Nature and Society

by Karl Korsch, from Karl Marx, 1938

Marx comprised in his materialistic investigation of society all the phenomena of a comprehensive field of experience which until then had been dealt with by a number of altogether different, old and new, sciences. On the one hand he recognized no “higher” spheres of a so-called “spiritual” life which would be exempted from the crude material necessities of the historical and social spheres. All juridical, political, religious, philosophical and artistic conceptions, the whole of the so-called “consciousness” of man and all its philosophical disguises as, for example, the Hegelian terms of an “objektiver” and “absoluter Geist,” the Kantian concepts of “Gattungsvernunft,” and “Bewusstsein überhaupt,” the philosophical “idea” generally, and all other, even the most “universal” categories of thought exist only as given forms of a “social consciousness,” temporary products of a continuous development, attributes of a definite historical epoch and of a definite economic order of society. To all “legal conditions and forms of the State” there applies the materialistic principle that they can neither be understood (as the exponents of dogmatic jurisprudence and political science believe) “out of themselves” nor (as the philosophers had believed) “out of the so-called general development of the human mind,” but are rooted in the material conditions of the present-day bourgeois society. To all forms of social consciousness there applies the twofold antithesis formulated by Marx in contrast both to the philosophical idealism of Kant, Fichte and Hegel, and to the naturalistic materialism of Feuerbach: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but, on the contrary, their social existence which determines their consciousness.”

On the other hand, Marx comprised in his materialistic formula also the natural foundation of all historical and social phenomena and, for this purpose, conceived and represented even nature itself in the terms of a strictly historical and social science as “Industry,” “Economy,” or “Material Production.” In spite of a genuine recognition of the “priority of external nature” he does not derive the historical development of society from any kind of extra-historical and extra-social natural factors like climate, race, struggle for existence, man’s physical and mental powers, etc., but from a “nature” which has itself been already “modified” by an historical and social process or, more distinctly, from the historically and socially conditioned developments of material production. The materialist philosopher Plechanov, in supporting his contrary opinion, reminds us, that “Hegel had already noted in his Philosophy of History the important part played by the geographical foundations of the world history.” He did not see that the scientific advances made by Marx’s historical and social materialism over the idealism of Hegel and the materialism of Feuerbach consists just in this difference that he conceived of “matter” itself in historical terms, while all his philosophical predecessors, both the idealistic and the materialistic brand had conceived of “matter” as a dumb, dead or, at the utmost, biologically animated nature only.

While according to Hegel “physical nature, indeed, exerts a direct effect upon world history,” Marx started from an altogether different viewpoint from the outset. Physical nature according to him, does not directly enter into history. It does so by indirection, i.e., as a process of material production which goes on not only between man and nature, but at the same time between man and men. Or, to use a phraseology which will be clear even to the philosophers, in the strictly social research of Marxian materialism that “pure” nature which is presupposed to all human activity (the economic natura naturans) is replaced everywhere by a “nature” mediated and modified through human social activity, and thus at the same time capable of a further change and modification by our own present and future activity, i.e., by nature as material production (or the economic natura naturata).

Being “social,” nature has a specifically historical character varying in the different epochs. As an historical and social nature it has above all, a distinct class character. For example, as emphasized by Marx in his controversy with Feuerbach, that cherry tree before the philosopher’s window, whose ancestors were “artificially” transplanted to Europe a few hundred years ago, is thereby for the modern European no nature-given growth; just as, on the same grounds, the potato is no “nature-given” food for the modern European poor, or, at most, only in the same sense as the adulterated bread and the “sophisticated” wine sold in the back streets are “nature-given” products of the modern capitalist mode of production. The den of the modern poor is even less than the lair of the wild beast a “nature-given” shelter in which he can move at ease like the fish in the water. It is not a house where he can feel at home, but it is the house of his landlord who will evict him when he cannot afford to pay his rent. “My house is my castle” originating from the world of simple commodity production, holds good for the slum barracks of our big cities no more than it did for the cots of the English farm-labourers of 1860, as described in Capital. Modern “hunger,” which satisfies itself with cooked meat, eaten with knife and fork, is quite another thing than that hunger which “swallowed raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth.” So do those “normal” periods of hunger natural to primitive hordes, that have been artificially reintroduced in modern capitalist society for those sections of the unemployed who, for some reason or another, have been taken off the dole, represent a vastly different thing from the hunger, be it ever so great, that may occasionally, by the accident of a temporary stoppage of their regular food supplies, cause a “thrilling” sensation to the idle rich.

None of those things, in the definite forms in which they appear in present bourgeois society or for that matter in any earlier or later epochs, comes from “nature” alone. They depend upon the existing historical conditions of material production and can be changed with the change of those conditions. This happens through an historical development, which may take a shorter or longer time, but which is nowhere stopped by any absolute barrier, through an objective process which is at the same time a struggle between social classes.

This viewpoint of a strictly social, that is of an historical and practical science dominated from the very beginning the whole novel system of concepts which Marx and Engels built up in their controversy with the then existing idealistic and materialistic currents of thought. The existence of physical man, the external world in which he moves, and the natural objective development of those natural conditions in large periods of “cosmological time,” independent of that altogether different development of the social forms which is accomplished by man’s action in “historical time,” all these “real presuppositions” of history and society are, of course, real presuppositions also for the materialistic research of Marx. They do not, however, appear as theoretical premises within the system of the new social science which starts from its own materialistic principles defined in historical and social terms.

This is no way contradicted but, on the contrary, even more clearly demonstrated by the terms of so-called “naturally grown forms of society” and of so-called “social laws of nature” which are continually used by Marx in the presentation of his theory. The concept of “natural growth” as applied to historical forms, has with Marx an altogether different meaning than it had with the historians, poets, and philosophers of the “Romanticist School” who in a conscious opposition to the preceding period of Enlightenment and Revolution glorified everything “naturally grown.” Marx, on the contrary, used the term in a negative sense for the description of such conditions, relations, connections which have not as yet been subjected to a conscious human action. In this sense Marx speaks in his Critique of the German Ideology and twenty years later, in Capital, of the “nature-grown” (“naturwüchsige”) forms of division of labour, of a worldwide historical connection between individuals, of the State, of legal conditions, of language, and of such apparently immutable differences as the variations of race. In all these cases the “naturwüchsige” form of a social relation is in contrast to those other forms which this relation assumes in the course of social development when it is either consciously maintained and further worked out, or changed to a greater or lesser extent by a conscious human action. The “naturwüchsige” forms are thus described as social forms which have arisen historically just as all other, more or less consciously created forms and are therefore capable of a further change both in the present and the future. Thus they are not eternal forms of all social life but can be overthrown by the united individuals in a deliberate action, which will finally strip them of their present crude and oppressive “nature-grown” character. One sees at first glance the positive bearing of this thought not only on the theoretical extension of the realm of social knowledge but also on the practical socialist and communist tendencies which are necessarily bound up with this knowledge.

The same holds good for the other apparently nature-bound term of the new Marxian science, which we have already discussed when dealing with the economic law of value, i.e., the so-called “social laws of nature.” Here again we have to deal with a term which is at first defined in a negative manner only. The economic laws prevailing in the capitalistic mode of production do not have within the new materialistic science of society that positive and final meaning which the real “laws of nature” have for the physicist and which, according to their first discoverers and inventors, pertained also to those “natural” laws which would in future govern the new “civil” mode of existence emerging from the artificial fetters of mediaeval feudalism. They are even less what Marx and Engels in their earlier, philosophical, period called a “law of the mind” as opposed to a “mere law of nature” and what recurs in their later writings when they speak of a “leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom” and of the “true realm of freedom blossoming out of the realm of necessity in the fully developed Communist Society of the future.”

However, just from the negative definition that the so-called “laws of nature” of the bourgeois economists are, in fact, not laws of nature at all, there derives the positive significance which the term of the “social” laws of nature assumes in the revolutionary science of Marx. The fact that the general conditions of bourgeois society which had been proclaimed as laws by the bourgeois economists, are restricted to a definite historical epoch, implies that in the further development of society all those apparent laws can be abrogated through the conscious social act of the class which is at present oppressed by them, to be replaced by another, a willed and planned form of the social activities of man.

Thus neither of the two Marxian terms conforms with the perpetuation of the so-called economic laws asserted by the classical economists; even less with that further extension of the realm of “natural growth in society” which had been the dream of the early counter-revolutionary theorists in France and of the German and English romanticists. Marx, on the contrary, applies both terms for the purpose of extending the realm of history and society, i.e., of a conscious social action as against the so-called eternal necessities of an altogether inaccessible “realm of nature.” Far behind the “immutable laws” invented and maintained by the bourgeois economists for the preservation of an order of production allegedly “natural” and “rational,” but in fact ever more artificial, more arbitrary, and ever more dependent on force, and at the same time more hampering to the further development of society and more destructive of human life, stand those real necessities of nature which condition the whole life of man and which are also recognized by the Marxists as unchangeable facts and as natural presuppositions of all social development. Even this recognition applies to a given time only. There is, from the historical and social principle of Marxian science, no absolute and predetermined limit beyond which an apparently “naturwüchsige” foundation of all social life might not in future be discovered to be no more than an historical and historically changeable form, and thus a form which can be modified and overthrown by conscious action. “Even the naturally-grown variations of the human species such as differences of race, etc., can and must be abolished in the historical process.”

As with all other innovations embodied in the new materialistic theory, Marx’s methodical extension of society at the expense of nature is proved mainly on the field of economic science. The Marxian critique of the fetish character of the commodity and of all other economic categories refutes once and for all those mystical ideas by which the earlier economists had attributed economic phenomena to an immediate physical cause, be it some external force of nature, or the physical constitution of man or, finally, his so-called “innate” psychological qualities. There is, above all, no such thing as an immediate “natural basis of the surplus value.” The only significance which can be claimed for physical conditions in the genesis of the socio-historical phenomenon of the exploitation of propertyless wage-labourers by property-owning capitalists, is that of a natural limit or barrier fixing the points at which the labour-time necessary for the maintenance and reproduction of the labourer ceases and thus “labour for others can begin.” “In proportion as industry advances, those natural limits recede.”

The same applies to the so-called “natural basis of the State” which is asserted by a whole school of modern bourgeois sociologists. The political phenomenon of the State results, in fact, as little from unchangeable physical conditions as the economic phenomenon of the surplus value upon which it depends as a secondary and derived form. Just as things useful for human needs and produced by human labour are “commodities,” and gold and silver are “money,” under definite social conditions only and not by any inherent physical qualities, so is the physically weaker individual or race the slave of the physically stronger not by any eternal necessity but through the accident of temporary circumstances. By a definite historical process the class which under the social conditions prevailing in the present epoch produces all social wealth, has been separated from the material means of production and is now ruled and exploited by the class which through the same historical process has monopolized for itself the means of social production as “capital.” The apparently “naturalistic” theory which assigns such existing social and political facts to the Command of Nature is but a secularized form of those older theories which derived the same facts from the Command of God or, for that matter, from such intermediate agencies as the philosophical unfolding of an eternal Idea, Reason, or Humanity itself.

A New Institute for Social Research