The humanization of nature

A sorely-needed corrective 

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Image: Kevin Saint Gray, photograph
Shadows in the time of science (2010)

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The socialist revolution calls for terrifying windowless towers, desolated lots and plazas, massive concrete slabs thrown into the earth.

It requires absolute atmospheric agency: the conquest of gravity, victory over the sun, fantastic weather machines, a translucent vault or dome to seal off the heavens (when need be). Inside of this enclosed space, an architecture of the well-tempered environment, with universal ventilation/purification to accommodate the human lung.

Not only this, however. The socialist reconstruction of nature [социалистической реконструкции природы] also demands total geological dominion: vast terraforming projects that effortlessly tunnel through tough silicate and shruggingly shear off the sides of mountains, complete orthogonality, a Vernean clockwork at the center of the Earth. No longer Níðhöggr gnawing at the world-tree — the wyrm’s replaced by gears and wires stemming from the centrifuge. Tectonic plates will still shift following the revolution, but only when they are compelled or granted permission.

Marcel L'Herbier, still from the film L'Inhumaine, with scenery by Robert Mallet-Stevens (1923-1924)

Marcel L’Herbier in the film L’Inhumaine, scenery by Robert Mallet-Stevens (1923-1924)

From this it clearly follows that the dictatorship of the proletariat [Diktatur des Proletariats] heralded by Marx would at the same time simultaneously constitute the dictatorship of the right angle [dictature de l'angle droit] attributed to Corbusier by Lefebvre. A common demiurgic impulse thus seems to underlie both the Ricostruzione futurista dell’universo envisioned by the Italian futurists (future fascists) Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero and some of Trotsky’s closing lines in Literature and Revolution:

Социалистический человек хочет и будет командовать природой во всем ее объеме…через машину. Он укажет, где быть горам, а где расступиться. Изменит направление рек и создаст правила для океанов. Идеалистическим простачкам может показаться, что это будет скучно — на то они и простачки. Конечно, это не значит, что весь земной шар будет разграфлен на клетки, что леса превратятся в парки и огороды. Останутся, вероятно, и глушь, и лес, и тетерева, и тигры, но там, где им укажет быть человек. И он сделает это так складно, что тигр даже не заметит подъемного крана и не заскучает, а будет жить, как жил в первобытные времена. Машина не противостоит земле.

— Лев Троцкий, Литература и революция

Socialist man will command [komandovat'] nature in all its entirety…by the machine. He will point out where there will be mountains, and where there will be passess. He will change the course of rivers, and lay down rules for the oceans. To the idealist simpletons it may seem that this will be a bore — but that is why they are simpletons. Obviously this does not mean that the entire globe will be redrawn into cages, the forests turned into parks and gardens. The thickets, forests, grouse, and tigers will in all likelihood remain, but only where designated by man. And man will do this so fluidly that the tiger won’t even notice the lifting crane or feel the bored, but will live as he lived in primeval times. The machine does not stand opposed to the earth.

— Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution

As soon as tools have been converted from being manual implements of man into implements of a mechanical apparatus, of a machine, the motive mechanism likewise acquires an independent form, entirely emancipated from the restraints of human strength (Marx). Mechanization takes command (Giedion). With the socialization of ownership of the means of production, up to and including heavy machinery, these forces now pass under the self-conscious will of all humanity. History loses its anonymous character, having instead become autonomous.

It goes without saying that people ought only live in buildings that they fear. Someday may we all feel so free and at ease in the world we have ve built as to dwell in buildings that dwarf and intimidate us.

zürich : switzerland

zürich / switzerland

Of course this overstates the case. But this should at least serve to remind us of the other side of Marx’s approach to the relationship between man and nature, their mutual alienation at present and possible disalienation in future. Communism would entail not only the (re)naturalization of humanity, but perhaps first and foremost the humanization of nature. Or as Marx wrote:

Kommunismus ist als vollendeter Naturalismus Humanismus, als vollendeter Humanismus Naturalismus, er ist die wahrhafte Auflösung des Widerstreites zwischen dem Menschen mit der Natur und mit dem Menschen, die wahre Auflosung des Streits zwischen Existenz und Wesen, zwischen Vergegenständlichung und Selbstbestätigung, zwischen Freiheit und Notwendigkeit, zwischen Individuum und Gattung. Er ist das aufgelöste Rätsel der Geschichte und weiß sich als diese Lösung.

— Karl Marx, Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte

[C]ommunism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution [Auflösung, lit. "dissolution"] of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man — the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.

— Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

At the end of the day, it is probably more accurate this development as the humanization of nature, rather than the (re)naturalization of humanity. If Elisée Reclus was right a century ago in writing that “man is nature become self-conscious” [«l'homme est la nature prenant conscience d'elle-même»], then consciousness cannot rest until it has invaded and pervaded every inch of existence — realizing itself as omniscient, omnisentient matter.

Ludwig Hilberseimer, High-rise city [Hochhausstadt] (1924)

Ludwig Hilberseimer, High-rise city [Hochhausstadt] (1924)

Before undertaking such a tasks, however, it is necessary that humanity first be saved from its own unconscious and self-destructive (ultimately suicidal) propensity to recklessly deplete vital resources. In order to master nature, man must first learn to master himself.

Or, as Engels immortally phrased it toward the close of his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific:

Mit der Besitzergreifung der Produktionsmittel durch die Gesellschaft ist die Warenproduktion beseitigt und damit die Herrschaft des Produkts über die Produzenten. Die Anarchie innerhalb der gesellschaftlichen Produktion wird ersetzt durch planmäßige bewußte Organisation. Der Kampf ums Einzeldasein hört auf. Damit erst scheidet der Mensch, in gewissem Sinn, endgültig aus dem Tierreich, tritt aus tierischen Daseinsbedingungen in wirklich menschliche. Der Umkreis der die Menschen umgebenden Lebensbedingungen, der die Menschen bis jetzt beherrschte, tritt jetzt unter die Herrschaft und Kontrolle der Menschen, die zum ersten Male bewußte, wirkliche Herren der Natur, weil und indem sie Herren ihrer eignen Vergesellschaftung werden. Die Gesetze ihres eignen gesellschaftlichen Tuns, die ihnen bisher als fremde, sie beherrschende Naturgesetze gegenüberstanden, werden dann von den Menschen mit voller Sachkenntnis angewandt und damit beherrscht. Die eigne Vergesellschaftung der Menschen, die ihnen bisher als von Natur und Geschichte aufgenötigt gegenüberstand, wird jetzt ihre freie Tat. Die objektiven, fremden Mächte, die bisher die Geschichte beherrschten, treten unter die Kontrolle der Menschen selbst. Erst von da an werden die Menschen ihre Geschichte mit vollem Bewußtsein selbst machen, erst von da an werden die von ihnen in Bewegung gesetzten gesellschaftlichen Ursachen vorwiegend und in stets steigendem Maß auch die von ihnen gewollten Wirkungen haben. Es ist der Sprung der Menschheit aus dem Reich der Notwendigkeit in das Reich der Freiheit.

— Friedrich Engels, Die Entwicklung des Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenschaft

With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization. The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organization. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history,pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history — only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.

— Friedrich Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

6 thoughts on “The humanization of nature

  1. You overstate nothing. Excellent post.

    One thing re: (re)naturalization of humanity. I tend to think of this in terms of grasping humanity in its objectivity, ‘naturalizing’ in this sense, rather than the greenish sense of returning man to harmony with nature or something repulsive like that. For a Marxist of your attentiveness, I’m sure this much is obvious, but from this follows that as man becomes naturalized in the sense of comprehensively understandable and hence manipulable, his primary nature itself becomes humanized, conducive to humanity’s defining capacity for free self-determination. So the two in that regard are identical: as man is naturalized, his inner nature is humanized. And as with outer nature, this entails the dissolution of ‘nature’ itself as something that stands against the exercise of free will.

    • You raise an interesting point: If one takes man’s nature to be culture, or the “second nature” he has cultivated over centuries of social and historical development, priority would almost have to be granted to the transformation and humanization of this “second nature” over the first. That is to say, humanity must master the laws of its own social organization before attending to the problem of mastering the “first nature” out of which “second nature” arose.

  2. This was a magnificent piece of writing, but I think Marx’s statements did refer almost entirely to the nature of human social interaction. My rather personal opinion is that communism in Europe was most successful in the period where a certain type of architecture was spreadingt, and came to be associated with that; in reality, communist movements elsewhere (the Viet Cong, Khmer Rouge, FARC) seem[ed] instead to thrive against absurd odds only in…jungles: as soon as communism was, in practice, gone from Vietnam, so was 95% of its arboreal covering.

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