Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On "Humanist" Marxism

I propose that this term be permanently retired. It is more obfuscatory than clarificatory. It muddies the waters more than it points to any meaningful tendency or political trajectory. Let's leave this one in the dustbin of history.

For those who aren't familiar with the notion of "humanist Marxism" (or Marxist-humanism or whatever), here's a bit of background. The term is often associated with those who allegedly emphasize the "early Marx" (e.g. the 1844 Manuscripts, On the Jewish Question, The Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the State, etc.) at the expense of the "later Marx" of Capital. For some, the mere invocation of concepts from Marx's earlier writings, e.g. alienation or the quasi-Aristotelian idea of a "species being", is enough to mark one out as a "humanist". On the other hand, sometimes "humanist" Marxists are associated with an interpretation of Marx according to which Engels is a distorting influence to be cast out of the genuine Marxist tradition. Still further, there is a Polish Marxist movement that called itself "humanist" for slightly different reasons. Then there's a small sect of Marxists in the US who tack closely to the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya who call themselves "Marxist-Humanists". The imprecision with which the label is thrown around is reason enough to reject it.

The origins of the so-called "humanist" controversy really go back to the 1930s when many of Marx's early works (especially the 1844 Manuscripts) were discovered and published for the first time. Since these texts were quite obviously at odds with Stalinist orthodoxy, they were, from the very beginning, dismissed and criticized by Stalinist ideologues. As Lucio Colletti puts it in his excellent introduction to the penguin edition of the Early Writings, "the sheer rigidity of official doctrine, the rigor mortis which already gripped Marxism under Stalin, contributed in no small way to the cool reception with which the writings met with when they appeared, to the manner in which they were immediately classified and pigeon-holed."

In the 1960s and 1970s, French Marxist (and member of the Stalinist PCF) Louis Althusser ignited further controversy by penning a series of attacks on this so-called "humanism". Althusser himself defended a strange reinterpretation of Marxism grounded more in structuralist anthropology than the left-Hegelian of German philosophy. He therefore set himself against the tradition, captured and coined as such by Perry Anderson in the 1970s, of "Western Marxism" including such innovative Marxist thinkers as Gramsci, Lukacs and Korsch. One of Althusser's most contentious arguments against "humanists" involved an interpretive claim about the so-called "early" and "late" Marx. According to Althusser, there was a sharp "epistemological break" between the "early" and "late" Marx. Crudely put, the "early" Marx was still mired in the "humanist" muck of Hegelian thought, whereas the "later" Marx broke free by rejecting this "lingering bourgeois hangover" once and for all.

The meat of Althusser's argument was the following. In social theory and historiography, there is a tension between structural explanations and agential explanations. That is, it is often acknolwedged that there is a disanalogy between analyses that focus on system-level structural processes on the one hand, and, on the other, analyses that focus on the perspective of the participant in social practices, i.e. what it's like to be an agent from the inside. (In American sociology, the distinction is typically described as one between structure and agency. In the German tradition this is described in terms of the subject/object distinction, or, if you like, the distinction between the lifeworld and system). This distinction is one which Marxism (just like any other social theory) must navigate. Althusser's reductionist solution was to eliminate agency entirely. For Althusser, the "early" Marx made the mistake of leaving room for the perspective of the agent (i.e. the "subject" in Althusser's language) in his social theory. For Althusser, the perspective of social science is purely third-personal: the agent, as such, is produced by system-level processes that cannot be grasped from within the participant perspective. Thus, the innovation of the "late" Marx, according to Althusser, was that he completely rejected first-personal perspective of the participant in favor of an entirely impersonal (and, for the first time, genuinely scientific) structural perspective. Thus began the "humanist" controversy: Althusser and his followers declared themselves "anti-humanists" and railed against the "humanists" for talking seriously about actions, agency, and so forth, whereas the "humanists" criticized Althusserians for having an implausible social theory that left no space for genuine human agency whatsoever. That, in rough sketch, is the so-called humanist vs. anti-humanist distinction in the Marxist tradition.

As I said above, I think the whole distinction needs to go. It doesn't pick out anything meaningful- it only tracks a series of stipulative moves made by Althusser (and other Stalinists) in the 1960s. But Althusser's project was idiosyncratic and (in many respects) very un-Marxist, so I don't think it really makes sense to continue to use the term at all. What follows are three arguments in defense of this claim.

First, the idea of a "humanist" Marxism rests on a faulty binary between the "early" and "late" (i.e. the "immature" and "mature") Marx. I think this is basically a distinction that rests on a non-existent difference. The notion of an "epistemological break" in Marx's writings fits neatly with Althusser's overall project (as it does with the need to legitimate the mechanical, rigid Stalinist "version" of Marxism), but it has little grounding in Marx's writings. It is more a super-imposed import than a real feature of Marx's corpus. It's also worth noting that the two interpreters of Marx most influenced by this distinction (i.e. Althusser and G.A. Cohen) are famous for defending the most mechanistic versions of Marxism. (G.A. Cohen's Marxism, which places primacy on the forces of production as the source historical change, is rightly impugned as little more than "technological determinism").

Furthermore, Marx's "later" writings, just as much as his earlier works, draw heavily on Hegel. To say that Marx suddenly abandoned his Hegelian roots is preposterous. Lenin's claim that Hegel's Logic is necessary pre-reading for Capital is a bit of an exaggeration, but the basic idea is right: Marx must be read as a determinate negation of Hegel's thought. Moreover, the shifts in emphasis in Marx's writings (from more philosophical works, to historical analyses, to more political economy, etc.) track not sharp political turns in his work, but shifts in subject matter. You can't cover it all, all the time. It doesn't follow, for instance, from the fact that Marx never wrote a sustained theoretical treatise on, say, epistemology that it is irrelevant to Marxism. (The same is true of ethics and moral philosophy). The "early" vs. "late" distinction derives from the need to shield a mechanical distortion of Marxism (particularly Stalinism) from critique. The sooner it is abandoned the better.

Second, the idea of a "humanist" Marxism only makes sense on the assumption that there is a contrary, "anti-humanist" Marxism. But who is it that goes around calling themselves "anti-humanist" these days? Althusserians are (thankfully) an endangered species. To be sure, there are plenty of folks influenced by post-structuralism in the academy that would gladly claim the "anti-humanist" mantle for themselves, but they are beyond the pale of Marxism. So, if the contrary of "humanist" Marxism is so patently absurd (and irrelevant), what is the term picking out that is of use to contemporary Marxists? It seems to me that the genuine Marxist tradition has always set itself against the mechanical, deterministic distortions of Stalinism and aspects of the Althusserian project. So why not just speak of Marxism tout court, and reject the "humanist" modifier as a relic?

Third, and finally, it seems to me that the "humanist" label carries too much unnecessary baggage. It would be better to have particular views about the Marx/Engels relationship than to simply affix the label "humanist" to those who regard Engels as an ossifier rather than an innovator. It's also worth saying that simply rejecting the complete identification of Engels and Marx's thought doesn't commit one to the view that they should be completely disentangled. The debates are the complex relationship between Marx and Engels are important, and they aren't helped along by throwing around the "humanist" label. Moreover, the complex Hegel/Marx relationship is similarly maligned by the term. It can't turn out that anyone who talks about alienation, species functioning, dialectics, and so forth is therefore a "humanist". The structure/agency (or, if you like, the spontaneity/organization, or objective/subjective) problem in Marxism is a difficult one that requires a careful, dialectical treatment that does not admit of facile reductive moves. In my view, "humanism" is nothing more than a bogey put forward by those (e.g. Althusserians) who wish to reduce Marxism to an undialectical, purely third-personal functionalist theory in which human agency does not figure into the model. Let's abandon the term and get on to what matters.

Further reading: I highly recommend Alasdair MacIntyre's essay "Notes from the Moral Wilderness" on this topic. Read it here. Also, Perry Anderson's book In the Tracks of Historical Materialism does an excellent job of tracing how the "permanent oscillation" between structure and agency worked itself out in 20th Century Marxism. His view is that the lack of Marxist response to Althusser within the Francophone world primed the pumps for the rise of post-structuralism (which, like Althusser, tended to reject the notion of agency as such as a mere epiphenomenon).


Karl Franz Ochstradt said...

Don't worry. Your religion of Glossy Karlism is intact.

t said...

Wow thanks for your profound remark.

JM said...

Hey T, I dunno if this ties into the entry, but what do you make of ideas like that of J. Sakai as presented here:

t said...

I skimmed the interview provided- my quick (and thus, slightly unfair) assessment would be that the analysis is somewhat flawed on the following point. It simply isn't true that the white working class in the US is the same as the white Rhodesian settlers. That doesn't help us understand how US capitalism actually works, nor does it help us understand what a viable politics of black liberation in the US would look like. Is there racism in teh white working class? Of course there is. But that doesn't mean that we lump together the white ruling class in the US with the white working class as equal partners in the oppression of people of color. We need a more complicated picture to get things right. I don't think a few anecdotes about how railroad workers are racist is going to cut it. There are too many examples of the white working class doing the opposite. It's not automatic- racism has to be challenged, fought, and thoroughly rooted out of the labor movement. But this settler-colonial analysis of the white working class misses the mark.

JM said...

What about the claim that the AFL was against Civil Rights? I know that its international branch has helped overthrow Aristide, but it doesn't even mention civil rights here

I'm inclined to agree with your assessment though and wonder if J. Sakai would somehow end up siding with Walker in regards to Wisconsin laborers.

t said...

The AFL was always right-wing and conservative. This quite in line with the AFL's history in general. The CIO was formed, in part, because of the racism, conservatism and vile red-baiting that was central to the AFL.

And I don't think we should ever be surprised that there was (and still is) racism among members of the white working class. This isn't to say that every single white working class person is, no matter how hard they try, a die-hard racist to the core. That caricature (along with the assumption that all working class persons are men wearing hard hats, etc.) has little basis in fact. But there is plenty of homophobia, sexism, and racism in some ranks of the working class. And it is the job of socialists to agitate, educate and fight against these forms of oppression.