Class Nature, Not ‘Human Essence’, Should Be Our Focus

This debate does not derive from idle curiosity about humankind or consciousness; rather it stems directly from the desire to know more about our class and how the development of its consciousness takes place. Since WWI when Rosa Luxemburg made her now famous statement regarding “socialism or barbarism” the capitalist mode of production has continued its trajectory of economic crisis, genocide and permanent war, followed by one ecological catastrophe after another. This social retrogression has also been marked, especially since WWII, by extreme development of the productive forces, on the one hand, and the simultaneous ejection of millions of human beings from participating in the fruits of this development, on the other. Globalization has had a major negative impact on the proletariat's ability to recognize itself as a class, and therefore, to connect in unity and solidarity, not only as a class “against capital” but also as a class “for itself”. The concern of this state of fragmentation and extreme heterogeneity in which the proletariat now finds itself is the fundamental reason for this debate in which IP is now engaged.

I wholeheartedly agree with Rose (and other participants of this debate) that a concept of class consciousness that is non-reductionist and non-orthodox needs to be elaborated; therefore, when she says that we need a vision that “... separates it from one that sees the revolutionary perspective as an automatic result of the growing pressure exercised by the economic crisis alone”, I join her.

What is practical necessity?

The idea that humankind changes out of practical necessity is put forth by ER in his text in IP #45, “On The Necessity and Possibility of Revolution”: “Given humankind's material, practical needs, and given the reality of the threat posed by capitalism to those needs, the revolution is a necessity, period. It is a question of human (and biospheric) survival, which reality calls forth a tendency to a growing collective refusal to tolerate increasing, technologically advanced, barbarism and environmental degradation. This question of survival is of course analogous to the problem of survival humankind has previously faced. But in the past it was a question of survival in the face of natural disasters, dangers and threats. Now it is a question of survival in the face of the disasters, dangers and threats posed by an increasingly out of control, yet man-made and man-directed, socio-economic system. There is no historical necessity or teleological process involved in this vision, simply the practical, material needs of humankind”.

This idea, that humankind changes out of practical necessity is, for me, a materialist concept. Going back in time, to the origin of language development, itself, that same general notion of practical necessity was put forth by a Vietnamese philosopher, Tran Duc Thao, in the 1940's, reprinted in the journal Telos (ca.1980's), whose analysis, for me, was grounded in the Marxist/materialist method and described how the association of humans beings to each other and to their natural environment facilitated the development of speech. According to him, the process of language development (first the interpretation of gestures and from that rudimentary speech) originally developed out of the practical needs of the hunting party. Those who were more advanced in oral communication were those hunters who were in the rear of the hunting party as it was incumbent on them to interpret the gestures of the leaders, therefore, they had to “abstract” to a greater extent what the gestures meant as they could not actually see the tracks of the animal being hunted nor the animal itself. It was the task of conceptualizing and interpreting exactly what was happening that gave those in the rear the added impetus to begin speaking. The author theorized further about the events after the hunt, describing the reflection of the day’s activities while sitting around the fire as the meat was eaten and shared as being a further motivation for language development. The event itself was both social and practical; however, at this point in the development of humankind, I would assume it was primarily practical, an aspect of the human species' association around their practical life activity, rooted in the desire to communicate for the practical good of the whole, ensuring a more successful hunt the next time, and therefore, securing a greater possibility of survival.

The whole notion of practical necessity related to the conception of language development cannot be proved but the theory put forth by the Vietnamese philosopher leans, I think, on the dialectical approach to explain the process of the development of language, rather than seeing it as innate as certain linguists do. While humankind today is far from the origin of its development, as the above-mentioned example puts forth, the stakes of its survival and the survival of the biosphere upon which the human species depends has never been greater. The consciousness needed today to challenge these dire conditions in which the CMP has placed the human species relates directly to practical necessity and requires a political analysis of the totality of the current historical juncture. For me, an understanding of totality, as Lukacs writes of it, implies an understanding needed by the proletariat of their historical position in this process.

Totality/the dialectical method

My intention here is not to define or explain this method but to further explore what it is and what it is not as I understand it. Lukacs in his effort to explain the awakening of consciousness in the proletariat talks about the “transformation of the objective nature of the objects of actions...” and states “...the change lies on the one hand in the practical interaction of the awakening consciousness and the objects from which it is born and of which it is the consciousness. And on the other hand, the change means that the objects that are viewed here as aspects of the development of society, i.e. of the dialectical totality become fluid; they become parts of a process. And as the innermost kernel of this movement is praxis, its point of departure is of necessity that of action; it holds the immediate objects of action firmly and decisively in its grip so as to bring about their total, structural transformation and thus the movement of the whole gets under way” (emphasis mine) (History and Class Consciousness, MIT Press, p. 175). What is important here is the emphasis placed on praxis, not on an abstract human essence, as the point of departure, “the innermost kernel”, of the awakening of the consciousness of the proletariat

The above passage means to me that the proletariat emerges in this process as both subject and object and creates in itself a synthesis, no longer objectified and alienated, no longer looking on in a contemplative manner; it begins the process of knowing itself through praxis, through sensuous activity, as Lukacs describes it, and in the process of knowing itself, frees itself and humanity from the horrors of the law of value and all that that entails.

Lukacs also tells us that “history is essentially dialectical”, and that the changes in “reality can be confirmed at every decisive moment of transition” (p. 175). The importance of being able to elaborate these changes and transformations of the capitalist mode of production, along with its trajectory, is a practical necessity of the proletariat and its political minorities and should not be underestimated. This task is urgent and it is this urgency which motivates IP’s call for others to join us in this task of theoretical deepening and clarification.

Humanity becoming/human essence

In her text “Humanity Becoming”, Rose acknowledges the necessity to give up the term “species being” for the term “humanity or humanity becoming”. She then poses a 'new' problem to be considered. She poses two visions of history: “...either we think that the activity of man 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 of the realization of its human existence and we have the vision of a 'creative' human being”.

For me, opposing these two visions of history creates a false opposition, which does not takes us closer to our goal to better understand how class consciousness unfolds. As the class struggles, as social protests explode, as social contradictions become more apparent to the proletariat, “reactive” activity by the class can become “creative activity” and vice versa. The distinction between reactive and creative activity is not hard and fast, they are different points on a continuum. We need only to look at one of the major revolutionary upheavals of the 20th century: the demand for peace and bread, which Rose would consider to be reactive (or adaptive) but which eventually led to the overthrow of the Czarist regime in Russia.

Rose no longer defends the concept of species being...she now realizes that it is, indeed, an idealist concept. Rose's initial conception has evolved from a static and invariable view of species being, to a species being that manifests itself only through social being, to, finally, in her latest text, “Humanity Becoming”, ostensibly, into the conception of humanity becoming, historical and variable, developing and changing. But I don't think she holds to that recognition as she continues throughout her text to refer to “human essence” which to me is just as much an idealist concept as species being. In fact, if there is a difference, I don't understand it. And further, if humanity is becoming, the concept of essence, at least as I understand it, is constant, (see the discussion of “essence” in On Dialectical Materialism, Progress Publishers, Moscow, p. 17). For me there is far greater value in describing the “nature” of the proletariat, derived from its social condition in the capitalist mode of production, which is what Lukacs does and whose work is quoted extensively by Rose - In fact, I don't find the use of the term “essence” in Lukacs’ work, History and Class Consciousness, however, he does talk about the “nature” of the proletariat throughout. I would then ask why we need the term “human essence” at all. Marx said that man is a social is that concept which I adhere to and which imparts to me the greatest potential for deepening the question of consciousness.

Rose is clear and eloquent in her description of the need for “rupture” and “open struggle” which allows the proletariat to break with the isolation that capitalist society imposes on it. I agree with her entirely on this point. But I truly don't understand how this dynamic process relates to “abstract needs” or “human essence”. I don't think we can wring an “essence” out of the proletariat, and to insist upon “human essence” makes one wonder if IP, indeed, should focus on a broader discussion of materialism versus idealism.

Necessity and Possibility

This idea of “necessity” (historical and practical) and “possibility” is not new and it is expressed below by Maximilien Rubel:

In our efforts to rid ourselves of orthodox Marxist views which reduce the proletariat to a mere economic category which only reacts to its immediate problems of reproduction, to distance ourselves from a crude economic determinism, we have, in my opinion, gone too far in an opposing direction which has not, and cannot, bring us closer to the original question: what makes the proletariat, as opposed to other categories, revolutionary?

This discussion, for me, has become rather obscure when, on the one hand, the goal of our debate is to try to explain what provokes the proletariat to open struggle, to search for socio-economic solutions to dire global problems but, on the other hand, its focus looks to a human essence for these urgently needed solutions.

I agree with Marlowe when he says in his text, “Species Being and Class Consciousness”: “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 [society] will only change 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.....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”.

For me, Marlowe envisions, along with ER (see my earlier quote from his text, “The Necessity and Possibility of Revolution”) a practical necessity which appears to be historically ripening in all four corners of the earth today and which may open the door to “possibility”. That is, “…to a force in society that is seen to provide a way forward...” There are no guarantees, we know, but, for me, it is in this direction of better understanding how practical necessity is unfolding and how it is envisioned by our class; it is in this process of historical ripening to which we must harness our theoretical efforts and connect them to the further deepening of this question of consciousness. Not in a determinist sense but in clarifying that which can provide an awakening of the consciousness of the proletariat to the obsolescence of the capitalist system today.


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