Essay: ‘We all can’t breathe’–Reflections on Marx’s Humanism and Fanon

From the January-February 2015 issue of News & Letters

by Mohammed Elnaiem

I do not carry innocence to the point of believing that appeals to reason or to respect for human dignity can alter reality. For the Negro who works on a sugar plantation in Le Robert, there is only one solution: to fight. He will embark on this struggle, and he will pursue it, not as the result of a Marxist or idealistic analysis but quite simply because he cannot conceive of life otherwise than in the form of a battle against exploitation, misery, and hunger.

—Frantz Fanon

As I reflect on the work of Karl Marx, I seek no fantastic solution to the deprivation of my humanity; I seek no organized scheme to offer me salvation, I can only narrate my own struggle. When James Baldwin recalled his flirtations with the Communist Party, he concluded that “it was dedicated to the liberation of all people—except me. It was again my liberation on their terms.” Today, at a time ignited with racial tensions, I am reminded that I am reflecting on Marxism as a Black man. I am writing this as I bear witness to an incarceration level of Black men higher than state-sanctioned slavery ever was, higher than it had ever been before the Emancipation Proclamation! I am reminded that there will be no justice for the lynchings of Emmett Till and Eric Garner. Concerned with this juridical enslavement, I write this with my sympathies lying on the side of “the dangerous class, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society” (Communist Manifesto).

Is it wrong for me to question whether or not history has progressed?

Upon reading the Marxist progression of history, and “the conditions under which feudal society produced and exchanged,” I was struck by how, as feudalism outlived its usefulness, “the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible”—in a sense, those very conditions “had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder” (Communist Manifesto). Feudalism was one of many ways that Man had come to learn to exploit humanity. Omnipotent, almost god-like, it was dethroned! This is what human beings are capable of.

Naturally, as a Black man, I asked myself: Why—through the dialectical crises of the social relations of production and the subsequent implosion of multiple outlived modes of production—has racism persisted like a stubborn leech? Why, despite the relations of property literally bursting asunder, does racism survive? How and why does racism, sexism, homophobia survive revolution after revolution? Will we again be left behind after the next revolution?

Emmet Till and Eric Garner, Assata Shakur and Rasmeah Odeh—where is the progress? Or as some enlightened and well-meaning liberals may ask, “Why are we still protesting this?”

“The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.” The response by Walter Benjamin, at least, is to move away from a historical analysis of the myth of “progress” to a historical materialist analysis of class struggle. The task is “to blast open the continuum of history”—it is, as Marx and Engels argued, the point when the very conditions of social life must, by necessity, burst asunder (Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”).

“This must be it, this must be the solution,” I ecstatically screamed. Perhaps the solution isn’t “progress”—perhaps it is taking up the mantle of liberation, compelling an end to history—not because it is inevitable, but because, by god, we won’t stop until it is won.

But then we were reminded by our comrades, “The class struggle is more important than your racial divisiveness.” We looked in incredulity, not so much at the monotonous and even hesitant tone, but because we Black men recall regurgitating the very same thing to Women, to our LGBTQ family—to our children. If I as a Black man demand the right to declare a class war against the ruling classes—then does not Valerie Solanas get offered the very same treatment?

I took a step back and looked at the wisdom behind the comments of the typical old guard socialist. In a world of multiple overlapping power structures, shall there be no one left when all class struggle is resolved?

I am not talking just about Freeman and Slave, Patrician and Plebeian, but White Man and Black Man, Black Man and Black Woman, White Man and Trans Woman, etc. I am talking about the multiple, coexisting social relations of domination—class struggle co-constituted by, but appearing outside of, the realm of political economy.

We were back to square one; it is funny how just asking these questions reignited my existential crisis at a time when I was sure that I could almost smell the diminishing scent of its ember. Convinced that I had almost grasped the right answers, I was suddenly enamored, yet burdened with the quest of finding the negation of the revolutionary negation, I was preoccupied with daring to imagine another world. I said to myself, “There is perhaps no progress, but there is class struggle. Maybe I am not equipped with the tools to blast open the continuum of history, as cruel a joke as it is—but the oppressed must pave the way forward.” Where then do we go from here? What of the question of the poor Blacks, who more often than not find themselves at the noose? Who is their exploiter, White America or the Black capitalist? I was wrong; I didn’t have all of the answers, especially to questions pertaining to blackness and poverty; I still don’t, but I am convinced of one thing—all intellectuals who claim to have all of the answers are, at least in my mind, suspect.

Fanon too was faced with the crisis of trying to conceptualize blackness and poverty:

“It would never occur to me to ask these Negroes to change their conception of history. I am convinced, however, that without even knowing it they share my views, accustomed as they are to speaking and thinking in terms of the present. The few working-class people whom I had the chance to know in Paris never took it on themselves to pose the problem of the discovery of a Negro past. They knew they were black, but, they told me, that made no difference in anything. In which they were absolutely right” (Fanon,  Black Skin, White Masks).

Frantz Fanon

Frantz Fanon

Quite simply, the working-class Black Man and Woman asks: What should I—the Black Man, or Woman, in this capitalistic power structure—have the right to demand in this brutal world I was thrown into? “I have one right alone, to demand human behavior from the other.”

The working-class Black demands human behavior. This is the Black man or woman who is not concerned with burrowing through historical African texts to define him or herself—the one who revolts not for reparations, nor to reclaim his or her stolen past, the fighter who is concerned with one thing alone: to survive. Survival is to this Black man or woman essential, this Black man or woman is confronted by both super-exploitation and a white power structure—this Black man or woman was born free, but is no longer human.

It is through the violence of the economy, through the oppressive, racist configurations of the forces of production from which one is deprived of humanity, deprived of the very right to dignity and life.

Now imagine, if you will, if you found this Black man selling illegal cigarettes in a corner of Staten Island. New York City’s cigarette tax is 5.85%, and by necessity a black market—in the double sense of the word—is created. Now imagine there were tens of millions of people engaging in this market, the thrown away, the abandoned, and the pauperized classes. This Black man, living in a country that has abandoned the idea that health is a right, was forced to quit his job due to asthma. Imagine that the customary standard of living required for him to live isn’t offered by the wage market.

He has been made redundant, he has joined “a relatively redundant working population, i.e., a population which is superfluous to capital’s average requirements for its own valorization, and is therefore a surplus population” (Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1). He looks around, and sees his brothers and sisters—who centuries earlier were forced out of Africa to build his economy—also made redundant, their lives devalued, their very existence terrorized through legal discrimination, police violence and underfunded schools.

Nevertheless, he persists—he survives even though he cannot demand human behavior from his society. He is confronted daily, the pigs terrorize him—they try every day, every time they see him, they want to mess with him. One day, he decides to stand up, he decides that “It stops today.”

It is on that day that he embodies the struggle for all of us to survive, the surplus population, the expendables; he embodies those of us who will someday meet his fate.1For more information on the notion of Black expendability being linked to the reserve army of labor, see Salar Mohandesi’s article “Who Killed Eric Garner?” in Jacobin magazine, 17 Dec. 2014. He decides that he’s done with just surviving, he is demanding human behavior. Naturally, the response from the police—the gatekeepers of estrangement—is to gang up on him, they essentially rape him without penetration, they find an erotic thrill, a power trip, from forcing his head to the pavement. He screams, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” We all can’t breathe, none of us—the wretched of the earth, the lumpenproletariat, the incarcerated—and one day we won’t breathe, and many of us won’t be remembered.

The surplus population, those deemed unproductive by the white power structure, they cannot breathe. The family member of a murdered innocent teen, the next potential victim of a drone strike, she cannot breathe. The next person to be incarcerated for simple credit card fraud, he cannot breathe. The Transgender homeless woman, who is prevented from living, eating, sleeping and masturbating—the perks of private property—can no longer breathe.

“It is not because the Indo-Chinese has discovered a culture of his own that he is in revolt. It is because ‘quite simply’ it was, in more than one way, becoming impossible for him to breathe” (Fanon,  Black Skin, White Masks).

After this pondering, this has become my conclusion—as I reflect on Marxism, the only salvation I can find in the work of Marx must necessarily be through reading his work through the lens of his humanism. I do this, because I cannot rely on deterministic readings of the Communist Manifesto (which I contend is not a deterministic text), nor can I rely on any Communist Party for my liberation.

Karl Marx

Throughout my readings of Marx, I have tried to tease out this dimension of his work—I painstakingly read each word I could find that would point me to this direction—not knowing that it was existent all along. I turned to the philosophical and economic manuscripts, which became a guide for me—“labor, capital, landed property, exchange and competition” (Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts)—it was illuminated to me that the very investigations within the study of Capital Vol. 1 (with methodological changes adopted in The German Ideology) depended entirely on the “connection between the entire system of estrangement [Entfremdung] and the money system” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts).

It became clear that, despite cosmetic changes, the epistemological basis for his schematic continued to pit estrangement against the money system, just as the epistemological basis for Frantz Fanon’s investigations of settler violence was to pit estrangement against colonialism. In other words, Marx, unlike the political economists that preceded him, looked not to take universals a priori, but instead sought to deconstruct and ultimately challenge them in search of a more universal truth, the truly liberated human being. Every aspect of historical materialism should be henceforth subjected to its relationship with estrangement. This is a truly liberated reading of Capital!

A clarification is in order: I am not advocating an abandonment of the schematics of Marx, nor an abandonment of his scientific method. I, like others before me, am merely calling for a rereading.2In response to writers like Althusser who insist that there is a split between “Young Marx” and an “Older Marx,” Raya Dunayevskaya writes: “Humanism gives Marx’s magnum opus its force and direction. Yet most Western scholars of Marxism are content either to leave the relationship between the now famous Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and Capital implicit, or to make the continuity explicit only insofar as the ethical foundations of Marxism are concerned” (Dunayevskaya, Raya, “Marx’s Humanism Today,” 1965).

Recall that in the Communist Manifesto, Marx argues that “The theory of the communists can be summarized in one sentence. The abolition of private property,” whereas in the philosophical and economic manuscripts, he argues that “Private property thus derives from an analysis of the concept of alienated labor, i.e., alienated man, estranged labor, estranged life, estranged man.

Estrangement in capitalism stems from appropriated labor, the denial of human autonomy; estrangement in racism stems from the denial of human autonomy by dehumanization. I as a Black man struggle, not because of the preordained dialectical material future that exists in the minds of the USSR ghost; just as my ancestors did, I struggle because I can no longer breathe.

References   [ + ]

1. For more information on the notion of Black expendability being linked to the reserve army of labor, see Salar Mohandesi’s article “Who Killed Eric Garner?” in Jacobin magazine, 17 Dec. 2014.
2. In response to writers like Althusser who insist that there is a split between “Young Marx” and an “Older Marx,” Raya Dunayevskaya writes: “Humanism gives Marx’s magnum opus its force and direction. Yet most Western scholars of Marxism are content either to leave the relationship between the now famous Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and Capital implicit, or to make the continuity explicit only insofar as the ethical foundations of Marxism are concerned” (Dunayevskaya, Raya, “Marx’s Humanism Today,” 1965).

0 thoughts on “Essay: ‘We all can’t breathe’–Reflections on Marx’s Humanism and Fanon

  1. This essay is a fine example of the connection between Marx and Fanon, i.e., the universality of humanism. In addition, it shows the relevancy of both men to our present world. The continuum of humanity to overthrow the incubus of estranged life was the gist of what Marx and Fanon made their central focus. If an effort is made by humanity to burst asunder the existing oppressive social relations of capital, then it is wise to heed the call for a re-reading of Marx, particularly his humanist perspective. A careful reading of Marx’s Capital Vol. 1 will reveal that it is not only a critique of bourgeois thought but also a method to get beyond it. The imperative for humanity is to entirely uproot the abstraction of socially necessary labor time, in its current guise of global capital. Then it will be possible for humanity to unfurl the banner of liberation, “From each according to her ability, to each according to her need.” Indeed, the fertile ground in which humanity can begin to construct new societal relations is founded upon the principle of humanism.
    In Solidarity!
    Bro. Faruq

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