Human Nature, Class Consciousness and the Material Imagination

Our efforts to understand how is revolution possible in today's world, given the extreme alienation that the real domination of capital inflicts on the working class, have led us to a debate about "species being" or "human nature." In our past issues we have published no less then ten texts on the subject. The debate has been rich and lively and far from conclusive. It needs to be pursued, but in order to keep a balance in the content of this publication, IP has decided to continue it on our website for now, and to return to the question in print only when we feel that substantial progress has been made. We want to conclude this first, "public" phase of the debate with a thoughtful contribution of a reader, which we reprint below. We urge our readers to to follow the continuation of the debate and to participate in it.

Without question the current discussion in IP on species being and its relation to class-consciousness is a vitally important discussion for Marxists today. The discussion, at least the portion that I have read, is full of interesting insights but it seems generally flawed by a lack of focus and ultimately method. I would like to make a very small contribution to a discussion that can be easily dispersed into irrelevance due to it sheer complexity.

As it appears in part 3, the discussion swings from sometimes mechanistic reductionism to nearly metaphysical meta-narratives with subjects ranging from the social organization of pigeons to the universal essence of being, all interesting and valuable in themselves, but difficult to maintain the actual thread of the argument.

The importance of the question has been clearly established, what is at issue is nothing less than the possibility of human liberation. Equally clear is the fact that the question has never been adequately resolved.

There has always been something mystical about the treatment of the problem of class-consciousness by Marxist of every variety. It seems if it is not reduced to a mechanistic positivism (Pavlovian in character) it remains trapped in the web of Hegel’s “objective idealism.” Class-consciousness has always been difficult to describe and nearly impossible to explain. But, somehow, there remains the faith that the class will one day realize in practice what revolutionary Marxists have long understood in thought; practice and theory will converge and we will leave it up to the proletariat to work out the practical details. But, substituting the proletariat for Hegel’s absolute spirit does not do away with the idealistic conception of consciousness. No matter how one cuts the stone in this approach, we still locate truth in thought to which practice must conform. And the conclusion of this thought, as we all know, was implicit at the beginning of the story. Thought consciousness, which can only exist in the individual, somehow, at critical junctures, is expected to make an ethereal leap and become collective consciousness; we don’t know how, it is just the way it works, but in the end, it is history realizing its own necessity. What can we do with a theory like this other than pray?

My somewhat undisciplined comments below are not intended to solve any riddles but only perhaps to point in a different direction, one that remains within the framework of historical materialism always privileging the active ingredient in what I would cal the material imagination, the precise point at which human nature reveals itself.

In keeping with what I believe to be a Marxist approach to the question of human nature/human consciousness, I would suggest the following:

1. The discussion must first historicize the question

2. There must be an attempt to establish a criteria for analysis and evaluation of the question, specifically, what is the material manifestation of the phenomenon?

As to the second part, one might rightly argue that all human activity is the manifestation of human nature/human consciousness. So, lest we lose ourselves in a sea of undifferentiated phenomena, it is essential to establish how one places each expression of human activity in a theoretical framework that reveals its/our nature.

To historicize the question--a fertile ground to explore--I would suggest a very schematic outline. First of all, the assertion that there exists an essential human nature has nearly always been on the front line of the ideology of class power; from the long dark night of original sin into which man was born, to the secular expression of the same self-centered greed or the economically inspired pleasure/pain principal of the utilitarian to scientifically oriented subconscious of Dr. Freud and on to the selfish genes of today. It is not difficult to see each of these as cornerstones in the ideology of contemporary power. Each, in its own way, promotes passivity before an unchangeable essence. But, specifically, these and many other expressions of the debate have always been directly linked to the current conflict in power/economic/class relations. Leaving aside for now an exegesis of Marxist texts, I would like to suggest a few examples that might serve to enrich the discussion.

The first attempt, of which I am familiar, to break free from the sinful essence of Judeo-Christian man was found in Renaissance thought in the rather obscure works of Pico della Mirandola, Ficino, Pomponazzi, Leonardo etc. all of whom privileged the self-creating nature of man by placing the imagination in the very center of human essence. It is no accident that these ideas corresponded quite well to the “heroic” age of capitalism or age of the buccaneer merchant. It was a revolutionary turn that allowed the free play of the strong, imaginative and audacious individual. This short-lived attempt to challenge the fixed nature of man gradually mutated into the secularization of original sin with the discovery of the “gravitational principle” of human behavior and coincidently the birth of economic analysis and relative stabilization of the capitalist mode of production: greed, self-interest, pleasure/pain principles, acquisitiveness etc. Hume, Kant, Smith, Bentham, Verri, Beccaria, and others sought to simplify, universalize and homogenize the invariable essence of man. These and many other writers of the period were motivated by the need to apply Newtonian principles to an analysis of man and one might point out here the perfect conformity with the development of equivalent exchange value in practice and in theory. The fixity of man’s nature was interrupted by the appearance of the proletariat and the emergence of Marxist theory, again, I believe, by placing the imagination and the self-creating nature of man in the center of the question. Darwinism as social ideology emerges at the moment colonialism appears to demonstrate the superiority of various groups over others. Freud’s subconscious is as much derived from the principles of thermodynamics and the emergence of scientific production as it is to clinical dream analysis and so on and so forth. Each development, moving all the way to selfish genes and even perhaps post-modernist discourse theory, places consciousness (most especially class consciousness) and the imagination further and further from the active principal in human experience; each time the deeper and nearly always fixed essence of man satisfies the needs of economic organization.

I suggest this simplistic outline only to insist that the discussion underway, draws from all of these developments and it is imperative to situate all of these references into a material historical framework. An understanding of the relationship between theory and social/economic structure and historical development applies to the current discussion as well as any previous.

Consciousness, Language and Imagination

As to human essence, we can only get at the question via a phenomenological approach that in practice can only reveal itself in material activity. Not an easy task to say the least. But, I would suggest a good starting point is to look at the relationship between consciousness, language and imagination. Marx once pointed out that the worst of architects surpasses the bee in the construction of her cell in that the architect must first construct in his imagination thus establishing his modus operandi. The importance of this formula cannot be underestimated as it eloquently articulates the essential process of human development. We can suggest that the imagination resides in consciousness and that consciousness precedes all activity. But what is the nature of consciousness, how is it constructed, how does it develop and where is the imagination (the essential component of the self-creative principle) in this process.

Consciousness, I would suggest, while not the same, is inseparable from its material manifestation. And what exactly is the material manifestation of consciousness? In one of the most insightful attempts to answer this question while maintaining a Marxist methodology is the work of V.N. Volosinov (1929) Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Consciousness for Volosinov is inseparable from language. We think through words and words are the basic unit of language. And while Chomsky may be correct that we have a genetic predisposition for a grammatical structure, words and meaning do not arrive from this structure; they are external and entirely social in nature. The structure of consciousness is the structure of language and the specific meaning of its basic unit, the word. But language and the word, do not reside inside of consciousness they first and foremost have a material existence outside of consciousness, first in sound and then in the written text. Volosinov argues that the word as sign has a dual nature; it is itself as a material presence (written word or sound) and simultaneously refracts a meaning outside of itself. It is the material nature of the sign and its dual nature that may help to understand the nature of consciousness and thus the imagination. Word meaning is always placed inside of a sign system that is always defined by the social structure and its corresponding power relationships. Thus, various social groups, while sharing the general sign system (ideology) have different material interests and thus shifting meanings within the same sign system. Here is the origin of class-consciousness. There are two important implications that follow from this, 1) That consciousness itself must pass through signs and a sign system as the principal mediation between experience and the idea of the experience and 2) that consciousness depends on the social accumulation of signs. As to the first point, the mind is incapable of reflecting sense experience directly, as Hegel has gone to great pains to demonstrate. There is always a gap, so to speak, between the experience and the idea of the experience. Before the experience arrives as an idea it must be mediated by a sign system that by its very nature is unstable, both for the individual and the social class. It is in the very instability that the imagination arises. That is to say, all experience is necessarily reworked via signs that in turn have a refracted and variable meaning. Imagination is the necessary process of the reworking of all experience in thought. Thus, imagination is built into the very structure of consciousness. As to the second point, it is interesting to compare the possibility of dolphin language to human. Indeed, the evidence is that these animals have a complex sign system and are capable of highly complex thought. But, this is not enough. What dolphins lack that humans have is the ability to accumulate signs materially, socially and historically. Human consciousness is above all, historical consciousness because it is built on the ability of humans to accumulate written language, accumulate signs.

It is not by coincidence that historical civilizations (class societies) are always accompanied by the appearance of the written language, nor is it by coincidence that the pace of social change accelerates dramatically with the ability to reproduce the sign system (first the printing press and then recording and then the binary language of computers). Societies where the accumulation of signs are entirely dependent upon memory were and are limited, whether dolphins or primitive man. The pace of change is limited as is the social imagination.

There are two mistakes that I believe are quite misleading and dangerous when applied to Marxist theory. The first is teleology and the second is positivism. While seemingly worlds apart they share an assumption that there is a substratum of truth that is independent of the human imagination and human will. For each, the imagination is nothing more than the mode for revealing an existing truth, not, as I would suggest, that the “truth” is inseparable from the active/material imagination. There is no privileged position from which the truth can be apprehended, whether scientific theory, Marxist theory or class position. From my point of view, Lukács’ brilliant book on class-consciousness suffers from this flaw with his concept of contingent (false) class-consciousness and imputed (true) class-consciousness. If Lukács can know this, then why not the Party and why not impose the truth on the class? The “truth” the “essence” of the human is to be found, not in abstract theoretical structure or sign systems, but in the struggle to assert the imagination in its material form. So, when and how is this material imagination liberated? Both individually and for the class at the moment that the prevailing ideology or sign system fails to adequately correspond to experience. The power of ideology to impose its logic over self-interest is nearly limitless. It is for this reason that victims willingly accept their own execution or millions passively starve because the prevailing ideology supersedes the survival instinct. Thus, there is never a direct correlation or mechanical relationship between economic crisis and revolution. And here we might suggest where a relationship between consciousness and human nature is to be found.

Antonio Genovesi, an obscure Italian abbot from the 18th C, once stated that man has two natures, one centrifugal and the other centripetal, but man also has reason and it is the job of reason to elevate one over the other. Man has many natures, even animal-like, but that their expressions and their necessity is dependent on the historically given social organization and social consciousness. The fact is that we would be hard pressed to find (outside of metaphysical speculation) an essential nature that is independent of socially constructed consciousness; the sheer variety and breadth of human organization and behavior make this a daunting if not logically impossible task.

So, what is human nature according to this all too inadequate outline? I believe it is not only the existence of an historically conditioned material imagination, but the predominance of the social imagination over all natural and instinctual factors. Pirandello once wrote “nature uses human imagination to lift her works of creation to even higher levels.” This odd, but highly insightful observation places the imagination where it belongs, as the active ingredient in the very construction of reality.

I will step out on a limb with one final comment. It is my opinion that the most damaging conception of Marxism is that it is a science, as the word is commonly understood. Marxism is neither a science nor does it reveal a preexisting truth. It is a highly imaginative “ideology/tool” describing experience in a way that links material potential to collective desire to will to action, and seeks to realize its truth materially in class struggle, revolution and collective human liberation; nothing more and nothing less.

B. York

November 20, 2006


1) In my effort to be brief, I am aware that some formulations are incomplete and could open the door to an interpretation of tilting towards post-modernist discourse theory. The essential difference is the insistence on the material expression of consciousness and the materially transformative power of the imagination when linked to labor, in addition is the insistence on the historically accumulated consciousness. For the extreme versions of discourse theory, discourse is the only reality.

2) I am also aware that the riddle of mediation between thought and labor is not resolved here where the problem of necessity and contingency must be confronted as the imagination realizes itself concretely, again, a critically important area to explore.

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