Re: [OPE-L] Plekhanov on humans as tool making animals

From: Jerry Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Mon Dec 25 2006 - 09:39:20 EST


Yes, of course, we can discuss the subject more after the beginning
of the New Year.  But, before then, I'll give you some propositions and
questions to ponder.

Below I'm going to deconstruct part of Plekhanov's position on 
"humans as tool-making animals".

>>> But it must not be forgotten that quantitative differences pass into qualitative. What exists as an embryo in one species of animal can become the distinguishing feature of another species of animal. This particularly applies to the use of tools. An elephant breaks off branches and uses them to brush away flies. This is interesting and instructive. But in the history of the evolution of the species “elephant” the use of branches in the fight against flies probably played no essential part; elephants did not become " by and elephants because their more or less elephant-like ancestors brushed off flies with branches. It is quite otherwise with man. The whole existence of the Australian savage depends on his boomerang, just as the whole existence of modern Britain depends on her machines. Take away from the Australian his boomerang, make him a tiller of the soil, and he of necessity will change all his mode of life, all his habits, all his manner of thinking, all his “nature.”
We have said: make him a tiller of the soil. From the example of agriculture it can clearly be seen that the process of the productive action of man on nature presupposes not only the implements of labour. The implements of labour constitute only part of the means necessary for production. Therefore it will be more exact to speak, not of the development of the implements of labour, but more generally of the development of the means of production, the productive forces – although it is quite certain that the most important part in this development belongs, or at least belonged tip to the present day (until important chemical industries appeared) precisely to the implements of labour.
In the implements of labour man acquires new organs, as it were, which change his anatomical structure. From the time that he rose to the level of using them, he has given quite a new aspect to the history of his development. Previously, as with all the other animals, it amounted to changes in his natural organs. Since that time it has become first of all the history of the perfecting of his artificial organs, the growth of his productive forces. <<<

If homo sapiens are defined as "the tool-making animal" this raises very troublesome
issues, especially because of the way that Plekhanov formulates that proposition.

For Plekhanov, tool making existed "as an embryo"  in some other species but 
it became the "distinguishing feature" of humans. The implements of labour are
likened by Plekhanov to "new organs".    Indeed, he even says that that these
instruments of labour amount to a change in the "anatomical structure" of 
humans.  Human history, indeed human *self-realization*, then translates into
the "history of perfecting his artificial organs, the growth of his productive

Consider the implications of the above which are expressed below
as questions:

1.  If the "distinguishing characteristic" of humans is the state of their
tool-making and "artificial organs",  then doesn't it necessarily follow that
humans of our century are more "human" than humans in previous epochs
in our history?

2. If the most essential criteria for how human we are is the state of our
development of the forces of production, then doesn't it necessarily follow
that humans in contemporary social formations in which there is a less 
advanced development of artificial organs are less human than humans who have
access to and utilize more sophisticated artificial organs?

3. If tool-making is the "distinguishing feature" of humans, then aren't
engineers, architects, machinists, and tool-makers the most human 
of all humans?

4.  More generally, aren't skilled workers more human than unskilled

5.  Aren't unskilled workers who work in 'modern industry' more human
than unskilled workers who work in smaller-scale industry since their
artificial organs are smaller?

6.  Aren't the members of the industrial reserve army less human than 
wage-workers since they are deprived of many of the artificial organs
that wage-workers have? 

7. _If_ the artificial organs associated with domestic labour are less
advanced that the organs associated with workers in large-scale industry,
then aren't the atomized workers who care for and nurture children and 
others (e.g. the elderly) in households less human?

8.  [Following-up on 3.] If those with skills in tool-making are the most 
human of us all, then isn't a technocracy (some might say, euphemistically,
a "meritocracy") the appropriate system of political governance?  After
all, they are more knowledgeable and more human and hence more able
to make complex social decisions, right?

9.  If it is not the ownership of a _skill_ but rather the ownership and
control of the _artificial organ itself_ that determines how advanced we 
are as humans,  then surely the most human of all beings must be
capitalists, right?

10.  Many of these "artificial organs" have been "perfected" by the state.
Indeed,  the state owns and controls many of those implements of
labour.  Aren't the representatives and functionaries of the state then
the most human of us all?  

11. Shouldn't we thank capital and the state for empowering us by
letting us use the artificial limbs and hence become more human?


In order to avoid mis-understanding, I am NOT claiming that Plekhanov
drew any of these reactionary political conclusions.  On the contrary, 
he -- like other socialists -- believed in the principles of solidarity 
and equality.  My point is simply that there is an *inconsistency* in 
Plekhanov's claim: i.e. he did not think through sufficiently the implications
of his perspective.

I suppose that it is not surprising that Plekhanov glorified the role
of industry and the development of the forces of production, especially
given the relative lack of industrialization in pre-revolutionary Russia.
The development of the forces of production --  the perfection of the
"artificial organs"  -- was seen as being a pre-condition for establishing 
socialist relations of production.  Yet, he seems to have been unaware 
of how the linking of tool-making with human-ness can lead in a 
direction very much contrary to the principles of solidarity and 

This might be seen as being a latent problem without practical 
application, but I'm not so sure about that.  After all, some later
Marxists (most notably, Lenin) who were inspired by Plekhanov
also put forward some technocratic initiatives about how a 
revolutionary movement and a revolutionary society should be 
governed.  And, of course, there was a kind of celebration and
glorification of industry by the Bolsheviks (e.g. Lenin's claim that 
communism is the power of electricity) which gave pride of place
to party officials, scientists, skilled workers, engineers, etc. over
the masses who were not part of the elite.  Indeed,  when the
NEP was founded, even Taylorism was celebrated as an organizing
principle of socialist industry.  Why?  Well, because it would 
advance the forces of production, which would create the material 
conditions for socialism, which would eventually usher in a new
period of human history (communism) in which humans would for
the first time fully realize their potential as humans and hence
the "pre-history" of humanity would come to a close.  

It is true -- as you suggest, Dogan --  that some of these perspectives 
can be traced back to Marx.  Others have their origin with Engels 
or later Marxists.

In solidarity, Jerry

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