Joseph Hansen

Corliss Lamont on Humanism

(Fall 1958)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.4, Fall 1958, pp.153-155.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen 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 Philosophy of Humanism
by Corliss Lamont
Philosophical Library, New York. First published 1949; revised edition 1957
243 pp. Cloth bound $2.50; paper back $1.45.

Dr. Lamont’s acceptance of nomination as candidate for Senator from New York on the United Independent-Socialist slate has stirred fresh interest in this well-known civil libertarian. A philosopher willing to join directly in political struggles is not common. A philososopher in public opposition to both the Republican and Democratic machines is rarer still. And an American who feels so strongly about the danger of war that he is willing to campaign for high office on a socialist ticket breaks with virtually everything that is commonly accepted about the ways of philosophers. The revised edition of The Philosophy of Humanism should, therefore, gain attention as the best available statement of this liberal thinker’s fundamental views.

As Dr. Lamont emphasizes, Humanism is not new. It was a significant current in Greek philosophy; and its modern development began with the Renaissance some six hundred years ago. Its central tenet is that mankind’s concern should be mankind.

Humanism arose in opposition to the rule of the supernatural. Whatever concessions to the other world Humanists have made, out of inconsistency or to avoid martyrdom, Humanism as a special philosophical current takes mankind as its first premise. Gods and devils and their heavens and hells are therefore recognized only as products of the human mind.

In this tradition, Dr. Lamont presents the case of science against religion. Since the author is not interested in persuading other philosophers but in enlightening readers unfamiliar with the technical and often obscurantist language of philosophy, the book is pleasantly easy to read. Anyone whose intellectual development began under the influence of America’s prevailing pietism will recognize the usefulness of this compilation and fresh statement of facts and arguments in helping others to find their way to the free-thinking world of science.

Humanism exists in many varieties, including even a type that sees value in religion. The use of “Humanism” to describe such a self-contradictory outlook is “most questionable,” in Lament’s opinion. He specifies his own variety as “naturalistic.”

“I bring in the adjective naturalistic to show that Humanism, in its most accurate philosophical sense, implies a world-view in which Nature is everything, in which there is no supernatural and in which man is an integral part of Nature and not separated from it by any sharp cleavage or discontinuity.” (p.18)

Lamont places “the followers of Karl Marx” in the category of naturalistic Humanists.

“While the Marxist materialists disagree sharply on certain philosophic issues with me and with other Humanists, particularly in their ambiguous attitude towards democratic principles, they are unquestionably humanistic in their major tenets of rejecting the supernatural and all religious authority, of setting up the welfare of mankind in this life as the supreme goal, and of relying on science and its techniques.” (p.21)

A distinction exists, in Lamont’s opinion, between Naturalism and Materialism. Both view the ultimate reality as matter in motion, out of which evolved the universe, the solar system, living things and finally human beings; but Naturalism does not lay so much stress on this philosophical foundation.

“Like Naturalism, Materialism relies first and foremost on scientific method, believes in the ultimate atomic structure of things and finds in Nature an order and a process that can be expressed in scientific laws of cause and effect. But Materialism has stressed matter as such more than Nature and tended until recently to over-simplify and over-mechanize, reducing in theory the whole complex behavior of living creatures and human beings to the operation of the same laws that apply to inanimate existence ... Another point about Materialism is that it has usually gone hand in hand with an outspoken anti-religious position and has been less prone to compromise with religious terminology. It has also often been associated, particularly in modern times, with radical political movements. Naturalism’s less militant attitude in general is perhaps the chief reason why it is sometimes called a ‘polite’ Materialism.” (pp.31-32)

It is not quite accurate, in my opinion, to state that the particular disagreement Marxist materialists have with Dr. Lamont’s philosophical position centers on the question of democracy. I take it that such a conclusion derives from the author’s criticisms of dictatorial practices in the Soviet Union and the People’s Democracies which have not been welcomed by the defenders of bureaucratic rule.

In projecting “A Humanist Civilization” as a goal for the future, this protagonist of civil liberties in the United States appears to continue the debate with his critic in polite form; he urges “complete democracy as both an end and a means.” [1] Thus Lamont’s affirmation of democracy implies rejection of Stalinist authoritarianism. But this is in the tradition which views socialism as the logical extension and development of democracy. One must say that in adherence to the principle of democracy, the Humanist, despite his apparent acceptance of politics and the state as absolutes, is closer to Marxism than his Stalinist critics.

The basic difference between Humanism and Marxism lies, I think, in the concept of mankind. In the Humanist view, human nature is regarded as an ultimate; it is the foundation on which this philosophy builds its structure. But human nature is never seen in isolation; it manifests itself through society. The Humanist cannot escape this. However, because of his basic premise, he ascribes the evils in society to evils in human nature; he likewise ascribes progress in society to human nature – to its good side, the tendency toward rationality. For example Lamont says,

“While it is true that uncontrolled human desires are the prime cause of evil in the world, it is equally true that human desires directed by reason toward socially useful goals are a prime foundation of the good.” (p.191)

The concept of mankind is reduced to opposing abstractions of quite vague nature, the rational and the irrational.

Marxism reverses the relationship which the Humanist sees between human nature and society. In the Marxist view, society is prior. People are born in a society, a society of definite structure, and this society, taking humans in their plastic infancy, is decisive in shaping their nature. But society has a logic of its own. It is capable of changing its molds and even of causing revolutions in the nature of already-shaped individuals. Since the primitive era it has stimulated the rise, decline and succession of opposing classes. These stages in the progress of society have been determined in the final analysis by the evolution of the means of producing food, clothing and shelter. The “good” or “evil” effect of forces, circumstances, and struggles is related to their ultimate effect on labor productivity. The pivot is the social structure which is “good” if it corresponds to the development of the technological base, “evil” if it has become antiquated and a brake on technology.

This way of deriving our abstractions is more complex than the Humanist way but it has the advantage, it seems to me, of yielding a richer concept of mankind, one that more closely reflects the complex reality. Moreover, we have not departed from the common concern which Humanist and Marxist share, the welfare of mankind.

There is, however, an immediate difference in what the Humanist and Marxist regard as human. The pleasure we feel in eating, drinking and procreating does not distinguish us much from other animals; our use of tools and machines does. Yet under capitalism today few workers feel like humans handling tools and machines to provide themselves and society with sustenance; they begin to feel human only when the whistle blows and they are free to turn to their animal activities.

A more important difference in the Marxist and Humanist concepts of mankind is that according to the former, definite classes carry forward at a definite time the interests of humanity as a whole. At another definite time the same classes cease this progressive work, become an obstacle to progress, and therefore become anti-human. Humanism largely disregards the class struggle. It sees as the real struggle in society the opposition between good and evil impulses in the all-too-human human; it sees rationality on the side of the good and believes that humans have freedom of choice, despite class differences, once they understand what is rational.

In the Humanist view the individual is rare, no matter what class he belongs to or represents, who fails to seek the common good or whose mind is closed to rational appeal. In the Marxist view the individual is rare in a reactionary ruling class, particularly in the capitalist epoch, who responds to rational appeal and comes over wholeheartedly to the cause of the oppressed class that represents the future of humanity.

This difference is illustrated in rather striking fashion in The Philosophy of Humanism. For example, to bring home his point about the need for economic democracy, Lamont cites the “extensive program” outlined by Roosevelt in his message to Congress January 11, 1944, about an economic “Bill of Rights.”

I submit that the President’s message was demagogy. The shrewd political leader of American imperialism, incubating the egg that Truman hatched the following year over Hiroshima, aimed at diverting attention from the war-profiteering of the monopolies and allaying war-weariness among the armed forces and civilian workers. So he took to the headlines, choosing the Congressional representatives of Big Business as an audience of about the right receptivity for a lecture on the desirability of economic democracy. The Humanist inclines to accept such rational-appearing politics at face value because it corresponds with his basic thesis about the good in human nature; a Marxist looks for its true meaning in the structure of society; i.e., in the class struggle.

The practical outcome of the central theoretical difference between Humanism and Marxism is even more revealing in the field of current political issues. The greatest danger humanity has faced in its entire history is atomic war. Agreement is universal on the need to avert the danger and to establish enduring peace. Yet the ominous testing of atomic weapons proceeds as if no course were open for mankind but a “rendezvous with destiny” in World War III. How can peace be achieved? The solution to the old problem of the relationship between ends and means has become truly crucial.

Trotsky observed that through fascism history had exacted a stern penalty from the working class for failure to learn dialectics. Even that penalty, it seems, was not severe enough. Through nuclear contamination of the earth’s atmosphere, the penalty now has become damage to the genes we pass on to the future. Nuclear scientists warn that life itself can be extinguished in another war. It would seem time we paid serious attention to the means of achieving peace.

Here, regrettably, Humanism registers failure.

“In the twentieth century,” writes Dr. Lamont, “the idea of a federation of free states became embodied in the League of Nations, which collapsed with the outbreak of World War II, and in the United Nations, which was created at the conclusion of World War II. Both these organizations were founded upon the principle of collective security, namely that the peace-loving countries of the earth should band together against any aggressor or potential aggressor and speedily put an end, by means of collective action and mutual assistance, to war or the threat of war. For Humanism the principle of collective security is a vital one in international affairs.” (p.234)

The League of Nations “collapsed with the outbreak of World War II”; in other words, as an instrument of peace it worked only in the absence of war. But the collapse was predicted by the Marxists. And how were they able to make this successful prediction? Because they observed that the League of Nations was set up by the imperialist powers in opposition to the socialist program for peace. The League of Nations therefore served as a means of diverting attention from the only possible means of achieving enduring peace. It created illusions that actually facilitated the imperialist preparations for World War II.

What about the United Nations? Its origin was similar with two exceptions: (1) the Soviet government, under Stalin, participated in its formation; (2) the United States, mightiest of imperialist powers, sponsored it, stayed in it, and dominated it. The UN is really a refurbished League of Nations. The UN’s course has not been appreciably different from that of the old League. The UN flag flew at the head of the troops that Truman ordered into the Korean civil war. Where authorization for other adventures of this kind has been lacking because of Soviet veto power, the United Nations collapses and the imperialists by-pass it as in the Suez crisis. The latest example was the use of American troops in Lebanon.

In the test of practice – which Dr. Lament agrees is the final test – the UN. like the old League, has served monopoly capital not too badly. To suggest that the road to peace lies through such a means is to participate in creating or maintaining a most dangerous illusion.

In accordance with its dialectical concept of mankind, Marxism sees the road to peace through extension and development of the working-class struggle against capitalism and the colonial struggle against imperialism. The most powerful blow for peace since the October 1917 Revolution was the Chinese Revolution that ended the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek and “lost” China to Western imperialism. This blow was delivered by one quarter of the human race, a force so great that it upset all the time tables of World War III projected by the imperialist statesmen.

Right now the Arab struggle for freedom and independence acts as a powerful deterrent to a major war, for how can Anglo-American imperialism hope to win an attack on the Soviet bloc with revolutionary fires licking the Middle East oil lines?

The real forces generating peace today are movements such as these. They add their weight to the progressive consequences of the Bolshevik Revolution and the spread of planned economy following the victory of the Soviet Union over German imperialism in World War II.

When a socialist victory in any of the industrially advanced countries is added to these, the threat of an economic holocaust will clearly reach the vanishing point. Surely it is the duty of peace-loving figures, who understand how enormous the stakes are, to urge this means and no other to achieve peace!

As a “realistic Humanist,” Lamont recognizes that it is necessary to

“... look beyond fine-sounding peace pronouncements and formal peace organizations to those fundamental economic forces and relationships that make for war ... Without contending that economics constitutes the whole story behind war, we can state that unless and until the different peoples of the world solve their basic economic problems, centering around poverty, unemployment, inflation, depression, business monopoly and the proper control of natural resources, there will be no lasting international peace.” (p.234)

The causes of war are located in antagonistic economic relations, and the removal of these causes can come through global economic planning that overcomes the antagonisms. But global planning, which Lament recognizes is needed, will never appear through such capitalist-dominated agencies as the United Nations. More likely, as has been indicated by its efforts to intervene in the East European countries, the UN will seek to disrupt planning where it has already been won. This question obviously bears closer examination than one finds in The Philosophy of Humanism.

One of the stimulating chapters of the book is entitled, This Life is All and Enough. In concurring with that sentiment, I am tempted to add, in view of the grave warnings of the nuclear scientists, that “This Life Can Be Kept; But Only through Socialism.” Working for the revival of the American socialist movement through the national extension of united socialist efforts, such as the one Corliss Lamont is campaigning for, seems to me a rational means to that end.



1. The dialectical answer that “complete” democracy signifies the appearance of something new, transcending “democracy,” is not germane here; while it is false to argue that democracy had to be sacrificed in the USSR for the sake of speedy industrialization – the speed under workers democracy would have been greater. What is germane and inescapable to any defender of civil liberties is the withering away of democracy in countries where the state is supposed to do the withering away.


Last updated on: 8.7.2006