A Militant Humanism for the 21st Century

As Yassin al-Haj Saleh wrote recently, when progress is not universal, reactionarism progresses. We see indications of reactionarism across the world, but they are amplified and concentrated in the war in Syria. Syria is no longer “just” an uprising turned complex conflict. Syria is now the symptom of that strange “progress” of reactionarism and the return of the archaic, which is bewitching the world today. Faced with this we are forced to answer the questions that nag us. How did we get here? What can we do to stop our collective slide into the archaic, dark realms of injustice and impunity?

I believe that the answer to the first question lies in the place of humanism in our global political thought and practice, and how it is being eroded and has come under attack. In the same way, humanism as a shared idea offers the only solution. Indeed, all global justice movements – from protest and solidarity movements to new left politics – are based on different shades of regenerated, revitalized humanism as the philosophy that allows us to invest collective (as opposed to individual) hope in the future.

I understand the critique of the kind of humanism, where man sees himself as master of all things with an unlimited right to use them. An anthropocentrism based on the myth of man’s reason (Homo sapiens), the powers of his technology and his monopoly on subjectivity, has no place in our age of impending bio-disaster.

I also understand the Fanonian critique of humanism as a practice and ideology, which not only excluded non-Westerners but also used the very notion of humanism to justify the colonial project. Humanism must be liberated from these practices and histories. And from current, destructive wars carried out in the name of humanitarianism. Humanism is not that.

The Credo of Humanism

Rather, humanism is the basic assumption that allows human society to protect individual freedom and human rights. Individual rights can be constitutive (practical) only if they are institutionalised, that is, if all citizens can refer to them and act according to them without meeting political and legal sanctions. Institutionalising human rights is an ongoing struggle.

I believe in the humanism of Montaigne who said, “I recognise every man as my compatriot.” The humanism of Montesquieu’s principle that, if forced to choose between your country and humanity, you should choose humanity. The humanism of the thinkers in the French Revolution, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Their ideas are not a toolbox that tells you how to resolve issues, but a basic outlook that shape your actions. Humanism is a sensibility, a way of being in the world.

I also believe in the humanism of Marx, of international socialism, that acknowledges the full humanity of every member of our species as a fundamental principle and extends these rights to those deemed “primitive”, “backward” or “infantile. The humanism that recognises in every human being a common identity that goes beyond differences. I believe in the revolutionary sensibility of Rosa Luxemburg, without which global justice movements would not exist.

The humanism of Kant’s principle of doing unto others as we wish to be done by, without the need for a divine instruction, and Hegel’s notion that every human being should be recognised in his or her full humanity by others. This humanism demands respect for the dignity of every human being.

Humanism does not belong to Western civilization. Every country, every people, have a humanist tradition, humanist thinkers and humanist culture. The Enlightenment thinkers and the socialist thinkers that followed reshaped ideas that predated the 19th century. In doing so, they did not always rise above prejudice and colonial sentiments. Humanism is equally a tradition of resistance and rebellion formulated from non-Western locations, and within the West, such as in the struggle against racism.

It is not necessarily secular either. Some people prefer the humanism that can be found in the world religions. Whether secular or religious, humanist principles are written into the laws that are supposed to govern the world system. But we can't take them for granted, and it is time that we fight to protect them.

The implosion of liberal globalism

My generation of Western Europeans, born in the 1970s and coming of age in the 1990s, took humanism for granted. We were raised with a certain faith in strength of humanist values as the foundation for our strong welfare societies, but also for a global agenda based on justice. Despite the fact that global justice was born and perpetuated in large parts by the Left since the 19th century, the decline of Communism and socialism in the 1990s was easy to ignore, or to view as a parenthesis, with the seeming advance of a global agenda of human rights and liberties.

For better or worse, that naïve faith in progress is my point of departure. The decay of collective faith in progress today is so palpable, because it was what the British sociologist Raymond Williams called a ‘structure of feeling’ for my generation, and probably for earlier generations too. It was the basis of all our political sensibilities.

From the perspective of much of the formerly colonized world, progress was less linear, and less straightforwardly located in the metropole. Still, globalism as an integrative force held out promises for justice-based institutions to come into being. It also fostered the growth of global justice movements from below, both the revolutionary and the reformist kind, since the end of the Cold War. Not long ago we did believe that a global system of justice was in the making. Despite the horrors of colonialism, and despite the destructive effects of capitalism, progress and humanism were still tied together.

What we are observing today in Syria is the implosion of liberal globalism, or rather, the effects of its continued implosion since the Iraq War in 2003. The mass murder of the Assad regime, of the various militias, of Iran and Hizbollah and of Russia, has not been met by any kind of effective international response from international institutions, nor from the global Left, protest movements or the media. They have all come out weak against the forces of militarism, authoritarianism, sectarianism and nationalism. In some cases they have even proven to be part of these forces. The other day, another fifty civilians were bombed to smithereens in Idlib and Maarat al-Numan with hardly a shrug from the international press and diplomacy. The half-hearted policy of containment has failed to resolve the war. As a result, the effects of the war have come back to bite Europe, threatening its very institutions.

Our global institutions – the UN in particular but also the larger diplomatic community – have failed to stop the war, but also to address the violations adequately. Where are the resolutions in response to almost daily massacres, barrel bombings, destruction of civilian, religious, education, and health infrastructure? Where is the outcry, the continued outcry urging politicians to take action?

And true, this is not the only conflict to be ignored by the UN. Yes, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo, Darfur, and many other recent injustices line up to compete with Syria. But that only amplifies the point I am making: that Syria is a symptom of our global malaise.

Ideals of global order

The failure of international institutions is one obvious source of our malaise. The United Nations have proven inadequate to balance human rights and sovereignty, and is struggling to reform its heavy, bureaucratic machinery and antiquated structure.  On the basis of this reality, the most optimistic assessment of the institutional architecture designed to address international human rights, that was supposed to have grown from the end of the Cold War since the 1990s, is that it is a very imperfect system still coming into being. The International Criminal Court, for example, has successfully tried some individuals, but has also proven incredibly expensive to run. It is questionable whether it will be of much use in the settlement of large-scale injustices such as Syria. International institutions lack coordination and political muscle.

International institutions rest on the foundation of agreed-upon global standards, enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are the product of a broad, historical interpretative struggle over norms, and in particular over the ways in which a global society based on the principle of national sovereignty can protect and promote the sanctity of the individual.

Despite the smug self-understanding of the West as the promoter and protector of rights, there is no universal agreement on who has historically protected human rights, and who has violated them – nor on who should protect and defend them, and on who is likely to protect and defend them. As the political thinker John Rawl bluntly states, there is no global sovereignty. At the diplomatic level, justice only exists as it is negotiated in states and between states. When these states become increasingly infatuated with policies that run counter to basic humanism, the international system will mirror this development. That is what we are observing now.

In the absence of global sovereignty, global justice can only ever be the product of (revolutionary or reformist) advocacy across nation-state boundaries. This is quite simply the world we live in, and it was of course no different in the 1990s. Therefore, when I speak of the implosion of globalism it is not from a naively nostalgic perspective referring back to some Golden Age either in the 1990s or during the Cold War. Those who do so ignore significant crimes committed both in the name of Western imperialism, superpower competition and ‘democracy promotion.’

What I do bewail, and what I think we should lament today, is the rapid corrosion of the ideal, the hopeful notion that such a system can and should be created. It is as if, in our collective non-reactions to the unfolding catastrophe in Syria, we have begun to accept the intractability of our predicament, sliding towards the world of atavism and impunity that Yassin al-Haj Saleh describes so well.

From Spain to Syria

Does it even make sense to talk about global justice, when we seem to be situated in the middle of a crumbling structure that was meant to build and sustain universal human rights? I think so. And it is worth remembering that it was exactly when the old system crumbled completely, in the Second World War, that a new global order came into being.

We don’t have to let it come to that, to World War and global chaos. But the parallels with the interwar period are clear. Syria epitomises many of woes of our collapsing post-Cold War order. Some liken this situation to the 1930s, when international forces failed to stem the rise of fascism in Spain, and when counter-revolutionary forces weighed in on the defense of Franco. Spain tipped the balance of the all-ready rickety order of the League of Nations. In a similar way, the conflict in Syria is abjectly exposing the failings of the UN system to react to gross human rights violations and war crimes and to stop war and misery from spreading.

The frustration, bitterness and isolation felt by suffering Syrians is no different, however, than the abandonment felt by Iraqis, Palestinians, Somalis, and others whom the international order has failed to assist. The post Cold-War order was never that orderly. Nor was, of course, the Cold War order of proxy-wars and global counter-revolution.

But these two historical periods that preceded out times were at least characterized by belief that we were building an order based on collective, universal ideals of global justice, and essentially based around humanism. It is easy to point to flaws in the liberal position, to the conflation between liberal peace and American imperial ambitions, and to Capitalism for that matter. It is easy, also, to point to the way in which Guantanamo, Abu Ghraith and Gaza sat on the shoulders of centuries of injustices perpetrated under the wing of pretensions to liberal peace. It is easy because all these arguments are correct and because mainstream media and Western politicians often neglect them.

That does not make the dual failings now of institutions and ethics any less remarkable and alarming, however. They seem to be opening a door to fascist, authoritarian logics, which if we read our European history, we should know are followed in close suit by the possibility of full-blown totalitarianism.

Militant humanism

It is perhaps the deeper history that can save us today – the knowledge that the pursuit of global justice is more than 200 years old and has faced assaults before. Can we invoke Rousseau, Hegel, Luxemburg and Marx, can we call on revolutionaries and civil rights leaders from across the world, as we try to regenerate humanism in the 21st century? I think we have to. Again, humanism does not give us a toolbox or present us with a magic wand. But the project of regenerating humanism challenges the view that hope for the future can only be located in securitization of borders and boundaries and the reification of identities. Such a project provides a basis for a positive interpretation of our possibilities that stimulates action rather than apathy.

Humanists must stop being apologetic about their beliefs or defeatist about their possibilities. We need a militant humanism devoted to defending the utopian quest for global justice. This means justice on the home-soil, inscribed in national legislations, but also justice in our international system. We need militant humanists who don’t back down from the barricades, who talk and act, who show their solidarity in action.

Guns and barricades are metaphors for a struggle that must find its appropriate means. I prefer them to be non-violent, but in some contexts there is no choice but to take up arms. This struggle is not just for socialism to regenerate and reform, for popular, revolutionary and reformist movements to kick back against authoritarianism, neoliberalism and (un)representative democracy, as we have seen in the past decade. Nor is it just about defeating nationalism, the most trending political idea in the world today.

For it is not impossible to combine nationalism with humanist principles. Ideally, humanism should be present in all camps. This is why conservatives must be militant about their humanism too, even as they argue for the necessity of retaining clear-cut nation states and warn against the dangers of multiculturalism. If people hold such views, they must be aware that they do not turn into atavist fear and dreams of purification. They must keep the human in clear purview.

As Europeans living in multicultural societies, the nightmare of sectarianism in plural societies is surely the greatest danger facing us today. It is staring at us from the ruins of Syria, reminding us that our fates are connected.

The Left cannot afford to be sectarian about its humanism. Multiculturalists, the religious right, even sectarian parties, even Islamists: they must all be militant about their humanism, and fight its enemies within their own groups. Because the moment when Islamists present a united front against humanism  - and this is far from the case with all Islamist groups - they have surely become our enemies. When nationalists sacrifice their belief in human rights, or talk about rewriting international conventions, as some have done recently in Denmark, they become our enemies. When they vilify humanism, as they do on a daily basis now, we must vilify them and confront them.

How we fight depends on the fight they bring to us. Ideas are fought with ideas. But ideas are not the principle weapon in the fight against humanism today. Institutions and ethics are under attack from within and without. It is stronger in some contexts than in others. Syrians feel the brunt of it.

But we in Europe feel it too, and we should act on that feeling with solidarity. Europe doesn’t own the moral high ground. We have lived through a period of peace and prosperity, partly because of our commitment to justice at home. But the fight for justice has always been global, and we have often eschewed our responsibilities. It is time to turn the tide.