Philip Zimbardo and Marx’s Humanism

From the September-October 2015 issue of News & Letters

Oakland, Calif.—On July 24, a remarkable discussion with Philip Zimbardo followed the San Francisco premiere of The Stanford Prison Experiment, a movie based on his notorious 1971 experiment. In the two-week experiment, well-balanced students were randomly assigned the roles of prison guards or prisoners. The movie recreates the unfolding of the actual experiment, which had to be stopped early when “guards” became sadistic while “prisoners” displayed extreme stress.

The first person to speak in the discussion exclaimed that Zimbardo should have been fired and she walked out. The second person, former Black Panther Elaine Brown, thanked Zimbardo profusely for showing graphically how the prison power relationship engendered the behavior of these individuals. Brown said his study has been invaluable to the prisoners’ movement against the brutal conditions in California prisons.

Indeed, those in Zimbardo’s research circle became expert witnesses against the arbitrary guard-run system of gang validation that has kept so many in perpetual solitary confinement in California prisons.

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A U.S. soldier threatens an Iraqi detainee in the Abu Ghraib prison.

Zimbardo went on to write a best seller, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, in 2007 after he testified about why U.S. soldiers inflicted torture at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq.

The Lucifer Effect condemns not just social situations that produce evil but also the whole system that produces those situations. What is the connection between the system and this misery into which everyday relations can so easily collapse? The book concludes that what can make a difference is highlighting the banality of evil and encouraging the pervasive unrecognized good in everyday heroic acts that resist situational influences.

Zimbardo rightly calls “dehumanization,” or “the perception that other people are less than human,” central to transforming “ordinary people into…perpetrators of evil.”

The meaning of that little word “human” was Marx’s focus when he first criticized psychology, and science in general, for being a lie insofar as it has a different basis than life. Being human turned for Marx on needing human beings as human beings, namely needing them according to their species character as free beings whose self-determining, free, conscious activity is not a mere means but the first necessity of life.

Though Marx contrasted being human with alienated labor that turned the worker’s life activity into a mere means to life, being human is a more total concept. What throws post-Marx Marxists for a loop is that Marx singled out the man/woman relationship as the most fundamental in measuring whether we need a human being as a human being. Marx’s principle of freedom as human essence never changed yet was multi-dimensional from the start and was open to the new. This principle shaped Marx’s whole life of revolutionary theory and practice, including in the end (1875) his concept of an explicitly Marxist organization.

This humanism was implicit in the objection from one student assigned the role of prisoner, that he was not being treated like a human being. He was met with brutal punishment for saying so. Another telling moment was when Zimbardo came in to call off the experiment after only six days and the first question from the student assigned the role of guard, dubbed “John Wayne” because he took the lead in new imaginitive ways to humiliate the prisoners, was whether they were going to get paid for the full two weeks. This concern with pay reveals the pervasive “situational variable” that infects “pure” science, namely the cash nexus between humans that degrades human activity into a mere means.

When Marx declared that any science that is separate from life is “a priori a lie,” it meant that science can never be reduced to identifying how social situations change people. In other words, the remedy for the “Lucifer effect” is not merely encouraging heroic ethical individuals. Take, for example, Marx’s statement that “social being determines consciousness.” For many post-Marx Marxists, Marx’s concept of science stopped with this observation. To them, behaving ethically is an afterthought. Marx’s more total concept of being “active scientifically” included individual responsibility that began from his own “theoretical existence as social being.” Theoretical existence as a social being is itself the activity of a “general consciousness” that confronts the hostility between actual social being and being truly human, that is, free “species-life.” The goal is to overcome the hostility between individual life and species life in a way that never again counterposes society as an abstraction against the individual.

Nothing reveals the multi-dimensional struggle to achieve Marx’s real “species-life” better than the ongoing struggle against perpetual solitary confinement, or torture, in California’s prisons. (See Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers: “We want to be validated as humanand its 2014 update “Prisoners in solitary, in the new Bastille aim to break today’s ‘mind-forged manacles.'”)

Faruq, a California prisoner (see page 8), wrote that the prison movement for new human relations is one with the “efforts in various countries today trying to lift the curse of capital social relations.” Both, he added, are a “quest to unify subjectivity and objectivity—in other words, for an individual’s thinking/feelings to be reflected in their given reality. With such a full expression of humanism society can be reconstructed on human foundations.”

Since the Stanford prison experiment, Philip Zimbardo has done much to question psychology as a science beyond the “ethical time capsule” in which that experiment occurred and which he said could never be repeated today. Yet the totality of the present crisis means we are not only being ethically tested anew whether on pervasive prison brutality or when Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called Europe’s calculated neglect—resulting in 900 deaths of fleeing immigrants—our day’s “Srebrenica” (see “Refugees risk death fleeing war, terror and climate chaos,” July-Aug. N&L).

Our day, in Europe as elsewhere, again has an undertow of genocidal fascist nationalism out to reduce the other to less than human and is actively derailing any ethical treatment of today’s millions of refugees. Facing that reality demands a full return to Marx’s original humanist philosophy of freedom as the absolute opposite to alienated labor.

—Ron Kelch

0 thoughts on “Philip Zimbardo and Marx’s Humanism

  1. There are other movies inspired by the 1971 Standford prison experiment. All of them focus on the abstract ethical issue, and not in the need to uproot completely this capitalist society. They stress how good people turn evil, almost affirming that “humans are evil by nature”. Naturally, this is a bourgeois way of thinking, for it implies that, as people are evil by nature, there is nothing else we could do.

    In that sense, it is interesting how this article contrasts the “ethical issue” of the Stanford prison experiment with a wider view of humanism, and then goes to Marx’s 1844 philosophic writings.

    However, the article is a little confusing, since it jumps from the Stanford prison experiment to Marx continuously, without developing the latter’s ideas to a most comprehensible form.

    This makes us feel Marx’s quotes a little forced, like if we had the Stanford experiment and Marx one next to the other, but without one coming dialectically out of the other.

    Anyway, the text opens new possibilities to understand the struggle of prisoners for a human treatment.

  2. Marx’s ideas concerning science and humanism certainly could use a lot more elaboration, especially because post-Marx-Marxism has so muddied the discourse regarding Marx and science. Science, degraded to mere objectivity without the subjective, reduces the human dimension to a mere ethics add-on. Many post-Marx-Marxists reduce “scientific” theory to this objective standpoint, holding that Marx’s science stops there as reflected in Marx’s well known and often quoted expression that social being determines consciousness. Taking individual responsibility becomes an external ethical question to this perspective on science, as it is with Zimbardo. Though he doesn’t speak of “the need to uproot completely this capitalist society,” I believe Zimbardo when he condemns and calls for the transformation of the whole system that produces situations that bring out evil actors. Yet Zimbardo poses the way out through recognizing the dual character of everyday life which includes not only Arendt’s “banality of evil” but enumerable unrecognized acts by heroic ethical individuals. Thus, for Zimbardo people are not “evil by nature” but rather have the capacity for both and the answer is to celebrate and encourage the unsung ordinary everyday individual ethical heroes making a culture that produces, for example, more Schindlers and fewer Eichmans.

    For Marx, being “active scientifically” is never separate from being human, never separated from a “general consciousness, as an activity [and] … theoretical existence as a social being.” The point of this scientific activity is to realize, both in the sense of realize in one’s head and realize in the world, that “individual and species-life are not different” (CW, 3:298-99). Species life is, of course, Marx’s abiding principle of self-determining human activity that is not a mere means but the first necessity of life. From that abiding principle Marx criticized psychology in particular for reducing the human being to a bundle of abstract needs (CW, 3: 303). Marx began from needing a human being as a human being (CW, 3:296). Marx’s unchanging principle is open to all the new struggles for new human relations, whether that is today’s Black Lives Matter movement or the Paris Commune of Marx’s day. The Marxist-Humanism of News & Letters explicitly emphasizes that multiple subjects struggling for new human relations are movements from practice which are themselves forms of theory. Marx’s abiding principle is the ground from which to speak to these movements, to universalize their praxis. Further, Marx explicitly returns to this enduring ground as an organizational principle that defined the future after capitalism (see his Critique of the Gotha Program).

    Marx’s practice of science was always taking individual responsibility through his own “theoretical existence as social being” as seen, for example, in the way Marx’s Capital, too, got transformed after Paris Commune. Marx had insisted that “science” begin from capitalism’s “cell-form”, “the commodity-form of the product of labor,” a beginning from which all the tools one uses to analyze the external physical world like microscopes and chemical reagents are useless. Rather they all have to be replaced by the “power of abstraction” (90). After the Commune, Marx identifies the commodity-form of the product of labor as the simple source of capitalist consciousness and false objectivity (164). The commodity-form of the product of labor is a single concept, as Dunayevksaya put it, which is substituted like a drug for the very nature of social being or spirit. See Dunayevskaya’s contribution to Socialist Humanism, (edited by Eric Fromm, 1965, pp. 73, 82.) This international symposium of a variety of socialist humanist tendencies is a classic treasure in that each had limited space and presented their views very concisely in the manner of a TED talk today. Mihailo Markovic, who transformed into an outright fascist, a Serbian national socialist, has his own summation there where he stops half-way in his engagement with the dialectic of Marx’s 1844 humanism.

  3. Firm Revolutionary Salutations Ron,

    Your commentary on Zimbardo brought out the very fundamental link between the dispositional good nature of people and Marx’s concept of humanism and made it quite accessible to the reader.

    I’m about halfway through [Zimbardo’s] The Lucifer Effect. I recently read [another] book, The Falsification of Afrikan Consciousness by a New Afrikan psychologist Amos Wilson. Wilson wrote about the power of the rulers to define or diagnose various kinds of behavioral characteristics, particularly those that do not comport with the prescribed social norms of capital relations. We have narrow, self-serving definitions and diagnoses as stemming purely from the innate dispositions of an individual. The tragedy of that kind of definition/diagnosis is [that] the system of capital relations is never brought under scrutiny and called into question.

    I really like the way Zimbardo enlarges the concepts of definitions and diagnoses. Zimbardo takes up where Wilson leaves off in bringing to the fore that it is necessary to include the impact of the situation and the system on an individual’s behavior. In fact, Zimbardo is advocating that in order for a definition or a diagnosis to have credibility it must [include] a holistic analysis. Behavior cannot be truly understood in isolation. Without incorporating the situation and the system, one is constantly predisposed to making faulty conclusions. I am pretty sure [Zimbardo’s] book has a few more interesting and practical insights.

    I’m not in sympathy with the woman who walked out of [The Stanford Prison Experiment’s] question and answer session, although I can understand why she said what she did about Zimbardo needing to go to jail. The whole prison experiment went downhill rather quickly. Yet in the end, the result is paramount so I am in agreement with Elaine Brown.

    … I really and very truly enjoyed every moment of our visit. Certainly you must know that I’m greatly anticipating another opportunity to try to take in the valuable insight and knowledge of Marxist-Humanist philosophy. It would be a sad commentary on my life if I did not try to bring people to the point of looking deeper into what Marx had to offer humanity.

    For Freedom!

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