Species Being and Class Consciousness

The discussion on class consciousness, re-started by Rose in IP 43 has in a vibrant way ranged over many issues and I want here to briefly touch on some of them. For thousands of years questions have been posed about ‘the nature of man’; answers – except for the religiously-inclined – have not been definitive. And, for Marxists, there is still the need for a fuller answer to the question: what is there in man – and specifically the proletariat created by capitalism itself – that is revolutionary and under what circumstances will it become a force for the transformation of society?

Only Social Being?

Everyone who has participated in this debate has agreed that man is a social being. I do too. But what else? Rose found it also important to stress the species being as used in Marx’s 1844 economic and philosophic manuscripts – but she injected into her use of the term a dynamic view of its content including pulsions, drives and instincts. Sander considers that “(s) ince the specificity of humankind is its consciousness and consciousness develops itself, species being is necessarily a product of history, a work in progress. … it’s valid to speak of ‘species being’ because there s a collective consciousness of the species that is not unique to a class or a culture” but that Rose has a view of species being as stable and that she ignores its ‘dark side’; he, on the other hand, says he would emphasize its instability. (I was surprised at his latter point since Rose dwelt on the tension between Eros and Thanatos –life/death drives.) According to Mac Intosh, “virtually the whole of our subjectivity or identity as human beings is historical, social, and cultural. 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 innate needs and drives, the forms that they take are not biologically given, but socially and culturally shaped, and historically variable.” (Italics in original.)

Rose has now discarded the use of the term ‘species being’ and uses ‘humanity becoming’, strongly leaning on Lukacs’ views on human essence from his History and Class Consciousness. Although Rose has elaborated further on its content I don’t think it changes certain fundamentals for her: that man’s social being is a concrete form of his abstract inner self described in terms of needs and human characteristics.

There are problems with all of these viewpoints. Rose’s idea that social being is an expression of the abstract inner self is a kind of preformationism which implies that society is a macrocosm of the individuals within it. Human society, however, is much more than the sum of its individual parts. The society has institutions, culture, beliefs, rituals and a history all functioning together more or less harmoniously or antagonistically, and into this society, human individuals are born. No human infant could survive even one day outside this social existence; and conversely, the individual can only exist in a social structure because of his innate capabilities.

Mac Intosh’s argument is problematic too. It seems to me that, by being “minimalist” on the innate, his argument goes close to the Lockean view of man as a ‘tabula rasa’, as a blank sheet of paper, which – although given a fillip by Pavlov’s work on conditioned reflexes in the 1920s – is not simply inadequate, it is wrong and misleading. The once-common statements to the effect that all human behaviour is learned or the idea that learning is primarily verbal are rightly weakening. Too much research has gone on in comparative ethology and neuro-ethology to ignore: there is a great deal active in man’s behaviour whose drives come from his evolutionary history – much of which is not accessible by the verbally-active mechanisms in the neocortex structures of his unique brain, and of which man is often, if not usually or always, unconscious. These innate features are not just part of his evolutionary history but are part of his present, material, existence; they are distinguishable, but not separable, from social being - but they do not constitute an essence, nor a species being. The human-ness of mankind is the totality of man’s inner and social being and it is in a communist society that this human-ness can, for the first time, have a positive self-conscious expression.

What is innate in man?

Humans are animals, mammals. The human infant’s somatic structures go through a long period of maturation to produce manual dexterity, bi-pedalism and audio/vocal capabilities. The developed psychic structures contain instincts, drives and needs – as well as the functional means for highly-developed prosematic (non-verbal) and verbal communication, for abstract thought and the ability to share it. These structures are in evolutionary terms both primitive and ‘modern’. Humans each contain the instinctual armoury and equipment to have enabled their past survival right up to the present day including: bonding with other humans and a capacity for love; inquisitiveness; capacities for courage, fear, aggression, rage, submission; the capacity and need for belief systems in order to function in complex and changing social and material environments; and a consciousness strongly affected by the awareness of its own actions. Furthermore there is a capacity rapidly to develop and modify social structures. Many creatures have the capacity to build social structures, but humankind is unique regarding the degree and speed of adaptation of its social structures.

Human history brought expansion and extension of family and groups, then development into tribes and nations, all with their own differentiated structures. Further development of modes of social reproduction and of encounters (benign and hostile) led to interactions and regularized preparations for warfare, having profound implications for internal structures, divisions of labour and the relations between the sexes. The history of humankind has produced a multitude of social structures and cultures. Some have survived for long periods, developed and even been platforms for the transition to societies at higher cultural levels. Some have died – sometimes swallowed up, sometimes disintegrated, sometimes destroyed in war. Others just manage to keep going without any real development or even mechanisms to deal with their problems. In a sense, human societies have been like other natural organisms – trying to adapt in the context of an environment of fortuitous and adverse circumstances, in competition and in synergy with extraneous natural and social forces. Mankind has thrown up many forms of social being.

Along with these enormous social and cultural developments, humans have taken with them instincts, drives and even behaviours to all intents and purposes unchanged since early in man’s existence. Thus the growing technical, social, intellectual and cultural achievements of mankind today co-exist with the most primitive and innate evolutionary acquisitions. When Sander says that “our biological inheritance gives us impulses and desires that are far too contradictory for any predictions on the future of mankind to be based upon”, he’s right about predictions, but it would be wrong to conclude from this that the inheritance can be put to one side. On the contrary we must try to understand better the ‘stuff’, the raw material, of man

Divorcing the innate from the social being of man reinforces the divorcing of humankind from its biological and hence its animal - and specifically mammalian - connections to the rest of nature. Such a desire for putting distance between man and nature has always been strong in the Christian justifications for the whole Earth being put at man’s disposal by God; they were transferred to the justifications of the scientists of the 17th Century to appropriate and exploit the Earth and all that was on it as man saw fit. Such conceptions were eagerly taken up by the European ruling classes of the time as they were easily transferable to their ideological justifications for the ongoing exploitation of the working classes. To reconcile man with nature, man with animals, does not mean giving ‘human rights’ to chimpanzees; acknowledging the connections between man and the rest of nature is also to acknowledge differences and uniqueness.

My argument is not to change the starting point for the consideration of the development of class consciousness from the social being to the innate in man, but for the consideration of both together, each given its due weight. The breadth of issues for which this is necessary is substantial. Only with an appreciation of the innate psychic structures in man together with the conditions of his social being can we hope to understand fully the processes underlying specific social phenomena such as the behaviour of small groups or, to use a most extreme example, how it was possible for masses, crowds, of people to be manipulated for the most vile political purposes in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Or, more contemporaneously, to understand the processes used in the production lines for the manufacture of suicide bombers (where they are not simply being coerced. In other words, as the behaviour of man is not always under his conscious control, it is important for us to understand as fully as we can how, for example, a group or class may be manipulated by a ruling class. And in a more positive context, it can contribute to our understanding of the link between the consciousness and praxis of the proletariat, so that we can see the underlying processes, which can enable a mass of workers to turn into a single revolutionary entity.

Consciousness and Memory

We are not the only creatures with consciousness and memory; to point to only one consideration, an awareness of an external and internal world is essential to predation, to both predator and prey, and in many instances each requires an intimate knowledge of the other to survive. As noted earlier, we have a very specific consciousness linked to capacities not shared with any other species such as the need for belief systems, the extensive use of verbal communication and the development of abstract thought and the ability to share it. Furthermore, the extensive use of our ability to create our own means of subsistence and the artifacts of life reflects back on our consciousness very strongly; it is part of our functioning as human beings. These same faculties enable the transmission of experience and knowledge down the generations, and even across the centuries, and the building of a socially-based memory – in contrast to the personal, individual memory of each human being, the content of which is not inherited. The social memory - precisely because it is social – can, however, be broken and lost, corrupted or preserved according to the history of cultures. (Social memory can also be unconscious: for example, the memory of some events can be ‘stored’ in traditions, habits or rituals – even in gestures or verbal phrases.)

Distinctions have to be made between genetic, social and cultural dimensions of human existence in order to generate clarity on our understanding of human consciousness, memory and that collective consciousness which results from an interaction between the innate capacities of man and his social being.

It is unclear where Mac Intosh’s historical memory or Sander’s collective consciousness reside. For Mac Intosh, “… the messianic tradition has been, and can be, a rich source for the historical memory of the working class …”, or “… that very element of freedom and autonomy, that has been the historical fruit of centuries of struggle against class oppression, and of working class struggle against the depredations of capital, the historical memory of which the collective laborer can draw on today, ….” (Italics in original.) Similarly, for Sander, “… there is a collective consciousness of the species that is not unique to a class or a culture. …” and “(t) he way we experienced life under primitive communism, …, cannot but have left deep imprints on our collective consciousness.”

When we talk about the class consciousness of the proletariat, we are not talking about ‘consciousness in general’ nor people ‘sharing’ a consciousness as when the ‘read’ each other using all kinds of prosematic mechanisms. Nor is it just the daily awareness of social and personal existence that enables us to get on with life and to fulfil our given roles in socio-economic life. We are talking about the collective consciousness of a part of humanity in regard to its actual position in society and, in particular, its position in the process of production; more, we are talking about the process by which this class can realize its potential to revolutionize society. This collective consciousness, while coming out of ongoing social experience (like an ‘old mole’) can only develop openly at certain moments when the proletariat asserts itself in struggle for its own material interests.

Real Historical Man

There is no doubt that Marx’s formulation of real historical man in 1845 is an advance over the species being of the 1844 economic and philosophical manuscripts. Nonetheless, many of Marx’s insights, such as those on alienated estranged labour, expressed in 1844 stay with us and have lent themselves open to further development, so I’m not sure of the value of defining a young and a mature Marx; he always considered Hegel to be ‘the master’ and later in life still looked to Hegel’s work for inspiration. Yes, errors and insufficiencies remained in Marx’s work – but we don’t need to search for a ‘perfectly-formed’ Marx. His was a living work and we have to take it forward, critically.

Taken on its own, species being has an invariance in it that should be rejected; however, there is much in the 1844 work to show that he saw man as a historical creature; and there is a tension between the two conceptions. Likewise there is a tension between Rose’s use of species being and her remarks about the dynamics in man. But when Mac Intosh says it has led her to 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 …” I think this is an argument too far. Nonetheless, while I agree with much of what Rose says about the condition of humanity in general and the proletariat in particular, I don’t agree with the idea of a human essence generating a social form of being, one that then comes into conflict with that essence.

The social being of man has been markedly altered across historical modes of production and, with an unprecedented – and accelerating - rate of change throughout the development of the capitalist mode of production. But our social being today is not simply a creation of capitalism; a new mode of production doesn’t just wipe Locke’s slate clean or press a reset button. As the mode of production develops it alters existing institutions, destroys others, creates now ones; ideologies are modified, subtracted from, added to and new ones created. This all tends to be pretty messy; residues from past belief systems mix in with the new. So today, in the 21st Century people have in their heads not just bourgeois ideology but superstitions, myriad religions and mystical beliefs from thousands of years past, self-contradictory ideas and pragmatic knowledge and skills for getting through the day. Marx was right to say that humanity must rid itself of this ‘muck of ages’ and that it was only in a revolution that it could do so and be fit to found society anew.

The Role of Crisis

Comrades have been at pains to stress that the mere fact of a catastrophic economic crisis will not generate in the proletariat a revolutionary consciousness. An economic situation that takes the proletariat to a long-term state of pauperization and misery can be the basis for nationalism, xenophobia and even fascism, and can contain more danger than opportunity. Where then is the basis for change?

Mac Intosh says that “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.” I don’t have the same optimism in such a historic concession. Whereas there is a tendency in the system of production which recognizes a value to the ‘freeing of creativity’ under certain circumstances this is tightly circumscribed and there are many counter-tendencies towards more discipline. At the point of production or service in many areas there can still be as much mind-numbing activity demanded of the worker as ever there was. And insofar as in certain countries, conjuncturally, there has been some latitude given to expressions of social discontent its continuance is not guaranteed and we can see across the world, under the guise of implementing measures necessary for the war against terror, the ruling class is strengthening its repressive apparatus.

I do not believe that there will be revolutionary change outside of circumstances that throw society into crisis, a profound, socio-political crisis that must surely have an economic dimension. Society will not change in a revolutionary way just because we want it to. It will only be changed because the present way of things will not work, the ruling class can’t make them work and is seen to be unable to make them work, when the situation threatens to throw society into unrecoverable disarray AND there is a force in society that can be seen to provide a way forward – in other words, when the proletariat asserts its own power of which, previously, it was unaware.

It should be of little surprise that in man’s innate structures we find material evidence to reinforce our political view of the importance of the proletariat recognizing its collective activity in struggle. Man’s functioning in his highly complex material and social world requires a significant use of preconceptions in his mental activity and thinking processes; it’s the mechanism ensuring that he is not overwhelmed by his own existence. Only a socio-political crisis can provide the means to undermine the cultural preconceptions that bind the proletariat to its place in capitalist society. Combined with the self-reflection of its open struggle, the possibility can arise for the assertion of its own power. Thus, the proletariat needs to see itself as a collective entity, with its own organs of struggle, to move forward.

Such a crisis could take many forms about which we can only speculate. Acknowledgement of the fact that we cannot predict exactly what this socio-political crisis might entail is not a deficiency of knowledge but part of a rejection of determinism and a recognition of the significance of contingency in mankind’s history.


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