It is worthwhile to reiterate the stakes of this debate, which is definitely not a philosophical discussion, but rather an effort to deepen our understanding of the conditions for the emergence of the political consciousness of the proletariat. In other words, how can consciousness develop in a society dominated by decadent capitalist social relations and the growing alienation that proceeds from them? We have already introduced a number of answers to that question by articulating a vision of class consciousness developing in response to the impact of material conditions – the deepening of the economic crisis, the degradation of the living conditions of the proletariat – and of subjective factors. We believe that the economic determinant alone is not sufficient to provoke the emergence of a political consciousness. Our vision is, therefore, situated at the cross roads between objective and subjective elements. To again take up the question of what provokes the proletariat to extricate itself from its own alienation is, therefore, a crucial question about our capacity to understand the dynamic of our class. The importance of that question is clear to a comrade outside our group, whose text we publish in this issue of IP.
A return to the debate on “species being”
Following the response of Mac Intosh to my previous text, which appeared in the last issue of IP, and which pointed out the bases for Marx’s critique of Feuerbach, the stakes of the debate have been clarified: the rejection of a static, idealized vision of a “finished” human being to which nostalgia would impel us to return.
I obviously share the criticisms of Marx, his defense of a materialist conception of history and his rejection of an idealist vision. In this sense, I realize that to use the term species being was inappropriate – because too time-bound – in a historical debate. Still seeking the most neutral possible term, I will thus give up this term “species being” in preference to “humanity becoming,” “humanity,” or “human essence.”
This debate between a materialist and idealist vision is still so current, that at certain moments it seemed to me that Mac Intosh was responding to someone other than me, attributing arguments to me that were not mine. It is equally clear that my own conception was expressed in a clumsy way, that it has evolved, become more precise, which makes the polemic difficult. But an element that appears clear to me is that I do not defend the idea of returning to a finished species being -- one having existed, for example, in primitive communism - which it would be a question of returning to. There seem to be two different levels here: on the one hand, that of the abstract notion of needs and human characteristics, and on the other hand that of the concrete form in which these needs and tendencies find expression, according to the given material context. For me, the satisfaction of needs constitutes one of the motors of human activity. That quest is inscribed in the becoming of humanity, finding its concretization most completely in a communist society whose essence is precisely to satisfy these needs. To evoke those two levels, which are distinct, but in which one cannot exist without the other, means – for me – the human activity is situated and evolves in inter-action with its material surroundings; but it also means that humans have a capacity to shape their environment and not just to react to it – a set of issues to which I shall return in this article.
Another critique made by Mac Intosh is that defending this conception of the existence of “humanity”, of “human needs,” is a-historical. Expressing himself on the difference between the form and content of human life, Georg Lukács says in History and Class Consciousness: “On the contrary, history is precisely the history of these institutions, of the changes they undergo as institutions which bring men together in societies. Such institutions start by controlling economic relations between men and go on to permeate all human relations (and hence also man’s relations with himself and with nature, etc.).” (All references to Lukács are to History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1971). (Here p. 48) For me, human beings, in the continual quest for the satisfaction of their human needs, are fully inscribed in an historical process, where they both are transformed and transform their environment.
The conditions of existence of the proletariat or the immediacy of social being
In the course of history, each society, created and developed the material conditions for its functioning and, in parallel, the modes of relations and subjectivation which correspond to it.
But the capitalist mode of production (CMP) is characterized by having erected value as a sovereign, autonomous, law, controlling the whole of the economic, social and subjective processes, and which has alienated individuals in a particular way: by objectifying them like any other commodity, representing a greater or lesser value. The commodity relation structures all the forms of objectivity and all the corresponding forms of subjectivity, Lukács tells us in History and Class Consciousness. A world then arises of things and relations between things. It is to that world of frozen things that one can oppose the humanity of “man,” which is always becoming.
Within this system there exists a fundamental contradiction: the existence of the proletariat, the class necessary to its maintenance and its functioning and, at the same time, synonymous with its destruction and its overcoming.
But from this fundamental contradiction flow three others:
In a certain way, these oppositions summarize the dialectical bond which links alienation and the emergence of class consciousness.
a) The subject/object opposition
For Lukács, man becomes an appendage to the machine in the production process, which has an autonomy from him. “As the product of capitalism the proletariat must necessarily be subject to the modes of existence of its creator. This mode of existence is inhumanity and reification.”(p. 76) “His fate is typical of society as a whole in that this self-objectification, this transformation of a human function into a commodity reveals in all its starkness the dehumanised and dehumanising function of the commodity relation.” (p. 92) The development of the CMP thus implies a process of de-subjectivation of the human being in general and the proletarian in particular, placing this latter in a tension where subject and object are opposed in a dialectical relation: “The proletariat can and must liberate itself because when the proletariat is fully developed, its humanity and even the appearance of its humanity has become totally abstract; because in the conditions of its life all the conditions of life of contemporary society find their most inhuman consummation; because in the proletariat man is lost to himself but at the same time he has acquired a theoretical consciousness of this loss, and is driven by the absolutely imperious dictates of his misery – the practical expression of this necessity – which can no longer be ignored or whitewashed, to rebel against this inhumanity.” (p. 20) “From its own point of view self-knowledge coincides with knowledge of the whole so that the proletariat is at one and the same time the subject and object of its own knowledge.”(p. 20)
b) The opposition activity/passivity
In its reified condition, humankind is placed in a position of total submission vis-ŕ-vis the machine, vis-ŕ-vis the productive apparatus. It no longer controls it; it is controlled by it, like a built-in part of that productive process. “The contemplative stance adopted towards a process mechanically conforming to fixed laws and enacted independently of man’s consciousness and impervious to human intervention, i.e. a perfectly closed system, must likewise transform the basic categories of man’s immediate attitude to the world ……” (p. 89) “… the personality can do no more than look on helplessly while its own existence is reduced to an isolated particle and fed into an alien system.” (p. 90)
The heart of the open opposition between the classes is located here: if we insist so much on the importance of the emergence of a strike or any action of revolt on the part of the proletariat, it is because that represents a rupture with this position of isolation, with, as Lukács says, this contemplative attitude in which the reified worker finds himself enmeshed. In class action, the worker temporarily leaves her status as an object, ceases to submit and to be submissive, and also transforms his relation to other men in a dynamic, collective, becoming. Self-organization is the manifestation of the taking control of their own destiny by the workers in struggle, and it is that, even more than the success of the movement, that is crucial.
But true contradiction is that, to really become a subject of its own becoming, the proletariat must negate itself as class, and as individuals, defined by the capitalist social relation. It must negate itself in order to exist. “The reconstitution of the unity of the subject, the intellectual restoration of man has consciously to take its path through the realm of disintegration and fragmentation.”(p. 141) Lukács also says “… the resurrection of man from his grave, all these issues become concentrated henceforth on the question of dialectical method.” (p. 141)
c) The opposition creation/reaction
A fundamental question now arises: what is it that makes men struggle and what is it that makes this movement become creative and not only defensive or adaptive? This question is linked to two visions of history: either we think that the activity of humankind results from a continual adaptation related to its environmental conditions and we have a vision of a “reactive”, human being, or we think that the human being is also unceasingly in contact with its human essence, its instinctual world and its psychic needs and is thus in perpetual search for the realization of its human existence, and we thus have the vision of a “creative” human being. Of course, behind these two visions of man the debate between determinism and subjectivism reappears (which already was the subject of significant developments – see Daxa’s text in IP) and especially, the original conception that IP defends related to class consciousness which is to precisely locate the connection between the material and subjective elements. It is insufficient to simply point out that the economic crisis is a fundamental element in the awakening of class consciousness in which the CMP engages humanity and in which the link can be established between the degradation of the conditions of existence and the functioning of the system. Nevertheless, the crisis does not necessarily provoke the development of the action of class solidarity of the proletariat and we must deepen the link between the relation of capitalist functioning and the revolutionary project.
The conditions for the emergence of class consciousness and of the revolutionary project or humanity becoming
Since the dawn of humanity, humankind has always been in movement, always sought to satisfy its needs and its human impulses. It is thus in constant interaction with its environment: to adapt and to modify it, but also to create it. And this last action mobilizes fundamental human tendencies: the capacity for reflection (which is the critical return of man to himself), the capacity for anticipation and projection in time, and the capacity for representation (to imagine and to build a project which would find a realization in the future), and the capacity to create bonds of solidarity with other humans. This component of human solidarity is the central point with respect to the revolutionary project. It constitutes the pendant – within the dialectical process – of the necessity for the proletariat to negate itself: affirmation (and solidarity) of the proletariat in its class action – negation of the class – transcending [dépassement] in the creation of new social relations and a new society. These points are fundamental in the emergence of revolutionary consciousness and are situated in the movement leading to the simple awakening of consciousness of how things function with respect to the capacity of the proletariat to negate itself as category of capital so as to project itself into the construction of a new society. It is here that the objective and subjective factors come together: if the very existence of the proletariat and its class action are the result of economic processes, it necessary negation as a class is the fruit of its political consciousness, of its class subjectivity.
But Lukács establishes a tension between “social being” and “human essence”. For him, social being expresses the immediate situation of the proletariat. To this immediacy, I oppose humanity which falls under a historical dimension, in its becoming. But, Lukács tells us, “the transformation of the worker into a commodity destroys him, (...) atrophies and destroys his spirit but does not transform his psychic and human essence into a commodity”. I do not want to once again cite Marx describing the processes of the objectification of man, making him “alien to himself and to other men,” nor Lukács speaking of “the split personality “ of the worker or of the “split between objectivity and subjectivity in man objectified as a commodity.” For me, it is clear that there exists no possibility for the development of a revolutionary project without that capacity for reflexivity on the part of humankind, recognizing the gap between its social being and its human essence. Just as the shadows make possible a delimitation of the contours of light, I believe that it is objectification that makes it possible for humankind to feel that it is not really human in capitalism. It is in the growing de-humanization of capitalist society, that the need for man to find a way to express his humanity appears and comes together in a dialectical unity. These two moments come together in a dialectical linkage, and the resolution of that tension can only be brought about in communist society. There is, therefore, a movement of transcending, and not a binary and fixed opposition between humanity and de-humanity. For me, that is the fundamental motor of human action. In that respect, when comrades – and one finds similar statements in Marx too – assert that the proletariat IS revolutionary and that it is that determination that will impel it, together with the degradation in its conditions of existence, to accomplish the historical task that is its own, I see a theoretical short-cut, that constitutes a determinist vision of history.
It is in the proletariat that the essence of man, and its human needs, is denied in the most glaring way. And it is its particular place as an object for capital that enables it to become aware of this contradiction. The social forms rob man of his essence, Lukács tells us: “… they erect around themselves in the reality they have created and ‘made’, a kind of second nature which evolves with exactly the same inexorable necessity as was the case earlier on with irrational forces of nature (more exactly: the social relations which appear in this form).” (p. 128) What propels the proletariat to imagine, not simply taking the place of the bourgeoisie, but creating a society whose aim would be the realization of human needs is, for me, the capacity that humans have to “feel” their human essence, beyond their immediate social being, beyond the categories into which they are placed by the CMP. It is this impulsion of “humanity becoming” which makes it possible for man to measure the gap between its subjectivity (shaped by capitalism) and its needs, which propel it to seek something else. Therein lies the human essence of man, but its realization is always a process of becoming, ever in search of an expression in a social form.
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