In Defence of Humanism

Rob Schaap rws at
Sun Dec 13 02:02:20 PST 1998

G'day Ange,

One or two 'scientific Marxists' aside, we were nearly all humanists in the mid-seventies (Althusser never made it to Hobart), so I guess I need someone to explain to me why I should abandon my default-setting. Interestingly, once Foucault hit Oz shores, he took over our humanities faculties almost completely, and I've met hardly anyone under 35 whose default setting isn't that of anti-humanism.

I've never budged from one simple position: If humanity is not, from Sterkfontein to Armageddon, a necessarily labouring, necessarily rational, necessarily empathic herd animal whose capacities allow and demand time and energy beyond that devoted to necessary labour, I just don't get it. I think this is enough to warrant the 'humanism' tag all by itself. My naive impression was that a little disciplined reflection would allow me to come up with the kinds of freedoms necessary most to reflect such a species-being, thus affording a universal definition of real freedom. But, just 'coz it's hard, doesn't mean the premise is wrong.

Of course, we have to be careful here, distinguishing both between essense (human nature) and the specific expression of same we find in real moments, or between what Marx called 'constant drives' and 'relative appetites'.

No books at hand just now, but I quoted a bit of Capital here a couple of weeks ago, from V1, p 668 of the 1906 Charles Keer edition:

'To know what is useful for a dog, one must study dog nature. This nature itself is not to be deduced from the principle of utility. Applying this to man, he that would criticise all human acts, movements, relations, etc, by the principle of utility, must first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch.'

Anyway, that's my stand on the human essence bit - the bit that first got me in Marx's thrall.

My stand on the agent-centric bit of humanism is a little more elaborate and a little less confident, but, as I'd have to work on my thesis otherwise, I shall try an answer.

I'll start by saying I don't for a minute reckon a Marxist view of the world need be synoymous with anti-individualism. This matters, because we have to highlight the dangers of a radically anti-individualistic doctrine (and the totalitarian prescriptions and simplistic explanations of the world that can attend it). Anyway, just because bourgeois thought is decisively and, ultimately, exclusively individualistic, does not mean it is the only individualism (eg. just check out Homer), nor that the individual can be cast out of explanations and prescriptions.

And another thing: only a VERY vulgar, mechanistic, scientific Marxist would insist that socialist revolution is the role of the forces of production alone. Human agency is decisive, no? For the revolution to be a socialist revolution, people must be able to think socialism under capitalism, and make an ethical decision to lend their weight to a humanly exerted human tide against extant institutions at a decisive moment. But, antihumanism affords us neither trans-discursive thought nor ethical action!

And as for Foucault: I obviously don't go along with his proposition that 'man' just appeared one Thursday in the 17th century. 'He' is there in much of the classical canon, and, for mine, it is not Derridean 'differance' that put 'him' there for us.

And I love this sentence of Rorty's (from 'Moral Identity and Private Autonomy'): 'Foucault was trying to serve human liberty, but he was also, in the interest of his personal autonomy, trying to be a faceless, rootless, homeless stranger to humanity and to history.'

My take is that the latter needs to do away with humanism; but the former must rationalise this self-estranged subject to the fact of his social being. The anarchic decentred stranger makes himself thus by exercising an agency only 'humanism-as-agentic-subjectivity' coherently affords him (otherwise, how could he think himself outside discourse?). But, in estranging himself, he rejects 'humanism-as-essence'. Funny, that - 'coz I take 'the fact of social being' to be a postulate of 'humanism-as-essence', and only a problem for someone who hasn't quite jettisoned as much of the old creed as he might think!

No wonder the bloke could never define the term he himself assured us had always been his focus: power!

And Rorty nails Foucault again here (also in MIPA): 'A sense of human subjectivity as a centreless bundle of contingencies, of the sort which both Foucault and Dewey shared with Nietzsche, is compatible with any sort of politics ... '

And thinking that fits ANY social order or disorder is surely not POLITICAL thinking! Whatever it does, such thinking serves no purpose - as to means or ends (no agency and no alienation to transcend); - as to purpose (where is purpose without a reason, and where would that reason be without the human subject? - eg. 'the class-FOR-itself'); - as to solidarity (there can be no class where there are only rootless strangers); or - as to ethics (ethics are predicated on a rational human subject at their core).

What's worse; I reckon the Yanks (some present company excepted) went bananas about Foucault precisely because they've been told for more than two centuries (even more stridently over the last two decades) that they ARE effectively rootless strangers! Isn't that a very succinct definition of their precious homo oeconomicus!

Foucault's decentred subject holds few fears indeed for the Milton Friedmans of our benighted world.

Cheers, Rob.

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list