Tuesday, 15 March 2022

Paul Mason Vs Anti-Humanism

In his Ukraine: Outline of a Marxist Position, Paul Mason discusses how parts of the left have "disgraced themselves" by shilling for Putin's invasion. These are overwhelmingly Stalinists, and their support stems from a nostalgic identification of Putin's oligarchy with the Soviet state of old, but there's more than a reliving of previous glories going on. It speaks of "a way of thinking". This mindset doesn't just belong to those who would prefer to dwell in the past. It also includes "20 year old leftists who’ve drunk the kool aid of anti-humanism from Althusser and Foucault."

Excuse me, what? He continues,

"Once you can accept that ‘humanity is a social construct’ and that ‘history is a process without a subject’, you can look at the 1,500 dead civilians in Mariupol and categorise them as ‘neo-nazis’". Now there's a spicy take if there ever was one.

Having knocked around the left for a while, I haven't got a clue what he's writing about. Trotskyism and Trotskyists, still the dominant trend on the revolutionary left in this country, are hardly known for incorporating recent developments in philosophy and social theory into what passes for their Marxism. For these people even Gramsci is largely beyond the pale. Stalinism cares even less, locked in its own cycle of anti-imperialist/imperialist goodies and baddies. Where Foucault and Althusser have made a splash in activist circles are very much outside these traditions, with the former finding a welcome reception among anarchists. I'm not au fait with that scene, but as a rule anarchism doesn't go out of its way to excuse tyrants and rival states.

What's his beef? Responding to criticism, Paul says his attack on anti-humanism is elaborated in his Clear Bright Future. I haven't read his book, but on the basis of this and previous comments about postmodernism it appears his definition of anti-humanism differs from its usage in theoretical debates. To cut a long story short, anti-humanism does not mean anti-human. Paul's scary framing of 'history is a process without a subject' is nonsensical. All it means is the starting point for analysis, in Marxism for instance, is class and social relations. Take Marx's Capital as an example. Marx begins with the commodity, and from there considers exchange, capital, surplus value, the division of labour, and so on. We don't start off from human beings endowed by providence with certain attributes, but from how the system we collectively produce moves. This is the point Althusser elaborated in For Marx and Reading Capital, and is so obvious that it should be uncontroversial. Indeed, it is where the bulk of contemporary radical social theory and philosophy now rests, though it tends to badge itself post-humanist as a way of indicating how these debates have been settled and superseded.

What informs Paul's violent rejection of the term is his collapse of anti-humanism into anti-human, as if taking an accurate view of how social processes work erases the special, precious quality of what it is to be human. This is complete bunkum. Anti-humanist theory is rooted in socialist, feminist, anti-racist and queer challenges to how philosophy has condensed, prettified, and abstracted the experience of dominant elites and rendered them in theoretical terms. Their theory constructs a man out of abstract properties that happen to align with bourgeois values, outlooks, and ontology. They might have been radical and revolutionary in the 18th century, but by the late 19th century they obscured and distorted perceptions of the world. The human of anti-humanism is entirely different. It is a creature of history, not of philosophical schematics. Its conception of justice is derived from millennia of being on the receiving end of exploitation, its legitimacy derived from the theoretical working out of the excluded and othered. Its pain is real, concrete suffering. Anti-humanism is the eruption of the wretched of the earth into philosophy, what Althusser rightly stylised as the class struggle in theory. There is nothing more familiar, more human than the anti-human. We are many, they are few, and unsurprisingly they find our theory, our attempts to sketch out an understanding of the world both challenging and frightening.

Celebrated historian EP Thompson made exactly the same arguments against Althusser in his 1978 polemical essay, The Poverty of Theory, as Paul does today. According to Thompson, anti-humanism opened the door to totalitarian thinking, implying there are direct links between the deliberations of the Althusserian school and the Khmer Rouge's killing fields. Replying directly in the 1981 edition of Issues in Marxist Philosophy, Andrew Collier turned Thompson's absurdity on its head. The Cambodian genocide was directed at people who did not fit the Khmer Rouge's ideal of 'socialist man'. Hence the cities were emptied and the populace was forced into the fields to learn the virtues of hard work, of correcting, rebuilding and reshaping 'man' through the "improving" qualities of labour. If millions died, that's too bad. If this doesn't sound like a descendent of humanist ideas, I don't know what does. In Cambodia, there was nothing more anti-human than Pol Pot's image of the human. It's also an irony that Thompson's monumental The Making of the English Working Class is at cross purposes to the philosophical standpoint he ventured to defend. In its pages we find brought to life the daily lives and the struggles of our ancestors, and it's all the more believable and relatable because he treats them as historically constituted beings. Thompson was spontaneously, unconsciously anti-humanist and his work is all the better for it.

Fast forward to Ukraine today. The Stalinists and their fellow travellers hail Putin partly because Ukrainians don't live up to the standards of decent human beings. They're Nazis, they're anti-communist, they're corrupt, they want to jump into bed with NATO. The Putinist propaganda they regurgitate is determined to render the victims of state terror less than human, as acceptable victims, as a people who were asking for it. Their anti-humanitarianism ultimately rests on humanist claims. But at the same time, this is not the motivation behind the invasion but the logic used to justify it.

Professing one's commitment to philosophical humanism is no guarantee of rightness or, as we have seen, political rectitude. It distorts and weakens theory, and makes it less useful for understanding the world and thinking about what we need to do. I'll always have a lot of time for Paul Mason, but his embrace of what is a fundamental weakness means his politics are forever hobbled - until he engages with what anti-humanism actually is.

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Anonymous said...

All very interesting and novel to me. I thought the 'Stalinist' disregard of the impact on individuals was due to their inherent materialism, which considered people just meat for the grinder.

Personally, I think that if you look back, you can see many behaviours across history that speak of common motivations if not interpretations. The turn of Sparticus's liberated slaves away from freedom and toward further conflict being one.

Deep down, for all their cultural and historical differences, the human animal has never changed - which is why the disregard for its suffering en masse - be it in Ukraine or Iraq - is against nature.

Braingrass said...

I think Paul Mason doesn't understand what systems thinking is, of which Marx and Foucault are examples. However, I think you give him too much credit for his integrity. I think this is just a bit of left bashing, which in form at least, is no different than the antisemitism crisis. I doubted the integrity of that as well. This so called pro-Putin left must be vanishingly small, of little or no consequence, and pales in comparison to Putin's oligarch's actual funding of right wing organisations, including the Tory party.

Phil said...

I was talking to someone the other day about the relative thinness of E.P. Thompson's "socialist humanism", so I ought to be persuaded by this. Can't say I am, though. Your thumb is on the scale to an absurd degree: you not only associate "anti-humanism" with the materialist method, but load it up with the entirety of class-struggle and intersectional politics, making it basically impossible to be on the Left and not to be anti-humanist. On the other hand, you describe the KR's programme of class struggle through genocide as quintessentially humanist - without having said anything substantive about what humanism is, other than that it was made in the image of the ascendant bourgeoisie (and hence something something Pol Pot?). And you dismiss Thompson as a confused old duffer whose historical work was at cross-purposes with his professed theoretical stance, without taking any account of the debates on the Left - and among Left historians - in which Thompson was involved and in which that theoretical stance was rooted. Take Whigs and Hunters, written to a significant extent against Albion's Fatal Tree, and against Douglas Hay's version of Marxist historiography in particular.

Paul Mason's still an idiot, mind you.

Ken said...

For most people in the UK and probably in the US too, 'humanism' means atheism with an ethical commitment, so calling your theory 'anti-humanist' seems to be asking to be misunderstood. Most self-professed humanists have no grand notion that Man is the Subject of History, and nothing in humanism as commonly understood requires it.

Phil said...

Yes, this is true. Which is why the preferred term these days is post humanist. However, Paul Mason and EP Thompson before him fully know/knew well what anti-humanism meant in Althusser's writings and, in Mason's case, know exactly what Foucault is critiquing in his Order of Things. But persist and persisted in muddying the waters anyway.

Blissex said...

«propaganda they regurgitate is determined to render the victims of state terror less than human, as acceptable victims, as a people who were asking for it»

“Donbass Terrorist Provocations Continue”

“Zelensky extends sanctions against Donbas terrorists”

“Terrorist-held Donbas turns into ISIS weapon workshop”

“Ukrainian courts refer to Article 1 of the law “On combating terrorism” classifying both “LNR” and “DNR” as terrorist organizations.”

Accordingly they had it coming:

“3,393 civilians killed (349 in 2016–2021)
13,100–13,300 killed; 29,500–33,500 wounded overall
414,798 Ukrainians internally displaced; 925,500 fled abroad”

Anonymous said...

"Trotskyism, still the dominant trend on the revolutionary left in this country, are hardly known for incorporating recent developments in philosophy and social theory into what passes for their Marxism"

Still dominant but shrinking. All the Trot groups are about half the size they were in their 1980s/90s heyday. Even the Socialist Worker published a long screed against Stalinism recently as it was shocked by the apparent growth of the YCL. The SWP's flagship Marxism festival was a packed week long event at ULU 30 years ago. Now it seems to be a 3 day online thing.