An ‘Impulse Towards Freedom’: On Paul Mason’s call for a Marxist-Humanist Challenge to Capitalist Automation

David Black

Summary: Paul Mason’s essay in the New Statesman for the Marx bicentenary is a ringing endorsement of Raya Dunayevskaya’s interpretation of Marx’s humanism, which raises timely questions for radicals on automation, roboticisation and articial intelligence – Editors

Paul Mason’s essay, ‘Why Marx is more relevant than ever in the age of automation’, published in the New Statesman (7 May 2018), is for Marxist-Humanists an ‘Event’ in that it is the first informed assessment of Raya Dunayevskaya’s contribution to Marxism to ever appear in the mainstream English-language press, aside from book reviews.  According to Mason:

‘As Dunayevskaya understood, the impulse towards freedom is created by more than just exploitation: it is triggered by alienation, the suppression of desire, the humiliation experienced by people on the receiving end of systemic racism, sexism and homophobia. Everywhere capitalism follows anti-human priorities it stirs revolt – and it’s all around us. In the coming century, just as Marx predicted, it is likely that automation coupled with the socialisation of knowledge will present us with the opportunity to liberate ourselves from work. That, as he said, will blow capitalism “sky high”. The economic system that replaces it will have to be shaped around the goal he outlined in 1844: ending alienation and liberating the individual.’

Mason’s arguments for humanism are hardly likely to endear him to ‘traditional’ Leftist ‘materialists’, as when he argues, for example, that the first ‘reinterpretation’ which Marx’s ideas ‘suffered’ came from Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, who ‘tried to systematise Marx’s ideas into a theory of everything in the universe, encompassing no longer just history but physics, astronomy and ethnography’.

Against Class Reductionism

Not surprisingly, a number of critiques (or attacks) are forthcoming, and have already begun appearing in Left journals. One common accusation coming from Left critics of Mason is that he is overly ‘subjective’ and ‘individualist’, and therefore, ‘liberal’. Mason, for his part,  sees no future for ‘traditional’ leftist formulations on organisation and class-conciousness or for the faux collectivism of ‘democratic centralism’:

‘That impulse towards individual liberation? It’s already there in Marx, just waiting to be discovered. So paint what you want, love whom you want. Fuck the vanguard party. The revolutionary subject is the self.’

Alex Callinicos, in Socialist Worker, writes,

‘I don’t agree with everything Dunayevskaya wrote, but she deserves better than being appropriated to support what seems like a form of radical liberalism. At its core Marx’s thought is a doctrine of human freedom, of individual self-determination. But the road to realising this ideal lies through understanding the objective structures of capitalism and their contradictions. These can be undone through collective action—both the mass struggles of workers and the efforts of revolutionary parties.’

At least Callinicos, whose article is ludicrously titled ‘Don’t dress Marxists up as liberals, Mason’, takes account of Mason’s appropriation of Dunayevskaya’s Marxist-Humanism. Dragan Plavsic, on the other hand, in ‘Why Paul Mason is wrong about Marx’, in Counterfire (8 May 2018), manages to stick to the ‘traditional’ Cliffite attitude towards the Marxist-Humanists: ‘Just ignore them and they’ll go away’. Even though Mason’s interpretation of Dunayevskaya forms the whole basis of his 3,000-word article, Plavsic doesn’t mention her name once. On Mason, Plavsic writes:

‘What Mason seeks to achieve by jettisoning this “class narrative” soon becomes clear. He is setting the scene for a conclusion which brings again to centre stage his other main theme of the individual. The revolutionary subject isn’t the working class anymore because today, “The revolutionary subject is the self”.’

Plavsic, who offers as an ‘alternative’ his own politics of anti-individualism and class-reductionism, clearly has no idea about the role the individual ‘self’, in relation to other selves and universality, plays in Hegel’s dialectic; in Marx’s theory of alienation; or the relevance of both to current debates about ’identity’ politics and ‘intersectionality’. In a more dialectical approach  to ‘subjectivity’ in today’s crisis-ravaged object-world, the International Marxist-Humanist Organisation contends:

‘Given today’s objective situation, which is defined by sections of the ruling elite seeking to extend its tenuous support among the populace by invoking racism and sexism, it hardly makes sense to proclaim a “class first” approach that views struggles against racism and sexism as secondary or epiphenomenal considerations. Such an economic reductionist standpoint can only succeed in isolating revolutionaries from a new generation of activists who are opposing the specific form assumed by this stage of capitalism. Marxist-Humanism is better equipped than any other standpoint to speak to the present moment, precisely because it rejects the notion that Marxism is reducible to a theory of class struggle. Marxist-Humanism holds that genuine Marxism is a philosophy of revolution that views struggles against racism, sexism, and class domination as integral to the creation of a “new humanism”—a transformation of all alienated and reified structure of the social relations.’

Callinicos’s  exhortations to understand ‘objective structures’ are meaningless, without taking people’s self-definitions seriously in relation to a universal goal of liberation. If the ‘masses’ consists of merely atomised individual selves, there is no revolution, however developed the technology and ‘structures’. If, on the other hand, the ‘self’ is seen as meaningless outside of the context of the ‘we’, then there arises the possibility of building a real Left under Mason’s forthright slogan: ‘Fuck the vanguard party’.

Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’

Mason writes on Marx’s 1858 ‘Fragment of Machines’ in the Grundrisse:

‘When researchers eventually discovered and published Marx’s “Fragment on Machines” in the late 1960s, Dunayevskaya understood it was the last piece of the puzzle. This was not an account of capitalist economic breakdown due to the falling profit rate, it was a theory of technological liberation. Freed from work by the advance of automation, Marx had foreseen how humanity would use its leisure time: for the “free development of the individual”, not some collectivist utopia.’

The first half of the first sentence is factually wrong, unless Mason is only referring to English translations. The Fragment on Machines in Marx’s notebooks of 1858, known as the Grundrisse, which was first published in German in Moscow in 1939, and then in Berlin in 1953. That Dunayevskaya was familiar with it much earlier than the ‘late-1960s’ is evident, as we shall see, from her dialogue with Herbert Marcuse in the years 1958-60. [Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom: from 1776 until today. Preface. by Herbert Marcuse (1958)]

Be that as it may, Mason has cleared the field for a timely debate on automation, which makes the correspondence between Raya Dunayevskaya and Herbert Marcuse on this issue worth revisiting. In 1960, Dunayevskaya directed Marcuse’s attention to a debate within her organisation (News and Letters Committees) between two workers, Angela Terrano and Charles Denby. Terrano, an electrical worker, rejected automation altogether, arguing that work in the new society would be ‘something completely new, not just to get money to buy food and things… it will have to be completely tied up with life’. Denby, a Black auto-worker in Detroit, on the other hand argued (as summarised by Anderson and Rockwell), ‘that workers control of production plus a shorter work-day, in the context of the abolition of capitalism, would be needed to realise the potentials of automation’. Marcuse, in contrast to Denby, could see no theoretical or practical connection between the intense struggles in Denby’s auto-plant and the much-needed abolition of capitalism.

In this correspondence, Dunayevskaya reminds Marcuse of the argument in his preface to her book, Marxism and Freedom, about ‘the transformation of the labouring classes’ from a force of negation of capitalism to one of acquiescence (if not actual affirmation), and provocatively questions whether he, Marcuse, ‘had not fallen into the trap of viewing Marxian socialism as if it were a distributive philosophy’. Marcuse, rising to the bait, takes his argument further, suggesting that only ‘genuine [ie universal] automation’ would ‘explode’ the capitalist system. Objectively, sections of both the capitalist class and the proletariat were united in resisting automation. Capitalists had cause to worry about the decline in the rate of profit and the necessity of sweeping government controls in the economy; workers were worried about ‘technological unemployment’. As for Angela Terrano’s position, Marcuse writes:

‘Re Angela T.: you should really tell her about all that humanization of labor, its connection with life, etc. – that this is possible  only through complete automation, because such humanization is correctly relegated by Marx to the realm of freedom beyond the realm of necessity, i.e. beyond the entire realm of socially necessary labor in the material production. Total dehumanization of the latter is the prerequisite.’ [The Dunayevskaya-Marcuse-Fromm- Correspondence 1954-1978 (Eds. Kevin  Anderson and Russell Rockwell, pps. xxviii-xxvix].

For Marcuse the question is just how total does the dehumanization have to be as prerequisite to exploding the capitalist system. Perhaps more concretely, we might ask how the explosion might come about and what would be the forces engaged in trying to bring it about, or block it, if not class forces, or class-aligned forces? Although Capital has a ‘tendency’ to ever-increasingly replace living labour (workers) with dead labour (machines), it has ‘characteristics’, i.e., internal  ‘barriers’ to this ‘potential’: in Aristotelian terms, the teleology of the Polis fulfilling its potential of the ‘Good Life’ is negated by the modern work ethic of perpetual churn; in Hegelian terms (according to Dunayevskaya) the Notion/Concept of Capital may turn out not to be its Absolute, but its desintegration, as Marx expounds on in Capital, Volume III, regarding the consequences of capital accumulation. What does this mean in the 21st century?

The ‘last piece of the puzzle?

To say, as Mason does, that Dunayevskaya understood the 1858 Fragment on Machines as ‘the last piece of the puzzle’ is contestable because for Dunayevskaya the ‘puzzle’ would also have to involve, among other things, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (although in itself that wouldn’t solve the ‘puzzle’). Comparing what she sees as the shortcomings of the Grundrisse (in 1858) to more developed insights of Capital (in 1867), Dunayevskaya writes:

‘Thus, as against the emphasis on machinery as a “monster” that the workers will overcome, there is too much emphasis in the Grundrisse on machinery as providing the material basis for the dissolution of capital as the workers standing alongside of production as their “regulator”.’ [Raya Dunayevskaya, Philosophy and Revolution, p70]

Because the Grundrisse still stresses the material conditions for the struggle for socialism rather than class struggle itself, the general contradiction of value-production and the tendency of the falling rate of profit are not made as integral to the lot of the worker as they are in Capital.

Present-day capitalism, Peter Hudis contends, is facing ‘the threat of social revolution by unemployed workers who are cast aside as capitalism becomes increasingly productive’. However,

‘Capitalism does not meekly surrender to this subjective threat; nor does the threat end capitalism’s tendency to replace value-creating labour by machinery at the point of production. Instead, capitalism responds to the risk that its actions will ‘produce a revolution’ by increasing the employment of nonproductive workers even as it reduces, absolutely as well as relatively, the number of value-creating productive workers at the point of production. This helps explain the significant growth of a service-economy and a public sector as capitalism develops. Yet, since capitalism is continuously driven to reduce the proportion of living labour to dead labour, over time even the relative over-employment of non-productive workers comes under attack by capital. This is the situation that the West faces at the start of the twenty-first century, as seen in the concerted effort to reduce the number as well as the wages and benefits of public-service workers through austerity-measures.’[Peter Hudis, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, p132]

The ‘unemployed workers’ therefore do not just include the youth of the ‘underclass’; we are also talking about skilled, ‘professional’ people whose skills are going to be made increasingly redundant by automation/AI/robotisation.

Where is Mason Going?

It would of course hardly be adequate to dismiss Mason’s position on automation as simply a (presumably) unconscious repetition of the techno-utopianism of Herbert Marcuse. When Mason writes, ‘Everywhere capitalism follows anti-human priorities it stirs revolt – and it’s all around us’, he sounds decidedly un-Marcusean. Mason’s vision of the socialist future isn’t some accelerationist dream of a life of ‘play’, ‘all watched over by machines of loving grace’. What he says is that automation might provide ‘the opportunity to liberate ourselves from work’. Also his view, ‘If we are to defend human rights against authoritarian populism we must have a concept of humanity to defend – as we must if we insist that human beings should have the power to limit and suppress the activities of thinking machines’ is explicitly based on Dunayevskaya’s ideas, not Marcuse’s.

Mason is not a theoretician; he is not interested in ideas that do not speak directly to modern times and struggles. As a journalist investigating globalised capitalism, Mason has poked his camera and microphone into numerous places and struggles around the world where lesser journalists would fain tread (the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, European Left-populism, the threat of fascism, the Gaza war, the Greek crisis, Corbyn’s Labour Party – you name it, he’s covered it). In his New Statesman essay, Mason has a story to tell based on his own experiences and readings of history: of how the 20th century Left disastrously lost the plot, and how the humanism of Marx and Dunayevskaya could point the way forward to redemption. It is certainly the case that his 3,000-word offering raises as many questions as it answers, but that is precisely what makes it so interesting.




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1 Comment

  1. Ludgardo F. González-Marín

    Entonces, la clase capitalista puede decidir eliminar físicamente, a millones de desempleados que no les resulta fácil absorber con empleos menos remunerados y menos horas de trabajo. Esto es lo ya está haciendo el neoliberalismo financiero capitalista. Desde las primeras herramientas fabricadas de pedernal, hasta la atiborrante cantidad de información por parte de la tecnología digital, no convierte, necesariamente, a la propia tecnología como algo bueno o malo. Va a depender de quiénes sigan siendo los dueños de la tecnología.
    Por otro lado, aún la información valiosa de los escritos del “joven Marx” (sobretodo, para un psiquiatra como yo), para entender los procesos de enajenación, podría ser usada como parapeto para ideologías desmovilizantes de moda. Me refiero a la resucitación de conceptos metafísicos milenarios, parecidos al budismo y al Ayurveda. Es un solipsismo encubierto. Las luchas contra el racismo ( que, después de todo, surgió por las invasiones por parte del incipiente capitalismo europeo en el resto del mundo, a partir del siglo XV), las batallas en contra del discrimen, maltrato y opresión por los asuntos de género, el aborto, la homofobia y algunas otras realidades, que incluso puedan ser minoritarias y distintas; no dejan de ser secundarias a la explotación económica y la lucha de clases.