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. In the Grundrisse, Marx thus spoke of “the universalizing tendency of capital, which distinguishes it from all previous stages of production.” This “universalizing tendency” of capital is tied to its “civilizing influence,” discussed above. Capital — or, better yet, the promise of its supersession — provides the objective basis of human emancipation and hence the starting point of Marx’s critique:

Although limited by its very nature, [capital] strives towards the universal development of the forces of production, and thus becomes the presupposition of a new mode of production, which is founded not on the development of the forces of production for the purpose of reproducing or at most expanding a given condition, but where the free, unobstructed, progressive, and universal development of the forces of production is itself the presupposition of society and hence of its reproduction; where advance beyond the point of departure is the only presupposition. This tendency — which capital possesses, but which at the same time, since capital is a limited form of production, contradicts it and hence drives it towards dissolution — distinguishes capital from all earlier modes of production, and at the same time contains this element, that capital is posited as a mere point of transition. (Grundrisse, pg. 540)

In the opening chapter of Capital, Marx expands on this point. Precapitalist communities perhaps featured more immediate bonds of dependency, greater solidarity between their members, and less alienated relations with nature, even if they were brutally hierarchical and crude in terms of violence. “Those ancient social organisms of production are much more simple and transparent than those of bourgeois society,” indicates Marx. “But they are founded either on the immaturity of man as an individual, when he has not yet torn himself loose from the umbilical accord of his natural species-connection with other men, or on direct relations of dominance and servitude.” The severing of natural bonds, which creates the opposition of individual men and women to social humanity, is in turn an effect of capitalist accumulation. Capital sets the stage for universal history by drawing the whole world into its selfsame and homogenizing logic, by “compelling all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production, introducing what it calls civilization into their midst — in a word, it creates a world after its own image.”

Replacing extra-economic forms of compulsion with the indirect rule of the marketplace, governed by economic pressures, capital expands the social division of labor by adding untold layers of mediation to the productive process. At the same time, feudal privilege is supplanted by bourgeois right. Estates are supplanted by class, reducing social distinction to one’s relation to the means of production. Georg Lukács captured this dynamic quite well in 1923. “Bourgeois society carried out the process of socializing society, destroying both the spatiotemporal barriers between different lands and territories as well as legal partitions between different ‘estates’ [Stände],” explained Lukács. “In its universe there is formal equality for all men; the economic relations that directly determined the metabolic exchange between men and nature progressively disappear. Man becomes, in the true sense of the word, a social being. Society becomes the reality for man.” Despite itself and against its own interests, capital lays the groundwork for a new form of society. Hence the need to adopt a new vantage, as Marx indicated in his Theses on Feuerbach: “The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity.” Lukács’ emphasis on “the standpoint of the proletariat” is not contradicted by this in the least, since the proletariat represents socialized humanity in embryonic form, in nuce, as the antithesis to capital within civil society.

Others have recognized that the proletariat fulfills the same function of universal class for Marx that the state bureaucracy fulfills for Hegel. Whereas Hegel’s bureaucracy supplies a positive subject of the ideal commonwealth, Marx’s proletariat supplies a negative subject. “Marxism only criticizes formal thought to the benefit of proletarian thought which will be more than capable achieving ‘objectivity,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘universality,’ in other words, of realizing the values of liberalism,” wrote Maurice Merleau-Ponty in 1952. “Revolutionary action does not aim at ideas or values, it aims at the power of the proletariat. But the proletarian, by his mode of existence and as a ‘man of universal history,’ is the inheritor of liberal humanism” (Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem, pg. 125). As the left communist Gilles Dauvé once put it: “If one identifies proletarian with factory worker (even worse: with manual laborer) or with the poor, then one cannot see what is subversive in the proletarian condition. The proletariat is the negation of this society, its dissolution, as this society deprives it of nearly all its positive aspects: the proletariat is thus also its own destruction.” Dauvé here merely paraphrases Marx and Engels from The Holy Family (1845):

The proletariat…is compelled as proletariat to abolish itself and thereby its opposite, private property, which determines its existence, and which makes it proletariat. It is the negative side of the antithesis, its restlessness within its very self, dissolved and self-dissolving private property. Nevertheless, the propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power, the semblance of a human existence. Whereas the latter feels annihilated in estrangement, recognizes it as its own powerlessness, the reality of an inhuman existence. The proletariat is conscious of its spiritual and physical poverty, conscious of its dehumanization, and therefore self-abolishing (MECW 4, pgs. 35-36)

Though Goldner is doubtless right to peg the special human capacity to transform its own surroundings and circumstances of life as the source of Marxian universality, he forgets to add that this capacity itself comes about only after the “natural species-connection” tying human beings to one another has been severed. Only then is this capacity revealed. And only by consciously revolutionizing the social organization of production, once sufficient infrastructure has been attained, can this species-connection ever be restored. Humanity will only establish itself in actu when the productive process subjectively “stands under the conscious and planned control of freely associated men,” which objectively “requires that society possess a material foundation, or a series of material conditions of existence, itself the spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development” (Capital, pg. 173).

Subject and object would be thereby reunited, not by virtue of some preexisting unity that guarantees reunion from the outset, but as the result of an historic act. “The human being is a result, not an εἶδος; the insights of Hegel and Marx penetrate all the way into the inmost aspects of the so-called questions of constitution,” wrote Theodor Adorno toward the end of his 1966 epilegomenon “On Subject and Object.” Engels confirmed that the distinction between humans and other animals is historically achieved in the last section of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific: “With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and simultaneously the mastery of the product over the producer. For the first time, man, in a certain sense, is marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones.”

One of the most infuriating aspects of the “humanist controversy” in France during the 1960s is that neither side of the debate seemed to notice Marx’s subtlety on this point. Louis Althusser mocked the humanist attempt to ascertain “the specific difference that distinguishes the forms of existence of the human species from those of animal species” (The Humanist Controversy, pgs. 275-276) as an epistemological pseudo-problem. Consciousness or subjectivity, alienation, historical-dialectical teleology, etc. were all red herrings, as he saw it. His humanist critics were certainly no better, however. Roger Garaudy, the buffoon, appealed emptily to “human options,” as if these are already available and must not first be wrested from the realm of historic possibility: “Althusser’s ‘theoretical antihumanism’ rests on the illusion of being able to treat structures and social relationships without reference to human options. This eliminates the ‘active element’ of knowledge, consciousness” (Marxism in the Twentieth Century, pg. 205). In Negative Dialectics (1966), which though published around the same time was unaware of the French debate, Adorno elegantly resolved this dilemma by assigning it a temporal dimension:

We cannot say what man is. Man today is a function, unfree, regressing behind whatever is ascribed to him as invariant — except perhaps for the defenselessness and neediness in which some anthropologies wallow. He drags along with him as his social heritage the mutilations inflicted upon him over thousands of years. To decipher the human essence by the way it is now would sabotage its possibility. A so-called historical anthropology would scarcely serve any longer. It would indeed include evolution and conditioning, but it would attribute them to the subjects; it would abstract from the dehumanization that has made the subjects what they are, and that continues to be tolerated under the name of a qualitas humana. The more concrete the form in which anthropology appears, the more deceptive will it come to be, and the more indifferent to whatever in man is not at all due to him, as the subject, but to the desubjectifying process that has paralleled the historic subject formation since time immemorial. That man is “open” is an empty thesis, advanced — rarely without an invidious side glance at the animal — by an anthropology that has “arrived.” It is a thesis that would pass off its own indefiniteness, its fallissement, as its definite and positive side. Existence is a moment. It is not the whole it was conceived against, the whole from which, severed, it seized the unfulfillable pretension of entirety as soon as it styled itself philosophy. That we cannot tell what man is does not establish a peculiarly majestic anthropology; it vetoes any anthropology (Negative Dialectics, pg. 124).

Years later, Althusser admitted Heidegger was the primary inspiration for his thoughts on this matter: “I had read Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism, which influenced my arguments concerning theoretical antihumanism in Marx” (The Future Lasts Forever, pg. 176). Adorno, for his part, found both sides of the argument rather tedious: “Heidegger promotes slave thinking. With the standard gesture against the marketplace of public opinion he spurns the word ‘humanism,’ taking his place in the united front of thunderers against all ‘isms.’ The current talk of humanism is awful enough” (Negative Dialectics, pg. 89). What Adorno scorned most in this talk was its complacency, its lazy accommodation of the current state of affairs (i.e. “the cheap humanism that speaks for human beings as they are”).

Merleau-Ponty, who was a critic of humanist thought long before Althusser arrived on the scene, came close to Adorno on this score. He indicated that “an historical solution to the human prob­lem, an end of history, could be conceived only if humanity were a thing to be known — if, in it, knowledge were able to exhaust being and could come to a state that really contained all that humanity had been and all that it could ever be” (Adventures of the Dialectic, pg. 22). Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1952 “ultrabolshevist” treatise on The Communists and Peace was treated at length by Merleau-Ponty later in the book. He drew out the logical consequences of this view. “[Liberal humanists] suppose man exists and all that is necessary is to arrange society. The only valid humanism in that of absolute destitution… since [humanity] has no basis in being” (Adventures of the Dialectic, pg. 107). Quoting Sartre,  Merleau-Ponty held that “man is yet to be made: he is what man lacks, what is in question for each one of us at every instant, and without ever having been, continually risks being lost” (The Communists and Peace, pg. 200).

Chibber, mentioned toward the beginning, is not beyond criticism. His book on Postcolonial Studies and the Specter of Capital, though for the most part brilliant, is nevertheless weak on certain points. Going by what was discussed above, Chibber’s call for a renewed Marxist politics “committed to the reality of capitalist universalization and to the basic humanity that binds together laboring classes in the East and the West” (Postcolonial Studies, pg. 290) must be reformulated somewhat. What binds together the laboring classes the world over is not their common humanity, but the common inhumanity of their condition under the capitalism. Likewise, in keeping with this humanism, Chibber places perhaps too much of an emphasis on rights, even if he is absolutely correct to attack the view of Subalternists who contend that colonized peoples are “agents steeped in a prebourgeois culture [who] cannot be motivated by their individual interests [and who lack] any conception of rights” (Postcolonial Studies, pg. 203). As Chibber explains: “This is why Chakrabarty et al. describe them as Western notions, the product of a successful bourgeois revolution, something that is possible only where the bourgeoisie has lived up to its historic competence.” Bourgeois right certainly has a universal and progressive aspect, despite the fact they are sometimes cynically invoked as pretexts for war (usually in the name of safeguarding “human rights,” the charmed language of a false philanthropy or faux humanitarianism). Ultimately, however, Marxism’s concern is not with the acquisition and assertion of rights, but rather with the eventual transcendence of right altogether. Rights might be seen as prerequisite to this eventual transcendence, a kind of conditio sine qua non: in the meantime they undoubtedly provide a valuable political counterweight with which the proletariat can challenge the rule of the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, this is not the final goal of Marxism.

Sam Kriss hits on something essential when he faults Chibber for ontologizing the human essence that supposedly unites the global working class. “For Marx there is something like a universal solidarity, as in his famous slogan that ‘the working men have no country’,” writes Kriss. “But where Chibber makes a major and bizarre misstep is in ontologizing this universality. In Marx what unites people is not some mysterious quality locked into every human being, the navel and core of their existence, but instead the most ephemeral of all ephemera: capitalism itself.” Again, “the reality of capitalist universalization” (as Chibber puts it) can be considered the condition of the proletariat’s common inhumanity — or, what is the same, the negative condition of its potential humanity. The so-called “species-being” [Gattungwesen] Marx spoke of in his youth was never some static quality inherent in individuals past and present. He later expressed his reservations regarding this still too philosophical phraseology, though the concept of a natural “species-connection” retained an important place in his thought. Kriss continues:

There is a real universal, but it’s not subject to the tyranny of the Same. Marx does, it’s true, refer in his “humanist” works to something called “species-being,” but it’s not a “being” in the usual, ontological sense of the word. Species-being is bound up with the process of production: the human capacity to change and remake the world, a capacity that is itself coded by that which is produced and changed. It stands for the unfettered and continual realization of human potential, with new potentialities opening with every new realization. Returning to species-being does not for Marx require the stripping-away of everything but the essential, but the creation of vast and unknown realms of possibility and difference. This is not so much being as becoming; an ontology of continual flux. (Here, as in so many other areas, Marx and Nietzsche are not just compatible but exhibit an almost spooky level of correspondence).

I would slightly amend Kriss’ explanation, since there is a real universality of capitalism, albeit a negative one. By negating this negative universality, the proletariat ushers in an epoch entirely without precedent. Marx wrote in the preface to his Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859) that “bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process…[Yet] at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation accordingly brings the prehistory of society to a close.” Engels again: “The extraneous objective forces that hitherto governed history pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history.” Human history begins when the prehistory of society ends.

Kriss is not exaggerating at all when he points out the “spooky level of correspondence” between Marx and Nietzsche. For both, freedom is characterized by becoming, not being. It is precisely “continual flux” — freedom to “become what you are,” not the freedom to “be what you are already.” Nietzsche’s concept of “overcoming” [Überwindung] corresponds to Marx’s concept of “sublation” [Aufhebung].

According to Nietzsche, freedom is the “desire for destruction, for change, for novelty, for future, for becoming.” He thus affirms that “[t]he desire for destruction, for change and for becoming, can be the expression of an overflowing energy pregnant with the future” (The Gay Science, pg. 235). Quite reminiscent of “the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society” that Marx mentioned above. Bourgeois society was to Nietzsche clearly ill, but its affliction was “a sickness rather like pregnancy.” It is worth noting that Nietzsche also speaks of becoming as negation, as he rhapsodizes about “the eternal joy in becoming — the joy that includes even the eternal joy in negating…” (Ecce Homo, or How to Become What You Are, pg. 110). Similarly, Engels writes that “the proposition of the rationality of everything that is real dissolves to become the opposite proposition: All that exists deserves to perish [this line is taken from Goethe]” (Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy, pg. 359). Marx had previously written:

[T]he old view, in which the human being appears as the aim of production, regardless of his limited national, religious, political character, seems to be very lofty when contrasted to the modern world, where production appears as the aim of mankind and wealth as the aim of production…[H]owever, when the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces, etc., created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity’s own nature? The absolute working-out of his creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the previous historic development, which makes possible this totality of development, i.e., the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured according to any predetermined yardstick? Where he does not reproduce himself in one specificity, but produces his totality? Strives not to remain something he has become, but is in fact the absolute movement of becoming? (Grundrisse, pgs. 460-461)

Fifteen years after he scribbled this passage into his notebooks, Marx reprised this notion of stripping away “the limited bourgeois form” in yet another pregnancy metaphor: “[The working class] has no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.” Rosa Luxemburg apocryphally commented on this metaphor several decades later, adding that the mother (in this case, bourgeois society) would die during childbirth in delivering the new. If revolutionary force is the midwife of history, and terror the only way of relieving society’s birth-pangs, then it is possible this is what kills her. Of course, there is always the danger of miscarriage. But if social production is ever to serve an end other than the enrichment of capital, this danger could be unavoidable.

CLR James — the real one (and not Chris Taylor, the particularist boob) — reflected on the “one universal law of self-developing movement” in both Hegel and Marx, as well as the implications it held for socialist revolution. In “Production for the Sake of Production,” he wrote:

Self-expanding value expands itself according to its “notion,” accumulated [dead] labor devouring living labor. Marx was supremely confident that he had found here the notion of the “strict process of production,” the abstract logical relation around whose development all future historical society would revolve (as it did not revolve in the past) until the abolition of the capitalist system of production. For the word abolition, Aufhebung, Marx went again to Hegel, to show quite clearly what he had in mind… As Hegel explains at length, it means for him transcendence, raising of one moment or active factor from its subordinate position in the dialectical contradiction to its rightful place, superseding the opposite moment with which it is interpenetrated, i.e. inseparably united, in this case raising, labor, the basis of all value, to a dominant position over the other moment, the mass of accumulated labor. Thereby self-developing humanity takes the place formerly held by self-developing value. The real history of humanity will begin.

We are not yet human, but might still be humanized. Capital is nothing other than the alienated agency of unrealized humanity. Everything depends on its realization.

7 thoughts on “Not yet human: Universality, common inhumanity, and Marx

  1. I think that maybe even here the question of universality is a bit over-philosophical. The universal in Marx is not really so much a special quality in man of capitalism, so much as an actual result, which is theorised as ‘species being’ or what not. In the first instance man is connected not just as a natural species, through natural reproduction, but also through the division of labour, in his ‘second nature’ as productive, cooperative animal.
    Under capitalism the division of labour is at its greatest, so that you could reasonably say that all mankind is part of a singular collective endeavour. However, you would have to qualify that by saying that the connection only asserts itself unconsciously, behind the back of the producers. This is what Kant calls man’s unsocial sociality. It is only in the alienation (which is to say privatisation) of his labour power that the worker realises his character as a productive part of society.
    None of this is a priori reasoning, but rather it is the result of the actual course of historical development. Man attains his universal character, but in a way that disguises that very universality. That is why Marx says that the universalising tendency in capital is a tendency, that is belied by the narrow basis – private property – through which it is expressed.

  2. There seems to be a connection between this and the early Soviet attempt to deal with nationalism. While Trotsky thought that the various nationalisms of the Soviet blocs were a distraction, Lenin and Stalin rightly understood that you cannot just sweep aside the cultural, religious and linguistic uniqueness of a given state – whether Georgia or Armenia. Rosa Luxemburg argued that Capitalism was responsible for the existence of nationalism (and saw it as a an attempt to create artificial divisions between the workers of the world). But Stalin saw it as a useful technique that could serve the proletariat’s emancipation by winning over workers who were susceptible to nationalist appeals. Lenin distinguished between nationalism that served the oppressor and the nationalism of the oppressed (such as the Irish cause). cf Van Ree, “Stalin and the National Question.” Still, despite the impact that the Irish cause had on Marx, it seems like Lenin + Stalin’s embrace of nationalism was primarily pragmatic – a jujitsu attempt to use it against itself. One might be inclined to trace Stalin’s acceptance of nationalism to his own experience as a Georgian (and the Tsar’s program of national eradication deployed through the educational system) but by the 20s true Georgian nationalists mocked Stalin and it seems clear to me that his own feelings about Georgian nationalism were not deeply felt.

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