‘Karl Marx’s Philosophy of Nature, Action and Society: A New Analysis’ reviewed by Ishay Landa

Karl Marx’s Philosophy of Nature, Action and Society: A New Analysis

Cambridge Scholars Press, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2009. xii + 190pp., £34.99 hb
ISBN 9781443805513

Reviewed by Ishay Landa

About the reviewer

Ishay Landa is Senior Lecturer in History at the Israeli Open University. He has published on …


Our access to the thought Marx and Engels (in what follows I will refer to Marx alone for the sake of convenience) is so heavily mediated, for better or worse, by the thought and deeds of generations of Marxists and by layers of interpretations, that it is a useful exercise for once to put aside all these filters and revisit Marx’s writings as if they were a terra incognita. This attempt at a fresh examination is one of the major pluses of Holt’s new book. To be accurate, the study does not really return to Marx; it provides something still better: a first encounter. The author, as he explains in the Preface, is only a relatively recent `convert’ to Marxism, before that having been a Hegelian. And he has come to embrace Marx’s ideas mainly through a meticulous reading of the original texts themselves. Holt’s aim is to systematically articulate a `materialist standard of practical action’ that, he is convinced, underpins Marx’s writings but is never expressly stated as such. This standard can be used to measure the shortcomings of our present, capitalist economy, whether it expresses itself in a neo-liberal or a social-democratic guise; and ultimately, it serves as a Marxist compass, its needle pointing to the optimal societal arrangement we are to strive for – a communist one.

Holt draws a sharp distinction between the earlier Marx and the more mature one, beginning with The German Ideology, who completes his break with Hegelianism and its different ramifications and unfolds his own distinctive, materialistic philosophy. A process of ever greater clarification over the course of Marx’s career is assumed, so that the materialistic yardstick, only adumbrated in the earlier attempts, reaches full development in Grundrisse and Capital. As the title indicates, the book explores the implications of a triple analytical division Marx had made, or at least strongly implied, between nature, action, and society. Let us start with nature. Unlike certain bourgeois thinkers, for example Hegel or J. S. Mill, who approach human beings idealistically in terms of their psyche or culture, Marx’s practical philosophy foregrounds nature since it conceives of human beings as `essentially corporeal, objective, and organic creatures’ (23). This emphasis, while apparently innocuous, was crucial in Marx’s early bid to supersede Hegel’s idealism, along with all other philosophies which fail to give full due to the basic fact that at its most primordial human existence consists of the ineluctable effort to interact with and domesticate nature. In Marx’s succinct formulation, quoted by Holt: `Nature is man’s inorganic body … Man lives from nature … and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die’ (80). Holt’s analysis confirms the recent claims made by a number of other authors that Marx was a thinker fully aware and deeply concerned about the devastation of nature wrought by capitalism, hence a proto-environmentalist thinker,. At the same time, he is careful to point out that Marx approached nature in a functional way, conceiving of it primarily in its relation to human needs, and never flirting with pantheism or turning nature into a fetish. Marx’s concept of nature, Holt clarifies, `only means that nature is useful and not that it has dignity’ (15).

Humanity’s natural, organic existence, however, is merely the premise of Marx’s materialism, the first storey in the edifice of his mature practical philosophy. His greatest innovation was to introduce historical awareness as the key to grasping the specificity of human natural existence, which is famously done in rectification of Feuerbach’s materialism (90-92). It is not enough, as Feuerbach did, to underline nature; rather, one must grasp the way that nature itself, as well as human nature, are subject to historical change, through the practical activity of human beings; hence the distinctiveness of a historical materialism. Holt elucidates how action, the sphere of the material, is distinguished from the natural in the way that eating and digesting, natural activities, which feature perennially in human life, are different from, say, farming or drawing a map, material activities which are historically acquired and evolve over time: `The difference between the material and the natural for Marx is the distinction between historically developed actions and those aspects of humans’ biological existence that are bracketed apart from actions’ (22). Marx’s emphasis is put on history, not just any kind of history but specifically the history of industry. This is a manoeuvre which is effective on two different fronts: on the one hand, as already mentioned, it deflates the arguments of those idealists who fail to recognize the importance of industry, either by ignoring it altogether or by understanding history as a process whereby metaphysical or spiritual entities – ‘notably Hegel’s spirit – ‘assert their supremacy; but on the other hand, the butt of Marx’s critique increasingly becomes those political economists who, while certainly focusing on industry, ignore history. Historical materialism is thus at once a powerful refutation of idealism and of the a-historical, naturalistic materialism of the bourgeois economists of Marx’s age (and ours, certainly), who would mistake the reality of capitalist production for an eternal, natural and unalterable state. Holt judiciously redirects our attention to Marx’s understanding of industry as the true motor behind human emancipation, and correctly points to the sine qua non of such emancipation: the shortening of the working day, which frees time for human creation and recreation, unburdened by labor imposed by external necessity. This analysis includes an excellent elucidation of the way that such freed time might eliminate the division between those who work, on the one hand, and those who do the ruling and the thinking on the other hand, between manual and mental labor. With free time comes common knowledge, which is the critical prerequisite of a society where ideological manipulation-cum-obfuscation, propaganda and demagoguery are, if not eradicated, seriously curtailed.

The third and in my view least compelling of the categories suggested by Holt is that of `society’. Under this heading, Holt seems to lump together everything which is extraneous and indeed parasitical on the material. This includes all those practices and ideas `riding upon the material’ (82) and diverting the powers of industry to the benefit of the ruling classes. Thus, as against `the material’ which is objectively necessary and beneficial, `the social’ is detrimental and `spurious’ (14, 87). The problem I see here, first of all, is the fact that social forces, in Marx’s view, even – ‘ perhaps especially – ‘those of capitalism, were not extraneous to modern industry but vital in bringing about its development in the first place. Doubtlessly, Marx’s project aims to do away with class divisions, but only since he is convinced that the development of industry has reached a stage where the capitalist social formation is no longer necessary, and indeed has become a hindrance to production. At the very least, therefore, one would have to add the historical dimension to Marx’s account of `the social’ rather than posit a perennial and idealistic opposition between material action and social action. Falling short of such distinction, Holt’s approach somewhat oddly culminates in a branding of the social as such, refuting not merely capitalistic social configurations, but all social forms. The following formulation is typical:

Capitalist social relations, as with all social relations, are spurious because they promote ends that are not isomorphic with material development.… Communism is the removal of social forms that enables human individuality to act without imposed intermediaries.… I wish to stress that the replacement of oligarchic control over the means of production by universal control is the giving up of social history (117, emphases added, IL).

Such a move might find justification in the work of the analytical Marxist G. A. Cohen, who uses similar terminology and is sometimes referred to in the book, but it appears little compatible with Marx’s own terminology. Indeed, the term `social’ or `society’ is mostly used positively by Marx, often contrasted with the deceptive, alienating and exploitative reality of `ideology’ and, especially, `politics.’ And while politics and ideology can be transcended, society as such cannot. Classless society, after all, never ceases to be a society. Holt himself runs into trouble on this account, for example when dealing with the following, famous words of the young Marx: `Only when real, individual man … has recognized and organized his forces propres as social forces so that social force is no longer separated from him in the form of political force, only then will human emancipation be completed’ (35). The present political order, its hierarchies and barriers, must thus be eliminated so as to permit a new society. Commenting on this statement in a footnote, Holt attempts to reinterpret Marx’s words so that they fit into the binary division between the material and the social. But the result is strained and tortuous:

Political relationships or relations are social relations and are distinct from material relations.… Marx’s terminology in the above paragraph does not stress this distinction but, I think, does conform to it. Thus, social forces are individual relationships and political relationships or political force is a social relationship and a social justification of force (35).

What is the reason behind such exorcising, undertaken in Marx’s name, of The Social? It might be the result of an unspoken effort to clear the reputation of Marxism from charges of collectivism and give it an anarchistic and individualistic twist, and therefore non-, or anti-social – ‘see the frequent use of terms such as `human individuality,’ or `self-actualization of one’s projects’ in a communist society where one acts `without imposed intermediaries’ (I am quoting from page 117, but similar terms are ubiquitous in the book and central to its thesis). But while the attempt is in itself understandable and welcome, it is not, on such terms, wholly persuasive. Access to the means of production in communism, as Holt is right to point out, would be radically different from that under capitalism: not because each individual would be free to use them as he or she pleases, in a way which will spontaneously flow from one’s `individuality’; but rather because each will have a proportional and equal say in decisions – social ones – about the best ways of applying such means, as opposed to the undemocratic and lopsided decision making characteristic of capitalism, which not only decides without the people but quite regularly against them. But I cannot see a way in which communism, in Marx’s terms, can simply eliminate social mediation so that every individual will necessarily be pleased by the decisions taken and see his or her self actualized in them.

Such more problematical aspects notwithstanding, the book advances a very strong case against capitalism, forcefully exposing a society where, underneath a veneer of liberty and democracy, control of public opinion is largely exercised in the special interest of an entrenched elite, and where industry and the goods it produces only incidentally and sporadically enrich humans, since their permanent and structural purpose is to extract profit at all costs. Industry escapes and avoid human control, if by `human’ we understand the huge majority of the people, and assumes a life of its own over and above that of the producers (see the excellent discussion of the fetishism, both of commodities and of capital, and of alienation, a term which in Holt’s account is refreshingly brought back to what it originally was for Marx: the alienation of human beings from their `inorganic body,’ from nature and from industry). It is also, barring certain overstatements, a powerful and thought provoking philosophical defense of communism as a viable and necessary alternative, vouching for far greater, but not unlimited, enhancement of the collective and the individual.

23 March 2010

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