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Humanism = Speciesism

Humanism = Speciesism
Marx on Humans and Animals

Ted Benton

INTRODUCTION
This paperl is intended to fonn part of a more extended exploration of some key texts ofMarx from the standpoint of the so-called
‘new’ social movements (though some of these pre-date the
Marxist tradition itself!). Here, I shall be focussing on the early
work of Marx – especially the Economic and Philosophical
Manuscripts of 1844 – and with the concerns of two closely
related recent radical movements in mind.

These movements are modem environmentalism and a spectrum of groupings which share concern about human mistreatment of (other) animals – animal welfare, rights and liberation
groups, as well as the more specialist campaigns against vivisection, factory farming, the fur trade and so on. The value-orientation which underlies both movements, and which informs their
critique of modem industrial societies, is radically at odds with a
merely utilitarian, or instrumental relation to the rest of nature.

Other animals may be sufficiently like human beings to be
properly considered as moral subjects, and as the bearers of
biographies. Ethical considerations must therefore enter into our
dealings with them. It is evil to continue to treat them merely as
instruments or resources to be exploited for specifically human
purposes.

In the perspective of ‘deep’ ecology,2 this argument can be
extended to the whole of nature, which is regarded as having an
intrinsic value, independent of human purposes and requirements. Concern for the environment, on this view, is properly
rooted not in a ‘speciesist’ enlightened self-interest (i.e. the
recognition that short-tenn benefits from ruthless exploitation of
the environment will be paid for in the longer tenn by the
destruction of our own ‘life-support systems’) but rather in a
respect for the independent value of the other species with which
we share our planet, and, indeed, for the whole complex of
physical and chemical conditions for their existence and wellbeing.

At first thought, it seems that there is much in common
between this view of our relationship to the rest of nature and that
of the early Marx. Both perspectives share a vision of humans as
part of nature, and as dependent for their well-being on unceasing
interaction with nature. Consider, for example, Marx’s striking
metaphor for nature as man’s ‘inorganic body’:

Nature is man’s inorganic body – nature, that is in so far
as it is not itself human body. Man lives on nature – means
that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical
and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that
nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.3
And Marx is by no means stating merely a shallow-ecological,

4

enlightened self-interest of the species. The view of communism
which structures the whole of the Manuscripts gives a central
place to a proper ethical, aesthetic and cognitive relationship to
nature as inseparable from true human fulfilment.

In his later works it sometimes seems as ifMarx has retreated
into a view of the overcoming of the opposition between humanity
and nature as merely the main historical means by which humans
are enabled to achieve fulfilment. This is very much the kind of
picture of Marx’ s argument presented in Gerry Cohen’ s very’

influential defence ofMarx’s theory ofhistory.4 But the Marx of
the Manuscripts is by contrast clear in his recognition that a
transfonnation of our relation to nature is a key aspect and content
of the process of human emancipation itself.

This indeed is something I would like to hold onto as a
fundamental insight which Marx reached in the Manuscripts. But
– and this is the topic of the rest of this paper – it also seems to me
that there are fundamental ambiguities and conceptual tensions in
the overall philosophical position adopted by the early Marx as it
bears on this range of problems. These ambiguities and tensions
threaten to undennine what is of value in Marx ‘s acfiievement and
have sustained readings ofMarx which have been deeply inimical
to environmental values. A serious effort of critical restructuring
and revaluation of the most basic philosophical ideas and arguments ofthe early Marx is necessary if their ‘rational kernel’ is to
be extracted. At best, I can accomplish only a tiny fragment of that
task in this paper, but, as I shall try to show, this tiny fragment does
have very far-reaching implications.

There are two elements in the argument of the Manuscripts
which seem to me to sit very uncomfortably alongside the
naturalism of the above-quoted passage and its possible ‘deepecological’ reading. These elements are, first, the use of the
human/animal contrast as Marx’s central device in the ethical
critique of the estrangement of labour under regimes of private
property, and, second, the specific content Marx gives to his
vision of human emancipation as involving the ‘humanisation of
nature’ . I shall say most about the first of these elements, leaving
what I have to say about the second rather underdeveloped.

With regard to the human/animal opposition the argument is,
very roughly, as follows. The estrangement of labour is supposed
by Marx to have disastrous effects on human beings, their relations to one another, and their relationships to their external,
material world. These disastrous effects can be summed up by
saying that the estrangement of labour reduces human life to the
condition appropriate to that of animals, and, within human life,
inverts the relation between the human and the animal. The
overcoming of estrangement means restoring to human beings
their properly human status, and relationships to one another and
to the rest of nature. But what is the rest of nature? Does it include
other animals? Marx’s use of the metaphor ‘inorganic body’

suggests not. On the other hand, nothing Marx says in connection
with that metaphor can be sustained unless animals are included.

A human life dependent upon the forces and mechanisms of inorganic nature, unmediated by other forms of life, is impossible.

There is no reason to think Marx actually thought it possible. And,
notwithstanding the arguments of some that the possibility now
exists of a satisfactory human life which does not rely on the
consumption or exploitation of other animals, the phrase ‘man
lives on Nature’, written in 1844, must have included within its
reference a whole range of uses of animals as a source of energy
in agricultural and industrial labour processes, as well as for food,
entertainment and companionship.

Now, if, for Marx, human emancipation involves a qualitative
transformation of our relationship with the rest of nature, a
‘humanisation’ of nature, and if nature includes other species of
animals, then human emancipation must involve a transformation
in our relations to other animals. But what could this transformation be? A literal ‘humanisation’ of them in the sense of ‘rendering them human’ by selective breeding (or, for us, genetic
engineering?)? Or, as with the rest of nature, a deliberate alteration of their character so that they better fulfil human purposes
(i.e. a continuation of those breeding and ‘husbandry’ practices
whereby farm animals have been rendered more productive and
docile, pets more ‘domesticated’, companionable, child-like in
appearance, and so on)? If either of these were intended by Marx,
his critique of the estrangement of humanity from nature would
lose all its force: the ‘humanisation’ of animals (as part of nature)
in either of these senses would be a continuation and augmentation, not a tqmscendence of the treatment of animals under
capital~!Jl,~d indeed, in pre-capitalist societies too. Moreover,
M~draws on an absolute and universal, not a provisional and
historically transcendable opposition between the human and the
animal in grounding his ethical critique of the capitalist mode of
life. If what is wrong with these societies is that humans are
reduced to the condition of animals, then the transcendence of
capitalism, in restoring humanity to the human, simultaneously
restores the differentiation between the human and the animal. If
what is wrong with capitalism is, essentially, that it does not differentiate the human and the animal, then the antidote to capitalism must offer to restore the proper differential. But this is
precisely what the notion of ‘humanisation’ seems to deny. The
ontological basis of the ethical critique of capitalism (embedded
in the notion of estrangement) appears to be inconsistent with the
coherent formulation of its transcendence (in particular, the
notion of ‘humanisation’ in relation to animals as part of nature).

As I shall suggest later, this dilemma can be resolved by a revision
of the ontology of the Manuscripts which nevertheless leaves
intact a good deal of the ethical critique of capitalist society.

However, before I move on to that task it is worth spending some
time investigating in rather more depth the sources of the dilemma, and, in particular, looking at some of the implications of
the way Marx draws his contrasts between the human and the
animal.

HUMANITY AS ‘SPECIES BEING’

Central to Marx’ s account of human nature is the claim that man
isa ‘species being’. The term is derived from Feuerbach, butMarx
gives it a new and richer philosophical meaning:

Man is a species-being, not only because in practice and in
theory he adopts the species (his own as well as those of
other things) as his object, but – and this is only another
way of expressing it – also because he treats himself as the
actual, living species; because he treats himself as a
universal and therefore a free being.s
This ‘universality’ of human theoretical and practical activity
distinguishes humans from (other) animals. The sensory, cognitive and transformative powers of other animals are exercised
‘under the dominion of immediate physical need’. They produce
‘in accordance with the standard and the need’ of their species.

Humans, by contrast, who know how to produce in accordance
with the standard of every species, only truly produce in freedom
from immediate physical need, and take the whole world of nature
as the object of their practical, aesthetic and cognitive powers.

Whereas animals produce to meet the needs of themselves, or
their young, the activity of individual human beings is, at least
potentially, a part of the activity of the species as a whole. Not
only, then, is human activity ‘universal’ in the sense that it takes
the whole world of nature as its object, but it is also universal in
the sense that it is a species-wide activity. The activity of each
individual is not a mere instance of its type, but, rather, a living
part of an interconnected whole – the activity, or ‘life’ of the
species.

In his exposition of the concept of the estrangement of labour,
Marx lays great emphasis on this aspect:

In estranging from man (1) nature, and (2) himself, his own
active functions, his life activity, estranged labour estranges the species from man. It changes for him the life of
the species into a means of individual life. First, it estranges the life of the species and individual life, and
secondly it makes individual life in its abstract form the
purpose of the life of the species, likewise in its abstract
and estranged form.6
In separating individual life from the life of the species, and
inverting their proper relationship to one another, the estrangement of labour imposes upon humanity a mode of existence in
which its distinctive species attributes cannot be manifested.

Human potential remains unactualised, development is stunted,
powers are exercised in a distorted or inverted way.

The character of ‘man’ as a species-being, then, is not a
manifest, empirically detectable feature in contemporary societies. It is, rather, an as yet unachieved potential. The achievement
of this potential is the work of the human historical process. So,
implicit in the idea of humanity as a ‘species being’ is also the idea
of humanity as a historical being. And by this is meant, not simply
a being whose activities and forms of association change through
time. In addition, these changes of manifest activity and forms of
association have a cumulative and directional character, an overlying pattern in terms of which we can make sense of each
successive phase or period. To say that the human species is
historical in this sense is to say that the species as a whole
undergoes, in the historical process, something analogous to the
development undergone by both individual human beings and
other animals in their transition from embryo through infancy to
childhood. Only in the adult are the potentials of the infant fully
actualised. The development of the individual is the process of its
self-realisation. So, in the case of the human species, communist

5

society is the form under which what was merely potential in
earlier historical phases becomes actual. The historical process is
the ‘developmental’ process of humankind. through which its
species-powers are fully developed. its distinctive species-character is realised.

The analysis of the estrangement of labour shows that there is
no necessary or universal connection between the ‘developmental· process of the species and the developmental process of the
individual. Where labour is estranged. the ‘development’ of the
species occurs at the cost of individual development:

It is true that labour produces wonderful things for the rich
– but for the worker it produces privation. It produces
palaces – but for the worker. hovels. It produces beauty but for the worker. deformity … It produces intelligencebut for the worker. stupidity. cretinism.7
On the other hand. the historical ‘development’ of the species is
a precondition for the development of the distinctively human
powers of individuals:

Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’ s
essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear. an eye for beauty of form – in short.

senses capable of human gratification. senses affirming
themsel ves as essential powers of man) either culti vated or
brought into being. The forming of the five senses is the
labour of the entire history of the W orId down to the
present. 8
Humans are different from other animals. then. in that they
undergo ‘development’ at the level of the species (historical
development) as well as at the level of the individual. In the human
species. the ‘development’ of the species may take place at the
cost of stunting or distorting the development of individuals. but.

in the long run. full development of the individual with respect to
the most distinctively human characteristics is only possible on
the basis of a high level of ‘development’ of the species. None of
these considerations apply to other animals. which. for Marx.

have a fixed. species-characteristic relationship between need.

instinct and transformative powers. each producing ‘in accordance with the standard and need of the species to which it
belongs·.9
What makes possible this supra-individual ‘development’ in
the human case is the distinctive character of human activity as
‘free. conscious activity’:

Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is lifeengendering life. The whole character of a species – its
species-character – is contained in the character of its life
activity; and free. conscious activity is man’s speciescharacter. 10
A being who freely and consciously engages in a practice is able
to reflect critically upon that practice. to change it in line with its
existing. or newly formulated purposes. Free. self-conscious
transformative practice. then. has within it a potential for change
and development which the direct and instinctual need-meeting
activity of (other) animals does not have. And since this ‘productive life’ is the life of the species. to characterise its’ development’

– the development of human productive powers – is to characterise what is essential to the formative process of humanity itself:

It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore,
that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This
production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object
oflabour is, therefore, the objectification ofman’s species-

6

life: for he duplicates himself not only. as in consciousness. intellectually. but also actively. in reality. and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. 11
And, again:

But since for the socialist man the entire so-called history
of the world is nothing but the creation of man through
human labour. nothing but the emergence of nature for
man. so he has the visible. irrefutable proof of his birth
through himself. of his genesis. 12
Of course. this self-creation through labour. through the
augmentation of human transformative powers. should not be
confused with self-creation through mere economic. or industrial
activity – an ‘economistic’ view of history. Certainly Marx
recognises in industrial production ‘the exoteric revelation of
man’s essential powers’ .13 but full human historical ‘development’ will involve a transcendence of the prevailing fragmentation of human activities The positive transcendence of private property. as the appropriation of human life. is therefore the positive transcendence of all estrangement – that is to say. the return of
man from religion. family. state. etc .• to his human. i.e.

social. existence. 14
The historical ‘developmental’ process. then. is to be understood
as a multi-faceted and progressive augmentation of human transformative powers vis-a-vis nature. This process can be understood as one of human self-creation. or self-realisation. in that the
bearer of these powers is transformed along with the object of
their exercise (nature). In particular. human cognitive powers
(‘science’) underIy the development of productive powers. and
are themselves developed through reflection upon the outcomes
of productive activity. Human sensory powers are likewise (see
above quotation) developed along with the transformation of the
objects of human perception: the power to create beautiful objects
and the growth of aesthetic sensibility in the human subject are
internally related to one another. And. finally, the purpose of
transformative activity is itself historically transformed as humans acquire new needs in the course of their historical selfdevelopment:

We have seen what significance. given socialism, the
wealth of human needs acquires. and what significance.

therefore. both a new mode ofproduction and a new object
of production obtain: a new manifestation of the forces of
human nature and a new enrichment of human nature. IS
Central to Marx’s notion of this historical transformation of
need is the idea that self-realisation comes itself to be the object
of need:

It will be seen how in place of the wealth and property of
political economy come the rich human being and the rich
human need. The rich human being is simultaneously the
human being in need ofa totality of human manifestations
of life – the man in whom his own realisation exists as an
inner necessity, as need. 16
The historical self-creation of humanity. then, is a process in
which human transformative. sensory. aesthetic and cognitive
powers and liabilities are transformed and augmented. along with
a transformation of the structure of human need itself. But this
process is not one which takes place ‘in vacuo’. so to speak. It
would make no sense to speak of these powers. liabilities and
needs without some notion of their object: ‘nature’ (including
human nature).

HISTORY AND THE
‘HUMANISATION OF NATURE’

The species-wide and communal project through which humanity
creates itself is summed up by Marx as the ‘humanisation of
nature’. Nature as an external, threatening and constraining
power is to be overcome in the course of a long-drawn-out
historical process of collective transformation. The world thoroughly transformed by human activity will be a world upon which
human identity itself has been impressed, and so no longer a world
which is experienced as external or estranged:

On the one hand, therefore, it is only when the objective
world becomes everywhere for man in society the world of
man’s essential powers – human reality and for that reason
the reality of his own essential powers – that all objects
become for him the objectification of himself, become
objects which confirm and realise his individuality, become
his objects .. 1?

And this applies not merely to the objects of human practical,
transformative powers, but also to the world as object of human
sensory and cognitive powers:

The manner in which they become his depends on the
nature of the objects and on the nature of the essential
power corresponding to it; for it is precisely the determinate nature of this relationship which shapes the particular,

real mode of affirmation. To the eye an object comes to be
other than it is to the ear, and the object of the eye is another
object than the object of the ear … Thus man is affirmed in
the objective world not only in the act of thinking, but with
all his senses. 18
These quotations, and others like them, suggest a certain
view of the transformation wrought by human history in the relationship between human beings and their natural environment.

An external, limiting, conditioned relation between the two is
transformed in favour of an internal, unlimited, unconditioned
(i.e. ‘universal ‘) relation which amounts to a fusion of identities.

The ‘conflict’ between humans and nature is overcome in favour
of an incorporation of the natural into the domain of the human
without residue. Only when the whole world is appropriated
cognitively, aesthetically and practically can humanity itself be
full y realised:

This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals
humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution 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 the solution. 19
This historical vision is clearly incompatible with the content of
Marx’s metaphor, elsewhere in the same text, of nature as ‘man’s
inorganic body’, the insistence upon the permanent necessity of
the ‘metabolism’ between humans and their natural environment
as a condition of survival. The reality of nature as a complex
causal order, independent of human activity, forever sets the
conditions and limits within which human beings, as natural
beings, may shape and direct their activities. These materialist
theses about the relationship of humanity to nature, which are
elsewhere, and more especially in later works, also assented to by
Marx, are absent from this utopian and idealist vision of human
emancipation.

The important value-content of this early view of history is
also put at risk by its residual idealism. Marx insists that the proper
relation between the human species and its natural environment
is not reducible to instrumental, need-meeting activity (important
though this of course is). A properly human relationship with
nature is a many-faceted relationship in which aesthetic, cognitive, practical and identity-forming aspects are communally realised. This multi-faceted, properly human relationship to nature is
one which not only meets need, but has itself become the prime
human need.

These ideas are powerful, persuasive, and very much in line
with modern environmentalism. But when we turn to Marx’s
specification of the kind of relationship to nature which would
realise these values their critical potential is vitiated. If we can be
at home in the world, be properly, humanly, connected with the
world only on the basis of a thorough-going transformation of it
in line with our intentions, then what space is left for a valuing of
nature in virtue of its intrinsic qualities? If we can’ see ourselves’

in, or identify only with a world which we have created, then what
is left of our status as part of nature? Nature, it seems, is an
acceptable partner for humanity only insofar as it has been
divested of all that constitutes its otherness, insofar, in other
words, as it has become, itself, human. This view of a properly
human relationship to nature is certainly far removed from a
utilitarian, instrumental one, but its value-content is no less
anthropocentric. It is, indeed, a quite fantastic species-narcissism.

7

THE OPPOSITION BETWEEN THE HUMAN AND
THE ANIMAL
I shall here leave aside the question of how far what is acceptable
in the value-content of Marx’ s view of a fully human relationship
to nature as a whole can be supported on the basis of a critical
revision of his ontology. Instead, I shall return to the rather
narrower question of the human/animal contr~t. We have se~n
that for Marx, (other) animals are charactensed by a certam
standardised fixity in their mode of life. In so far as they are able
to act transformatively upon external nature they do so in accordance with a definite ‘standard’, characteristic of their species,
and their activity is oriented to the meeting of their individual
needs (also fixed, and characteristic for each species) and those of
their offspring. By contrast, human bei?gs act upon .the extern~
world in a way which is free, self-conscIOus, and socIally coor~I­
nated. Because of these distinctive features of human life-actIvity, their forms of association an~ m~es of ~ract~cal engagement
with the world are subject to duectIonal hIstoncal transformations. Only an account of the human mode of life which took into
account the place of any specific phase of activity in the overall
historical ‘development’ would be capable of adequately specifying what was, in the full sense, ‘hum.an’. Wh~t disti~guishes
humans from animals, in other words, IS somethmg WhIch only
becomes manifest in the course of human history itself. As we
saw this historical-developmental process, peculiar to the human
spe~ies, consists in an augmentation o~ our tran~forma~ve ~o~ers
vis-a-vis nature, amounting to a resIdueless humanIsatIon of
nature; an associated augmentation of our knowledge both of
ourselves and of nature (towards a synthesis of the two); a transformation of our sensory powers, equivalent to the ‘humanisation
of the senses’; and a transformation in the structure of need.

The contrast between the human and the animal is then, a
contrast both between humans and other animals, and between
fully developed humanity and undeveloped humanity:

History itself is a real part of natural history – of nature
developing into man.20
The process of historical developme~t i~ a move~~nt fr~m
animal-like origins to a fully human realIsatIOn, and thIS IS so WIth
respect not only to our powers and liabilities, but also with respect
to need. Even when human transformative powers are welldeveloped but the estrangement of labour has not been over~ome,
truly human needs are not manifested. The worker. expe~enc~s
need and is constrained to meet need in a manner WhICh belles hIS
true human potential, resembling, rather, the animal mode of
experiencing and satisfying need.

Underlying both Marx’s concept of historical development
and his critique of estrangement, then, is a contrast between what
he variously calls ‘crude’, ‘physical’ or ‘animal’ need, on the one
hand, and ‘human’ need, on the other:

It (the animal) produces only under the dominion of imm~­
diate physical need, whilst man produces even wh~n he IS
free from physical need and only truly produces m freedom therefrom.21
And again:

The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a
restricted sense. For the starving man, it is not the human
form of food that exists, but only its abstract existence as
food. It could just as well be there in its crudest form, and
it would be impossible to say wherein this feeding activity
differs from that of animals. 22
Speaking of estranged labour, Marx says:

8

It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a
means to satisfy needs external to it.23
Needs, in this sense, determine the worker’s share of the product
of labour.

… as much, only, as is necessary for his existence, not as
a human being but as a worker, and for the propagation,
, but of a slave class of workers. ~
not of humanity,
Marx’s attempt, in passages such as these, to provide an account
of human nature in terms of a thorough-going opposition between
the human and the animal is very much in line with the mainstream of modern Western philosophy and such more recent
disciplines as cultural anthropology and sociology. Th~ conceptual oppositions nature/culture; animal/huma?; body!~md pl~y a
foundational, structuring role in the theoretIcal edIfIces WhICh
dominate these disciplines.

For each of these disciplinary matrices, an opposition between the animal and the human implies also an opposition within
the human between what is animal(-like) and what is ‘truly’

human. In the paradigm dualist philosophy of Descartes, for
example, the contrast between persons and animals implies a c~n­
trast within the person between a spatially extended bodI~y
mechanism and a self-conscious ‘thinking’ substance. What IS
distinctive and valued in human nature is emphasised and its
unsullied autonomy preserved, but at the cost of rendering unintelligible the connections between humans and .the rest of nature
and, within persons, between those aspects WhICh are and those
which are not distinctively human.

Now, Marx’ s utopian vision of an eventual reunification of
humanity with itself and with nature seems, at fust en~ounter, to
promise a way out of the dilemmas posed by such dUalISt ways of
thinking. However, the systematic use of human/animal contrasts
in his early work tells against this. These contrasts are not presented as historically transcendable. On the contrary, the human
potential for historical transcendence is precisely ~hat differentiates us from animals. Whatever changes take place m our human
relationship to nature, animals are, and will remain, mere animals.

Many of my readers, of course, will be now saying ‘well, so
much the better for Marx’. The main historical alternatives to
philosophical dualism – materialist an~ idealist .’~onis~s’:- are
the object of well-rehearsed and seemmgly decISIve obJectIons.

Idealisms have great difficulty in sustaining plausible or even
coherent accounts of those aspects of our experience in which the
mind-independent reality of our world is manifested. Materialisms have a symmetrical difficulty in accounting cohe~ent1y or
plausibly for the existence and nature of human conSCIOusness
and experience itself. Materialisms have, more o~te~ th~n not,
begun with the aim of explaining some supposedly dIStInCtIve a~d
highly valued human characte~stic ~r potentia~, a~d ended WIth
explaining it away. In our day, bIologIcal reducttomst accounts of
human nature are the best known culprits. 30
If these were, indeed, the only available options, then the case
for dualism could be made to appear relatively strong. But they are
not the only available options. The p~ilosophic~ and ethi~al
difficulties of the dualist aspects ofMarx s earl y wntIngs are qUIte
formidable not only in their own right, but also in terms of other
s overall intellectual and practical project.

aspects of

Marx’

AGAINST MARX’S HUMAN/ANIMAL DUALISM
Consider, fust, Marx’s ‘external’ dualism of the animal and the
human. I’ll deal, in turn, with each of the characteristics through
which Marx elaborates the opposition:

1. Animals are mere ‘instances’ of their species, whereas humans

relate also as ‘part to whole’ to theirs. This is Marx’ s reference to
the open-ended capacity of humans for social cooperation. For
Marx this is potentially, though not yet actually, a species-wide
cooperation in a common species-specific project. But the very
cultural diversity which Marx’s notion of ‘free creativity’ also
recognises must render implausible his historical projection.

What grounds are there for expecting a spontaneous merging of
geographically discrete and culturally diverse lines of historical
‘development’ and visions of the future? What reasons are there

for supposing that humans have the potential to evolve noncoercive forms of social coordination on the gigantic scale required?

On the animal side of Marx’ s contrast, subsequent ethological study has revealed a wealth and complexity of social life in
other species. In the case of such animals as dogs, cats, and herdanimals such as sheep and cattle, their very sociability was a
necessary initial requirement for their distinctive human uses. So
also was a degree of malleability, and’ openness’ in their forms of
sociability. If we leave aside, then, what is merely speculative in
Marx’s contrast – his as yet unfulfilled historical projection – the
picture is one of highly differentiated and species-specific capacities for and forms of sociability as between animal species. The
extent and form of human sociability is, indeed, distinctive, but
this is no less true of any other social species. The capacity for and
disposition to social coordination of activity as such is not a
distinctive feature of our species.

2. Humans take the whole world as the object of their activity,
whereas animals appropriate the world only partially, and according to the fixed standard of their species. Again, the human side
of this opposition is misleading. Certainly it is a plausible extrapolation from the past expansion of the geographical scope of human
activity to suppose that one day the whole surface of the globe
may bear the imprint of human intentional activity – the last of the
rainforests and wildwoods destroyed or cultivated, the poles
populated and industrialised, the oceans farmed or rendered
sterile by accumulation of toxic wastes, and so on. But what is
now supposed to be true of the large-scale, immensely complex
and interacting mechanisms of chemical and physical cycling and
energy transfer in the biosphere suggests that our species would
destroy itself (and many others) by the unintended consequences
of its own activity long before such a ‘utopian’ possibility were
actualised. All transformative activity presupposes a distinction

between those attributes of its objects which undergo alteration
and other attributes of the objects, conditions and agents of the
activity whose persistence, unaltered throughout the process, is
indispensable to it. Because of this, even if we suppose a limitless
increase in human technical powers in any imaginable direction,
the notion of a residueless subordination of the world intensively
or extensively to human purposes is incoherent.

On the animal side of this contrast, again, ethological studies
reveal great diversity among other animal species with respect to
the extent, nature and intra-species variability of their interaction
with their environments. As Marx notes, birds build nests which
are to a considerable extent species-specific in the materials used,
site chosen, and ‘design’. Nevertheless many species show considerableadaptability in all respects, especially if confronted with
non-standard environmental conditions. Inventing, making, using, and inter-generational teaching of the use of tools are now
well recognised as powers of non-human primates, notably chimpanzees. 26 That there are profound differences in these capacities
between humans and other species is clear, but it remains true that
such profound differences also separate non-human animal species from one another. For his intellectual purposes, Marx exaggerates both the fixity and limitedness of scope in the activity of
other animals, and the flexibility and universality of scope of
human activity upon the environment. At the same time he
abstracts from diversity among non-human animal species, and
obscures human ecological diversity by way of a global historical extrapolation. Each of these ‘intellectual tactics’ contributes
to the formation of a dualistic categorial opposition instead of a
recognition of complex patterns of species-specific diversity.

3. Humans possess historical potential, whereas animals exhibit
fixed standardised modes of activity, from generation to generation. This contrast presupposes the frrst two, but goes beyond
them in important respects. To get clear about how the contrast
works, and to see the difficulties in the way of sustaining it in this
form it is frrst necessary to ‘unpack’ the notion of ‘historical
potential’ and that of ‘historical development’ with which it is
closely connected in Marx. First, it is important to distinguish
between powers, or capacities, on the one hand, and potentials on
the other. To attribute a power of a capacity to, say, an organism,
is to say that it is able to do something (even though it may not
be in fact doing it – it may never have done it). To attribute a
potential is to say that it has the capacity to acquire some future
capacity or power which it presently does not have. We may
distinguish different kinds of potential on the basis of the natures
of the processes in virtue of which they are progressively acquired, on the basis of the natures of the external conditions which
enable their acquisition, and on the basis of the natures of the
bearers of the capacities concerned.

In its infancy an animal, human or non-human, can be said to
have capacities, or powers, specific to its stage of development.

A child of one year old may be able to crawl but not stand, a little
later to stand but not walk, and so on. The infants of most mammal
species are less helpless when born than the human infant, and
they tend to acquire the species-specific capacities of adults more
quickly, but basically the same considerations apply. If we know
what capacities are characteristic of adults of the species then we
can say of normal infants which have not yet developed these
capacities that they have the potential to do so. The nature of the
organism is such that given satisfaction of minimal external
conditions it will undergo development resulting in the acquisition of the characteristic capacities of adults of its species. Such
potentials of infants may be termed ‘developmental potentials’.

Again, at any stage in its development, an organism may be
said to lack certain capacities – ‘skills’ are the paradigm here – not

9

because it lacks the necessary organic constitution, nor because it
is insufficiently mature, but because it has lacked appropriate
learning experience. Of such an organism we can say it lacks the
capacity (to, for example, catch its own prey, fly long distances,
understand long words, do simple arithmetic, depending on the
species) concerned, but has the potential to acquire it. Such a
potential might be termed a ‘learning potential’ .

Both developmental and learning potentials are potentials of
individual organisms. Within the whole range of potentials of individuals we may distinguish between those potentials the fulfilment of which constitutes a species-wide characteristic, and those
potentials which are fulfilled only in virtue of the exposure of (a
sub-population of) the organisms to a distinctive set of environmental conditions. The former I shall call ‘individual speciespotentials ‘ , the latter’ indi vidual context-potentials’ . In the human

.——

case, the potential (in small infants) for language-acquisition is an
individual species-potential, whereas the potential to acquire the
French language would be an individual context-potential for
infants reared in French-speaking cultural environments. Pet
dogs can learn to respond to human commands; captive chimps
can acquire a degree of competence at learning sign-Ianguage.38
The potentials to do this in the animals acquired for the appropriate training are, in my sense, individual context-potentials.

But Marx’s notion of an historical potential includes at least
the idea of potentials as possessed by associated groups of
individual organisms. Humans characteristically produce means
of subsistence, for example, through some form of more-or-Iess
stable pattern of combination of the activities of more-or-Iess
numerous individuals. The productive powers of the group are
certainly different in degree, and might indeed be argued to be
different in kind from those possessed by individuals. This
distinction between individual and group-capacities can also be
sustained for other social species of animals. Social bees and
wasps, beavers, predators such as lions, hyaenas and others are all
species in which sub-populations form more-or-Iess stable groupings which possess capacities not possessed by individuals independently of their grouping.

But can we speak of group-potentials as distinct from mere
group-capacities? Are there, for groups, analogues of the processes of development and learning at the level of individuals
which might serve as the foundation for a cumulative acquisition
of powers through time? Do groups augment their powers of coordination of their own activity, or of transforming their environments? To the extent to which they do we may speak of’ collective
potentials’ . In fact, collective potentials are probably possessed in
any significant degree only in some mammalian social animals,
and to a high degree only in the human case.

Where the acquired capacities (the fulfilled potentials) of
groups can be transmitted from generation to generation in such
a way as to enable a continued augmentation of powers of the
associated group which is independent of preservation of the

10

identities of tlle members of the group I shall speak of collective
historical potentials. The acquisition of a written language, for
example, can retrospectively be recognised to have been a collective historical potential of some pre-literate civilizations. Literacy, like the wheel, does not have to be re-invented in each
generation, but, unlike spoken language, it is not a collective
possession in all cultures, or in all historical periods. I think that
the notion of collective historical potentials is required if we are
to adequately understand historical processes, but I also recognise
that there are serious difficulties in the way of coherently specifying the concept. Not the least of these is the problem of securing
identity of reference to the ‘bearers’ or possessors of such potentials. In the case of simple collective potentials this is relatively
unproblematic. As long as the group stays together, and continues
to interact, it can be identified and re-identified as ‘the same’

group. Identifying and re-identifying ‘the same’ collectivityof
human beings through prolonged expanses of historical time is
another matter.

However, for (the early) Marx, the problem is compounded,
since he attributes to the human species alone yet another type of
collective potential: the potential for species-wide coordination
of activity. The potential is not, here, attributable to any empirically delimitable socially combined population of human beings,
but to the species as a whole. For Marx, then, over and above
simple collective potentials, and collective historical potentials,
there are also what we might call ‘species historical potentials’.

Finally, for any species capable of historical potentials of
either of the two kinds so far distinguished (‘ collecti ve’ or
‘species’) the conditions exist for a further kind of individual
potential to be distinguished. To the extent that collective (or
species) historical potentials are fulfilled, the environmental
contexts in which individuals realise their individual developmental and or learning potentials are transformed. In other words,
for species susceptible of collective historical’ development’ (cumulative acquisition of collective powers across generations) we
can distinguish within the category of individual context-potentials a sub-class of individual historical potentials. Individual
historical potentials are capacities which individuals are able to
acquire in virtue of their membership of a collective in which
cognate collective historical potentials have been fulfilled. The
individual potential for reading or writing, for example, is an
individual historical potential in this sense. It is a potential which
can be realised only by individuals who belong to a culture which
possesses the institution of a written language. The importance of
the idea of collective historical potentials is that it is necessary if
we are to understand the extent to which the possibilities for
individual deve10pment and fulfIlment are dependent upon the
historical achievements of the culture in which they find themselves.

Clearly, a good deal needs to be said by way of elaborating and
defending these distinctions. But enough has been said to enable
me to at least state my case against Marx’ s use of the concept of
historical potential in sustaining his opposition between humans
and animals. OR the human side of the opposition, it seems to me
that the attribution of species historical potentials to humans is, to
say the least, highly speculative. Certainly this is so if we try to
follow Marx in saying which potentials these are (humanisation
of nature, and so on). Further, the normative connotation which
the notion of potential generally carried in Marx does not seem
obviously to carry over into historical potentials, whether individual or collective. The individual historical potential to deliver
‘megadeaths’ at the press of a button is dependent upon the
realisation of the collective historical potential to construct hitech. weaponry. But how do we value this historical achievement?

Do we recognise in it just one aspect of the historical unfolding of

human nature, a dimension of human fulfilment, along with our
increased capacities for curing the sick, making the deserts bloom
and so on? If we take this option, then it entails recognising that
humans have, as part of their nature, a potential for destructiveness, for evil. In this event, human well-being, the pursuit of
happiness may require us to find ways of suppressing, or blocking off some of our potentials. Well-being, the ‘good life’ cannot
be identified straightforwardly with the fulfilment of our human
potential.

The alternative option would be to keep the positive normative connotations of the notion of ‘potential’, refusing to recognise as potentials those historical possibilities whose realisation
would be undesirable – evil, destructive, and, ultimately, self-destructive. This option strikes me as a particularly indefensible
form of ‘speciesist’ special-pleading. The temptation towards
utopian blindness to the causal importance of those individual and
collective historical possibilities denied the status of ‘potentials’

is both strong and dangerous. As Mary Midgley has eloquently
shown, the human/animal opposition has served as a convenient
symbolic device whereby we have attributed to animals the dispositions we have not been able to contemplate in ourselves.2S The
point of these considerations is to suggest that if Marx turns out
to have been right in supposing that only humans have historical
potentials, it does not follow directly from this that any great gulf
stands between the animal and the human with respect to their
moral status.

The significance of this point becomes clearer if we look at
Marx’s contrast from the animal side of the divide. As we have
seen, many animal species display a complexity, diversity and
adaptability in their behaviour which is denied in Marx’ s view of
them as rigidly stereotypical in their species-characteristic modes
oflife. For many non-human animal species it is possible to speak
defensibly of developmental and learning potentials, of simple
collective powers, and even to a limited extent of collective
potentials. Some evidence exists of cultural transmission of
learned skills in the cases of some species of primates but not (as
yet, at least) of any generation-by-generation cumulative direction in these collective skills.26 This does seem to be a distinctive
feature of humans by contrast with all other animal species
currently inhabiting the earth. It is, however, worth noting that
this is a purely contingent matter. There is no a priori reason for
supposing that some other species might not evolve these po tentials in the future, and there are good empirical grounds for
thinking that our planet has previously been inhabited by other
primate species which did have historical potentials.

Now, the moral contrast which Marx draws between the
historical potential of humanity and its estranged, distorted,
stunted, merely animal mode of existence under the dominion of
estranged labour is only effective on two conditions. First, it is
necessary to equate the fulfilment of human historical potential
with the well-being, the flourishing, of humans in their forms of
association with one another and their material environment. I
have just suggested that this equation is notjustified. 27 Second, it
is necessary to attribute to human beings the capacity to exist in
two contrasting states: as merely existing, or surviving, as beings
whose ‘crude, physical’, or ‘merely animal’ needs are met (as
mere bearers of the capacity to work, and to physically reproduce
that capacity), or, by contrast, as flourishing, as fulfilled, as ‘fully
human’.

B ut the place of the reference to ‘animal needs’ , here, and the
associated use of the human/animal contrast to sustain the ethical
critique of human estrangement requires a denial of this capacity
in the animal case. Animals, we must suppose, merely exist. As
animals they have merely animal needs and the satisfaction of
these needs is both necessary and sufficient for the existence and

reproduction of the life of the individual and its species. But if, as
we have seen, (some) animals, too, have developmental, learning,
species, context, and collective capacities and potentials then
here, also, it must be possible to distinguish between mere
existence, on the one hand, and flourishing, well-being, and the
fulfilment of diverse potentials, on the other. The mere fact of
distinctively human historical potentials does not obliterate either the ethical distinction between flourishing and merely existing for other animals, or its ontological presupposition.

The point here is not just that Marx was simply wrong about
animals.28 It is rather that he was wrong in ways which undermine
his own view of the desirability of a changed relationship between
humanity and nature in the future communist society. Connectedly, he is also wrong about animals in ways which cut him off
from a powerful extension and deepening of his own ethical
critique of prevailing (capitalist) modes of appropriation of nature.

Let us adopt a ‘weak’ interpretation of hurhanisation of
nature’ and allow that it may include, not the literal ‘humanisation’ of animals, but, rather, an alteration of our relationship to
animals – perhaps a rendering of that relationship more consistent
with our ‘humanity’ ,a more humane relationship. This is the very
least that would be required to make Marx’ s notion consistent
with his own professed naturalism. Now, whatever content is
given to ‘amore humane relationship’ ,it presupposes that ‘crude,
physical need’ and the needs of animals are not equivalent. Only
if there is a difference between mere existence of animals at a level
which minimally satisfies human utility, on the one hand, and
thriving or well-being, on the other, can we distinguish between
‘inhumane’ and ‘humane’ ways of treating those animals whose
conditions oflife are dependent upon the exercise of our powers.29
Moreover, the pathological distortions from the properly
human mode oflife which Marx attempts to capture in his concept
of ‘estrangement’, or ‘alienation’, are in important respects paralleled in the modes oflife imposed upon animals by precisely the
same structures of social action. The treatment of animals as mere
means to external purposes, the forcible fragmentation of their
life-activity, and the dissolution of their social bonds with one
another are, for example, features of commercial agriculture
which have become progressively intensified since Marx’s day
with each technical reorganisation of agricultural production. The
ethical critique of such practices should not be seen as an alternative to a Marxian critique of modem capitalist forms of l!bourdiscipline, but, rather, an extension and a deepening of it. But
Marx’s contrast between the human and the animal cuts away the
on tological basis for such a critical analysis of forms of suffering
shared by both animals and humans who are caught up in a
common causal network.

11

4. Marx’ s attribution to animals of a fixed and standardised
mode of activity in relation to nature, and his apparent failure to
recognise in any significant way the social life of non-human
animals are both at work in his use of the phrases ‘physical need’

and ‘animal need’ as if they were equivalent. This suggests a
denial of the complexity and diversity of the emotional, psychological and social lives of other animals. Such a denial renders
merely rhetorical Marx ‘s characterisation of history as ‘nature developing into man’ , and cuts off two significant sources of insight
into human nature and history. The first, which would require
giving serious theoretical content to the idea of ‘nature developing into man’ , would be an inquiry into the prehistorical origins
of the human species, and the processes of our differentiation
from other primate lineages. The second, in part dependent for its
rational justification on the first (i.e. a recognition of the kinship
of humans and other animals), would be a comparative psychology and ethology in which what is genuinely distinctive about
human beings could be viewed in the light of what is shared
between human and non-human animals. That these lines of
enquiry have a long post-Darwinian history of political tendentious and methodologically suspect misuses30 is not a sufficient
reason for a wholesale abandonment of the enterprise. Whilst
there is certainly plenty of room for legitimate controversy within
modem evolutionary theory it is no longer reasonable to deny the
main claims of the evolutionary perspectives in relation to human
ancestry in some primate stock, and our kinship with contemporary primates. Unless social scientists wish to stand with the flat
earthers, the Inquisitors and the bible-belt creationists they have
no choice but to engage with the questions posed by our animal
origins and nature. Marx and Engels themselves enthusiastically
embraced this perspective after 1859.31

AGAINST MARX’S DUALIST VIEW OF HUMAN
NATURE
Perhaps, however, the most telling arguments against the dualist
aspects of Marx’s early work relate to the dualism within human
nature which follows from the external dualism of the animal and
the human. It is characteristic of dualistic approaches, baulking at
the prospect of a comprehensively idealist view of our nature, to
recognise an animal component, layer, or aspect, within the
human. The human is an animal, but an animal with a special
‘something’ extra which makes all the difference – soul, mind,
will, self, reason, and so on. Marx’s early writings, as we have
seen, still fall within this tradition.

/

/

/

!

/
I

I

.

“- ‘–.

12

In so far as humans work only to meet their subsistence needs,
and do not experience their work as a need in itself, their activity
is mere animal activity. In so far as their leisure activities, their
eating and drinking, their ‘dressing up’ and so on are ends in
themselves, segregated from the wider species-project, they are
mere ‘animal functions’. When the starving man is fed ‘it would
be impossible to say wherein this feeding activity differs from that
of animals’ .32 This reproduction of the animallhuman opposition
within the domain of the human involves a sequestering of certain
of our needs, powers, functions and activities as animal, or
animal-like, from others (generally more highly valued and
assigned a more fundamental ontological status) which are designated ‘human’.

The main objections to this broad strategy for understanding
what humans are can be usefully placed into three groups.

1. Those powers, needs, activities, functions (etc.) which fall on
the human side of the divide, are represented as a self-sufficient,
sui generis, autonomous complex which is thus rendered unintelligible in relation to the rest (the animal side) of human life. But
what sense could be made of, for example, human powers of
reasoning in abstraction from the bodily needs and activities in
which they are exercised? In Marx’ s own case, the ethical ideal for
humanity is a mode of being which integrates the diverse activities of persons within a coherent communal project. This notion
of integral self-realisation remains incompatible with the residual
dualism of the Manuscripts.

2. Those powers, activities, needs, functions (etc.) which fall on
the’ animal’ side of the division are correspondingly profaned as,
perhaps, rather shameful residual features. Their continued,
uncomfortably insistent presence, eruptions and interruptions are
demeaning and rob us of the full sense of self-respect to which we
feel entitled. A combined dread and contempt for bodily existence
and function is barely disguised in much philosophical dualism.

It provides grounding and sustenance for the valuation of mental
over manual labour, of masculinity (‘cultured’) over femininity
(‘natural’), or reason over sentiment, of ‘mind over matter’, and
of the ‘civilized’ over the ‘savage’. It makes for a culture that is
guilt-ridden, fearful and confused over such fundamental features
of the shared human and animal condition as sexuality and death.

3. The dualist philosophical heritage is at work in many of our
most problematic contemporary institutional forms and practices.

The development of modem ‘health-care’ as a form of organised,
hi-tech ‘body mechanics’, (at its best) detecting, diagnosing and
correcting defects in the bodily machine, has an unmistakable
Cartesian legacy about it. The pertinence of the psychological,
emotional, cultural and socio-economic aspects and contexts of
the person to both the causation of and recovery from disease has
been widely understood only in recent years.33 It has yet to gain
the central place it deserves in policy disputes and health-care
reform. In other areas of public policy, too, a segregation of
‘basic’ (= ph ysical) needs from’ higher ‘ (emotional, cultural, selfrealising) needs underlies priorities of welfare state provision in
such areas as housing, the setting of nutritional standards and even
in education. 34 A great deal of overseas aid policy, too, neglects
the cultural, socio-economic, and environmental contexts within
which such ‘basic’ needs as food and shelter are met. The
sequestering of classes of need from one another, often wellmotivated, equally often is disastrous in its consequences. Needs
which are inseparably interconnected both in the way they are
experienced and in the interweaving of their causal conditions of
satisfaction are all too often abstractly ‘targeted’ in single-priority
interventions which bring extended chains of unintended consequences in their wake. The environmental and social cost of the

export of ‘green revolution’ technologies to large parts of Asia
and Latin America is a case in point.3s
I have tried to show that much of Marx’ s thinking in the early
Manuscripts is governed by two closely related dualistic oppositions: between humans and animals, and between the human and
the animal within the human. I have advanced some considerations which I believe tell against these dualisms, both as they
appear in Marx, and as they are present more widely as a
constitutive dimension of Western cultures. I have also suggested
that human/animal dualisms are incompatible also with key
features of Marx’s own intellectual and practical project. But if
this is so, then it follows that there are other elements or aspects
of Marx’s thinking, even in his pre-Darwinian days, which cut
against the dualist aspects upon which my proffered reading has
so far been based.

NATURALISM WITHOUT REDUCTIONISM OR
‘SPECIESISM’?

In what remains of this paper, I shall offer a sketch for an
alternative reading and re-construction of Marx’s early Manuscripts, centred on those elements which tell against both philosophical dualism and idealism, and which favour, rather, a naturalistic, but still not reductionist view of human nature. A view,
that is, which gives due place to the specificity and distinctiveness
of the human species, but does so without compromising what
remains defensible in Marx’s assertion that ‘man is part of
nature’.

Some of the most promising textual materials for his alternative approach are to be found, not surprisingly, perhaps, in the
manuscript entitled ‘Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole’.

Man is directly a natural being. As a natural being and as
a living natural being he is on the one hand endowed with
natural powers, vital powers – he is an active natural
being. These forces exist in him as tendencies and abilities
– as instincts. On the other hand, as a natural, corporeal,
sensuous, objective being he is a suffering, conditioned
and limited creature, like animals and plants. That is to say,
the objects of his instincts exist outside him, objects
independent of him; yet these objects are objects that he
needs – essential objects, indispensable to the manifestation and confirmation of his essential powers … Hunger is
a natural need; it therefore needs a nature outside itself, an
object outside itself, in order to satisfy itself, to be stilled.36
In this passage, Marx is asserting the status of humans as ‘natural
beings’, a status they share with (other) animals and with plants.

As natural beings there are three interconnected features which
humans share with other living beings. First, they have natural
needs whose objects lie outside themselves, independent of them.

All living things, for example, have nutritional needs. The objects
of these needs – foodstuffs – exist independently of them. Second,
all living beings have natural powers which enable them to satisfy
these needs, and natural tendencies (‘instincts ‘) to exercise them.

Third, this need-satisfying activity in relation to external objects
is essential to the ‘confirmation’ or ‘manifestation’ of the essential powers of the species.

In other words, interaction with external nature is necessary
for the survival of all natural beings. Each species of natural being
has its own distinctive mode or pattern of interaction with nature
– its own ‘species-life’. And finally, (a member of) each species
only fully manifests its essential nature- only becomes what it has
the potential to be – in virtue of its participation in this distinctive
species-life.

‘But,’ Marx goes on to say, ‘Man is not merely a natural being:

he is a human natural being. That is to say, he is a being for
himself.’37 Having begun to speak of human nature in a thoroughly naturalistic way, Marx appears, again, to pull back and reestablish a dualistic opposition, this time between the ‘human’

and the ‘natural’. However, there is no necessity for such a
reading. The ‘human’ here can be understood as a qualification,
a specification, or subdivision within the natural, rather than its
opposite. This remains a form of naturalism, in that what humans
share with other ‘natural beings’ is regarded as ontologically
fundamental, and is accordingly given priority for purposes of
understanding and explaining what humans are and how they act.

B ut it is not a reductionist naturalism in the sense that it allows for
a full recognition of the specificity and distincti veness of humans,
their forms of sociability and their potentials within the order of
nature. Whereas dualist and idealist accounts of human nature fix
upon features which are held to distinguish us from (other)
animals and elaborate their views of human nature upon that
basis, a naturalistic approach begins with the common predicament of natural beings and moves from that basis to render
intelligible their speCific differences in constitution, structure and
modes of life.

In Marx’ s account all living beings h~lVe needs whose objects
are external and independent. The satisfaction of need, therefore,
requires interaction with and appropriation of the environment of
the organism. The particular content of need, the mechanisms
which mediate between needs and forms of activity, and the
nature of need-meeting activities themselves are, of course,
almost unimaginably diverse – from the chemistry of photosynthesis through the hunting of the tiger to the ‘biting’ of the
mosquito. The point, however, is that the common framework of
analysis enables us to recognise the significance of all these
detailed specificities of biochemical, neuro-physiological, anatomical, ethological and ecological facts and processes within the
overall ‘mode of life’ of the species concerned..

Each species has its own characteristic species-life. Organisms can ‘confirm’ or ‘manifest’ their essential powers only
within the context of their species-life, and so can be said to
flourish only when the conditions for the living of the mode oflife
characteristic of their species are met For each species, then, we
can distinguish conditions for mere organic survival- the meeting
of minimal nutritional requirements, protection from predators,
and so on – from conditions for flourishing, for the living of the
species-life. But how this distinction is made, the specific survival-conditions and flourishing-conditions which are identified,
will vary from species to species. The empirical determination of
such conditions is at least part of the content of the sciences of
ethology and ecology.

So far, then, my alternative, non-dualistic reading of Marx’ s
early Manuscripts has yielded a significant shift in the conceptual
means for dealing with Marx’ s central theme in this text: the
estrangement of labour. Under regimes of private property, conditions which enable the survival of workers are provided but the
conditions for them to confirm their powers and potentials in the
living of their characteristic ‘species-life’ are denied to them. A
distorted and pathological mode of life is the consequence. This
theme can be further specified and elaborated with little if any loss
of the ethical power of Marx’ s critique, but with the double gain
that precisely the same framework of analysis can be applied in
the critique of the mode of life imposed upon many of the other
living species caught up in this distorted mode of human life, and
that Marx’s highly speculative notion of a distinctively human
‘species historical’ potential is rendered redundant
I will conclude with some brief indications as to how the fonn
of naturalism I am advocating might offer a preferable way of

13

understanding the relation between the ‘human’ and the ‘animal’

within the human, how it might, in other words, displace dualism
without falling into reductionism.

A naturalistic specification of ‘human nature’, I have suggested, would be a matter of differentiating out and then elaborating our specific features from an initial recognition of the common core of ‘natural beinghood’ which we share with other living
creatures. But this process of differentiation, of saying what is
specifically human, can all too easily fall into a dualistic mode. If
it becomes centred on a specification of those powers, potentials,
requirements etc. possessed by humans ‘over and above’ those
they share with animals, the approach falls short of naturalism.

This is not to deny that there are things (reading, writing,
talking,38 composing symphonies, inventing weapons of mass
destruction and so on) which humans and only humans can do.

Rather, it is to say that those things which only humans can do are
generally to be understood as rooted in the specifically human
ways of doing things which other animals also do. It is this feature
that I want to emphasise as the hallmark of a naturalistic approach.

What this approach might mean in practice can, perhaps, be
illustrated by way of a study of Marx’s treatment of the concept
of ‘need’ in the Manuscripts. As we have seen, Marx speaks
variously of ‘crude’, ‘physical’ or ‘animal’ needs, contrasting
them with ‘human needs’. In some passages it seems as though
human needs constitute a separate, sui generis class of needs, set
over and above our’ animal’ , subsistence needs, and peculiarto us
as humans. We may distinguish two broad types of human need
in this sense. First, what might be called ‘self-realisation’ needs:

The rich human being is simultaneously the human being
in need of a totality of human manifestations oflife – a man
in whom his own realisation exists as an inner necessity, as
need.39
Marx seems to suggest that such inner needs for self-realisation,
for the fulfilment of potential, are possible onl y for self-conscious
beings, and even then are only fully acquired on the basis of an
extended process of historical ‘development’.

The second class of distinctively human needs is similarly
linked with our status as self-conscious beings, but not necessarily with our historicity. Marx speaks of the elements of our
external environment (‘plants, animals, stones, air, light, etc.’)40
as constituting ‘spiritual nourishment’ in so far as they are objects
of human science and art. Over and above the need (which they
share with other animals) to physically appropriate nature, humans have spiritual needs to aesthetically and cognitively appropriate nature. This reading is strongly suggested by such passages

14

as this:

It (the animal) produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is
free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom.41
There are, it seems, two possible kinds of human practice in
relation to nature: one, physical-need satisfaction, which we share
with animals, the other, spiritual (aesthetic, cognitive) needsatisfaction, which is special to us, and constitutes production in
the ‘true’ sense. This distinction reappears in the later works as a
distinction between the realms of ‘necessity’ and of ‘freedom’ .

However, an alternative, naturalistic reading of the passage is
also possible. To qualify as properly human, it is necessary not
that production have no relation to the satisfaction of physical
need, but rather that it should not be perfonned under the dominion of immediate physical need. Leaving aside Marx’s apparent
equation of the animal with the ‘not-properly-human’, Marx can
plausibly be read as making a distinction not so much between
practices which satisfy different needs, as between different
modes of satisfaction of common needs. The satisfaction of
aesthetic and cognitive needs does not require the perfonnance of
further practice, over and above the practices through which
physical needs are met. In a fully human, or ‘true’ practice of
production, physical needs would be met in a way that was
aesthetically and cognitively satisfying. For at least this sub-class
of ‘human’ needs, then, we can say that they are not a sui-generis
complex of requirements, over and above the physical needs, but
that they are, rather, requirements which bear on the manner of
experiencing, identifying and satisfying the physical needs. Let’s
take the physical need for nutrition as an example.42 This need is
common to both humans and other animals. Some non-human
animals, but not all, have sufficient psychological and behavioural similarity to ourselves for us to speak non-metaphorically
and unequivocably of them as experiencing hunger, searching
for, and consuming food. For all such animals the objects and
substances which can count as ‘food’ are a sub-set only of the total
range of objects and substances which would satisfy their nutritional requirements. Moreover, only some modes of acquring and
consuming these objects and substances are characteristic of the
‘mode of life’ of the species concerned, or are activities in which
their specific powers and potentials are exercised or fulfilled. The
feeding activities actually engaged in by such animals are the
overdetennined outcome of inherited predispositions, learning
and environmental opportunity-structures.

All this is true of humans and many other species of animals,
especially mammals and birds. So, in the passage quoted above
Marx’s parallel between the feeding acti vity of the ‘starving man’

and that of animals is undermined. Neither for humans nor for
other species can we simply equate the mere satisfaction of
nutritional requirements with the feeding activity characteristic
of the species. The distorted, or pathological relation to food
induced by starvation in humans is not an animal or animal-like
relation to food, but a specific distortion or pathology of human
feeding-activity. But, this mistaken equation of the pathologically human with the animal aside, Marx’ s comment is susceptible of an illuminating and naturalistic interpretation. What
makes the relation of the starving man to food a pathological one
is that the object of hunger exists merely as food, its sole significance is that its consumption will satisfy the hunger. Such feeding
activity is performed under the’ domination’ of ‘immediate’ need,
to quote what Marx says elsewhere. This feeding activity is
means/ends activity, not activity with its own intrinsic satisfaction. It is also activity in which the aesthetic, cognitive, and

‘spiritual’ dimensions of human activity are missing.

On this naturalistic reading, then, what makes the difference
between a ‘fully’, or ‘properly’ human way of satisfying hunger,
and a less than human, or pathological way of satisfying the same
need, is the presence or absence of intrinsic cognitive and aesthetic satisfactions in the activity through which the need is
satisfied. We can now get closer to answering the question, what
are the enabling conditions for the satisfaction of hunger to take
a properly human form? In addition to the availability of nutritional items in the environment and the technical powers on the
part of persons to appropriate them, these enabling conditions
must also include appropriate aesthetic and cognitive rules and
resources.

B ut if we ask the further question, under what conditions can
these aesthetic and cognitive rules and resources exist? , then the
short answer is: Within the context of a human culture. That this
reading is in line with Marx’ s thinking is indicated also by his use
of the word ‘immediate’ to specify the non-human relation to
physical need satisfaction. Properly human feeding-activity is
symbolically, culturally mediated need satisfaction. All cultures
contain classifications which define (well within the range of all
possible means of meeting nutritional requirements) what are and
what are not to be counted as food, often with severely sanctioned
taboos against the consumption of some items. Similarly normative regulations govern the mode of appropriation of culturally
recognised foodstuffs, their preparation for consumption, their
distribution within the community, the order in which they are
consumed and so on.43
To say that there is an aesthetic, cognitive, normative, ‘spiritual’ – in other words ‘cultural’ – dimension to the way in which
humans meet their physical needs, and that this is indispensable
to their meeting of these needs in a ‘properly’ human way might
look like a covert return to dualism. But this is not so. The key
point, here, is that the starting point for the analysis is the
recognition of a need which is common to both humans and nonhuman animals. The specification of the distincti vely human then
proceeds not by identifying a further, supervenient class of needs
possessed only by humans, but rather by identifying the speciesspecific way in which humans meet the needs they share with
other species. This leaves open the door to making further illuminating contrasts and comparisons between humans and other
species, and it avoids the effacement of the manifold differences
among non-human animals in their ways of satisfying their
physical needs.

But if this strategy can be defended from the charge of
‘dualism at once remove’, is it not susceptible to the contrary
charge of reductionism? Surely not all of human cognitive and
aesthetic activity is displayed in the practices through which
physical needs are met, nor yet even in those practices through
which we meet the whole range of needs which we share with
(some) other animal species? What of those needs – self-realisation needs – which appear to be peculiar to self-conscious and
historical beings? Again, it is not required by the form of naturalism I want to advocate that the reality of such needs should be
denied. Rather, the commitment is to viewing them as in some
sense consequential upon those needs which are common to
natural beings, or upon the species-specific ways in which those
common needs are met. Explanatory strategies in relation to such
supervenient needs would be to make them intelligible in terms of
the (ontologically) more fundamental common needs.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide the further
elaboration and defence that these remarks clearly require. Suffice it, for the moment, to say that the broad naturalistic but nonreductionist approach advocated above would provide the beginnings of a methodological defence for some already-existing

explanatory strategies (not, of course, grounds for accepting as
true any specific social-scientific explanation). Marx’s attempt to
explain the fragmentations and distortions of human personal and
social life under capitalism as consequences of a pathological
relationship to nature is clearly one such strategy that would be
defended. An interesting and provocative comparison here would
be with the genre of explicitly ethologically rooted social pathologies, of which Desmond Morris (1969) is perhaps the best-known
example.

Such sociologicaVanthropological strategies might usefully
be compared and complemented by psychoanalytical approaches
which operate at the level of the human individual. What Freud
does with the concept of’ sublimation’ is a clear case of an attempt
to explain in a non-reductionist way the rootedness of some
distinctively human activities (aesthetic and scientific, for example) in needs and propensities (sexuality and affectivity) which
we share with other species. Finally, at the level ofphylogenetic
explanations, S. J. Gould (1980) and others have shown how the
concept of natural selection can be used in the explanation of
human origins (as with other species) without in any way denying
the specificity and distinctiveness of human powers and potentials. The notion that biological modifications which are adaptive
may bring in their wake a train of consequences which are nonadaptive in evolutionary terms is an important concept for this
strategy.

NOTES
1.

2.

I would like to thank participants in the sociology seminar at Sussex
University, the political philosophy seminar at the University of
East Anglia. the third Conference on Realism and the Human Sciences, and the third year philosophy/sociology seminar at the
University of Essex, as well as Jean Duncombe, Jean Grimshaw,
Roy Edgley, Joe McCarney, Chris Arthur and Oriel Sullivan, for
helpful criticisms of earlier drafts of this paper. Many of their
comments have been incorporated into, or taken account of in this
version of the argument. I would also like to thank S. Horigan for
many stimulating conversations on issues related to the topic of this
paper.

The distinction between ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ ecology is generally
attributed to Arne Naess. See A. Naess (1973) and also R. Sylvan
(1985). Although I have treated the perspective of ‘deep ecology’ as
an extension of moral concern about the well-being of (other)
animals, the two positions are sometimes argued from different, and

15

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

11.

12.

13.

14.

15.

16.

17.

18.

19.

20.

21.

22.

23.

24.

conflicting premisses. There is an implicit anthropocentrism in
those advocacies of ‘animal rights’, for example, which argue for
the status of animals as moral subjects on the basis of, and to the
extent that they share, certain ‘human’ attributes. A ‘deep ecological’ perspective attributes intrinsic value independently of any such
likeness to humans. Although I avoid direct argumentation on these
issues in the present paper it may prevent some misunderstandings
if I briefly outline my position. It is that the beings and relations that
constitute the system of nature are properly assigned a value in
virtue of their intrinsic character, independently of their utility,
aesthetic appeal, or likeness to humans. However, I differ from
some ‘deep ecologists’ in holding that (contingently, of course)
humans are the only kind of being capable of assigning value in this
way. Having assigned value to the whole system of nature and its
elements, the further questions as to what conduct is or is not
morally acceptable with respect to particular beings or sub-systems
may get a diversity of answers depending on the relations of those
beings to human agents, and their diverse intrinsic characters. An
animal which can feel pain and experience fear makes different
moral demands upon us from a plant, which cannot. But this does
not mean that the destruction of plants is a matter of absolute moral
indifference, and nor does it mean that the moral value of (other)
animals is equivalent to that of persons (as is held by some animal
rights and liberation activists).

K. Marx and F. Engels (1975b), p. 276.

G. A. Cohen (1979), see especially pp. 201-07 and 322-25.

K. Marx andF. Engels (1975b), p. 275. The secondary literature on
Marx’s early writings is, of course, voluminous. I have included a
small selection in the bibliography. See especially C. J. Arthur
(1986), A. Cornu (1957), G. Markus (1978), R. Norman and S.

Sayers (1980), B. OIlman (1971) and A. Wood (1981). N. Geras
(1983) is an important source on Marx ‘s later view of human nature.

Almost all commentaries mention in passing Marx’s contrast between the animal and the human, but few give it sustained critical
attention. 1. Elster (1985), Ch. 2, and G. Markus (1978) are exceptions.

Ibid., p. 276.

Ibid., p. 273.

Ibid., pp. 301-02.

Ibid., p. 277.

Ibid., p. 276.

Ibid., p. 277.

Ibid., p. 305.

Ibid., p. 303.

Ibid., p. 297.

Ibid., p. 306.

Ibid., p. 305.

Ibid., p. 30l.

Ibid., p. 30l.

Ibid., pp. 296-97.

Ibid., pp. 303-04.

Ibid., p. 276.

Ibid., p. 302.

Ibid., p. 274.

Ibid., p. 239.

25. See for example M. Midgley (1980), Ch. 2.

26. Some of the most fascinating evidence of cultural transmission
comes from the more than twenty-five years spent by Jane Goodall
and her associates observing a wild chimpanzee colony at Gombe,
in Tanzania (see 1. Goodall (1974) and (1986». Chimps are frequently observed using sticks as ‘tools’ to ‘fish’ termites from their
mounds. They first strip offleaves to make the sticks suitable for the
purpose, and juveniles learn the appropriate skills by observation
and imitation of their seniors. See, however, S. 1. Gould’s interest-

16

27.

28.

29.

30.

31.

32.

ing discussion of Goodall’s interpretations (S. J. Gould (1987».

This is not, of course, to deny that there are connections between
well-being and the fulfilment of potentials. Marx is, I think, right to
argue that the opportunity to fulfll one’s potential is, for humans, a
need. It follows that the fulfilment of potential is a necessary
constituent of well-being. But not all potentials can be actualised
within the timespan of an individual human life, or within the
context of any particular culture. Some potentials must simply
remain unactualised. Moreover, as I have suggested above, the
actualisation of some human potentials would be undesirable. In
other cases, the simultaneous realisation of two contrasting potentials may be impossible or undesirable, even though there may be
nothing problematic about either taken separately.

These considerations show that the concepts of human potential and
species being are by themselves insufficient to establish a defensible view of human well-being. A good society would encourage
the actualisation of some potentials and discourage others. Its
institutional framework would include enabling conditions for the
fulfilment of a diverse range of potentials amongst its citizens, but
it would also set limits to this range and establish constraints on the
actualisation of undesirable potentials. Further ethical principles
and reasoning is required to establish and defend the outlines of such
a society. A theory of human nature is an essential part of the rational
grounding of any view of human well-being, but it cannot be
substituted for an adequate moral theory.

Here, as elsewhere in this paper, I might be accused of anachronistically criticising Marx for lack of awareness of an ethological
literature produced a century or more after his death. In fact, I am
less interested in showing thatMarx was empirically mistaken, than
in exposing and making constructive uses of some of the conceptual
tensions and contradictions in his text. However, Marx’s writings of
the early and mid 1840s contrast interestingly with Darwin’s
notebooks (unpublished, of course, at the time) on Man, Mind and
Materialism. These were written in 1838 and 1839 and are studded
with observations and specUlations on intelligence, emotional
expression and sociability in other animals, and also remarks on the
striking analogies between humans and other animals in these
respects. For example: ‘Plato says in Phaedo that-our”’imaginary
ideas” arise from the preexistence of the soul, are not derivable from
experience- read monkeys for preexistence. 1. The young Orang in
Zoological Gardens pouts. Partly out (of) displeasure … When
pouting protrudes its lips into point. Man, though he does not pout,
pushes out both lips in contempt, disgust and defiance’ (Gruber
(1974), p. 290). This contrasts very sharply with Marx’s virtually
contemporaneous position in his 1839 notebooks on Epicurean
Philosophy: ‘If a philosopher does not find it outrageous to consider
man as an animal, he cannot be made to understand anything’ (Marx
and Engels (1975a), p. 453). It would be a worthwhile exercise to
investigate the transition from this unequivocal anti-naturalism
through the unstable ‘humanist naturalism’ of the Manuscripts to
the unequivocal pro-Darwinian stance of 1859.

It may be argued that this point does not apply to controversies
about, for example, cruel sports or inhumane methods of slaughter.

In these cases, ethical concern is not founded on a distinction between mere survival and well-being, but upon the imposition of
unnecessary suffering, or, indeed, in the human vice of taking actual
pleasure in the causing of suffering to other beings. I think there is
some force in this argument, though my main concern in the text is
to work out a framework for thinking about the quality of life which
is possible for those animals (domestic, agricultural, etc.) which are
incorporated into human society.

A useful introduction to the debates surrounding biological determinism is A. L. Caplan (ed.) (1978). Trenchant critiques includeM.

Sahlins (1977) andS. Rose, L. 1. Karmin and R. C. Lewontin(1984).

Feminist perspectives on the issues are giveninJ. Sayers (1981)and
L. Birke (1986).

I have commented elsewhere on Marx’ s, and, especially, Engels’ s
later responses to Darwinism. See T. Benton (1979).

Marx and Engels (1975b), p. 302.

33. An important figure in the development of this new understanding
was the late T. McKeown(see his (1976) The Role ofMedicine). See
also the essays by L. Rogers and G. Bignami in S. Rose (ed.) (1982)
and L. Doyal (1979), esp. Ch. 1.

34. Somewhat paradoxically, an important source for such views of
need has been the work of A. H. Maslow (see Maslow (1943) and
(1970». Though advocating a ‘holistic’ and anti-dualist view of
human nature, Maslow’ s hierarchical classification ofneeds (physio10gical, safety, love, esteem and self-actualisation) has been open to
interpretations which, in effect, restore a dualism of ‘lower’ and
‘higher’ order needs. Important recent discussions of the concept of
need with a direct bearing on my argument in this paper are K. Soper
(1981) and L. Doyal and I. Gough (1984).

35. A very useful introduction to the literature on this is M. Redclift
(1984), pp. 107-10. See also W. H. Matthews (ed.) (1976).

36. K. Marx and F. Engels (1975b), p. 336.

37. Ibid., p. 337.

38. Recent studies have even called into question the distinctiveness of
the human capacity for language. Although earlier attempts to train
captive chimpanzees and other primates to speak were not successful, R. A. and B. T. Gardner did manage to teach the chimp
‘W ashoe’ to use sign-language to some degree. E. Linden’ s experiments with plastic symbols have also been adduced as evidence of
an intellectual capacity for language in some primates. Of course,
language can be defined so as to exclude these as genuine cases of
language-learning and all such experiments have methodological
weaknesses. Nevertheless, it is hard to read this literature without
being convinced of a much greater continuity between humans and
other primates with respect to their reasoning and symbolising
powers than has been widely assumed. See R. A. andB. J. Gardner
(1975) and E. Linden (1976). A good, balanced account of the
debate is given in S. Walker (1983), Chapters 9 and 10.

39. Ibid., p. 304.

40. Ibid., p. 275.

41. Ibid., p. 276.

42. The use of this example might be misleading. In this case we are,
indeed, dealing with a physical need which is common to humans
and animals as ‘natural beings’. However, as I hope the above
discussion has made clear, I am not committed to the view that all
needs common to humans and (other) animals are physical needs.

On the contrary, my view would also include affective, sexual,
reproductive (etc.) needs as common needs in this sense. They are
needs which we share with other animals, but, at the same time, they
are needs which we experience, identify and seek to satisfy in ways
which are distinctively human (and, at a more concrete level of
description, in ways which vary from one human culture, historical
period and social grouping to another).

43. See C. Levi-Strauss (1970).

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17

B. OIlman (1971) Alienation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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