a journal of modern society & culture

Toward Species Being

Charles Thorpe

The human species has reached a critical tipping point which poses an existential choice. If the species is not to be a victim of its own technological success and destroy itself in nuclear war or due to the effects of climate change, it is faced with the collective task of accomplishing a qualitative leap in evolution. This qualitative leap entails becoming not only a species-in-itself but a species-for-itself. The idea of a species-for-itself, it will be argued, is entailed by Marx’s concept of species being.

To become a species-for-itself would be to become a species being. This would be the qualitative emergence of a new being, a new thing in the world that is (in a Durkheimian sense) a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Species being would be the reconciliation of individual and species, in the following way. The human being is a social being. The human being is a species being in so far as the human being is a social being. It is human socialness, as termed and elucidated by the sociologist of knowledge Harry M. Collins, that makes the human being a species being. This is because it is in their socialness that individuals transcend themselves as individual beings. Socialness is what constitutes the universalism of the human individual. Socialness is the fact of the individual’s existence in, and as part of, a cultural world. Socialness is what makes the human individual a historical being, in the sense of a being that embodies their temporal existence, not only at a particular point in natural history, but at a particular point in the cultural (including technological) development of human societies and, as will be argued, of the human species. Species being is the reconciliation of individual and species because it is the reconciliation of society and species.

Species being exists, i.e., is realized, when human society is equal to (in other words, encompasses) the entire human species. This means that species being is global human society. But this entails a qualitative transformation of society, in the sense that society now becomes equal to the totality of biological being of the human species. So society as abstract collectivity becomes society as concrete biological entity (biological species). So society is realized as a real living material being. So the contradiction between social consciousness and social being is dissolved. This is the overcoming of the contradiction between idealism and materialism in the sense that human activity qua the activity of the biological species homo sapiens now becomes conscious activity, in the sense that the species consciously plans and regulates its species life. The way in which dialectical materialism overcomes the contradiction between mechanical materialism and Hegelian idealism is realized in the way in which species being overcomes the contradiction between human culture and human biology by creating a universal human culture, but also by making the species a cultural being in the sense that the species, qua species, is capable of conscious thought and becomes self-conscious as such, in other words becomes a being for-itself. This is the reconciliation of the individual and species in the sense that the individual’s socialness is now the constitution of the individual not only by society but by species-society. The social being of the individual becomes the species being of the individual. Socialness becomes speciesness. The individual will truly embody the species and therefore realize the universality of species being. Species-as-being entails the overcoming of the contradiction between individual (as conscious being) and species as abstract collective object. Individual being is constituted by species being as the species itself becomes a consciously-active, self-conscious, and self-directing, being. As social things becomes species things, society becomes species, species becomes a being and the individual truly becomes a fully social being by becoming a species being.

Species being is always, as Nick Dyer-Witheford puts it, species becoming.[1] This is in the sense that the human species is characterized by its self-making. Species being is therefore realized when species becoming is a self-conscious activity. The emergence of this qualitatively new entity, the global human species-for-itself, is necessary given that the objective existence of the human species in-itself has moved from being an abstract categorization to being a concrete reality in the sense that the human species has now emerged as an ecological force in its totality, i.e. now on a global scale rather than on local scales. This is the Athropocene. The human species is now objectively real in its totality in the way in which its metabolism with nature as a species now takes the form of a global process and a globally interconnected and interdependent process.[2] The human species now metabolizes nature as a species at a global level in an integrated way. The human species as global species must become a species being. To do so would be to realize human species becoming. Not to do so is to risk extinction. Therefore, the very existence of the human species is dependent on the expression and realization of the quality of the human being as species being.[3]

Paradoxically, however, the human species cannot make this choice as a species to become a species-for-itself, precisely because it is not yet a species for-itself. The human being is a species being, but the human species cannot become a species being because it does not exist as a being conscious of itself as such and capable of guiding and regulating itself as such. The human being is and is not a species being. And because the human being is not a species being it cannot qua human being, or qua human species, or qua humanity, make a decision to constitute itself as such. Humanity exists today only as an abstraction. In its concrete existence it appears not to exist as humanity, but only as humanity divided into classes, between nations, by ethnic and religious hatreds. Its biological division between sexes remains distorted by unequal power. As Marx said in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, man’s natural relationship with woman, and therefore the natural relation of the species with itself, has yet to become a human relation. It remains an antagonistic symbiosis, a contradictory unity.[4]

The human species is a unity beset with contradictions. It is a divided unity. Divided, it has no unitary consciousness and only a divided (and therefore fetishistic) consciousness of itself. It is said that the photograph of the Earth rising above from the surface of the moon, viewing Earth as an external object, represented and created a new consciousness of the objective reality of the Earth as global habitat and of the human species as a global entity. However, this was still global humanity conscious of itself as object, rather than as subject. For global humanity to constitute itself as subject, i.e. for-itself, would mean constituting itself as a polis, i.e. as a political entity, a collective entity capable of consciously steering and therefore regulating and giving direction to itself and its own action as a collective entity. This goal cannot be achieved on the basis of a politics of humanism, precisely because humanity is not a political entity. There is no such thing as humanity (as a political entity, as polis) to which humanism can appeal politically.

Species being, as the human species for-itself, is communism. Communism is a future state to be striven for as the “actual realization for man of man’s essence.”[5] This is why Marx wrote in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, “Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.”[6] This is why communism can be nothing less than a global society. Communism is the human species consciously directing its own self-development as a species. It is in the sense that communism is the global social self-organization of the species, and that it therefore represents the expansion of the social bond to the level of the species itself, that communism is “the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being.”[7] Communism, as species being, is the realization of the social nature of the species in the form of a species-level society.

Understanding species being as communism makes clear why this self-realization of the species cannot be achieved by appeals to the species itself. While communism is humanism, communism cannot be achieved on the basis of humanism. In class society, there is no human society, i.e. no collective existence of the human species as such. The human is, at this time, only an abstract concept. Humanism, as philosophy, appeals to this abstract human. It appeals to the idea of humanity because humanity currently is only an idea. What enables the achievement of communism, and therefore the concretization of humanism, is the concrete existence of human beings who are only human. The proletarian is the human being reduced to being human. Therefore, the proletariat can only liberate itself by realizing itself as human and therefore by bringing humanity into concrete existence. For that reason, the proletariat has, as Marx put it, “radical chains”: its emancipation requires the emancipation and self-realization of the species. The proletariat carries with it the destiny of the species. The realization of species being, in other words the coming into being of the species as a species-subject, is an existential question, to be or not to be. If the human species does not become a subject, then it may cease to exist even as object.

Species Being from Feuerbach to Marx and Engels to Durkheim… and forward again to Marx and Engels

“There is no other road for you to truth and freedom except that leading through the stream of fire (the Feuer-bach),” Marx wrote in an 1842 challenge to the Young Hegelians.[8] The importance of Marx’s own journey through the fiery brook is attested by the place of the concept of species being in the 1844 Paris Manuscripts and the homology between Marx’s critique of alienation under capitalism (from the 1844 Manuscripts through to the critique of commodity fetishism in Capital) and Feuerbach’s critique of religious alienation.

Species being is Feuerbach’s conceptualization of what is distinctive to the human. Only the human being, and no other species, is a species being. The concept of species being refers to the universality of the human being, or the fact that the individual human is always something greater than an individual. For Feuerbach, the distinguishing feature of humanity, in relation to the animal is consciousness, which Feuerbach equated with self-consciousness and with knowledge. The knowing subject, for Feuerbach, is a subject that knows itself. The concept of species being is integral to Feuerbach’s critique of religion because it is species being that is the human essence alienated in and through human beings’ projection of their essence into God. Zawar Hanfi writes, “Feuerbach’s philosophy… proclaimed… man as a being of plenitude capable of pouring himself into the infinite richness of religion, art, and philosophy. The Essence of Christianity showed that the plenitude of God is the plenitude of man.”[9] Feuerbach argues in the following way: human beings know God through knowing the predicates of God, in other words what are God’s qualities, characteristics, attributes, or determinations. In relativist anthropological terms, Feuerbach argues that each society’s God or Gods are images reflecting what the people of that society regard and treat their own essential qualities as a people. Feuerbach writes:

You cannot take away a Greek from the quality of being a Greek without taking away his existence. Hence, it is of course true that for a particular religion—that is, relatively—the certainty of the existence of God is immediate; for just as arbitrarily or necessarily the Greek was Greek, so necessarily were his gods Greek beings, so necessarily were they really existing beings. In view of its understanding of the world and man, religion is identical with the essence of man.[10]

Every human society recognizes its essential humanity in its image of the divine. These images or pantheons only reflect what each particular society, arbitrarily and relatively, considers to be necessarily human.

What all the predicates attached to gods have in common is that they are human predicates, in other words they are qualities or characteristics of human beings. In knowing their Gods, human beings are knowing themselves. Human beings are social beings, that exist within particular societies and so their self-knowledge, alienated in its projection into God, is their knowledge of themselves as members of a particular society e.g. Greek. Therefore what they recognize in their God is not their essential humanness but only what is, arbitrarily and particularly, essential to their particular social existence, for example their Greekness.

Feuerbach abstracts from all these particular qualities and therefore particular social modes of self-knowledge of particular concrete human beings in particular societies in particular times and places. He says that what all these particular Gods, pantheons, and religions have in common is that they are ways in which human beings have known themselves. So what all these human beings, with their different characteristics, values, self-conceptions and, therefore, different religions, have in common is that they are knowing themselves. What is essential to humanity, therefore, is self-knowledge or consciousness. What Descartes arrived at in his cogito, his own existence as thinking subject, is mirrored at the level of species in Feuerbach’s reflection on religion. It is consciousness itself that is the common characteristic and essential truth of all religion. This essential truth is that the human being, the creator of religion, is essentially a conscious being, a being that knows itself. Only the human being, Feuerbach argued, possessed knowledge as such and only the human being is a self-conscious being.[11] According to Feuerbach, it is in their consciousness that the human individual transcends their individual existence and is a species being.

Consciousness is infinite, therefore the human being as a conscious being is an infinite being. This is in the sense that, since the human being is not tied to a particular niche within nature, the human being can cognize all of nature. This also means that consciousness can transcend the finite in the sense that the human being is conscious of the infinite as an idea. Religion in this consciousness of infinity. But whereas Descartes said that the consciousness of infinity was proof of the existence of a transcendent infinite being, God, Feuerbach argues that it is precisely the Cartesian thinking subject, the human being, that is infinite, by virtue of their very self-consciousness. It is due to the fact that the human lifeworld has no natural limits that there exists the anthropological diversity of human essences that different people(s) have projected into their gods. The diversity of human societies manifests the infinity of the human being. This very diversity, and the inherent openness of existence that it represents, is the key to the human essence. Infinitude of being is itself the human essence.[12] The human being is an infinite being by virtue of the infinite multiplicity of ways being human, i.e. infinite predicates of humanness. This is manifested in the diversity of predicates attached to God and therefore the diversity of characteristics in which human beings recognize themselves. In other words, there is a potentially infinite variety of ways of being human. All of these ways of being human, involve, require, and are reflected in, self-consciousness. Therefore, there is a potentially infinite variety of images of self, or self-consciousnesses, and therefore consciousness is infinite. Hence in art, “Human form cannot be regarded as limited and finite, because even if it were so the artistic-creative sprit could easily remove the limits and conjure up a higher form from it.”[13]

Consciousness has no limits in the further sense that it is not limited in its object. Feuerbach writes, “The being of man is no longer a particular, and subjective, but a universal being, for man has the whole universe as the object of his drive for knowledge.”[14] The universality of knowledge, in the sense of its unlimited expanse of its object, constitutes science. According to Hanfi, Feuerbach’s statement that “Science is the consciousness of species” refers to this ability of the human being, as self-knowing being or species being, to be “an other knowing being. Because of this span, knowledge has the character of science.”[15]

There is an inherent difficulty, Hanfi points out, in the relationship between Feuerbach’s anthropological materialism and his philosophy of consciousness. Feuerbach’s concretization of consciousness in matter, in the biological human being, is necessary for his break with Hegelian idealism which was the very source of attraction of his new philosophy described by Engels: “The spell was broken; the ‘system’ was exploded and cast aside… One must have experienced the liberating effect of this book to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once Feuerbachians.”[16] But as Hanfi says, the notion that religion reveals consciousness and that this is the human essence is in tension with Feuerbach’s materialism:

After what we have learned of Feuerbach’s anti-idealist stance, this ascertainment comes as an anti-climax. It may be argued in defense of Feuerbach that he is not hypostatizing consciousness as a metaphysical entity in its own right, but referring to human consciousness… Be that as it may, there is an innate difficulty in the materialist philosophy of Feuerbach which keeps him imprisoned in the realm of self-consciousness, his criticism of Hegel notwithstanding. Marx’s later rejection of Feuerbach is motivated precisely by the necessity to abandon the realm of consiousness, should the reality of man and his world be salvaged from its mystifying explanations.[17]

Feuerbach argues that the essence of religion is self-consciousness and that this is the projected or alienated essence of man, the concrete biological and anthropological human being. But how do these two directions of Feuerbach’s argument meet? How does consciousness attach to the self of the material human being? Like Descartes, whose cogito his reasoning mirrors, Feuerbach remains trapped in dualism.

It is this dualism that Marx overcomes dialectically through conceiving of human knowledge and consciousness as active rather than contemplative and as social rather than individual. Feuerbach, Marx argues the first of the Theses on Feuerbach, posits a contemplative subject that sensuously knows the world but the essence of which is not sensuous but consciousness abstracted and removed from the sensuous world of nature which is the object of this consciousness: “The chief defect of all previous materialism (including Feuerbach) is that the object, actuality, sensuousness is conceived only in the form of the object or perception [Anschauung], not subjectively…. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects actually different from thought objects: but he does not comprehend human activity itself as objective.”[18] In other words the dualistic divide between consciousness and nature is dissolved by recognition of the fact that the human being develops consciousness in material practical activity within nature, coming to know nature by actively transforming it.

Marx specifically takes up the question of scientific knowledge, in response to the central position that science occupies in Feuerbach’s conceptualization of the universality of consciousness. Marx pinpoints the weakness in Feuerbach’s discussion of science as being the individualist conception of the subject. Feuerbach’s anthropological transformation of Hegel returns consciousness to the human, showing that the universality of mind is that of the human being, a material, biological being, thinking “with the help of a brain” as Lenin later made the case.[19] But in so doing, Feuerbach shrinks the subject from the Absolute to the human individual, the privatized subject of bourgeois society.

Feuerbach treats thought as a fundamentally private affair. “No one else can think for me,” he (somewhat, but not entirely) reasonably points out.[20] But this also means that, as something fundamentally private, the process of thinking is mysterious. Feuerbach’s discussion of science tortuously attempts to reconcile this individual and privatist conception of the subject with the universality of consciousness to which he connects this private subject. A dimension of the universality of consciousness is the collective nature of science, which  suggests the supra-individual character of knowledge in general. Science, as knowledge that is written, formalized, and institutionalized, could be taken to locate knowledge in collective forms apart from and above the individual. But Feuerbach is not prepared to make this (later Durkheimian) move away from the Enlightenment individual subject. His solution is to split the difference by way of a distinction between knowledge and demonstration. While knowledge is private, demonstration is public. In speaking of demonstration, Feuerbach acknowledges the social character of science, the fact that knowledge is communicated, so that “demonstrating is not just a relationship of the thinker to himself or of a thought that is imprisoned within itself to itself, but the relationship of the thinker to others.”[21]

In his discussion of demonstration, Feuerbach comes extremely close to a conception of knowledge as essentially social rather than individual. Indeed, he seems exactly to propose the sociality of knowledge while he is in the process of denying it. Feuerbach writes:

It is of course true that man can be self-sufficient because he knows himself to be a whole, because he distinguishes himself from himself, and because he can be the other to himself; man speaks to and converses with himself, and because he knows that his thought would not be his own if it were also not—at least as a possibility—the thought of others.[22]

Feuerbach here describes the universality of the human individual, in the sense that the human being can regard themselves as an object, thereby taking the perspective of a universal subject, the species, which as such is indifferent to the individual. Therefore, it is by taking the perspective of the species that the individual is able to dispassionately or objectively cognize themselves.[23] It is by taking this objective view of himself that man knows that his thoughts could also be held by others. This, one wishes to say, is exactly the universality of species being, in that the individual’s thoughts are not private, because the individual is aware that they could be held, I.e. shared, by others. Indeed, the thought necessarily has the potential to be shared. The thought could not be had by the individual if it were not potentially had by others. But Feuerbach does not explain how it is, other than coincidence, that the thought is shared. This is a problem precisely because for Feuerbach, the thought is in principle private.

It is, nevertheless, is a strange defense of solipsism to argue that the individual can be “self-sufficient,” in the sense of being indifferent to the thoughts of others, because he is aware of the lack of uniqueness of his most “inner” thoughts. There are probably others who think what I’m thinking, so I don’t need to tell anyone what I’m thinking. Feuerbach acknowledges that this is an unlikely position, for “In reality, we are not indifferent; the urge to communicate is a fundamental urge—the urge for truth. We become conscious and certain of truth only through the other, even if not through this or that accidental other. That which is true belongs neither to me nor exclusively to you, but is common to all.”[24] Again, Feuerbach seems to suggest the necessarily shared and social character of knowledge, but in fact errs on the side of individualism. Demonstration, he insists, is only communication not the constitution of knowledge. The knowledge that is communicated exists pre-communicated as “the forms of reason as such; i.e. forms of an inner act of thought and cognition.”[25] Reason as such is a property of the individual, who is able to cognize what is communicated and this cognition is an internal process of the individual, “our inner act of cognition.”[26] It is the universality of abstract reason, manifested and operative in the understanding of individuals, that brings individual minds into convergence with one another.

It is reason itself that compels agreement on the truth. According to Feuerbach, it is the truth of a statement that produces agreement. Truth is the precondition not the result of agreement. Truth produces agreement by the action of reason. Paradoxically, therefore, Feuerbach’s materialist concretization of the Hegelian Subject in the human individual, establishes nevertheless the transcendent form of reason over and above any individual. How this transcendent reason is articulated with the individual mind is mysterious. Feuerbach takes the position that the teacher is dependent upon the student’s innate ability to understand. Understanding is an ineffable and mysterious process:

Plato is meaningless and non-existent for someone who lacks understanding; he is a blank sheet to one who cannot link ideas that correspond with his words…. To bestow understanding does not lie in the power of philosophy, for understanding is presupposed by it.[27]

So Feuerbach’s philosopher faces the very same infinite regress that Lewis Carroll illustrated with his dialogue between the Tortoise and Achilles, in which Carroll shows that a formal logical proof cannot convince unless there is a pre-existing agreement or willingness to submit to the compulsion of logic. No formal argument can compel acceptance without there being prior acceptance of the principle according to which it should compel acceptance.[28] Feuerbach falls back on the idea of understanding as an innate capacity of the individual, arising from “the development, as it were, of a spiritual matter lying within me that is as yet indeterminate but, nevertheless, capable of assuming all determinations.”[29] This spiritual matter, the carrier of impersonal reason, is capable of understanding, capable therefore of knowing, and the shared knowledge only gives a particular “form” to this spiritual substance. So the philosopher is able to communicate and achieve understanding in the other because they are working with this pre-existing spiritual matter. But what this paradoxically dualistic “spiritual matter” is remains mysterious.

Feuerbach resolves the human essence into consciousness. What gives individual consciousness its universality is reason. The pineal gland, so to speak, that connects universal immaterial reason with the particular material human being, and therefore makes possible understanding, is for Feuerbach “spiritual matter” that inheres in the individual. It would seem to be this “spiritual matter” to which Marx refers when he writes, in Thesis 6, “But the essence of man is no abstraction inhering in each single individual.”[30] Feuerbach’s human essence, consciousness, constantly threatens to overspill the boundaries of the individual cranium that maintain its privacy. This is most significant in his acknowledgement, within his discussion of demonstration, of the necessity of language for knowledge. Here, Feuerbach states:

“To demonstrate is to show that what I am saying is true, is to lead expressed thought back to its source,” in other words to lead thought from the understanding of one individual to the understanding of another and thereby back to its source in thought. “[P]hilosophy,” he asserts “does not speak in order to speak… but in order not to speak, that is in order to think.” Thinking, says Feuerbach, is private, whereas speaking is public. So language is, for Feuerbach, only the medium of thought not its essence.

            Yet, Feuerbach also says,

Language is nothing other than the realization of the species; i.e. the “I” is mediated with the “You” in order, by eliminating their individual separateness, to manifest the unity of the species.[31]

The notion of language as the “realization of the species” would seem to entail the involvement of language in the human essence, in other words the unity of language and consciousness. But Feuerbach specifically rejects this. While truth can be communicated with language, each individual can only recognize the truth for themselves, through their own innate power of  reason. Rather than a social process by which language mediates the thoughts of individuals and unifies them, Feuerbach regards communication and demonstration as connecting each individual with a truth and reason that is impersonal and in that way the property of the species itself. He writes:

We become conscious and certain of truth only through the other, even if not through this or that accidental other. That which is true belongs neither to me nor exclusively to you, but is common to all. The thought in which “I” and “You” are united is a true thought. This unification is the confirmation, sign, and affirmation of truth only because it is itself already the truth. That which unites is true and good.[32]

So, paradoxically, Feuerbach, the materialist who returns Hegelian universal reason to the concrete, embodied, sensuous, material individual, at the same time hypostatizes truth and reason as impersonal and abstract and existing above any concrete individuals. Reason only unites individuals in an abstract way with the species which now appears as an abstract not concrete or merely “accidental” other. So in separating language from thought, Feuerbach constructs a new separation of the individual from the species, rendering asunder the unity of species being.

It is the remaining abstractness both of species and of individual that Marx struggles against. In thesis 6, Marx observes that Feuerbach posits an “abstract—isolated—human individual” and posits “species” as “the inner, dumb generality.” Marx writes in thesis 7 that “Feuerbach does not see… that the abstract individual he analyzes belongs to a particular form of society.” The abstractness of Feuerbach’s individual and species is overcome by Marx through an understanding of the individual as an inherently social being and the relationship between the individual and the universal as being mediated by the social. In thesis 10: “The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society” i.e. the merely abstract unity of atomized bourgeois individuals in market relations. Whereas “the standpoint of the new is human society or socialized humanity.”[33] Marx’s concept of species being advances beyond Feuerbach by conceptualizing species being as social being, and doing so not abstractly but in the concrete sense of the historical development of real human societies toward universality[34]

The ability of the human individual to be more than an individual is not due to their contemplation of transcendent truth or due to some ineffable “spiritual matter” within them, but, rather, arises from their practical social activity in nature, through which human beings, collectively, transform the world and transform themselves in the process. Hence, as Marx states in thesis 5, thought and perception of the world arise in “practical, human-sensuous activity,” and in thesis 8, “All social life is essentially practical.[35] The human being is a practical, world-changing and self-changing being. This is so because the human being is a social being.  Marx writes that “the individual is the social being. His life… is therefore an expression and confirmation of social life.”[36] Being social necessarily consists in practical activity.

This practical social activity is labor. It is widely understood that labor is intrinsic to  Marx’s conception of species being and therefore to his understanding of human nature. This has been misunderstood to mean that Marx puts forward a conception of homo faber and therefore to support a view of Marxism as, to use Anthony Giddens’ term, “productivist.”[37] In other words, it is claimed that Marxism is a doctrine that one-sidedly equates human flourishing with production and technology. Lewis Mumford, treating Marx’s conception of human nature as a version of homo faber, argued that Marx followed the pattern of modernity in succumbing to the “myth of the machine,” whereby human progress is equated with technological development and the objective manifestations of culture are valued over and above the subjective, imaginative, and aesthetic.[38] This misreading of Marx, with its implication that Marxism is an anti-ecological doctrine and its implicit equation of Marxism with Stalinism, has been comprehensively debunked, in particular by John Bellamy Foster’s retrieval of the ecological dimensions of Marx and Engels’ writings.[39] The equation of Marx’s conception of human nature with “productivism” and therefore with a one-sided objectivism which denigrates subjectivity, depends on a non-dialectical reading of Marx’s writings on human nature. It neglects the fundamental dialectal interconnectedness between the objective and subjective aspects of labor, between nature and humanity, between the human transformation of nature and self-transformation, and between objective knowledge of the world and reflexive self-consciousness of human beings as individuals, societies, and species.

Labor, Marx writes in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, is the expression of human life. It is “productive life itself.”[40] The human being is like any other animal in that they live on “inorganic nature,” that is, nature external to their own organism i.e. their own body. It is true of any animal that the plants and other animals that they consume constitute their “inorganic body” in the sense that their physical existence depends on the energy that they take in from their environment. Hence Marx writes that “man (like the animal) lives on inorganic nature.” The crucial difference is that, in comparison with other species, human beings are less fixed in what parts of nature they live on. Marx writes that “the more universal man is compared with an animal, the more universal is the sphere of inorganic nature on which he lives.” This could be understood simply in relation to the omnivorous nature of human beings, in comparison with, say, a koala bear, which eats only eucalyptus leaves, or a panda bear, which eats only bamboo shoots. Human beings likewise depends on the “products of nature whether they appear in the form of food, heating, clothes, a dwelling etc.” But in contrast with a koala or panda bear, “The universality of man appears in practice precisely in the universality which makes all nature his inorganicbody.”[41] The human interchange with nature is more variegated, flexible, and all-encompassing than that of other species. This universal quality of the way in which the human takes in and lives on inorganic nature arises from labor, the ability of humans to transform the natural world and to do so consciously.

Marx’s discussion clearly echoes Feuerbach’s conception of man as “a cosmopolitan  being,” able to “have the cosmos as its object.”[42] Like Feuerbach, Marx emphasizes science and art as expressions of this universality. Marx writes:

plants, animals, stones, air, light, etc., constitute theoretically a part of human consciousness, partly as objects of natural science, partly as objects of art—his spiritual inorganic nature, spiritual nourishment which he must first prepare to make palatable and digestible.[43]

But Marx here shows how this spiritual appreciation of nature itself depends on practice, the practice whereby raw nature is made “palatable and digestible,” or transformed in such a way that it can be understood, appreciated, and represented in science and art. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels make the point even more directly and forcefully in relation to science (establishing the basis for a distinctively Marxist materialist history of science):

Feuerbach speaks in particular of the viewpoint of natural science. He mentions secrets disclosed only to the eye of the physicist and chemist. But where would natural science be without industry and commerce? Even this “pure” natural science receives its aim, like its material, only through commerce and industry, through the sensuous activity of men.[44]

The dependence of science on the development of the forces of production, as well as its reciprocal contribution to this development, makes clear Marx’s broader point that the human cognition of the world is not merely contemplative and not even only sensuous, but is consciously and actively sensuous, in other words practical. Human beings come to know the world in the process of transforming it. So the cosmopolitan nature of the human being arises not only from the potential universality of human knowledge but also from the potential universality of human practical activity in nature.

Like Feuerbach, Marx uses species being to designate what is distinctively human. All species possess what Marx calls a “species character.” “The whole character of a species,” he writes,” “—its species character—is contained in the character of its life activity.”[45] Species being is Marx’s term for the distinctive species character of homo sapiens. What distinguishes human life activity from that of other animals is reflexivity. This reflexivity of human life activity consists in self-consciousness but not only that; it also consists in self-conscious activity, activity guided by knowledge. The human being is inherently split in its being, in the sense that it is not one with and existing within its life activity, but is able to reflect on itself and its own activity as if from without. Marx writes,

The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity.[46]

The human being does not merge with their activity.[47] This splitness is what Erich Fromm would later delineate in terms of the inherent problem of separateness that confronts the human being in and through their self-awareness and freedom, making the human being “the freak of nature,” and “the only being for whom it is possible to feel apart while being a part.”[48] This is also what Giddens calls the “existential dilemma” that characterizes humanity, the very existence of a question “how should I live?,” entailing reflexive awareness.[49] Indeed the very possibility of a question entails such awareness. This is also the source of the problem of comprehending one’s place in the universe and the condition in which it becomes possible to know, and to fear, that one will die. It is the awareness that is the source of, and is therefore accompanied by, dread. This is at the root of religion.[50]

This reflexivity in human action and thought is what constitutes species being and at the same time it arises from species being. Hence Marx writes, “Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. It is just because of this that he is a species being. Or rather, it is only because he is a species being that he is a conscious being, i.e., that his own life is an object for him.”[51] Species being gives birth to itself. This is comprehensible, firstly, and I will argue most significantly, in terms of Marx’s notion that human activity is social activity and historical activity and, secondly, in the sense that the transformation of nature is a reflexive process in the course of which the human becomes aware of themselves.

How it is that species being is the cause of conscious being should be understood in terms of Marx’s statement in thesis 6 that “the essence of man is no abstraction inhering in each single individual. In its actuality it is the ensemble of social relations.”[52] The essence of the human being is reflexivity, in other words, the split between the individual consciousness and the immediate flow of their life activity such that it is possible for the individual to reflect on their activity. This recursiveness or reflexivity is, however, not merely an individual process. It is a process in which individuals cooperate with one another, deliberate and plan. It is a process which involves the formation of shared standards against which activities may be judged. The sociality of practice is inherently bound up with language. Hence Marx and Engels write in The German Ideology, “Language is as old as consciousness. It is practical consciousness which exists also for other men and hence exists for me personally as well.”[53] This seems to suggest the inseparability of language and consciousness. Timothy Crippen writes that in Marx, “The origin of consciousness is, therefore, identified with an emergent collective awareness of a biosocial environment and is roughly equivalent to the origin of language.”[54] In language, consciousness exists for both self and other. If language is practice and consciousness arises in this social practice, since language is necessarily a relation beyond the self, then consciousness arises within and from social practice. Marx and Engels write:

Language, like consciousness, only arises from the need and necessity of relationships with other men. 1 Where a relationship exists, it exists for me. The animal has no “relations” with anything, no relations at all. Its relation to others does not exist as a relation. Consciousness is thus from the very beginning a social product and will remain so as long as men exist.[55]

 Consciousness is not private and solipsistic but always arises from the human relationship with what is external to them – “inorganic nature” and other human beings. The relationship of human beings with inorganic nature is always socially organized and mediated. So consciousness, as reflexivity, arises from the social relations of the individual and these social relations are necessarily mediated and constituted through language. It is in this way, Marx gives new meaning and significance to Feuerbach’s statement that “language is the realization of the species.” It is in and through language that the human being is a social being and it is as a social being that the human is a species being. 

Marx’s argument regarding the human ability to separate themselves from their life activity could be understood as anticipating George Herbert Mead’s  distinction between “the I” and “the Me” as phases of action and consciousness. Similarly, Marx’s statements that in language consciousness exists “for other men and hence exists for me personally as well” and that “Consciousness is thus from the very beginning a social product” may be understood as aligning with Mead’s conception of how self-consciousness arises in social interaction by taking the view of the other. It is precisely the social interaction with the other that enables the individual to cognize themselves as if from the other and therefore to achieve self-consciousness.[56] It is, in Mead’s argument, through the comprehension of “the generalized other,” or society as a Durkheimian social thing that transcends all individuals that the individual is able to conceive of themselves in an impersonal, objective way, achieving that dispassionate perspective on the self to which Feuerbach referred when he wrote:

The species is is indifferent to the individual. The reflecting individual carries the consciousness of the species within himself, which means that he can transcend his “now-being,” regard it as of no consequence, and anticipate by imagination a “not-being”  in opposition to his “now-being.”[57]

Mead’s concept of the generalized other provides a sociological understanding of Feuerbach’s notion of “the consciousness of the species within himself,” and hence the universality of the human individual. This sociological understanding of how the individual transcends themselves in turn sheds light on Marx’s thesis that “the essence of man is no abstraction inhering in each single individual. In its actuality it is the ensemble of social relations.” To say that the human essence is “the ensemble of social relations” is to say that the ability of the individual to be reflexive about their own action, and therefore not to “merge” with their life-activity, arises from the individual’s reflection of the “ensemble of social relations” in their own mind and activity. It is, further, to say that the individual realizes themselves as human in their social existence, i.e. in their contribution to the production of a social world, the very social world that gives meaning and purpose to their individual action and that makes this action distinct from the behavior of animals. The language that an individual speaks, which is essential to their consciousness, is not their creation but exists as a feature and product of “the ensemble of social relations.”

Language, as quintessential social practice, is key to unlocking the mystery of understanding that Feuerbach formulated in terms of “spiritual matter.” Marx writes in thesis 8 that “All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and the comprehension of this practice.” This is true of the mystery of understanding that leads Feuerbach into the mysticism of “spiritual matter.” The mystery of understanding arises from the fact that I can’t think for someone, the privacy of mind. However, the privacy of mind is belied by the shared nature of language. Understanding is not more mysterious, or any less, than learning to ride a bicycle. It is practice. The riddle of the Tortoise and Achilles has its solution in practice, as Peter Winch argues. He writes, “Learning to infer is not just a matter of being taught about explicit logical relations between propositions; it is learning to do something.”[58] The ability to grasp an idea, the ability to follow certain patterns of inference (rather than others), the ability to follow a set of instructions or rules (to act according to those rules) is a practice, and as such is necessarily a social practice, a practice embedded in what Winch, following Wittgenstein, calls “a form of life.” Collins puts the idea as follows:

[A]s a member of the Azande you can divine a witch but you cannot take out a mortgage, whereas, as a British person you can take out a mortgage but you cannot divine a witch; divining witches is constitutive of being a member of the Azande but not of being British, and taking out a mortgage is constitutive of being British but not of being an Azande… According to Winch, what it is to belong to a form of life is to share the concepts and engage in the actions that define that collectivity.[59]

What enables a person either to divine a witch or take out a mortgage is their ability to belong  to a form of life. The ability to belong to a form of life (in this sense of the life of a social collectivity) is a distinctively human quality or capacity, which Collins calls “socialness.”[60]

Socialness is the ability to be Azande or to be British. Collins locates the concept of socialness at the heart of sociology. He writes: “The lasting heart of sociology as a unique discipline with its own identity is the idea of the social. The starting point is Durkheim, along with the sociology of knowledge: humans are constituted by societies.” Sociology, along these lines “instead of treating humans as the elements that constitute social collectivities, it treats humans as made out of collectivities—as made up of things that are larger than themselves rather than smaller.”[61] Durkheim expresses this very idea, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, as follows: “For that which makes a man is the totality of the intellectual property which constitutes civilization, and civilization is the work of society.”[62] The most basic form of this intellectual property of a society is language itself. Durkheim repeatedly characterized language as “a social thing in the highest degree.”[63] Indeed, Durkheim argues, that language, and therefore the organized social group, “civilization,” is essential to humanness, so that a “human being is only a human being to the degree that the person is civilized.”[64] In this way, Durkheim clearly locates the human essence, what makes a human being human, as deriving from outside the individual. The notion that it is the “totality” of the “work of society” that makes “a man,” a human individual, holds the key to the mystery of understanding posited by Feuerbach and to the difference, as a result, between human beings and other entities like computers. Human social action is not merely “mimeomorphic,” in the sense of replicating a set pattern of behavior. Collins and Martin Kusch argue that it is “polimorphic,” in the sense that it is formed by and within a polis, in the sense of a collectivity, a totality of society, a culture, so the meaning of the action is sensitive to social context of the action.[65]

Collins and Kusch’s conception of human action as polymorphic corresponds with Marx’s conception of the human being as “in the most literal sense a zoon politicon, not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society.”[66] This is key, in turn, to understanding Marx’s claim that “the essence of man is no abstraction inhering in each single individual. In its actuality it is the ensemble of social relations” and therefore for elucidating the concept of species being. “Socialness,” Collins argues, “is a property of species located in most but not all individuals of a specie” It is a human capacity that distinguishes the human species, although it is lacking in some human individuals, for example, the severely autistic or feral children. It is a capacity, which depends on having a certain kind of brain function or developing skills as a result of early childhood socialization and lived experience of interaction embedded within a group. It does inhere in individuals in that sense, quintessentially as the cognitive capacity of an individual to learn and use a language fluently. This capacity has to do, in part, with the structure of the brain. But even in this, the structure of the brain is the product of millennia of evolution exceeding the lifetime of any particular human brain. But also, the content of socialness and social fluency, does not “inhere” in the individual. Collins writes: “The content of a social fluency – a culture – is located in a society and varies from society to society and from time to time Thus, no individual can be said to be the location of a culture, merely the participant in it.”[67] It is in this sense that a culture transcends the individual and exists outside the individual that society, as Durkheim said, is an objective thing that transcends the individual. It is in the sense that the individual is capable of consciousness only due to their embeddedness in a form of life that, as Marx said, the human “essence… is the ensemble of social relations.”

The individual self cannot exist, i.e. there cannot be self-consciousness, without the existence of the individual within a web of social interactions (social relations, their embeddedness in society and therefore their embeddedness within a cultural world of meanings). This depends on the generalized other, which is not only the representation, but the outcome, of “the ensemble of social relations.” However, there is more and more of a gap between the reality of the ensemble of social relations and their representation in the form of generalized other. The dominant collective representation of society as totality remains that of the nation culturally and of the nation-state politically, in the sense that the locus of social belonging and of membership in a political community is the nation-state. Indeed, Durkheim’s sociology was part of the modern process of constituting society as the nation-state and replacing religious self-identification with a secular nationalist civic religion. The collective self-representation of society as nation-state is, however, increasingly at odds with the reality of the “ensemble of social relations.”

As a result of globalization, the ensemble of social relations increasingly overspills the boundaries of the nation-state. The nation-state is a fetter on these global social relations. This is not to say that the nation was ever natural. Its boundaries were constructed through coercion and exclusion and subordination of regions, ethnic groups, etc., or what Zygmunt Bauman calls the active “gardening” of society, trimming social relations within its borders.[68] But the nation-state for a certain period of time corresponded, for example, with the direction of the construction of national markets. The emergence of the nation-state, taking place within and propelled by, the development of modern capitalism, always was in contradiction with the inherently globalizing tendency of capitalism as.a world system. Imperialism is capitalism’s solution to the contradiction between nation-state and global economy, achieved through the domination of the world by the most powerful capitalist nation-states.[69] Since the unleashing of the inter-imperialist maelstrom of World War One, and especially with the development and use of atomic weapons in World War Two, this imperialist solution to the contradiction between nation-state and global economy has threatened the very future of the world. But the tension arising from this contradiction has been ratcheted up further with the current period of globalization since the 1970s, which has gone beyond the globalization of commerce, trade and finance, and produced the globalization of production.[70] Information and communication technologies have not only facilitated the coordination of globally distanciated supply chains and networks of production but have also woven together a global media and cosmopolitan consumer culture, while migration has increasingly produced cultural cosmopolitanism that renders the myths of national identity increasingly at odds with the realities of cultural complexity. The upsurge of a virulent nationalism in recent years is a reactionary backlash against forces that are inexorably battering the ‘Chinese walls’ of nation-states.[71] What Collins calls the “fractal” of collectivities that make up the individual less and less correspond with or sit inside the cultural boundaries of national identity.[72] The real forms of life are at odds with their collective representation in the nation. Whereas Marx and Engels in The German Ideology said of the philosophers that “The phantoms of their imagination have gotten too big for them,” we might now say of the available collective representations of bourgeois society that these phantoms of imagination are too small.[73]

This contradiction between real forms of life and their ideational (and institutional) collective representations has at its root the contradiction between the forces and relations of production and, deriving from this, the contradiction between economic base and political superstructure. This points to the difference between the Marxist and the Durkheimian conceptions of social being, and the basic philosophical division between materialism and idealism. This is the fundamental statement in The German Ideology that “It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.”[74] Practice is a unity between thought and embodied material action, but this is a dialectical, contradictory unity. It is possible for thought to misrepresent and be out of step with action. Hence, as history is human practice, prevailing forms of consciousness at a certain time can come into contradiction with, and therefore misrepresent, the real relations of human life (and these misrepresentations can be systematically produced from the contradictory character of practical human life, for example the contradiction manifested in the class division of life).

The human being is a reflexive being. This reflexivity consists in the lack of merger between the human being and their activity, the human ability to cognitively remove themselves from their activity, so as to be aware of themselves and their own life-activity. This self-consciousness arises, as I have argued, in and from human socialness, i.e. from the fact that the human essence consists in “the ensemble of social relations.” But the ensemble of social relations consists of practice, i.e. both thought and action combined, and this means action in the material world of nature. The practice that constitutes and produces social relations is labor (as a unity of thought and action, but also a contradictory unity under class society due to the division between intellectual and manual labor).

Labor is the conscious transformation of matter. Marx writes:

Man is directly a natural being… as a natural, corporeal, sensuous, objective being he is a suffering, conditioned and limited creature, like animals and plants. That is to say, the objects of his instincts exist outside him, as objects independent of him; yet these objects are objects that he needs – essential objects, indispensable to the manifestation and confirmation of his essential powers. To say that man is a corporeal, living, real, sensuous objective being full of natural vigor is to say that he has real, sensuous objects as the objects of his being or of his life, or that he can only express his life in real, sensuous objects. To be objective, natural and sensuous, and at the same time to have object, nature and sense outside oneself, or oneself to be object, nature and sense for a third party, is one and the same thing. Hunger is natural need; it therefore needs a nature outside itself, an object outside itself, in order to satisfy itself, to be stilled. Hunger is an acknowledged need of my body for an object outside it.[75]

The active striving for the external object, feeling hunger and need, is suffering in the lack of the object and a passion to attain the object: “Man as an objective, sensuous being is therefore a suffering being –and because he feels what he suffers, a passionate being. Passion is the essential force of man energetically bent on its object.”[76] Marx describes human passion as “the sensuous outburst of my life activity… which thus becomes the activity of my being.”[77] Rejecting a one-sided idealist view of human being merely as an abstract mind, Marx set out from the reality of the human individual as embodied. He based his outlook on an understanding of the human individual as sensuous, desiring, and actively engaged in the real world of nature in order to sustain their material, corporeal being.

Hence it is not only in consciousness that the human being is distinct from the animal as a species being, but in material practice. Marx and Engels write in The German Ideology,

Man… begins to distinguish himself from the animal the moment he begins to produce his means of subsistence, a step required by his physical organization. By producing food, man indirectly produces his material life as well.[78]

This very point regarding food, and its implications for historical materialism, was developed later by Engels in a more concrete post-Darwinian anthropogeny in the chapter of his Dialectics of Nature titled “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man.” Here, Engels writes that “Labour… is the primary basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself.”[79] This means that the human being gives birth to themselves through their own conscious life-activity (which is labor). Engels writes:

The labour process begins with the making of tools…. They are hunting and fishing instruments, the former at the same time serving as weapons. But hunting and fishing presuppose the transition from an exclusively vegetable diet to the concomitant use of meat, and this is an important step in the transition to man. A meat diet contains in almost ready state the most essential ingredients required by the organism for its metabolism. It shortened the time required, not only for digestion but also for the other vegetative bodily processes corresponding to those of plant life, and thus gained further time, material, and energy for the active manifestation of animal life in the proper sense of the word… The most essential effect, however, of a meat diet was no the brain, which now received a far richer flow of the materials necessary for its nourishment and development, and which therefore could become more rapidly and perfectly developed from generation to generation.

A meat diet led to two new advances of decisive importance: to the mastery of fire and the taming of animals. The first still further shortened the digestive process, as it provided the mouth with food already as it were semi-digested; the second made meat more copious by opening up a new, more regular source of supply… Thus, both these advances become directly new means of emancipation of man.[80]

Therefore the splitness that is human consciousness, the reflexive separation of thought from being, that gives rise to the possibility of the conscious shaping of being, arises from the separation of the human organism from the determinations of nature by the active transformation of nature, through labor. Therefore, when it is said that species being consists in free, conscious life activity, that freedom is the “emancipation” from the immediacy of nature, through labor, of which Engels writes above.

In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels observe that language, the medium of consciousness, is itself material: “From the start the ‘spirit’ bears the curse of being ‘burdened’ with matter which makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, in the form of language.”[81] The materiality of language implies the dependence of human linguistic capacity on the material constitution of the human body and human brain. Just as the development of the human brain was dependent on the labor of producing the energy to compose, grow, and power this organ, so also the material, and at first organic, means of communication evolved materially with the evolution of the practice of speaking. Engels writes in Dialectics of Nature,

[T]he development of labour necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by multiplying cases of mutual support, joint activity, and by making clear the advantage of this joint activity to each individual. In short, men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to one another. The need led to the creation of its organ; the undeveloped larynx of the ape was slowly but surely transformed by means of gradually increased modulation, and the organs of the mouth gradually learned to pronounce one articulate letter after another.

Comparison with animals proves that this explanation of the origin of language from and in the process of labour is the only correct one.

The emergence and development of consciousness and socialness are woven into and arise from labor as embodied, material practice. The human species is always in the process of making itself: this is what Marx calls “man’s establishment of himself by practical activity.”[82] The human being is labor (free, conscious life activity) and labor makes the human being. Labor gives birth to itself. The human being gives birth to themselves.

Marx explains the difference between human labor and the life-activity of other animals as follows:

[A]nimals … build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself and its young. It produces one-sidedly whilst man produces universally…. [M]an produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom…. An animals’ product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product.[83]

Human labor is not aimed merely at satisfying an immediate need. The way in which human beings reshape the world is not only instrumental (a means to a material goal). For example, “Man… also forms things in accordance with the laws of beauty.”[84] Human beings reshape the natural world in such a way that they can recognize themselves in the material world around them, recognizing human nature in nature. So, as free, conscious activity, the human engagement with, and transformation of the natural world is an expression of human species being. Marx writes that, “in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species being.”[85] Human skill, artistry, creativity, or productiveness cannot be not fully realized in thought alone, but must also be in engagement with the external world, i.e. with nature.

To say that the human being is a species being means that the individual’s activity always transcends the finiteness of the individual themselves: individual activity is not only individual but also a manifestation of human activity, owing to the historical development of human thought, skill, and capacity and also contributing to this broader development of humankind.[86] Humanity makes itself by making history. There is therefore no distinction between cultural, political, economic history and natural history: “History itself is a real part of natural history.”[87] The human being is a historical being, in their interwoven biological and cultural development. The human senses, for example, are not given biologically, but develop socially and change form historically. The ‘ear’ for music or the ‘eye’ for beauty can only develop with the development of music and artistic activity. In this way, “The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present.”[88] Human nature develops and unfolds in a historical process of which human beings are the subjects: “The nature which develops in human history – the genesis of human society – is man’s real nature” and therefore “History is the true natural history of man.” [89] Marx suggests that history is the continuous process by which the human species gives birth to itself and comes to understand itself: “The entire movement of history is, therefore, both its actual act of genesis (the birth act of its empirical existence) and also for its thinking consciousness the comprehended and known process of its becoming.”[90] As humanity gives birth to itself, it gains self-consciousness, coming to understand itself and its potentialities as a species.[91] This human self-making in the process of making history is an accomplishment of human life-activity, i.e. of labor: “the entire so-called human history is nothing but the creation of man through human labor”[92] Hence, Marx and Engels insist on the materiality of the process by which human beings come to social self-consciousness: “The object of labor, is therefore, the objectification of man’s species life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore contemplates himself in a world that he has created.”[93]  Therefore, human reflexivity arises from the ability not just to be aware of external “inorganic nature” and not just to transform that inorganic nature, but to transform that inorganic nature in such a way that in cognizing it, one cognizes oneself. This is possible because one has put oneself creatively and consciously into that inorganic nature. Hence Marx returns in Capital Volume 1 to this difference between the conscious human transformation of nature and the unconscious animal transformation of nature:

Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.[94]

What Marx describes in the architect is a dialectical movement between idea and its actualization, and this is true of all labor.

Human beings are different from other animals in that human beings make themselves through conscious, free, creative activity. But while human beings make themselves through conscious activity, they have not made themselves consciously. In other words, they have not been aware of the processes by which they make themselves. Their own powers of self-making have been hidden from them by various forms of fetishism, from religion to the commodity. The self-development of the human being therefore involves a spiral of reflexivity in which human beings become conscious of their consciousness, and this spiral is bound up with the emergence of higher forms of social organization. The differentiation of the modern individual is an aspect of this process. Marx comments in the Grundrisse on the relationship between the division of labor, exchange, and individualization, in some ways anticipating Durkheim’s distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity. Hence, he notes the difference between human being as zoon politicon and ‘social’ animals: “It does not happen elsewhere – that elephants produce for tigers, or animals for other animals. For example. A hive of bees comprises at bottom only one bee, and they all produce the same thing.”[95] So the complexity of the social division of labor distinguishes human production from animal production, and from this complexity also emerges the individual as political animal. The individual emerges out of identity with the group and sameness with other members of the group into an increasingly individuated existence: “But human beings become individuals only in through the process of history. He appears originally as a species-being, clan being, herd animal — although in no way whatever as a zoon politicon, in the political sense.”[96] Marx suggests that greater individual differentiation corresponds also to growing universality, in the sense of interdependence, as a species. The separate private individual is a real social product (but at the same time one that masks the very sociality that makes this individuation possible):

Only in the eighteenth century, in ‘civil society’, do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity. But the epic which produces this standpoint, that of the isolated individual, is also precisely that of the hitherto most developed social (from this standpoint, general) relations.[97]

The development of the complexity and far-reaching character of human society and of the economic-technological transformation of nature produces self-conscious reflexivity as an individual, while also producing more complex forms of sociality and collective being. The individual is made of the collectivity not only in the sense of language and culture, but also in the sense of the both cultural and material skills that they embody: “a civilized person” is one “in whom the social forces are already dynamically present.”[98]

 The increasing complexity and scope of the division of labor is both the result, and in turn produces, the increasingly socialization of production, greater interdependency among, and integration of the human species. Marx writes:

The fact that this need on the part of one can be satisfied by the product of the other, and vice versa, and that the one is capable of producing the object of the need of the other, and that each confronts the other as owner of the object of the other’s need, this proves that each of them reaches beyond his own particular need etc., as a human being, and that they relate to one another as human beings; that their common species-being is acknowledged by all.[99]

It is through the increasing complexity and scope of the division of labor, and thereby the increasing socialization of production, that the human being emerges as a zoon politicon. In other words, the human species being propels itself forward from “herd” to polity. However, in the world today there is a mismatch between the ensemble of social relations that constitute globally interconnected socialized production and the political organization of human beings into nation-states. This produces a fundamental blockage of human self-consciousness or reflexivity.


Labor is conscious activity through which human beings transform the world and transform themselves in the process. However, the human species does not, as a species, produce consciously. Consciousness is occluded by the very workings of the market, which make conscious planning for the satisfaction of human need impossible. Christopher Caudwell argued that the market subjects production and social relations to the “ravages of bourgeois unconsciousness.”[100] In Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, Engels observes how the sum of individual wills form unintended consequences that confront the individual as objective compulsion analogous to natural forces: “Thus the conflict of innumerable individual wills and individual actions in the domain of history produces a state of affairs entirely analogous to that in the realm of unconscious nature.”[101] The realization of species being, communism, entails the overcoming of this unconsciousness. It entails the realization of human reflexivity in the ability to reflexively direct human activity at the global level of the species, as a species.

Species being qua communism means a qualitative transformation in the character of species being. Just as there is a qualitative transformation from animal awareness of the world to human self-conscious awareness and there is a corresponding qualitative transformation from herd life to human societies with language and cultural systems, globalization is producing a qualitative transformation in the character of human societies and the human species to a single, unified entity. In other words, the social fractal that makes individuals is increasingly no longer regional, or national, but global in its outer limit and form. This means that what form individuals take is also transformed. While the cosmopolitanism of production is occluded by the market, there emerges a global cosmopolitan consumer individual, a social identity that exceeds the boundaries of bourgeois national citizenship.[102] The globalization of production for example is now, for example, accompanied by the growth of global media and online culture. It is no longer the case that globalized culture is ‘western’ culture. Species being is undergoing a process of transformation. A qualitatively new global form of species being is emerging. 

However, this higher form is blocked by the organization of the species as zoon politicon into nation-states, an organization supported ideologically and politically by the bourgeoisie, even while it is undermined by the reality of the global ensemble of social relations. The leap cannot be made by humanist appeal to abstract humanity, for it is precisely the nature of the problem that humanity remains an abstraction. [103]

What has concretely emerged with the globalization of production is a global proletariat. This is a global class of human beings objectively unified by the common fact that they are nothing but human. They possess nothing but their species being. And this is not their individual possession at all, but their participation in something that transcends them. They do not possess their transcendent species being, in the sense that they are alienated from it. The radicalness of their chains is that not only do they possess nothing but their labor, but they do not even posses that, because it is alienated to the capitalist – it is the alienated general intellect and collective physical activity of the human species. Possessing nothing, the proletariat cannot live as the bourgeois individual, the citizen. The proletariat cannot sustain the bourgeois myth of autonomy. The proletariat only exists as a class, and as a global class. The proletarian can only appropriate their being at the level of the species. The proletariat is sustained only by their participation in the global network of production. The proletarian’s labor, while they do it for themselves, is at the same time for the entire world, and it cannot be theirs without their being united with the entire world.

Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology that alienation can only be abolished when it has become “an intolerable power” by its “having made the great mass of humanity ‘propertyless’ and this at the same time in contradiction to an existing world of wealth and culture.” The growth of a global proletariat is the product of “universal development of productive forces” that both produces and is produced by “universal commerce among men,” which in turn “replaces local individuals with world-historical empirically universal individuals.” This consciously world-historical individual is the communist individual. It is at the same time, the proletariat under capitalism, which can only exist world-historically because it has nothing as individual. The full (communist) world-historical individual can be produced only by the emptied (proletarian) world-historical individual (reduced to “time’s carcass”). Hence the  world proletariat, which can realize itself only as a species being, through world revolution, presupposes by its very existence “the universal development of productive power and worldwide interaction.”[104] The class that has only their humanness, and that cannot produce for themselves without producing for the entire human species, carries with it the existence of humanity. This is both in the sense of giving rise to global species being and in the sense of securing the continued physical existence of humanity as a species, which is imperiled by capitalism.

Communism integrates the global species and the individual, such that the species is the outer layer of the fractal that makes up the individual and as the species becomes polis, social being or zoon politicon, is reconciled with species being. Species being is able to throw off the “ravages of bourgeois unconsciousness” and take control, as a species, of its own self-making. Communism means a society that does not have to occlude reality in order to maintain itself. This is so since consciousness, as reflexivity, as humanness, as the human species, will be active in reality as such. In other words, the consciousness that will be active will be the conscience collective, the collective consciousness, of the human species as a species being. The species being, the objective reality of the species, conscious of itself as a species, and regulating its metabolic relationship with inorganic nature, in other words, with the rest of nature (industry and agriculture), as well as maintaining its own organic nature (through natural and social science, now one culture and not separate from ‘society,’ through medicine, and through its operation and regulation of industry and agriculture). Indeed the division between regulation and operation would cease to exist with the withering away of the state, and through its provision for the needs (in all senses) of the individuals that compose it. Species being would then be real in the sense of Durkheimian thingness or objectivity. But it would not require sacredness because it would not need to shield itself from reality. It would no longer need opium.

The human being is a species being because the human species is a process of socially awakening to being a species. In other words, the human being is a process of becoming a species being. What is human is consciousness and freedom, the power not just to consciously be (contemplation) but to consciously become (change). Spiritual matter is matter that is conscious of itself because it is not only alive as the individual organism but social and therefore alive as something more than the individual. Language is material, as Marx said. Therefore language is matter communicating with itself, through itself. Through language, the human being becomes spiritual matter. But this medium, language, is not in the individual. It is not some “dumb” generality. On the contrary, it is a generality that speaks and that exists outside the individual. It is society. It is socialness. It is social practice. It is social practice of matter (biological homo sapiens). It is material practice. It depends on the maintenance of the biological organism of the human being (organic nature), which is a metabolism with the natural environment (inorganic nature), which is a mode of production. It develops socially through the development of means of communication, which depend on the development of the productive forces, which is a work of labor power, which is human life itself. This human capacity for conscious change (labor, the conscious transformation of matter, the human capacity for self-making) becomes a capacity of the human species. The liberation of labor is the liberation of the human being is the creation of the human species. Species being is species becoming. To exist is to exist now. To be is to be in the present. Being is the present. “In bourgeois society,” Marx and Engels wrote, “The past dominates the present; in Communist society, the present dominates the past.”[105] The liberation of species being is the liberation of the present of the species from the past, the liberation of life, the living human being, from what is dead, the products of the past. This is the liberation of agency from structure, the liberation of freedom itself from necessity, the liberation of necessity (matter) from itself, the reconciliation of freedom and necessity.

[1] Nick Dyer-Witheford, “Digital Labor, Species-Becoming, and the Global Worker,” Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization 10 (3/4): 484-503.

[2] John Bellamy Foster, Richard York and Brett Clark, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).

[3] Dyer-Witheford, “Digital Labor, Species Becoming, and the Global Worker,” 490-491, 495-496, 499-500.

[4] Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, ed. Dirk J. Struik (New York: International Publishers, 1964),

[insert p. number]

[5] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 165, 182.

[6] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 135.

[7] Insert ref.

[8] Karl Marx, “Luther as Arbiter between Strauss and Feuerbach,” in idem, Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, ed and trans by Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 19 ), 93-95, on 95.

[9] Hanfi, “Introduction,” 20.

[10] Ludwig Feuerbach, “Introduction to the Essence of Christianity,” in idem, Ludwig Feuerbach, 97-133, on 117.

[11] Zawar Hanfi, “Introduction,” in idem ed. And trans., Ludwig Feuerbach: The Fiery Brook. Selected Writings (London: Verso), 1-50, on 20-21.

[12] Hanfi, “Introduction,” 21.

[13] Ludgwig Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy,” in idem, Ludwig Feuerbach, 53-96, on 93.

[14] Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique,” 93.

[15] Hanfi, “Introduction,” 21.

[16] Engels, quoted in Hanfi, “Introduction,” 20.

[17] Hanfi, “Introduction,” 21.

[18] Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in idem, Writings of the Young Marx, 400-402, on 400.

[19] V. I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism [insert full ref]

[20] Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique,” 62.

[21] Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique,” 65.

[22] Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique,” 65.

[23] Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique,” 65, 92.

[24] Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique,” 65.

[25] Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy,” 65.

[26] Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique,” 62.

[27] Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique,” 63

[28] Lewis Carroll, ”What the Tortoise Said to Achilles”. Mind. 104 (416) (1895): 691–693; Harry M. Collins, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles: Review of Donald Mackenzie, Mechanizing Proof: Computing, Risk, and Trust,” The British Journal for the History of Science  35 (4) (December, 2002), 469-474.

[29] Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique,” 63.

[30] Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” 402.

[31] Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique,” 63.

[32] Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique,” 65.

[33] Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” 402; cf. Sean Sayers, “Individual and Society in Marx and Hegel: Beyond the Communitarian Critique of Liberalism,” Science & Society 71 (1) (January 2007): 84-102.

[34] Paul Santilli argues that Marx intended “species being” and “social being” to designate “two aspects of the same thing”: “Marx on Species Being and Social Essence,” Studies in Soviet Thought 13 (1/2) (June 1973): 76-88, on 77.

[35] Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” 401-402.

[36] Marx, EPM, 138.

[37] Insert Giddens ref; Foster, “Metabolic Rift” AJS.

[38] Lewis Mumford, Myth of the Machine, Volume 1: Technics and Human Development (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1971) — CHECK PUBL DETAILS

[39] Giddens…. ; John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology; John Bellamy Foster, “Marx’s Theory of the Metabolic Rift… “ John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique (Leiden: Brill, 2016).

[40] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 113.

[41] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 112. Emphasis inserted. In original the word “inorganic” is italicized.

[42] Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique,” 93.

[43] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 112.

[44] Karl Marx, “The German Ideology” (extract), in idem, Writings of the Young Marx, 403-495, on 418. Cf. Don Ihde, “The Historical and Ontological Priority of Technology over Science,” in idem, Existential Technics…

[45] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 113.

[46] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 113.

[47] It is likely that this is why when we can merge with our activity, we experience this sense of “flow” as pleasurable, precisely because it takes us out of the discomfort of reflexive separateness. See Czientmihaly, Flow…

[48] Insert Fromm ref.

[49] Insert ref.

[50] Refs to Fromm and Giddens ; Ernst Becker.. Cf. AJit Varki and Danny Brower, Denial: Self-Deception, False Belief and the Origins of Human Mind. Terror Management Theory. See Erich Fromm, Man for Himself: An Inquiry in to the Psychology of Ethics (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1947), 28-32.

[51] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” 113.

[52] Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” 402. See also P. Walton, A. Gamble and J. Coulter, “Image of Man in Marx,” Social Theory and Practice 1 (20) (Fall 1970): 69-84.

[53] Marx, “The German Ideology,” 421.

[54] Timothy Crippen, “The Sources and Evolution of Social Consciousness: Reconciling the Contributions of Marx, Durkheim, and Mead,” Revue européenne des sciences sociales 25 (4)  (1987): 27-53. See also Henri Lefebvre, The Sociology of Karl Marx…. 

[55] Marx, “The German Ideology,” 421.

[56] George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society…. Cf. Mary Ellen Batiuk and Howard L. Sacks, “George Herbert Mead and Karl Marx: Exploring Consciousness and Community,” Symbolic Interaction 4 (2) (Fall 1981): 207-223; William M. O’Meara, “The Social Nature of Self and Morality for Husserl, Schutz, Marx, and Mead,” Philosophy Research Archives 12 (1986/1987): 329-355; Crippen, “The Sources and Evolution of Social Consciousness.” For a Marxist critique of pragmatism, see George Novack, Pragmatism versus Marxism: An Appraisal of John Dewey’s Philosophy (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975).

[57] Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy,” 92.

[58] Peter Winch, The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1958), 53; Collins, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.”

[59] Harry Collins, Forms of Life: The Method and Meaning of Sociology (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2019), 6-7.

[60] H. M. Collins, “Socialness and the Undersocialized Conception of Society,” Science, Technology, & Human Values 23 (4) (Autumn, 1998): 494-516.

[61] Collins, Forms of Life, 1-2, 6.

[62] Emile Durkheim, “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life,” (extract) in Michael S. Kimmel, Classical Sociological Theory, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 268-286, on 270. Cf. Peter Knapp, “Hegel’s Universal in Marx, Durkheim and Weber: The Role of Hegelian Ideas in the Origin of Sociology,” Sociological Forum 1 (4) (1986): 586-609.

[63] Durkheim, quoted in Mitsuhiro Tada, “Language and imagined Gesellschaft: Émile Durkheim’s civil-linguistic nationalism and the consequences of universal human ideals,” Theory & Society 49 (2020): 597-630, on 602, 603.

[64] Durkheim, quoted in Tada, “Language and imagined Gesellschaft,” 612.

[65] Harry Collins and Martin Kusch, The Shape of Action: What Humans and Machines Can Do (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998); Harry Collins, Artifictional Intelligence: Against Humanity’s Surrender to Computers (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018); Harry Collins, Forms of Life, 168 note 6.

[66] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (Hardmondsworth: Pelican, 1973), 84.

[67] Collins, “Socialness,” 504-505.

[68] Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence.

[69] Lenin, Imperialism; Emanuele Saccarelli and Latha Varadarajan, Imperialism: Past and Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press… ).

[70] Nick Beams, “The Significance and Implications of Globalization: A Marxist Perspective,” World Socialist Web Site (1998),…

[71] Wendy Brown, walls.

[72] Collins, Forms of Life, 7.

[73] Marx and Engels, “The German Ideology,” 404.

[74] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976),  42.

[75] Marx, EPM, 181.

[76] Marx, EPM, 182. On Marx’s theory of passion, and the way in which human passions are socially and historically shaped, see Erich Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1966), 24-26.

[77] Marx, EPM, 144.

[78] Marx and Engels, “The German Ideology,” 409.

[79] Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature, trans Clemens Dutt (New York: International Publishers, 1940), 279.

[80] Engels, Dialectics of Nature, 287-288. Cf. Richard Wratham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human (New York: Basic Books, 2010); Justin Rowlatt and Lawrence Knight, “The Real Reason Humans are the Dominant Species,” BBC News, March 28, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-56544239

[81] Marx and Engels, “The German Ideology,” 421.

[82] Marx, EPM, 165.

[83] Marx, EPM, 113-114.

[84] Marx, EPM, 114.

[85] Marx, EPM, 114.

[86] Marx argued that under capitalism and the bourgeois state, the individual is split so that in the market relations of civil society they are a selfish individual, and they only transcend that egoism in an abstract way as a citizen. In this way, “man leads a double life, a heavenly and earthly existence.” But this transcendence of individualism in bourgeois citizenship is an illusory form of species being precisely because it involves abstraction and fragmentation: “In the state where he counts as a species-being… he is an imaginary member of an imagined sovereignty, divested of his individual life and endowed with an unactual universality”: Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, ed. and trans. Lloyd D. Easton and Kurt Guddat (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967), 216-248, quoting 225-226.

[87] Marx, EPM, 141.

[88] Marx, EPM, 141. See also Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man, 32.

[89] Marx, EPM, 143, 182. See also Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man, 24-26.

[90] Marx, EPM, 135. Emphasis in original.

[91] Marx, EPM, 135.

[92] Marx, EPM, 145.

[93] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 114.

[94] https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch07.htm

[95] Marx, Grundrisse, 243.

[96] Marx, Grundrisse, 496.

[97] Marx, Grundrisse, 84.

[98] Marx, Grundrisse, 84.

[99] Marx, Grundrisse, 243.

[100] Christopher Caudwell, The Concept of Freedom (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1965), 101; Charles Thorpe and Brynna Jacobson, “Abstract Life, Abstract Labor, Abstract Mind,” in Brett Clark and Tamar Diana Wilson, The Capitalist Commodification of Animals, Research in Political Economy 35 (Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing, 2021) 69.

[101] Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1941), 49.

[102] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity; Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Life ; Lauren Langman, “From Subject to Citizen to Consumer: ….. “ …..

[103] Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, 39-41.

[104] Marx and Engels, “The German Ideology,” 427.

[105] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels,”The Communist Manifesto,” in David McLellan ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 221-247, on 233.

  1. My relationship to my surroundings is my consciousness.[]