Man in Marxist Theory. Lucien Séve 1974

3. Marxism as scientific anthropology and scientific humanism 

Let us now go back to the crucial problems that we were trying to elucidate. We asked whether and in what sense one can say that Marx in his mature works eliminated the concept of man, renounced the theory of alienation and abandoned the humanist perspective. The obvious fact — which is not simply an illusion — is that Marx never stopped explicitly referring to man, his alienation and his whole development. Marxism is therefore a humanism as the speculative interpretation maintains. But, satisfied with this obvious answer and misrecognizing the complexity of Marx’s scientific epistemology, such an interpretation forgets to raise the question of the real status of the concepts which are operative beneath the words. It is not enough for the word man or the word alienation to be used in Capital as well as in the 1844 Manuscripts for there to be automatically an identical concept, a concept of time same status. And what defines the status of a concept is the nature of the essence which it designates. In the 1844 Manuscripts the concept of man refers to the idea of an abstract human essence, the subject of history, of which social relations like economic categories are the phenomena, the external manifestation. When it is said that ‘the individual is the social being’, this means that, even though ‘we must avoid postulating “society” again as an abstraction vis-à-vis the individual’, that the social being is no different from the individual and that the individual is therefore ‘the totality’.

On this crucial point the 6th Thesis on Feuerbach breaks with the Manuscripts and, more broadly, with all previous conceptions. The social being is conceived as quite different from the individual. It is ‘the fluid sum of productive forces, capital funds and social forms of intercourse, which every individual and generation finds in existence as something given’. Such is the actual basis of what the philosophers represented to themselves as ‘substance’ or ‘essence’ of man: the old concept of man must therefore be radically inverted. This does not mean at all that every concept of man must now be rejected as illusory but rather that the abstract concept of man must not be confused with the concept of abstract man: every scientific concept is abstract as a concept but according to Marxist requirements it is only scientific if it grasps the concrete essence of its object. Thus when one reads in The German ideology, for example, that ‘the existence of men is their actual life process’, this statement cannot be taken without misinterpretation for the equivalence of the 1844 statement ‘the individual is the social being’. In a way it has the opposite meaning: human being is not what it first seems to be when one considers it in an immediate, pseudo-concrete way in the form of the isolated individual; on the contrary, it is what must be laboriously sought in the investigation of the objective social conditions in which this individuality is produced. It is therefore a case not of arm abandonment but of a scientific transfiguration of the concept of man; the concept of human essence is to have a meaning for mature Marxism quite a new meaning, a materialist and dialectical meaning: the essence is not abstract but concrete, not ideal but material, not natural, but historical, inherent not in the isolated individual but ensemble of social relations. Or further, to transpose this conclusion into the terms of our specific problem, human being cannot be encountered directly on the terrain of a psychology in the usual sense of the term but on the terrain of historical materialism.

The anti-humanist interpretation isolates and distorts this conclusion. For if Marxism as theory is no longer a humanism at all: in fact it the exact opposite of a humanism since it is above all else the assertion that existing man — not, it goes without saying, as a biological being but a historical-social individuality — is not a real, autonomous substance and has no really independent history (alienation, return to himself) either: man is not the subject of history; what theory can know of him in each epoch is only the result of the concrete mode of production of that epoch; the support of social relations, the personification of economic categories and the various aspects which this involves have no reason to coincide in the unity of a concrete person. Despite appearances ‘man’ is therefore as little a real concept as ‘soul’, for example — his unfolding in history is as little a real process as the avatars of the soul — and his full development has as little real future as the soul has of being saved. And, in this sense, it is as unreasonable to believe in a ‘science of man’ as in a ‘science of the soul’. Historical materialism should not therefore be regarded as the general scientific theory of man, an integral part of Marxist philosophy, but solely as the foundation of the science of history. In short, for the same reason and in essence, humanism and psychology would both be a return to speculation.

All this springs from a correct idea, and certainly these analyses do not entirely miss the truth. But what the anti-humanist interpretation does not see, what it misses from the moment it distorts the 6th Thesis on Feuerbach, is that although it is no longer in any degree an abstraction inherent in the isolated individual, the human essence, coinciding with the ensemble of social relations, is none the less an essence, which precedes the existence of each particular individual, and of which the existence of individuals is in actual fact the reproduction in another form, a reproduction which is necessarily contradictory, fragmented and incomplete in class society but which the very law of modern production will make whole in as much as the form individuality requires it, and relative to the stage of development reached in each epoch by classless society. This is why the Marxist science of social relations, which started with a rupture with speculative conception of man, a rupture which above all must not to attenuated, by no means prohibits a return, on the basis of its result, to the scientific knowledge of human individuals and their concrete forms of life. In fact, it is much too little to say that it does not prohibit it: it demands it. It demands it for the crucial reason which we have seen, relations fundamentally are no different from relations between men. This is the key point. Of course this does not mean that social relations are ‘human relations’ in the usual ideological sense of the expression, i.e. relations between men thought of as preceding in their essence these very relations: this is out of the question from 1845-46  onwards. No, in the last analysis men are produced by social relations — which does not at all make freedom ‘disappear’, moreover, but on the contrary, makes evident what it actually consists of and on what it is based: historical necessity. But if men can be produced by these relations it is because, far from being unconnected with them, these relations constitute their real life-process, and they can only constitute their real life-process in so far as they are relations between them, men. Among a hundred other texts, this is said in the clearest possible way in the most famous and most studied general account which Marx gave of historical materialism, in the Preface to the Contribution, and which it must be remembered begins like this: ‘In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production'. 

‘An unambiguous statement: the relations of production, the basis of all social relations, existing objectively and independently of men's’ will, are not what speculative philosophy calls ‘human relations’, ‘inter-subjective relations’, a reflection of their ‘consciousness’ and ‘freedom’— yet these objective and necessary social relations are nothing else than the relations ‘connecting’ men in the social production of their existence.

To be sure, commodity fetishism, the reification of social relations, their ‘independence in relation to the agents of production’, and all the objective illusions characteristic of capitalist society, makes these relations between men appear in ‘the fantastic form of a relation between things'. But Marxist analysis precisely demonstrates that it is a case of an illusion, the mechanism of which it takes to pieces. It proves that all this ‘mysticism’ peculiar to a society in which commodity production universally predominates vanishes if we consider other fort us of production, which makes it very clear that, whatever the appearances social relations are always ‘social relations between individuals. In other words, Marxism has by no means replaced the investigation of men by the investigation of social relations; on the contrary, it showed the fundamental unity of these two investigations. But it has also demonstrated that the investigation of social relations in their objective material form is necessarily primary because they are the real foundation of all social human life. The mistake of the 1844 Manuscripts was not to assert the unity, the circularity between human essence and social relations — a truth the continued existence of in mature Marxism one loses sight of if one transforms the theoretical revolution of 1845—46 into a radical break. After all, the 1844 formulation, ‘The individual is the social being’ occurs again word for word in the first draft of the Contribution forty years later. What was transformed in between times — a huge transformation — was that the real relation expressed by this unchanged wording and which in 1844 remained in a state of pre-scientific ambivalence, was completely inverted in the materialist sense; while the human essence was regarded in 1844 as the basis and the social relations as its manifestations, while consequently it still depended on a conception of essence which was still at least partly metaphysical, in 1858 on the contrary, it had become clear that everything depends on the objective conditions ‘which result neither from the will of the individual nor from his immediate nature, but from historical conditions and relations which already make the individual a social being determined by society’.

Here the concept of man — the ‘human essence’ — has become a scientific, dialectical concept. The circularity between man and social relations continues to exist, but inverted — therefore modified in all its moments and aspects but not abolished. By failing to recognize this major fact one misses the significance of the whole of mature Marxism. For the return to real history and to concrete individuals by way of the investigation of social relations is nothing else than the aim of whole scientific enterprise in the Marxist sense, i.e. the concrete analysis of the concrete situation with a view to its revolutionary transformation. This is why above all one ought not to separate arbitrarily in Capital the investigation of abstract determinations from that of their invariable outcome, i.e. the concrete human reality, pursued by Marx as far as the monograph stage, as in Part III of Volume One on the production surplus-value in which, in one example among many others, the analysis goes as far as the tragic history of Mary Anne Wa1kley, twenty year old milliner, killed in June 1863 ‘from too long hours work’ — as in Part VII of the same volume on the accumulation of capital, in which one finds the general law of this accumulation, cannot understand if one forgets that it is the law of ‘the influence of the growth of capital on the lot of the labouring class' and the motion of which, for example, Marx follows as far as the statistical table of workers’ overcrowding in twelve bedrooms at Langcroft in which 74 people sleep. This is also why it ought not to be forgotten that if it had been written as Marx conceived it and to the final page, Marx would have achieved its theoretical point of arrival in the struggle. This is what Engels expressly recalls in his Preface to Volume Three: ‘the class struggle, an inevitable consequence of their existence, is the actual consequence of the capitalist period’. And in his very important letter to Engels of April 30 1868, in which he sets out for him the overall plan of his work as far as the question of the rate of profit is concerned, Marx himself finishes his outline like this: ‘We have, in conclusion, the class struggle, into which the movement and the smash up of the whole business resolves itself’. Furthermore, more generally, this is why neither Capital as a whole — nor the other texts in economic theory — should be arbitrarily separated from Marx’s historical works and political writings, since these concrete applications of theory to living history are by no means external and minor illustrations of historical materialism but its very truth in action. This is why, in short, under penalty of transforming into a cliché the last Thesis on Feuerbach, which contains the whole spirit of Marxism (‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it') Marx’s and Engels’ writings as a whole should not be arbitrarily separated from their political practice. The1844 Manuscripts already said quite correctly: ‘In order to abolish the idea of private property, the idea of communism is quite sufficient. It takes actual communist action to abolish actual private property’.

And actual communist action implies the scientific understanding of concrete reality: here we meet up with again the observations presented from the start of the previous chapter about the fact that political struggles themselves present fundamental problems for the psychology of personality, for the theory of the individual. The return of theory to the problem of human individuals, therefore, is part of what is most central in Marxism. This return to concrete individuals is only effective theoretically and practically at the price of the long patience required by the prerequisite analysis of the ensemble of abstract social determinations in the absence of which the exaltation of the concrete, of man and of practice does not make it possible for us to escape from ideological illusions but assuredly plunges us into them.

One can therefore see in what sense historical materialism, precisely because it is the basis of the science of social relations, the concrete essence of man, is in fact at the same time much more than that: it is the of every human science — beginning with political economy, of course, but without forgetting the psychology of personality either -- the general theory of the scientific conception of man, which completes materialism as the general theory of the scientific conception of nature and which is therefore an integral part of Marxist Philosophy. Historical materialism being the ‘science of real men and their historical development’, in Engels’ highly accurate expression, its object coincides with what one may call social anthropogenesis, the development of ‘the human being itself in its social relations’; it is therefore also scientific anthropology and, more precisely, the socio-historical part of scientific anthropology which is articulated up with biological part. It is profoundly incorrect that historical materialism is constituted by dispensing with the theoretical services of the concept of man; quite on the contrary, it involves the production of a new non speculative concept of man which at once refers to a new essence :‘ social relations. This is why the scientific use of the concept of man normally requires the plural: as opposed to actual men in their social relations. Man is always an idealist mystification which thinks the human essence is to be found directly in the abstract, isolated individual. However, the concept of man may be used in the singular in two precise senses: on the one hand, when it designates the ensemble of social (and with greater reason, natural) characteristics which remain more or less common to all men through all historical epochs as a simple abstract generality — a frequent use in Marx — which is permissible but dangerous since the least confusion between this abstract generality and a concrete essence involves backsliding into speculation; on the other hand, when it designates the individual as such — the term individual then being highly preferable to avoid any confusion with the speculative singular. This new, scientific concept of man does Marxist theory the most obvious services. In the first place, it is a basic concept of historical materialism itself and as such, since neither the productive forces (men being the principal productive force) nor the social relations (which are always relations between men in the last analysis) can bethought without it. It is also just as necessary in thinking the class struggle and the socialist revolution, since the effect of social contradictions on the men who are produced in their midst is the essential link in the historical movement as a whole; and this is precisely why the anti-humanist interpretation of Marxism is unable to clearly account for the internal necessity of the class struggle and of revolution. But the new concept of man can also do other invaluable theoretical services for Marxism and in particular this one: it can finally be possible for the construction of a scientific theory of individuality and of individual. The failure to recognize this last point is at the root of  unceasing attempts to constitute a theory of the individual articulated with Marxism — a task the necessity of which cannot be denied by anyone, not even by an adherent of theoretical anti-humanism — but by setting out from bases quite different from those of Marx, which obviously makes their reciprocal articulation impossible. In this respect, the clear recognition of the scientific anthropology which historical materialism constitutes is the key to any correct solution of the problem.

One can also see in what sense Marxism may be described as scientific humanism:  humanism as the theory of the contradictions and conditions of the historical  flowering of individuals and of the necessary advent of what Marx calls 'the fully developed individual in communist society'. Certainly, the two terms humanism and scientific are often considered to be incompatible. It is a fact worthy of note that this incompatibility is indeed the common postulate of the speculative humanist interpretation and the theoretical anti-humanist interpretation, since in their diametrical opposition they appear as two ways of making sense of an exclusion between humanist content and scientific rigour which is accepted as unquestionable. For the former the humanism of Marxism could not accommodate itself within the yoke of pure science, since this does not reach what is fundamental in man; for the latter, the scientificity of Marxism could not accept the relapse into humanism which could only emerge from ideology. But the essential fact which escapes in both cases is that by founding historical materialism and at the same time the dialectic, Marx enables science to reach the human essence because, beyond the ideological forms of this essence, he discovers its actual being; the old incompatibility between an empiricist conception of science and an idealist conception of essence therefore falls. Moreover, since the change to the conception of real essence signifies the change to a historical conception of this essence, Marxist anthropology is right away a science of the development of men, individuals being engaged in the processes of reproduction of social relations. In this sense, although it is naturally no longer a question of an autonomous realization of the human essence conceived as an independent substance, all history can most legitimately also be regarded as the history of the progressive flowering of human individuals This is what Marx said in 1846 in his long letter to Annenkov: ‘the social history of men is never anything but the history of their individual development, whether they are conscious of it or not'. Marx never varied on this point either; all his later work is a development of it, especially Capital, in which the whole trajectory of evolution of the social individual, from the primitive societies characterized by ‘the immature development of man individually’ up to communism in which ‘the fully developed individual' will flower, is sketched on the way.

It is true that in spite of its profound theoretical legitimacy One hesitate to claim the name of scientific humanism for Marxism o the particularly numerous and tenacious ideological ambiguities which the term humanism remains linked in practice and to the speculative, indeed revisionist, orientation often taken by interpretations of  Marxism which appeal to it. It is quite true that the label has covered and still covers the most varied wares, from attachment to classical humanities to Feuerbach’s speculative anthropology, from the naive faith in the value of immediate knowledge of man by man to abstract idealization of bourgeois relations, from the proclamation that man is the supreme being for man to the attack on ‘totalitarian socialism in the name of Christian ‘personalism’. Father Teilhard’ famous ‘everything which evolves converges’ has more recently opened up another career for ‘humanism’, albeit in self-defense: that of the eclecticism of ‘philosophies of good-will’, of the confusion between the peaceful co-existence of states with different social regime and a mystifying co-existence of opposing ideologies, a mealy-mouthed form of the struggle of ideas. In order to be open in all respects, it is clear that Marxism cannot obliterate its boundaries. Marxism is not a voice, not even the bass, in the speculative polyphony of an ecumenical humanism. This is obvious. However, it is no less obvious that to refuse to characterize Marxist theory as scientific humanism while retaining only its refutation of speculative humanism is also to nourish tenacious ideological ambiguities, indeed an interpretation of Marxism which is no less speculative and revisionist, though in quite a different direction. Marxism is not one of the components, not even the excipients, of a generalized structuralism which abstracts from man. It is all the more vital not to sanction the false idea that possible deformations of the‘ human face’ of socialism might have their natural source in the fundamental characteristics of the doctrine. Throughout their work Marx and Engels did not come back to the idea that men make their own history inadvertently: this is not at all opposed to the materialist primacy of social relations over individuals but to the abstraction of an impersonal history which, should the occasion arise, may become something else than a theoretical error. History is the history of men. This is why, on the whole, while there are unquestionably reasons ideological expediency which might tend to make one reject the characterization of Marxism as scientific humanism, there are other  less important reasons which militate in the opposite direction are therefore no serious grounds for not adhering to what pure theoretical considerations lead one to assert: in so far as it is the science of history coinciding with the science of man, Marxism is scientific humanism.

Fundamentally, the term humanism is like most of the terms with the assistance  of which Marxism defined itself. We know, for example, that at one time Marx and Engels took the term materialism in bad part and refused to acknowledge their own philosophical position in it. This is understandable in spite of its merits, in so far as materialism was the method, in some respects metaphysical, of French 18th century thinkers of Feuerbach’s speculative anthropology, and of the banal scientism of ‘itinerant vulgansers’ a la Vogt, it was always a philosophical ideology. Marx’s and Engels’ task was not to practice but to break with this ideology. However, when the rupture was accomplished and a proper position was taken in relation to it, Marx and Engels are the first to whom it becomes evident that the new conception is the scientific transmutation of the old materialism, a higher stage in the development of materialism and that, given every precise detail about its fundamental originality, it is appropriate to designate it too by the term materialism. The same goes for the term dialectic which might seem at the outset irremediably stamped by Hegelian idealism but which was retained by Marx basically because although his materialist dialectic breaks with Hegel’s and re-works its content on profoundly new bases, none the less, from a more general standpoint, it is the development of its rational kernel. Let us take another example, the term philosophy itself. In a sense, Marxist philosophy is no longer at all a ‘philosophy’ in the pejorative sense of the word that one comes across especially in The German Ideology, i.e. in the sense of an ideological view of the world, man and knowledge. On the contrary, it marks the end of ‘philosophy’ and the advent on its terrain, profoundly transformed by this fact, of a truly scientific standpoint in the widest sense of the term, i.e. in the sense of a radical (materialist) critique of all speculation, the elucidation of the concrete (dialectical) essence. To call the basis of Marxist theory philosophy is therefore to risk fostering unfortunate, speculatively oriented ambiguities. This is true. But not to describe the principles of the conception of the world, man and knowledge which constitute the basis of Marxism as philosophy is to foster other, even more unfortunate ambiguities. Particularly of a positivist orientation, letting it be thought that Marxism implies the re-absorption of ‘philosophy’ in ‘the’ sciences, i.e. opening the way in the name of Marxism for the return of the worst vulgarized remnants of the worst philosophies. In fact, Marxism rests on a scientific transmutation of the old philosophy, and in this very precise sense all naively subjective value- judgments aside, one can and must refer to the scientific philosophy of Marxism. Indeed, this is why all attempts to dispense with the term philosophy, starting with Marx’s and Engels’, or to find a substitute for it, have ended in failure, not for terminological but for basic theoretical reasons.

In this respect, in spite of its merits, the epistemology of the break appears like an unacceptable distortion of the materialist dialectical knowledge. It is profoundly true that revolutions in the theoretical order do not involve a mere change in continuity from questions to answers but the rupture of a restructuration in depth of the old field of questions and answers. But as Marx recalls in the 1857 Introduction, it is just true that ‘the real subject retains its autonomous existence Outside the head just as before’, so that while they both clearly aim at the same real subject, the change from one theoretical world to another necessarily rests on the unity of the ‘already given concrete living whole’ of which they are different mental representations. The later then appears like a higher state in the same process of the ‘reproduction of the concrete by way of thought'. Nothing is more mistaken in this matter than to fail to recognize, even at the terminological level, what changes and what remains from one to the other. After having emphasized Ricardo’s error, with which he broke, Marx went so far as to write: 

On the other hand ... the history of the theory certainly shows that the concept of the value relation has always been the same — more or less clear, hedged more or less with illusions or scientifically more or less definite. Since the thought process itself grows out of conditions, it is itself a natural process, thinking that really comprehends must always be the same, and can vary only gradually, according to maturity of development, including the development of the organ by which the thinking is done. Everything else is drivel.

In the last analysis, is not the epistemology of the break, a one-sided distortion of the dialectic of the qualitative leap, the outcome of an insufficiently materialist analysis of the history of ideas which loses sight of the unity of being behind the restructurations of consciousness? 

A final example deserves reflection for anyone who might hesitate to describe Marxism as scientific humanism — the example of the term socialism — the parallel here being all the more if illuminating because the two concepts are immediately related: in Marxist theory humanism is to scientific socialism what anthropology is to historical materialism .  As Engels explains in his 1890 Preface to a re-issue of the Manifesto, there could be no question of Marx and himself entitling it The Socialist Manifesto in 1847 for at that time there were included under the name of socialists on the one hand ‘the adherents of the various Utopian systems’ and on the other ‘the manifold types of social quacks’.

It is unnecessary to emphasize the fact that even today the term socialism is less than ever free from ambiguous resonances. Everything that one can say, rightly, against the ambiguities linked to the term humanism, one could therefore say with all the more reason in connection with those which beset the term socialism. In one way, Marxism has been and remains the most radical critique of these' socialist ambiguities. It was born of the rupture with them. And yet it could not occur to anybody to refuse to describe Marxist political theory as socialist any more than it could occur to one to call Marxism ‘theoretical antisocialism’. Marxism is the scientific transmutation of utopian socialism, socialism become science. The expression ‘scientific socialism’ is therefore by no means a play on words, a contradiction in terms; on the contrary, it is the correct formulation of a revolution which marks both the end of the prehistory of socialism and the beginning of its real history. To the same extent and in the same sense, socialism is scientific humanism.

The Articulation of Psychology of Personality with Marxism