The speakers’ prepared texts are below. Their oral presentations departed slightly from the texts. –Editors
Prior to Marx, there was Enlightenment humanism. It wasn’t a unified doctrine, but generally speaking, it stood for individual autonomy, reason, scientific method, and progress, and it stood against the establishment of religion. Marx’s revolutionary humanism preserved these ideals.
But it also transcended Enlightenment humanism. Marx recognized that the Enlightenment was unable to achieve its aims. The French revolution stood for liberty, equality, and fraternity; and the monarchy was overthrown. But the working class remained unfree and unequal, and it was growing bigger year by year. Marx said that there needs to be yet another revolution, or, more precisely, a process of revolution in permanence, or continuous revolution, in order to make the ideas of Enlightenment humanism a reality.
Marx’s revolutionary humanist perspective has two main aspects. First, it’s the perspective of a new society in which the free development of each human being is the condition for the free development of all. No longer will freedom be a privilege, enjoyed by some people, people whose freedom rests on other people doing all the dirty work. Second, Marx’s humanism recognizes that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” That’s the 1st Rule of Marx’s International. No one, and no external force, technological or social, can free someone else. If your freedom depends on someone or something else, you’re not free; you’re dependent. As Eugene V. Debs used to note, if Moses can lead the slaves out of Egypt, he can lead them right back in again.
The Enlightenment was great for ushering in new, better ways of knowing, and especially for ushering in better ways of testing claims to knowledge. But Marx recognized that, by itself, knowledge—criticism, unmasking, demystification–hadn’t and wouldn’t solve the problems it was meant to solve.
For example, Ludwig Feuerbach had shown that underlying the power of gods is human power; we alienate our own power and project it as an external power that rules over us. That was all well and good, Marx responded, but “the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis.” The source of religious alienation isn’t lack of knowledge, but real contradictions in society that induce people to consider themselves as inherently powerless. This society produces an upside-down conception of the world because it’s an upside-down world. So, once the secular realm is discovered to be the secret of the heavenly realm, “the former”—the secular realm—“must itself be annihilated theoretically and practically” in order to get rid of religious alienation.
Marx wrote that in 1845. About a quarter-century later, in chapter 1 of Capital, he reaffirmed the same point—but this time, about capitalism rather than about religion. Classical political economy had thoroughly demystified the category of “value” by reducing it to labor. Marx held that this “marks an epoch in the history of mankind’s development.” However, that didn’t change the reality of this mystical abstraction, “value,” one iota. Under capitalism, value continues to dominate our everyday lives in much the same way that gods dominate the minds of believers. Production continues to be production of value and production for value, exchange continues to be exchange of values, and so on. Marx thus concluded that “The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process… until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control.” In short, the economists have interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
(The myth that his mature work abandoned humanism is, as you see, just that, a myth.)
So, to directly address one of the topic questions of this evening’s discussion—“Do we need to make a choice between different types of humanism?”: No, I don’t think there’s any choice. There’s a shared set of aims. The issue is: what must be done to make them a reality? I don’t think there can be much doubt that Marx’s criticism of the Enlightenment tradition––it wasn’t able and won’t be able to realize its aims––was correct. Empirically correct, since the “inalienable rights of man” that the Enlightenment proclaimed continue to be alienated from the great majority of the population. And conceptually correct, since, firstly, thinking will remain unfree as long as reality is unfree; thinking will correctly reflect the reality of unfreedom. And secondly, to repeat: No one, and no external force, technological or social, can free someone else.
Now, I don’t want to overstate the case. For instance, I don’t mean to imply that nothing can be done to combat religious fundamentalism here and now. In the US, I think a good deal of progress against belief in creationism and “intelligence design” can be made by clarifying what the word “theory” means in the phrase “evolutionary theory”—it’s not “just a theory”––and by explaining that natural selection isn’t a “random” process. Nonetheless, there are real limits to the degree to which reality can be changed just by thinking differently.
I want to conclude by discussing something Frank Furedi wrote back in 1990 with which I agree. In “Midnight in the Century,” he said
There is now little to distinguish the different wings of the intelligentsia from each other. They … all … tend to view the future with the conviction of the cynic and to treat any manifestation of optimism with contempt. Beneath this ostentatious cynicism, the underlying dynamic points towards the mass reconciliation of the intelligentsia with the status quo.
“Mass reconciliation with the status quo”; that is, with capitalism. Class collaboration may be worse than this kind of class reconciliation, but class reconciliation is bad enough.
Is abandoning Marx’s revolutionary humanism, by replacing it with some earlier stage of humanism that it transcended, a kind of class reconciliationism? I think it is, and I don’t think there’s any need for it.
Now, I don’t regard myself as especially optimistic. But I haven’t, and MHI hasn’t, fallen prey to what Furedi called “ostentatious cynicism.”
We haven’t given up on the perspective of achieving “a higher form of society, in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle,” as Marx wrote in Capital. (Again, we see that Marx’s mature work didn’t abandon his humanism.)
We haven’t given up on the potential of the working class and other social forces to emancipate themselves––develop themselves intellectually and theoretically to the point where they can govern themselves directly, instead of being subordinated to the economic laws of capitalism, or the supposedly advanced consciousness of the intellectual vanguard, or what have you. (Anne Jagland will talk more about this.)
And we’re not hoping against hope that technology will free us—it’s not designed to do so; it’s capitalist technology, designed to achieve capitalist goals, and it’s designed increasingly effectively. Perhaps some technological advances will tend to destabilize capitalism. But there’s a huge chasm between the destabilization of capitalism and the creation of a new society adequate to our human nature. The destruction of the old is only one half of social change—the easier half. The harder half is the creation of new social relations.
But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we’re wrong. Assume that these Marxist-Humanist perspectives aren’t capable of being achieved right now. Is there then any warrant for reconciling oneself to the continued dominance of capitalism and replacing Marx’s revolutionary humanism with some earlier stage of humanism? I don’t think so.
First of all, Enlightenment humanism is still plagued by its inability to achieve its goals beyond a certain point. So if the revolutionary path is blocked off, that’s it. There is no other path.
Secondly, one of the core principles of medical ethics is: “first, do no harm.” It should be a core principle of politics, too. Sometimes one has to accept defeat. But why make a virtue of necessity? Why make peace with, reconcile with, capitalism? Doesn’t this do a lot of harm? Isn’t capitalism still a fundamentally anti-human system, oriented to maximizing profit instead of maximizing human self-development? Why ignore or downplay this fact? Doesn’t that deprive humanism of a lot of its meaning and tarnish the image of humanism?
Why not set an example for the future, so that future struggles can begin from the highest point, not a low point? Why not preserve the legacy of Marx’s revolutionary humanism, and why not develop it further––for the sake of those who may be better situated to realize it in practice in the future? Why not re-affirm what Marx called “the categorical imperative,” in other words, the unconditional requirement to follow in all circumstances: “the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being”?
Following Andrew Kliman’s remarks, I want to discuss what makes Marx’s humanist philosophy concrete today and why his philosophy remains a force for transformative change and a ground for organizational practice. If Marxist-Humanist Initiataive is correct, then there is a context for revolutionary praxis, an alternative to the brick wall of resignation to the impossibility of fundamental change.
First, we need to step back and examine the basis for the popular claim that the working class is dead, and therefore there is no mass movement out there with whom we can work for transforming this society into one in which every cook can govern. The alleged “death of the class” is so often asserted that it would seem to be obvious and indisputable, unless you interrogate its underlying premises as I am about to do. The assertion dominates much of the left as well as right, including writings you may know: from Frank Furedi’s 1990 article, “Midnight in the Century”: “Marxism and working class politics are temporarily of no consequence to the flow of history”, right through to Brendan O’Neil’s interview on Jan. 27 this year with US podcaster Doug Lain (Zero Squared #54).
In dismissing Marx’s perspective in light of today’s reality, O’Neil cites three elements of Marxism as missing: workers’ movements, leadership, and “revolutionary sentiment.” But what do he and other “death of the class” writers mean by these things? When they say there are no workers’ movements, they certainly know there are tremendous movements comprised of working people going on all over the world. There have been strikes, rebellions, occupations, land and housing seizures, rank-and-file labor organizing, overthrow of dictators, and all kinds of mass struggles “from below” in the past 2-3 decades, especially since the financial crisis of 2008 revealed the vulnerability of capitalism. But the “death of the class” writers see those movements as incapable of developing toward social revolution and incapable of success in making one. What these movements lack, apparently, are historically traditional characteristics of many workers’ movements: large labor unions, large labor parties, and “leaders.” The “working class is dead” writers don’t credit movements with revolutionary potential if they do not take the form assumed to be the only form for a successful working class movement. Let us interrogate the presuppositions behind this assumption.
They say the workers “lack organization” because institutionalized unions are not leading the way, and “lack politics” because they haven’t formed traditional labor parties, and “lack leadership” if they are led by grassroots people who do not necessarily share the thinkers’ political views. And there are still more assumptions underlying the assumption that those characteristics are necessary to a successful workers’ movement. Let us question everything. Their three characteristics of what a workers’ movement needs would only be valid if (1) there must be a “transitional” movement that gradually builds toward socialism, and (2) their concepts of organization, politics and leadership are the necessary factors for a transitional program. I reject every one of these assumptions, including the concept of a transitional program. I’ll contrast Marxist-Humanism’s view in a moment.
Now, all the assumptions about the absence of a workers’ movement are based on a construct of a known, linear progression to revolution. And, because the workers are supposedly backward, it is also assumed that there is a need for leaders who will lead the workers along the path to revolution, step by step, in a preordained manner. And so we get to the nub of the problem that I think is holding back revolution: the dogma of the backwardness of the workers. The above-critiqued characteristics of a “successful workers’ movement” have one underlying idea in common: that the workers are backward, and need to be led along step by step. Under the above assumptions, the left needs to “raise the consciousness” of the backward workers before any real progress can be made. So our job becomes to market socialism to them so they will decide to get on the path; we do this through culture or whatever means find popular acceptance. The upshot is that the left have become marketing directors.
Contrast this to Marx’s view that the process and aim of revolution is workers’ own self-development; that they must start now to govern their lives so they will be capable of running society after the overthrow of capitalism. This view opens up an entirely different path to socialism, to actually building a new society after overthrowing capitalism.
For me, destroying the dogma of the workers’ backwardness is the key to surmounting the brick wall that revolutionaries face. In fact, I am arguing that the main impediment to the working class developing revolutionary movements is not workers’ supposedly low consciousness, but rather the left’s and intellectuals’ presuppositions and elitism. There is a void in thought among those who have rejected Marx’s body of ideas; it is the left and intellectuals who need to re-think and re-organize their theory and practice.
Instead, they blame the workers for slow times. Operating from the perspective of needing to raise workers’ consciousness, the left actually stifles mass movements for change. For example, the Greek grassroots anti-austerity movement had reached such strength that it probably could have toppled the government in 2011, but Syriza said don’t do it, you need to follow our leadership and go through electoral politics. We know the disaster that ensued last year after Syriza won governmental power. If Greece is too small an example, go back to France in 1968, when 10 million workers marched in Paris alongside millions of students. They were ready to seize power when the Communist Party, which dominated the unions, told them to go home. Just think what we might be doing today if that near-revolution had taken place.
Now, let me be clear that the issue of workers’ “consciousness” does not turn on whether working people use the word “socialism” or any other language of the left, but rather on whether they are ready, willing and able to engage with the idea of fundamental, systemic change in the way they work and live, and to engage with it from the standpoint of a possible non-capitalist society. We are hearing bold calls for such change from many grassroots, non-traditional workers’ organizations today, such as secular workers and feminists in Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt. This is what I believe we should be discussing with workers, their ideas and Marx’s for a new society.
In examining the “backwardness” theory, we need to distinguish between people not being fully informed, and people supposedly not being “ready” for socialist ideas until we first raise their consciousness. People may not have sufficient knowledge about how capitalism functions to identify all the aspects of it which have to be overthrown in order to create a new economic system, but then, neither does the left have sufficient knowledge. That is a very different matter from the masses not being ready, willing and able to think, learn and contribute to the development of ideas about another way to live. This latter distinction is vastly different from the usual left dichotomy between those in the know, and the masses of people who are not ready to think about socialism because they are backward, i.e., they don’t think like we do.
The old model for a revolutionary movement stems from early in the last century, when the Second International and German Social Democratic Party became the template for organizing workers. Those organizations made a virtual fetish of labor union and party organization—in fact they organized everything, from youth to women to sports, equating “organized” with massive numbers. They did create the first mass unions and workers’ parties in history. And then all their numbers and organizational strength came to naught with the outbreak of World War I, because, despite their numbers and strength, they betrayed their principles and politics by backing the Kaiser’s war and agreeing to slaughter fellow workers in the other countries of the International. So numbers and “organization” in that sense are not the key to forward development.
Recent mass movements from below, self-organized, creative movements, articulating their quests for freedom and adding new layers of meaning to the concept of freedom, have erupted in many different ways and forms, rather than following any previous model or “stages.” Why would we relegate to them to the Second International’s model, especially when that wasn’t successful over the full century since, during which so many left parties have clung to it?
No, let’s return to Marx’s concept of workers’ self-development, not as a consciousness brought to them from the outside, but as their own thoughts and actions developed in response to the capitalist world they struggle against every day (and now follow on the internet, enabling them to see and discuss with others in struggles around the world). We want to bring Marx’s humanist philosophy to the workers and to work with them to develop it for our day, beginning to break down the distinction between mental and manual work that characterizes class society. For MHI, our principal work is to develop Marx’s ideas and to engage with workers and others who are struggling and articulating liberatory ideas.
We also support struggles for reforms if the workers want those reforms and lead those movements, but we know—and say loud and clear—that reforms made from above, by union bureaucracies and social democratic public officials, do little or nothing for the self-development of the workers themselves. Getting a few cents more per hour while continuing to be wage slaves is not going to change their lives substantially or help them to work out revolutionary ideas.
One may have the goal of reforming capitalism if one thinks that workers must go through struggles over wages before they will be ready to engage in struggles for socialism. I reject this stagification of struggle entirely. I point you to Raya Dunayevskaya’s writings regarding a new relationship between theory and practice in which each informs the other and they develop together.
So I reject the old concepts of organization, politics and stagification of struggle; they serve to hem in and channel movements for freedom into imitation of, and accommodation with, existing society, and away from revolution. The opposite view, the pull of the future society, makes Marx’s humanism still relevant—in fact it is realistic, once you acknowledge that workers’ movements expressing liberatory ideas are taking place under our noses, and the challenge to the left is to develop theory and practice along with them. First we need to see that the problem is not workers being backward, but rather the paucity of ideas and actions being offered to their movements by so-called leftists.