[Marxism] Re: Darwin/Marx

Peter McLaren mclaren at gseis.ucla.edu
Tue May 4 12:10:22 MDT 2004

Lana wrote:

 If someone can 
explain to me, sincerely, what Marx meant when he said that we a society can
change this natural/biological/Darwinian affect by living in a "socialistic"
enviornment, I TRULY would appreciate it.  I see various forms of
suppression of 
our "me first" makings...but they seem to eventually erupt into horrific
manifestations.  Look at history, not my ranting.  Again, please explain how
great transformation of the individual desire for power and autonomy can be
explained.  I don't understand...sorry.


This might help a bit on the Darwin issue. From an interview  in a
publication for professors of education.


K. M.: Some have proposed a new paradigm for the left that is much more
Darwinian in its approach to understanding and changing those conditions
that afflict the poor, the oppressed, and the otherwise disadvantaged within
society. It appears to maintain the core of those things that are and have
been integral to a genuine left bearing (fighting unnecessary suffering of
the weak and poor, of the exploited and the cheated), yet offers a Darwinian
rationale for cooperation that takes seriously both competitive
self-interest and altruism. Peter Singer's short, but provocative book
dealing with this theme is a case in point, and it offers a kind of
counter-narrative to Marxism. For those who profess education from a
traditionally left perspective, but who recognize that a certain ennui and
impotence has befallen the left in recent times, what is your take on the
possibility of a revitalized cooperative left emanating from a more
genuinely Darwinian perspective? Is there a real, and perhaps more
realistic, alternative here to Marxist and neo-Marxist thinking or will it
just become the plaything for old fashioned social Darwinist demagogues?

P. M.: Well, you are referring here to the book, A Darwinian Left, by Peter
Singer. I'm familiar with that book but not especially familiar with left
Darwinism as a contemporary movement. Let's look at Singer's conception of
left Darwinism for a moment. On the one hand, I like the fact that Singer
condemns the dangers of a reactionary sociobiology but on the other hand, I
seriously question Singer's notion of utilitarianism as the basis of the
principle of human nature. Not to mention that Singer really has presented
an underdeveloped and in many respects misguided critique of Marxism. His
notion that Marx got it wrong because of the history of failed communist
governments is puerile. It's too silly even to debate this notion. Singer
also goes on to claim that Marx's most serious sin is his idea that there is
no fixed human nature. Human nature supposedly changes with every change in
the mode of production. And Marx supposedly committed another serious sin
when he worked from the perspective of the perfectibility of humankind.

According to Singer, Marx and Engels claimed to have discovered the laws of
human historical development that would lead to communist society and that
according to these laws, the victory of the proletariat was ensured. Singer
is critical of Marx's notion that social existence determines consciousness.
Whereas a Darwinian sees greed, egotism, personal ambition and envy as a
consequence of our nature, the Marxist would see these as the consequence of
living in a society  with private property and the private ownership of the
means of production. Without these social arrangements, Singer believes
that, according to Marx, the nature of people would be transformed such that
people would no longer be concerned with their private interests. Darwinians
believe that the way in which the mode of production influences our ideas,
our politics, and our consciousness is through the specific features of our
biological inheritance, and that if we want to reshape society, we need to
modify our abstract ideals so that they suit our biological tendencies.
According to the Darwininan perspective, all those who profess to be guided
by motives other than self-profit ‹ what Marx would call `gross materialism
_ are the unwitting victims of an idealist illusion.

Prescinding from this enfeebling yet all-too-familiar interpretation of
Marx, let's examine that famous sentence of Marx's (in Marx's Preface to A
Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy) of which Singer is so
critical: "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their
existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness."
As far back as 1980, Jose Miranda pointed out that Marx's notion of
determination must be understood in a way that is not deterministic because
the German verb bestimmen is all too often translated as "to determine" and
this verb means a lot of things unrelated to determinism. (Miranda notes
that this major mistake in translation can be linked to translations into
languages derived from Latin, where the basic word appears as a form of
determinaire.) In Marx's use of this term he in no way excludes the concept
of human freedom or contingency; in fact, he uses the term dialectically.
Marx makes a fuller explanation of what he meant by consciousness in German
Ideology. Marx never forgot that just as circumstances help to form human
beings, human beings also help to form circumstances. In contrast to what
many critics of Marx claim, human beings for Marx are far from the passive
actors of historical processes. Marx did not believe that there was no such
thing as human nature. He argued that humans are biological, anatomical,
physiological and psychological beings. He argued that an individual's human
nature must be addressed, but must also be understood in terms of how it has
been modified in each historical epoch. In fact, Marx went so far as to
contrast constant or fixed drives (such as hunger and the sexual urge) which
are integral and can be changed only in form and cultural direction and the
relative appetites (which are not an integral part of human nature and which
owe their origin to conditions of production and communication). Humans were
species-beings whose natures were clearly trans-historical and relatively
unchanging in many respects (see Fromm, 2000). Marx distinguishes clearly
between the laws of nature and the result of humans making a choice.
Clearly, human beings produce their social relations just as they produce
material goods; they are their own products as well as the products of
history. And of history, it is quite clear that Marx did not view history
mechanically, as if it was some wind-up sequence of causes and effects. Marx
is interested in the laws of tendency within economics, not history's
predictive capacity or laws of historical inevitability. History for Marx
was always pregnant with possibility.

Marx did not reject the notion of human nature so much as a universal and
timeless concept of human nature. Marx clearly could identify human
characteristics that are universal and historically invariant and which set
limits to the plasticity of human nature. This contrasts with the view of
Rorty, who believes there are no biological or metaphysical limits on human
plasticity. My friend Richard Litchman presciently notes, "the very notion
of human nature as a tabula rasa is self-contradictory. Even a blank slate
must have such properties as will permit the acceptance of the chalk, as the
wax accepts the stylus, the inscribing tool. The issue is not whether there
is a common nature, but what precisely that nature is" (cited in Sayers,
1998). When human beings make themselves their own creator by producing
their own means of subsistence, then this signals the beginning of human
history. The act of production creates new needs, something that Marx
referred to as the first historical act. It is important to see Marx's
understanding of human nature within the dialectical relationship of needs
and productive powers. New needs are created through the productive activity
we engage in to satisfy our universal needs, and this activity has to be
seen in terms of the social relations which are themselves ultimately
determined by such needs (Sayers, 1998). New forms of productive activity
may result, and, indeed, new productive powers. Needs never arise in a
vacuum. That is why in concrete conditions, human nature, in general, does
not exist. Marx is interested in the social development of needs, beyond
those necessary only for biological survival.

Singer's left Darwinism is not very helpful as a ground for social
explanation without understanding, for instance, how jealousy, or
selfishness has been realized in social individuals who are the products of
a specific mode of production or a particular historical period. From a
historical materialist point of view, nature is a precondition of human
development and not an explanation of it. You can't explain the social in
terms of the concept of the natural. The laws of natural evolution can't be
transferred to social evolution. For Marx, social and moral developments are
judged on how they impact on the growth of human nature in terms of the
creation of powers and capacities. The stress in Marx is the development of
new needs. As Sean Sayers notes: "Paradoxical as it at first seems, the
ideal is the human being `rich in needs'. For on Marx's view this is
equivalent to the development of human powers and capacities, the
development of human nature" (1998, p. 164). True wealth, for Marx, lies
precisely in the development of human nature. That is why I prefer Marx's
Hegelian historicist approach to human nature over Singer's utilitarian and
consequentialist approach to human nature. When Singer claims that the
Russian revolution failed because the revolutionaries failed to consider the
invariant need on the part of human beings for power and authority, such an
argument is as specious as Yak dung. Now what I like about Singer's work is
his interest in the evolution of human co-operation. And he claims that most
human beings won't co-operate unless it serves their own interests to do so.
His notion of reciprocal altruism based on an evolutionary view of human
psychology certainly is worth investigating. I like the fact that he wants a
less anthropocentric view of our dominance over nature, and to cease our
exploitation of non-human animals (something that appeals to my commitment
to animal rights), and his commitment to stand on the side of the weak. My
commitment is that the development of new and creative vital powers will be
best served in the struggle for socialism.

full interview at: 


Part One at:

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