On Marx and ‘Species Essence’

On page 41 of chapter 3, Gillborn (2008) states that CRT argues ‘strongly against any comforting belief in the essential goodness of the human spirit’. In chapter 4 of this volume, I expressed agreement with Gillborn, in his conclusion that The Lawrence Inquiry was not agreed to by a benign state that wanted to put right an injustice, but was rather in the wake of protests and demonstrations. However, given that the context on Gillborn’s page 41 is a discussion about whether racism is permanent, and given that for Gillborn (2008, p. 41) this is ‘a moot point’, more seems to be being said here. Gillborn seems to be making a more general, more ahistorical8 point about humankind. Marx would not agree, since he related our humanity to the capitalist mode of production, which he believed, stifles the worker’s ‘species essence’. In order to understand what Marx meant, it is necessary to briefly consider Marx’s theory of alienation. Marx attributes four types of alienation, a fundamental condition of labour under capitalism, which prevented humankind from realising its species-being and establishing an objectively better socialist society. These are described by Gordon Marshall (1998) as follows:

alienation of the worker from his or her ‘species essence’ as a human being rather than an animal; alienation between workers, since capitalism reduces labour to a commodity to be traded on the market, rather than a social rela?tionship; alienation of the worker from the product, since this is appropriated by the capitalist class, and so escapes the worker’s control; and, finally, alienation from the act of production itself, such that work comes to be a meaningless activity, offering little or no intrinsic satisfactions.

Marshall (ibid.) goes on to argue that the last of these ‘generates ... feelings of powerlessness, isolation, and discontent at work—especially when this takes place within the context of large, impersonal, bureaucratic social organizations’. In Marx’s own words, this is how the alienation of labor affects the worker:

[It] mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence, the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself.

He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labour is, therefore, not voluntary but forced, it is forced labour. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, it is shunned like the plague.9

Thus, workers under capitalism cannot come to full self-realization. To be alienated is to be separated from one’s essential humanity. We can only fulfil our species essence through freely chosen labour, in a collective and cooperative society. Only in such a society can our ‘essential goodness’, to use Gillborn’s terminology, come to fruition.

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