Back in September, I wrote an essay about Judith Butler and the controversy over her winning the Adorno Prize. It touched off a debate in Pandaemonium, less because of my defence of Butler’s right to win the prize than my criticism of her work and, in particular, of her poststructuralism. I noted then that I have written little directly on Butler’s main theme, gender, but much, in the context of the debate about race, on poststructuralist / postmodernist conceptions of difference, identity, equality and agency. That critique is scattered across  a number of books – in particular The Meaning of RaceMan, Beast and Zombie and Strange Fruit. I promised to delve into the archives, as it were, and publish some extracts from those books. The first –  on Edward Said, Michel Foucault and the concept of the Other – I posted last month. This second extract, also from The Meaning of Race, is not so much a critique of poststructuralism as part of an explanation of how certain key themes in poststructuralist thought – in particular hostility to humanism and to Enlightenment ideas of rationalism and universalism – that once had been seen as the province of reaction came to be major currents in radical thought.

One of  the problems in republishing extracts is that while essays and blog posts are generally self-contained, book extracts rarely are. In a book the argument runs through the whole work. Any extract necessarily assumes familiarity with arguments that have already been set out and builds up to conclusions that arrive only later in the book. At the same time, The Meaning of Race is now almost 20 years old. Many of the ideas that may have been barely formulated or ill-constructed in the book I have developed much further since then; some have changed quite considerably. I have, for instance, reworked the arguments about Frantz Fanon, the tradition that he represents and the legacy that he left. My forthcoming book on the history of moral thought contains new perspectives on humanism within both the liberal and Marxist traditions. Nevertheless, despite these shifts and changes, I hope that an extract such as this is still useful, both because I still stand by much of what is here and because it is, as always, a good starting point for debate.

Edited extract from The Meaning of Race
(Macmillan, 1996), pp 236-242

Associated with the anti-universalist stance of poststructuralist theories has been an unremitting hostility to a humanist approach. At the heart of humanism are two key ideas. First, humanists hold that human beings, while an inherent part of nature and subject to its laws, nevertheless have an exceptional status in nature because of the unique ability, arising out of human rationality and sociability, to overcome the constraints placed upon them by nature. Second, humanists believe in the unity of humankind, holding that all humans possess something in common, a something that is often described as a common ‘human nature’.

The humanist outlook has expressed itself in a variety of political forms, from liberalism to Marxism. Liberal humanists tend to view human nature as possessing a static eternal quality. David Hume, for instance, argued that ‘there is a great uniformity among acts of men, in all nations and ages, and that human nature remains the same in its principles and operations’.1 Marx, on the other hand, saw the human essence as a social and historical construction. ‘The human essence’, he wrote, ‘is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.’2 In other words, ‘historical humanism’, as Georg Lukacs called it, sees ‘man’ not as simply as naturally given but also ‘as a product of himself and of his own activity in history’.3

Whether liberal or Marxist, underlying all humanist strands is a belief in human emancipation – the idea that humankind can rationally transform society through the agency of its own efforts. Indeed, no emancipatory philosophy is possible without a humanist perspective, for any antihumanist outlook is forced to look outside of humanity for the agency of salvation. Conversely, no humanist outlook is possible without an accompanying belief in human rationality and capacity for social progress.

Antihumanist strands developed from the Enlightenment onwards, largely in opposition to the idea of rational human emancipation. Just as there have been a number of strands of humanism, so there have been an number of different strands of antihumanism, ranging from the conservatism of Burke, the Catholic reaction of de Maistre to the nihilism of Nietzsche and the Nazism of Heidegger. All rejected Enlightenment rationalism and the idea of social progress because they despaired of the capacity of humankind for such rational progress. Such despair often emerged out of fear of, and contempt for, the masses, who were seen as irrational, atavistic and a threat to civilized society. Antihumanism rejected ideas of equality and human unity, celebrating instead difference and divergence, and exalting the particular and the authentic over the universal.

Antihumanism developed, therefore, as a central component of elite theories and hence of racial theories. In the postwar era, however, antihumanism came to represent a very different tradition – the liberal, indeed radical, anticolonial and antiracist outlook. In the hands of such critics as Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Louis Althuser, among others, antihumanism became a key weapon in the interrogation of racist and imperialist discourses. ‘Humanism’, Sartre wrote in his famous preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, ‘is nothing but an ideology of lies, a perfect justification for pillage; its honeyed words, its affectations of sensibility were only alibis for our aggression.’4

How did a philosophical outlook that originated with conservative, anti-emancipatory politics, and which was a key component of racial theory, become a central motif of radical antiracist, anti-imperialist doctrines? And how did philosophers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, whose work was previously seen as paving the way for twentieth century racist and fascist ideologies, become icons of antiracist discourse? Understanding this puzzle will go a long way towards explaining the relationship between theories of race and contemporary discourse of difference.

There were two main strands to postwar radical antihumanism. One developed out of anticolonial struggles, the other through Western (and in particular French) academic philosophy, and was subsequently elaborated through the ‘new social movements’ that emerged in the late Sixties and Seventies.

In The Wretched of the Earth, Martinique-born Algerian nationalist Frantz Fanon gave voice to the rage of colonial peoples against their inhuman treatment at the hands of the imperialist powers. The humanist idea of ‘Man’, wrote Fanon, which lay at the heart of the Western post-Enlightenment tradition, was achieved through the dehumanizing of the non-Western Other:

The same Europe where they were never done talking of Man, and where they never stopped proclaiming that they were only anxious for the welfare of Man: today we know what sufferings humanity has paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind.5

Europeans only became human, suggested Fanon, by denying humanity to their colonial Other. As Sartre put it, ‘Humanism is the counterpart of racism: it is a practice of exclusion’.6 According to Sartre, ‘There is nothing more consistent than a racist humanism since the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters’.7 To maintain a belief in humanism while treating non-European people as animals, Europeans declared that non-Europeans were in fact subhuman. Herein lies the source of racial theory in humanism, Sartre insisted. At the same, argued Fanon, humanists salved their conscience by inviting the subhuman colonial Other to become human by imitating ‘European Man’:

Western bourgeois racial prejudice as regards the nigger and the Arab is a racism of contempt; it is a racism which minimizes what it hates. Bourgeois ideology, however, which is the proclamation of an essential equality between men, manages to appear logical in its won eyes by inviting the subhuman to become human, to take as their prototype Western humanity as incarcerated in the Western bourgeoisie.8

The category ‘human’ was devoid of meaning, many critics asserted, because it was ahistoric. The invocation of a common human nature hid the fact that human nature is socially and historically constructed. According to anthropologist James Clifford, ‘[I]t is a general feature of humanist common denominators that they are meaningless, since they bypass local cultural codes that make personal experience articulate’.9 When humanists assert the universality of human nature, what they are really talking about are the particular human values expressed in European society. ‘[T]hose universal features that define the human’, argues the historian and critic Robert Young, ‘mask over the assimilation of human itself with European values’. The category of human, ‘however exalted in its conception’ is ‘too often invoked only in order to put the male before the female, or to classify other “races” as sub-human, and therefore not subject to the ethical prescriptions applicable to humanity at large’.10

Third world critics did not, however, reject humanism in its entirety. Fanon, for instance, recognized that the contradiction lay not so much in humanism as in the disjuncture between the ideology of humanism and the practice of colonialism:

All the elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity have, at different times, existed in European thought. But Europeans have not carried out in practice the mission which fell to them, which consisted of bringing their whole weight to bear violently upon these elements, of modifying their arrangements and their nature of changing them and, finally, of bringing the problem of mankind to an infinitely higher plain.11

Fanon called, therefore, for a new humanism, stripped of its racist, Eurocentric aspects:

Let us decide not to imitate Europe: let us combine our muscle and our brains in a new direction. Let us try to create a new man, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth.12

For Fanon, then, the humanist idea of ‘the whole man’ was key to emancipation. Despite the critique of Western humanism, as a camouflage for the dehumanization of non-Western peoples, humanism remained a central component of the ideology of Third World liberation struggles of the postwar era, virtually all of which drew on the emancipatory logic of universalism. Indeed, Western radicals were often shocked by the extent to which anticolonial struggles adopted what the radicals conceived of as tainted ideas. The concepts of universalism and social progress, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss observed, found ‘unexpected support from peoples who desire nothing more than to share in the benefits of industrialisation; peoples who prefer to look upon themselves as temporarily backward than permanently different’.13 Elsewhere he noted ruefully that the doctrine of cultural relativism ‘was challenged by the very people for whose moral benefit the anthropologists had established it in the first place’.14

The willingness of Third World radicals to maintain at least a residual support for a humanist outlook stemmed from their continued engagement in the project of liberation. Postwar radicals in the West, however, increasingly rejected humanism, not simply in its guise as a cover for racism and colonialism, but in its entirety. For postwar European intellectuals the most pressing problem was not that of establishing the ideological foundations of liberation struggles but rather of coming to terms with the demise of such struggles in Western democracies. Western intellectuals had, on the one had, to excavate the social and intellectual roots of the Nazi experience, an experience that more than any other weighed upon the European intellectual consciousness in the immediate postwar period, and on the other, to explain why the possibilities of revolutionary change, which had seemed so promising in the early part of the century, appeared to have been extinguished. For many the explanation lay in some deep-seated malaise in European culture.

Postwar radicals had asked why it was that Germany, a nation with deep roots in the Enlightenment and a strong and vibrant working class movement, should succumb so swiftly and so completely to Nazism. The answer seemed to be that it was the logic of Enlightenment rationalism itself and the nature of democratic politics that had given rise to such barbarism. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, founders of the Frankfurt School, put it in their seminal work, Dialectic of Enlightenment, ‘Enlightenment is totalitarian’.15 In Dialectic of Enlightenment Adorno and Horkheimer developed the two motifs – a critique of Enlightenment rationality and social progress, on the one hand, and of mass society on the other – that were to become immensely influential in shaping postwar discourse.

The idea that the Holocaust – and indeed all Western barbarism – found its roots in Enlightenment rationalism and humanism became a central tenet of postwar thought, as Lévi-Strauss explained in an interview in Le Monde:

All the tragedies we have lived through, first with colonialism, then with fascism, finally the concentration camps, all this has taken shape not in opposition to or in contradiction with so-called humanism in the form in which we have been practising it for several centuries but, I would say, almost its natural continuation.16

According to Lévi-Strauss, the Enlightenment ambition of mastering nature, of setting humanity above nature, inevitably had destructive consequences for humanity itself. A humanity which could enslave nature was quite capable of enslaving human beings. As the contemporary philosopher David Goldberg has put it, ‘Subjugation… defines the order of the Enlightenment: subjugation of nature by human intellect, colonial control through physical and cultural domination, and economic superiority through mastery of the laws of the market’.17 Mastery of nature and the rational organization of society, which in the nineteenth century had been seen as the basis for human emancipation, now came to be regarded as the source of human enslavement.

The idea that technological and social progress could be the cause of barbarism led many, and not just poststructuralists, to find evidence not simply of humanism but of the whole project of ‘modernity’ behind the Holocaust. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has suggested that the Final Solution was the ‘product’ not ‘failure’ of modernity and that ‘it was the rational world of modern civilization that made the Holocaust thinkable’.18 Bauman’s hint that ‘civilization’ itself may have been responsible for the barbarism of the Final Solution is made explicit by Richard Rubinstein who (in a phrase approvingly quoted by Bauman) argues that the Holocaust ‘bears witness to the advance of civilization’.19

The argument that humanism and rationalism (or ‘modernity’) are the causes of the Holocaust implies, in the words of the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, ‘not only that the speaker is disregarding or repressing the ideological roots of fascism in nineteenth century antihumanism… but also that the speaker is willfully cultivating a logical paradox, since he is complacently deducing the thesis of the inequality of man on the basis of human equality’.20

We have seen through this book how the discourse of race was a product of the degradation of Enlightenment humanism, universalism and reason. Scientific racism was not the application of science and reason to the question of human differences, but the use of the discourse of science to give legitimacy to irrational, unscientific arguments. The ‘Final Solution’ was implicit in the racial policies pursued by the Nazis. To engage in mass extermination it was necessary to believe that the objects of that policy were less than human. But to say that it was a rationally conceived plan is to elevate the prejudices of the Thrid Reich to the status of scientific knowledge – in other words to accept as true the very claims of racial discourse. As Todorov has put it, to attribute such ideas to Enlightenment humanism ‘is to take at face value what was only propaganda: an attempt, most often a clumsy one, to replaster the façade of a building constructed for quite a different purpose’.21


1David Hume, Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, VIII.1

2 Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach

3 Georg Lukacs, The Historical Novel (Merelin, 1962), pp28-9

4 Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Preface’ in Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Penguin, 1967), p21

5 Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p251

6 Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Vol1 (New Left Books, 1976), p752

7 Sartre, ‘Preface’ in Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p22

8 Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p131

9 James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Harvard University Press, p263)

10 Robert Young, White Mythologies (Routledge, 1990),  pp122, 123

11 Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p253

12 Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p252

13 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, vol2 (Penguin, 1978) p53

14 Claude Lévi-Strauss, The View from Afar (Penguin, 1987), p28

15 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (Verso, 1979), p 6

16 Cited in Tzvetan Todorov, On Human Diversity (Harvard University Press, 1993) p67

17 David Goldberg, Racist Culture (Blackwell, 1993), p29

18 Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Polity, 1989), pp6, 13

19 Richard Rubenstein, The Cunning of History (Harper Row, 1978), p91

20 Todorov, On Human Diversity,  p68

21 Todorov, On Human Diversity,  p67

One comment

  1. Thanks Kenan. I keep meaning to pick up The Meaning of Race, and am happy to read something here that motivates me (again) to do so. This is a timely mention of Zygmunt Bauman… Modernity and the Haulocaust is in my view a profound book… especially when so many Historians seem to explain the Holocaust as nothing more than a cascade of events resulting from a ruthless dictator that was able to take power; they suggest that there is nothing to learn but to prevent people like that from ever taking power again. This is shortighted and tragic; there are lessons to be learned.

    Bauman’s thesis gives the Holocaust the degree of thought it deserves, though unless I misunderstand, I seem to have a different take on his overall message (which must be digested as a whole). He seems to say that while modernity and notions of ‘progress’ were necessary for the Holocaust to occur, they were not sufficient conditions alone. I don’t think his thesis could be reduced to the belief that ‘Modernity caused the Holocaust.’ He was very suspicious of modernity, but he would not deny that human reason could be utilized in ways to to create a better society. The problem is when blind ideology is treated as absolute, and when ends are permitted to justify means in the name of progress. Bauman is especially critical of the ‘governments as gardeners’ attitude… that is, creating policies that control and manipulate notions of cultural purity or race in the name of human progress. Unless I am mistaken, I think this is close to your own position (e.g. as it relates to multiculturalism).

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