Paul Mattick 1965

Humanism and Socialism

Source: Anti-Bolshevik Communism by Paul Mattick, published by Merlin Press, 1978;
Also published: International Socialism (1st series), No.22, Autumn 1965, pp.14-18.
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden, for 2003.

Like science, industry, nationalism and the modern state, humanism is a product of capitalist development. It crowns the ideology of the bourgeoisie, which arose within the social relations of feudalism, whose main ideological support was religion. Humanism is a product of history, i.e. the product of men engaged in changing one social formation into another. Because it evolved with the rise and development of capitalism, it is necessary to consider the humanism of bourgeois society before dealing with its relationship to socialism, or with ‘socialist humanism’.

Pre-capitalist social relations developed so slowly that changes were almost imperceptible. Absolute stagnation does not exist, however, and the rise of capitalism after the Middle Ages, which saw the end of one epoch of social development and the beginnings of another, was the result of many isolated, drawn-out but cumulative changes in production processes and property relations. The accumulation of great wealth and its concentration in urban centres, as well as the limitations on the amassing of wealth imposed by persistent feudal conditions, led to an intellectual movement opposed to the other-worldly medieval Christian discipline which had sustained the feudal social structure and the power of the Church. But like commercial wealth itself, the newly-developing irreligious attitude, which made Western man once again ‘the measure of all things’, remained for some time the privilege of the rich and their retainers. Humanism seemed to exhaust itself after freeing the mind of theology’s dogmatisms and after its return to, and fresh appreciation of, the Greek classics.

Being itself an expression of a general developmental trend, humanism could not help affecting this trend, in turn, through its critical attitude toward the medieval Church. In this way it helped support the Reformation, even though the reformed Church could not adapt itself to humanism. Until the eighteenth century it remained an intellectual pastime, but ensuing revolutionary events brought it to full flower as part of the general ideology of the middle classes, which aspired to add political power to their growing economic importance within the decaying feudal regimes.

The revolutionary middle class identified its own specific class interests with the needs and desires of the large majority of society suffering under the tyrannical rule of an aristocratic minority. Its own political emancipation it saw as the emancipation of humanity from all forms of oppression and superstition. This was both a necessity and a conviction, even though the rich middle class had no real intention of altering the lot of the lower classes. Otherwise, however, there was to be liberty, fraternity and equality. The men of the Enlightenment felt themselves to be true humanists, opposing the supernatural and emphasising the truly human, to which alone belonged the right to fashion society in accordance with human nature and reasoning.

With the bourgeoisie securely established, humanism degenerated into humanitarianism for the alleviation of the social misery that accompanied the capital formation process. Although the capitalist mode of production was adjudged unalterable — it was thought to conform best to both natural law and the nature of man — social reformers, imbued with the humanist tradition, thought it nonetheless possible to combine the system of private capital production with a more egalitarian system of distribution. The harsh rules of natural economic laws were to be tempered by human compassion and charity.

The cockier the bourgeoisie became through its success, and the more the enormous increase of wealth overshadowed the plight of the working classes, the less did bourgeois ideology refer to the humanist past. Instead, Malthusian doctrine and social Darwinism questioned the rationality of humanitarian attitudes and policies which were found to contradict the natural law of the ‘survival of the fittest’. Humanism was superseded by economic man as the ‘final’ and ‘scientifically established’ recognition of the true nature of man and the laws of nature.

The ‘survival of the fittest’ involves both force and ideology. The force brought to bear upon the ‘unfit’, i.e. the working classes, resides in the capitalist class possessing the means of production and its control over the political means of coercion. The ideology which supports this condition and, thus, the exploitation of labour by capital, maintains that capital production and the social relations at its base are natural relations independent of the influence of time. To make this doubly sure, old superstitions were revived and added to the new. Once more men were turned into passive victims of superhuman forces beyond their control. The humanisation process which had accompanied the rise of capitalism turned into a new and more powerful dehumanisation process through the subordination of all human endeavour to the new fetish of capital production.

The history of capitalism, as distinct from that of its early protagonists, is the history of the increasing dehumanisation of the social relations of production and of social life in general. In all previous social systems, wealth confronted labour concretely in the directly discernible social relations of master and slave, lord and serf, oppressor and oppressed. Slavery and serfdom were sanctioned by the gods, or by God, and could not be questioned. To make slavery convenient, slaves were relegated to the animal world, but their masters knew what they were doing when they put them to work. The landlord and the serf both knew their stations in society, even though the serf might, at times, have wondered at the wisdom of these arrangements. But, then, the ways of the Lord were inscrutable. Nonetheless, slavery and forced labour were human activities, to be suffered by one class, enjoyed by another, and understood by both for what they were.

The fetish of religion which helped secure these conditions did not becloud the real social relations at their base; it merely made them acceptable. In any case, the early humanists were not bothered by class relations, as their great affection for pre-Christian slave society testifies. Neither did it bother the middle class engaged, as it was, in replacing the feudal with the capitalist system of exploitation. Its concern was with the nature, or essence, of individual man, with human nature in general, and with society only in so far as it encroached upon the realisation of man’s assumed potentialities as a species-being.

This was a philosophy of man appropriate for the still-embattled emerging capitalist society of individual entrepreneurs, who justified individual self-interest with the assumption that it was the very instrument for achieving the freedom of the individual and the welfare of society. Just as the revolutionary middle class identified its own specific class interests with the needs of society as a whole, so it identified the particularities of ‘human nature’ under capitalistic conditions with human nature in general.

In reality, of course, the abstract concept of individual man and of his nature was confronted by real men holding opposite positions in the social production process. The world of men was the world of buyers and sellers of labour power; their relations to one another appeared as market relations. Production for exchange was the production and accumulation of exchange-value-expressible in terms of money. But only the buyers of labour power enriched themselves. The sellers merely reproduced their wretched conditions as wage workers. The selling and buying of labour power could not, and obviously was not, an equal exchange, for part of the labour was not exchanged at all but simply appropriated as surplus-value, a process hidden by the market, or price, form of commodity production. However, the exploitation of labour by capital was recognised at an early stage of capital formation. Lamented by the exploited it was taken for granted by the exploiters.

This by itself, however, did not imply an increasing dehumanisation of society. Humanistic attitudes had evolved under conditions of class exploitation prior to the specific capitalist relations of production and could, perhaps, slowly ameliorate, and finally overcome, the class determination of the economy. This was indeed the hope of the well-meaning among the bourgeoisie, and of the early utopian socialists, who stressed the common humanity of man and appealed to their innate sense of justice to set things right.


If only for a short time, this hope was shared by the young Marx during his phase of philosophical communism and — in an extremely tortured philosophical form — found its expression in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. According to Marx, and in context with his criticism of Hegelian idealism, man had gone astray by alienating himself from his true essence, in consequence of which he experienced the products of his labour as alien objects exercising power over him, and the external world as an alien world antagonistically opposed to him. Alienation was seen under the aspect of Feuerbach’s materialism and was dealt with in a criticism of bourgeois economy. This economy was itself, however, conceived as a specific form of human self-estrangement. Marx deemed it necessary to make man aware of his essential nature and of the nature of his alienation. This was to be the function of philosophy, of a positive humanism. It was expected to end all forms of alienation — of man from his true nature, of man from his work, of man from his fellow-man and, by doing so, end the various manifestations of alienation such as religion and private property. Humanism, in Marx’s view, equated with communism and communism with the end of man’s alienation.

What was the essence of man? It was, according to the young Marx, what differentiated man from the animal. Whereas the animal is immediately identical with his life-activity, man “makes his life-activity itself the object of his will ... In creating an objective world by his practical activity, man proves himself a conscious species being, that is, a being that treats the species as its own essential being, or that treats itself as a species being. Production is his active species life. Through and because of this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labour is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species life; for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created.”[1]

But why did Marx bother with the nature of man in a work that dealt mainly with problems of political economy? After all, as he said, his real concern was with the “actual economic fact” of the alienation of the labourer from his product, which then confronts the labourer as an alien and independent power. The product of labour, Marx wrote, “is labour which has been congealed in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labour. Labour’s realisation is its objectification. In the conditions dealt with by political economy this realisation of labour appears as a loss of reality for the worker; objectification as a loss of the object and of object-bondage; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation. So much so does labour’s realisation appear as a loss of reality that the worker loses reality to the point of starving to death ... Indeed, labour itself becomes an object which he can get hold of only with the greatest effort and with the most irregular interruptions. So much so does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the fewer can he possess, and the more he falls under the domination of his product, capital.[2]

The fetishism of commodity and capital production of Marx’s Capital is here fully anticipated, but relates itself not only to the specific social relations of bourgeois society but also to the nature of man as a species-being consciously producing the conditions of his life. Now the nature of man, as conceived by the young Marx, is the same for capitalist and worker — for those who find it difficult to realise their labour and for those who find it easy to appropriate the objects of other men’s labour. What Marx said was that capitalism not only exploits labour but also violates human nature. The bourgeois assertion that its system of capital production was a natural system corresponding to human nature Marx countered with the assertion that it distorts the nature of man.

It did not take Marx long to notice that as a Young Hegelian he had been spouting the same ‘rubbish’ in his criticism of bourgeois society as the bourgeoisie had produced in its own defence. Within less than two years after his philosophical concern with the essence of man, he ridiculed this very concern in The German Ideology. He still held that production is man’s “active species life”, but he was no longer interested in man in general but only in “real, historical men”. And what these men were, at any particular time, depended on what and how they produced. Their nature “depended on the material conditions determining their production. This production only makes its appearance with the increase of population. In its turn this presupposes the intercourse of individuals with one another. The form of this intercourse is again determined by production.”>[3] By developing their material production and their material intercourse, men “alter, along with this, their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking”.[4]

Human nature, Marx now held, cannot be abstracted from the isolated individual because it derives from an “ensemble of social relations”. Man can be no more than what men actually do in their concrete historical and social environment. By changing their environment, they change themselves; history may thus be regarded as the continuous transformation of human nature. This is not to say that there are no fixed drives which are characteristic of man and which changing social circumstances may only be able to modify in their form and direction. But these do not affect the mutability of human nature in the course of social and historical development.

In any case, society means relations between individuals, not the individual. One cannot say, for instance, that “from the standpoint of society neither slave nor master exist for both are human beings. That, however, they ‘are only outside society; slave and master being social determinations.”[5] Humanism can thus neither be related to, nor derived from, the essence of man. It refers to social conditions and relations which determine the behaviour of men. It must be produced by men, and — to come back to our starting-point — was the product of particular social and historical circumstances. Developed within class society, it was necessarily of a more ideological nature, i.e., it represented the false consciousness of a class aspiring to rule society and for that reason identified its own interests with those of humanity.

As an emancipatory value humanism was discarded by the bourgeoisie as soon as it gained full control of society. Humanism was revived by the working class to achieve its own emancipation — but with a difference. It was now recognised that humanism was incompatible with exploitation and class relations, and could become a practical reality only through the establishment of a non-exploitative, classless society. Humanism was still equated with communism. It was no longer seen as an ideal, however, to which reality should adjust itself, but as the real social movement which stood in opposition to the capitalist system. Socialist humanism was nothing less nor more than the proletarian class struggle to end capitalism and thus create the objective conditions for a humanist society, or a socialised humanity.

The struggle for a humanist society incorporates humanism as an ‘ideal’ because it is not as yet a reality. Socialism, by looking at things as they are, cannot help contemplating what they ought to be. But it does so only with regard to practically achievable ends as determined by existing conditions. What ought to be relates not to abstract ethical goals but to concrete social conditions that can be changed for the better, that is, to what men, at any given time, consider to be better. This excludes, of course, all those who are satisfied with existing conditions which, generally, means the ruling and privileged classes. Only those intent on improving their lot by way of social change will adhere to the practical ethics of social change that find their expression in the requirements of the social struggle itself. Individualism gives way here to class consciousness and economic self-interest to proletarian solidarity, as preconditions for establishing a society which, in its existence and further development, will no longer be determined by class relations and will thus be enabled to realise the humanist ‘ideals’.

Humanism as a practical reality presupposes socialism. Until then neither man, nor men, but only a particular social class of men will attempt to change its ideological state into a weapon for its concrete realisation. This attempt is at once a practical struggle against existing oppression and misery, a taking of sides against all forms of inhumanity perpetrated in defence of the status quo. The socialist movement is thus an ethical movement in so far as morals involve actual human behaviour and not ‘eternal truths’ associated with the nature, or God-given nature, of man. It will attempt within its own ranks, and within society at large, to realise those historically-evolved rules, norms, and standards of behaviour which assure and improve the well-being of all members of society, and will oppose those that serve only special interests. To do so means to lay bare the inconsistency of bourgeois morals within bourgeois practice, and to prepare for social conditions within which moral rules can actually be applied.

The fetishistic ethics of bourgeois society found opposition in the historical materialist ethics of the proletarian class. Bourgeois humanism was supplanted by proletarian humanism, expressed in the class struggle, and providing the means to humanist ends. These means, however, are not only determined by the ends they intend to serve; they are co-determined by bourgeois resistance to social change. The actual forms the class struggle takes on derive as much from the socialist goal as from the reality of existing power relations within capitalism. It is thus not possible to find ‘unadulterated’ humanistic means to achieve humanist ends. This could be possible only outside the class struggle, that is, through the realisation of humanism by the bourgeoisie itself, which is both an empty hope and an objective impossibility.


According to Marx, capitalism represents the present stage of a long developmental process of changing modes and relations of social production. This process was based on the social division of labour, which was, from the outset, a division of the conditions of labour, that is, of tools and materials, or, in modern parlance, of the splitting up of accumulated capital among different owners, and thus also, the division between labour and capital, and the different forms of property. With the growth of social production went the extension of exchange and the increasing use of money. Considered at first a mere medium of exchange to further social production, money, and the exchange it facilitated, soon took on an apparently independent character. The fortunes of the individual producers became dependent upon market relations, for it was only by way of exchange that social realities could assert themselves and thus control the producers instead of being controlled by them.

Bourgeois economic theory rationalised the discrepancy between private production and market exchange with the concept of the market equilibrium. It was assumed that the competitive price and market mechanism would lead to the most economical allocation of the social labour and assure to each and all the equivalent of their particular contributions to the production process. It was precisely by maximising private self-interest within the market relations that the latter, like an ‘invisible hand’, would bring forth the optimum of social well-being. All this is contradicted by the reality of crises and depressions and was theoretically disproven by Marxian theory. But what interests us here is merely the proudly-acknowledged fact that capitalist production and distribution are not determined consciously and directly by men, but only indirectly — by the vicissitudes of uncontrollable market occurrences.

This is only half the story, however, even though it is the whole of it for bourgeois economy which refuses to acknowledge the exploitation of labour by capital. Capitalistic production is the production of unpaid labour as capital — expressible in money terms. The exchange between labour and capital leaves surplus-labour, materialised in commodities, in the hands of the capitalists. This surplus-labour has to be realised outside the capital-labour exchange, and is so realised through the consumption of the non-producing population and the formation of capital. The increasing productivity of labour devalues the existing capital and reduces the amount of surplus-labour extractable through the medium of a given capital, which compels the capitalists constantly to increase their capital. This is not the place to enter into the extremely complex subject of capitalist dynamics. It is enough merely to assert what everyone may recognise for himself, namely, that capital competition implies the constant enlargement of capital. The control of the producers by the market is simultaneously the control of the producers and the market by the compulsion of capital accumulation.

Behaviour in capitalism is subordinated to the capital expansion process. This process is the direct result of the development of the social forces of production under private property relations, which, in turn, are determined by the class structure of society and its exploitation mechanism. The expansion of production is thus practically the ‘self-expansion’ of capital, for no capitalist can abstain from single-mindedly devoting himself to the expansion of his capital. Moreover, only as long as capital expands as capital can material production be carried on; the satisfaction of human needs depends on the formation of capital. Instead of using the means of production to satisfy these needs, these means, as capital, determine the conditions of social existence for both labour and capital.

The various manifestations of the ‘alienation’ of modern men, with which current social criticism concerns itself, follow from the fundamental fact of fetishistic capital production, which appears on the market as commodity fetishism. Because capital production must be realised through the circulation process, the drive for a larger capital in terms of money values and with complete disregard for the real social requirements in terms of human values, turns all social relationships into economic relationships, that is, human relationships can only be consummated by way of economic relationships and actually have, or assume, a commodity character. Everything is for sale and all can be bought. The social compulsion to accumulate capital compels individuals to put their trust in money rather than in men. And as only the possession of money allows for social intercourse, social intercourse itself it only a means of making money. Every man is a means to another man to secure and improve his own economic position, no matter what his interests may be in extra-economic terms. Although a social being, he is such only outside society. He may find his social .behaviour both enjoyable and defensible, but actually he has no control over it and remains a helpless victim of circumstances.

Excluded by the objectively given conditions of capital production, humanism, as attitude and behaviour, restricts itself to the socially rather meaningless accidental subjective dispositions of individuals, and may, or may not, have beneficial effects. In so far as it exists, it is a private affair with no effect whatever on the cannibalistic nature of capitalism. Adolf Eichmann is, perhaps, the best exemplification of the degree of ‘humanism’ left to the individuals of this society. Feeling himself incapable of killing a single human being, he was quite ready to help arrange for the killing of millions of people by other men. Yet his case is only a more dramatic instance of a prevailing attitude. The individual sees only himself as real; other men he regards as expendable or manipulative abstractions. The various inventors, designers, producers and users of modern weapons of war may all be sharing Eichmann’s ‘weakness’ but do exactly, either actually or potentially, what Eichmann was doing. And so do the capitalists, financiers, merchants, statesmen, politicians, scientists, educators, ideologists, poets, labour leaders and the workers themselves in the name of one, or another, of the fetishes that help maintain and perpetuate existing conditions.

This is not a new characteristic of capitalism but in its enormity corresponds to its present stage of development. To refer to the increasing dehumanisation is merely to note the expansion and extension of capitalism, and the simultaneous loss of the only humanising force operating within it, that is, the destruction of the socialist movement. Marx certainly overstated the workers’ capacity to develop a socialist consciousness, just as he understated the resilience of capitalism, its ability, that is, to increase the exploitation of labour and at the same time improve the workers’ living standards. In short, Marx did not foresee the full extent of the increase of the productivity of labour under capitalist auspices, which, in advanced capitalist nations, altered the conditions that had been expected to generate a revolutionary consciousness.


This seems to be contradicted by the existence of the so-called socialist part of the world. In fact, the search for a socialist humanism is directly connected with the existence of socialist countries. These nations, it turns out, display no more humanism than capitalist states and, consequently, are accused of violating their own principles and ignoring their own potentialities. It seems as if the very means to reach socialism pervert the socialist end and that new ways must be found to avoid this dilemma. However, the immediate ends of these nations was not, and could not be, the achievement of socialism but rather capital accumulation, even though it was accumulation under the auspices of the state instead of private capital. Socialism exists in these states only in ideological form as the false consciousness of a non-socialist practice. It has nevertheless been accepted as reality even by the free-enterprise bourgeoisie, because from their particular standpoint, state capitalism equates with socialism merely because it dispenses with private property in the means of production.

Capital formation as the appropriation of surplus-labour in capitalistic ally less-developed nations presupposes the existence of at least two social classes — the producers and the appropriators, and the relationship between them will be a market relationship between capital and labour. Even if planning and not competition determines the rate of accumulation, the planning is done by the appropriators, not the producers, of surplus-labour. As previously, under private property relations, the producers are ‘alienated’ from their products. It is the rate of accumulation, decided upon by the state, that is, by a special group of people, which determines the immediate life-conditions of the labouring population. The decisions of the state cannot be arbitrary, for its very existence depends, internally, on a sufficient rate of accumulation and, externally, on a rate sufficiently competitive to secure national existence. Capital accumulation still dominates the producers of capital. Under such conditions, however, the increasing rate of exploitation cannot be immunised through better living standards which make life sufficiently tolerable for a free acquiescence in the prevailing social relations. Exploitation will be secured by authoritarian methods of control. There is no chance for humanism to raise its head.

The capitalist world, unable to transform itself into a socialist society, but still able either to neutralise or subdue the potentially-given social forces that could affect such a transformation, tends towards its own self-destruction. Its partial destruction during two world-wide wars merely prepared the way for its total destruction in a highly-probable nuclear holocaust. The recognition that war can no longer solve the problems that beset the capitalist world does not affect the drift towards war, for the relentless drive for political and economic dominance, either to gain or retain it, is the outcome and sum-total of all the asocial behaviour that comprises social life in capitalism. The political decision-makers are no less trapped in this cul-de-sac than the emasculated and indifferent masses. Simply by making the ‘right’ decisions, in accordance with the specific needs of their nations and the security of their social structure, they may destroy themselves and a large part of the world.

While it is generally granted that war, though improbable, may be released ‘accidentally’, a concern with humanism must assume that, while war is probable, peace may be maintained ‘accidentally’. In that case, there arises the possibility of a new upsurge of anti-capitalist sentiments and activities. The capacity of private capitalism, in its variously diluted forms, to ameliorate the conditions of exploitation is clearly limited. This is apparent in the division of the labouring population in a decreasingly favoured and an increasingly neglected sector. The elimination of human labour that accompanies the further expansion of capital neither wipes out the proletariat numerically, nor kills its desire to live decently. The very expansion of the newly-developing capitalistic system, on the other hand, brings with it the growth of an industrial proletariat and thus the objective conditions of class consciousness. The resumption of the struggle for socialism would also be the rebirth of socialist humanism.


1 Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Moscow, pp 75-76.

2 Ibid, p 69.

3 Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, New York, 1939, pp 7-8.

4 Ibid, pp 14-15.

5 Karl Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie, Berlin, 1953, p 176.