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Humanism and Violence

by Franz Hinkelammert Saturday, Dec. 29, 2007 at 5:02 PM

"Not torturing is changed into an act of barbarism.. Torture, the atom bomb and the globalization strategy all save life. State terrorism presents itself as humanist realism, the only way of securing life. As a Chilean general said, national security is like love; there is never enough."


By Franz Hinkelammert

[This article published on the Institute for Theology and Politics website December 6, 2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, Franz Hinkelammert is a liberation theologian living in Costa Rica and author of several books.]


Humanism always exists in a double form today. Making another world possible means demanding and reclaiming the humane. But we can only speak of humanism and the humane today when we simultaneously criticize humanism. Demanding or concretizing another world involves regaining the humane and humanism and is not a technical problem although many technical problems must be solved.

We face a world of dehumanization that pretends to be human service.

A precedent insight is necessary to relate critically to humanism. The modern age is humanism, renaissance, liberalism, socialism and even fascism. All speak in the name of the humane that must be regained. A double humanism exists. A classical formulation of humanism comes from Marx when he speaks of the categorical imperative:

“…to overturn all conditions in which the person is a humiliated, enslaved, abandoned and reviled being.” (MEW I, p.385)

This is only one side of modern humanism. Believing that the modern age is this humanism would obviously be naïve. In the Kosovo war, another humanism appeared that was not new but had a new name: humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian interventions transformed whole countries into scorched earth: Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and possibly in a next step Iran. A war can only be a total war when lived and experienced and not only interpreted as a humanitarian intervention. The humanitarian interventions that we have witnessed are all total wars with no humane limits of violence. This is also true for all totalitarian societies. They could only become totalitarian in the name of regaining the humane. This is similarly true for the present totalization of the market through the dominant globalization strategy with its indispensable ideology of the invisible hand of the market. This invisible hand allegedly changes all the barbarism that is committed into human service.

This is also expressed in the name of the violent ministries. First there were war ministries and afterwards defense ministries. In the future there will very likely be ministries for humanitarian interventions, a kind of reverse welfare ministry. Everything is humanism.

This is the doubling of humanism. If we say the modern age is humanism, we must always add the modern age is a doubled humanism. Otherwise we fall to a mere illusion. This is the doubling of concrete and abstract humanism.


Abstract, inverted or perverted humanism is probably the most immediately visible. All colonization of the world was carried out in the name of humanitarian interventions although this term had not yet existed. In America’s conquest by Spain and Portugal, this even had a religious meaning. Since the conquerors recognized that the indigenous population consisted of persons with eternal souls, they were conquered to ensure their eternal salvation. Still human rights were not forgotten. After the people were declared cannibals who committed human sacrifice, they were saved from cannibalism and human sacrifice. In the homelands, heretics and witches were burned alive before the cathedrals and the Te Deum sung. The person and the concern about people were the focal points. English imperialism expressed this in a secular way. When India was conquered, the “burden of the white man” was borne to bring culture and middle class law at last to people of India. Locke showed this was the realistic way of setting the person in the center of life. They sacrificed themselves for this mission and as a return favor sent India’s riches to England.

Slavery was also human service. Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the US, declared slavery necessary to “civilize” the imported Africans. This justification set the precedent. In socialist China, the camps had the goal of “reeducating” the people. Abstract humanism never knew any limits. The Gulag was also human service. One only needs to read the speeches of Wischinsky, the prosecutor of the purging processes in the Soviet Union of the 1950s, to hear that the Gulag was necessary to bring humanity into the light of communism, the true humane society.

This abstract humanism that is still the soul of the colonialization of the world today also marked the establishment of middle class society and capitalism. A true spirituality of the market arose. Mandeville declared private vices were public virtues. Adam Smith transformed this into the invisible hand of the market: evil was good. Evil, exploitation, is only seemingly evil. The invisible hand of the market changed it into a contribution to the general interest so it became the good. Neoclassical theory changed this into the assertion of an automatic tendency to the equilibrium of the market. Neoclassical theory exists in this form in today’s neoliberalism: evil is good whenever it happens in the scope of the market. Although this has been refuted a thousand times, the economists of this school simply look away and repeat their dogma. Without this dogma, capitalism could not be substantiated. Capitalism immunizes itself again and again. This can be read today in the autobiography of Greenspan: The Age of Turbulence. A real spirituality preserved Greenspan from falling back to concrete humanism. [1]

This human service of abstract humanism reverses the constitutional state into its opposite today. In the meantime, the constitutional state in the US is compatible with the existence of concentration camps in Guantanamo, systematic torture and the disappearance of persons. All this becomes part of today’s public spirit. Even torture is stylized as human service. The news about a prominent torturer from Camp Delta in Guantanamo that appeared in the Washington Post is interesting in this sense:

“VanNatta ended his tour as superintendent of Camp Delta in September. Today, he says he is proud of what he and his troops accomplished: `That was the most important year I ever spent, because I think we saved lives,’ said VanNatta, now back running the maximum-security prison of Indianapolis.

“If it comes out the way I think it will, it will be viewed as the most unique prison environment ever created. If it comes out that the information we collected did save lives, it will be viewed as one of the smartest moves ever made. If it’s proven that there was no intelligence, then it’s going to be viewed as a superpower using its power unchecked.” Torture Policy The Washington Post Company, Wednesday June 16, 2004, page A26. Staff writers John Mintz, R. Jeffrey Smith and Dana Priest in Washington and David B. Ottaway in Saudi Arabia contributed to this report.

There is an anecdote about the Spanish inquisitor Torquemada from the XV century. In a dialogue he raised the question: Is it allowed not to torture a heretic? He answered: It is not allowed not to torture a heretic because one would take away the last chance of saving his soul.

This has obviously changed. The question today is: Is it allowed not to torture a terror suspect? The answer is: not torturing is not allowed because the chance of saving the life of an innocent person would be lost. In the memorandum of the Justice Department, it says:

International laws against torture “may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations” conducted in President Bush’s war on terrorism, according to a newly obtained memo…

If a government employee were to torture a suspect in captivity, “he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the Al Qaeda terrorist network,” said the memo from the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel, written in response to a CIA request for legal guidelines. It added that arguments centering on “necessity and self-defense could provide justifications that would eliminate any criminal liability” later… Memo Offered Justification for Use of Torture, Justice Dept. Gave Advice in 2002. By Dana Priest and R. Jeffrey Smith, Washington Post Staff Writers, Tuesday, June 8, 2004, page A01

Not torturing is changed into an act of barbarism. Not torturing becomes unconstitutional, inhuman, irresponsibility and collaboration with terrorism. Torture promotes life. This is a secularized Torquemada. It is not easy to say which is worse.

These kinds of arguments appear from many sides. They also occurred with the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The airplane’s pilot who dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima answered the question about the most important act of his life:

Group 509 was trained to drop bombs and carried out its assignment… Originally it was said Europe and Japan should be bombarded simultaneously.

What I did saved millions of lives. I trained for 10 and a half months for this work.” [2]

Torture, the atom bomb and the globalization strategy all save life. Not to drop the atom bomb would even have been irresponsible and unconstitutional. State terrorism presents itself as humanist realism, the only true way to secure life.

Chilean general Gordon, head of the security service (CNI) who administered the torture camp in the name of national security in Pinochet’s time, said:

“National security is like love; there is never enough” (El Mercurio, Santiago de Chile, 12/4/83).

In Orwell’s language, the head of the ministry of love in the service of humanitarian interventions said: war is peace.

In his time, Camdessus, former president of the International Monetary Fund, loved to give speeches on the theme “Market and God’s Reign.” He spoke of the “option for the poor” as liberation theology proclaimed. The option for the poor is actually an expression of a concrete humanism parallel to the categorical imperative of Marx. Camdessus enthusiastically celebrated this. He warned against losing realism and insisted the strategy of the International Monetary Fund was the realistic realization of the option for the poor. Whoever realistically defends the option for the poor can only do this by realizing the structural adjustments of the International Monetary Fund. Camdessus explained the market as the most perfect approach to God’s reign possible for humankind. The Vatican was so enthused it appointed Camdessus after his mandate ended as a member of its Justitia et Pax commission and thereby abolished past social teaching. All this is spirituality of the market and its sacralization.

Human service is unending. Even fascism was human service although not as abstract humanism. Quite the contrary! Fascism essentially comes from the criticism of abstract humanism. In Nietzsche’s succession, it seeks the abolition of all humanism so the person can realize himself as a person. It does not seek to regain concrete humanism. Carl Schmidt coined the formula: humanity-bestiality and added: whoever says humanism wants to deceive. In the modern sense, whoever says humanity wants to conquer petroleum. Not surprisingly the founder of the Spanish Falange Juan Antonio Primo de Rivera said: When I hear the word humanity, I feel like drawing the revolver.

Schmidt sought a war not falsified by this abstract humanism in which real enemies are opposed who do not transform each other into absolute enemies and then concoct total war.

This medicine was much worse than the sickness. Still one must at least understand the perversions of human service. Finally, the Jews had to be eliminated since the tradition of humanism (which includes utopia) had much to do with the Jewish tradition or comes from that tradition. One believed stamping out evil at the root meant wiping out the Jews.

Schmidt saw humanism as the reason for transforming war into total war. However humanism’s abolition brought the total war of world history.


Regaining concrete humanism is undoubtedly crucial today. However this regaining assumes that people critically face humanism in its doubling. Otherwise one is naïve and begins the whole process again. Concrete humanism has the tendency to suddenly change into abstract humanism and violence. It then transforms itself in the categorical imperative to violence. This is not simply a result of human malice but follows from the conditio humana. For this change, we could use a word uti9lized by Marx for the shift of the French Revolution in Bonapartism. The thermidor of humanism is imminent. [3]

Every attempt at regaining concrete humanism must always ponder this tendency to thermidor on all sides. This is true for all human relations and not only for the system. On all planes, this danger is visible and must be reflected and anticipated. This danger cannot be removed since all institutionalizations always jointly institutionalizes this danger. All institutions are administrations of death despite the fact that life is impossible without them. As administrations of death, they inevitably develop the tendency to thermidor: to kill from the side of abstract humanism with its categorical imperative and destroy everything human on many planes, not only the market. The negation of the person becomes the illusion of the humane. Violence becomes true human service. This happens especially when an institution declares itself the inescapably human as in the totalizing of the market or the plan. The institution itself changes into the categorical imperative to violence.

All human rights of the concrete person are dissolved. The market is no longer flexible when it is totalized. Therefore people must become flexible and lose their human rights.

Obviously there is an alternative to abstract humanism. The great emancipation movements that arose after the French Revolution developed parallel to abstract humanism: concrete humanism, slave emancipation, women’s emancipation, emancipation of the working class and many new emancipation movements today. The history of these movements shows that they themselves are part of the problem of doubling humanism when they start from concrete humanism. With Stalinism, the socialist workers movement experienced its great thermidor that had many analogies with the thermidor of Napoleon Bonaparte. When one analyzes this thermidor, the Christian thermidor is not very far removed. Christianity capsized into its opposite in the 3rd and 4th century with Emperor Constantine and Augustine. What is common to all these thermidors is that their origins from concrete humanism were stamped heresies.

The self-reflection of humanism cannot be restricted to its emancipatory goals. Its means must also be considered. The relation of emancipation to its goals cannot be reduced to an end-means calculation. The means also determine what goals are attainable. Therefore the goals also exclude means that seem applicable under the aspect of the end-means calculation. One example is violence as a means of the emancipation- and humanization process. Violence cannot be a means of emancipation even when inserted as a strategic element. This in no way implies an absolute pacificism. The abstract humanism of war for peace sometimes develops. Violence can only be the most extreme means even if it happens realistically as self-defense. Violence must constantly face criticism as the most extreme means. Violence and emancipation are in opposition. No war is a just war even if it is inevitable.

The viewpoint of the subject must submit to realistic judgment. I am when you are. No conflict may dissolve this basic relation of every ethical judgment.


This analysis of humanism in its doubling shows us the meaning of modern humanism. We could express this differently. In the modern age, God becomes a person who is human. All religious meaning puts this assumption in parentheses. This is true for atheistic and religious conviction. This is a specific characteristic of the modern age.

The base category of the modern age is involved. As a category, it penetrates everything. It is true for the good and the bad. It does not directly imply any ethic but is present in all ethics that appear in the name of the modern and post-modern. Everything is humanism; everything can be understood as human service or service to human existence. [4]

The modern age is a labyrinth. Without the threat of Ariadne, there is no orientation. This threat of Ariadne is the knowledge that God has become a person in the modern age in very different, even opposite and sometimes perverted ways. From this, a world arose where the inhumane cannot be realized without referring to the humane and hatred cannot occur without referring to love.

Becoming conscious of this doubling is the change that the modern age needs. This is not post-modern but the modern consciousness of what it is. It would be the other modern, the other world, a humanity that identifies itself from a concrete humanism.

That God was a person is the result of a two-thousand year historical process. This cannot be reduced to a specific event that happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago even if the process had its starting point there. Walter Benjamin said, capitalism was the result of a transformation of Christian orthodoxy into capitalism. I believe this is true. But even more, the modern age is the result of a transformation of Christianity itself and not only of Christian orthodoxy.

The transformation is not intentional. Christianity does not see its place in the modern age which is really secular. But if God became a person, a secular world ultimately follows. Christianity undoubtedly feels strange and even faces an enemy. However it can only reconstitute itself out of the secular interior of the modern age.

The theology of liberation took this way. If theology does not go this way, it cannot reconstitute itself and is irrevocably thrown back.

One last remark: The double character of humanism is an expansion of Marx’s analysis of the double character of commodity. I am convinced his analysis must be an essential part of the critique of political economy.


1 He learned this, according to Naomi Klein, through a book by Ayn Rand. “She moved me to reflect why capitalism is moral and not only efficient and practical,” Greenspan said in 1974. He had solved his conscience problems and served humanity all his days.

2 Interview with Paul Tibbits, colonel who as a 27-year old chief pilot dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The bomb had the name Little Boy and the airplane bore the name of the mother of the pilot Enola Gay. The journalist of the Columbian journal Semana Andre Jimenez did the interview quoted according to La Nacion, San Jose 8/22/99.

3 The Thermidorian Reaction was a revolt in the French Revolution against the excesses of the Reign of Terror (which ended in the execution of Robespierre).

Thermidor is that moment in the development of a revolution when the masses begin to withdraw from active intervention in history and the original leadership of the revolution is replaced by a conservative bureaucracy.

On October 24, 1793, the leaders of the French Revolution issued a decree establishing a new calendar to begin on the autumn equinox of the year of the Revolution, that is, at midnight September 22, 1792. Thermidor was the midsummer month in that Republican calendar, late July/August.

On 27th July 1794 (9th Thermidor), the revolutionary Jacobin government was overthrown and Robespierre and his supporters executed. This event marked the end of the Terror, the end of the second, revolutionary phase of the Revolution, and the beginning of the third, reactionary phase culminating on November 19 1799 (18th Brumaire) with the seizure of power by Napoleon Bonaparte, who proclaimed himself Emperor. (See Marx on 18th Brumaire).

The term “Thermidor” was later used by oppositionists in the Soviet Communist Party to refer to the beginning of a corresponding phase in the Russian Revolution, in which the leaders of the Revolution would be removed and affairs put under the control of a conservative bureaucracy, operating within new property relations created by the Revolution.

See The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism, by Trotsky, 1935.

The French Revolution was one of history’s greatest social revolutions, along with the English Revolution of 1640-49, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 – social in that the mass of the population participated in the revolution, changing the whole social system, rather than a political revolution which merely changed the governing edifice. Many features of the French Revolution have become defining concepts for understanding all revolutions.

It is reasonable to presume that all revolutions must have their Thermidor, in the sense that it can only ever be for a brief period of time that the entire mass of the population suspends normal life (as they did in 1642-46, in 1791-4 and in 1917-21) to intervene in history, directly taking charge of political life, smashing up the old institutions and replacing them with new ones. After a certain point, there must be some kind of return to “normality,” when the masses return to productive life and leave the new institutions created by the Revolution to be run by some kind of political elite or bureaucracy. Each great social revolution enlarges the scope for popular participation in political life, but there is a decisive difference: in the heat of Revolution, the organisations created by the masses are direct expressions of the subjectivity of the masses; once the level of activity has “cooled off,” these same organisations become institutions, i.e., objectifications, which confront the new generations as a fixed legacy of past actions, to which people have an instrumental relation, rather than recognising them as expressions of their own will. Thermidor marks that moment in which the active participation of the masses has reached its limit and recedes; what follows depends on the quality of the institutions which the masses have created. [from:]

4 These arguments are heirs of earlier conservative arguments. Cardinal Hoffner, former archbishop of Koln, said: “The state’s right of the sword is recognition of the inviolability of the highest human reality, human life. The holiness of God’s order is proven as `mighty’ in this aeon through the death penalty.” (Josef Hoffner, Christian Social Doctrine, 1975).

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