IP Discussions - Notes on the Species Being Debate

Notes on the Species Being Debate

1. As some others have expressed it (An, Carol, Sander), I also have experienced a significant level of frustration with this discussion. The discussion does not seem to be advancing appreciably. Although the discussion is not at all academic, it has been extremely wide-ranging, on many different levels (as An said), and often highly speculative. And as fascinating as some of the accounts of the long course of human pre-history and becoming have been, there has thus far been little solid groundwork on which to move the discussion forward. I am afraid that if the discussion does not move forward soon, that IP runs the risk of being seen as tending towards being a philosophical debating club.

2. Right from the start of the discussion, Rose was challenged by Mac Intosh for employing idealist, essentialist and teleological conceptions which owe more to Hegel than to the mature, post-1844 Marx. This has had the effect of leaving the debate at the starting gates. As a result, Rose has had to defend and refine her conceptions and her choice of expressions in order to combat these arguments, which have been added to by An and Carol. The result is that Rose has been on the defensive ever since.

3. An wrote that: “Since the beginning of this discussion, I have thought that we will not discover the ‘big’ thing (to understand the development of class consciousness), by discussing ‘what characterizes the human being’ (Marlowe) or the ‘abstract concept of needs and human characteristics’ (Rose).” In my view, Rose should move the discussion forward in the direction she thinks it should go in order that we can uncover or clarify what An calls the “big thing”, rather than waging a defensive struggle over whether or not her conceptual framework is tainted by idealism, essentialism, or teleology. If that doesn’t happen, I don’t see much positive coming out of this discussion, at least as far as furthering our understanding of the development of class consciousness is concerned.

4. In Humanity Becoming, Rose says she will “… give up this term ‘species being’ in preference to ‘humanity becoming’ or ‘humanity’.” This initially appears as an improvement, since the new terms do not seem to refer to a mysterious, abstract entity, as does ‘species being’. However, in the second part of her text, in addressing the question “what is it that makes men struggle and what is it that makes this movement become creative and not only defensive and adaptive?”, she has recourse to the expression ‘human essence’ where previously she would have used ‘species being’. So for Rose, ‘humanity (becoming)’ and ‘human essence’ seem to refer to the same ‘thing’, even if they don’t have exactly the same content. ‘Humanity becoming’ suggests dynamism and historical change, while ‘human essence’, just as much as ‘species being’, suggests stasis or trans-historicality (to coin a term). As far as I can see, Rose might as well use the term ‘human-ness’, which actually should mean roughly the same as ‘humanity’ in the sense that I think Rose wants to (or should?) use it. I don’t see how anyone (of us) can be opposed to the term ‘human-ness’, as long as it is understood to refer to whatever characteristics constitute our being human, rather than to an abstract, trans-historical essence (a la Plato or Hegel). For myself, I don’t have a problem with the terms employed; what is more important, for me, is what they are used to refer to. I consider that a term such as ‘species being’ or ‘human essence’, while seemingly tainted with idealism or essentialism, should be able to withstand a non-idealist, materialist interpretation. But then that depends on what content one chooses to impute to these expressions, and for what specific purpose one wants to employ them. So far, I don’t see anything in Rose’s employment of these terms to preclude a materialist interpretation of them. However, Rose has yet to really put any ‘meat on the bones’ of her outline of an approach to deepening our understanding of the development of class consciousness today.

5. Rose has been accused of defending “… 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 … and the regaining of this paradise through the communist revolution” (Mac Intosh, IP 43, p.8). Rose has herself responded to this criticism (in IP 45), as has Marlowe in his contribution to the debate. I agree with Marlowe when he writes that this argument by Mac Intosh goes “too far”; it exaggerates Rose’s position beyond anything that she has stated or argued. Rose has not ever claimed in this discussion that the end or goal of history is fixed at the outset. I don’t find anything Rose has written thus far that indicates that she believes communism to be inevitable or even the ‘goal’ or end of history. As far as I can tell, for Rose, there is a historical tendency towards communism, but there are also other, contrary tendencies at work. I assume that all of us would agree with that.

6. For the Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts, the dissolution of primitive communism and the emergence of the initial form of class society give rise to human alienation or estrangement. Fundamental amongst the forms of human alienation within class society is the alienation of man from himself. Man becomes separated from himself. But what can this possibly consist in if the ‘essence’ of man is seen as merely the “ensemble of social relations”? I don’t see how this most fundamental form of human alienation can be accounted for unless a distinction is made between man’s social being, on the one hand, and his ‘species being’ or ‘essence’ or ‘nature’, on the other hand. And while much of the 1844 Manuscripts may have been abandoned by Marx after working through The Holy Family, Theses on Feuerbach, and The German Ideology, this conception of the alienation of man from himself, while not (as far as I know) returned to by Marx in his later writings, has resonated for many readers of the 1844 Manuscripts since their republication in the ‘50s. This form of alienation has been reflected in much of literature and religious/messianic writings over the past two millennia. I don’t see how it can be denied other than merely dogmatically denying it since it doesn’t fit into one’s theoretical vision. On the other hand, I don’t see how it can be explained unless one has recourse to a concept of ‘man’, ‘humanity’, human nature or essence, or ‘species being’, which is separated from but linked to man’s social being.

7. Rose writes (in IP 45) “I can only agree with Mac Intosh when he calls for the redefinition of the concepts of alienation and human nature that ‘must be defined so that they are prospective and not retrospective.’(p.8) That is precisely the position that I am defending: species being is a being-in-becoming, and what impels the proletariat towards a break with the old social relations and the creation of a new society, is the quest for the satisfaction of human needs, of its human nature.” However, I don’t think that it is possible to fully eradicate the retrospective aspect to the concept of alienation, as much as one may want to give it a prospective characterization. Alienation or estrangement is always a matter of being alienated or estranged from something that was previously not alienated or estranged. The very meaning of these terms imply a loss of something that was once possessed. The only alternative would be to argue, in redefining these terms, that alienation has always existed, that we have always been alienated, and that that from which we are (and always have been) alienated is our potential non-alienated existence. I don’t want to rule out that possible redefinition in principle, but I think it would be a major change in the meaning of the terms.

8. I agree that there is a tendency in the post-1844 Marx towards seeing ‘man’ as nothing more than “the ensemble of social relations”, as acting solely out of practical necessity in the face of problematic social circumstances and relations. These practical needs are determined, first of all, by the basic biological needs of our species, and then by those socially defined needs which themselves are determined by the existing level of development of the productive forces of society and the social relations of production to which they correspond. Since considering myself a ‘convert’ to Marxism, I have been very attracted to this approach. However, I now think that in his critique of Feuerbach, and subsequent polemics, Marx ‘bent the stick’ too far in this direction. The problem is that he essentially eliminates the human subject from the social, historical process. Subjectivity comes to be viewed as merely a tabula rasa or blank slate to be formed by the objective, social processes. Class consciousness is then seen as merely a function of the objective, of social being. This is not yet economic determinism, but could be considered a form of ‘objectivist’ determinism, or simply ‘objectivism’, which is, of course, something that the ‘mature’ Marx has often been criticized for. The subjective is seen as simply a function of the objective. I now see this approach as problematic, as much as I am still attracted to it. I think Marlowe made some good points in his text in showing some of the problems with this objectivistic approach, some of them coming from scientific research over the recent decades.

9. In IP 45, Mac Intosh speaks of “an originary or founding subject” in characterizing the metaphysical approach he sees in Rose’s use of the concept of ‘species being’ or ‘human essence’. He also asks: “… what meaning can species being or human nature have if it is not innate and a-historical?” Similarly, Marlowe writes: “…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.” We could characterize this vision attributed to Rose as holding that … in the beginning was … the human essence, with social being following from it. Again, I don’t think these characterizations accurately reflect Rose’s position. If, in fact, they do, then I must clearly separate myself from Rose on that point. For such a vision is clearly antagonistic to any materialist approach to social, historical reality. As I see it, for Rose to defend a coherent materialist position, she must see social being as arising before species being, with the latter being determined (in part) by the former, in interaction with our biological base, but over a very long period of time. There is no originary subject. But once species being arises in humans, there is an invariance to it, even if there is also a development or becoming about it. Which characteristics are constitutive of species being for Rose? The needs for “… love, recognition, bonding, belonging, creativity, knowledge”. In so far as these characteristics define what it is to be human across thousands of years and around the world, then there must be an invariance, or, at the very least, a matter of very little variation. These characteristics are so general that it only makes sense to consider them as invariant in relation to being human. On the other hand, there are the historically and socially specific forms that these needs take when we look at particular humans and social formations. Obviously, such forms are far from being invariant. In so far as Rose sees things this way, I can go along with her. But then she needs to link these general needs with their historically and socially specific form, in conditions historically and socially specific to the working class today. That is the direction in which I look forward to seeing this discussion go. If it doesn’t, I am not very optimistic about it, in relation to its stated goal.


October 2006

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