Not yet human: Universality, common inhumanity, and Marx


The earth will rise on new foundations.
We have been nothing; we will be everything.
’Tis the final conflict, let each stand in their place.
The International will be the human race.

— L’Internationale, 1871

Universality today seems a lost cause, the mild resurgence of Marxism in recent years notwithstanding. A number of prominent theorists have championed this category in their critiques of multicultural neoliberalism, perhaps most notably Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, but have made little headway. Vivek Chibber’s noble (if somewhat flawed) 2013 polemic against Postcolonial Studies was made to suffer the indignity of a public scolding by whiteboy academic Chris Taylor, who writes under the handle Of CLR James: “If postcolonial theorists want to hold onto the particularity of the particular, and engage the universal through it, Chibber uses these ‘two universalisms’ [the universalism of capital and the universalism of labor] in order to denude the particular, to remove the particularity of the particular in order to reduce it to the universal.” He claims that Chibber’s book is thus not even Marxist, since the real Marxists à la mode have already all accepted the legitimate points raised by postcolonial and decolonial theory and moved on:

The Marxism fashionable both inside and outside the academy today is one which has learned to meet people where they are, that has learned that a caring approach to particularity and a concern to foster difference is not opposed to the universal but is, rather, one way of producing new universals, of realizing freer modes of being in common. Indeed, the Marxism fashionable today is that one which has taken postcolonial theory as a serious incitement, as a spur to think critically about its own deficits but also as a challenge to uncover its hidden possibilities.

Obviously, there’s no accounting for fashion. And I won’t even touch the platitude about “meeting people where they are.” Loren Goldner is perhaps a little old-fashioned. In any case, he has little patience for this fashionable nonsense. Deploring postcolonial theory as “a relativizing discourse of cultural ‘difference’ incapable of making critical judgments,” Goldner argues that Marxist universality must be recovered, reasserted, and boldly upheld. “Today, the idea that there is any meaningful universality based on human beings as a species is under a cloud, even if the opponents of such a view rarely state their case in so many words (or are even aware that this is the issue),” he writes. “For them, such an idea, like the idea that Western Europe from the Renaissance onward was a revolutionary social formation unique in history, that there is any meaning to the idea of progress, or that there exist criteria from which one can judge the humanity or inhumanity of different ‘cultures,’ are ‘white male’ or ‘Eurocentric’ constructs designed to deny to women, people of color, or gays the ‘difference’ of their ‘identity’.”

Goldner’s fulminations against the influential Heideggerian idea of ontological difference and its French variations are well known. He suspects that the partisans of “the current climate of postmodern culturalism” are mostly disturbed by the fact the Marxian critique does not have recourse to its usual explanatory mechanisms: “What bothers them is that the concept of universality for Marx and Engels was ultimately grounded neither in cultural constructs nor even in the metaphysics of ‘power,’ which is the currency in which today’s fashion trades.”

Questions of fashion aside, it might still be asked whether the method described above by Taylor is the way Marxists actually approach matters of universal import. In what does the universality of Marx consist? Goldner tells us: “The universalism of Marx rests on a notion of humanity as a species distinguished by its capacity to periodically revolutionize its means of extracting wealth from nature, and therefore as free from the relatively fixed laws of population nature imposes on other species.” According to Marx, then, the special characteristic that sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, or rather potentially sets it apart, is that humans exist historically. Unlike other species, knowledge and customs are transmitted from one generation to the next through record-keeping, allowing individual humans to participate in the past as more than just temporary embodiments of genetic code. “History itself is a real part of natural history and of nature’s becoming man,” Marx concluded in Paris 1844. Élisée Reclus, a prominent nineteenth century anarchist and professional geographer, put it pithily: “Man is nature become conscious.”

One crucial detail is omitted in Goldner’s otherwise accurate formulation of Marx’s view, however: namely, that this uniquely human capacity manifests only at a specific moment in history, though perhaps it was always latent in its nature. By a confluence of factors, many of them fortuitous and by chance, a systemic logic took hold which would sweep away older forms of local community in the name of a global society founded on exchange. With the historic emergence of capital, new vistas of possibility are opened up (even if today they seem to have closed). Powers and capacities that did not hitherto exist become available for the first time. Continue reading