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Species-being (Gattungswesen), a controversial Feuerbachian-inspired term refashioned in Marx’s critique of Hegel’s idealist philosophy, is central to Marx’s conception of alienation and true communism. Hegel had argued the form and substance of knowledge developed historically. The conscious mind (Geist) initially experiences reality as external and separate; it does not know that alien world. From its first sensory encounter, the mind becomes conscious of itself and through a complex, dialectical subject/object interaction process develops an increasingly comprehensive intellectual grasp of reality, culminating in an absolute spirit (Geist). Overcoming the original perception of separation -alienation – mind’s full potential is actualized in the totality of absolute being.
Hegel’s philosophy buttressed nineteenth-century Prussia’s intolerant, protestant state. Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity- a democratically inspired critique of God’s existence -challenged the state’s religious foundation. In religion, Feuerbach argued, the powers of humankind are alienated from it, extrapolated, made infinite, and then impose themselves on humanity as an absolute God. Feuerbach’s anthropologically based critique of theology undermined religion and idealism by emphasizing humankind’s material being as a species (Gattungswesen) – the real, existent, identifiable, characteristics of humankind that religion hypostatized.
Species-being in Marx emanates from his critiques of Hegel and Feuerbach. Following Feuerbach, Marx began with real, active humans, but inverting” Hegel’s idealism produced a dramatically different conception of species-being. For Marx, humankind was a materially active, social being, compelled to produce (labor) in order to exist. Production (labor) – the ontological basis to praxis – changes and develops humankind’s knowledge, conditions of being, and social arrangements. Labor, the material mediation of subject and object, is the ontological basis for humankind’s mental, creative, social, and material development. This is a central component of humankind’s species-Essence. Species-being is not a set of fixed natural characteristics – our species’ being is materially active, interactive, and creative, producing our material life, thereby changing our circumstances.
At the same time, as Marx (1975: 62) emphasized in correspondence with Feuerbach, humankind is social: ”The unity of man with man, which is based on real differences between men, the concept of human species [Menschengattung] brought down from the heaven of abstraction to the actual earth, what is this other than the concept of society.” After this letter, while continuing work on the 1844 manuscripts, Marx began using ”social” to replace the more abstract term ”species-being.”
Under conditions of private property, the true social character of humankind’s creative laboring activity is torn asunder by social – i.e. class -division. Rather than developing workers and their social interrelationships, the externalization process creates products, a process, and a system that confronts and stultifies workers’ physical, emotional, and political development while creating and supporting social division. Only by overturning private property can humankind’s socio-material potential fully flourish in freedom.
- Gould, C. (1978) Marx’s Social Ontology. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Hegel, G. W. F. (1977)  Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. Miller. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
- Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1975) Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (Marx-Engels Complete Works), part 3, vol. 1. Dietz Verlag, Berlin.