Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.2, Spring 1959, pp.53-59. 
(William F. Warde was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.
The rise of a tendency among thinkers in the Soviet Zone to put people above material successes offers a challenge to Marxists in their struggle for a socialist Humanism
SINCE Stalin’s death dissident intellectuals in the Soviet Union have been carrying on a guerrilla warfare against the bureaucracy in the name of Humanism. Ehrenburg’s The Thaw gave the signal for their attack. This short novel portrayed the hypocrisy of a regime where high-sounding slogans were at odds with depressing realities, where lickspittles prospered while genuine talents were stifled, and the sanctity of human rights was loudly proclaimed but severely repressed. Similar themes were developed in Dudintsev’s Not By Bread Alone.
The vilification of Boris Pasternak over the Nobel Prize award has brought the friction between the authorities and the non-conformist writers to a sharp pitch. It is noteworthy that many prominent Soviet authors have not joined the hue and cry against him.
Pasternak counterposes a watery semi-Christian Humanism to the spurious officially enforced “Marxism-Leninism” that has waved its fist in his face. Through the chief character in his banned novel Doctor Zhivago he complains that the once-lofty idealism of the Russian Revolution has degenerated into crass materialism, become befouled by self-seekers, and ended in a loss of freedom.
“The great majority of us,” he writes, “are required to live a life of constant, systematic duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected, if day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune ...”
Whatever the literary merits of Doctor Zhivago and despite its involvement as a shuttlecock in the cold war, it has significance as sociological testimony. Pasternak is one of the most popular and respected of Russian authors. He lives among the more favored elements of Soviet society. If he can voice such bitterness forty years after the October 1917 Revolution, then we have the right to ask: what must be the feelings among the unprivileged?
Indeed, the writers, journalists, critics and economists who have raised the banner of a Socialist Humanism throughout the Soviet zone speak for others beside themselves. They are articulating the resentments of the people against the outrages of Stalinism. In their works literature is once again becoming, as in the Czarist Russia of the nineteenth century, a prime vehicle of social protest and of mounting opposition from diverse sources against an autocracy at bay.
This new Humanism, which has sprung up like green grass in the cracks of a stone pavement, is a many-sided phenomenon. It runs the gamut of social problems from law and ethics to economics and history. It poses questions sharply on a moral plane. It stands up for truth against official deceit; for trust among people instead of the spying and talebearing which starts in the schools, permeates all social institutions, and ends in the dossiers of the secret police. It upholds the pride and dignity of individuals against self-abasement before the wielders of power. It speaks for freedom in place of subservience; for justice and legality against cynical violations of legality and equity; for independent and critical judgments instead of conformity to edicts from above. It rejects double standards of conduct: one for public show, another for private life; one for the state, another for the individual; one for the rulers, another for the ruled. It asks that the means be suited to the projected social ends: “A right cause must be fought for with the right means.”
The writers want to cast off the strait jacket of a “Socialist Realism” which compels them to write, not as they desire and believe, but according to the arbitrary prescriptions of ignorant superintendents of the arts. These restraints parch the springs of artistic creation at their very source, they say, and inspire productions which are insincere, talentless, devoid of interest and unrealistic because they distort obvious facts of everyday life.
Don’t keep telling us that everything has changed for the better when we all know differently, cried out Adam Wazyk in his famous Poem for Adults which appeared in the Polish weekly Nova Cultura, Aug. 21, 1956. Here is a key stanza:
Fourier, the dreamer, charmingly foretold
In the summer of 1946, the Hungarian Communist poet Gyula Hay penned a manifesto, entitled One Sentence on Tyranny, which set forth in flaming indignation the revulsion of the most sensitive writers against the rape of their artistic consciences. How much freedom should be permitted a creative artist? he asked.
“It should be the writer’s prerogative to tell the truth. To criticize anybody and anything. To be sad. To be in love. To think of death. Not to ponder whether light or shadow are in balance in his work. To believe in the omnipotence of God. To doubt the correctness of certain figures in the Five Year Plan. To think in a non-Marxist manner. To think in a Marxist manner. To believe something unjust that is still officially maintained to be just.”
The rub is, as the Rakosi government quickly found out, that even a limited measure of free expression could not be doled out to the writers without demands for equal freedom arising from students, workers and Communist party members themselves. Intellectuals in the Soviet bloc have closer ties, at least in theory, with the working class and its socialist aims than their counterparts in capitalist countries. Some are sons and daughters of workers and peasants. The affinities between them were disclosed in the impetus given by the intellectuals to the Polish and Hungarian revolutions of 1956.
Their calls for a renovated morality, for concern with “truth, freedom and reason,” are directly linked with the desires of the masses for improvements in their material conditions and for a share in the direction of the national economy. They reflect grievances against glaring and growing economic inequalities among the various categories of citizens. The governing group, whose own welfare is well taken care of, keeps imposing unbearable sacrifices upon the workers in the name of future achievements and indefinitely delayed satisfactions. The Humanists assert that a workers’ regime cannot neglect the living standards of the producers too much and too long in favor of developing heavy industry at breakneck speeds and out of proportion to the country’s revenues and resources.
This line of reasoning obviously has serious political implications. It supports the claims of the masses against the dictates of the bureaucrats. It defends the right of nationalities to be free and independent, and, if necessary, to resist vassalage to a foreign power. Its most radical representatives insist upon the need for the working class to be supreme, not merely in ritual but in reality.
No wonder the Moscow authorities, and their replicas in Eastern Europe, fear these voices. The theoretical magazine of the Soviet Communist Party Kommunist (No.5, 1957) castigated “the newly appeared ‘reformers’ who are appealing for ‘reform’ on humanist principles of the existing social structure” and asserted that Leninism “needs no sort of ‘humanization,’ nor any of the reforms proposed by the proponents of ‘humanist socialism’.” To be sure, genuine Leninism needs no humanization. What the Humanist critics are inveighing against are the Stalinist violations of Leninism.
The tenor of their teachings was expressed as follows in the Polish publication Nova Cultura, April 28, 1957:
“The Communist ideal demands the liberation of humanity – and of the individual within the framework of society – from alienation in all the domains of society. The aim is to obtain the real sovereignty of the masses, to destroy the division between those who are deprived of freedom and the ruling group which is not responsible to the people. The idea of Communism, of humanism put into life, is universal. It is older than Marxism, it is the heritage of the ages.”
A year earlier, on June 19, 1956, the noted Hungarian Communist writer Tibor Dery had declared at a Petoefi Club meeting: “We have been fighting for so many things that we have forgotten the chief thing: humanism.” Their struggle for “the chief thing” plunged Dery and his fellow writers into the Hungarian uprising some months later, and after that, into the prisons of the Kadar government.
The evolution of the Hungarian Communist-Humanists into revolutionary fighters against Stalinism shows what an explosive potential is lodged in this ideological tendency. Their criticisms crystallized and stimulated the rising anti-bureaucratic sentiments among the masses and they became the intellectual heralds of a direct democracy rooted in the working class.
Alerted by the lessons of Hungary and Poland, the Moscow leaders hastened to take countermeasures when similar notes were sounded by Soviet authors. In September 1957 Khrushchev warned against authors “who attempt to use mistakes of the past in coming out against leadership of literature and art by party and states.” Although the First Secretary said he was for “freedom of creative work,” he held up “the lessons of Hungary, where the counterrevolution used some of these writers for its filthy aims and reminds us to what this can lead.” The lashing of Dudintsev and his popular novel was followed up a year later by the expulsion of Pasternak from the Union of Soviet Writers.
These two are not alone. Over the past several years numerous novels and short stories have come out which contrast the brutal behavior of functionaries with the warmer human qualities of other segments of the Soviet people and which emphasize the gulf between them. Light in the Window by Yuri Nagibin, to cite one example, tells about the director of a rest home who keeps the most luxurious apartment carefully cleaned and always ready for the Party boss who never comes. One night the cleaning woman decides to entertain her family in this sanctum. When the director evicts these interlopers, he reads in their eyes as they leave their hatred for him and all he represents.
THIS Humanist movement itself suffers from the restrictions and repressions of the police state which prevent its advocates from saying directly and fully what they mean. They have to talk in guarded terms and present their views in sidelights for self-protection. But Soviet readers who are accustomed to read between the lines can fill out from their own experience what is hinted at.
There is much vagueness in this chaotic ferment, especially on its ideological side. It is charged with powerful feelings and half-formed ideas. Its spokesmen know better what repels them than how to get rid of the social evils.
Most of the Soviet Humanists have not yet arrived at any worked-out program or clear perspective. They are groping toward the light after wandering in Stalinist darkness and double-dealing for so many years. It is quite natural that they should stammer a bit now that their tongues can utter some of their real thoughts and sentiments after a long silence, that their first approaches to an analysis of Soviet reality and its reasons for development should be incomplete and uncertain, and that they often wander off into petty-bourgeois lamentation and moralizing. Deeper probing of thought, further experiences and the extension of the struggle between the bureaucracy and the people should enable the best among them to define their ideas more clearly and bring them to correct class conclusions.
The neo-Stalinist hatchet men have seized upon some of the idealistic vagaries of the Humanists to discredit the entire movement, excommunicate it, and punish its main figures. They even claim the Humanist heritage of Marxism for their own and ridicule the pretentions of the Humanist critics. The tussle between these two groups over the mantle of Humanism may seem like nothing but a war over words. Actually it is part of a continuing contest of divergent social forces: the defenders of the bureaucratic upper crust on one side, the intellectual spokesmen for the discontents of the masses on the other.
The claim of the Kremlin hierarchs to be the repositories of Humanism is as unfounded as their claim to be the continuators of Marxism and Leninism. There was nothing socialistic or Humanistic in the suppression of the Hungarian uprising and its Workers’ Councils. A Socialist Humanism ought to be the enemy of aristocratic parasitism and abuse of power, not its obsequious servitor. Wherever and whenever the Humanist opponents of the bureaucracy condemn these abominations, they are in the right.
When at one extreme some representatives of this tendency reject materialism in favor of absolute moral values, semi-religious beliefs or a classless democracy, they overshoot the mark and are in the wrong. But these errors and exaggerations, which require correction, should not be allowed to submerge the essentially healthy and progressive character of this cultural phenomenon.
The idealism of the Humanists is one of the ways through which the political consciousness of the new generation of Soviet thinkers, the mass leaders of the future, is being formed. It may be the first, but it will not be the final, formulation of their views. Under the given circumstances, their moral indignation, however clumsy its theoretical formulations, is infinitely more worthy than the sham “materialism” behind which the gendarmes of bureaucratic privilege and tyranny seek concealment.
The Russian Humanists do not have a uniform outlook. There are highly divergent currents amongst them which at this point coalesce in opposition to the possessors of power. These trends range from total rejection of Marxism and Bolshevism, as indicated in Pasternak’s novel, to a reaffirmation of the essential positions and aims of revolutionary socialism against Stalinism.
Similar divisions exist among the young Soviet intellectuals. Their characteristics were delineated in an article in the August 18-25, 1958 New Leader by David Burg, until 1957 himself a student in the USSR. He separates the dissident youngsters into two typical groups: the Neo-Bolsheviks and the Anti-Communists.
The Neo-Bolsheviks “are searching for a ‘true Marxism’,” Burg writes.
“There is a widespread nostalgia for the pre-Soviet period and for the early years of the post-Revolutionary period. Today Soviet youth frequently show their opposition to the regime by holding the mirror of the classics of Marxism-Leninism up to contemporary reality. In their view, the purges of 1937 liquidated the true leaders of the Revolution. They contrast Thermidor with October ...
“They idealize the Revolution and call for a return to the original ideals of Leninism, which they think they find in some of Lenin’s works (State and Revolution). They frequently talk about the ‘bureaucratic degeneration’ of the regime and the emergence of a ruling, privileged bureaucracy which has instituted a dictatorship against the people. Those who subscribe to these views lean toward the traditions of the old revolutionary parties and favor radical methods of active combat.”
While the Neo-Bolsheviks feel that “the West itself has reached moral and spiritual dead-end,” the Anti-Communists “are aware of the great economic and social progress in the West and regard the ‘Socialist’ experiment in Russia as an outright failure ... To them, October was a great historical blunder which had to lead to state monopoly-capitalism.”
The Neo-Bolsheviks see “the bureaucracy as only a malignant growth” to be removed by “surgical means” in order to permit a “basically healthy” social organism to “develop normally.” The Anti-Communists “feel that the party bureaucracy is a logical outgrowth of the system ... and insist upon the need for a radical transformation of the economic system.”
Thus the path of the Neo-Bolsheviks leads forward to a higher stage of the Russian Revolution in which the achievements since 1917 will be rescued from Stalinism and crowned by the genuine workers’ democracy sketched out by Lenin. Whereas the Anti-Communists are turned backward toward a restoration of free trade which will presumably pave the way for a bourgeois democracy of the parliamentary type and surely a revival of capitalist forms and forces.
As the anti-bureaucratic struggles deepen and widen, these two tendencies, oriented in different directions, must become more and more hostile to each other, because they embody incompatible programs and perspectives for the further economic and political course of Soviet society. In this process the Humanism which serves to screen nascent petty-bourgeois ideas and interests will become differentiated from that revolutionary Humanism which expresses the objectives of a Socialist materialism.
IN THE light of this review of the development of Humanism, and the controversies over Socialist Humanism both in the English-speaking countries and in the Soviet bloc, how should we sum up the relations between Humanism and Marxism? And what are the necessary conditions for a genuine Socialist Humanism?
To be a Marxist, it is not necessary to renounce Humanism or its heritage. But it is certainly anti-Marxist to surrender the revolutionary outlook of dialectical materialism in order to embrace Humanism. The crucial issue is this: is the Humanism an integral component of a consistent materialist philosophy or is materialism pushed aside by a relapse into some fashionable form of sentimental or moralizing socialism?
The Humanism which rightfully belongs with scientific socialism should be viewed as the fulfillment of a series of intellectual and social movements reaching back to the Mediterranean civilizations before Christianity. Greek Humanism, Renaissance Humanism, and the revolutionary-democratic Humanism of the bourgeois era were successive efforts by enlightened forces of their age to bring social relations under the rule of human reason. Each of these endeavors helped propel mankind a step forward. But they all fell short of their ultimate aims because of insurmountable barriers arising from the inadequate development of the powers of production and the resultant limitations of their class societies.
Contemporary Humanists who depreciate the role of technology, labor activity and other material factors in the making of history and the advancement of human relations, ignore one of the most enduring features of the Humanist achievement. The great Humanists since the Greeks were pioneers in stressing the importance of the arts, crafts, sciences, and technique.
Men like Leonardo da Vinci and Marcilio Ficino glorified human labor and craft techniques, exalting the Greek Archimedes above Plato. In Campanella’s vision of the future, City of the Sun, all citizens are taught mechanical arts and work only four hours a day to satisfy their needs. Bacon wrote that inventions like printing, gunpowder and the magnet “have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world” and proposed an encyclopedia of the arts and crafts as the basis for a true philosophy of nature. This was realized for the eighteenth century by the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert. Our own Benjamin Franklin, the experimenter with electricity and inventor of the Franklin stove, organized the American Philosophical Society in 1744 to “promote useful knowledge” by collecting data on plants, animals and minerals and encouraging needed inventions.
Such Humanists strove, each in his own way, to link the mastery of nature through the advancement of science and technology with the improvement of the conditions of life. This great liberating idea was magnificently announced by Bacon in his description of Solomon’s House in The New Atlantis:
“The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”
However much these earlier movements contributed to social progress, they lacked the requisite economic conditions and social forces to carry through “the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire” over nature and the social system. But they did leave as their legacy the optimistic prospect that through their collective efforts, aided by science and techniques, men could win enough power from nature to transform their lives and realize their highest aspirations.
Scientific socialism consciously took over the goals of conquering nature, creating reasonable relations among men, and perfecting the human personality which Humanism had projected. It undertook to demonstrate, first in theory and then in practice, how these promises of Humanism could be realized. Proceeding from the science, technique and immense productive potential of large-scale industry developed under capitalism, the modern working class would win political supremacy, concentrate the means of production under collective ownership and control, and remake the social order from bottom to top in a planned and rational manner.
Socialist Humanism rests upon the following propositions:
This revolutionary class program and outlook decisively separates Marxism from all varieties of bourgeois Humanism which are tied up with liberalism, progressivism, and reformism.
Since the rise of Stalinism, Marxism has added another proposition. It teaches that the workers have not thrown the capitalists off their backs so that any new masters in the shape of insolent bureaucrats can take their places. It demands democratic self-rule by the workers and strict control over all servants of their state until such professional functionaries, and the state itself, are no longer needed. This revolutionary democratism opposes genuine Socialist Humanism to its Stalinist counterfeit.
The unity of mankind is an age-old dream. The Christians preached that it would come through the Fatherhood of God and the mediation of His Only Begotten Son. Feudal Europe proclaimed it through the One Universal Catholic Church. The bourgeois rebels aspired to attain it by overthrowing pre-capitalist institutions and customs.
The economists of the Manchester School in the nineteenth century envisaged its more prosaic approach through the expansion of free trade on the world market. Twentieth-century liberals and Humanists have hoped it would come through the League of Nations and now the United Nations. The Stalinists declare that it can be promoted only by accepting “the leading role of the Soviet Union” which means, in effect, kowtowing before the dictates of the Kremlin oligarchs.
Must this goal then be given up as an illusion? No, answers Marxism, it can be won. The overcoming of the divisions and conflicts among peoples in this world is no more Utopian today than was the unification of the thirteen states of North America in the eighteenth century. Modern technology makes it possible; the menace of nuclear war makes it imperative. Such unity cannot, however, be achieved by religious, bourgeois, reformist, humanitarian or Stalinist methods. Just as it took the first American Revolution to bring about the preconditions for merging the colonies, so only the successful extension and completion of the international socialist revolution can clear the way for world harmony.
Once the workers come to power in the most advanced countries, they can help the less developed peoples lift up their living and cultural standards through a federation of socialist republics and a common economic plan. Universal peace and fraternity cannot become real and secure until there are no rich and no poor within any country and no rich nations draining the lifeblood from the poor ones.
This is the grand perspective held out by Socialist Humanism as a guide for action in our own time.
DIALECTICAL materialism affords the fullest scope to Humanism because it strips away whatever was false in its previous expressions and gives a solid scientific foundation to its most progressive trends. Let us start with man’s relations to nature. Some of the most enlightened liberal Humanists are not free of obscurantism on this basic question. For example, Julian Huxley, the exponent of “Scientific Humanism,” has recently written a book Religion Without Revelation. Whereas grandfather Thomas Huxley helped detach science from the grip of religion, his descendant tries to salvage the “values” of religion through his interpretation of Humanism.
Scientific socialism, on the other hand, gives the clearest and most consistent formulation to the anti-super-naturalism and anti-clericalism present in Humanism from its beginnings. Marxism is not agnostic but uncompromisingly atheistic. Nothing exists beyond nature and man. Nature has been the generator of mankind through organic evolution. Mankind has become the producer of a nature humanized through social evolution.
God did not create mankind – or anything else. Man has created and recreated himself through the development of the labor process. At certain points in their history men’s imaginations fabricated supernatural forces in their own social image to compensate for their lack of real power over nature and social life. Then, at a much higher stage of their economic development, they began to do away with all need to bow down before divine ghosts.
The life hereafter, touted by the churches, is as harmful a fiction as the preincarnations of the transmigration-ists. The material universe which produced, sustains and reabsorbs us is the only real world. The mission of mankind is to keep perfecting human life on this global platform, to bring forth the unlimited potentialities of our organisms by uncovering, using and mastering the forces and treasures of the material environment. Our ability to do so is the objective measure of human advancement.
The pronouncement of Protagoras that “man is the measure of all things” is too sweeping and anthropomorphic. But man is certainly the measure of all values. For socialists there is no greater good than the fulfillment of the needs of mankind in its ascent to higher grades of social existence. Everything else is subordinate to ministering to the requirements of social progress. The slaughter and consumption of animals, which is condemned by some vegetarian cults, are justified because animals are a lower form of life than ourselves.
The humanistic Socrates believed that the universe and its parts were prefabricated to suit humanity’s well-being. Such a teleological conception of the relation between man and the universe opens the door to religion and is repugnant to Marxism. Man is not the pampered child of creation. But through the exertion of his natural endowments and the enhancement of his social powers he has proved that he can reshape nature to an increasing extent and make that part of the universe within his dominion serve his needs and support his aims.
The supreme being for man is man himself – not man as he is at any given stage, but man in the making, man as he can and will be. Socialist Humanism recognizes that the essence of the achievements of past generations up to now has been to prepare the conditions for making free human beings. Mankind has had to crawl up from the animal state by barbarous means until at last we have reached the point where a truly human mode of existence is within sight. The present inhabitants of the earth are the raw material for the production of an authentically human race.
That is why Marx designated all earlier stages of social organization up to the advent of socialism the prehistory of mankind. The distinctively human era of history will be inaugurated only with the establishment of human conditions of life – when, as Trotsky wrote, “the steady growth of social wealth has made us bipeds forget our miserly attitude toward every excess minute of labor, and our humiliating fear about the size of our ration.”
No less important in the Humanistic scheme of things than man’s relations with nature is the problem of men’s relations with one another. Although the Humanists consider themselves specialists on the subject of human nature, they have extremely inadequate conceptions of the processes of its formation and transformation.
For them history has been the result of a continuous tug of war between the good and bad, the rational and irrational components of human nature.
This is a secular version of the Christian interpretation of humanity and its history as a contest between divine and devilish forces. To a conservative Humanist like Professor Irving Babbitt men are prone to depravity and therefore their natural inclinations must be curbed. To the liberal Humanists men are attracted to the good and should be encouraged to bring forth the better side of their natures.
The impulses of human beings are in themselves neither virtuous nor vicious. The same aggressiveness which drives men to alter their natural environment and combat social evils can be directed into socially harmful and self-destructive channels. The characteristics and conduct of people are primarily determined by their social setting and the direction of its development.
Society is not the product of human nature, as the Humanists believe. Human nature, good, bad, or indifferent, is the product of society. The qualities of human beings are endlessly changeable, just as their potential capacities are boundless. Human nature is far more plastic than glass which can flow like a stream, be drawn into threads, or become rigidly frozen. Human nature, hardened into one mold, can be shattered, remelted and recast into very different, almost unrecognizable, forms.
The whole panorama of social evolution testifies to this plasticity of humankind. Consider, for example, the contrast between the Indians who occupied Lower California a couple of centuries ago and the present inhabitants of Los Angeles. Although they are biologically the same, what an immense social gap separated the tribal savages from the representatives of contemporary capitalist civilization!
The primitives had a vastly different mode of life, customs, mentality and outlook. They had no houses; they went mostly naked. Their restricted diet was made up largely of roots, fruits, small game, fish, insects and grubs which they gathered. Their groups averaged about forty-five persons.
They simply mated and had no words for “marriage” or “father.” They had few possessions and no conception of private property. They carried on no trade. Before the white men came, they believed that the small district where they lived was the whole world and they were its sole inhabitants.
Their language was very poor. They could not count beyond six. In their speech they did not have different terms for yellow or red. “All terms relating to rational human and civil life, and a multitude of words for signifying other objects are entirely missing ... Life, death, time, cold, heat, rain, understanding, doubt, etc.,” observed Father Baegert, the German Jesuit who lived with them for seventeen years.
The enormous difference between the social organizations and human natures of these aboriginal inhabitants of Lower California and the citizens of Los Angeles can be explained only by the disparities in the state of their respective productive forces. The incomparably higher technology and productivity of the latter made possible a higher stage of economic and cultural development. The predominant peculiarities of human nature can, then, be traced to material causes. The weaknesses and inadequacies of men arise primarily from the weakness of the productive forces at their command, the inadequacies of their means of existence and development.
Society makes people what they are and prevents them from being otherwise. That is what Marx meant when he wrote that there is no such thing as abstract man, or human nature in general. Men are the totality of the specific social conditions required for their production. And, as social conditions advance from one stage of economic development to another, the traits and activities of people change with them.
There is nothing distinctively Marxist about the proposition that men are first formed by society and then transformed by its changing material conditions. The materialists of the eighteenth century taught that men are what their physical and social surroundings make them and they concluded that, if men are constituted by social circumstances, then humanity can be improved by altering the social conditions under which they live and work. Marxism took over these ideas from the revolutionary materialists of France and England.
Marxism also asserts that if society shapes men, men in turn can reshape society through their collective efforts. This idea, too, is not peculiar to Marxism. It is as old as the Greeks and has inspired many reform and revolutionary movements since their time in the Western world.
What is distinctive about Marxist thought on this matter is the way in which it combines these two ideas. Society forms people – and then people transform their social relations and their selves in the process. But, add the historical materialists, the ways in which people behave toward one another and the kind of ties they have with one another, are determined, both in the first and final instance, by the productive powers they possess. And the degree in which they can change their social relations, and the directions of the evolution of their social organization, depend upon the capacities of their system of production.
The material historical conditions under which people live and labor are so decisive because they fix the framework of social action, both in its extent and in its limits, at any given time. It is possible to outgrow these conditions but it is not possible to jump out of them or over them at will. And it is wrong to ignore or belittle their paramount role in making people what they are, allowing people to do what they can, or preventing them from doing what they wish at any particular period. That is what Marx insisted upon when he wrote that “men make their own history – but only under the given historical conditions.”
The prevailing historical conditions not only bring forward the major tasks that have to be accomplished by mankind, or at least its progressive sections, at any particular point; they also determine the ways and indicate the means for accomplishing them.
All schools of Humanism have aspired to transform human nature. The most advanced among them recognize that human nature can be changed only by altering the social structure. But how and by whom is the social environment to be reconstructed?
HERE the scientific socialists part company with other types of Humanists. The supreme task of our age is to abolish capitalism as an outmoded and dangerous system and proceed to build socialism on a world scale. This can be done only through the action of the masses headed by the industrial workers. These conclusions are distinctively Marxist. Understanding and accepting them in principle, and applying them to all social problems, marks off the materialist from all other species of Humanist.
The selection of the working class as the main agency of social and political reconstruction is too partisan and the method of revolutionary struggle is too pugnacious, uncivilized and irrational, object the liberal Humanists. All individuals of goodwill, regardless of their social status or economic interests, must be called upon to work together for the common good, they say. And the way to bring about such collaboration is through education and appeals to the finer feelings and nobler qualities of the persons involved.
Although they claim to be scientific in their sociology and politics, such Humanists fail to analyze correctly the real structure of capitalism and the character and consequences of its class antagonisms. They regard classes and their conflicts as warts on the body of the established order rather than organic aspects of its structure and functioning. They further assume that the capitalist system is far more susceptible to reform and its proprietors and rulers far more amenable to the influence of “rational” considerations than they really are. The owners do not “listen to reason” when their profits and property rights are seriously threatened but respond with the vigorous reflexes of a wolf holding on to its prey.
Every stratum of society has a notion of what is reasonable or not in any given situation corresponding to its own social position. Middle class liberals may think it highly unreasonable for the capitalists to destroy democracy in favor of military or fascist dictatorships, or for Eisenhower to ally himself with Franco. But the imperious voice of their own “reason” speaks otherwise to the ruling class.
The liberal Humanist is helpless in the face of contemporary class conflicts because of deficient insight into the evolution of humanity itself. The major determinant of history has not been the conflict between good and bad impulses within human beings, as the bourgeois Humanists with their quasi-Christian ethics maintain. It has been, first of all the collective attack of humanity upon nature by which its elements and properties have been subdued to serve man’s ends.
Ironically, this growing command over nature has been accompanied and overshadowed by the intensified oppression of the majority of mankind by exploiting minorities which has culminated in the world domination of imperialism. This paradoxical situation has not come about through anyone’s evil intent but through the unconscious operation of the processes of social development governed by the law of labor productivity. Since the Indians of Lower California could not produce or accumulate any excess of wealth, they remained economic and social equals, though on the most primitive level of culture.
As the powers of material production have increased since the introduction of agriculture and the advent of civilization, men have been able to create surpluses of wealth large and alluring enough to stimulate the passions of individual aggrandizement but not enough to lift the living standards of the whole community in equal measure. The ensuing scramble to possess such surpluses by the owners of the means of production, while the direct producers were condemned to labor for the mere means of physical survival, has fashioned social relations and the chief characteristics of human beings in class society.
The liberal Humanists contend that it is sectarian, divisive and self-defeating to expect one special class to extricate mankind from this predicament. They insist that the task of eradicating social evils be entrusted to all men of good will. They are not completely consistent in this argument, because the Humanists do expect and solicit one part of humanity to lead the rest to a better life. But they select these pioneers, not on the basis of their economic functions or material interests, but because of their superior qualities of intelligence, good will, loving kindness, etc. However, experience has proved that even where such coalitions of social elements with divergent class interests are constituted, they fall apart into mutual contention at the most crucial moments of the struggle and cannot perform the work that must be done.
We have previously explained that Marxism singles out the industrial workers, not because of their better qualities as individuals, but because of their position and functions in the economy. They are the principal objects of exploitation under capitalism and the fighters against it. And they become the bearers of a higher mode of production and builders of a superior social system under post-capitalist conditions.
The uprooting of exploitation and construction of a social order where people can be free and equal with unlimited prospects of advancement will be the climactic achievement of laboring humanity. The materialist conception of history accords the prime place in the formation and transformation of mankind to its laboring activity. Labor is the most distinctive characteristic of mankind. Labor raised our species above the animal state and created society. The development and diversification of the forms of labor since then has created all the wealth responsible for cultural progress.
When Marxism teaches that the expansion of the productive forces and the enhancement of labor productivity is the mainspring of all progress, it adds that the most vital of productive forces is human labor which sets the rest into motion for specific social purposes. Marxism places active human beings in the very center of the historical process – and is thereby humanistic in the most profound sense. Men, as producers, have produced their own history.
Unfortunately, up to now, they have not produced their history in a conscious or planned manner – and that is why the net result of their work has led to such contradictory consequences. With the development of nuclear energy, automation and other scientific and industrial accomplishments, mankind has the chance of eliminating all relations of oppression and exploitation and then lightening the burdens of necessary labor – and other curses – imposed by the low levels of labor productivity.
The man of the socialist future will be able to recreate his personality from crown to toe thanks to the steady reduction, and ultimately the total abolition, of all enforced labor of production. Only then, when all his time becomes free, to do with as he pleases, will man be able to throw off the last of his animal-like activities, attributes, sentiments, habits and measures and unstintingly cultivate his distinctively human qualities.
We can only dimly surmise what human beings with such highly organized social consciousness and material powers will be like. They will produce wonders that will make the tapping of nuclear energy and flight into space seem like child’s play. And not the least of these wonders will be what man will make of himself.
Creativity is the finest quality of mankind. What initiative was displayed in the infancy of our race in order to use and make tools, tame the chemical process of fire, share the produce of labor, and later to domesticate animals, invent agriculture and the handicrafts! This capacity for innovation has not been solely a trait of exceptionally gifted individuals. It has been exercised by oppressed masses at moments of revolutionary climax in history when their energy and enthusiasm swept aside archaic institutions and modes Of rule and founded new and higher types of social and political organization.
In the present period of revolutionary transition from class society to socialism, Marxism strives to enlighten working men and women in order to stimulate their initiative in one domain of social activity after another, beginning with the economic substructure and the political regime. It does so, cognizant that in the past creative openings have been rare for individuals and still fewer for the majority of mankind. The ultimate aim of the new socialist order is to bring about those conditions which will make both individual and collective creativeness the rule, rather than the exception, in human life.
Socialist Humanism believes firmly in the power of intelligence and the cultivation of consciousness. But it does not err in making an idol of reason detached from the social context, as do the idealistic Humanists who believe in the omnipotence of intelligence regardless of time, place and controlling circumstances. Reason, like any other human capacity, is a product of social activity and a function of social development. Its scope and effectiveness are cramped so long as adverse economic circumstances hem it in and strangle its growth. The major task of human reason today is to help sweep away by revolutionary means all those conditions and forces which hinder the extent of its own applications and development. That is why the consistent rationalist of our time ought to be a socialist revolutionist.
Socialist Humanism believes no less strongly than any other creed in human decency, dignity and brotherhood. But just as it is rational without being rationalistic, so is it moral without falling into empty moralizing. A genuinely practical and progressive morality cannot be separated from the actual conditions, contending forces, and basic issues of class society. According to the moral code of a Socialist Humanism, whatever aids the exploited against the exploiters and the oppressed against their oppressors, and whatever actions clear the way to a free and equal society, whether these are directed against capitalists, colonialists or usurping bureaucrats, are justified and morally right.
The partisans of a socialist movement which is both scientific and humanistic are dedicated to preparing a future in which human relations are purged of all violence. On the other hand, the civilized barbarians who are determined to uphold class society at any price sometimes compel the fighters for progress to resort to stern measures in self-defense.
The German Communist writer, Bertold Brecht, addressed a poem To Posterity asking for sympathetic understanding of this necessity:
You, who shall emerge from the flood
What is the ultimate justification for socialism itself and the means of struggle needed to attain it? It alone can create for the first time the material and cultural prerequisites for realizing the brotherhood of man preached by religion, the freedom, equality and justice promised by bourgeois democracy, along with the all-sided development of the individual and the happiness of the whole human family on earth envisaged by the Humanists.
1. This is the second of two articles. The first appeared in our winter issue.
Last updated on: 11.2.2006