Marxism and the Irrationalists

John Lewis


Man and Nature

Man a Part of Nature

THE whole of modern science works steadily in the direction of the Marxist interpretation of man and society. When the theory of evolution was established and subsequently the early stages of man’s development were elucidated, a heavy blow was struck at the view that man stands over against nature as somehow belonging to another world.

Nature is such that man has evolved in the course of time, whatever his antecedents or causes; and man like everything else, once he appears, is part and parcel of nature; yet he is different from the rest of nature and for that reason is not to be contrasted with an alien world because he distinctively differs from everything else in his surroundings, or because much in nature may be felt to be hostile to his purposes. Certain things in nature threaten man’s security, others sustain his projects. The world is not alien to him though it surrounds him with uniformities. Indeed without such uniformities he would be helpless. Freedom is a knowledge of necessity, and the more man understands the laws of nature the more he is able to control his environment. “The relations between man and his environment are both internal and external, also; that is to say, man and environment modify each other. To the extent that men singly and collectively modify their environment they are ‘free’; to the extent that their environment modifies them, they are determined. It seems plain enough that men aren't absolutely free or absolutely determined . . . strange to say, men need the determinateness of the world (and of their own nature) in order to be free. Their ability to satisfy their wishes is in proportion to their technology, their technology is in proportion


to their knowledge, and their knowledge depends upon regularity of pattern in events. At the same time, events do get altered by human action, and therefore reflect the ‘free’ causality of man. Thus free will and determinism are theories which are not only compatible but necessary to each other. Taken dialectically, they together perfect one’s vision of the world.” [1]

Is Nature Hostile to Man?

To the scientist nature as it exists outside man appears first of all to be absolutely impersonal; it assists no one, it hinders no one, intentionally. Nature is the source and substance of life—to be enjoyed and used by those who take the trouble to understand its laws. Nature in itself has no morality. But this is only a superficial view, though it is truer than any primitive personification of nature as a beneficient force working for man’s good; the profounder view is that man has now been for so long interacting with nature that the whole surface of the planet has been profoundly modified, it has become an artifact of cultivated fields, mines, timber forests, ways of communication, stone and brick built up into cities and a thousand natural forces harnessed by man.

The old religious notion that man had been created and put into the world has given way to the understanding that man himself has a natural history. Man is nature; man is nature coming, slowly, painfully, haltingly, to awareness of its own meanings and uses. Man is not something placed in nature. He gathers up the scattered threads of process and meaning. He is nature passing critical and creative judgment upon her own processes and selecting this, rejecting that—making a world ever nearer to his heart’s desires.

Marxism considers the world not as something finished, to be judged now as good or bad. We face a future—the unfinished business of existence. Nature is not only the scene of man’s exploits, it is itself the exploit; it is human life emerging from the primitive past, out of its degradations and its fears,

1 Barrows Dunham Giant in Chains.


and achieving freedom and rationality and beauty, by its growing understanding, by its intelligent acceptance of its materials, and by its artistic remoulding of those materials to new levels of beauty and use.

“Nature has produced, supported and sustained human civilisation. For man is a part of nature, carried on by her forces to work the works of intelligence. In him she bursts forth into sustained consciousness of her own evolution, producing in him knowledge of her processes, estimation of her goods and of her ultimate significance. Without such creatures as man nature might well exist, but she would exist unvalued and unobserved. You cannot add man as some extraneous figure, for he has grown out of nature's own stuff and been wrought in her workshop. He is no mere commentator on the world or spectator of it. He is the supreme instance where nature has evaluated herself.” [1]

Man himself a Revelation of Nature’s Possibilities

What is the philosophical significance of this? Can nature mean the same thing after man’s creative activity as apart from him? Man is surely an illustration of what nature is, in its potentiality. He reveals nature. This is the lesson of the whole history of philosophy. Thinking about man and thinking about nature have always gone together. We are coming to realise that the world is something out of which something can be made. And to make something out of it is what everything is bent on doing. Nature is not a creation but the challenge and opportunity to create. In fact we cannot characterise the nature of the world until we have man before us. The nature of any process is only revealed in the process as a whole and the world is not complete without man and his knowledge.

Social Change and Economic Production

Science therefore proceeds from an examination of the physical and biological world to an examination of man as a

1 Woodbridge, Nature and Mind.


social being, man interacting with the physical world and creating at first primitive society and subsequently civilisation. We see society in continuous change and in the laws of change and the direction of development we discover both our limits and our opportunities. Society moves and it is quite untrue that human relationships are essentially the same today as they were thousands of years ago. But what are the basic causal factors and consequent general direction of the evolution of human society? The changes that concern us most are those in the mode of sustaining life, in the system of economic production. When this changes we may expect corresponding changes in every other department of social life, changes moreover which are far from automatic, involving vigorous struggle between those groups of people having a common economic relationship to the means of production bestowing valuable privileges and the power of exploitation, and those other groups whose position is inferior. The interests and whole way of life of these groups is bound up, either advantageously or disadvantageously, with a certain mode of production and system of property relations, and here is the real motive either for perpetuating or changing the system. Man has made his history not by following the star of an abstract ideal or by walking on a line of preconceived progress. He has made it by creating his own conditions, that is to say, by creating through his labour an artificial environment, by developing successively his technical aptitudes and by accumulating and transforming the products of his activity in this new environment.

As we look back over the great social transformations of the past, the development of tribal into ancient slave society, slave society into the medieval system based on serfdom, the feudalism of the Middle Ages into capitalism, with the concomitant modifications of institutions and cultural life, we see in each case essentially the same dynamic pattern, the concrete exemplification of a mode of economic production which has outlived its usefulness and which is already being transformed into a new mode, held back from completely


establishing itself by the vested interests of those classes which are bound up with the old. In this struggle we see the enormously important part played by ideologies both in defending and attacking the old regime, especially when that regime believes passionately in its own legitimacy and in the ethical justice of its privileges. It is in such moments of transition that ruling philosophies which once served the cause of progress change their character and are subtly modified to serve the cause of reaction, the class concerned now having lost its progressive role and become an obstacle to social advance.

Idealism and the Industrial Revolution

This is well shown in the development of idealism in the nineteenth century. The more developing industrialism showed its cruel side, the more did idealism seek to prove that somewhere, somehow, the world is good and is working for what man is working for and cares for the objects of his care. The more the world of science and economics was seen as merely mechanical and revealing only the blind interaction of dead entities, the more necessary was it to prove that the world of science was a mere show world, and that behind it, underneath it, permeating it, lay the real world, a very different kind of thing. That real world was shown to be not mechanical, not a blind aimless process, but spiritual and moral, guaranteeing the outcome of man’s endeavours. Such a philosophy is a socially conservative force. It seeks to show that society is really serving the highest ends when all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Thus Bosanquet says, “On the view here accepted, finiteness, pain and evil are essential features of Reality, and belong to an aspect of it which leaves its marks even on perfection. If we knew everything and could feel everything we should see and feel what finiteness, pain and evil mean, and how they play their part in perfection itself. Therefore we shall try to understand the world and co-operate with it rather than remould it.”


Mind and Social Change

Ideas, then, may be positive or negative in their effect, but nothing happens without them. It is a travesty of Marxism to assert that it sees social life as wholly determined by unconscious economic forces and mind as a mere glow of derived and ineffectual consciousness on the surface of material events. No single step in social evolution, from the fabrication of the first tool and the organisation of the first social tasks to the great clash of ideologies in our time in which the social struggle is being fought out, can take place without the formulation and activity of ideas.

Mind emerges out of its natural origins slowly, through the ages. A chief instrument in this release of mind into its own areas of freedom has been language. In developing the forms and the contents of social communication, mind comes to grasp its own possibilities and to create the great instrument of modern science and finally of scientific sociology.

The intellectual life may become a pedantic intellectualism, cutting itself off from its natural roots in experience, and boasting its high, sterile lineage; or it may become social intelligence, gathering into itself understanding of the world and of the laws of social development. Philosophy becomes no more than an instrument of social obstruction or a negative diversion serving the same end of frustrating constructive effort unless it is rooted in these social processes by which the world is creating and recreating itself, age by age. We do not know the meaning of life, however profound our mystical insight or soaring our metaphysical speculation, if we do not know how to remake the world, how to take hold of the forces of change and put ourselves in line with the law of historical development. Then every step may provide a fulcrum for new leverage, if only the need be felt, and the courage can be aroused, and the intelligence can be released.

But the hardest lesson philosophy has to learn is that this understanding does not come to the detached scholar in his study or to the saint on the mount of vision, but only to him who is in the midst of the struggle and has taken sides with


“the class that holds the future in its hands.” Society itself discovers the cause of its destined evolution and asserts itself to proclaim the laws of its movement. Here Marxists differ from all other kinds of socialists. The ideals of the earlier reformers and the theories of those who reflected on society, although they reflected the class struggle “with a lofty sense of justice and a profound devotion to an ideal, nevertheless reveal ignorance of the true causes and of the effective nature of the antithesis against which they hurled themselves by an act of revolt spontaneous and often heroic. Thence their utopian character.” [1] That is why all earlier movements ultimately flagged and failed, while the proletarian movement of today is marching forward. The reason is “the change of society in its economic structure; it is the formation of the proletariat in the bosom of great industry and of the modern state. It is the appearance of the proletariat upon the political scene—it is the new things, in fine, which have engendered the need of new ideas. Thus critical communism is neither moraliser, nor preacher, nor herald, nor utopian—it already holds the thing itself in its hands and into the thing itself has put its ethics and its idealism.” [2] It is the consciousness of this revolution and especially the consciousness of its difficulties. It explains to us the necessity, the birth and the development of warring classes as a fact which is not an exception, but the very process of history. “Ethics and idealism consist henceforth in this, to put the thought of science at the service of the proletariat.”

Idealism and Social Decay

Social idealism has so far only confronted an alien world with ideals too high for it. But to hold rigorously to what is not possible in the kind of world in which we find ourselves is a mark, not of exalted morality, but of immature folly that has not yet discovered what morality really is. Morals are

1 Labriola, In Memory of the Communist Manifesto.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.


not prior to existence, nor is it sufficient to believe in them but not to practice them; such ineffectual ideals are of little value for the guidance of men in the present situation.

Modern idealism is increasingly aware of its futility, its subjectivism. As Professor Mackinnon says of the Church, and it is true of all idealistic movements. “It simply does not possess the forces necessary for such a task.” Its understanding “is simply not adequate to the perplexities of the present.” “It is the prisoner of the total situation in which it is involved.” [1] Thus idealism, whether philosophical or ethical, has become a symptom of decay, failing to perceive that its judgment on the contemporary situation reflects its own subjective mood, its own futility and powerlessness. Such idealists are to be pitied. Nevertheless they are a danger, for they are the carriers of a poison which will destroy us if the infection is allowed to spread.

As Herzen so well described them: “They are not the doctors of a sick society, as they imagine, they are the disease.”

1 Mackinnon, Christian Faith and Communist Faith.

SOURCE: Lewis, John. Marxism and the Irrationalists. London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd., 1955. Chapter 13: Man and Nature, pp. 132-139.

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