Marx and ecology - part two

Michael Malkin continues his three-part examination of the relationship between humanity and nature in Marx's thought

"Man is a directly natural being." With these words Marx introduces his brief exposition of naturalism in the Economic and philosophical manuscripts. It is a remarkable passage, a paean to the relationship between humanity and nature, combining philosophical complexity with an unmistakable lyricism. In what follows I shall use the main lines of Marx's exposition as a framework for commentary, citing passages from his other works to show the extent to which the presuppositions of this supposedly 'immature' work remain intrinsic to his later thought.

1. Principles of Marx's naturalistic materialism

In the self-contained, self-regulating system of nature, which comprises the totality of all that exists, the human is one organism among many, having no privileged position, no special status in a preordained hierarchy of being, because such hierarchies do not exist outside the imagination of theologians and philosophers. Like all natural beings, we are equipped with certain "vital powers" (Lebenskräfte): "dispositions, capacities and instincts". A human is a "corporeal, sensuous, objective being", but, like all animals, is also a "suffering, dependent and limited being", because the objects towards which our natural instincts drive us are outside and independent of us. They are the objects of a human being's needs (Bedürfnisse), and are "essential objects ... indispensable for the exercise and confirmation of his faculties" (ibid).

The interrelation of humanity's powers and needs is a concept that has vital explanatory significance throughout Marx's thought. He uses hunger as an obvious example of a natural need, which requires "a natural object outside itself to satisfy and appease it", and he goes on to say that "hunger is the objective need of a body for an exterior object in order to be complete and express its being" (ibid - my emphasis). Think about these words. It would be quite wrong to dismiss them as merely banal. Terms like "completion" (Integrierung) and the "expression of one's being" (Wesensäußerung) are not airy phrases contrived to give a philosophical spin to everyday biological facts. Of course we need food. Without it we would cease to exist. The satisfaction of hunger, like that of all our basic needs, can be seen on one level simply as a biological prerequisite for existence and the reproduction of the species. But the point is that Marx is not just talking about existing, but about living. In the eyes of a starving child, for example, we see not just hunger for bread, but hunger for life.

A human being "can only express his being in real, sensuous objects," the objects of their need. "To be sentient is to suffer", because the need to give expression to one's being - ie, to live and to be human in the fullest sense - involves constant striving (ibid). It is this fact which makes a human "a passionate being". To be passionate (leidenschaftlich) is to experience the suffering (Leid) which comes from needs and longings unfulfilled: "Passion is man's faculties energetically striving after their object." For Marx, the passions are not manifestations of a 'lower', 'animal' aspect of human nature to be suppressed. They are immanent in the definition of what it means to be a "directly natural being" (D McLellan (ed) Karl Marx: selected writings, London 1977, p105 - hereafter KMSW).

Any attempt, therefore, to depict Marx as the sort of vulgar materialist who regards human beings as just animals is unsustainable, and rests on a familiar logical fallacy: to say that 'x is y' is not equivalent to saying that 'x is nothing but y'. Of course we are animals, but animals whose capacities and needs set us apart in certain specific, definable ways from other organisms. We need to eat in order to live, but Marx would, I feel sure, have agreed with Jesus that, "Man shall not live by bread alone" (Matthew iv:4). Indeed, one of the achievements of Marx's naturalism is to broaden the scope of natural phenomena, so that all aspects of humanity's striving towards the expression of our being - spiritual as well as physical needs - are conceived as belonging to the natural order of things.

For Marx, however, the spiritual does not arise from our relationship with an autonomous power dwelling in a suprasensuous heavenly realm: it is a development of our natural powers, our capacity for creative, imaginative self-expression, our appreciation of beauty and so forth. Just as there is no hierarchy of being in which we occupy a supreme place, so there is no hierarchy of human powers. All our natural powers, from the 'lowest' to the 'highest' are, or should be, exercised in the process of living.

2. "A human natural being"

In his passage on naturalism, Marx defines such a being as "one that exists for himself, thus a species-being that must confirm and exercise himself as such in his being and knowledge". He derived the notion of species-being (Gattungswesen) from Feuerbach, but in Marx it attains a new richness and concreteness. Although Marx later abandoned the terminology of species-being, its content can be found at the centre of his thought, and concerns the answer to a question which Feuerbach had left unresolved: what is it about our sensuous engagement with nature that distinguishes us as a species-being?

Much of what we have said about humanity as a "directly natural being" applies equally to all animals. All are driven by the need to live in order to reproduce themselves; all try to satisfy this need by deploying their capacities in a way that makes the most of their specific natural habitat. As Engels points out, many of the capacities we regard as peculiar to the human animal are in fact derivative, more developed forms of the same behaviour practised by other animals (see Dialectics of nature Moscow 1953, pp228-247- hereafter DN). Marx had drawn attention to this fact many years before:

"Both with man and animals the species-life [Gattungsleben] consists physically in the fact that man (like animals) lives from inorganic nature, and the more universal man is than other animals, the more universal is the area of inorganic nature from which he lives ... The universality of man appears in practice precisely in the universality that makes the whole of nature into his inorganic body in that it is both (i) his immediate means of subsistence and also (ii) the material object and tool of his vital activity. That man lives from nature means that nature is his body with which he must maintain a constant interchange so as not to die" (KMSW p81).

Note the stress which Marx places on "vital activity" [Lebenstätigkeit]. Humanity's relationship with nature, just like that of all animals, is first and foremost a matter of doing things in order to live. Our success in turning the whole of nature into our "inorganic body" already distinguishes us to an important extent from other species. It could, however, be argued that in this respect human beings are doing essentially the same things as other animals, only doing them rather better. We are still looking for something that makes humanity unique.

As Marx sees it, "The whole character of a species, its generic character [Gattungscharakter], is contained in its manner of vital activity, and free conscious activity is the species-characteristic of man." It is this which constitutes the essential difference between human beings and other animals:

"The animal is immediately one with its vital activity. It is not distinct from it. They are identical. Man makes his vital activity itself into an object of his will and consciousness. He has a conscious vital activity. He is not immediately identical to any of his characterisations. Conscious vital activity differentiates man immediately from animal vital activity. It is this and this alone that makes man a species-being. He is only a conscious being - that is, his own life is an object to him - precisely because he is a species-being. This is the only reason for his activity being free activity" (ibid).

Using consciousness per se as a criterion for distinguishing us from other animals is not, of course, uncommon. It is often linked with intellectual powers of induction, deduction, analysis and synthesis to denote the sort of characteristically rational human activity supposedly absent in all other animals. The important thing about Marx's definition is the emphasis he places on "free conscious activity". Although need is still a primary, physical determinant of humanity's sensuous activity, we exercise our powers with a freedom and diversity foreign to animals:

"The practical creation of an objective world, the working-over of inorganic nature, is the confirmation of man as a conscious species-being ... It is true that the animal, too, produces. It builds itself a nest, a dwelling, like the bee, the beaver, the ant, etc. But it only produces what it needs immediately for itself and its offspring; it produces one-sidedly whereas man produces universally; it produces only under pressure of immediate physical need, whereas man produces free from physical need and only truly produces when he is thus free; it produces only itself, whereas man reproduces the whole of nature. Its product belongs immediately to its physical body whereas man can freely separate himself from his product. The animal only fashions things according to the standards and needs of the species it belongs to, whereas man knows how to produce according to the measure of every species and knows everywhere how to apply its inherent standard to the object; thus man also fashions things according to the laws of beauty" (KMSW p82).

Free conscious activity is not just what makes us a distinctively human species-being: it is also what makes us a moral being. Central both to Marx's definition of what it means to be human is the fact that we are the only species with the capacity to make free and conscious choices about what we produce, how we produce it and what happens to the product.

The extent to which, in any particular social formation, people are given the scope to exercise this capacity is a moral as well as a socio-economic question. A social system which prevents us from using our capacity for free and conscious productive activity is literally dehumanising - it hinders us from doing (and thereby from being) that which makes us uniquely human.

3. "Natural history of men"

Marx's way of looking at what it means to be a human being was new to materialism. So was his emphasis on the importance of viewing humankind's relationship with nature historically. To grasp the novelty of Marx's insights, we need briefly to review the way his predecessors looked at nature. Obviously, Feuerbach's emphasis on sensuousness was an important step forward:

"The real in its reality, or taken as real, is the real as an object of the senses; it is the sensuous. Truth, reality and sensation are identical ... Only through the sense, and not through thought for itself, is an object given in a true sense. The object that is given in thought, or that is identical with thought, is only an idea" (L Feuerbach Principles of the philosophy of the future London 1986, p51 - hereafter Principles).

So far so good. All materialists share this conviction that sensation precedes thinking, that our ideas come from our sensuous experience of the natural world around us. But Feuerbach's naturalism was strangely illusive, abstract and theoretical. It remained 'one-sided', a half-truth, a necessary but not a sufficient step towards understanding our relationship with our natural environment. Why was this so? Because he still conceived it in passive, intuitive terms. His conception of the sensuous world was, in Marx's words, "confined on the one hand to mere contemplation of it, and on the other to mere feeling (KMSW p174). Nature, for all the importance which Feuerbach attached to it, remained something 'out there', something dissociated from humanity, to which he related in essentially theoretical terms:

"The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism [that of Feuerbach included] is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively" (KMSW p156).

Marx's use of "sensuous human activity" (sinnliche menschliche Tätigkeit) in his Theses on Feuerbach is clearly identical to the "conscious vital activity" he refers to so often in the Economic and philosophical manuscripts. Human beings relate to their environment not primarily by observation or contemplation, but by action. The first priority of the species is to live; to do this it must satisfy its needs by using its powers. Sensuousness, we might say, is not about feeling, but about doing. This is what Marx is getting at when he says that "human objects are not natural objects as they immediately present themselves" (KMSW p105). A natural object only becomes a really human object when it plays a role in practical human activity. Flints became truly human objects when we began to use them as tools and weapons. An apple, qua natural object, is a receptacle for seeds. It becomes a human object when it is used as a source of food and drink.

Marx believed that Feuerbach's failure to see things this way came from his lack of an historical approach. He did not grasp that "the sensuous world around him is not a thing given direct from all eternity remaining ever the same" (KMSW p174). Both nature itself and human beings have a real history, and these histories are inextricably interconnected. Our physical environment may appear to be fixed and timeless, but in reality it is "the result of the activity of the whole succession of generations, each standing on the shoulders of the preceding one, developing its industry and its intercourse, modifying its social system according to the changed needs" (ibid).

This means, obviously, that our world is effectively human-made, shaped by the practical activity of the species. So "the nature that preceded human history ... is nature which today no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral islands of recent origin) ..." (ibid p175). Engels makes a similar point in The dialectics of nature:

"There is devilishly little left of 'nature' as it was in Germany at the time when the Germanic peoples immigrated into it. The earth's surface, climate, vegetation, fauna, and the human beings themselves, have infinitely changed, and all this owing to human activity, while the changes in nature in Germany which have occurred in this period of time without human intervention are incalculably small" (DN p306).

Without labouring the point further, we need to keep in mind the innovative nature of Marx's thought against the background of pre-Darwinian thinking about humanity and nature. That the names of Marx and Darwin should have been linked is hardly surprising, and in his graveside tribute to Marx in 1883 Engels makes the parallel explicit:

"Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history; he discovered the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat and drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, religion, science, art, etc" (K Marx and F Engels Selected Works Moscow 1951, vol 2, p153 - hereafter MESW).

In another passage in the Economic and philosophical manuscripts Marx draws together the ideas we have looked at so far and relates them to a proper historical and scientific understanding of the relationship between humanity and nature:

"Nature as it is formed in human history - the birth process of human society - is the real nature of man, and thus nature as fashioned by industry is true anthropological nature ... Sense experience (see Feuerbach) must be the basis of all science. Science is only real science when it starts from sense-experience in the dual form of sense-perception and sensuous need: in other words when it starts from nature. The whole of history is a preparation for 'man' to become the object of sense-perception and for needs to be the needs of 'man as man'. Natural science will later comprise the science of man just as much as the science of man will embrace natural science; they will become one single science" (KMSW p94).

The problem with Feuerbach's attitude to science was that he consistently identified it with observation and description of natural phenomena, not realising that 'pure' physics, chemistry and biology are inadequate to account for our human species-being: "Feuerbach speaks in particular of the perception of natural science; he mentions secrets which are disclosed only for the eyes of the physicist and chemist; but where would natural science be without industry and commerce? Even this 'pure' natural science is provided with an aim, as with its material, only through trade and industry, through the sensuous activity of men ... This activity, this production [is] the basis of the whole sensuous world as it now exists" (KMSW p82).

The question unanswered by Marx's materialist predecessors was: what is it about our sensuous engagement with nature that distinguishes us as a species-being? Marx's answer to this question is now clear: we exercise our distinctively human, free and conscious activity in the working-over of the objective world: "This production is [man's] active species-life. Through it nature appears as his work and his reality" (KMSW p82). We have been doing this ever since our appearance on earth as a distinct, evolved species, so "the true natural history of man" as a "directly natural being but also a human natural being" is none other than the history of human production.

4. "The social animal"

In some respects, of course, human beings are by no means the only social animals. Many creatures live and work together in quite complex social formations. Once again, the crucial difference between these societies and our own arises from consciousness. Just as we are distinguished from other animals by our free, conscious activity, which becomes for us an object of will and consciousness, so we differ from them in the fact that we have what Marx in the Economic and philosophical manuscripts calls "species-consciousness" (Gattungsbewußtsein). This awareness of ourselves as members of a human community is not an intellectual construct, not something we have to be taught, but the natural outcome of our relationship to the natural world:

"Activity and enjoyment are social both in their content and in their mode of existence; they are social activity and social enjoyment. The human significance of nature is only available to social man; for only to social man is nature available as a bond with other men, as the basis of his own existence for others and theirs for him, and as the vital element in human reality; only to social man is nature the foundation of his own existence. Only as such has his natural existence become a human existence and nature itself become human. Thus society completes the essential unity of man and nature: it is the genuine resurrection of nature, the accomplished naturalism of man and the accomplished humanism of nature" (KMSW p90).

The logic of Marx's analysis is clear and is confirmed by experience. From the beginning, the existence of human beings as a species has demanded collaborative, socialised activity. Without it our survival as a species is simply inconceivable. But Marx's argument goes further. He maintains that the customary distinction made between the individual and society is rooted in an abstract, idealist view of our communal relationship with nature. The isolated, 'atomised' individual familiar to us in many kinds of social theory is not a product of nature, but of history. In nature, Marx insists, "The individual is the social being"; and "even when the manifestation of his life does not take the form of a communal manifestation performed in the company of other men, it is still a manifestation and confirmation of social life" (KMSW p91).

Why is this so? Because "even if my activity is ... [one] that I can seldom perform directly in company with other men, I am still acting socially since I am acting as a man. Not only the material of my activity - like language itself for the thinker - is given to me as a social product; my own existence is social activity; therefore what I individually produce, I produce individually for society, conscious of myself as a social being" (ibid p90).

Marx stresses that, "It is above all necessary to avoid restoring society as a fixed abstraction opposed to the individual" (ibid p91). He argues that what we conventionally call 'society' rests on a false understanding of the real basis of human association. In their different ways, both Hegel, with his 'civil society', and Feuerbach, with his 'community', had missed the point. The former was no more than an arena in which conflicting personal interests were fought out; the latter was too abstract and unreal, locked in the contemplation of a 'community' that was no more than the aggregate of individual human essences. Feuerbach had been right to insist that "only community constitutes humanity", but he had failed to realise that "the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relationships" (KMSW p157).

This ensemble of social relations is not the result of human design or calculation, not something superimposed on nature, but a product of nature itself. We are social animals not because we happen to prefer it that way, but because our existence as a species demands it. Our awareness of this fact, our species-consciousness, is what sets us apart from other animals who form similar communities in response to an identical natural imperative. You and I are particular individuals and we rejoice in the particularity that makes us such. But our consciousness of this particularity is inseparable from consciousness of the fact that we are members of a wider community. The natural bond between us, the thing which makes your existence a reality for me and my existence a reality for you, is the fact that we are part of the "totality of human manifestations of life". This is why the standpoint of the new materialism must be "human society, or social humanity" (ibid).

Throughout his work, Marx continued to stress that our sense of personal identity and our development as individuals are inseparable from and dependent upon our membership of a human society. Consciousness itself is "from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all" (KMSW p167). In the Grundrisse our dependence on society for our development as individuals is made quite explicit: "Man is in the most literal sense a zoon politikon, not only a social animal, but an animal which can develop into an individual only in society" (KMSW p346), and in Capital he spells out what he means by this:

"Since he comes into the world neither with a looking glass in his hand, nor a Fichtean philosopher, to whom 'I am I' is sufficient, man first sees and recognises himself in other men. Peter only establishes his own identity as man by first comparing himself with Paul as being of like kind. And thereby Paul, just as he stands in his Pauline personality, becomes to Peter the type of genus homo" (K Marx Capital Vol 1, Moscow 1983, p59n - hereafter Capital).

Marx's thinking about humanity as a social animal is unquestionably holistic, if by holism we mean the proposition that the whole has characteristics which cannot be explained simply in terms of the properties and relationships to one another of the parts which comprise it. But Marx's holism, unlike Hegel's, has no normative significance. In Hegel, a social entity like the state is always seen as superior to its individual components, because the 'spirit' always manifests itself in totality and wholeness.

In Marx's holism there is none of this. Human society is not superior in some way to the human beings who are its constituent members, but it is qualitatively different from a mere aggregation of its members. It is always in and through their shared humanity as human, natural and social beings that individuals discover and develop their potentialities. In this sense, society and groups within it are prior to the individual, who finds in them the conditions of personal existence and the scope for personal development.

The ethical implications of this naturalistic and holistic view of society are unambiguous: if our happiness, our fulfilment and even our sense of self-identity as individuals are contingent on society, then any social formation must be judged in terms of how effectively it provides the conditions in which we can flourish as truly human, natural and social beings.

5. Marx and Darwin

Facets of Darwin's theory have been perverted into a reactionary and dangerous social doctrine, which claims to provide a naturalistic and scientific account of human society. Marx was one of the first people to identify and criticise this tendency to abuse Darwinism for social and political ends.

There were, of course, aspects of Darwin which Marx found in some ways supportive of his own work. In a letter to Lassalle in 1861, Marx wrote that "Darwin's book [The Origin of species] is very important ... Despite all deficiencies, it not only deals the death-blow to 'teleology' in the natural sciences for the first time but also sets forth the rational meaning in an empirical way ..." (K Marx and F Engels Selected correspondence Moscow 1982, p115 - hereafter MESC). In Capital, he suggests an affinity between his investigation of production and Darwin's enquiries into the natural world: "Darwin has interested us in the history of nature's technology: ie, in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organisation, deserve equal attention?" (Capital p352n).

The materialist and anti-teleological dimension in Darwin's work understandably attracted Marx, as did the notion of cooperation as well as struggle in the biological world. In general he accepted the burden of Darwin's thesis and supported its judicious use, but there was a flaw in Darwin's approach which opened up the possibility for a great deal of mischief. Darwin himself had acknowledged in his Life that the work of the parson, Thomas Malthus, An essay on the principle of population, had inspired him in formulating his theory of evolution. In fact Darwin described his own concept of 'the struggle for life' as being the doctrine of Malthus applied to the whole of the animal kingdom. The notion that the 'struggle for life' was the key to Darwinism was propounded by men like the German neo-Kantian philosopher FA Lange, with whom Marx was in correspondence in the 1860s (see MESC p160).

Marx was content, in Capital, to use 'the struggle for life' as a metaphor: "The division of labour within society brings into contact individual commodity producers, who acknowledge no authority but that of competition, of the coercion exerted by pressure of their mutual interests; just as in the animal kingdom, the bellum omnia contra omnes [war of all against all] more or less preserves the conditions of existence of every species" (Capital p336).

But he resisted any attempt to build a social theory on Darwin's supposed Malthusianism. Marx regarded Malthus with the deepest suspicion because his theories about human population lacked a basis in historical fact and showed no insight into the impact of humanity's social, productive activity on the natural world: "In fact every special historic mode of production has its own special laws of population, historically valid within its limits alone. An abstract law of population exists for plants and animals only, and only in so far as man has not interfered with them" (ibid p592).

As early as 1862, this time in a letter to Engels, Marx had pointed out the weakness inherent in Darwin's application of Malthus to the natural world: "Darwin ... amuses me when he says he is applying the 'Malthusian' theory also to plants and animals, as if with Mr Malthus the whole point were not that he does not apply the theory to plants and animals, but only to human beings ... It is remarkable how Darwin recognises among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, 'inventions', and the Malthusian 'struggle for existence'. It is Hobbes's bellum omnium contra omnes and one is reminded of Hegel's Phänomenologie, where civil society is described as a 'spiritual animal kingdom', while in Darwin the animal kingdom figures as civil society ." (MESC p120).

In other words, by "applying" Malthus's doctrine to animals and plants, Darwin had imported into his theory of evolution Malthus's very questionable propositions about the way human society works. A vicious circularity arises when people come along and claim to have 'discovered' in Darwin a 'proof' that their own way of looking at society has the force of a natural law. Engels sums up this legerdemain in a letter to Lavrov:

"The whole Darwinist teaching of the struggle for existence is simply a transference from society to living nature of Hobbes's doctrine of bellum omnium contra omnes and of the bourgeois economic doctrine of competition together with Malthus's theory of population. When this conjurer's trick has been performed, the same theories are transferred back again from organic nature into history and it is now claimed that their validity as eternal laws of human society has been proved" (MESC p368).

This 'conjurer's trick' of projecting aspects of human society onto nature and then 'rediscovering' them as eternal laws is very familiar. The supposed existence of such eternal laws is very convenient for the apologists of capitalism because it allows them to claim that the unpleasant outcome of 'the struggle for life' which most people are condemned to endure, is a natural necessity. One such apologist was FA Lange, whose error is made clear in an important letter written by Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann in 1870:

"Mr Lange has made a great discovery. The whole of history can be brought under a single great natural law. This natural law is the phrase (in this application Darwin's expression becomes nothing but a phrase) 'struggle for life', and the content of this phrase is the Malthusian law of population or, rather, overpopulation. Thus, instead of analysing the 'struggle for life' as represented historically in various definite forms of society, all that has to be done is to translate every concrete struggle into the phrase 'struggle for life', and this phrase itself into the Malthusian 'population fantasy'. One must admit that this is a very impressive method - for swaggering, sham-scientific, bombastic ignorance and intellectual laziness" (MESC p225).

The horrific consequences of that 'social Darwinism' that posits 'the survival of the fittest' as a natural law - indeed the only natural law - are well known: Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz. Of course, blaming Darwin for Hitler is ridiculous - just as ridiculous, in fact, as blaming Marx for Stalin.

The point to emphasise is that Marx's naturalistic materialism categorically repudiates any facile parallelism between the world of animals and humanity that sets itself up as a social doctrine. For Marx, human beings have a number of things in common with animals, but there is no room for doubt that free conscious activity and species-consciousness make us qualitatively different from other animals. As a species, we are sui generis.

The "one single science" capable of comprehending the implications of this fact must, therefore, result from a fusion of natural science and that study of people as human, social, productive beings which Marx calls the "science of man" (KMSW p94). Its starting point must be the study of humanity's productive activity, because it is industry which is "the real historical relationship of nature, and therefore of natural science, to man" (ibid p93).

In my final article I will show that this focus on humankind's practical activity - the key to understanding our vital - metabolic interchange with nature, not only informs every aspect of Marx's treatment of human labour as a category, but also provides the dialectical basis for a new approach to the traditional antinomy between idealism and materialism.