The challenge of anti-humanism today
by J. Skolnik
Anne Jaclard’s development (N&L, June 2004) of the essay by Raya Dunayevskaya from the 1965 collection SOCIALIST HUMANISM raises some very important points about humanism today, a still maligned and much misunderstood concept. I agree wholeheartedly with her judgment about the urgent need to proceed anew to concrete truths in order to meet today’s theoretical and practical challenges. I also agree that this task requires concretizing an alternative to capitalism as best we can, as even the possibility of social revolution scarcely registers in most Left perspectives. This type of concretization would go a long way in the theoretical battle against anti-humanism, an enduring phenomenon that continues to pull people away from Marx’s humanism. The lack of a clear distinction from bourgeois humanism has given anti-humanists a new lease on life at time when a willful disregard of the rigor of thinking an idea to its conclusion prevails.
THE POLITICS OF ANTI-HUMANISM
Some of the fiercest attacks on humanism come not from the religious fundamentalist Right that wants to subsume humanity and the individual beneath its deity and personal crusades, but also from the Left that shuns humanism by reducing the human subject to a mere juridical or discursive illusion of bourgeois institutions or ideology, leaving only bodies and power. It is thus easy for some on the Left to find commonality with various strains of philosophy overtly or covertly associated with National Socialism, as the German Right formulated its own reactionary denunciation of liberal democracy, bourgeois humanism, individualism and market society. These currently fashionable figures, such as Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, Paul De Man and, to a lesser extent, Ernst Jünger, were the militarists and fundamentalists of their time. Most of them were German Catholics who saw the irrational charismatic warrior hero as the only hope for the continuing prominence of German blood and soil.
Some on the Left see the excavation of such ideas, most recently Schmitt’s, as an aid in their exposés of the vacuity of liberalism and capitalist ideology.(1) The controversy between leftist and liberal responses to the NATO bombing of Serbia brings this issue to life, especially when the former deride the latter as "military humanists." In the ideological morass after 1989, it is no wonder, then, that leftists can find some solace in Schmitt who once famously remarked "whoever invokes ‘humanity’ lies."(2)
Due to their abstract refusal of this society based on a simple rejection of liberal values, sections of the Left and Right converge on what amounts to a ROMANTIC critique of capitalism with abstract appeals to non-alienated forms of life and "community," whether lost or not yet found. The irony is that the very Left which denounces the notion of "human" as nothing more than a "Western Enlightenment" construct--a despotic universal abstraction used to justify imperialist war and to dehumanize populations--holds up its own abstractions such as difference, otherness and power, which often remain ideological reflections of our present stage of capitalism. Today’s ideology readily concludes that individual human self-development is liberal mythology and that history is an incoherent mess, an unintelligible series of events signifying nothing.
This theoretical embrace of certain right-wing, anti-modern, and counter-enlightenment ideas seems to mirror the practical ambivalence of other sections of the Left towards the reactionary anti-imperialism of groups like Al Qaeda, of certain stripes of religious fundamentalism, and of an undifferentiated Iraqi "resistance." All else becomes subsumed beneath the need to fight Western rationalism, just as with Western imperialism. Such attitudes, which obscure the capitalist mode of production as the determining factor of imperialism and its racist ideology, have become more pronounced in a unipolar world in which there are no state powers left to tail-end that are sufficiently strong to mount a challenge to U.S. dominance.
The difficulties of envisioning a different future seem to end in either romanticism or else tail-ending reactionary anti-imperialism. What connects these baleful practical-theoretical developments on the Left is a desperation attributable to a conceptual deficiency regarding alternatives to capitalism, which leads to retreat or the fetishization of power as an end-in-itself.
The descent into pure power politics illustrates how urgently we need to concretize the possibility of alternatives to capitalism, towards which this year’s News and Letters class series provides the initial steps. The classes illustrated how the salient question we face is not one of POLITICAL power. Without concretizing the ECONOMIC, as well as political and human, transformations, needed to ground a truly new human society whose "ruling principle" is "the full and free development of every individual," (CAPITAL I, 739), another world will remain out of reach.
LIBERALISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS
Now it is true that liberal legal ideology and bourgeois humanism largely amount to a paper-thin apology for a most inhuman system, a system in which dead labor and the objective factors of capitalist production and reproduction rule over the subjective dimension, a world in which things have power over people. But many anti-humanists on the Left fail to see this domination of OBJECT over SUBJECT, beginning in the production process, as the central contradiction of the system. Some view the effects of this inverted domination as universal. Many see the system as constructing the very idea of the subject, a concept they believe to be secreted by liberal ideology in the first place. It follows, for them, that the way out of subjection to capital is to deny subjectivity, even as they search everywhere for sources of resistance, if not agency.
Yet even chemical compounds are agents and every material body provides physical resistance. What makes us human, what makes us subject, is not our sensuous substantial dimension but our cognitive subjective dimension. The retreat from our full living subjectivity not only marks a withdrawal from history and from the need to think concretely through the idea of revolution from the objectivity of where we are today. It also marks an inability to face adequately the ideology of economists and pundits who depict capitalism as promoting freedom, democracy and human creativity, by denying these as goals for liberation movements. This indicates a profound crisis in thought.
Moreover, the legacy of Althusser remains with us via Foucault and others, who take up Schmitt, such as Giorgio Agamben, Chantal Mouffe, and Ernesto Laclau. This milieu associates humanism with, at best, social democratic and reformist tendencies such as the one represented by Jürgen Habermas’ call for the global rule of law and a new normative foundation for a cosmopolitan society of world citizens. They think it radical simply to expose the naked power relations behind such appeals to universal norms. But by focusing exclusively on politics and severing its links to economics, these critics reproduce implicitly the same separation of social interaction and labor which explicitly grounds Habermas’ legalistic approach.(3) Thereby both sides eliminate the potential for systemic change.
Neither camp grasps the root determining factor: the mode of labor. The connections that Marx drew between alienated social relations and alienated labor fall away. The liberal ideals that Habermas sees violated by the colonization of society by instrumental reason are simply projections of the abstract equality of commodity production. That is why his project remains as impossible a bourgeois utopia as Proudhon’s, only less sophisticated economically. Similarly, by denying the liberating capacities of human reason, his various critics reduce people to particulars incapable of fundamental social change or to objects incapable of freedom.
We must project a revolutionary humanist rejection of both sides of this debate. Its premise, however covert, is the supposed death of the revolutionary SUBJECTS capable of emancipating this society. On such a dogmatic basis, the remaining possibilities are either institutional reform or endless (pointless?) struggles over power, never mind that believing that power arises from political domination will leave revolutionaries apt to think that, after the revolution, they will have "captured" power when capital may still dominate.
This interminable debate over humanism and reason rarely leaves the surface of civil society, the realm of exchange, "Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham" (CAPITAL I, 280). In contrast to the needed dialectical reasoning, such first negations remain at the level of the object they critique--capitalism. An adequate solution must begin by moving beyond the legal realm of Habermas AND the realm of politics advocated by his many critics to the mode of production itself. None of these antagonists address the kind of abstract alienated labor we perform that produces the autonomized value (i.e. capital) that dominates us. There is today such a separation of economics and politics that most who have rejected economic determinism do so to the point of rejecting economics as an explanation for almost anything, opposition to the immediately perceived injustices of "the market" notwithstanding.
While it is not surprising that Left academics who have given up on revolution would be attracted to such ideas, particularly disturbing is the perspective of some independent left activist-intellectuals, self-described anti-vanguardists, who consider their position Marxist, but who also incorporate the views of those like Schmitt because of their attack on bourgeois humanism. This sentiment is shared by the many who post to the autonomist Marxist email discussion list "aut-op-sy." Largely this myopia is a poor excuse for not fully acknowledging or accepting Marx’s humanism, and by extension the totality and specificity of his critique of capitalism. Some raised on vanguardist politics, who have perhaps broken politically with their pasts, have not rethought their philosophical views and find in these rightwing perspectives on liberalism a justification for their deep-seeded anti-humanism.
Today's struggle over Marx’s humanism involves sharpening our differences with the ANTI-Stalinist Left. Even in its anti-authoritarian guise, this DISTORTION of the specificity of Marx’s work sets back its development, producing a situation not all that different from the history of Stalinist distortions, perhaps all the more sinister for its veneer of openness.
In what amounts to a pragmatic tactical alliance, which presupposes a separation of theory and practice, they claim that they can agree with the philosophies of Nietzsche, Heidegger or Schmitt, while opposing their reactionary politics. However, if they were to develop these lines of thought more deeply they would eventually hit their inherent limits. These contradictions are only ignored or left implicit due to the paucity of theoretical reasoning on the Left today. Dogmatism, as Jaclard rightly points out, "cuts off the dialectic in thought" and in act. By following these ideas to their end they would sooner or later find their positions transformed into their opposite.
It is not that these leftists have acquiesced to fascism, but the excessive focus on liberal ideas without addressing their connection to the economic substratum amounts to an admission that they have nothing to offer in the way of an alternative, just abstract negation. It is not a matter of will or intent. "Ideas," as Dunayevskaya maintains, "‘think,’ not sequentially, but CONsequentially, related to other Ideas that emerge out of HISTORIC ground, and do not care where all this might lead to, including transformation into opposite" (THE POWER OF NEGATIVITY, p. 310).
The old German Right knew VERY WELL the force of ideas and saw their philosophy and politics as forming a single integral whole. They knew very well the significance of the words they chose and the consequences of the arguments they made.(4) Similarly, neo-conservatives’ influence today, according to one bourgeois observer, "comes not from their position at the apex of the administration, but the power of their ideas, which offered an explanation for September 11 and a bold prospectus for the future."(5) We would do best to take this commitment to ideas just as seriously as the Right, and to be more militant in our embrace of a philosophy of liberation that is inseparable from our politics and our organization.
UNITY OF ECONOMICS AND POLITICS
Recreating Marx’s philosophy of revolution today involves meeting the struggles of human subjects, which themselves embody reason, yet continue to hit the wall of the capitalist world system. For this an anti-humanist rejection of liberalism and a one-sided critique of modernity will not do. Today’s attacks on Marx, on reason, on humanism, on the idea of freedom and the possibility of revolution, and on the self-development of the masses to each person are all connected, whether they come from the Right or the Left. They pose a great danger and remain the legacy of the dissolution of Marxism after 1989. There is a path along which the tired controversy over humanism and the battles in the realms of politics and law become footnotes to larger questions confronting us. Marx and Marxist-Humanism must become a pole of attraction for those looking for something entirely new.
Only the two-way dialectical movement from practice and from theory can break through the false universalism and one-sided individuality of bourgeois law, and the POWER the ECONOMIC system has over us.
How can we step up to this challenge posed to creative cognition? We must first recognize that a successful revolution will not only depend on the right political decisions, articulating desires, or different institutional arrangements. All of these changes must be grounded in SOMETHING ELSE. Only the transformation of the economic relations of production will guard against the pull back to capitalism and guarantee that alterations in the modes of exchange and distribution--not to mention changes in culture, consciousness, justice, etc.--can be maintained. What happens after remains our most important theoretical task--can we answer it? We can begin only by grounding our reappropriation of Marx's Marxism in his critique of political economy. Only in this way can we begin to concretize a society freed from the power of capital, what Marx called communism, or real humanism.
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1. It is perhaps not at all surprising to find similar flirtations by some on the German and French Lefts in the 1920s and '30s. See Richard Wolin, SEDUCTION OF UNREASON (Princeton University Press, 2004), for a discussion of the allure that right-wing thought had for some Leftists during the period of fascist ascendancy in Europe.
2. See Carl Schmitt, THE CONCEPT OF THE POLITICAL (University of Chicago Press, 1996). The context of this statement was the banning of war and the depoliticization and false neutralization of just wars by the League of Nations, which purported to represent the interests of universal humanity.
3. See, among other works, Habermas, THE THEORY OF COMMUNICATIVE ACTION, 2 vols. (Beacon Press, 1985).
4. See Johannes Fritsche, HISTORICAL DESTINY AND NATIONAL SOCIALISM IN HEIDEGER'S 'BEING AND TIME' (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) for a philological investigation of Heidegger and his relation to German politics.
5. See "The U.S. goes home: will Europe regret it," by Mark Leonard, FINANCIAL TIMES, June 26/27, 2004, p. W2.
Published by News and Letters Committees