DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilized man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature.
And this notion of freedom is what any Marxist humanist, and I presume socialist, ultimately desires. Chris Byron , University of North Florida. The Marxist critique of the state is again in disfavor in parts of the left, but going back to what Marx wrote clarifies the discussion. A Russian revolutionary explains how a day of international solidarity with working women became the first day of the revolution.
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Human Nature: The Marxian View
The distortion in what Marx takes to be human nature is generally referred to in language which suggests that an essential tie has been cut in the middle. In each instance, a relation that distinguishes the human species has disappeared and its constituent elements have been reorganized to appear as something else. What is left of the individual after all these cleavages have occurred is a mere rump, a lowest common denominator attained by lopping off all those qualities on which is based his claim to recognition as a man.
Thus denuded, the alienated person has become an 'abstraction'. As we saw, this is a broader term Marx uses to refer to any factor which appears isolated from the social whole. It is in this sense that estranged labor and capital are spoken of as 'abstractions'. Its opposite is a set of meaningful particulars by which people know something to be one of a kind. Given that these particulars involve internal relations with other factors, any factor is recognized as one of a kind to the degree that the social whole finds expression in it.
It is because we do not grasp the ways in which the social whole is present in any factor which is to say, the full range of its particular qualities in their internal relations that this factor seems to be independent of the social whole, that it becomes an 'abstraction'.
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And it is on the basis of these similarities, generalized as classes of one sort or another, that alienated men set out to understand their world. In this manner is intelligence misdirected into classification. Alienated man is an abstraction because he has lost touch with all human specificity.
He has been reduced to performing undifferentiated work on humanly indistinguishable objects among people deprived of their human variety and compassion. There is little that remains of his relations to his activity, product and fellows which enables us to grasp the peculiar qualities of his species.
Consequently, Marx feels he can speak of this life as 'the abstract existence of man as a mere workman who may therefore fall from his filled void into the absolute void'. At the same time that the individual is degenerating into an abstraction, those parts of his being which have been split off which are no longer under his control are undergoing their own transformation. Three end products of this development are property, industry and religion, which Marx calls man's 'alienated life elements'.
In each instance, the other half of a severed relation, carried by a social dynamic of its own, progresses through a series of forms in a direction away from its beginning in man. Eventually, it attains an independent life, that is, takes on 'needs' which the individual is then forced to satisfy, and the original connection is all but obliterated.
It is this process which largely accounts for the power that money has in capitalist societies, the buying of objects which could never have been sold had they remained integral components of their producer. What occurs in the real world is reflected in people's minds: essential elements of what it means to be a man are grasped as independent and, in some cases, all powerful entities, whose links with him appear other than what they really are.
This is the essence of alienation, whether the part under examination is man, his activity, his product or his ideas. The same separation and distortion is evident in each. If alienation is the splintering of human nature into a number of misbegotten parts, we would expect communism to be presented as a kind of reunification. And this is just what we find. Commentators, whether hostile or sympathetic, focused on his critique of the exploitation and inequality of capitalism and imperialism, and the struggle to transform society in a socialist direction.
After all, the steady but accelerating destruction by modern capitalism of the very conditions which sustain all life, including human life, is arguably the most fundamental challenge facing humanity today. This is most widely recognised in the shape of one of its most devastating symptoms: climate change.
But there is much more to it, including toxic pollution of the oceans, deforestation, soil degradation and, most dramatically, a loss of biodiversity on a geological scale. Some will say that these are new problems, so why should we expect Marx, writing more than a century ago, to have had anything worthwhile to offer to us today? His ideas on this remain of great value — even indispensable — but his legacy is also quite problematic and new thinking is needed.
This began with enclosure of common land , which left many rural people with no means of meeting their needs other than to sell their labour power to the new industrial class. But Marx also talked of spiritual needs, and the loss of a whole way of life in which people found meaning from their relationship to nature. The theme running through his early manuscripts is a view of history in which exploitation of workers and of nature go hand-in-hand.
For Marx, the future communist society will resolve the conflicts among humans and between humans and nature so that people can meet their needs in harmony with one another and with the rest of nature :. Man lives on nature — means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die.
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In these writings Marx makes vital contributions to our understanding of the human-nature relationship: he overcomes a long philosophical tradition of viewing humans as separate from and above the rest of nature, and he asserts the necessity for both survival and spiritual well-being of a proper, active relationship with the rest of nature.
At the same time he recognises this relationship has gone wrong in the capitalist epoch.