Chris Harman


Mud Cannot Split

(Spring 1967)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.28, Spring 1967, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Socialist Humanism
Ed. Erich Fromm
NY, Doubleday, $1.75

‘Socialist Humanism’ has been in fashion on the intellectual Left ever since one of Stalin’s more vicious disciples turned on him in the spring of 1956. It was the expression of an attempt to break with the heritage of the Stalinist past without breaking with Marxism. Its characteristic standpoint was either to cling to the young Marx who wrote the 1844 manuscripts in opposition to the old Marx who wrote Capital, or to use the earlier writings in order to justify a particular reading of the later ones.

But the revulsion against Stalinism was not a simple process. In the state capitalist countries, led from above, it meant different things to different social classes. For the leadership it was an attempt to adjust the nature of class rule to the realities of a changing economic base. To middle level bureaucrats and industrial managers in the Soviet Union and to the locally rooted bureaucrats of the satellite countries, it offered an opportunity for increased power vis-à-vis the central apparatus. To workers and peasants it meant an uneasiness in the ruling class which would enable them to force concessions from it – or even, as in Hungary, briefly to overthrow it. Similarly in the West revulsion united those looking for some marginal amelioration of existing society, whether inside or outside the Communist Party, with those in revolt against all forms of oppression.

As the standard of this movement, ‘Socialist Humanism’ embodies all these ambiguities. This is brought out by Fromm’s collection. A veritable popular front of attitudes, concerns, class ideologies, are united together beneath adherence to the title: genuine revolutionaries such as Dunayeyskaya; the President of Senegal; admirers of Gandhi and theoreticians of the Italian CP. A member of the Central Committee of the Polish CP is separated only by pages from those who would share the fate of Hass, Modzelewski and Kuron were they Polish. It is almost embarrassing to write down the names of some of the contributors; Stephen King-Hall for instance.

This is all testimony to the dangers inherent in the ‘Socialist Humanist’ approach. However admirable, the humanistic sentiments of the young Marx do not reveal a great deal about the actual world of oppression and revolt. That is why Marx wrote Capital, The Eighteenth Brumaire, The Civil War in France. Stalinism as a theoretical form was built upon the systematic distortion of these. It is this distorted approach that has to be overthrown, not a ‘truly critical and therefore truly scientific appraisal of reality. Yet it is precisely this emphasis on concrete analysis that much of ‘Socialist Humanism’ ignores. At the same time its semi-philosophical terminology obscures the real interests being expressed by its adherents. The most divergent standpoints are concealed behind like-sounding references to ‘human alienation.’ This may have its uses. For Left critics in the state capitalist countries, it offers a convenient Aesopian language. But it is one that can just as easily be used by their opponents to confuse.

If Marxism is a humanism, it is because its key terms express the contradiction between human potentiality (potential development of the forces of production) and the existing social structure which distorts and cramps this. This means that the human society is not something that exists but something to be created. ‘Humanity’ in general will not do this, but men as they really are; that is men whose interests, personalities and comprehension of reality depend upon their class situation. Socialist humanism, to be meaningful, has to relate the final goal to the real situation as it confronts men in the present, not as ‘men’ but as worker, capitalist or whatever. This means that it has to return to the old Marx, not merely to the young one. If it fails to do this, it merely obscures instead of revealing. ‘Man’ can be the Stalinist bureaucrat or the enlightened capitalist whom the leftist psychoanalyst treats. Any view starting from such a standpoint remains in the realm of ideology. It merely accompanies action, hiding its real roots, instead of, like scientific socialist theory, guiding it.

Last updated on 15 November 2009