humans. The really extraordinary evidence, to which Sander points, of that performance is what we can term species being, man’s own “nature”. Personally, at the risk of constructing a wobbly term, I would prefer to say: the generic difference of humankind is what is “most” specific about it.

2. Is species being immutable?

For Rose, the answer is yes. Admittedly, she says, species being can only be apprehended through social being; it manifests itself in our consciousness through changing social modes which are, at the same time, forms of transformation of the natural environment through an interaction between these two aspects. However, these changing forms fundamentally express an intangible generic principle; including -- and this is where it becomes complicated -- the dialectic, itself, if that term is to be preferred, when the changes are achieved to the detriment of species being. This has been the case since the origin of class society and the situation has only been made worse by the capitalist mode of production, which exacerbates the conflict to the n’th degree. But, according to Rose, the class struggle, over the course of centuries, has revealed the subjective existence of this primordial conflict between species being and its social deformations (alienation) as well as the permanent tension entailed in the resolution of those contradictions. All the human revolts against the ruling classes, the desire for communism that has been an element in the mental life of humans throughout generations since the Neolithic era, would consequently express the fundamental need of man to restore the truth of his species being. And even more, to realize completely the potentialities that this being contains. This is why, Rose insists, the proletarian struggle, its class consciousness, and I dare say, without betraying the thought of the comrade, cannot primarily be dependent on a reaction to the economic attacks of capitalism. It is clear: species being, for Rose, is the foundation upon which the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat rests.

Mac Intosh as much as Sander (and I add myself) agree, saying with her, that indeed, the advance of the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat could not be reduced to “only increasing pressure exerted by the economic crisis” (Rose), even if it feeds off it (I leave aside here the problem of the party, on which I have the same opinion as the three comrades of IP). But as for connecting the aforementioned consciousness to species being, our two friends on the other side of the Atlantic show themselves more than circumspect. Mac Intosh, if I understand him well, is straightforwardly opposed.

As with the latter - but also Sander in another respect - I do not think that species being (to which Mac Intosh substitutes the concept “social being”) is totally invariant. Like these two comrades, I think that species being (or “social,” which I prefer) is on the contrary open, therefore modifiable, contrary to biological being. With the various societies that man has known through mutations in the modes of production, species being has changed. “Good” or “bad”, the changes simply express social being and there is no conflict at the level of essence because this being in development contains opposing possibilities or in any case different orientations. All of these possibilities emerging, of course, from the transformation of man's environment, for which humans have become increasingly responsible in a direct way by substituting themselves for nature.

I am thus clearly opposed to the idea of the realization of an already finished species being, from the very origin of humankind, of which humans would be the carriers. This takes nothing away from our current aspirations for another society, more livable, more interdependent, more peaceful, than the horrors of capitalism, and for humans and their natural inheritance, to nourish without having to respond to the injunctions of a program hidden deep in the unconscious. This “good”, this “better”, is what inspires our revolutionary action. It is not for sure that we will reach that point even in possession of the requisite means (we can also arrive in spite of ourselves at something which is not “good,” that we even consider “bad”), but that is what we must will. Now, to speak of the realization of an initial species being, comes back to what Mac Intosh calls philosophical anthropology and which, for my part, I called, in a former text - and in a little different context although connected - a “grand narrative” (by borrowing the term, from the comrades of Robin Goodfellow (RGF) who did not fail to link it to the “disreputable” bourgeois academics Lyotard and Derrida).

Rose’s is also a discourse that betrays her dependence on Hegel’s philosophy history, even with the Marxist inversion. That too, Mac Intosh emphasizes in his text in IP #43. However, this comrade seems to want to show that the mature Marx (Capital) overcame the young Marx, of the Writings of 1844, about which I am not sure, in any case not completely. But that is another question into which I do not want to (cannot) enter here. Without wanting either to widen the polemic, I would say simply that Rose's vision of the realization of species being is close to the Bordigist idea of communism described as “knowledge of a plan for the human species”. Will RGF contradict me? I think that to relate the human trajectory to the execution of a plan or program whose essential bases are fixed at the origin of the human species is perfectly antithetical to the reality of our nature, which is what we would want describe as open and in constant construction. At this point of my text, a horrific vision of the future assails me: the image of a communist humanity subjected to the unfolding of five-year plans for the realization of our species being.

As a partisan species being in evolution, I would like, in spite of that, to object to Sander's vision of openness. The comrade (see the quotation that I cited in the introducing his position), describes it as a permanent tension, almost daily, of deconstruction-reconstruction of social being; he defines it as the species' irrepressible need of change. That seems to me exaggerated. The openness of social being is not inevitably antithetical to periods of stabilization. It is important, for me at least, not to see the openness, the change, as a diktat, an injunction, like that of capitalist advertising, unceasingly provoking us to exit the routine of daily life and to release the brake on experimentation with the exotic “or unusual types of life,” all, of course, with the purpose of making us buy new commodities as well as the necessary equipment fitting the behaviour of artificially created roles.

Social being permits, indeed, “encourages” openness and change, but does not compel it. It is especially important not to attach social being by an iron law openness to “progress” (a systematic progression, in the sense that an ideology of progress understands it). In fact, the “advance,” in reality, can sometimes consist in a deliberate retreat relative to the previous human movement, or in any case to a readjustment, a voluntary reorientation, of projections for the future. Within Communism, in my opinion, we will see that. Therefore, to speak as Sander does, is, I fear, to return to a form of philosophical anthropology (to which Mac Intosh refers?). At the heart of the things, we would be back to Rose’s way of assigning to man an ideal of perfection to be achieved. But perhaps I did not understand Sander perfectly. That said, let me restate my position: if there is something indeed constant, of “trans-historical”, in man’s species being, it is, without playing on words, the possibility of his transformation.

I will end my text by an additional point that will bring together, I hope, the two preceding points. In the exchange between the comrades of IP, especially between Rose and Sander, the question of determining the role of the biological in species – or social -- being and thus of the determination of the second by the first, abounds. It is clear, for me in any case, that a biological determination plays a part and even Marx attested to it. As with the other animals that develop a sociality, the social exists initially in man as a biological impulse. Man does not discover nor does he invent social being as an experiment, after having been born; He does not decide to group together; He comes into the world with this biological determination. That is indeed why one can speak of the social nature of man. I have already also said, but I repeat it here, humans are not the only animals equipped with a social nature (to simplify the statement, I leave aside, the bees, the ants, etc, where the social behavior is coded in genes), but human social nature is much more marked and complex. On that basis, I then agree with Sander and Rose on the fact that what is crucial for us is not sociality in itself, but the forms that it takes. We have seen that, in man, these forms are changing, and I connect that to the open character of human nature. Indeed, I believe that this openness - but not its forms or its content - is biologically given.

Obviously, the question of species being takes us back to the old discussion opposing the innate and the acquired. It is clear that a long tradition in the social sciences - in the milieu of which I do not fear to locate certain current Marxists, including those of the communist left - privileged for a long time the acquired (training): the acquired was, said one, the indelible mark of humanity. Today, the scientific milieu is reassessing. As Sander emphasizes, our dependence on the innate is much more important than it formerly was thought to be, although the acquired remains predominant.

Among the comrades of the network, and I refer especially here to private discussions which I have had with Raoul Victor, resistance to this revaluation still remains strong. Which is not astonishing. Raoul, in particular, readily defends against Darwinism the evolutionism of Lamarck, who, we know, places the acquired (determinant, it needs to be forcefully said, when speaking of the transmission of knowledge and cultural behaviors) in the center of his theory. Domi, in the same way, refutes the idea that language would be, as, in a very convincing way the linguist, Noam Chomsky, demonstrates, an innate structure of thought: the baby of man, said the well-known American, mainly does not learn how to speak by imitation of his parents (who, in any case, cannot teach the language to their offspring by grammar and syntax); he does it essentially all alone, and it is, so to speak, a superhuman exploit because language represents a colossal condensation of abstract principles. He reaches that point because his brain is pre-equipped (pardon me for this mechanical metaphor) for the training of language. Any baby of the planet can, nevertheless, integrate any human language (proof that all languages have the same fundamental structure, which corresponds to the structure of the apparatus of thought of the new-born, which came into the world amongst the Inuit or in Manhattan), or integrate none if the child is not incited to do so (which fully restores the importance of the social environment and the training of the child). Everyone knows in this respect the incredible history of Gaspar Hauser (Verlaine’s “poor Gaspar”), in the 19th century, or the more modern study of the wolf child by Lucien Malson.

To return to the heart of my comments, we can acknowledge the importance of the innate character (thus biological) via the decisive proof that Sander provides himself (or indeed Mac Intosh, I have the gall to return to the texts in question to conclude my own), namely that, in spite of the formidable performances of our human nature, the complexity of our sociality, the heroic epic of our successive civilizations and our disorderly capacity “to humanize nature” (Marx); in spite of the monumental pedestal on which we perch our collective ego, notwithstanding our hypertrophied – conscious consciousness, our imaginary poetry and luxuriant love ..., the paramount goal of our existence remains in the end the replication and the diffusion of our individual genes.

In the final analysis, the openness of social being is a strategy, a “ruse”, of biology to make us achieve its “intentions”. What, should be said in passing, does not mean in any way that biological engineering is unquestionably demonstrated. Actually, it “arranges” not badly (according to the pleasant expression of the Nobel Prize winner for medicine, François Jacob) and does not prevent fantasy (as the modern Darwinist theorist of evolution Stephen Jay Gould has emphasized. Let us propose the example of homosexuality, not taken randomly but because the discussion of it illustrates rather well the quarrel between the innate and the acquired. For many Marxists, homosexuality is completely a phenomenon of the acquired, concerning a psychosocial training missed or disturbed at the family level if not the moral effect of the decadence of a civilization, that of the Roman empire of Commodius for example. I am among those who think the contrary; that at least in part, it is nature that predisposes one to this behavioral deviance with respect to the biological requirement of procreation. That is also found in nature that our species does not have, there either, the exclusiveness of love between subjects of the same sex.

I will pose finally, the final point by recourse to a very personal question: we speak about the latest possibility of modifying our genome (and thus to create a new species); and indeed, I wonder whether biological determinism by influencing us will really allow it. Its “will” in this field, the biological, will undoubtedly make us accept it as the result of the independent application of our humanist codes and feelings. Which leads me to this last reflection: our very biological determinism – have I convinced you? – has produced an open human nature, in a constant state of becoming. That means that we enjoy a great freedom, that our future - that our species being - depends on our choices, on our will. However, all the conceivable futures are not realizable for us. Only the futures in agreement with the characteristics of our biological inheritance are. In another way, we could say that the reconciliation of man with his nature is the exact comprehension of this, detached from any anthropocentrist prejudices: a free nature within determination.


Home Issues of IP Texts Discussion IP's French site Links