The nihilism of socialism

Robert Rives La Monte
Socialism: Positive and
(NYC: 1908)


For a while now I’ve been contemplating writing an essay on “proletarian nihilism.” By this I don’t mean the nihilisme prolétarien Vercesi wrote about in the Bordigist journal Bilan, a pejorative term he applied to German and Dutch council communists who denied the October Revolution had been anything more than bourgeois. Rather, proletarian nihilism would be the listlessness, apathy, and self-destructive instinct that gave rise to punk rock, or else that odd mixture of fatal resignation and reckless abandon that underlies so much of mass psychology.

Of course this is all a bit too simple, grounding the self-abolition and self-realization [Selbstaufhebung] of the working class in some sort of subjective mentalité. Self-overcoming, a term used by both Hegel and Nietzsche, is a key term for any adequate Marxist theory of the transition to a classless society. Marxism’s truth depends on the self-directed negativity of the proletariat, whose interest it is to do away with class altogether. This is why its particular interest is simultaneously universal, in the best interest of all society, which is central to Marx’s conception of the proletariat as the “universal class”:

Just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders, so the condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class. The working class in the course of its development will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society. Meanwhile the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is a struggle of class against class, a struggle which carried to its highest expression is a total revolution. And indeed, is it at all surprising that a society founded on the opposition of classes should culminate in brutal contradiction, the shock of body against body, as its final denouement?

Incidentally, this is also why it’s so misguided to conceive of class as just another identity alongside gender and race. The world-historic significance of the proletariat is not at all its permanent position within capitalist society, but its negation of that society. Negation of identity is not identical to the affirmation of difference. Only on its basis is the dissolution of religion, family, and the state imaginable. Robert Rives La Monte, whose work I mentioned in my last post, formulated this essentially annihilative aim of Marxism as “the nihilism of socialism.”

As La Monte explained, “…‘nihilism’ is not used in strict technical or philosophical sense, but simply as a convenient term by which to designate the aggregate of those aspects of socialism which, viewed from the standpoint of the existing regime, appear as negative and destructive.” Marx famously described this corrosive nihilism as the “rational kernel” of dialectical methodology in the 1871 postface to the second edition of Capital:

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.

Engels later counterposed the revolutionary method of Hegel’s philosophy with its conservative system, writing in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy that “all that is real in the sphere of human history becomes irrational in the process of time, is irrational by its very destination, tainted beforehand with irrationality… In accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the opposite proposition.” Quoting Goethe, Engels wrote: “All that exists deserves to perish.”

La Monte’s essay, which follows, is concerned above all with three negations: “the atrophy of religion, the metamorphosis of the family, and the suicide of the state.” He locates “the nihilism of socialism” in the materialist conception of history. I would do him one better, and locate it in the historical formation of the proletariat. For as La Monte himself says: “the nihilism of socialism has no deterrent terrors for him, for as Marx said long ago, ‘he has nothing to lose but his chains, and a whole world to gain’.”

Positive ideals


In their negative proposals the socialists and anarchists are fairly agreed. It is in the metaphysical postulates of their protest and in their constructive aims that they part company. Of the two, the socialists are more widely out of touch with the established order. They are also more hopelessly negative and destructive in their ideals, as seen from the standpoint of the established order.

— Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of Business Enterprise. Pg. 338.

To label a truth a truism is too often regarded as equivalent to placing it in the category of the negligible. It is precisely the salient obviousness, which makes a truth a truism, that places it in the direst peril of oblivion in the stress of modern life. Such a truth was well stated by Enrico Ferri, the Italian Marxist criminologist, in a recent lecture before the students of the University of Naples: “Without an ideal, neither an individual nor a collective can live, without it humanity is dead or dying. For it is the fire of an ideal which renders the life of each one of us possible, useful and fertile. And only by its help can each one of us, in the longer or shorter course of his or her existence, leave behind traces for the benefit of fellow beings.”

Platitude though this may be, our greatest poets have not hesitated to use their highest powers to impress it upon us. Robert Browning put this truth into the mouth of Andrea del Sarto in one of the strongest lines in all English verse, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” Continue reading

On the first socialist tragedy

Andrei Platonov

It is essential not to thrust oneself forward and not to get drunk on life; our time is both better and more serious than blissful delight. Everyone who gets drunk is sure to be caught, sure to perish like a little mouse that messes with a mousetrap in order to “get drunk” on the fat on the bait. All around us lies fat, but every piece of this fat is bait. It is necessary to stand in the ranks of the ordinary people doing patient socialist work — that is all we can do.

The arrangement of nature corresponds to this mood and consciousness. Nature is not great and is not abundant. Or her design is so rigid that she has never yet yielded her greatness and her abundance to anyone. This is a good thing; otherwise — in historical time — we would long ago have looted and squandered all nature; we would have eaten our way right through her and got drunk on her right to her very bones. There would always have been appetite enough. Had the physical world been without what is, admittedly, its most fundamental law — the law of the dialectic — it would have taken people only a few centuries to destroy the world completely. More than that, in the absence of this law, nature would have annihilated itself to smithereens even without any people. The dialectic is probably an expression of miserliness, of the almost insuperable rigidity of nature’s construction — and it is only thanks to all this that humanity’s historical development has been possible. Otherwise everything would long ago have come to an end on this earth — like a game played by a child with sweets that melt in his hands before he has even had time to eat them.

What is the truth to be seen in the historical picture of our own time?

It goes without saying that this picture is tragic — if only because true historical work is being carried out not on the whole of the earth but only on a small, and greatly overburdened, part of the earth.

Truth — in my opinion — lies in the fact that “technology decides everything.” It is indeed technology that constitutes the theme of our contemporary historical tragedy — if technology is understood to mean not only the entire complex of man-made production tools but also the social organization that is based on the technology of production, and if ideology too is included in this understanding. Ideology, incidentally, is located not in the superstructure, not on some “height,” but somewhere within, in the heart of society’s sense of itself. To be more precise, unless in our concept of technology we also include the technician himself — the human being — our understanding of the question will remain obtuse and leaden.

The relationship between technology and nature is tragic. Technology’s aim is “Give me a fulcrum and I shall overturn the world.” But nature’s construction is such that she does not like being outmaneuvered. With the right moment of force it is possible to overturn the world, but so much will be lost in the journey and in the travel time of the lever that in practical terms the victory will be useless. This is an elementary example of the dialectic. Let us look now at a fact from our own time: the splitting of the atomic nucleus. It is the same thing. The hour will come when we expend n quantity of energy on the destruction of an atom and in return receive n + 1 — and we will be ever so pleased with this meager increase, because this absolute gain will have been obtained by virtue of something like an artificially induced change to nature’s most fundamental principle: the dialectic itself. Nature stays aloof, she keeps us at bay; a quid pro quo — or even a trade with a mark-up in her own favor — is the only way she can work. Technology, however, strains to achieve the opposite. It is through the dialectic that the external world is defended against us. And so, however paradoxical this may seem: nature’s dialectic is both humanity’s enemy and its instructor. The dialectic of nature constitutes the very greatest resistance to technology; the aim and function of technology is to deny, or at least mitigate, the dialectic. Up until now its success in this has been modest, which is why the world cannot yet be kind and good for us.

And at the same time, the dialectic is our only instructor and our only means of defense against the premature and senseless destruction involved in childish delight. Just as the dialectic is itself the power that has created all our technology.

In sociology, in love, in the depth of a human being, the law of the dialectic functions no less immutably. A man with a ten-year-old son left the boy with the boy’s mother — and married a young beauty. The boy began to long for his father and patiently, clumsily hanged himself. A gram of delight on one end of the lever is balanced by a ton of graveyard earth on the other. The father took the rope from the boy’s neck and soon followed him into the grave. What he wanted was to get drunk on the innocent beauty; he wanted to bear love not as a duty, not as an obligation with a single wife, but as pleasure. Don’t get drunk — or it will be the end of you.

Some naïve people may retort that the contemporary crisis of production overturns this point of view. It does not overturn anything. Imagine the extremely complex technical equipment of the society of contemporary imperialism and fascism, the grinding exhaustion and destruction of the people of these societies — and it will become only too clear at what price this increase in the forces of production has been achieved. Self-destruction in fascism, war between states — these are the losses entailed by increased production, these are nature’s revenge for it. The tragic knot is cut — but without being resolved. What results cannot — in the classical sense of the word — even be called tragedy. Without the USSR, the world would be certain to destroy itself in the course of no more than a century.

The tragedy of man, armed with machine and heart, and with the dialectic of nature, must in our country be resolved by way of socialism. But it must be understood that this task is an extremely serious one. Ancient life on the “surface” of nature was able to obtain what was essential to it from the waste products and excretions of elemental forces and substances. But we mess about deep inside the world, and in return the world crushes us with an equivalent strength.

Translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth
Chandler, Jonathan Platt, and Olga Meerson

Continue reading

Dialectics and historical reality

Dialectics is not some sort of thought-trick or rhetorical sleight-of-hand, let alone the so-called “epistemological magic-key to revolutionary tactics or theory.” Of course, I don’t doubt that more than a handful of people (ab)use dialectics in this way. But this is true of practically every discourse, some more than others. There’s literally almost no end to jargon and the obfuscatory use of concepts. But where a feeble mind like Eugen Dühring dismissed Marx as someone “deeply bitten with the Hegelian pestilence,” seeing his dialectics as mere “verbal jugglery,” closer inspection would have revealed an actual content to what Marx was saying. More attention still would have disclosed a rationale as well behind his way of saying it.

Honestly, I’m not even sure something like epistemology is useful to politics, since arguably we’re only able to know the world insofar as we’re able to change it. Joseph Dietzgen, Theodor Adorno, and Alfred Sohn-Rethel critiqued epistemology along precisely these lines. Marx’s own Theses on Feuerbach (1845) set out to articulate this peculiar epistemological quandary and the conditions for its historical supersession. Turning prior materialist philosophies on their head, Marx wrote:

I. The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism — that of Feuerbach included — is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism — which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.

II. The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice.

This provides the basis for Marxism’s dialectical methodology. “Truth” is not a matter of passive consumption, whether intuited sensuously or conceptualized contemplatively. Rather, objective truth can only be attained only through humanity’s active participation in its own self-transformation.  Continue reading

Max Ajl vs. Alex Gourevitch in Jacobin on society, nature, and the Left: An intervention

Alex Gourevitch
, whose presence I greatly appreciated on our environmentalism panel at the Left forum this last year, has been causing quite a stir with his articles “Two Hurricanes” and “Nature and Progress.”  Like Gourevitch, I “come from the minority on the Left that is skeptical of environmentalism.” Some of my polemics on the subject of “the ideology of ‘green’,” especially my long essay on “Man and Nature” (published in the speculative realist journal Thinking Nature), elicited a great deal of outrage from the “small-is-beautiful” Left as well. For example, this neat bit of screed from the environmental philosopher and ecofeminist Ronnie Hawkins:

I find myself virtually speechless in the wake of having read Ross Wolfe’s “Man and Nature,” however, especially in light of its concluding quotation, seemingly with approval, of Trotsky holding forth on “the Socialist man” who “will rule all nature by machine,” changing the course of rivers and cutting down mountains — I am left wondering whether this essay was intentionally crafted to be a cartoonish caricature of a position that has been undergoing an active process of rejection over many years now, and rightly so. At a time in which we are recognizing that we live in a world of limits — not only limits on how much GHG we can stuff into our atmosphere but limits on how much longer we can continue all the complex industrial processes that depend on fossil fuel consumption, including the translocation of staple foods from one continent to another, upon which some millions if not billions today depend — here is an author trotting out the same old, tired anti-Malthusian tirade, without giving the faintest hint of what sort of goal we might be “progressing” toward under his “vision of unlimited human freedom,” apparently unconstrained by any sort of planetary finitude. Wolfe provides not argument but ridicule against the positions of deep ecologists and animal rightists of various stripes, and he betrays an embarrassing lack of familiarity with philosophical ecofeminism. He does environmental philosophy a service, however, by addressing green anarchism head-on, something that the more mainstream journals have shied away from for all too long.

While I’m not quite ready to reject all that goes under the heading of “civilization,” I think a VERY deep critique of the presently dominant, near-global, industrial worldview (cutting at least as far down to the bone as John Zerzan’s problematization of language and the beginning of our primate symbol-use), to be followed by a REVERSAL of the trajectories of many of the activities that are currently being carried out by collective human action — for example, the building of a whole new round of nuclear reactors, and nuclear weapons, and mega-projects of many types as currently contemplated (all ultimately justified on the basis of continuing the growth of our human population indefinitely, though the proximal reasons are often very different) — is absolutely essential if our species is to make it through the twenty-first century. Without some kind of acknowledgment of the wrongness of continuing on in our current direction, and a turning away from it, we will indeed suffer the dystopian future heralded by the “zombie” genre — it will simply be natural selection acting on a species unwilling, to the bitter end, to relinquish its self-deception (one part of a finite system cannot continue to grow indefinitely — that’s very simple logic indeed). I’m afraid neither Marx nor Wolfe’s sort of contemporary Marxist ever got around to understanding “productivity” in terms of what REALLY keeps us all alive — NPP, the net primary productivity of green plants, not the sham “productivity” of human beings making plastic crap in sweatshops nor the complete fantasy of “production” in imagining we are creating something real by the calculation of compound interest.

Instead of continuing to converse in the worn-out terminology from another era, or to stay largely within disciplinary boundaries even with narrow, if more updated, concepts, I think we’re inhabiting a space now where all disciplines need to take an active role in addressing our common human situation, as Ted Toadvine may be advocating. But in that space we now all have access to certain significant findings of contemporary biological science, should we take the trouble to investigate, not the least of which are the astounding commonality (underlying a very broad spectrum of more superficial differences) of Earthly lifeforms, the complexity of organization of every living being, and the myriad interrelationships among them, some of which are importantly linked to considerations of finitude. There is a reality of “what it means to be alive,” in thermodynamic, organizational, and experiential dimensions, that needs to be recognized by everyone who would propose to philosophize about such matters, and a new vitalism — one that does not shy away from acknowledgment of the fact that the living IS different from the nonliving–may be very much in order. There are also interesting possibilities to explore with respect to the relationship between our collective level of awareness and our human social ontology: when we begin to ask questions like “what IS money?” or debt or any of the other socially agreed-upon symbols that we presently invest with power over ourselves but need not, for example, some things may change rapidly. Bumping up our self-reflexive awareness a level or two may well spell the end of globalized exploitative capitalism, which seems to be virtually synonymous with our highly centralized and now faltering industrialism (and let’s not forget patriarchal militarism). That’s why we need local agricultural communities of various sorts to spring up everywhere, by the way — so that there will be an alternative way of feeding people when the great “machine” grinds down — a pattern of social organization based on mistaken metaphysical assumptions that our species must finally leave far behind.

Émile Bayard, from Autour de la lune (All around the moon), by Jules Verne, Paris (Hetzel), circa 1870

Despite Hawkins’ insinuation that I “intentionally crafted [my essay] to be a cartoonish caricature of a position that has been undergoing an active process of rejection over many years now,” I was in fact and remain quite serious about the positions I laid out in that paper. The tendentiousness of her brief list of objections, including a complete misreading about what is meant by “production” in a specifically Marxist sense and her scientifically-misunderstood invocation of the second law of thermodynamics, should be obvious to anyone who knows the first thing about either Marxism as a social science or physics as a natural science. And yet many of the same arguments Hawkins makes in these lines are trotted out yet again by authors like Chris Bertram of Crooked Timber of Humanity or Max Ajl in his rejoinders to Gourevitch on Jacobin‘s online section, “Climate Change and the Politics of Responsibility” or “Really-Existing Environmentalism.” Ajl closes the second of these papers with the following lines:

Heavy industrialization has no answer to these questions of how to regulate the human interaction with the surrounding environment. But one thing is for sure, at its core, Gourevitch’s argument reduces to a call for total human control over nature and a destructive demand for the demobilization of all radical environmentalist social forces.

Both requests are criminally stupid. They have no place on the Left.

Criminally stupid, eh? No place on the Left, eh? I defer to the statements of both Friedrich Engels and Leon Trotskii included in the close to my essay on “Man and Nature.” The reader can decide for himself whether or not Engels or Trotskii were here behaving “criminally stupid” or if their opinions “have no place on the Left”:

In the final analysis, far from being a single, unitary ideology, the ideology of Green is rather just a hodgepodge of past ideological remnants — neo-Romanticism, vitalism, primitivism, Luddism, Eastern mysticism, and quasi-fascist Germanic naturalism. Though there is a small kernel of truth to its project insofar as it deals with sustainability (i.e., the ability to carry on the exploitation of natural resources without the threat of environmental catastrophe), more often than not there is an underlying notion amongst eco-activists that humanity should have some sort of “respect” for nature as an inviolable thing-in-itself. The Green movement therefore views nearly every industrial-technical instrumentalization of nature, plant and animal alike, as invasive and chauvinist. Insofar as it preaches “eating local” and “going organic,” and then promotes the long-outdated ideal of self-sufficiency, it’s tacitly advocating a return a semi-feudal mode of production, which would necessarily involve massive famine and urban depopulation.

Humanity does, indeed, stand alienated from nature. And yes, there is good scientific evidence that supports the theory of global warming, though the scientists are characteristically more cautious in their predictions. Those on the Right who insistently deny the fact of climate change are just as delusional as the hysterical dispensationalists on the Left who declare the world is doomed. But the present-day Green movement provides no real answers for reconciling man with nature, when posed as a social problem, outside of, perhaps, its notion of sustainable growth. So what might a Marxist approach to the societal problem of man’s relation to nature look like?

To begin with, it must acknowledge that the answer can only lie in radical social transformation. Since humanity’s alienation from nature began with the foundation of the first societies — i.e., the beginning of history as such — and since the precise form in which this alienation has manifested itself has varied throughout history, we are left two options. Either we renounce society in its entirety, with all its freedoms and higher sensibilities, and retreat into the dark recesses of prehistory (as the anarcho-primitivists suggest), or we must progress into a new, as-yet-unseen social formation. With the former option, nature would no longer present itself as a problem to humanity because there wouldn’t be a consciousness of anything different, and we would act on our every savage instinct. Following the latter course of action, human society must gain a more self-conscious mastery over nature, such that it would become merely an extension of our will. What we are faced with is thus clear: either we must accept the renaturalization of humanity, or, inversely, the humanization (or socialization) of nature. Only by pursuing one or the other of these options can the contradiction be overcome — only then might humanity be disalienated from the natural world.

For the Marxist, the choice is simple. Though regressions do occasionally take place throughout history, one cannot turn back the hands of time wholesale. Thus is the dream of the anarcho-primitivists only a nightmarish fantasy, never to be realized. One can only progress by moving forward. The only answer the Marxist can accept is worldwide revolution — the fundamental transformation of existing social relations. This revolution must honor neither regional convention nor national boundary, it must extend to encompass the globe. And only by eliminating society’s foundation on that insatiable category called Capital, only then can society exist for itself, only then can men truly make his own history, rather than be made by history. In the words of Marx, “[m]en make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Engels expanded on this in later work, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific:

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. [my emphases]

How to achieve such a seizure of the means of production is a political question, one that has been dealt with historically by figures like Lenin and Trostkii. And although it would be utopian to speculate exactly what such a realized society would look like, a few possibilities seem plausible. First, such an emancipated society, freed from the rule of Capital and the forces of history, can now consciously direct its actions at a global level. No longer would there be the haphazard, chaotic hyperexploitation of nature that one sees under capitalism, which so often gives rise to crises and acute shortages. Secondly, humanity, liberated from its servitude to merely use technology as a tool to generate relative surplus-value, can now self-consciously harness the vast technological forces bestowed upon it by capitalist society. No longer beholden to these machines, gadgets, and other devices, but their master, human society can use these technological instruments to radically reshape nature for the benefit of both society and nature.Indeed, this would involve both the transformation of man and nature. Or, as Trotskii put it in the conclusion of his book, Literature and Revolution, in a quote that might as well serve as an appendix to our whole discussion:

The Socialist man will rule all nature by the machine, with its grouse and its sturgeons. He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans. The idealist simpletons may say that this will be a bore, but that is why they are simpletons. Of course this does not mean that the entire globe will be marked off into boxes, that the forests will be turned into parks and gardens. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain. And man will do it so well that the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times. The machine is not in opposition to the earth.[…]

[And thus, t]he wall will fall not only between art and industry, but simultaneously between art and nature also. This is not meant in the sense of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that art will come nearer to a state of nature, but that nature will become more “artificial.” The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores, cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste.

The Marxist vision of an emancipated society is one of abundance and plenitude, not of scarcity and shortage. It is a vision of unlimited human freedom, not within the constraints of an ascetic lifestyle. And these are precisely the terms that the Green movement have set up as unchallengeable, terms of shortage and “ecoscarcity.” And “[t]he danger here is of accepting, often without knowing it, concepts that preclude radical critique,” writes the Marxist theorist and radical geographer David Harvey. “Consider, for example, the way in which ‘ecoscarcity’ (and its cognate term of ‘overpopulation’) plays out in contemporary debate.” With such terms as “ecoscarcity” and the supposed dearth of natural resources, contemporary eco-activism shortchanges the possibilities of human freedom. Harvey continues, writing that the assumption of “ecoscarcity” by contemporary environmentalists implies “that we have not the will, wit or capacity to change our social goals, cultural modes, our technological mixes, or our form of economy and that we are powerless to modify ‘nature’ according to human requirements.” The history of capitalism supports none of these claims. There may be limitations in terms of what we might accomplish in transforming nature at the present moment, but that is no reason set arbitrary limits on what might be accomplished in the future. “Hitherto philosophers have only described the world; the point, however, is to change it,” reads Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. We might close by saying that not only can the social world be changed, but our physical world as well.

Henri de Montaut, from De la terre à la lune (From the earth to the moon), by Jules Verne, Paris (Hetzel), 18??

Henri de Montaut, from De la terre à la lune (From the earth to the moon), by Jules Verne, Paris (Hetzel), 18??

In this vein, reading Marx on Feuerbach, I recall a passage from The German Ideology that Gourevitch himself cited toward the end of the discussion of environmentalism and Occupy at the Left Forum. With Ajl’s objections to Gourevitch I cannot help but be reminded of Marx’s brilliant critical insight into Feuerbach’s neo-Romantic ruminations on the supposed peace and tranquility one experiences in community with “nature.” Feuerbach, disgusted with the filth and soot of the industrial cities, fled to the countryside, where he contemplated the “natural simplicity” and appreciation human beings feel when surrounded by a natural setting. The specific object of his most sublime contemplations was a cherry blossom (prunus serrulata, I believe), which he commended for its beauty, untouched by the hand of mankind.

Marx pointed out, of course, that this particular species of cherry had actually been imported centuries ago from Japan, through trans-oceanic commerce. And so it was not that Feuerbach was appreciating some pristine bit of nature, apart from human influence; rather, it was only by virtue of human influence acting in history that he was able to sit there and appreciate it at all:

In reality and for the practical materialist, i.e. the communist, it is a question of revolutionizing the existing world, of practically attacking and changing existing things. When occasionally we find such views with Feuerbach, they are never more than isolated surmises and have much too little influence on his general outlook to be considered here as anything else than embryos capable of development. Feuerbach’s conception of the sensuous world is confined on the one hand to mere contemplation of it, and on the other to mere feeling…He does not see how the sensuous world around him is, not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of society; and, indeed, in the sense that it is an historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations, each standing on the shoulders of the preceding one, developing its industry and its intercourse, modifying its social system according to the changed needs. Even the objects of the simplest “sensuous certainty” are only given him through social development, industry and commercial intercourse. The cherry-tree, like almost all fruit-trees, was, as is well known, only a few centuries ago transplanted by commerce into our zone, and therefore only by this action of a definite society in a definite age it has become “sensuous certainty” for Feuerbach.

Incidentally, when we conceive things thus, as they really are and happened, every profound philosophical problem is resolved…quite simply into an empirical fact. For instance, the important question of the relation of man to nature (Bruno [Bauer] goes so far as to speak of “the antitheses in nature and history,” as though these were two separate “things” and man did not always have before him an historical nature and a natural history), crumbles of itself when we understand that the celebrated “unity of man with nature” has always existed in industry and has existed in varying forms in every epoch according to the lesser or greater development of industry, just like the “struggle” of man with nature, right up to the development of his productive powers on a corresponding basis. Industry and commerce, production and the exchange of the necessities of life, themselves determine distribution, the structure of the different social classes and are, in turn, determined by it as to the mode in which they are carried on; and so it happens that in Manchester, for instance, Feuerbach sees only factories and machines, where a hundred years ago only spinning-wheels and weaving-rooms were to be seen, or in the Campagna of Rome he finds only pasture lands and swamps, where in the time of Augustus he would have found nothing but the vineyards and villas of Roman capitalists.

Feuerbach speaks in particular of the perception of natural science; he mentions secrets which are 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 is provided with an aim, as with its material, only through trade and industry, through the sensuous activity of men. So much is this activity, this unceasing sensuous labour and creation, this production, the basis of the whole sensuous world as it now exists, that, were it interrupted only for a year, Feuerbach would not only find an enormous change in the natural world, but would very soon find that the whole world of men and his own perceptive faculty, nay his own existence, were missing. Of course, in all this the priority of external nature remains unassailed, and all this has no application to the original men produced by generatio aequivoca [spontaneous generation]; but this differentiation has meaning only insofar as man is considered to be distinct from nature. For that matter, nature, the nature that preceded human history, is not by any means the nature in which Feuerbach lives, it is nature which today no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral-islands of recent origin [!!]) and which, therefore, does not exist for Feuerbach.

There is truth, in part, to the nature/culture dichotomy, but it is precisely an historical truth, and nothing more. Positing a strict divide between humanity in nature is impossible. In light of such examples from Marx, Engels, and Trotskii, I cannot but conclude that it is in fact Max Ajl who is criminally stupid, and who has no place on the Left.

A Marxist Approach to the Nature-Culture Divide: A Reply to Adam Robbert’s “Six Common Problems in Thinking Nature-Culture Interactions”

Still from Tarkovskii's "Stalker" -- Entering the Zone (1979)

The following is taken from a response I wrote to Adam Robbert’s recent post on his blog,“Six Common Problems in Thinking Nature-Culture Interactions.”  If you would like to read another interesting response to the article, check out Matthew David Segall’s reply here, “Towards an Eco-Ontology.”  My Adornian opposition to ontologies of any sort remains unchanged, and while this doubtless complicates any attempt at discourse I might have with the OOO approach, I still think that some fruitful dialogue might be taken from this discussion.

A very interesting reflection on the old problem of the nature-culture relationship. Your points are thorough, calm, and considered — and I will say that none of them fall prey to the kind of pernicious metaphysical proclamations I sometimes see being issued out of the OOO blogosphere. Seeing your measured comments on my blog, it is little surprise to see that you are equally measured and reasonable in writing posts for your own blog.

In any case, I, like Matthew, also appreciate some of the thinkers you brought into constellation with one another. Ellul and Mumford are among my favorite critics of technology, though I prefer their insights as filtered through and appropriated by Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse. For this reason, along with my general Marxist inclinations, the most important point you highlighted (in my opinion) was the third, considering the effects of capitalism and globalization on the relationship between humanity and nature. For me, capitalism, globalization, and modernity are all coterminous — globalization is simply a spatial register for capitalism’s inherently expansionary logic, while the time-consciousness of modernity is merely capitalism’s temporal register.

I would argue, viewing the problem historically, that the problem of humanity’s alienation from nature — the widening chasm between Nature and Culture, even if they be inextricably intertwined — arose historically. That is to say, although humanity’s self-distinction as a society distinguishable from nature arrived fairly early, with the project of agriculture and primitive domestication, the estrangement of humanity from nature only rose to the level of consciousness with the advent of capitalism. Only after the Enlightenment’s thorough disenchantment of nature, the coldly rationalizing and technicizing logic of capitalism, even in the eighteenth century, only after this point do we see writers like Schiller, Holderlin, Schelling, and Hegel writing of the problem of humanity’s alienation from nature. Marx rationalized the Romantic thinkers’ thoughts on the matter in his Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

This bleeds into your second point, where you talk about the problem of nature being one that nature considered as an entity unto itself must also be thought alongside the various ideological conceptions of nature arrived at by society through history. This is why I, in my own writings on the subject, have referred to nature as a fundamentally social problem. That is to say, one can look back through history at the way that humanity has conceived of nature, in its various iterations through the ages, and see that the way that nature has presented itself to us largely depends on the social constitution of a particular epoch. This is not to fall into the idealistic fantasy that nature has no existence apart from our conception of it, but rather to admit that while nature might have its own objective rhythms and regularities, it is not some sort of Kantian Ding-an-Sich, and the way that we conceptualize nature has much to do with how it appears to us as a problem. Oppositely, this would suggest that our way of thinking has much to do with the objective relations of whatever mode of production prevails throughout society at a given time, such that there is a quite real divide between Nature and Culture that has arisen historically. This means that we cannot overcome the problem simply by “reconceptualizing” it, but rather only through a fundamental transformation of our social structure.

Regarding the “pluriverse” and multiple conceptions of nature that you discuss in the fourth part, I thus believe that it is collapsible into the second part, since the multiple manifestations of nature arise historically as part of the social being of mankind. But I’m fully on board with you, also, on the facile attempt to dismiss the real opposition between nature and culture by simply saying that they are wholly intermingled with one another.

If you would like to read my own musings on the subjects, in a rather long essay that is due to be published in the upcoming SR journal Thinking Nature, edited by Ben Woodard and Timothy Morton, you can check it out on my blog. It’s much more detailed than the point-by-point reaction I give here, and I think you might be interested in taking a glance at it.

Man and Nature, Part II: The Marxist Theory of Man’s Alienation from Nature

Still from Tarkovskii’s Stalker (1979)

When Marx wrote his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, he was likewise concerned with the problem of man’s (specifically, the worker’s) relationship to nature.  It was part of the worker’s fourfold alienation under capitalist modernity: his estrangement from nature, from the products of his labor, from other people, and from himself.  As Marx explained, with respect to nature: “The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world.  It is the material in which his labor realizes itself…”[1] However, as the products of the worker’s labor are expropriated, nature is reduced to a mere means of subsistence.  “In a physical sense man lives only from these natural products, whether in the form of nourishment, heating, clothing, shelter, etc.…Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say nature in so far as it is not the human body.”[2] The natural world is further and further removed from the worker, and arrives then only in a relatively processed, mediated form.  The immediacy of nature has been lost, and nature confronts humanity as an alien, unknown entity.  This alienation is exacerbated by the shared estrangement from nature that the individual sees in other men: “Every self-estrangement of man from himself and nature is manifested in the relationship he sets up between other men and himself and nature.”[3] Or, as the Marxist theorist Max Horkheimer would later put it, echoing Marx, “The history of man’s efforts to subjugate nature is also the history of man’s subjugation by man.”[4]

Clearly, the alienation felt by the Romantics toward nature was a real one, Marx recognized, but he did not see it as the result of some sort of spiritual downfall or fall from grace.  Rather, he understood it to be symptomatic of the rise of a new social formation — namely, capitalism.  That is to say, the alienation from nature that was registered ideologically (in poetry, philosophy, and art) by the Romantics was indicative of a deeper shift in the socioeconomic substructure of their time.

Although humanity’s alienation from nature was clearly a central concern of the young Marx, most of his later work was solely devoted to the analysis of class relations under capitalism and the critique of political economy.  It was thus Engels, rather, who would eventually take up the subject of nature again in his writings.  Not only in his 1883 Dialectics of Nature, a text that remains controversial within the annals of Marxist literature, but even in other works like Anti-Duhring and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels discussed the way in which humanity became further estranged from nature even as science began to discover its innermost workings.  For rather than encountering nature in an organic, holistic fashion, natural science was methodologically microscopic, isolating individual phenomena from their original context and observing their operation in abstraction from the whole.  This entailed, as Bacon had already himself admitted, a certain domination of nature.  And this, in turn, implied an equal degree of alienation from nature.  Engels explained the historical unfolding of this process as follows:

The analysis of Nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organized bodies in their manifold forms — these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature that have been made during the last 400 years. But this method of work has also left us as a legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constraints, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life.[5]

Although Engels himself repudiated the French materialists and natural philosophers like Bacon and Locke for their “metaphysical” approach to nature, and considered the mechanistic view of the world to have been superseded by dialectical thought, it was the mechanistic worldview that eventually won out in the field of the natural sciences.  It remains down to the present day — for better or for worse — the predominant mode of thought amongst the disciplines of physics, chemistry, and biology.  This is a large reason why Engels’ later Dialectics of Nature has subsequently been so disparaged by scientists and philosophers, despite the fact that some of its content is both salvageable and valuable to Marxist literature.

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