Paul Nizan 1935

On Humanism

Source: Paul Nizan, Intellectuel Communiste. Maspero, Paris, 1967;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2007.

In history humanism has essentially been a mythology. It made promises that couldn’t be kept to a universal man who was only a being of reason. Among humanists there was a duplicity that was less a fact of their will than of the resistances of history. Their wishes were doomed to failure and they didn’t know it. Humanism dreamed as well; one of its dreams was the perfection of man, the other his totality. I think we can find these wishes scattered about from Aristotle to Spinoza, from the Renaissance to Goethe. But the state of the class division of societies prevented men from ever realizing themselves. And this humanist doctrine contained two cornerstones.

Its first failing was the desire to not risk anything. It gave a dangerously large part to the thinkers’ concern for their temporal security, to the protecting walls behind which they could continue to think. Erasmus’ prudence and his care to never commit himself between Luther and Rome seem to me to dominate an entire tradition. The same for Descartes. These thinkers disguised themselves a bit too much. I don’t like the prudent mask of the humanists, Descartes saying: “I, who am going to perform in the world where I have been but a spectator, appear masked on the stage.”

I don’t like Goethe’s prudence. The purity of meditations seems to me to be a bit too convenient.

The second failing of humanism was its isolation from concrete men. It spoke of an imaginary man. Lenin said: “There is no abstract truth. Truth is always concrete.”

The day before yesterday Julien Benda drew a sketch of western thought which I will shortly return to. He saw one of its principal traits and perhaps its essential style in its determination to separate understanding from all that which is not itself, from the rest of man. I see in this the central failing of humanism; I see here a mutilation of ideas, a diminution of their efficacy in the world. And humanism only seems great to me insofar as it was untrue to this demand for purity. Those thinkers who spoke in the name of man forgot almost everything about him, of his needs, his misfortunes, his destiny. Among themselves they spoke of him in a world of allusions, connivances, and secrets where the great mass of humans didn’t enter. Humanism’s demands meant nothing for the majority. M. Benda spoke the day before yesterday of the Hellenic contempt for techniques and labors and of the exalting of purely rational values. This exaltation, which owes much to the vertigo engendered by the first discoveries of mathematical thought, appears to me above all to reflect a society made up of free men capable of leisure and slaves who worked to allow them this. I see in the traditional grand affirmation of the unique dignity of the Spirit a consequence of the division of labor, of the separation of classes; as an obscure regret for the time when slaves permitted chosen men to think for a long time and well. One of the essential moments of communist humanism being, on the contrary, is that where it denies this division and replaces the contempt of manual labor – servile or proletarian – by the respect for machines. The Greek slave permits Plato and the students of the academy to think: machines are capable of permitting every man this dignity. In historical humanism there are men who live and men who think. One day it is must be that they be the same, and the new humanism must never pronounce these sentences of Descartes: “I don’t consider any differently the men I see than I do the trees met in your forests or the animals who graze there.’

M. Julien Benda, in his speech the day before yesterday, asked the communists a question that I, like him, believe is essential, and which I thank him for having asked. He asked us: the civilization it is your ambition to construct, is it simply a flowering and prolongation of western values, or is it a break with it?

I don’t accept this alternative. Since M. Benda is an Eleatic thinker he wants yes or no answers. Since communists are descendants of Hegel they only give him yes and no answers. And so we answer: this civilization is at one and the same time a prolongation and a break.

We must speak here the language of history, and u wouldn’t want to answer in terms of action to a philosopher who speaks in terms of history.

I believe that M. Benda’s concept of a homogenous western universe is not in conformity with history; I don’t think we can define univocally a world that contains Hellenism, Christianity, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the era of bourgeois revolutions. I don’t even think we can define Hellenism univocally. It is quite clear that M. Benda has a Platonic idea of the western world and of Hellenism, which brings in its train the affirmation of rigorously intelligible values and notions, purged of all the values and concrete events of human life. It is quite true that this concept triumphed in Greece during a brief period, that it then served as a theoretical justification during entire eras of bourgeois thought. But Platonism is not all of Hellenism. I don’t find this separation in Protagoras, I don’t find it among the Stoics, I don’t find it in Epicurus, and not even among the Alexandrians.

J. Guéhenno spoke in this very place of Epicurus and of his claims in favor of man in his totality, including the man “of the belly.” M. Benda responded that at the very least Epicurus’ tone remained in the traditional line and was addressed to select men. But Epicurus calls this philosopher a mollusc, that one a strumpet, he says that Plato is “made all of gold,” and calls Aristotle the “partier.” He addressed himself to girls, to slaves. He didn’t want to save the souls of only the “good people;” he wasn’t a man who ran with the right crowd, and that is why I salute him here.

In the face of Plato himself, there is the line of Callicles, which goes directly to Nietzsche, the line that the dialog of The Sophist calls “sons of the earth” and in whom we recognize our ancestors, “trying to attract to the earth all that holds to the heavens and the invisible, and squeezing rocks and oak trees in their hands.”

At all levels of history we will find the traces of a protest in favor of man in his totality, forever stifled, forever aborted because every protest in the name of man in his totality brings with it an accusation of the world as it is. We will find it in Rabelais, in Spinoza, in Diderot. It will flourish in Marx. It will cease to be stifled. Men will want the humanist mythology to become a train of events; they will take back all promises, but they will fulfill them.

And so we answer M. Benda: we accept of the tradition he calls “western” everything it contains that puts the world on trial, of claims made in the name of the man who doesn’t limit himself to thinking, but who lives, who is hungry, and who dies. We accept the demands of totality in the same way that Marx accepts them when he speaks of man “rich in all human needs.” We accept the great rejection of the divine and religious dimensions of man, in which we only see, like Epicurus, like the French 18th century, the marks of his terror and his debasement. We reject every humanist mythology which speaks of an abstract man and neglects the real conditions of his life, which forgets that up till now all men are not equal in pain, in conquest and in death. Our attitude is neither a prolongation nor a rupture: it is a sorting out.

It is from within a humanism that takes into account the concrete conditions of human life and not of the abstract conditions of human thought, which includes the dual conquest of the earth by all men, of the maximum of humanity and consciousness for every one of them, that the problem is posed for the writer. In a letter to the editor of Iskra written by a worker from St. Petersburg we read, “We wrote to Iskra so that it would not only teach us where to begin, but also so that it teach us how to live and how to die.” For the writer it’s a question of belonging to a group and its will. We choose the proletariat knowing full well that it’s not a matter of making proletarian life eternal, but of opening along with it an era when it will be abolished. Marx said: “The victorious proletariat does not become the absolute type of society, for it is only victorious by suppressing itself.”

The writer is he who has as a function defining and revealing to men their highest values and their most vast ambitions: he uncovers the values their lives imply and provides them with justifications they can all accept, for they lead in the direction of grandeur and accomplishment.

This acceptance is not a purely rational value, and I would have a bad conscience before M. Benda if he hadn’t been even more guilty of a similar affirmation which seems much more serious in his system than in mine. Recognizing that in his response to Guéhenno there were “non-Platonic” currents in history he added that in any case they didn’t receive the support of “the majority.” This majoritarian argument seems to me very little Platonic.

The idea of a so universally concrete as possible justification of values eliminates the possibility of any fascist humanism. We can imagine a fascism exalting the values of brotherhood, but it would justify them by the myth of a racial community which is in the end justified only by the terrorist domination of banks. Men don’t accept this, so they must be lied to, and lies don’t last forever.

A real humanism demands a real development of men, which itself supposes a society where class and labor divisions are abolished. Only our Soviet friends see rising on the horizon of their future this new establishment of man. It would be bitterly frivolous to repeat humanism’s ancient legends in a world where mutilation, degradation, degeneracy, and fear have never before so powerfully reigned. All the signs are signs of a crushing of men. More than ever man is poor, humiliated, solitary, oppressed by the powers of economy, politics, justice and police, which are the reality of what is called destiny. We see hunger, poverty, torture; we are living in a time of war. Being a man brings with it no feeling of pride. Stalin tells this story: He was in exile in Siberia. One evening people of the village who had gone to their timber work on the river returned and said: “So-and-so has drowned.” Stalin asked: “Did you do something to save him?” One of them answered: “If it had been a horse... But a man? We can always make another man, but another horse can’t be made.” This is a picture of our life dominated by indifference to man. We’re not proud of this.

And yet we want man to be, and we don’t wait to affirm human values amidst the threats that surround him, amidst the neglect of so many ancient thinkers who prefer ideas to the flesh of men like themselves.

The time has returned to speak the words not of Plato, not of Kant, but those of Epicurus: “The flesh cries out to be saved from hunger, thirst and the cold.”

Where will we find the values capable of prolonging what there was of anger, impatience and communion in history? Our humanism is tied to the values of combat and denunciation; we only wager in the future on the joy and fulfillment of the powers of man. His totality is today a dream that must be made, but his mutilation continues. Guéhenno the day before yesterday, Malraux yesterday spoke of our wish for communion. In this world where each is a prey to solitude and war, the affirmation of the values of communion is only possible among those carrying out the same combat. They can create an amity that is already more vast than love. Their brotherhood is justified by the very ambition for the totality to come. Their sincerity prefigures the birth of a universe without mystification and without ruse, finally delivered from relations of duplicity.

A time will come when men can accept their destiny. Their life will be nothing but one great adherence. They will perhaps speak of a humanism of joy. But we, today, we only speak of a limited humanism, because it refuses the world and includes hatred; where the sole value that our future announces is the voluntary brotherhood of men committed to changing life.

Europe, 1935