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.

Video: William Pelz, ‘A People’s History of Modern Europe’

Last week we caught up with William A. Pelz, author of A People’s History of Modern Europe, to discuss the themes in his book.

In this short video, filmed at the Marx Memorial Library, Pelz expands on the importance of approaching history through the prism of the views and actions of ordinary people (‘people’s history’). He illustrates this with a brief discussion of German women’s and workers’ resistance during World War II.

William A. Pelz is Director of the Institute of Working Class History in Chicago and a Professor of History at Elgin Community College. His recent works include Wilhelm Liebknecht and German Social Democracy (Greenwood Press, 2015), The Eugene V. Debs Reader (The Merlin Press Ltd, 2014), Against Capitalism: The European Left on the March (Peter Lang Publishing, 2007), and A People’s History of Modern Europe (Pluto, 2016).


A People’s History of Modern Europe is available to buy from Pluto Press, here.

Video: Jamie Woodcock, ‘Working the Phones’

This week Pluto published Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres, by Jamie Woodcock. The latest in our Wildcat series, the book goes undercover to reveal the daily experiences of workers in one of the country’s most prolific (and least-loved) industries.

In this short video, Jamie expands the motivations and methodology behind Working the Phones.

Jamie Woodcock completed his PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is currently a fellow at LSE. His research interests include: digital labour, technology, management, critical theory, and the sociology of work.


Working the Phones is available to buy from Pluto Press, here.

Enlisting Memory: An extract from Yakov Rabkin’s ‘What is Modern Israel?’

We recently published Yakov Rabkin’s What is Modern Israel? Founded on the premise that every Jew is not a Zionist and not in favour of Israel, the book shows that Zionism is a sharp break with Judaism and not the zenith of Jewish history.What is Modern Israel?

In this extract, Rabkin shows how the Israeli
state all too often uses the Holocaust as an ideological apparatus to justify their actions; problematising the use of Nazism as a benchmark for evil and examining how memories of the Shoah inform Israel’s bellicosity.

During the early post-war years, the Israeli press presented almost exclusively articles devoted to the memories of resistance fighters, while those that dealt with “simple survivors,” accused by Zionist public opinion of having gone “like sheep to slaughter,” were often published at their author’s expense or by associations of survivors. During the first Zionist commemorations of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, not a word was spoken of the 6 million victims of the Nazi genocide. Some historians described the commemorations organised by survivors outside the official Zionist framework as a “semi-clandestine act.” In any event, the Israeli press lent far greater weight to the accounts of Zionist resistance fighters than to those of other members of the resistance, the Bund for example, creating the impression that Zionists held a monopoly of anti-Nazi resistance. It was not until the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 that survivors’ accounts, including their explanation of the absence of resistance on their part, emerged into Israeli public awareness.

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Learning lessons from Deliveroo and UberEATS

Author of the forthcoming book Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres, Jamie Woodcock, examines the radical possibilities for resistance born of ‘black box’ labour. 

The six-day strike by Deliveroo drivers recently ended with two important successes. The first is that this group of precarious workers, written off by many as being unable to organise, achieved a collective victory. The second is that their struggle provides a practical example of how workers can organise autonomously in the digital economy.

The action by Deliveroo drivers was sparked by the company attempting to introduce a new payment system, removing the hourly rate and leaving only per-drop payments.[i] This represents a further attempt to shift the risks of this platform-like business model onto workers, bringing so-called flexibility at the cost of workers having a guaranteed wage. The action was mobilised on WhatsApp, drawing on existing networks and those Woodcock T03174.jpgformed at the meeting points during the shifts. The strike and demonstration outside of the Deliveroo headquarters built upon mass meetings in which workers collectively voted on demands. Throughout the dispute the drivers received solidarity from customers and restaurants – with some restaurants even turning off their Deliveroo app in response to the drivers’ action – and a crowdfunding campaign raised £10,000 for their strike fund. All of this happened outside of traditional forms of organisation, but was supported by the IWGB (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain), drawing on the experience of the couriers’ branch.[ii]

There are some other notable features about the strike that are now becoming clearer. A couple of days into the campaign I arrived slightly earlier than usual for a demonstration. Across the road there were two people also waiting, although unlike those starting to arrive in their green and black Deliveroo jackets, they were wearing UberEATS branded clothing. At first I thought this might be a cynical attempt by Uber to try and recruit striking drivers to their rival service. There had been stories circulating of Uber ordering food from Deliveroo to their headquarters and on arrival attempting to recruit them with promises of higher wages and so on. However, after a quick discussion it became clear that these were disgruntled UberEATS drivers. They had heard about the Deliveroo strike and were keen to find out what was happening. As the strike continued there were further appearances of UberEATS drivers, early evidence that there was potential for this kind of action to spread.

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The Dublin Lockout: An extract from The Politics of James Connolly

The Dublin lock-out was a major industrial dispute between approximately 20,000 workers and 300 employers, lasting for seven months from 26 August 1913 to 18 January 1914. The dispute began when employers locked their workers out, in a bid to destroy workers’ unions, hiring ‘blackleg’ workers from Britain to replace them. The urban working class were seen to pose a threat to the Irish Parliamentary Party; their living and working conditions were catalysts for growing concerns about social justice that 1913_DL_lrgthreatened to upset the Redmondites. The vanquishing of working class jobs and unions was indicative of the Irish Parliamentary Party’s ‘obscurantist’ politics that Connolly derides.

In this extract from The Politics of James Connolly, Kieran Allen shows how the isolation of workers during the Dublin lock-out – ‘workers’ also including the Catholic Irish intelligentsia, whose employment prospects were narrowed by Protestant ascendancy, a derivative of the IPP’s collusion with the imperialist British government — demonstrates how class and religion were interdependent systems of discrimination and disadvantage in twentieth-century Ireland. Moreover, Allen emphasises how these intersections informed Connolly’s intellectual marrying of socialism with Ireland’s dominant national and religious traditions.

‘In Belfast, workers were divided on sectarian lines but, on occasion, would unite to mount a vigorous class war. In 1907, Jim Larkin made his first appearance in Ireland during a massive dock strike and, for a brief period, Devlin’s AOH and the Orange Order lost control. But it was in Dublin that the struggles of the working class caused the greatest danger to the Irish Parliamentary Party. Although a relative social peace had descended on the countryside, the stunted nature of Irish capitalism Allen T00184created great pools of poverty in the capital. Arnold Wright, although hostile to the workers’ movement, had to admit that ‘the degradation of human kind is carried to a point of abjectness beyond that reached in any city of the Western world, save perhaps Naples.’ The huge numbers of unemployed and casual workers made any sort of conventional trade unionism impossible and only the most militant form of class struggle and revolutionary socialism stood any chance of making an impact. Larkinism provided this potent mix and from 1908 until 1913, there were a series of battles that put the Dublin employers on the defensive. Larkin’s paper, the Irish Worker, which had a circulation of 20,000 a week, repeatedly condemned the Home Rule party for not being concerned with the material welfare of Irish workers because the party voted against extending social legislation to Ireland.

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Does unarmed resistance in Palestine work?

The authors of the new book  Popular Protest in Palestine discuss whether peaceful resistance to Israeli occupation is appropriate in the face of so much violence.

Darweish PPIP‘In March 2015 the Israeli electorate voted into power the most hard-line coalition in Israel’s history, headed up by Benjamin Netanyahu who had campaigned on the promise that he would prevent the establishment of any Palestinian state. In the national newspaper Haaretz the correspondent Gideon Levy bemoaned the result: ‘If after six years years of sowing fear and anxiety, hatred and despair, this is the nation’s choice, then it is very ill indeed. Netanyahu deserves the Israeli people and they deserve him.’ (Haaretz, 18 March 2015) Another commentator, James Besser, concluded that ‘apartheid is the path Israeli voters have chosen. The inevitable results will include even greater international isolation for the Jewish state, a boost to efforts to apply boycotts and sanctions, diminished support from American Jews and endlessly intensifying cycles of violence.’ (Haaretz, 20 March 2015)

But whilst the Israeli peace-camp anguished over the result, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories the return of Netanyahu to power was met with indifference by significant sections of the population. As Huneida Ghanem of the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies explained, ‘Nothing is going to come from the Israeli state if the Israelis don’t feel they don’t pay any price for the Israeli occupation.’ (http://tinyurl.com/nshownb, 22 June 2015)

Ghanem’s analysis echoed one of the conclusions we reached in Popular Protest in Palestine: The Uncertain Future of Unarmed Resistance. In 2002, the wave of Palestinian unarmed resistance to occupation grew in response to the Israeli decision to build a Wall between the West Bank and Israel. The subsequent resistance movement failed to exert sufficient leverage on Israeli publics and decision-makers, and the question of Israeli commitment to occupation was left untouched.

We came to this conclusion after conducting numerous interviews with Israeli peace activists struggling to maintain hope for the future of their country. One of our informants expressed herself with brutal frankness:

“The popular resistance is weakening. It breaks my heart. I want to live here, but the worst thing for Israel is peace and quiet. If the occupation continues there is no future for Israel. The weakening of Palestinian popular resistance allows the occupation to continue.

People here in Israel – they just don’t realise, they don’t have to deal with it. It is a different world for Israelis – but it will blow up.

There was the second intifada – nothing came out of that and the buses being blown up. Now the buses are not being blown up and still nothing comes out of it. Israelis are comfortable with the situation … people look the other way … people live with it.”

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