By Peter Linebaugh
Originally published in The Boston Review
Every great historical epoch in the freedom struggle raises the question: what is a human? The answer changes, to quote Askia Muhammad Toure of the Revolutionary Action Movement, with “the Gong of History.” Amid all the confusing din of history, a note may sound that makes it audible and intelligible.
Yet the answer is always contested, and it may be lost in ideological noise. For instance, five hundred years ago, with the slaughter of millions of Native Americans, with the witch-burnings and demonization of women, with the voyages to Africa and the commencement of the Atlantic slave trade, the ideology of humanism functioned to cover up these crimes. French surrealists of the early twentieth century denounced Western humanism as justification of slavery, colonialism, and genocide in an essay called “Murderous Humanitarianism.” Walter Johnson’s critique of “the rights-based notion of the human being at the heart of the historiography of slavery” is part of this tradition. His broader project is to criticize the humanitarian excuses of neoliberal imperialism.
I want to make two general but related points. The first concerns “human” and the gong of history. The second concerns “capital” when history clangs.
• • •
Johnson quotes Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question,” written in 1843, to show the limitations of “political emancipation”—political as opposed to human. I agree with this opposition, and I am sympathetic to Johnson’s use of it to expose certain forms of humanism as imperial apologia, scholarly protocol, or neoliberal trope. But I do not think we should let these distortions have exclusive dibs on the human. A redemptive humanism is already implicit on the other side of the distinction Johnson invokes, and it is made fully explicit in Marx’s writing of the following year. There we find a humanism that reaches back before the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, that sustained freedom struggles after the carnage of World War II, and that can guide us forward.
The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 were first translated into English in 1947 by Grace Lee Boggs, the Hegelian scholar in the workers’ movement and close associate of C. L. R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya. The background to this important translation was war. Europe had shown itself capable of genocide within its own boundaries as well as in the colonial world. The oppressed people of Asia and Africa demanded liberation from European empires.
The humanism that emerged from these newly available Marx texts was the key to a trenchant postwar critique of the racism-capitalism nexus. Indeed “humanism” rather than “revisionism” was the watchword for those departing the orbit of the communist parties but who did not abandon revolutionary Marxism. At the heart of this humanism were Marx’s notions of labor and alienation, conceived as punishment and as suffering. “Production does not produce man only as a commodity, the human commodity, man in the form of a commodity,” Marx wrote. “It also produces him as a mentally and physically dehumanized being.” The crux was alienation: alienation from self, alienation from production, alienation from product, alienation from others. For Marx the opposite to this is “species-being,” fully emancipated humanity. As Grace Lee Boggs’s group Facing Reality would later write:
was concerned with the activity of the workers. By value production, he
meant production which expanded itself through degradation and
dehumanization of the worker to a fragment of a man. The essence of
capitalist production is that it is a dynamically developing relation by
which the dead labor in the machine, created by the workers, oppresses
and degrades to abstract labor the living worker which it employs.
The solution was “the construction of a new society from the bottom up.”
Looking quickly at the last two centuries, we can present the
evolution of this humanism in three statements. Each arose from a
massive movement of popular forces compelling the ruling class to
respond with political repression, economic innovation, or imperial
expansion. Each propelled the organized and spontaneous actions of the
oppressed and exploited, giving heart where despair, fatalism, and
servility had prevailed. And each line expressed a real or imagined
African American voice. These summations arose from the struggle, and
the struggle was forced to be not just a material but also a spiritual
The gong of history sounds thrice.
Am I Not a Man and a Brother?
In 1787 one of Josiah Wedgwood’s craftsmen designed a cameo seal for the Abolition Society in London. Etched around a slave kneeling on one knee, unclothed but chained, is the question, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” Supplication on one knee indicates passage to Christianity; poor people knelt in church, while the rich did not. The “family of man” is suggested, as well as a secular notion of brotherhood, as in fraternité. The slogan summed up a movement that had been launched earlier, and it provided the standard to rally revolutionary developments in Haiti and France. Adam Hochschild cites this image of the supplicating—not rebellious—slave as among the many innovations of political organization and mobilization of public opinion.
Protestants led the formation of these abolitionist organizations: Olaudah Equiano, Thomas Clarkson, Ottobah Cugoano, Granville Sharp. Soon they broadened their focus to include issues of the working class as well, led by Thomas Hardy and Thomas Spence. In 1795 Spence struck a farthing with the Wedgwood’s image and slogan on it. He wanted to make English spelling easier, public health universal, swimming pools required in every parish, and land equalized among everybody. His coinage quoted Milton, “Man over Man he made not Lord.” Here, in short, was a conception of humanity that was anti-racist at the birth of “scientific” racism.
The seal spells out a question; it does not declare or propose an answer. Its tone is not declarative like that of the Bill of Rights or the French Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen, both of which came later and quickly succumbed to hypocrisy. It does not conceal a hidden political agenda, whether monarchy, republic, or commonweal. The gong of history sounded brotherhood. Women sounded it next.
And Ar’n’t I a Woman?
is the question attributed in 1851 in Akron, Ohio, to the tall, gaunt
black woman, Sojourner Truth, when she marched deliberately into the
church where the Women’s Convention was meeting, walking with “the air
of a queen up the aisle [to] take her seat upon the pulpit steps.” She
whispered and thundered by turns.
“And how came Jesus into the world?” she asked in her speech to the group.
Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where is your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.
Then, from her speech as remembered in 1863, she spoke of labor.
I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me—and ar’n’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear de lash as well—and ar’n’t I a woman? . . . If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn de world upside down all alone, dese women togedder (and she glanced her eye over the platform) ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!
To turn the world upside down was the revolutionary call by Paul against the Roman Empire, and it entered into the phraseology of the oppressed whenever hope joined desperation to produce historical miracles—the Peasants’ Revolt, the English Revolution, National Liberations. In Truth’s formulation of the biblical stories, the mythic originator of sin—Eve—becomes the mythic savior of the world.
Her speech preceded the Civil War, the war of emancipation. It was
during the war that the word “miscegenation” was coined to bad-mouth the
Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and to nullify the possibility of
human beings of mixed race. This racist neologism was a political ploy
against Lincoln and emancipation: it has done incalculable damage to the
love of people of any color. The ugly term was a cunning semantic
intervention against gender and sexual freedom.
No wonder that more than a hundred years later, black women might still suffer from “the feeling of craziness,” as the Combahee River Collective Statement (1977) put it. The statement continued, “Above all else, our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of our need as human persons for autonomy.” The statement concluded, “This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. . . . We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.”
In that phrase, “levelly human,” we hear faint reverberations from when the gong of history was struck by the Levellers, the radical abolitionists of the 1640s. It strikes again in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
I Am a Man
Before emancipation the gong of history asked questions; afterward it began to make declarations. “I Am a Man” was the slogan of the striking garbage and sewage workers of Memphis, led by afscme Local 1733 in April 1968. Commenting to the press, Reverend James Lawson said, “For at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person. You are human beings. You are men. You deserve dignity.” Lawson’s words embody the message behind the strikers iconic placards, “I Am a Man.” Dr. King joined the supporters the day before his assassination and spoke against starvation wages, reminding everyone that garbage and sewage workers benefited “humanity.” The strikers were not claiming the rights of citizenship; their slogan was not “I Am a Citizen.” Instead it expressed radical subjectivity.
• • •
In these three soundings of the gong of history we hear humanism, human nature, as historical rather than ontological. Its meaning is contested and in motion, an evolving construct of self-activity. These three variations of it—fraternité, sisterhood, and manhood—cannot be separated from the history that gave birth to them: the Haitian and French revolutions, the American Civil War, and the liberation movements of 1968 amidst the Vietnam War.
This brings me to my second general point, which concerns Johnson’s notion of capital and his interpretation of Marx on this matter. He asks us to reconsider “the most basic distinction in political economy: the distinction between capital and labor.” This is true of classical political economy, but it is not true of Marx’s critique of political economy. Marx, like Johnson, says that the slaves were both capital and labor, drawing this conclusion from the fact that planters used slaves as collateral for loans.
Capitalism dehumanizes; one way it does so is by machines. This point is key to Marx but erased in Johnson’s criticism of the rhetoric of dehumanization. Revolution by capital is the introduction of machines, “technological progress”; revolution against capital opposes this as oppressive and degrading. In 1957 Emmett Till was lynched and thrown in the Tallahatchie River with part of a cotton gin tied round his neck to sink him. In 1968 a mechanical malfunction crushed to death two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, as they sought refuge from the rain in the back of their compressor trucks; Memphis city rules prohibiting refuge elsewhere. The Detroit auto proletariat fought this regime of the machine—of the reduction of men to machines, of the crushing of men by machines—by criticizing what they called “n—-rmation.” A forbidden term, the N-word, monkey-wrenched the classical discourse of political economy that separated labor and capital. As a political neologism of racist production, “n—-rmation” resembles the political neologism of racialized reproduction, “miscegenation.” Capital is not an inert thing of economic progress but a human relation of exploitation. To the worker, machines were deadly and could be torture. They clash with workers, even devour them. The gong of history discordantly clangs!
• • •
Other variations of humanism as antidote to Marx’s alienation arose throughout the later twentieth century. It played a significant role in the radical Zeitgeist expressed in French literature, Catholic philosophy, Protestant theology, and in the work of thinkers such as Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, and E. P. Thompson.
Fromm championed the “humanist socialism” of Georg Lukacs and Ernst Bloch. For him “the dehumanization of man” was evidenced by the cruelties of Hitler and Stalin. “The whole human race,” he wrote in 1961, “is today the prisoner of the nuclear weapons it has created, and of the political institutions which are equally of its own making.” The point is made very clearly by Mills:
Marx is thoroughly and
consistently humanist. A positive image of man, of what man might come
to be, lies under every line of his analysis of what he held to be an
inhuman society. His conception of ‘alienation’ alone—his analysis of
the meaning of work under capitalism—is enough to reveal his humanism.
Thompson adapted the concept to the founding of the New Left in England in 1957. He left the Communist Party with a blazing attack on Stalinist ideology, and he did so in the name of “socialist humanism”—contrasting the “twisted inhumanity” of frozen ideological caricatures to “real men and women.” He asserted “the humanist content of ‘real’ Communism,” chronicling “the revolt against inhumanity, the revolt against dogmatism and abstraction of the heart.”
It is true that, despite the chronological overlap between the American civil rights movement and the founding of the New Left, Thompson did not turn his attention to the alienation inherent in racism or to the humanity inherent in Black Power. Yet the socialist humanism of the New Left had profound influences. The Bandung conference of twenty-nine countries met in April 1955 to oppose colonialism and found the Non-Aligned Movement. Its ten-point program respected “fundamental human rights” and recognized “the equality of all races.” The American activist and autoworker James Boggs spoke in 1970 of “the contradiction between the humane pretensions of this society, and its actual antihuman practices.” To oppose American economic overdevelopment and political underdevelopment he called for “a new breed of socially and politically conscious and responsible human beings.” Ella Baker likewise called for the rethinking and redefinition of most personal and intimate identities. For her, Barbara Ransby writes, “personal relations were key building blocks for a new, more human social order and for a successful revolutionary movement. It is in this sense that Ella Baker was a humanist.” To create a new world, Baker says, “requires understanding that human beings are human beings.”
The Revolutionary Action Movement was formed in Cleveland in 1962. It linked the struggle against racism in the United States with national liberation movements abroad. In 1965 it published an essay expounding the theory of “Bandung humanism” that placed the struggle between the Third World and imperialism as the central contradiction of the age, not the struggle between capital and labor. “How long,” Toure asked, “does the white ‘Free World’ have before the Gong of History announces the Storm?”