Why We Need Humanism after Post-Structuralism

Rainer Winter

Summary: A shorter version of this article was published as a review of For Humanism, ed. D. Alderson and R. Spencer, in Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, April 6, 2020, here https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviews/17912_for-humanism-explorations-in-theory-and-politics-by-david-alderson-and-robert-spencer-eds-reviewed-by-rainer-winter/ –Editors

The authors of “For Humanism. Explorations in Theory and Politics (Pluto Press, 2017), argue for a new consideration and the resumption of radical humanism in the present. From the 1940s to the 1960s, radical humanism was of great importance to those progressive intellectuals, who were guided by Marxism. It emphasized the social determinacy of the individual, while simultaneously underscoring his or her existential freedom. Its goal was to overcome capitalist society and to establish human relationships between humans, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, one of its most pivotal proponents, demanded in Humanism and Terror (1947). Both the existence of the individual and the structures of society, which engendered reification and alienation, were subjected to critical analysis and considered alterable. This form of humanism, a response to the horrors of war and the tyranny of Nazism and Stalinism, was radical and aimed at creating a humane society. However, since the 1960s, its relevance has increasingly waned. Younger intellectuals attacked it both in relation to Martin Heidegger’s criticism of humanism and with reference to a “scientific interpretation” of Marxian thought. It was Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, in particular, who went on to replace it with antihumanism in their highly influential structuralist and post-structuralist works. The “death of the subject” continues to exert a fascination on intellectuals even today, including those who seek to change society by democratic means. What is more, in recent years, posthumanism has established itself as a further new paradigm with a focus on matter, (digital) technologies, infrastructures and networks.

With this in mind, it is clear that the authors of the present volume have not set themselves an easy task. And yet, over the course of four programmatic studies they are able to demonstrate, by means of nuanced and plausible argumentation, that this form of radical humanism has undeservedly received scant attention in recent decades, though it is of particular relevance today in times of social crises. In contrast to antihumanism or posthumanism, radical humanism focuses on overcoming the existing capitalist society and establishing a society based on equality and cooperation. In her introductory contribution, Barbara Epstein discusses the significance of socialist humanism in the past and present with great subtlety. She begins by stating that this approach is based on the assumption that there is a human nature which is endowed with specific characteristics. People are reliant on social cooperation, they are capable of empathy and of rational thinking. They tend to strive for egalitarian relationships rather than for individual profit. In view of the growing social inequality and climate problems, Epstein believes that it is reasonable to ask what this political and intellectual tradition can contribute to solving these problems (23).

In a first step, she approaches socialist humanism as a political project. She cites Edward P. Thompson, who fundamentally criticized the dogmatism of the communist movement and postulated that a theory aligning itself to Marx must begin with the needs, thoughts and actions of real people (23). Thus, he went on to vehemently denounce the critique of humanism expressed by Althusser, who attached greater importance to history and structure than to the experience and actions of subjects supposedly trapped in the ideology. Instead, Thompson insisted on the capacity of subjects to collectively change society, despite their historical and social conditioning.

From the New Left in Great Britain, Epstein next turns to the most important representative of socialist humanism in the USA, namely Erich Fromm. In his view, human solidarity, love, and caring for others were basic human needs, which could only be fully developed in a decentralised socialist society based on participation. Epstein also discusses the work of Raya Dunayevskaya, C.L.R. James and the Praxis School in former Yugoslavia. In summing up, she notes that for Dunayevskaya, Fromm and Thompson in particular, their intellectual work was closely tied to building and supporting political movements. Subsequently, she provides an overview of the contributions of the most important theoreticians of socialist/Marxist humanism. Somewhat surprisingly, she first discusses Georg Lukács, who would not have placed himself in this category (34ff.). He saw himself as a Hegel-trained interpreter of the oeuvre of Karl Marx. It is Epstein’s claim, however, that his analyses, critical of capitalism as they were, laid the foundation for the blueprint of a society in which alienation had been vanquished. She then turns her attention to Merleau-Ponty, who was influenced by Lukács, among others (38ff.). He aspired to an egalitarian and non-violent society in which people treated each other as ends rather than means. In contrast to deterministic conceptions of Marxism, he emphasized the creative force of the subject, even if it is limited, and the openness of history.

Epstein then analyzes why socialist humanism was increasingly disregarded in the late 1960s and 1970s (54ff.). Vietnam meant that the criticism of US imperialism moved to the centre of the radical left. Many also expressed enthusiasm for Maoism. The orientation towards common social needs and cooperation became less and less interesting for the politically militant movements, as they increasingly focused on the concept of difference, in line with their orientation towards the liberation struggles of the Third World.

For the New Left, Antonio Gramsci’s approach also grew in significance. Gramsci explored how cultural means are used to battle for social domination during times when a revolution is not possible. Increasingly, however, the most intense interest was directed towards Althusser, who was also influenced by Mao and who categorically rejected the humanism of Marx and the issue of alienation. Epstein highlights the importance of the “Gauche Prolétarienne”, a Maoist organisation in the wider sphere of which Sartre, Foucault, Badiou and numerous intellectuals were active (59). Then, in the 1980s, poststructuralism prevailed, with Foucault as its most important proponent. Resistance became a central concept in his approach, though this did not mean that he envisaged a profound social change in society.

In view of growing global inequalities, the ever-widening gap between the rich and powerful and the rest of the population, the time is now ripe, according to Epstein, to resume the project of radical humanism (63ff.). She asserts that, while a politics of resistance relies on spontaneous protest, it is radical humanism that aptly poses the question about which society we actually want to live in and how this future shape might be prefigured in the present by politics and forms of life. In his historically systematic contribution, Kevin Anderson picks up the thread at this point, exploring the question about what significance socialist humanism can have today. He starts by examining the reasons for and consequences of the rejection of radical humanism in French left-wing thinking that first began in the 1960s. Pierre Bourdieu, in particular, fiercely attacked Sartre’s concept of freedom, referring to Durkheim’s objective constraints of social conditions, which he saw expressed in collective behaviour (69ff.). Nonetheless, Bourdieu conceded that subjects were endowed with forms of agency. In contrast, Althusser considered subjectivity to be a wholly ideological illusion and did not believe in the transformative possibilities of critique, resistance and revolt by individuals (74ff.). Anderson is highly critical of Althusser’s theory of ideological state apparatuses, because he deems it too abstract. In his view, it lacks historical and social anchoring. Althusser considered both Hegelianism and humanism to be bourgeois-reactionary schools of thought and he defined antihumanism as the quintessence of Marx’s thinking. His student Foucault later went on to combine antihumanism with anti-Marxism.

In his genealogical analyses of the emergence of the institutions of modern society, Foucault revealed how subjects are constituted through power relations. Anderson points out that, for Foucault, power permeates all relations, while the logic of capital takes on a similar function for Marx (81). However, Foucault argued that there were points of resistance everywhere. Yet this resistance only threatens the power from within. Anderson critically notes that Foucault does not offer a concept of emancipation that aims at a transformation of capitalist relations. He also rightly criticizes Foucault’s naive support for the fundamentalist Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, attributing it to the latter’s excessive criticism of Western institutions, which turned him into a follower of the revolt of the “popular classes against the repressive state apparatuses”. But Foucault failed to notice that Khomeini’s followers were organized much like a Leninist cadre party and that they were establishing a reactionary, antihumanist regime.

Anderson concludes that the success of the structuralist and poststructuralist approaches was a symptom of the left’s defeat after the 1960s (87). Since the 1990s, however, new forms of democratic resistance against neoliberal capitalism have emerged, from the revolt in Chiapas and the protests in Seattle in 1999 to Occupy and beyond. Anderson believes that these justify a renewed preoccupation with socialist humanism, which seeks alternatives to the existing conditions. Following Lucien Goldmann, who argued that Hegel’s philosophy becomes especially important in times of revolt and revolution, Anderson believes: “ (…) we may be on the eve of a revival of radical humanism at a time when the hopes and aspirations of a new generation are being articulated in a way that brooks no compromise with an utterly dehumanised global capitalist system (…)” (89).

Next, Anderson presents approaches of radical humanism, which he regards to be of great relevance against this background. Like Epstein, he refers to Erich Fromm, who interpreted Marx in a humanist way in the 1950s and emphasized his emancipatory perspective (90ff). It is not enough, Anderson claims, to focus on resistance to power, but rather one must link it to the vision of a new society. Fromm took the view that the possibility existed, limited though it may be, within the very structures of capitalist society, to change these same structures.

Furthermore, Anderson mentions Karel Kosík’s critical analysis of the pseudo-concreteness of capitalism, thus citing a scholar who, like Fromm, believed that human practice combined with a philosophy of liberation could alter prevailing social conditions. He discusses Frantz Fanon’s new humanism of the African liberation, which aspired to a universal humanism based on solidarity. Finally, he pays tribute to Raya Dunayevskaya’s approach, which also traces its origins to Hegel and Marx. She showed that not only Marx the young man, but also Marx the author of Capital, was a humanist. Using the example of increasingly automated production in the 1950s, which was accompanied by violent revolts and strikes, she postulated that capitalist crises could only be solved by a new humanism (106). Anderson comes to the conclusion that activists and philosophers who oppose global capitalism should turn back to radical humanism, because it strives for a new, emancipated society.

In his chapter, Robert Spencer shows how relevant this approach can also be when it comes to understanding the postcolonial world in global capitalism. Admittedly, dominant postcolonial theory is characterized by antihumanism as represented by Althusser and Foucault. It assumes that the forms of human experiences and practices are always contingent and provisional (121). Humanism itself is considered an imperialist ideology.

Finding fault with the works of Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak, Spencer criticizes their near-exclusive focus on texts and theories. It is his view that they do not take adequate account of the imperialist and capitalist worlds in which they circulate (124). As a result, postcolonial theory loses its power to understand and overcome the existing global system of social inequality. Hence, Spencer calls for a return to Marxist humanism.

Along with Fromm, Thompson, Raymond Williams and others, he also mentions Herbert Marcuse, who advocated the “liberation of subjectivity” and Sartre’s insight that existence precedes essence. This means, as Spencer points out, that even the subjugated and dispossessed potentially have the ability to create themselves. His argument opens up an important perspective on liberation that is not present in the postcolonial studies which are primarily concerned with difference and hybridity (134). In the case of Sartre, on the other hand, it is possible to discern that his commitment to decolonization was anchored in the humanist principle of liberty.

According to Spencer, Edward Said was also a staunch advocate of humanism (140ff.). He criticized Foucault for underestimating the transformative possibilities of political struggle against the effects of discursive power and against the economic and political system of which they are an expression. Said, for his part, was concerned with actively transforming power relations in the post-colonial context. Spencer observes that Said was influenced by the humanism of literary criticism (R.P. Blackmur, Richard Poirier, Lionel Trilling) and philology (Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer) (149). Here, self-criticism and self-knowledge coalesce with a morally grounded cosmopolitanism. In closing, Spencer reiterates his view that democratic humanism, as coined by Said, cannot be regarded as synonymous with the form of humanism that postcolonialism rightly labels imperialist.

In his contribution, David Alderson turns to queer theory. Judith Butler, its most important proponent, also conceives of herself as an antihumanist. Like Foucault, she assumes that power has a subjectivizing effect. In her opinion, politically progressive action seeks to initiate processes of desubjectivization (165). Butler’s political interventions are directed, above all, against normative restrictions that prevent processes of recognition and acceptance. They lead to a resignification of standards and are imbued with an ethical character.

But Butler’s work, Alderson observes, also seems to lack any vision of the overcoming of liberal capitalism. To him, this is apparent in her discussion of Laclau and Zizek (168ff.). According to Butler, gender emerges as an instance of power that is productive, based on imitation and repetition, and independent of the intentions of the individual (187). Nevertheless, there are opportunities for agency that are based on the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent to the social realm. Alderson contrasts Butler’s position with that of Toril Moi, who refers to Simone de Beauvoir (190). Unlike Butler, he claims, the latter does not relinquish the viewpoint of the subjective perspective of the actors and of their creative power. Rather, a woman defines herself by what she makes of what the world has made of her.

After discussing various other positions of queer theory, Alderson suggests leaving the limitations of identity politics behind and striving for a universalizing politics that devotes itself to all who are exposed to social suffering. He identifies socialist humanism as a project that can help to overcome differences and strive for an egalitarian society.

“For Humanism” represents a powerful and convincing plea for a renewed examination of radical humanism. The individual chapters of the book illustrate why this philosophical and political tradition has been wrongfully neglected. Adorno was of the opinion that we are living in the era of late capitalism. The climate catastrophes that we have to expect underline the fact that the present form of capitalism, which destroys nature for profit, cannot endure much longer. Radical humanism invites us to think about the possibilities for self-transformation that capitalism holds, to consider what shape a social alternative might take, and how we might go about making it happen. In this endeavour, important power-critical aspects of poststructuralism, such as its contribution to an understanding of the constitution of subjectivity, must not be forgotten. They should, instead, be integrated into a social analysis that seeks to critically review and transform the existing order.


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