Herbert Marcuse 1965

Socialist Humanism?

Written: 1965;
Source: The Autodidact Project;
First Published: Erich Fromm (ed.), Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965, pp. 107-117.
Transcribed: Ralph Dumain.
Proofed: Zdravko Saveski.

Almost twenty years ago, Merleau-Ponty raised the issue of socialist humanism with uncompromising clarity. Is the humanistic, non-terroristic construction of a socialist society in the given historical period a real possibility? He rejected the alternative of humanism and terror: there is no choice between violence and nonviolence, but only between two modes of violence—capitalist and socialist.

En U.S.S.R., la violence et la ruse sont officielles, l’humanité est dans la vie quotidienne. Dans les démocraties, au contraire, les principes sont humains, la ruse et la violence se trouvent dans la pratique. A partir de là, la propagande a beau jeu. [1]

(In the U.S.S.R., violence and deception are official, and humanity is in daily life. In the democracies, on the other hand, the principles are humane, but deception and violence are found in practice. Beyond that, propaganda has a field day.)

The two social systems are locked in a global struggle in which the renunciation of socialist violence is found to strengthen the realm of capitalist exploitation. But socialist violence has the chance of breaking the infernal circle of terror and counterterror as long as it is carried by the supranational solidarity of the only class which, “selon la logique interne de sa condition,” is capable of translating humanism from ideology into reality. Merleau-Ponty knew that precisely this condition no longer prevailed, and that the proletariat had ceased to be "the term of reference" in communist thought and policy, but he refused to engage in an ideological rescue of humanism and to reject the actual development in the name of humanistic "values":

Opposer ici au marxisme une “morale d’abord,”' test l’ignorer dans ce qu'il dit de plus vrai et qui a fait sa fortune dans le monde, c’est continuer la mystification, c’est passer à côté du problème. [2]

(To oppose to Marxism the principle "morality first" is to ignore that which is most true in the former and which has made its fortune in the world, is to perpetuate mystification, to bypass the problem.)

The solution:

Parler pour l’humanisme sans être pour le “socialisme humaniste” à la manière anglo saxonne, “comprendre” les communistes sans être communiste, c’est apparemment se placer bien haut et en tout cas au dessus de la mêlée. En réalité c’est simplement refuser de s’engager dans la confusion et hors de la vérité. Est ce notre faute si l’humanisme occidental est faussé parce qu’il est aussi une machine de guerre? Et si l’entreprise marxiste n’a pu survivre qu’en changeant de caractère? [3]

(To speak of humanism without being for "humanistic socialism," in the Anglo-Saxon manner, and to "understand" the communists without being communist, is apparently to place oneself high above, or in any case above, the conflict. In reality, it means refusing to become entangled in confusion and falsehood. Is it our fault if Western humanism is rendered false because it is also an apparatus of war? And if the Marxist enterprise has only been able to survive by changing its character?)

The human reality is an "open" system: no theory, whether Marxist or other, can impose the solution. The contingency of history, which today denies humanism, may also one day deny the denial. Meanwhile there are the enslaved human beings who must accomplish their own liberation. To develop their conscience and consciousness, to make them aware of what is going on, to prepare the precarious ground for the future alternatives—this is our task: "our" not only as Marxists but as intellectuals, and that means all those who are still free and able to think by themselves and against indoctrination, communist as well as anticommunist.

Today, after the destalinization and under conditions of liberation and decentralization in the communist world, the "solution" is no more visible than it was at the end of the war. The Soviet Union does not seem to become more "humanistic" by making arrangements with the West, nor the West by accepting these arrangements. But the post-war development of the capitalist and communist societies in coexistence suggests that the prospects of socialist humanism should be re-examined with a view to the technical capability and productivity of these societies. This paper offers only a few remarks on the problems.

In the Marxian conception, socialism is humanism in as much as it organizes the social division of labor, the "realm of necessity" so as to enable men to satisfy their social and individual needs without exploitation and with a minimum of toil and sacrifice. Social production, controlled by the "immediate producers," would be deliberately directed toward this goal. With this rational organization of the realm of necessity, man would be free to develop himself as an "all-round individual" beyond the realm of necessity, which would remain a world of want, of labor. But the qualitatively new organization of the realm of necessity, upon which the emergence of truly human relationships depends, in turn depends on the existence of a class for which the revolution of human relationships is a vital need. Socialism is humanism in the extent to which this need and goal pre-exist, i.e., socialism as humanism has its historical a priori within capitalist society. Those who constitute the human base of this society have no share in its exploitative interests and satisfactions; their vital needs transcend the inhuman existence of the whole toward the universal human needs which are still to be fulfilled. Because their very existence is the denial of freedom and humanity, they are free for their own liberation and for that of humanity. In this dialectic, the humanist content of socialism emerges, not as value but as need, not as moral goal and justification but as economic and political practice—as part of the basis itself of the material culture.

This much for the Marxian conception. Its historical denominator is obvious. Socialism is "objectively" humanism by virtue of its specific place in the development of industrial society, defined by the existence, interest, and action of the class-conscious proletariat in its supranational solidarity. This historical constellation has been "surpassed" by the actual development of the advanced industrial societies. To the degree to which their inherent contradictions have unfolded themselves, to the same degree have their rising productivity and power succeeded in suppressing the need for resolving the contradictions. As technical progress provides the instrumentalities for a rational organization of the realm of necessity far beyond anything Marx ever envisaged (the "abolition of labor" does not seem to be the problem of the future, but rather how to avoid the abolition of labor), these instruments are used for perpetuating and even intensifying the struggle for existence, for total mobilization rather than for pacification. The increasing threat of leisure time is utilized by management to defend the status quo of repression. Technological rationality is geared to the requirements of the Cold War, which is waged not only (perhaps not even primarily) against the external enemy, but also against the enemy within the established societies—against a qualitatively new mode of existence which could free man from enslavement by the apparatus which he has built.

In terms of the established industrial societies, nothing is more sensible than the fear of that stage where technical progress would turn into human progress: self-determination of life in developing those needs and faculties which may attenuate the struggle for existence—human beings as ends in themselves. This fear is not only that of technological unemployment, but also that of boredom, of a void which has to be filled and which cannot be filled except by bigger and better management from above and outside. Not only the political but also (and primarily) the technical apparatus and production itself have become systems of domination into which the laboring classes are incorporated and incorporate themselves. The "inner logic of their condition," according to which they were the historical agents of socialist humanism, is no longer their own. The objective identity of socialism and humanism is dissolved. It was never an immediate identity: it was real to the extent to which the objective condition was seized and transcended in the consciousness of the historical subjects and in their action. This mediation is suppressed by the overwhelming power of technical progress welded into an instrument of totalitarian domination, operating not only through the terrifying concentration of economic and military power, but also through the rising standard of living under the imposed conditions of living. As long as the established direction of technical progress prevails (and in the era of coexistence it is bound to prevail), change in the ownership and control of the means of production would be quantitative rather than qualitative change. Prerequisite for the liberation of the humanistic content of socialism would be a fundamental change in the direction of technical progress, a total reconstruction of the technical apparatus. This is the historical idea of humanism today.

Other ideas of humanism belong to the eighteenth and nineteenth century; they retain an image of man which has been surpassed by the development of society. This classical image still guides Marx's early writings; it finds expression in the notion of the all-round individual, the "personality" which fulfills itself in a realm of freedom. But this notion pertains to a stage where the intellectual culture was still divorced from the material culture, not yet incorporated into mass production and consumption, where the mind and the soul were not yet taken over by scientific management, where time and space were not yet occupied, in their entirety, by organized business and organized relaxation—where there could still be a realm of freedom not correlated with that of necessity. Even so, it is difficult to envisage what Marx's all-round individual would or would not do—simply in terms of occupation or nonoccupation. There is an unfortunate kernel of truth in the malicious denunciation of the vision of free individuals who spend their day in alternating between fishing, hunting, and being creative. If this vision were to become reality tomorrow (and it could far more easily become reality than when Marx wrote!), it would be the very denial of freedom and of humanity.

To be sure, Marx revised his early notions of human freedom by refraining from such positive visions and by examining the conditions of liberation rather than of liberty attained. However, the developed Marxian theory retains an idea of man which now appears as too optimistic and idealistic. Marx underrated the extent of the conquest of nature and of man, of the technological management of freedom and self-realization. He did not foresee the great achievement of technological society: the assimilation of freedom and necessity, of satisfaction and repression, of the aspirations of politics, business, and the individual. In view of these achievements, socialist humanism can no longer be defined in terms of the individual, the all-round personality, and self-determination. If these ideas are supposed to be more than the privilege of a few, if they claim universal validity, they seem dangerously void of meaning and substance. Their realization would call for conditions in which man would fulfill himself in his daily work, in which socially necessary labor would be "attractive labor," a possibility which Marx emphatically denied; "labor cannot become play, as Fourier wants." [4] Short of it, these images of humanism have the repressive connotation of pretechnological "higher culture" which leaves the lower culture on which it is built unaffected. Marx recognized the ideological character of this humanism when he translated the "metaphysical" terms of the early writings into those of political economy. The chance of humanism arises with the abolition of the exchange economy and its institutions; with the rational, socialist organization of labor; then, man may become free to build his own life and to be human with the others. Even then, the true realm of freedom, the “menschliche Kraftentwicklung” which is an end in itself begins only beyond this realm of necessity. But the socialist organization of labor has created free time, and "the free time which is leisure time as well as time for higher activity has naturally [sic!]—transformed man into a different subject (in ein andres Subjekt verwandelt) and as this different subject, man also enters into the process of immediate production." [5]

Today, advanced industrial society is creating free time, but the possessor of this free time is not a "different subject"; in the capitalist and communist systems, the subject of free time is subordinated to the same norms and powers that rule the realm of necessity. The mature Marxian conception, too, appears idealistic and optimistic.

With the passing of the objective conditions for the identity of socialism and humanism, socialism cannot be made humanistic by committing socialist policy to the traditional humanistic values. In the situation of coexistence (which must be the framework for any nonideological analysis), such humanization is bound to be ideological and self-defeating. Here, a distinction must be made between capitalist and socialist humanism. In the capitalist world, the fight for the rights of man, for freedom of speech and assembly, for equality before the law, which marked the beginning of the liberal era, is again a desperate concern at its end, when it becomes evident to what extent these liberties have remained restricted and denied. And this fight is hampered to the degree to which it respects, in its own action and suffering, the liberal values and the legality which the adversary meets with unpunished violence. In the communist world, the assertion of individual rights and liberties and of the initiative of the laboring classes would promote (and should promote) radical dissent and opposition to the economic and political repression on which the established regime depends, and which it considers as prerequisite for defense and growth in competitive coexistence. According to this logic, effective dissent and opposition within the communist societies would alter the precarious international balance in favor of capitalism—which would not necessarily brighten the prospects of socialist humanism. For the laboring classes are no longer those to whom the revolution once appealed, and their initiative is not likely to revive international socialist solidarity.

These are the given historical conditions which a discussion of the failures and chances of socialist humanism must face if it does not want to deal with mere ideologies. Advanced industrial society can take care of humanistic values while continuing to pursue its inhuman goals: it promotes culture and personalities together with toil, injustice, nuclear armament, total indoctrination, self-propelling productivity. The intensity with which the powers that be mobilize the underlying population against their liberation goes hand in hand with the growing capabilities of society to accomplish this liberation. In as much as these capabilities are utilized (or suppressed) in the interest of domination, of the defense of the status quo, they remain technical capabilities, barred from their humanistic realization. As technical capabilities, they define the prospects of socialist humanism. Severance of the fatal link between technical progress and progress in domination and exploitation is the precondition. Humanism must remain ideology as long as society depends on continued poverty, arrested automation, mass media, prevented birth control, and on the creation and re-creation of masses, of noise and pollution, of planned obsolescence and waste, and of mental and physical rearmament. These conditions and institutions are the social controls which sustain and extend the prevailing state of affairs. Consequently, their abrogation on behalf of humanism would be revolutionary subversion, and this subversion would also subvert the very needs and necessities of human existence. What appeared, in the pretotalitarian era, as the precondition of freedom may well turn out to be its substance, its historical content. For the substance of freedom as well as humanism must be defined in terms of the human beings in their society, and in terms of their capabilities. Advanced industrial society is a society in which the technical apparatus of production and distribution has become a totalitarian political apparatus, co-ordinating and managing all dimensions of life, free time as well as working time, negative as well as positive thinking. To the victims, beneficiaries, and heirs of such a society, the realm of freedom has lost its classical content, its qualitative difference from the realm of necessity. It is the work world, the technical world which they must first make their own: the realm of necessity must become the realm of their freedom. The technical apparatus of production, distribution, and consumption must be reconstructed. Technological rationality must be redirected to make the work world a place for human beings who one day may perhaps be willing to live in peace and do away with the masters who guide them to desist from this effort. This means not "humanization" of labor but its mechanization and planned production for the emergence of new needs — those of pacification of the struggle for existence. Some aspects of the new technology can he delineated: the complete rebuilding of cities and towns, the reconstruction of the countryside after the ravages of repressive industrialization, the institution of truly public services, the care for the sick and the aged. [6]

The failure of humanism seems to be due to over-development rather than backwardness; once the productive apparatus, under repressive direction, has grown into an apparatus of ubiquitous controls, democratic or authoritarian, the chances of a humanistic reconstruction are very poor. This situation accentuates the historical truth of the Marxian conception. The humanistic chance of socialism is objectively grounded neither in the socialization of the means of production nor in their control by the "immediate producers"— although these are necessary prerequisites—but rather in the existence, prior to these changes, of social classes whose life is the very negation of humanity, and whose consciousness and practice are determined by the need to abrogate this condition. The totalitarian-technological stage has not altered this truth: no matter how "technical" the basis of socialism has become, no matter how much it is a matter of the redirection and even reversal of technical progress and technological rationality—these are political tasks, involving radical changes in the society as a whole. Technical progress occurs as political progress in domination; thus it is progress in the suppression of the alternatives. The fact that, in the most advanced areas of industrial civilization, this suppression is no longer terroristic but democratic, introjected, productive, and even satisfying does not change this condition. If suppression is compatible with individual autonomy and operates through individual autonomy, then the Nomos (norm) which the individual gives himself is that of servitude. This Nomos, which is the law of our time, outlaws the pacification of the struggle for existence, national and international, among societies and among individuals. Competition must go on—for profit and power, for work and fun, for the bigger and better deterrent, and it increases the productivity of the whole, which in turn perpetuates this sort of competition and promises the transformation of its victims into its beneficiaries, who will then do their best to make their contribution. And to the degree to which the other societies are forced into the same circle, the qualitative difference between socialism and capitalism is being obliterated by the sweep of a productivity which improves the standard of living through improved exploitation.

Socialist theory has no right to denounce, in the name of other historical possibilities, growing social productivity which allows a better life for more sections of the population. But the question here is not that of future possibilities; it is the present reality which is at stake. In this reality, the denial of humanity spreads through all achievements: it is in the daily preparedness for annihilation, in the equipment for a subterranean existence, in the ever more ingenious planning of waste, in the inescapable inanities of the Media, in the abolition of privacy, and—perhaps the most effective denial of all—in the helpless awareness of all this, in public acknowledgment and criticism, which are impotent and contribute to the power of the whole, if they are not crushed and silenced by force. Thus the need for liberation exists: it exists as universal need far beyond that of one particular class—but it exists only "in itself," not for the individuals in need. Socialism appears again as an abstract idea; loyalty to its idea excludes the fostering of illusions. Its new abstractness does not signify falsification. The proletariat which was to validate the equation of socialism and humanism pertained to a past stage in the development of industrial society. Socialist theory, no matter how true, can neither prescribe nor predict the future agents of a historical transformation which is more than ever before the specter that haunts the established societies. But socialist theory can show that this specter is the image of a vital need; it can develop and protect the consciousness of this need and thus lay the groundwork for the dissolution of the false unity in defense of the status quo.


1 Merleau Ponty, Humanisme et Terreur (Paris, 1947), p. 197.

2 Ibid., p. x f.

3 Ibid., p. 203.

4 Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Oekonomie (Berlin: Dietz, 1953), p. 599.

5 Ibid.

6 For an elaboration of these propositions, see my One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), esp. Chs. 9 and 10.