Marxist-Humanism in the Heat of the Present

Seamus Connolly

Summary: Presentation given at the International Marxist-Humanist Organization’s 2020 Convention in July. Discusses the concept of a dialectical and revolutionary humanism and its relevance to the present moment– Editors.

On the Left today many look askance at humanism. They ridicule it, lambast it, and castigate it. And, in large swathes, they outlaw it and anyone who wishes to speak of it, neglecting in the process the diverse histories and multifarious traditions of humanism as living systems of thought and practice. Humanism has been many things, it is true: a fig-leaf justification for colonialism; a bourgeois denial of class politics; the belief in an abstract “Man” that squats outside of the world and that denies women, people of color, lesbians, gays, intersex, and disabled peoples the agency and affirmation of their particularity. But humanism has also been the very basis of the attacks on these abominations: from Marx to Dunayevskaya, Césaire to Fanon, Fromm to Kosík, and more. So, what, then, is humanism, considered in relation to Marxism, and why do we profess it?


Humanism and Human Value

All humanisms seek to elevate human value (Ruoshui, 1985). This elevation of human value is not carried out in the same way in each particular humanism, however (the history of liberal and bourgeois humanism testifies to this), nor is it necessarily pursued at the expense of other types of value (such as the value that is represented in the life of non-human animals or in the health and vitality of the environment – both of which are related, in an intimate way, to human value). The elevation of human value is intrinsic to the Marxian project in that Marx’s very critique of capital was raised in the name of humanity: the humanism that he announced in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, and which Dunayevskaya rightly picked up and made the basis of the philosophy and practice of Marxist-Humanism, provided the initial and enduring motivation for his life’s work in critiquing capital.

In seeking to demystify the alienation and fetishism of capitalist life, Marx raised the flag of human value as opposed to value in the sense of exchange value, that is to say, value in its economic sense. Through his analysis of value in political economy – which despite what is claimed by many Marxists today, is clearly inaugurated in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts – Marx unmasks the inversion whereby human value is subsumed by the pursuit of economic value that dictates the labor process as a whole. Under capitalism, as Marx tells us in the Grundrisse, “[t]he social character of activities, as well as the social form of the product, and the share of individuals in production…appears as something alien and objective” (1973:157). In Capital too, it is clear that Marx is concerned with unmasking the inversion of subject and object: the objectification of human capacity in alienated labor that denies the need for universality and also for the free association of that labor.

Much has been written in post-Marx Marxism that obscures the elementary fact that Marx’s concern with social being is related to the concern over freedom and the reconstitution of human wholeness. While this is so, Dunayevskaya, one of the most perceptive of Marx’s heirs, identified the humanist thread early on. Her Marxist-Humanism pushed to the fore the human categories in Marxism, so often obscured in economistic, not to mention structuralist and post-structuralist renderings. Dunayevskaya’s incisive grasp of the humanist essence of Marx stands in full opposition to that of the anti-humanist thinkers who influence so much of the mainstream intellectual Left today, whether it be Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, or Giorgio Agamben, among others. Particularly important, given his “Marxist” status, is Louis Althusser, whose thought is nonetheless implicated in the development of what are, in large part, strikingly non-Marxian forms of critique. Wholly at variance with Dunayevskaya’s faithful and insightful reproduction of Marx, Althusser shoehorns Marx’s project into a markedly objectivist “science of history” in which individuals are reduced to mere “supports” (Träger) in the division of labor, in the different levels of the structure (Althusser and Balibar, 1970:112). This fantastic corruption of Marx, in which history is rendered as a process without a subject, reduces the subjectivity of individuals (allindividuals) to that which is constructed in ideology: which is to say, hardly a subjectivity at all! As Dunayevskaya points out, this runs wholly contrary to Marx’s own approach, which, despite the pages written on fetishism of commodities and the reified consciousness that goes with it, nevertheless accords a central role to the self-activity of the proletariat (and other groups) in struggling for freedom.


Humanism as Praxis

For Dunayevskaya, then, as for Marx, and for us today, the humanism of Marx is neither a static nor an abstract humanism, but one directed toward to human agency, subjectivity, and to the unity of (and the active act of uniting) idealism and materialism in the social forces of the time. Responding to Marx’s somewhat infamous statement that “[i]t is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness” Dunayevskaya saw that “[t]here is nothing mechanical about this materialist conception of history: the truth that social existence determines consciousness is not a confining wall, but a doorway to the future, as well as an appreciation of the past, of how men [sic] molded history” (1973a:153). Marxist-Humanism is both a practical and a theoretical humanism; it is the unity of each, geared toward expressing, affirming, and encouraging the human capacity for realizing liberation in the world at large. Because of this, Marxist-Humanism avoids the twin pitfalls of deterministic optimism and deterministic pessimism – each the mirror image of the other, which are united together in both the history and the present of the Left.

Dunayevskaya recognized that Marx saw nothing “automatic” about the inevitability of socialism; it all depended on “the human subject, on the revolutionary compulsions of the proletariat to transform reality by undermining the existing order and creating a new one” (1973a:154). Marxist-Humanism, facing towards praxis, doesn’t sunder the human subject at the altar of the rarified theorist. The key relationship lies in the connection between theory and practice, which Marxist-Humanists view as a dialectical movement from practice to theory and from theory back to practice – not a closure but an opening, the key to which lies with “the masses in motion [and] not individual genius” (1973a:154). Dunayevskaya was justifiably sharp in her criticism of the “professional Marxists” who operate with “too sophisticated an attitude to the revolts which have raged throughout the history of capitalism” ([1958] 2000:116). “No theoretician,” she tells us, “today more than ever before, can write out of his [sic] own head. Theory requires a constant shaping and reshaping of ideas on the basis of what the workers themselves are doing and thinking” ([1958] 2000:24 – emphasis is mine).

Contrary to this approach, Dunayevskaya embodies the engaged practical thinker, concerned as was Marx with the need to transcend both in principle and in fact “the most monstrous” division of all: that between mental and manual labor. But while Marxist-Humanist theory doesn’t come from above, practice should not be disconnected from theory. As Dunayevskaya herself was quick to point out, “[a]ctivists by themselves are as one-sided as theory by itself. Only in their unity – in a new relationship that is rooted where the action is – can we rise to the challenge of the times” (1984:41 – emphasis is mine). In this stress on the importance of theory, Dunayevskaya openly set her position in opposition not only to her erstwhile colleagues, C. L. R. James and Grace Lee, but also to that of many anarchist and Maoist groupings, who either hold an instrumental relationship toward theory (in which it plays a only rudimentary role) or think that it could be picked up “en route” (which is tantamount to having no relationship with theory at all). Her engagement with theory – which for her was a form of practice – was inextricably connected to the making of history. This needs to be remembered not only in moments of seeming decline in the relations of struggle but also at the very height of insurrection.


Marxist-Humanism and the Expansion of the Dialectic

The notion of the “new passions and new forces” that Dunayevskaya enunciated on numerous occasions, and that is so central to Marxist-Humanism, comes originally from Chapter 32 of Capital, where Marx discusses his dialectical account of history as applied to the history of accumulation. What Dunayevskaya is able to do in taking over the phase is, through a reading which brings the “margins” of Marx to the very center, to expand the dialectic (in a way consistent with the late Marx himself) to Black and women’s struggle (she also adds youth) as self-constituting elements in the progress of struggle. In this way, Dunayevskaya not only constitutes Marxist-Humanism as tied intensely to the present moment, to what is happening on the ground, but also, in fact, as futuristic, literally ahead of its time, and uniquely apposite to our own present moment.

This expanded conception of the dialectic – alive and connected as part of the wider striving for self-realization – is also important in virtue of the fact that it counteracts the pessimism and melancholy of the intellectual and reformist Left. In the manner of the true humanism that Marx himself exhibited, Marxist-Humanism is a praxis wholly open to the world, to what is happening wherever it is happening, and is thereby global in a genuine sense. As Dunayevskaya was to remark toward the end of her life: “[w]hen a new revolution erupts, the tendency is to immediately try to box it in as if it were a question of France/Algeria; or of the West in general/the African revolutions; or in the Middle East, of Arab/Israel” (1986:20). This “confining of the new within old categories” (1986:20-21) represented a significant conceptual problem for Marxism, according to Dunayevskaya. As she astutely observes, pointing to what is essentially a narcissistically narrow view of the world, “[p]ost-Marx Marxists have disregarded too many revolutions, successful or aborted; disregarded too many philosophies underlying those revolutions. They just allow intellectual sloth to accumulate and accumulate” (1986:21).

The importance of Dunayevskaya’s notion of the Black masses as vanguard, then, the Black dimension that stands before us today (as do the women’s dimension, and other dimensions), can hardly be overstated. What is clear is that the self-activity of the Black masses, and masses of all colors, are to the fore, demanding their freedom and giving succor to the notion of a living, connected dialectic – one that is contagious and increasingly global. This self-activity – which is also self-development and self-movement – has opened the fissures once again, and the pulse of insurrection beats faster. When Dunayevskaya defends production as her “point of departure…because to see the crisis in production is to understand it everywhere else” ([1958] 2000:281-2), she is not giving the green light to economic or class reductionism. Whether the struggle concerns issues of class, race, gender, or sexuality, etc., or a combination of these aspects, the dialectic between universal and particular is never sundered in an exclusionary concern for the one over the other. In as much as we are speaking of humanist struggles for self-realization – struggles pushing back against domination and fighting for the expansion of the space for freedom and self-realization at all levels of society – we aspire to struggles that are connected and mutually interrogative, possessing the potential to lead to the kind of progression that would usher in a real humanism instantiated in both production and social relations.

What is revealed here is humanism as a form of what Gramsci called “absolute humanism,” which for Dunayevskaya is nothing other than “the articulation needed to sum up a classless, non-racist, non-sexist society, where truly new human relations self-develop” (1992:11).


Marxist-Humanism in the Heat of the Present

As we stand in the heat of the present, not only does the need for Marxist-Humanism shout out to us through the tear gas that shrouds our city streets; moreover, the power of Marxist-Humanism to grasp the human expression of the need for universality, and to account for the articulation of this need in the present, as what promises to be a turning-point in the battles against our dehumanized reality, is unrivalled. When Dunayevskaya speaks of the “new passions and new forces” erupting in society, she speaks not only of the sense in which the dialectic has been broadened to include the Black, women’s, and youth dimensions; she also speaks to the fact that the process of the dialectic is never fully pushed underground, even at moments when the foreclosure of history seems to have descended upon us. In highlighting this fact of the dialectic, the humanism of Marxist-Humanism demonstrates its superiority – intellectual and practical – to those abstract anti-humanist intellectuals of which we have already spoken.

Take, for example, Agamben’s recent fears that the emergency measures taken against COVID-19 would lead to the pacification of politics. Railing against the “supposed epidemic of coronavirus,” the performative contradiction that blights every anti-humanist account of the social rears its head also in Agamben’s most recent pronouncements. “People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency” he tells us, “that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective.” While it is certainly the case that we are witness, alongside and in intimate relation to the protests, to a vicious crackdown and a reactionary tightening of legislation that will enshrine outright fascist control of dissent (what else can we call the labelling of Antifa as a “terrorist organization”?!), the insurrection that has broken out has only confirmed as undialectical the anti-humanism that reduces individuals to subjects (in the singular sense) that are acted upon. While it is true that what we have seen in the recent weeks is the extension to even white protestors of the localized and normalized “state of exception” that exists in relation to the Black people and people of colour in the U.S. (and elsewhere), the rising to consciousness and action of thousands upon thousands has given the lie to the anti-humanist pretence at radicality.

The focus on the pacification of individuals, characteristic of Agamben, as it is Foucault, Adorno, Althusser, etc., has been blown out of the water in response to yet another brutal murder of a Black man. Although Agamben is right to say that “[a] society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society,” it is simply not the case, as he suggests, that “our society no longer believes in anything but bare life” (emphasis is mine). What are the recent protests – protests that have spread all over the world, and that have moved beyond supposedly particularistic concerns – other than an affirmation of a life lived without fear of death and brutalization, and one pushing for something more than bare subsistence? Thousands are literally putting their lives on the line in order to bring about a state of affairs where people of color no longer have to live in fear of their own life, and in which the related and equally life-denying structures of capitalism are increasingly called into question. It’s hard to see how a focus on the “biopolitics” of the state, as found in Agamben and Foucault, can account for the degree of recalcitrance and the development of consciousness that seems to be coalescing in the present.

In the heat of this present, then, what stands out are the new passions and forces that have spontaneously come to the fore. The vitality of the Marxist-Humanist view – of the inviolability of human subjectivity, human resistance, human consciousness – takes on a marked importance as we face the specter of a new Great Depression and the related heightening of repressive forces. During a period in which the pressure of the routinised extraction of surplus value has been temporarily thrown off for millions (who are also walking a tightrope of survival), the white heat of the present is not likely to be dampened over what promises to be months upon months. What is less certain is the future of the insurrection: whether it can sustain itself and transcend to a higher level. What was marked out as crucial by Dunayevskaya in such a movement from practice that has disclosed its quest for universality is that, for the turning point to be realized, “theory and practice [need to] finally evolve a unified organizational form” (1983:34). Organization, as the realization of praxis, is imperative, but it cannot be an organization in the Bolshevik sense of the Vanguard Party.

To where, then, do we turn? What is certain is that the organizational form must have humanism as central to its functioning: it must be a system through which human value is not only valorized but affirmed in practice. The coalescence of objective and subjective forces in the developed consciousness – i.e. praxis – of our age is the ground from which these considerations must flow. But the new passions and forces need to be melded to a theory – Marxist-Humanism – that both arises from them and returns to them. As Dunayevskaya put it in Philosophy and Revolution:

No new stage of cognition is born out of thin air. It can be born only out of praxis. When workers are ready for a new plunge to freedom, that is when we reach also a new stage of cognition….The masses have shown how different prole “subjectivity” is from petty-bourgeois subjectivity. They refuse any longer to be only the force of revolution, for they are also its reason, active participants in working out the philosophy of liberation for our age. They have begun. Is it now the time for intellectuals to begin, with where the workers are and what they think, to fill the theoretic void in the Marxist movement (1973:265-6).



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