In the same single issue early last year New Left Review carried two articles reminding anyone who might need reminding of some of the realities that disfigure the world we all inhabit. Colin Leys, commenting on a possible decline of the region towards ‘capitalism-induced barbarism’, wrote that ‘in sub-Saharan Africa most people are facing a future in which not even bare survival is assured. . .they are being made into “supernumeraries” of the human race.’ According to Leys, three hundred million (of five hundred million) human beings there are now living in absolute poverty. ‘When crops fail people die because there are no longer any food reserves or delivery systems, and when people fall ill they die because there are no longer any doctors or nurses or medicines to be had except on the black market, which is beyond most people’s reach.’ Without a radical change in the economic and political forces which bear on it, much or even most of Africa, Leys fears, is doomed to further ‘material and moral degradation and suffering’.footnote1

Material and moral degradation and suffering aptly describes, too, what Susanna Hecht writes of further on in the same number of the journal, with respect to the ‘increasingly destitute citizenry’ of Brazil. Hecht refers to the ‘more than twenty-five million deprived children, some eight million [of whom] now live on the streets, occasionally returning home. . .[They are] the main targets of death squads and policemen who routinely beat up, torture and kill children in order to hamper mugging and petty theft.’ These young targets for torture and murder are themselves the survivors of hunger. For each one that has lived beyond the age of five, two to four of their siblings have died. This is a society, the author says, ‘whose impact on human survival most closely parallels concentration camps’. It is ‘human society driven to the brink’. Hecht tells of ‘the frightening and often murderous end-point of starvation: “hunger delirium” when mothers would hack their children to death’.footnote2

In the next but one issue of the Review, Ralph Miliband and Eric Hobsbawm separately help to put these facts of present-day misery into a longer perspective. Discussing some of the key problems that now challenge supporters of the socialist project, Miliband evokes the blood-drenched history of our century, with the Nazi extermination camps, gas chambers, the Gulag, the saturation bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in former Yugoslavia looking out at us from a much longer list from the twentieth-century book of the prematurely dead. Albeit generally at the behest, Miliband says, of minorities with power, ‘enough [people] have always been found to inflict violence, torture and death on other human beings. Execution squads have never lacked recruits, including volunteers.’footnote3 Eric Hobsbawm for his part cites an estimate of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s for ‘megadeaths’ between 1914 and 1990—‘the most murderous era so far recorded in history’—this estimate being 187 million. Like Colin Leys, Hobsbawm reflects upon an advancing barbarism. He specifies it as involving amongst other things a decline of those ‘universal’ standards of moral behaviour established by the Enlightenment; standards which he speaks of as being ‘the only foundation for all the aspirations to build societies fit for all human beings to live in anywhere on this Earth, and for the assertion and defence of their human rights as persons’. Hobsbawm focuses especially on the return and widespread use in the modern world of torture. He gives a figure (from the 1992 edition of the World Human Rights Guide) for its incidence in 62 out of 104 countries surveyed.footnote4

These realities, of course, are accessible not only through the pages of nlr. The story of them is everywhere; of suffering beyond imagination and limit. Consult almost anything by means of which Amnesty International seeks to draw the attention of a wider constituency to the cruelties being perpetrated by the world’s oppressors. Pay attention to the images this organization feels obliged to share with its public, images too dreadful and sickening to dwell upon, and yet images of what continues and continues to happen. A boy barbecued alive by soldiers; a nun raped with an electric cattle prod; the internal organs of living human beings, individual persons, exposed to the gnawing of rats through a tube inserted up the anus or the vagina.footnote5 The catalogue of horror is added to with each new genocide: from Rwanda, so many, and so many more, dead; ‘[t]he body of a mother pulled out of Lake Victoria with a child bound to each limb’.footnote6 And then again the figures of destitution. They come with the daily news. ‘In one of the most outspoken reports it has produced, the who says that more than one-fifth of the 5.6 billion people in the world live in extreme poverty[;] almost a third of the world’s children are undernourished. . .12.2 million children under five die every year, in many cases for lack of treatments costing 13p or less. . .“Poverty. . .is the world’s deadliest disease.”’footnote7

Is it really possible for anyone attached to the hope of human progress, more particularly to a socialist version of this hope, to take seriously a conception of human progress in which the aim of prevailing over realities like these is not an important component? I think this question answers itself. Whatever else the goal of socialism might be held to be about, I do not believe it would be worthy of the commitment of morally mature people if it did not include as a central feature the aim of conquering—of radically reducing and eventually, if possible, getting rid of—the kind of evils I have begun here by enumerating. I think it clearly true, also, that these are to be seen as evils by reference to a standard simply given by certain basic human needs and aversions. Or to put the same thing differently, it is not on account of any special forms of acculturation, historically particular social structures or types of learned behaviour, that people generally do not want to die of starvation or disease, or to lose their loved ones so, or to be cruelly humiliated, or to die or be permanently damaged physically or emotionally at the hands of a torturer, or to be persecuted for what they are or what they believe, be forcibly confined for it, be violently destroyed. These are just afflictions for members of our species in virtue of characteristics which we cross-culturally and more or less universally share. As one may also put that, these are afflictions, they are experienced as evils, in virtue of our common human nature.

It will follow from the claims made in the previous paragraph that there are, then, at least some transhistorical standards—because defined by the shared characteristics and needs of a relatively constant human nature—by which socialists may, and by which they should, evaluate historical progress. Hobsbawm’s uncomplicated phrase, ‘fit for all human beings’, pretty well says it. Even if other standards, culturally local, historically specific, particular to one or another group, could be invoked and indeed argued to be useful for the same evaluative purpose, on the claims being asserted here these other standards could not downgrade the standards of elementary human need I have put to the fore, much less displace them.

In the history of modern thought there have been many guides to how we might think about human progress, and there have been not a few socialist guides amongst them. One of these was Karl Marx. His work has since influenced thousands upon thousands of others in how they envisaged future progress, and it continues, despite everything, to influence a goodly number still. This is why the interpretation of Marx’s thought matters, and matters more than just in the way of academic scholarship, important as that is. It will also follow, however, from the claims made in the previous paragraph but one that Marx’s work would not be worth taking seriously by socialists, at least not in this ‘region’ of it anyway, if his vision of a future society, his own idea of historical progress, had not included as a component the aim of prevailing over the sorts of misery and the horrors sketched above. Is it seriously possible to doubt that Marx’s vision did include this as a component? Could anyone familiar with his writings really be in two minds as to whether his project of emancipation—whatever else it might be held to be about—included the aim of meeting the basic needs of human beings for survival and healthy activity, and of eliminating from the world these more terrible cruelties and oppressions? I do not think so. Although I shall not repeat myself by arguing it again here, I take it to be clear and philologically well-established that the notion of an enduring human nature served Marx as a standard of normative judgement in these matters.footnote8 Regardless of what he might have envisaged in his idea of self-actualization or the free development of the individual—something to which I shall return—the principle he espoused of distribution according to need was to cover at least those fundamental material needs consequent upon the common make-up of human beings.