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Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society
By Bertell Ollman
Man's relation to his species
The last of the four broad relations Marx uses to reconstruct man's alienation in capitalist society is the tie between the individual and his species. Species, as we saw, is the category of the possible, denoting in particular those potentialities which mark man off from other living creatures. In so far as the conditions of communism allow an individual to develop and express all that he is capable of as a human being, communist man and species man are identical. When, therefore, Marx claims that 'estranged human labor estranges the species from man', he is saying that the unique configuration of relations which distinguishes the individual as a human being has been transformed into something quite different by the performance of capitalist labor.1
Man's relation to his species differs qualitatively from the other relations that were examined. His relations to his work, product and other men are tangible, both ends of which exist in the present, while the relation between man and his species is removed, in which living people are measured by the standard of what it means to be a man. Perhaps this facet of alienation can be more clearly grasped if we consider it a reformulation of man's alienation in his work, product and other men, viewed now from the angle of the individual's membership in the species. As Marx says:
In tearing away from man the object of his production…estranged labor tears from him his species life, his real species objectivity, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him. Similarly, in degrading spontaneous activity, free activity, to a means, estranged labor makes man's species life a means to his physical existence.2The connection between species alienation and social alienation is made explicit elsewhere: 'The proposition that man's species nature is estranged from him means that one man is estranged from the other, as each of them is from man's essential nature.'3
Marx makes several comparisons between man and animals in his attempts to clarify what is lost through species alienation. When the capitalist appropriates the product of the worker's labor, Marx declares that the latter's 'advantage over animals' is transformed into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him'.4 All living creatures have numerous relationships to the natural objects about them. As a result of his powers and needs being more extensive that any animal's, man enjoys the advantage of having the most complex ties of all. This shows in production where he is able to create things which are not objects of immediate need, a greater range of things, more beautiful things; he can also reproduce the objects he finds in nature.5
All man's advantages over animals become disadvantages when the natural objects to which he is related become the property of other men. While animals in the forest take whatever they need from their immediate surroundings, man is restricted in his use of objects to what their owners will allow, which is invariably less than his powers require. If, as Marx says, 'The object of work is…the objectification of man's species life,' with the removal of these objects from his control, the human species is deprived of its reality, of what it requires to manifest itself as the human species.6
We must be careful here as elsewhere not to substitute our concept of the processes and events which come into the discussion for Marx's own. Thus, though we may consider that people realize their human potential in conditions of private property, Marx does not. And his conception of this potential and of individual control over any part of nature is such that each necessarily excludes the other. This conclusion in no way affects the historical role that Marx attributes to the institution of private property in helping to prepare a time when manthrough the abolition of such propertywill be able to fully manifest his species powers. Until then, however, the distinctive character of man's complex relationship to nature is lost below the horizon of the animal world through the confiscation of this entire nature by another.
In treating species alienation, Marx gives a favored place, as we might expect, to man's relation to his activity. For Marx, 'the productive life is the life of the species'.7 Such activity is the chief means through which the individual expresses and develops his powers, and is distinguished from animal activity by its range, adaptability, skill and intensity. In capitalism, however, the worker's labor 'turns for him the life of the species into a means of individual life'.8 Work has become a means to stay alive rather than life being an opportunity to do work. Living, mere existence, has always been a necessary pre-condition for engaging in productive activity, but in capitalism it becomes the operative motive.
The worker's departure from what it means to be a man is also found in the world of thought. Marx says, 'The consciousness which man has of his species is thus transformed by estrangement in such a way that the species life becomes for him a means.'9 As a conscious being, the individual is aware of what he is doing and possesses the faculty of being able to choose and to plan. He can also make provisions to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary for his fulfillment. This degree of foresight belongs to him as a member of the human species. In estranged labor, however, 'it is just because man is a conscious being that he makes his life activity, his essential being, a mere means to his existence'.10 The greater part of man's consciousness in capitalism is used to direct his efforts at staying alive, for he recognizes that such concentration is necessary if he is to be successful.
What is left after the most distinctive qualities which set man apart from other living creatures are erased by the processes of capitalist society? For Marx, the 'rump' of human nature which remains is neither man nor animal, nor is it simply matter. It is, in his terminology, an 'abstraction'. Thus, when he says estranged labor 'makes individual life in its abstract form the purpose of the life of the species, likewise in its abstract form', he is asserting that man's existence, denuded of all human characteristics, has become the purpose of work, likewise denuded of all human characteristics.11 In this comment, the reversal of his species relations to activity, product and other men has gone the full distance, and man has succeeded in becoming all that he is not.
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