Note:  The following jointly-written talk was presented by Anne Jaclard; it has not been revised or fully worked out as a paper.


Marx’s Humanism

Andrew Kliman & Anne Jaclard

The term “humanism” is frequently used in connection with the doctrine that there is a timeless and fixed essence that human beings share.  Thus, for example, Carlos A. Ball has recently written that “Martha Nussbaum’s liberal humanism … is grounded in commonalities, found across time and place, which allow us to recognize each other as human.” (“Martha Nussbaum, Essentialism, and Human Sexuality”  The opposing claim is that, as Richard Rorty put it, “socialization, and thus historical circumstance, goes all the way down . . . . [T]here is nothing ‘beneath’ socialization or prior to history which is definatory of the human.” (CONTINGENCY, IRONY, AND SOLIDARITY xiii (1989))  If humanism is defined as a set of commonalities that exists across time and place, then Rorty’s position is anti-humanist.

We want to suggest that Marx was definitely a humanist, but a humanist of a sort that has little to do with this controversy. His humanism is not the affirmation of something ever-present or something fixed, but is instead forward-looking and open-ended. It is about human potential and the process of human beings self-developing to realize this potential, in an “absolute movement of becoming.” As he expressed this in the Grundrisse,

when the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the …full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity’s own nature? The absolute working-out of his creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the previous historic development, which makes this totality of development, i.e. the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick? Where he … [s]trives not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?

 Note that Marx here affirms that there is such a thing as “humanity’s own nature.” But the goal he posits is the “full development of human mastery over” human nature.  This passage, not coincidentally, is the frontispiece of the book Philosophy and Revolution, written by Raya Dunayevskaya, who founded the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism.

In Capital, Marx noted that human beings will always have to produce in order to survive; this is a necessity than can’t be overcome. So

Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity.

 Yet it becomes possible over time to work less and less in order to produce what we need to survive. So the realm of necessity is not something that imposes fixed limits on us: “Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis.”

It is important to understand that this concept of freedom is developmental. In other words, the freedom that Marx refers to is not a matter, or not mostly a matter, of throwing off constraints imposed on us from the outside. The problem isn’t that external constraints prevent us from living in a way that conforms to some fixed and static view of “what it means to be human.”  In the first place, capitalism isn’t some set of institutions imposed on our lives from outside. Capitalism itself is a way of life, and it can be overcome only by replacing it with a different way of life.  If we merely get rid of certain institutions, what remains is not “genuine” human existence. What remains is nothing.

Secondly, the process of achieving freedom is a process of freeing ourselves from some key aspects of what human beings have been–ignorant, superstitious, lacking in individuality, and undeveloped. Given the evolutionary process by which we emerged as a species, it could not be otherwise. Near the end of the first chapter of Capital, Marx emphasized that ancient societies

are founded either on the immature development of man individually, who has not yet severed the umbilical cord that unites him with his fellow men in a primitive tribal community, or upon direct relations of subjection. They can arise and exist only when the development of the productive power of labour has not risen beyond a low stage, and when, therefore, the social relations within the sphere of material life, between man and man, and between man and Nature, are correspondingly narrow. This narrowness is reflected in the ancient worship of Nature, ….

The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process, i.e. the process of material production, until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control. This, however, requires that society possess a material foundation, or a series of material conditions of existence, which in their turn are the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development. (Capital, p. 173)

The goal–conscious and planned control of our life-process by freely associated people—is not a return to the past, or to generic human existence, but a product of historical development that is new and that was not possible at earlier times.

One reason why we put such stress on the forward-looking and developmental character of Marx’s humanism, and its concretization for our time as Marxist-Humanism, is that this kind of humanism is revolutionary through and through, in its essence. As Marx put it in 1844, there is a “categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being …” (Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 1844). Realization of this goal obviously requires deep and total transformation—economic, social, political, cultural, personal, and so on.

So Marx’s humanism is revolutionary. But equally, the revolution he projected is humanist. This is another reason why we stress the forward-looking and developmental character of Marx’s humanism. We think this is extremely important in light of the tendency of a lot of the left to separate the humanist goal and the process of social change. Nowadays, there are, relatively speaking, a lot of Marxists who call themselves humanists, who supposedly “agree” with what we have been saying and who can, in fact, say it more eloquently and clearly than we can.  But such supposed Marxist humanism is frequently just an abstraction, like things people recite in church on Sunday and ignore the rest of the week, in real life. Daily political practice and strategies pursued in specific historical conjunctures are time and again dissociated from the humanist vision of the future that supposedly underlies our activity. Dunayevskaya once ridiculed this approach by saying that generations of Marxists knew how to repeat that the three sources of Marxism are German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism, “[a]fter which they proceeded to fight for 5¢ more in wages” (The Power of Negativity, p. 93).)

But if the revolution in question is humanist, then the degree of success of the revolutionary project, and, indeed, the degree to which social progress takes place, can only be measured by the extent of human self-development.  Any other measure of success is measuring something else, not the revolution that Marx projected.  As he wrote in the notes he made while working on his dissertation, “It is a psychological law that the theoretical mind, once liberated in itself, turns into practical energy, and … turns itself against the reality of the world existing without it.” This would seem to suggest a move from theory to practice. However, Marx immediately cautions, “But the practice of philosophy is itself theoretical. It is the critique that measures the individual existence by the essence, the particular reality by the Idea.”  The Marxian Idea is the vision of “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” If the “particular reality” is measured against anything short of that, is not the practice of Marx’s philosophy, not, in other words, his philosophy being put into practice.

One example of measuring success in terms of something short of the Marxian Idea would be the question, “have living standards in Cuba improved?” This question asks us to compare live under Castro with life in Cuba before he came to power. It doesn’t ask us to compare life under Castro to an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. Another example would be the suggestion that a collection of Rosa Luxemburg’s writings published by and for Monthly Review is a success for Marxist-Humanism. Such a collection made help the careers of a couple of people who call themselves Marxist-Humanists. But the publication of such a collection furthers and is meant to further the politics and economic theory of Monthly Review, which are much different from those of Marxist-Humanism.

As Marx indicates, the practice of philosophy is critique. If we only go around celebrating this and that supposed achievement, it may inspire us and may even inspire others, but it takes our eyes off the prize. It turns Marx’s humanist goal into an abstraction separate from actual political practice. Instead, what we need is what Marx called for, and practiced, “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be,” not even if the powers that be are powers on the left. Ruthless criticism of all that exists is not a matter of dogmatism or sectarianism. It is a matter of rooting actual political and theoretical practice in Marx’s humanist vision of the future, not allowing them to become separated, and thus not allowing the goal to become an abstraction that one pays lip service to while refraining from doing what needs to be done in order to achieve this.

It has often been argued that Marx moved away from his humanist philosophy and toward concrete things like politics and economics. In fact, however, what may seem to be a move away from humanism was an ongoing effort to concretize it, so that it wouldn’t remain an abstraction that one could just pay lip-service to. Marx’s economic and political writings are all about what needs to be done in order to make his humanist vision of the future a reality.

It is true that Capital is a book about the capitalist mode of production, not the future society, though the future society is also discussed here and there. The question, however, is: why was Marx so concerned to work out and get right how capitalism functions and what its developmental tendencies are? An important part of the answer is that Capital is part of Marx’s lifelong battle against Proudhonism and similar tendencies on the left. They also wanted a better society, of course. But Marx thought that their proposals for social change would not lead to the freedom and self-development of all people. They proposed things like replacing money with so-called “labor money,” a “fair” distribution of income, or a society run by workers instead of capitalists that nonetheless operates in a capitalist manner.  Marx set out to show that such alternatives wouldn’t work or that they would just be capitalism in a somewhat different form. They would fail to achieve the new society that Marx envisioned because they failed to break free from the capitalist mode of production, which lies at the root of its social division, inequality, crises, and unfreedom.

Or consider one of Marx’s most important political statements, the Critique of the Gotha Program. The Gotha Program was the political program of the new united German Social Democratic Party. One might think that Marx would have welcomed this unification. But he opposed the Gotha Program and thus opposed the new united party. And the primary basis of his opposition was the Program’s call to eliminate a key effect of capitalism––“unfair” income distribution––without getting rid of its causes.

He asked, “Do not the bourgeois assert that the present-day distribution is ‘fair’? And is it not, in fact, the only ‘fair’ distribution on the basis of the present-day mode of production?” In other words, the Program evaded the fact that distribution cannot be “fair,” in the sense it intended, unless and until there’s a total transformation of the mode of production.  To make that a reality, what would first be needed is the elimination of “the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor,” sweeping changes in the nature of work that make it “life’s prime want” or desire, “not only a means of life,” “the all-around development of the individual” and an increase in productivity that make “ the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly,”—“only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

When one thinks about it, this is quite amazing. Marx is arguing that the thoroughgoing humanist revolution he envisions is an absolute requirement even to achieve something like fair distribution of income. And he will have nothing to do with a program and a party that thinks otherwise. This is ruthless criticism with a vengeance.