Two passages, one from early and one from late in the Grundrisse.
The first, from the section I discussed yesterday, where Marx grapples with the extent to which his categories are historically specific:
Firstly, the object is not an object in general, but a specific object which must be consumed in a specific manner, to be mediated in turn by production itself. Hunger is hunger, but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down meat raw with the aid of hand, nail and tooth. Production thus produces not only the object but also the manner of consumption, not only objectively but also subjectively.
The interweaving Marx attempts here is one of the most characteristic dimensions of his work. Hunger is something natural – something physical – but something no less historical for all that. Its historical manifestations – each of its historical manifestations – are no less natural for not being timeless invariants. Something can be an historical product – and yet deeply, profoundly, and inextricably embodied. Our activities – what we do, what we make – inform us, developing us, expressing us, creating us – and linking this self-creation intrinsically with the creation of what might superficially be taken as things wholly external to ourselves, but which Marx rather conceptualises as nonhuman objects participating in interactions with us.
The same fundamentally historical quality of the natural manifests in Marx’s scathing critique of Malthus late in the manuscript:
It is Malthus who abstracts from these specific historic laws of the movement of population, the natural laws, but natural laws of humanity only at a specific level of historical development, with a development of forces of production determined by humanity’s own process of history. Malthusian man, abstracted from historically determined man, exists only in his brain; hence also the geometric method of representation corresponding to this natural Malthusian man. Real history thus appears to him in such a way that the reproduction of his natural humanity is not an abstraction from the historic process of real reproduction, but just the contrary, that real reproduction is an application of Malthusian theory. Hence the inherent conditions of population as well as of overpopulation at every stage of history appear to him as a series of external checks which have prevented the population from developing in the Malthusian form. The conditions in which mankind historically produces and reproduces itself appear as barriers to the reproduction of the Malthusian natural man, who is a Malthusian creature. On the other hand, the production of the necessaries of life – as it is checked, determined by human action – appears as a check which it posits to itself. The ferns would cover the entire earth. Their reproduction would stop only where space for them ceased. They would obey no arithmetic proportion. It is hard to say where Malthus has discovered that the reproduction of voluntary natural products would stop for intrinsic reasons, without external checks. He transforms the immanent, historically changing limits of the human reproduction process into outer barriers; and the outer barriers to natural reproduction into immanent limits or natural laws of reproduction.
This passage is dense with implications that I won’t unpack here. Malthus stands accused of the move Marx finds most typical of the political economists: maintaining that there used to be history – the history described in terms of “external barriers” and contingent, artificial constraints – but there is no longer any – Malthus’ own laws are taken to be an eternal, natural necessity, contrasting to the external and artificial barriers that prevent these laws from becoming empirically manifest.
For Marx, by contrast, nature has history. Nature is history. A law of population, a pattern of demographic change, is no less “natural” for all that it might apply only given very specific and transient boundary conditions. Births and deaths, famines and times of plenty, become no less objective, no less “biological”, for all that their conditions have the potential to be transformed. Natural laws are not a pure, distilled, isolated, external force exerted upon objects. Natural laws are the descriptions of regularities that emerge within interactions – regularities, then, that can be as fluid as the entities interacting and the diversity of ways those interactions could probabilistically unfold.
Marx suggests that our biology, our physiology, our materiality are not “underlying” factors, onto which more transient things are grafted. Instead, it is our very materiality that is in motion, and the aspects of that materiality that are subject to change (all aspects, on a time scale long enough…) are no less “material” for their openness to transformation.
Marx constantly pushes at this – aiming for a nonreductive materialism – an historical materialism. One which has precisely nothing to do with some inevitable historical progression through defined historical eras until an inevitable culmination has been reached: this unfortunate conventional image of historical materialism transposes into Marx’s work a conception of ahistorical law – of nature as a transcendent, external driving force of more transient phenomena – that is precisely what he was attempting to oppose. It is the political economists, for Marx, who are reaching for the notion that their laws somehow grasp a form of nature that transcends empirical phenomena and the boundaries of their own moment in time. Marx is, by contrast, reaching for tendencies that manifest the peculiar and transformable nature of capitalist society. In the process, he reaches for a form of theory that can cast light on the potential to constitute new forms of interaction – and thereby open up new natures, with their own distinctive patterns – and possibilities.