Review of Marxist-Humanism in the Present Moment

Chris James Newlove

Summary: A review of Marxist-Humanism in the Present Moment: Reflections on Theory and Practice in Light of the Covid-19 Pandemic and the Black Lives Matter Uprisings. Originally published at the Marx and Philosophy Review of Books on July 3rd, 2022. — Editors

Whether one is a Humanist or anti-Humanist is the key dividing line within continental philosophy. ‘Western’ theory to this day is deeply influenced by the debates and theorists predominantly but not exclusively arising from France in the 1950’s to the 1980’s. The short lived but intense ‘structuralist’ trend in the mid-1960s utilised the anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss and the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure to dethrone the conscious subject of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. The philosophically diverse theorists are mistakenly grouped together as ‘post-structuralist’ (anti-Humanist is a more accurate label). Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari accelerate this trend through the 1960s and 70s. The problem is once the conscious subject is radically decentred, from what material does struggle arise? The anti-Humanist Marxist Louis Althusser in his classic phase is a good example of a theorist who could think the endless reproduction of capitalism without being able to adequately describe its overthrow. Anti-Humanist philosophy is still the dominant force in ‘Western’ academia today.

Marxist-Humanism in the Present Moment draws on a different philosophical heritage to restore the human (and humanity) back to the centre of social change. Marxist-Humanism in the Present Moment is a collection of essays produced by members of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization (IMHO) founded on the ideas of Raya Dunayevskaya (also known as Freddie Forest), one half of the ‘Johnson-Forest’ tendency alongside CLR James (J.R Johnson) that pioneered the concept of ‘State Capitalism’ to describe the Soviet Union among other innovations. The collection articulates the ‘essence’ of the human as the capacity for ‘conscious, purposeful, collectively driven activity’ (19). As Karl Marx describes, humans cannot survive without a level of cooperation between themselves and what sets them apart from other animals is the ability to think abstract thoughts, to plan something theoretically and then act on it.

A Marxist-Humanist approach means that the self-activity of the masses is central. The collection brings this to light in a number of ways. Firstly, the struggle of the masses is described as creating democratic institutions that could form the basis of a future socialist society; for example, the mutual aid practiced within the Black Lives Matter movement contains the seeds of democratic community control. Marxists tend to sidestep the question of what socialism would look like, often citing Marx’s description of communism as ‘the real movement that abolishes the present state of things. Marx’s ideas arose partly in opposition to ‘Utopian Socialists’ such as Charles Fourier, Robert Owen and Henri De Saint-Simon who created grand schemes for a future society without having any idea of how to get there. However, Marx did discuss the shape of a future society, most notably in his Critique of the Gotha programme. Members of the IMHO intend to republish this work to help initiate a discussion on the type of society activists should be fighting for. Secondly, a Marxist-Humanist approach places emphasis on the importance of struggles against various forms of oppression. Most of the essays in the collection tackle issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia as central topics or as important aspect of other topics such as climate change. This approach goes back to the lineage of Raya Dunayevskaya who described the black population of America as the ‘vanguard’ of struggle and emphasised the importance of working with feminist groups, despite having theoretical differences with some. Thirdly, and related to the second point, the Marxist-Humanist approach is positioned in opposition to the formerly dominant positions of either class reductionism (Stalinism) or voluntarism (Maoism) on the Marxist left in the United States, as Kevin B. Anderson states (98). Class reductionism reduces agency to only those at the point of production and then further reduces their agency to issues of wages and conditions. As Rhaysa Ruas points out ‘classes only exist in concrete terms i.e., in a racialised and gendered way’ (53).

Rhaysa Ruas’s contribution, ‘Covid-19 and Resistance in Brazil: Life-Making, Memory, and Challenges in Seeding an Alternative Future’, is a highlight of the collection. Ruas focuses on the situation in Brazil during the outbreak of Covid-19. Bolsonaro famously denied the reality of the virus leading to inaction that caused the deaths of over 50 thousand people (as of 2020), the most effected being the black population of the favelas. Raus describes in a nuanced way the ‘resistance through solidarity for survival’ (43) activism of the youth of the favelas. A particularly important and largely neglected stance brought out by the article is the importance of combining demands for increased protection against the virus while maintaining opposition to increases in the repressive apparatus of the state which will be employed in a discriminatory way.

Heather A. Brown’s ‘Ecology and Life in the pandemic: Capital’s Treadmill of Growth and Destruction’, the author of Marx on Gender and the Family: A critical study, discusses the relative merits of recent thinking on climate change. The idea of the ‘Anthropocene’ whereby human interaction with the environment has had such an impact as to warrant a new defined era in environmental history is criticised for positing ‘abstract human beings outside of any particular mode of production’ (71). Jason Moore’s notion of a ‘Capitalocene’ is better received, although he is described as fusing together nature and culture, blurring two distinct concepts. Reforms such as the New Green Deal are described as positive in the short term, however, they do not challenge capitalism’s destructive drive from profit in total. Therefore, they will ultimately not provide the solutions we need to protect the planet and humanity’s survival. More could be said on how this analysis informs tactical debates within the various climate justice movements such as the Britain based Extinction Rebellion (XR).

Ndindi Kitonga’s ‘Battle of Ideas: Race, Class, Gender, and Revolution in Theory and Practice’ raises key debates with the Black Lives Matter and associated movements. Kitonga argues against the temptation to divide protesters into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ with the categories of ‘peaceful protesters’ being counterposed to ‘looters’. This division opens up a space in which the police can intervene in the movement for the protection of the ‘good’ protesters. Kitonga criticizes the attempted mainstream co-option of the movement and the practice of passively sharing videos of police brutality as an inadequate substitute for political practice. Against class reductionist Marxists, Kitonga points to the fact that black elites struggle against racism, the argument that is factually accurate but also contentious. Black elites do struggle against racism but as Frantz Fanon pointed out in relation to the national bourgeoise of colonialised countries, elites do not have an interest in overthrowing the capitalist system which reproduces racism for its survival. A movement against racism must defend all racialised people while maintaining political independence from pro-capitalist forces.

Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson both present perspectives on the conjecture as a whole, combining commentary on struggle with economic analysis and philosophical discussion.  In ‘The Seeds of Revolution Have Sprouted: What Is Now To Be Done?’, Hudis outlines the uprisings following the police murder of George Floyd as a battle between the forces of death and the forces of life or a battle against the domination of dead labour over living labour that characterises the central features of the capital system (21). Hudis describes the 50-year-old tradition of seeing the ‘Black Masses as the Vanguard’ in the US within the Marxist-Humanist tradition (25). The enemy defined as ‘Racialised Capitalism’ potentially echoes the concept of ‘racial capitalism’ as formulated by Cedric Robinson in Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, although Robinson’s critique of Marx as essentially a Eurocentric thinker does not combine easily with other Marxist-Humanist work’s, particularly the theoretical and political conclusions of Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins. Robinson sees Marx as tied to a Eurocentric version of social change in which the ‘Western’ proletariat are seen as the only revolutionary subject. Marx at the Margin’s describes Marx’s support for non-Western struggles for example the Taiping uprising in China, the research carried out on non-Western societies during the last ten years of his life, and, perhaps most importantly, his openness to a multilinear view of history as described in his letters (and drafts) to Vera Zasulich on the Russian Commune. Hudis’s analysis overcomes the crude counter-posing of class to ‘race’, drawing attention to the fact that the struggle against racism (and other forms of oppression) has ignited a ‘multiracial working-class movement’ (35).

Anderson’s contribution, ‘Battle of Ideas: Responding to the New World of Covid-19, Economic Crisis, and Anti-Racist Uprisings’, is as sweeping as the title suggests. Anderson raises the importance of maintaining opposition to the capitalist system in general, not just it’s ‘neoliberal’ variant. Anderson reiterates that Marx’s writings do contain discussions of the details of a post-capitalist future. Along with The Critique of the Gotha Programme mentioned above, Anderson highlights Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune (1871) whereby the state was replaced by an elected army and administration. Less well known is Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks (1880-82) in which ‘non-Western’ societies such as those of the indigenous people of Laguna Pueblo created elements of communism that could be a model for a future society. Similarly, Marx saw the Russian Peasant commune as a possible source of a future communist society in his introduction of the Russian translation of The Communist Manifesto (1882).

The crucial organisational question of how to combine theory and practice is raised by Anderson and is the theme of the last two contributions by Seamus Connolly and Jens Johansson. As the theoretical and practical inspiration for the IMHO, Dunayevskaya broke from the orthodox Trotskyism of the US Socialist Workers Party, developing a critique of the ‘vanguardism’ of the Leninist party. A vanguard is an advanced section of something else, in this case the masses or the working class. A more accurate term to describe a party that separates itself from living movements or declares itself as a leadership without earning the label can be described as ‘substitutionist’. Rejection of subtitutionism unites the various contributions on this question, the self-activity of the exploited and oppressed is consistently emphasised. Differences in interpretations of Leninism, the relationship between oppression and class and the relationship between local autonomy and central democracy within the organisation seem to be the main fault lines of the debate. Marxist-Humanism in the Present Moment has the theoretical strength to ask the right questions and the humility to say it does not have all the answers.


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