Why we need Marxist-Humanism now by Robert Spencer

Today, anti-humanism is a dominant, even definitive, feature of contemporary theory, whereas humanism is dismissed as ‘bourgeois’ and ‘old-fashioned’, even a precept of Right-Libertarianism. For Humanism demands a reappraisal of humanist humanism2thought, establishing the historical context that resulted in humanism’s eclipse, critiquing anti-humanism, and conceptualising humanism in light of post-structuralism, queer theory, feminism and postcolonialism.

Whilst narrativising his humanist awakening,  editor and contributor, Robert Spencer, encapsulates the aims of For Humanism. He defends humanism against its outright rejection by certain strands of anti-foundationalist thought (namely postcolonialism and queer theory), and, in rebuking anti-humanism’s chief proponents, Foucault and Heidegger, proposes a humanist methodology of resistance, whilst demonstrating that Marxism has a place in humanist thought.


When I first went to university to study English Literature I was interested to discover that words didn’t always mean what I thought they meant. It was a useful lesson, not least because among the many benefits of a literary education is the realisation that language, the main means by which humans encounter, experience and shape their world, is changeable as well as contestable. There are struggles taking place all the time over the meanings and uses of words. There were words that I liked that I learned to be suspicious of. In conversations with Marxists, I learned that it was not a good thing to be an ‘idealist’, the word did not mean what it appeared to mean to the eighteen-year old me. As I discovered that struggles over social, economic and political power played an equally prominent part in human history as the battle of ideas did, I realised that an idealist, was somebody who exaggerated the latter and downplayed the former. I was happy to accept that claim and I still am. However, I had much greater difficulty when one of my seminar tutors responded to a comment I made in class about David Copperfield with the disapproving remark that “that, Rob, was a very humanist thing to say”.

Puzzled by her disapproval, my interest in humanism began. This ongoing struggle over humanism’s meanings resulted in For Humanism, the book that my friend David Alderson and I have put together. To be a humanist or, still worse, a liberal humanist was evidently a bad thing; the belief in the distinctive value of the human individual was irretrievably bourgeois, akin to the Right’s belief in the inviolable private self. Now I had little truck with this objection. Anybody who has spent time in the company of Trotskyists will have seen the force of Oscar Wilde’s famous remark that the problem of socialism is that it takes up too many evenings, and for me the point of socialism was not to sacrifice the self to the collective but to fashion a society in which everybody had the time and the resources required to do their own thing. Collective struggle was required in the short term, granted, but only in order to make collective struggle unnecessary in the long term.

To be fair to the folk in SWSS, a few of them, it seemed, were quite happy to describe themselves as humanist, thus I was introduced to a bone of contention on the Left that has interested me ever since. I wanted to know how to be a Marxist and a humanist. The anti-humanist Marxists thought that humanism was bourgeois. Humanists preferred privacy to the collective, the individual to the working class, beauty to struggle, and so on. Anti-humanist Marxists distrusted humanism because it extolled the whole rights-based ideology of capitalism and therefore had a whiff of revisionism and political compromise about it. The Marxists I hung about with saw themselves as revolutionaries not as conciliators or coalitionists; one of them confessed to me that he had suspicions about a comrade who, he suspected, would have moral reservations about stringing somebody up from a lamppost! Not a predicament – I reflected to myself in a pub just off Norwich’s Dereham Road – any of us were likely to face any time soon.

Lenin notoriously told Maxim Gorky that he daren’t listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata too often because it ‘makes you want to say stupid nice things and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty… And now you mustn’t stroke anyone’s head – you might get your hand bitten off. You have to hit them on the head, without mercy.’ I haven’t hit anybody on the head since I was about ten years old, and I’ve always had a suspicion about insurrectionary rhetoric of this kind. For me, the socialist revolution should not, in societies like ours at least, be an insurrection, but the concerted entrenchment and expansion of forms of democratic empowerment that will confront and supplant the overweening regime of capital and authoritarian state power. Let’s call that a ‘long revolution’, to borrow Raymond Williams’s term, provided that as much emphasis is placed on ‘revolution’ as on ‘long’, as Williams once added.

David Alderson and I, in For Humanism, wanted to remind readers of the value and strength of a specifically Marxist humanism that sees its’ social, political and economic goals as extensions and not blanket rejections of the liberal or bourgeois tradition of democracy, rights and freedoms. In other words, Marxism is a humanism. Granted, talk about democracy, rights and freedoms is usually employed as an ideological smokescreen to conceal the oppressions and exploitations of rapaciously capitalist dispensations such as ours. Most of us are free every five years or so to put a cross on a ballot paper, but the rest of the time our representatives take their orders from big business. Every human being on the planet has an inalienable right to things like a decent pension and free healthcare, but the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is hardly worth the paper it’s written on. When these rights confront the right of capital to travel, suborn and exploit, force decides. But, as Adorno says somewhere, it’s not ideology that’s at fault here, but rather ideology’s pretension to correspond to reality. The ideals of freedom, democracy and rights are not wrong. What is wrong is the naïve liberal faith that they can be realized under present conditions.

We wanted to think about the reasons why anti-humanism had become such a dominant, even definitive, feature of cultural theory. What has made those who teach literary criticism and cultural theory grimace or recoil when they thought somebody was doing or saying something humanist? The answer is that they have relied on humanism’s enemies to tell them what the term means. The humanist tradition, with all its richness and complexity, its secularity, its commitment to democratic socialism, feminism and anti-imperialist struggle, its restlessly critical sensibility, its militant repudiation of every political and philosophical effort to define or control human beings, was simply written off on the basis of hatchet jobs done by dubious figures like Martin Heidegger and self-serving half-truths peddled by Michel Foucault.

In his lamentable ‘Letter on Humanism’ of 1947 Heidegger dismissed the human as just the latest impertinent effort to harass or constrain ‘Being’, the mystical invocation of ‘Being’ leading Heidegger’s work variously to Zennish otherworldliness, reactionary anti-modernism or the blood-and-soil mysticism of German fascism. Foucault, who was politically a very changeable figure, dismissed humanism as an antiquated and reactionary faith in the inviolable human subject. Humanism’s most influential post-war exponent, Jean-Paul Sartre, was described by Foucault as ‘a man of the nineteenth century trying to think through the problems of the twentieth century’. Foucault was similarly dismissive (and wrong) about Herbert Marcuse’. Undeterred by the fact that none of Sartre’s work makes any such claim about human subjectivity being static or exceptional or normative (indeed, it painstakingly makes the opposite claim), Foucault and his epigones presented all humanism as a sterile faith in the normative nature of subjectivity.

It’s my view that Foucault’s critique of humanism has been most influential and most damaging. For cultural theorists inspired by Foucault’s work, which is a large proportion of those working in the sub-disciplines of postcolonial theory, queer theory, feminism, ‘the human’ is just another reprehensible norm to be queered and subverted. For postcolonialists, for example, ‘the human’ is synonymous with European colonial power and its legacies. The aim of postcolonial criticism is then to ‘resist’ that power and to show how texts ‘hybridise’ the normative identities of nation, empire, sexuality, race, subjectivity and so on. The problem with this way of proceeding is that cultural theory and cultural criticism are thus locked into a repetitive pas-de-deux, the power of the human or of race becoming a formative principle that we are called upon to resist but not finally to overthrow. ‘Wherever there is power there is resistance’, says Foucault, which sounds comforting enough until one realizes that this little maxim works the other way too: where there is resistance there is power and always will be. It has always struck me that the notion of hybridizing identity or subverting the normal isn’t analogous with the purpose of the radical project: to become the dominant in its own right, take power and seek the political, cultural and institutional change that would make it impossible for prescriptive identities and norms to be imposed. The ubiquitous Foucauldian rhetoric of resistance is too imprecise. It says nothing about strategy and goals. It connotes the fending off of an adversary not the triumph over that adversary. Anti-humanism rose to prominence in the era of the ‘class war conservatism’ of neoliberalism. It represents a parasitic dependency on a system of ‘power’ that it despairs of being overturned. Anti-humanism is a pragmatic adjustment to a period of history that saw the organized forgetting of the revolutionary horizons of the Marxist or socialist humanism that we wish to rehabilitate.

So the purpose of our book was to show that the Marxist humanist tradition shows a way out of these dead ends. Humanism names a principle, the rights and capacities of human beings, that is being suppressed by systems of power and in the name of which transformative (rather than merely local or defensive) political projects might be launched. Humanism’s detractors have misrepresented it. It does indeed identify specifically human attributes and needs: for shelter, nourishment and any number of other physical provisions and for creative self-expression. But it does not identify the human as a ‘kingdom of values’, to use Sartre’s phrase, separate from or superior to the animal world and to nature. It does not impugn but esteems diversity, the infinitely varied creative capacities of human communities and individuals. It rejects the self-defeating notion that some sort of ‘will to power’ is an inviolable element of our political life. Its political principles are anchored in the vision of a society that conforms more exactly to the kind of beings that humans unalterably are: multifarious, creative, somatic creatures that feel pain and seek pleasure, dependent mammals capable of transforming that fact of mutual dependency into the value of solidarity. For Humanism ransacks the resources of a half-forgotten tradition. But it has no sterile reverence for the past, for bourgeois or colonial or patriarchal humanisms. Nor is it satisfied with cultural theory’s pragmatic rapprochement with the neoliberal present. It seeks a radically different kind of future. The plutocrats, mobsters and little Hitlers don’t scare us. We’re not here to ‘resist’ them, to organise in the margins or absorb power’s blows. We know what we’re fighting for.


For Humanism: Explorations in Theory and Politics is edited by David Alderson, Robert Spencer.

It includes essays by the editors, in addition to, Timothy BrennanKevin Anderson and Barbara Epstein.

Pluto author Stephen Shapiro on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thinking Allowed’ programme

thinking allowedStephen Shapiro, Professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick, and author of How to Read Marx’s Capital (Pluto, 2008) and How to Read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (Pluto, 2011) has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed this week.

Laurie Taylor presented a special programme on the life and work of the iconoclastic French philosopher and theorist, Michel Foucalt. He was joined by Professor Shapiro, Professor Vikki Bell and Professor Lois McNay.

To find out more about the programme and its contributors, click here. The audio of the Programme is also available here.

Schwan T02032

“This is a useful and illuminating companion to Foucault’s book, and will clarify much that remains puzzling about this proteiform thinker, dispelling misunderstandings and sending the reader on new and more fruitful paths” – Fredric Jameson, William A. Lane Jr. Professor of Comparative Literature at Duke University
“[A] highly readable guide to one of Foucault’s best-known but often misinterpreted works. … This book will be of great assistance to students and others looking for a clear introduction to Discipline and Punish and for pointers on its theoretical contexts.” – Clare O’Farrell, author of Michel Foucault (2005) and founding editor of Foucault Studies
“An excellent aid to Foucault’s classic text.” – Professor Keith Ansell-Pearson, Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick

John Holloway’s reading list for the virtual Occupy library

The London Occupy library

In the third instalment of ‘A Reading List for #Occupy’ on the Through Europe blog, John Holloway, author of Crack Capitalism and Change the World Without Changing Power chooses his favourite radical books:


Lawyer, Marxist-oriented sociologist and philosopher, whose work is closely associated with the Zapatista movement in Mexico, his home since 1991. Teacher at the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Autonomous University of Puebla.

Marx, Karl (1867) – Capital

It remains the most radical critique of capitalism, and an essential starting point for understanding the debates around capitalist development and the possibility of radical change. It’s best to read it collectively.

Bloch, Ernst (1947) – The Principle of Hope

This is where I started and it remains a constant point of reference. A wonderful book that takes us into all aspects of life and shows them to be a pushing towards that which is Not Yet.

Piercy, Marge (1976) – Woman on the Edge of Time

A novel of hope and fear that takes the notion of communism (or whatever we want to call it) into new dimensions.

Vaneigem, Raoul (1967) – The Revolution of Everyday Life

For me the best of Situationism. Revolutionary thought at its anti-dogmatic and exciting best.

Adorno, Theodor W. (1966) – Negative Dialectics

Fiercely difficult, and well worth the effort. The critique of identity shakes the world.

Tronti, Mario (1964) – Lenin in England

An article that turns traditional Marxism upside down and lays the basis for autonomist/ operaista thought.

Many other contributors to the series have selected books by Marx and Foucault, and Pluto has a number of great books ideal as an introduction to their ideas (see below). We were also pleased to see The Assault on Universities: a Manifesto of Resistance picked by Nina Power who described it as, “an excellent overview of the reasons why so many took to the streets, the extent of government cuts and how the struggle may continue in the UK and elsewhere.”

Visit Through Europe to read all the selections.

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Standing in the way of control – New books from Pluto in July

We are excited to announce the publication this month of our guide to one of the great theoretical and historical books of the twentieth century. Anne Schwan and Stephen Shapiro take us through Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and along the way challenge a number of common misconceptions about the book and Foucault’s theories more generally. One such misconception is Foucault’s supposed opposition to Marx. Schwan and Shapiro write, “Marx is one of the most favourably cited authorities in Discipline and Punish, and Foucault implicitly and explicitly draws on Marx’s arguments in Capital to help explain the logic of historical change.”

Foucault’s writings are vital for anyone who wants to understand how power operates. As Foucault put it in his famous debate with Noam Chomsky in 1971:

The real political task in a society such as ours, is to criticise the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticise and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.

You can watch an extract from the debate here:

Pluto’s other titles this month provide new insights, challenge common assumptions and unearth hidden histories. In the Political Economy of NGOs Jude L. Fernando punctures the saintly aura surrounding NGOs through a critical account of their alliance with capitalism and the state in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Saadia Toor’s The State of Islam rescues Pakistan from its designation as simply a ‘hotbed of extremism’. She reveals the importance of liberal and left movements to the country’s history and how such forces can emerge again today. In In Foreign Fields Thomas F. Carter provides a fascinating ethnographic study, based on twelve years of research in three continents, into the lives of sporting professionals. Whilst the media focus on millionaire sport celebrities, Carter looks at the challenges faced by ‘transnational sport migrants’ – the majority of sporting men and women who toil far away from the limelight.

How to Read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish

Anne Schwan and Stephen Shapiro

An accessible step-by-step introduction to Foucault’s hugely influential text. Part of the ‘How to Read Theory’ series.

“This is a useful and illuminating companion to Foucault’s book, and will clarify much that remains puzzling about this proteiform thinker, dispelling misunderstandings and sending the reader on new and more fruitful paths” – Fredric Jameson, William A. Lane Jr. Professor of Comparative Literature at Duke University

“[A] highly readable guide to one of Foucault’s best-known but often misinterpreted works. … This book will be of great assistance to students and others looking for a clear introduction to Discipline and Punish and for pointers on its theoretical contexts.” – Clare O’Farrell, author of Michel Foucault (2005) and founding editor of Foucault Studies

£12.99 only £11.50 on the Pluto site

The Political Economy of NGOs

State Formation in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh

Jude L. Fernando

Explores the relationship between NGOs and capitalism, showing that supposedly progressive NGOs often promote the same policies as governments.

“At last, we have a theoretically-informed and historically grounded account of one of the defining features of the contemporary world – the rise of non-governmental organisations. This book is a much-needed political economy of NGOs and development in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka that perfectly combines conceptual sophistication with careful empirical analysis, anchoring its understanding of NGOs firmly to the forces of capitalist development and the neo-liberal restructuring of the state.” – David Lewis, Professor of Social Policy and Development, London School of Economics & Political Science

“Jude Fernando’s notable achievement here is to push us to be a lot more nuanced when we join in the intense debate about the value of non-governmental organizations. His grittily detailed and sophisticated comparison of myriad NGOs in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka makes us all smarter as we try to figure out under exactly what conditions NGO activities undermine or contribute to genuine democratization anywhere. This is a fine and timely book.” – Cynthia Enloe, author of Nimo’s War, Emma’s War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War

£19.99 only £17.50 on the Pluto site

The State of Islam

Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan

Saadia Toor

Studies Pakistan through the lens of the Cold War and the War on Terror and sheds light on the processes behind the rise of militant Islam.

“”A deeply informed study of Pakistan’s unfinished journey, marked by the historical suppression of its vibrant Left, Toor’s book is part of the current re-emergence of a foundation for progressive politics in Pakistan. … Read it, argue over it, and be part of the journey to renew Pakistan.”
– Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations, and (co-editor), Dispatches from Pakistan

“Saadia Toor reveals a country that is nothing like the hotbed of Islamic extremism and military dictatorship we read about constantly. … This book is a powerful antidote to reactionary stereotypes of Pakistan that dominate academic research and popular media.” – David Ludden, Professor of History, New York University, author of India and South Asia: A Short History

£17.99 only £16.00 on the Pluto site

In Foreign Fields

The Politics and Experiences of Transnational Sport Migration

Thomas F. Carter

Examines the lives of transnational sport migrants: players, journalists, coaches and administrators who toil far away from the sporting limelight.

“This is a remarkable book. Carter explodes facile assumptions about the mobility of sports players across playing fields and national boundaries. Combining vivid prose with shrewd analysis, he follows the lives and labour of both elite and lesser-known players. In doing so, he remakes the social scientific study of globalizing sport, while challenging its scandalous neglect in the discipline of anthropology.” – Simon Coleman, Chancellor Jackman Chaired Professor, University of Toronto, and co-editor of The Discipline of Leisure

“Based on more than a decade of ethnographic research in a wide variety of locations, this book make an enormous contribution to the anthropological study of sport and also to the social scientific understanding of sport more generally. In addition to vividly describing and forensically examining the lives of sport migrants as they ply their trade in ‘foreign fields’, Thomas Carter convincingly attacks his fellow anthropologists for their relative failure to appreciate the socio-cultural significance of sport. Even if they now take heed, however, Carter will remain their master for many years to come.” – Alan Bairner, Professor of Sport and Social Theory at Loughborough University, author of Sport, Nationalism, and Globalization (2001)

£21.99 only £19.50 on the Pluto site