William F. Warde

Socialism and Humanism

(Winter 1959)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.1, Winter 1959, pp.13-16. [1]
(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.

Humanists come in many varieties. Should followers of Marx be included among them?

THE opponents of Marxism from the Catholic theologians to the capitalist liberals have repeatedly indicted socialism for its alleged inhumanity. The solicitude of such critics for human welfare does not prevent them, however, from supporting a system which breeds fascism and military dictatorships, drops A-bombs on civilian populations, sends troops to protect the profits of oil magnates and keeps colored children from unsegregated schools.

The socialist movement, which aims to uproot these and similar evils, can easily defend itself against accusations of inhumanity from pro-capitalist sources. But recently a far more serious current of questioning about Marxism’s regard for humanity has welled up within the socialist camp itself.

Revolted by the practices and pretenses of Stalinism, or repelled by the cowardice of the Social Democracy, an increasing number of socialist and communist intellectuals are calling for a reconsideration of the relations of socialism to Humanism. There is a demand for a humanized socialism, provoked for different reasons in different parts of the world.

In Western Europe and England it voices the disillusion among the younger generation of radical intellectuals with the capitalist Welfare State policies of the reformist socialist parties. The new Humanists are deeply troubled by the perversion of socialist ideals they observe in the traditional working-class parties and their regimes. They are looking for an explanation of these pollutions and for the way to eliminate or avert them in the future. The Stalinist and Social Democratic leaders, they say, are so indifferent to the needs of ordinary people because they have forgotten the Humanist heritage of Marxism – and they recommend a return to Humanism in order to save socialism from further degradation.

The editors of Universities and Left Review, which came to life in England “between the re-entry of Soviet tanks into Budapest and the first combined assault of Port Said,” form one significant section of this tendency. These young radicals start by rejecting two prevalent propositions: one, that socialism has culminated in the Welfare State; the other, the simple identification of Stalinist regimes with “the socialist half of the world.”

This combined rejection of Social Democratic reformism and Stalinism is not only a sound beginning of political enlightenment; it is also an advanced one. It means that these spokesmen for the younger generation start – in words, if not yet in deeds – by skipping two whole stages of working-class political evolution.

While they are not quite so certain of their positive positions and program, they advocate a Socialist Humanism.

“What we need now more than ever, as we open up the undiscovered area beyond the Welfare State,” these political explorers write, “is a deep, radical critique of our society, a critique informed by Humanism (so little in evidence in either of the competing ideologies), holding to the revolutionary perspectives of socialism, which will break out of the cramp of orthodoxy into the freedom of new possibilities. A re-statement of the humanist basis is necessary, not only to purge away the crimes committed in the name of socialism, but as the first premise in a new argument, as an indispensable beginning to coherent thought on what the word means.”

This accords in its own way with the much more powerful and insistent movement toward a Socialist Humanism associated with the anti-Stalinist struggles in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In 1955-1956 Imre Nagy wrote a critical essay, Morals and Ethics, which was sent to all members of the Central Committee of the Hungarian Communist Party.

“The Party membership and the Hungarian people ... do not want a return to capitalism, “ he declared. “They want a people’s democratic system in which the ideals of socialism become reality, in which the ideals of the working class regain their true meaning, in which public life is based on higher morals and ethics; they want a system that is actually ruled not by a degenerate Bonapartist authority and dictator but by the working people through legality and self-created law and order. They want a People’s Democracy where the working people are masters of the country and of their own fate, where human beings are respected, and where social and political life are conducted in the spirit of humanism.”

These were “dangerous thoughts.” For the official indictment of Kadar’s government covering Nagy’s execution in June 1958 charged that they served to inspire the Hungarian uprising of October 1956.

An issue fraught with such grave political and personal consequences deserves careful consideration. What are the real relations between Socialism and Humanism? In order to arrive at a correct answer to this question, it is first necessary to find out what Humanism is and what its history and achievements have been.

The Humanist Tradition

Humanism is a much older philosophy than Marxism and in various periods it has had a highly progressive influence upon human thought and social action. Before the advent of scientific socialism this mode of thought had already traversed a series of historical stages extending from antiquity to the Humanism of the Renaissance, the Humanism of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions, and the liberalistic Humanism of the nineteenth century.

Humanism first appeared as a distinct philosophical viewpoint among the Sophists in the Athenian city-state of the fifth century BC. Under the impact of the democratic movement in that mercantile slave republic these wandering “teachers of wisdom” shifted the focus of theoretical attention away from the problems posed by the phenomena of nature, which had engrossed earlier Greek thinkers, to the activities of the citizen.

They sought to find out: “What is the good life and how can it be attained in this world?” Protagoras, the most renowned of the Sophists, not only diverted philosophy from nature but also from religion. Neither nature nor the gods but man “was the’ measure of all things,” he taught. “As to the gods, I cannot say whether they exist or not. Many things prevent us from knowing, in the first place the obscurity of the matter, then the brevity of human life.” For such agnostic doctrines he was accused of impiety, his books were burned, and he was driven from Athens.

The Humanist concentration upon a rational investigation of the affairs and destiny of mankind persisted into Roman times. One of the most memorable utterances of Humanism has come down to us from the Roman poet Terence: “I am a man and nothing that concerns a man is a matter of indifference to me.” This maxim was a favorite of the French Humanist Montaigne and of the German socialist Karl Marx.

After its long eclipse by Christianity, Humanism re-emerged during the fourteenth century in Italy as one of the first rays of enlightenment issuing from the nascent urban merchant-craftsman culture. This literary Humanism of the Renaissance, proceeding from the Italian Petrarch to the Dutch Erasmus, broke through the prison walls of medievalist. It opened a wider horizon on history than the enclosed outlook of the Catholic Church and circulated fresh air through the stale atmosphere of scholastic thought.

The Humanist writers, scholars and artists threw off the constrictions of the feudal monastery by immersing their minds in classical Greek and Roman life. Turning away from absorption in the hereafter, they began to celebrate the joys of life on earth. They took fresh delight in the human body and the senses and studied the conduct of mankind in preference to the mysteries of divinity. The more secular interests of the Renaissance Humanists educated the advanced elements of their times, helping to displace the values of Catholic supernaturalism and clear a path for Protestantism and bourgeois culture.

Humanism came into its own with the spread of the ideas and influences of the bourgeois revolution. This can be seen in the formative period of our own country. Many of the leaders of the First American Revolution, from Franklin to Jefferson, were imbued with Humanist ideals. Soon after Franklin’s arrival in Philadelphia, he gathered around him, Charles Beard tells us,

“... a coterie of printers, shoemakers, and carpenters – a group known as the Junto which he called ‘the best school of philosophy, morality, and politics that then existed in the province.’ Three questions asked of new members revealed the spirit of this strange academy: ‘Do you sincerely declare that you love mankind in general of what profession and religion soever? Do you think any person ought to be harmed in his body, name, or goods for mere speculative opinions or his external way of worship? Do you love truth for truth’s sake and will you endeavor impartially to find and receive it yourself and communicate it to others?’”

With the support of the Junto, Franklin founded the first institution of learning with a scientific and secular program of study in place of the classical and clerical curricula offered by the other colonial colleges.

The cosmopolitan outlook of this profoundly democratic and militant Humanism was best exemplified in the life and work of Tom Paine, who proudly proclaimed: “The world is my country and to do good is my religion.”

In the field of religion Humanism was associated with Deism and later with such Protestant sects as the Unitarians who denied the divinity of Jesus, sought to rationalize and simplify Christianity, and substituted moral imperatives applicable to all mankind for theological dogmas. These churches still today in some places provide refuges for political dissenters.

At its extreme, this rationalism evolved into free thinking which rejected God altogether, discarded the last vestiges of supernaturalism, and made a cult of abstract humanity. In the United States it has found quasi-religious organization in Ethical Societies and Community Churches.

In its heyday, Humanism formulated the worthiest ideals of the democratic revolution. It was one of the highest forms of the bourgeois rationalism and individualism of the Enlightenment. In certain respects and in certain thinkers it came very close to materialism. The German materialist Feuerbach, for instance, thought of himself as a Humanist.

Present-day Humanism functions under the towering domination of monopolist capitalism, long after the completion of the democratic revolution and in the face of powerful labor and advancing socialist movements. It is essentially liberalistic; expressing the ethical attitude of cultivated city middle-class individuals who have torn up traditional religious ties, are agnostic or atheistic, philanthropically inclined and interested to some degree in social reform and political progressivism. This Humanism can be one of the last stopping places on the way to socialism – or, conversely, one of the first stations on the road away from Marxism. In analyzing the evolution of any particular Humanist, it is imperative to determine in which of these opposite directions he is traveling.

Where Marxism and Humanism Differ

Liberal Humanism adjoins Marxism at a number of points, just as the middle classes and the workers have certain interests in common. In so far as the Humanists combat obscurantism and reaction in any field, defend science and promote education, support progressive movements and measures, they have found allies among the Marxists.

But Humanism is no more than a neighbor of Marxism; they do not live under the same roof. There are too many deep-going differences in philosophy and politics between them. They share certain general aims. When, for example, Corliss Lamont, the most able American expounder of Humanism, writes that “the chief end of human life is to work for the happiness of man upon this earth and within the confines of Nature that is his home,” (Humanism As A Philosophy, p.7) every scientific socialist will agree with him. But the two schools of thought proceed from different premises, advocate incompatible methods of action and rely upon different social forces to realize their objectives.

First of all, Humanism is not a philosophy of the working class, either in origin or in intent. In fact, it explicitly repudiates any specific class basis or affiliation. Its teachings are not founded upon the facts of economic life but upon universal ethical standards which are binding upon all people, because of their common human nature. This viewpoint conforms to the abstract individualism which is the substance of the ideology of bourgeois democracy.

On its social and political side, Humanism not only preaches peace by negotiation among nations but the reconciliation of classes, on the ground that the general interests and aims of all members of the human race, or inhabitants of a given country, transcend their particular social divisions. In this view the main source of social conflict comes, not from opposing material interests, but from ignorance, indifference and prejudice. Humanists therefore depend primarily upon the effects of education, reasonable arguments and appeals to the moral conscience of individuals to overcome the hostilities of contending social forces. This is a secular version of the universal embrace of Christian brotherhood without the Fathership of God or the mediation of the Son-Savior.

Marxism, on the other hand, explains existing antagonisms as the inescapable outcome of the irreconcilable material interests of the exploiters and exploited in capitalist society and bases itself upon the decisive role of the revolutionary struggle of the working people in bringing forth a better world.

In the second place, although many Humanists are materialist in their rejection of supernaturalism, they are quite idealistic in their approach to history and the solution of social problems. For them the motive force of historical progress does not come from the development of class conflicts brought about by changing economic conditions but from the diffusion of democracy, intelligence, moral values and higher ideals which stand above narrow class considerations and crass material interests. They may be radical democrats and social reformers but they are not scientific socialists or working-class revolutionists.

Corliss Lament, for example, is a thorough-going materialist and atheist in his outlook on nature and religion. When it comes to the reconstruction of our social system he advocates the methods of reason, democracy and science. These are admirable methods. But he will not admit that there is anything reasonable, democratic or scientific in the class struggle and the forms of action which flow from its recognition.

Humanists can and do support many progressive causes, from colonial revolutions to socialist electoral campaigns. But they hesitate to follow these positions to their logical conclusions and usually seek the intervention of some supposedly impartial agency to adjudicate and settle the claims of the contending forces. In the case of the Negro struggle for equality they look to the Supreme Court and the government; in strikes to boards of arbitration; and in the struggle for peace to the United Nations.

They fail to see, when the most vital issues are posed for decision, that concrete antagonisms turn out to be stronger than the claims of an abstract humanity in class society. The actions and reactions of strikers and scabs, Negroes and white supremacists, colonial rebels and imperialist agents are determined, not by. their membership in the same human family, but by the defense of their respective interests. The unity of society gives way before the real fraternity of the oppressed confronting the camp of the oppressors.

There are, of course, Humanists of many hues, from the conservative to the radical. But their principal spokesmen are united in their preference for the conciliation of classes as the means of social reform. The philosopher John Dewey was both a Pragmatist and a Humanist who rejected the method of dialectical materialism and the Marxist doctrine of the class struggle. He justified the practice of class collaboration in the following characteristic conclusion:

“To say that all past historic social progress has been the result of cooperation and not of conflict would also be an exaggeration. But exaggeration against exaggeration, it is the more reasonable of the two.”

Socialist Humanism in the Capitalist World

It is necessary to bring forward these points about the history of Humanism and its essential connection with middle-class liberalism because of the light they cast upon the movement for a “humane socialism” developing within the capitals of the West. Unlike the Humanist liberals, most of these Socialist Humanists presumably accept the premises, methods and conclusions of Marxism. In reality, many of them tend to slip over by degrees toward the standpoint of bourgeois Humanism.

Despite certain ideological similarities, there can be sharp differences between the social and political functions of Socialist Humanism in the Soviet zone and in the capitalist environment. The Soviet Humanists are in the vanguard of a revolutionary opposition. They face a ruthless enemy in the entrenched holders of state power. They risk their careers, liberties and lives speaking and writing as they do.

The Socialist Humanists who operate in the capitalist West have a more ambiguous character. In so far as their Humanism becomes an ideological lever for promoting a break with the Stalinist perversions of socialism and opens a road to genuine Marxism in theory and in practice, it has a liberating effect. But it may also work in the opposite sense. Humanism can become the pretext, not for simply cutting loose from Stalinism, but for leaving the ground of dialectical materialism altogether, renouncing class-struggle policies, and shaping ideas to the prejudices of a petty-bourgeois outlook.

In one case Humanism can serve to bring its advocates closer to an unfalsified, revolutionary Marxism. In the other it can propel its proponents onto a wrong path. It is important to observe in which of these directions any avowed Socialist Humanist is heading.

In addition to the young men of the Labour party around Universities and Left Review, some ex-Communist party scholars headed by Professors E.P. Thompson and John Saville, who edit The New Reasoner, have also raised the banner of a Socialist Humanism but in a more regressive manner. In their outrage against the recently reappraised abominations of Stalinism they incline to throw out the materialist basis of Marxism in favor of a moralistic and Utopian brand of socialist theory.

Here in the United States the demand for a more “humane” approach to the solution of social problems is a persistent theme of the reformist socialist and ex-Trotskyist writers assembled around the magazine, Dissent. One of its editors, Irving Howe, wrote in an article, A First Word On Sputnik, in Winter 1957:

“The major problem of our world is no longer – assuming for the moment that it ever was (my italics) – the development of technology. Advances in technology bring no necessary good; when controlled by repressive governments they can cause pain and harm to many people; and if they seem to solve certain problems it is only by bringing into existence new and, at times, more difficult problems. The need of our time remains the ordering of a humane society, the creation of human relations among human beings. And that is why one remains a socialist.”

Noteworthy in this lamentation is the light-minded way in which the author tosses aside, almost in passing, the materialist foundations of scientific socialism. Marxism insisted from the first, in opposition to all varieties of bourgeois idealism and Utopian Socialism, that the construction of a humane society depends upon a high development of technology along with the productive forces as a whole.

It is no novelty to learn that reactionaries can misuse progressive achievements, although the current world crisis drives that lesson home with emergency emphasis. That is why the workers have to wrest the means of production – and destruction – from the capitalist rulers. But from this situation the new Humanists infer, where they do not assert, that the materialist premises of Marxism – and the political practice based upon them – must be given up because they somehow obstruct the road to “the creation of human relations among human beings.”

It would be wrong to contend that Marxism has had nothing to do with Humanism either in the course of its formation or in the completed structure of its thought. During its birth process Marxism passed through a Humanistic stage. In the early 1840’s, as he evolved from the Hegelian idealism of his university years to dialectical materialism, the youthful Marx at one point adhered briefly to Humanism and called his philosophy by that name. That was while he was an avowed disciple of Feuerbach. Just as Marx was a radical democrat before becoming a Communist, so he was a Humanist in philosophy before he emerged as a full-fledged materialist.

Those intellectuals who are hunting for the causes of the Stalinist perversions of Marxism in its departure from Humanism have seized upon this historical episode for their own purposes. Just as the Protestant reformers went back to the original gospels to find an uncorrupted Christianity, so these Socialist reformers are going back to the first writings of the immature Marx for the unpolluted sources of socialism.

Unfortunately, their research does not always produce progressive results. They arrive at extremely one-sided conclusions. While playing up the similarities between Marxism and Humanism, they fail to show wherein they essentially differ and even conflict with each other. Nor do they bother to explain why Marx and Engels revised and repudiated the Humanism they learned from Feuerbach in favor of the superior theory of dialectical materialism.

In philosophy, as in other domains of knowledge, the creators of Marxism incorporated into their own theory whatever remained valid and valuable in earlier schools of thought. They did this not only with the materialism of Feuerbach and the French Encyclopedist and with the dialectical logic of Hegel but also with the viable elements in the Humanist tradition of the Western world.

The major theoretical difference between their version of Humanism and all its preceding forms is that the latter were based to one degree or another on non-materialist premises, especially in the fields of sociology, history and politics. The Humanism of Marx is solidly integrated into a comprehensive and consistent materialist viewpoint.

When they weaken or discard these materialist foundations, the neo-Socialist Humanists wipe out the advance made by Marxism and obliterate the fundamental distinction between all types of bourgeois Humanism and a genuine Socialist Humanism. Whether they realize it or not, they do not pass beyond Stalinism but are pulling Socialist theory back to an infantile pre-scientific stage it has long since outgrown.

(Part 2)



1. This is the first of two articles. The second will deal with Socialist Humanism in the Soviet zone and present some thoughts on a genuinely materialist Humanism.


Last updated on: 11.2.2006