MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




The system of views which makes the human being its central value, as opposed to abstract notions such as God, religious or political ideals, abstractions like History or Reason, or sectional interests such as race or gender. In the theory of knowledge, Humanism holds that concepts are human products (rather than coming from God or Nature) and regards social relations as more fundamental than concepts like ‘Laws of History,’ or ‘Matter’ which ought to be explained in terms of human relations, rather than explaining humans through a given set of ideas. Humanism has its origins in the Renaissance and reached its zenith in the Enlightenment.

In his Private Property & Communism, Marx wrote: “... communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution”..

Humanism itself does not rise higher than the social consciousness of the epoch of which it is a part. The bourgeois conception of humanism bases itself on private property, the central value of bourgeois society; on the other hand, proletarian humanism is based on cooperative social activity.

For Structuralists like Louis Althusser, “humanism” means the illusion that individual human beings are autonomous, thinking subjects, whereas for structuralists (and poststructuralists), individual human beings are nothing but unconscious agents of structural forces, in much the same way as organisms are agents for the spread of a disease. Thus structuralists associate humanism with a naive and unproblematic conceptions of language and consciousness, and illusory belief in the autonomy of human beings.

It can be argued that humanism, in taking the generic human being as its starting point, abstracts from the real human being who is male or female, black or white, capitalist or worker, etc., and from this point of view can be argued as obscuring conflicts of interest, or even as being tied to some notion of what is essentially human “behind” the various determinations of class, gender, etc. A Marxist humanist would argue that what is essentially human is to produce oneself, to be free in the fullest sense of the word. From this point of view, the “essentialist” charge is turned on itself.

See also: Naturalism, Marxist Humanism Subject Archive and Humanism and Socialism, Paul Mattick


Human Capital

Human capital, like “human resources” is a term which expresses the conception of a human being as an economic category.

Thus for example, when a capitalist has a number of talented people on his pay-roll, he is said to have “human capital”. Human capital is here distinguished from the labour power which is purchased week-by-week at its value, because the assemblage of “good people” requires more than just paying the market price: a good working environment, good management and the build-up of a company ethos. These qualities of a capitalist firm add value to the capital over and above the value of material resources and intellectual property.

Workers often argue that, on the basis of this accumulation of “human capital”, their employer should pay more, provide better working conditions and better job security. However, the casting of workers as components of capital is an extremely alienating thing to do. Workers meet social needs by means of their cooperation and organisation as well as by their labour activity. The fact that capital is able to co-opt the value of this collaboration should be challenged rather than simply paid for at its value.

Human resources” is a notion of the same kind, the word first entering the language in 1972. To the capitalist, employees are resources just like buildings, materials and cash, and are “managed” with the same mentality. “Natural resources” likewise reduce Nature to a category of economics, where costs are externalised and wealth obtained for free.