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The Gong of History; Or, What Is a Human?

EVERY GREAT HISTORICAL EPOCH in the freedom struggle raises the question: what is a human? The answer changes, to quote Askia Muhammad Toure of the Revolutionary Action Movement, with “the Gong of History.” Amid all the confusing din of history, a note may sound that makes it audible and intelligible.

Yet the answer is always contested, and it may be lost in ideological noise. For instance, five hundred years ago, with the slaughter of millions of Native Americans, with the witch-burnings and demonization of women, with the voyages to Africa and the commencement of the Atlantic slave trade, the ideology of humanism functioned to cover up these crimes. French surrealists of the early twentieth century denounced Western humanism as justification of slavery, colonialism, and genocide in an essay called “Murderous Humanitarianism.” Walter Johnson’s critique of “the rights-based notion of the human being at the heart of the historiography of slavery” is part of this tradition. His broader project is to criticize the humanitarian excuses of neoliberal imperialism.

I want to make two general but related points. The first concerns “human” and the gong of history. The second concerns “capital” when history clangs.

JOHNSON QUOTES MARX’S ESSAY “On the Jewish Question,” written in 1843, to show the limitations of “political emancipation”—political as opposed to human. I agree with this opposition, and I am sympathetic to Johnson’s use of it to expose certain forms of humanism as imperial apologia, scholarly protocol, or neoliberal trope. But I do not think we should let these distortions have exclusive dibs on the human. A redemptive humanism is already implicit on the other side of the distinction Johnson invokes, and it is made fully explicit in Marx’s writing of the following year. There we find a humanism that reaches back before the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, that sustained freedom struggles after the carnage of World War II, and that can guide us forward.

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Walter Johnson, Harvard historian and author of the acclaimed River of Dark Dreams, urges us to embrace a vision of justice attentive to the history of slavery—not through the lens of human rights, but instead through an honest accounting of how slavery was the foundation of capitalism, a legacy that continues to afflict people of color and the poor. Inspired by Cedric J. Robinson’s work on racial capitalism, as well as Black Lives Matter and its forebears—including the black radical tradition, the Black Panthers, South African anti-apartheid struggles, and organized labor—contributors to this volume offer a critical handbook to racial justice in the age of Trump.