As anyone who has read any articles or comments in Spiked, it does not take long before at least one of them evokes the words “The enlightenment”, and/or “Humanism”. So, much so, that at times, it can take on the characteristic of a superstitious incantation and with as much meaning.
So, in this blog piece as to Spiked/IoL and the Enlightenment, I’d like to actually look at what it was and why it is that for them, they are so eager to weaponise it. In regards to the Enlightenment and Humanism, please remember that this is not meant to be a detailed critique, though that may well result post the discussion of this. The basic points are below.
- What in brief do Spiked, mean by “Enlightenment Humanism”?
- What Marxists mean by this same term
- Why Spiked are wrong
Frank Ferudi, ex-head of the RCP Political Committee and the defacto head of Spiked had this to say in 2013 with regards to the enlightenment and humanism. In a lecture for and filmed by WorldWrite, (the Video and digital arm of Spiked) called ‘What is Humanism?’ “While humanist ideas have been around for a long time”, he observes, “they have never been more weakly affirmed than at present.
In ancient as well as Renaissance times, thinkers struggled with questions around what forces determine our destiny and began to formulate ideas that human beings themselves, rather than God or nature, had a responsibility for making the world. Humanism, we learn, begins to flourish in Renaissance Italy and finds more mature expression in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Modern determinisms such as nineteenth-century economic determinism – or today’s eco-determinism, biological determinism or psychological determinism – are all really evasions or excuses that diminish our own sense of taking responsibility for what happens.
A Humanist outlook should equip us with an orientation towards reason, problem-solving and a healthy scepticism towards determinisms (or the fates) in the present day”. http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/what_is_humanism/13891#.VsodZsfBHHQ
In an earlier article from 2006, called ‘Putting the human back into humanism’, he was equally trenchant when he said, “It is easy to dismiss the legacy of humanism. All too often humanism presents itself in a caricatured form. Today, it seems it can only come alive through reliving its past struggles with religious dogma. Thus most people regard humanism as a secular movement defined by its hostility to religion and its passionate affirmation of atheism.
This is not surprising, considering that many humanists do take pride in their secular values and attach great importance to their anti-religious sentiments. The secular standpoint was clearly outlined in A Humanist Manifesto, published in 1933 and signed by many prominent humanists (3). Although that manifesto traced the foundation of humanism to the exercise of reason, its main focus was on settling scores with religion.
There is little doubt that humanism emerged through a conflict with organised religion. But there is so much more to humanism than that. It is not a secular cult of man but an open-ended perspective that seeks to grasp the truth through human experience. As Sartre argued, humanism is not a static project, but an orientation realised through the exercise of human subjectivity (4)”. http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/2044#.VsobhcfBHHQ
In the article above, Frank Ferudi spends over half the space attacking the environmental movement for, as he see’s it fostering in humanity that of low expectations. For example, “Many influential theories – intelligent design, Gaia theory, chaos theory – self-consciously seek to make the human subject marginal. And yet, the humanist critics of religious obscurantism such as creationism are oblivious to these more influential tendencies, which regard human beings as just another species.
The influence of environmental determinism is especially striking. In this worldview, human beings are assigned a minor and undistinguished role in the general scheme of things. It is argued that any attempt by people to gain control over their destinies is likely to be undermined by the forces of nature.
Moreover, the very attempt to control nature is described as the act of a destructive species that does not know, or refuses to accept, its place in the natural order. Instead of celebrating man’s efforts to transform nature, history and civilisation have been recast as a story of environmental destruction. From such a standpoint, the application of reason, knowledge and science can easily be dismissed as problems since they help to intensify the destructive capacity of the human species. ‘Humans are, literally, a species out of control’, notes one misanthropic writer (5). In other words, humanism itself is the problem”
I think that what we have here is what is called, in the latter part of the article, what is called a ‘straw man argument’. A critique of environmentalism turns into an alleged lack of faith on the part of humanists. I find this very strange, as it presumes that humanists are a monolithic block with settings set eternally to pessimism. It also seems that noting the mistakes that humanity have made both socially, and environmentally is the same as wanting a society of wattle and daub huts.
In the section called ‘Humanising humanism’, Frank Ferudi says that, “It is perverse that twenty-first-century society, which relies so much on human ingenuity and science, also encourages deference to Fate.
At a time of widespread disenchantment with humanity’s achievements, it is important to restore confidence in the capacity of people to reason and to influence events. This is the challenge facing everyone who upholds a human-centred worldview. The task may appear as a modest one compared to the grand visions of the past, but in our anti-humanist, pre-political era its realisation is a precondition for the restoration of a human politics.
Reconstituting a sense of agency and historical thinking is the pre-requisite for re-engaging the public with political life. It requires that we uphold humanity’s past achievements, including standards of excellence and civilised forms of behaviour and values. Far from representing a yearning for the good old days, overcoming our alienation from the legacy of human achievement helps us deal with the issues thrown up by change today. It is through drawing on the achievements of the past that we can embrace change in the future with enthusiasm”.
If I can understand this correctly, he thinks that there is a moral failing upon those who call themselves humanists for not striving for, as Labour Party Social democrats would say “Jerusalem”.
Another thing that one notices about, Spiked is that it veers between moral exhortation and the fetishisation of technology. They do acknowledge the great events of the 20th/21st century, yet at the same time dismiss the more negative one’s on the popular consciousness.
The working class has let them down by not being open to political persuasion of how much they should need revolutionary communism, Marxist-Leninism, Socialism, etc. Therefore the blame lies with a society, as in the welfare state and the soft power liberals that run it, that have infantilised people.
So, what do Marxists mean by enlightenment humanism? First of all let me state that I am by no means a theoretician, so I will not take offence if I am corrected on a number of the following points.
The term “Marxist humanism” has at the heart of it that the notion of alienation remains a part of Marx’s philosophy. Teodor Shanin and Raya Dunayevskaya herself go further, asserting that not only is alienation present in the late Marx, but that there is no split between the young Marx and mature Marx.
The early Marx, influenced by Feuerbach’s humanistic inversion of Hegelian idealism, articulated a concept of species-being, according to which man’s essential nature is that of a free producer, freely reproducing their own conditions of life.
However, under capitalism individuals are alienated from their productive activity insofar as they are compelled to sell their labor-power as a commodity to a capitalist; their sensuous life-activity, or labor, thus appears to them as something objective, a commodity to be bought and sold like any other.
To overcome alienation and allow man to realise his species-being, therefore, the wage-labor system itself must be transcended, and the separation of the labourer from the means of labor abolished. While Marxists of course recognise a more general humanity that exists in all, we do not view it in simple, liberal, bourgeois, terms. The division of labour that exists within capital means we recognise the objective conditions of capital make it impossible for the majority to realise their full potential.
Society as it is structured, means that any advance that currently takes place, comes to us via the prism of profit and this also works in reverse as well. Victor Gunasekara in ‘Karl Marx as a Humanist’ wrote that, “Central to Marx’s philosophy was his humanism which he had embraced quite early in his life. There has been little appreciation of Marx’s humanist views by modern Humanists. Many of them have denigrated Marx foisting on him views that he never supported.
Such Humanists have often fallen prey to the general prejudices of their age and participated in the anti-communist hysteria which had been whipped up by the ruling political and religious establishments. Had they put into effect the Humanist principle of the rational evaluation of all ideas in their own right and in connection with their implications for the freedom and weal of humanity they may perhaps have come to a different conclusion”
What one can take from this, is an acknowledgment that as what might be termed ‘official marxism’ was collapsing around the world, notably Eastern Europe, there was a stepping back from it as a means of denying any previous association. Or just as worse, attempting to knock off, as it was seen, the more awkward bits. This can be seen, in the treatment of ‘Worldwrite’, of C.L.R.James, whose been turned from a political activist and political theoretician, into a distant man of letters and cricket.
So, why are Spiked wrong, in terms of how they view/explain enlightenment humanism. In my view, they mistake form with content, they claim that they do not want to return back to a venerated past. Yet each serious article/conference they hold on this subject says otherwise. Just as importantly, I do not think that their views on enlightenment humanism can be separated from their social conservatism.
As far as they are concerned there is no longer in the west, phenomena such as; racism, imperialism, women’s and gay oppression. They regard the main problem, as they see it the “nanny state”, (a term that from its inception was coined by forces of the right here in the UK), as being a barrier towards people’s potential.
On one, level, they would be in accordance with Marx who called for a “withering away of the state”, but when he said this, this was as part of the w/c sizing the means of production. Many of the Spiked supporters want to see the state disappear (many of them are now members of the petite bourgeoise with eyes on better things) and are not concerned with its replacement of anything better.
Keeping people ‘lean and mean’, seems to be a policy that veers between a sort of Max Max (the remake) dystopia and capitalism unleashed from the states shackles. Either way, it smacks of the sort of authoritarianism they claim to be against. Last year, Spiked published what might be termed its economic policy. This was significant as up until that point the conclusions to the majority of their articles had ended with calling upon people to resist; nudge policies, PC culture, etc but no real vision worth any practicality of what they wanted beyond that. It was though, pointed out to me, that if those economic policies were carried out, that the economic retrenchment needed could only be done along the lines of the complete immiseration of the working class.
They think that because of laws against discrimination and on human rights, that this is a barrier on people’s innate freedom’s. There is an added irony here, in that though the original bill of rights recorded that people had certain inalienable rights, they excluded women and ethnic minorities, precisely because they were not regarded as human. Therefore it was perfectly logical to discriminate against them, so for an organisation that wants people to shake off the shackles of the state, they are effectively arguing for a state, that will have inequality built in .
They seem unable to conceive the fact that current bourgeoise, capitalist society, has been able to make certain concessions, sometimes through the sustained political pressure from unions, oppressed groups and at other times if it feels that the common good will not be too much disturbed. But the cause of the current anti enlightenment thought seems to be for Spiked, to be a case of secular original sin. We have fallen from grace because we no longer believe in God and Shakespeare, or as the Russian poet Yvgenny Yuteshenko wrote, “we no longer believe…in our…old, great books”.
If I understand them correctly, the retreat from “enlightenment values” is that of the tolerance of being intolerance. By that, I presume they mean that the right to issue a racial slur against black people is more important than a black persons right not to be insulted.
I have tried to be fair in my summation of where Spiked stands on Enlightenment humanism. The Enlightenment and Humanism have a long and complicated history and this means that all sides can pick out the bits they find convenient. In the case of Spiked, they can quite rightly point to the present pessimism in Western society.
It ignores the fact though that the Enlightenment and humanism, apart from meaning different things to different sections, did not spring, unlike Athena from the head of Zeus, fully formed and armed. It’s formulation came about as a two-fold reaction to the authoritarianism of the church and also the feudalism of the aristocracy. But it also arose as a means to kick- start an economic system that went beyond crude capital accumulation.
The Spiked approach to enlightenment humanism is very strange, on the one hand they exhort people to think for themselves, yet by their own admission they have given up and indeed are hostile to revolutionary politics.
They claim that there is no longer a left or right, yet almost invariably side with the right. They claim imperialism no longer exists yet come very close to celebrating Israel taking a stand against USA telling it what to do, as if somehow this is ‘anti-imperialist’. Those are just a few examples, and on the left, Spiked have a (not unfounded) reputation of being “contrarian”.
They seem to want a 21st century with all the gadgets and gizmo’s that money can buy with a 19th/early 20th century cultural aesthetic. For all of their railing against what they see as society’s low expectations, I think they reveal a deeper pessimism themselves, in that, they see capitalist society as the only game in town. They cannot conceive, that as Emily Dickinson said, “this world is not conclusion”.