Paul Mason’s Socialist Humanist Manifesto

Public intellectuals of the Left usually expend their time and energy on anti-imperialism, anti-militarism, anti-racism, and less frequently, anti-capitalism. They often see their role, in the muckraker tradition, as one of “exposing” the system. One problem with such an approach is that it elides the question of what we are for, of a humanist vision of a future that could replace this system, so rotten to the core that it has turned up the likes of Trump and the neofascist U.S. Republican Party. But simply exposing all this can easily end in cynicism rather than a socialist humanist framework that can undergird the kind of sustained movement we need to uproot the system.

One public intellectual has increasingly stepped into this void, however, the British economic journalist, tech critic, and political commentator Paul Mason, who was a BBC journalist and now writes regularly for New StatesmanGuardian, and other venues with large audiences. In a series of books, he has surveyed the global revolts at the time of Occupy and the Arab Spring and has put forth arguments concerning the future of work, or rather a future based upon leisure time if we could overcome the capital relation while still retaining much of the system’s technology.

Among Mason’s recent books, Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being (Allen Lane, 2019, the title is drawn from a declaration by Leon Trotsky), stands out as a manifesto of socialist humanism that takes on neoliberal ideology and the cyberworld of contemporary capitalism. He also delivers a withering critique not only their basic anti-humanism, but also the anti-humanism of the academic left, still too much in the shadow of postmodernism, which he charges with helping to open the road toward the present state of affairs.

Mason begins with a stark declaration: “We are facing the biggest attack on humanism since it was formulated in the days of Shakespeare and Galileo” (p. 10). These threats are emerging from artificial intelligence, neuroscience and information theory, retrograde regimes that are hostile to human rights, and “free-market” economics.

Mason is also conversant with radical humanist thinkers like Frantz Fanon and Raya Dunayevskaya, and with their anti-humanist counterparts like Claude Lévi-Strauss and Louis Althusser.

This ground has been covered before, but the power of Mason’s account lies in his facility with the broad threats to humanism mentioned above. The first of these, “free market” ideology, creates a “neoliberal self” characterized by “a systematic selfishness, risk-calculation and conformist consumption,” none of which are as new as the notions “that borrowing is good, and that no matter how badly financial markets crash, nothing bad ever happens” (p. 50). Thus, even the poor, the precariat, and the young are pushed to borrow huge amounts. Trumpism and Brexit are cast as new forms of neoliberalism, reconstituted after the 2008 crash as a new more overtly “nationalist neoliberalism,” put forward with campaigns of hate against people of color, immigrants, and women (p. 71). (It is of course debatable as to whether Trumpism is a reconfiguration of neoliberalism, or a successor form of state-capitalism.) Citing Erich Fromm and Theodor Adorno, Mason notes that contemporary authoritarian nationalists lurch toward fascism when they develop a “willingness to label their opponents inhuman” (p. 99). In particular, Mason draws on Fromm’s last major book, Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, wherein Fromm writes that under fascism “man himself is hardly distinguishable from a robot” (cited on p. 189), something Mason calls an ethic of “voluntary extinction” not unconnected to fascism’s overt worship of death and destruction (p. 189).

Another new element Mason considers is the “alt-right,” which does things in cyberspace it would be blocked from carrying out in real social space, as especially seen in its violently misogynist social media attacks. The genius of this new form of rightwing ideology is its constant claim that its own free speech is being denied. Another new element is the surge of disinformation and abuse, which has led many to recoil from cyberspace, leaving even more of the field to the alt-right and its allies. Mason considers these developments responses to the revolutionary wave 2011-2013, which led to still newer aspects:

From around mid-2013 the elites evolved three strategic responses to networked protest movements: censorship, the creation of elite-controlled information bubbles, and ultimately the flood of fake news. Only the last one really worked, and for an obvious reason: it was the only strategy that leveraged the power of the network against itself. (p. 198)

Nowhere was this more evident than with Trumpism and Brexit.

Mason links this popular anti-humanism to what he calls the dominant ideology’s “mysticism about machines” (p. 116). After reviewing issues surrounding artificial intelligence and other recent developments, he declares, “The new mysticism of science is one of the strongest underpinnings of the anti-humanism that pervades” current discourse (p. 129). It has led some to claim that “the possibility of human freedom is already constrained; soon, computing machines will become more powerful than our brains and free will is going to become impossible” (p. 130).

Mason goes on to critique academic forms of anti-humanism, from poststructuralism to posthumanism, including Donna Haraway’s notion that we are already cyborgs. Here, he devotes particular attention to Althusser’s notion of history as a process without a subject, a theory that leaves almost no room for resistance or revolution due to its denial of the subject. For Althusser himself, who still wanted revolution despite espousing a type of theory that negated its possible emergence from the existing working class or other social forces, an elitist “escape hatch” presented itself: “the Leninist theory of party and revolution, which says a small group of intellectuals and advanced workers are needed to break the masses out of their passivity” and thus “force open the door of history” (p. 176). Michel Foucault picked up the notion of process without a subject and “proceeded to remove every other dynamic that might make sense of material reality, capital, laws of motion and — ultimately — the knowability of the world” (p. 177).

In response to the various anti-humanist pressures that still show much power even today, Mason unfurls a full-throated socialist humanism, basing himself in part on Marx’s concept of species being or essence [Gattungswesen] in the 1844 Manuscripts. Pushing back against much contemporary academic radical discourse, Mason unabashedly advances a series of species characteristics that he considers to be “unique” to human beings: constant learning, consciousness and reason; imagining before creating; living in ordered groups; and language (p. 138). Clearly, most of these concepts can be found in Marx. (While Mason acknowledges that “chimps and baboons” share living in groups with us, one wishes here for a bit more discussion of what commonalities between humans and other animals.)

In this light, Mason surveys the dominant ethical systems of today, from Mill’s greatest good for the greatest number and what it leaves behind, to Rawls’s liberal accommodation to the logic of capital, to Nietzschean anti-humanism, in order to come down in favor of an ethic of helping human beings to realize their full potential within a community, rooted of course in Aristotle but going up through Marx.

This long quote gives the flavor of Mason’s version of socialist humanism:

To defend humanism, we need, of course, to rescue the idea from Eurocentrism: but I do not want to replace it with cultural relativism. As we defend the values of the Renaissance, the scientific method, the Enlightenment and the radical humanism of Marx, we are not defending something specifically ‘white,’ male or even European. We are defending, for example, the achievements of Islamic humanism — maths, algorithms, jurisprudence and the rediscovery of Aristotle’s writings between the sixth and the thirteenth centuries CE. We are defending the wisdom of the freed African slave and playwright Terence, who wrote in 13 BCE: ‘nothing human is alien to me’.

Like black liberation theorist Frantz Fanon, I want humanism to expand so that it can acknowledge and make reparations for the crimes committed by Europeans in the developing world, not ignore them. I want a form of humanism that is not centred on ‘man’ but on men and women. Because women’s biological difference from men has been for tens of thousands of years the justification for domestic slavery and oppression, and because these survive alongside women’s participation in the workforce, humanism has to incorporate a female idea of freedom that diverges in some respects from the male idea.

To the question ‘are we already post-human?’ I want everyone reading this book to make a conscious choice: to answer no. (p. 190)

Mason entitles the penultimate section of the book simply “Marx,” which he begins with an epigraph from Dunayevskaya: “Marxism is a theory of liberation or it is nothing.” (p. 207). Here, Mason effectively puts forward Marx’s critique of alienation, also noting, vs. the crude materialism of so many forms of anti-humanism, that Marx “fused… idealism and materialism” (p. 211). Unfortunately, at this juncture, Mason also wrongly charges Marx with neglecting gender and with an uncritical productivism. While distancing himself from “the despairing social commentaries” of “Marcuse, Adorno, and Horkheimer,” Mason finds “of more relevance for us today the Marxist humanism of thinkers like Raya Dunayevskaya, the Chicago labour organiser who first translated the 1844 manuscripts; and the self-proclaimed ‘radical humanism’ of figures like Erich Fromm” (p. 241).

Mason’s concluding chapters offer some thoughts on how to fight the looming fascist threat. These include: (1) the need for the radical left and the liberal center to form a strategic alliance against fascism, (2) efforts to prevent conservative parties from going fascist, and (3) fighting for economic measures to relieve the suffering of working-class communities, some of whose white elements have leaned toward fascism of late. Here, Mason might have added direct attacks on racism as would be seen in the international Black Lives Matter movement of 2020.

In Clear Bright Future, Paul Mason has written, in highly popular yet also theoretically serious form, a real manifesto of socialist humanism for the 2020s. In so doing, he operates in the tradition of Erich Fromm, who attacked the capitalist war machine and put forth a version of socialist humanism, all the while separating himself from the authoritarian state capitalist systems of the Soviet Union and China. Fromm also critiqued the conformist capitalist culture of the 1950s, showing its fundamental affinities to a more radical and destructive form born out of severe economic and political distress, Nazism in Germany. Like Fromm, Mason poses socialist humanism and the humanism of Marx as an alternative to the technocratic and propagandistic dominant discourses of our times.

This book, which also exhibits affinities to the type of Marxist-Humanism being developed in the International Marxist-Humanist Organization, should be read by everyone seeking a political and philosophical orientation in these turbulent times.