Reason and Historical Praxis

Mihailo Marković

There are at least three different reasons for which most contemporary philosophers either proclaim themselves incompetent and powerless to have a significant effect on the course of events in their societies or, more dogmatically, declare that the making of the future is not the concern of philosophy.

The first such reason is that philosophy has, in principle, nothing to do with actual history. Its task is, according to analytical philosophy, to clarify general concepts and remove puzzles generated by the improper use of language. Another school, phenomenology, claims the function of philosophy to be the rigorous description of timeless essences. Even many Marxists, with all their apparent interest in the creation of a new future society, leave it to politicians to take care of this while comfortably devoting themselves to the study of the general laws of the world and waging war against rival ideologies.

A second reason for this reluctance to pass any judgment about the future is methodological. It is true that some classical philosophers have considered the issue of the perfect, rational, just society a legitimate [19/20] philosophical problem. However, the utopian visions that emerged as the products of such undertakings could not satisfy the validation criteria of modem philosophy. As nonlogical statements, lacking adequate empirical support, they could be neither verified nor falsified. As something not yet given, they could not be the subject matter of phenomenological description. As free exploration of ideal possibilities they could not be derived from existing “scientific laws.”

A third reason for believing that philosophy has neither the power nor responsibility for the shaping of actual historical process is the strict division of labor and separation of roles in the entire sphere of culture that condemns philosophy to intangible, abstract generality. Even when the issue of the “good society” has been discussed and a normative, ethical consciousness conceptualized, it has been presented as transcendental and ahistorical. The issues of the good society were quite outside the scope of such philosophia perrenis.

II

All these arguments stem from a narrow, static conception of philosophy, a rigid division of labor within the realm of theory, and a cleavage between theory and action.

Philosophy is inherently more historical than is commonly recognized. Philosophical categories and principles may refer to certain structures of the world and the human mind which are extremely stable and of lasting, universal importance. But they are also human symbolic forms, created within specific cultural traditions. There is no reason to consider them timeless or eternal or a priori with respect to all human experience, because there is no way to disentangle the objective external regularity from the subjective human form of experiencing, conceptualizing, and imaginatively exploring that regularity at any given historical moment.

Philosophy could become much more historical if it would consciously accept responsibility for critical study of the basic structure of actual historical process, for building up an epochal critical self-consciousness. Nowadays the term “philosophy of history” encompasses only one of the disciplines of philosophy, dealing with either the methodology of historical research or the analysis of concepts used in the language of history—which is important, but too restrictive. The crucial problems are substantive rather than methodological: What happens to human beings in history? What is the nature of their relationships, their communities, the quality of their life at a specific stage of historical development? To what extent do they manage to realize their basic capacities and needs under given social arrangements? Where are they going? What are they striving for? What are the essential limitations of their condition in the present? What are their optimal [20/21] possibilities in the future? Asking such questions is perfectly legitimate and indeed indispensable for rational beings who have the chance to make their own history consciously. On the other hand, when such questions are neither asked nor answered, history becomes mindless and anarchic, a playground of uncontrollable blind forces. But asking them is quite risky. Sooner or later it leads to sharp conflict with the ideology of the status quo and the formidable powers behind it. The philosopher is tolerated while he is absorbed in abstruse logical and methodological issues, and he is tolerated because he is regarded as a harmless creature, a nonentity. The philosopher is praised and celebrated when he assumes the role of an apologist of the past history of the establishment—and that is where the spiritual life of quite a few official Marxists has concluded: in efforts to demonstrate that whatever their Party did in the past was necessary, rational, and progressive. But when the philosopher asks those tough questions about the deeper human meaning behind the successes of technology and improvements of material well-being, about the senseless waste of human and natural resources, about crippled existences, unnecessary suffering, ignorance and boredom, about still widespread material and spiritual misery, about the destruction of communal solidarity, about the possibilities and ways of transcending the human condition—then he becomes dangerous, subversive. Surely he is dangerous for the existing power because he sees beyond it, demystifies it, undermines its most reliable weapon for manipulating people and ruling comfortably—its ideology.

III

A critical theory of the present and vision of the future might, but need not necessarily, be utopian. Even the utopian philosophy of history does not deserve to be underestimated. True, it is speculative and metaphysical, more a product of fantasy than of knowledge, more an expression of hope and faith than of carefully studied historical potential and human needs. It disregards existing economic, political, and cultural constraints; it explores possibilities which might be desirable but which are clearly not feasible in the given historical situation. Utopian visions are indeed sometimes responsible for diverting social energy from historically possible tasks to romantic adventures doomed to failure.

In spite of all this, the utopian and eschatological philosophy of history cannot be brushed aside as a worthless, marginal product of intellectual life. Utopian thought is the repository of genuine and universal human aspirations, such as justice, freedom, communal solidarity, power over nature, and creativity. While it is true that too often it gives birth to illusory expectations which culminate in tragic frustration, [21/22] it is also true that some of the most important breakthroughs in history would hardly have been possible without certain utopian illusions, without idealizations of great historical initiatives. What would have been the outcome of the American Revolution without the utopian faith of hundreds of thousands of rebels that, with their victory, all those freedoms and inalienable human rights which were so beautifully stated in the Declaration of Independence would be fully and immediately realized? The great social energies required to bring about great historical changes and to clear the ground for freer and more rapid development can be set in motion only by great, exciting, passionately advocated, more or less utopian ideas, not by balanced, sober, realistic accounts of the true measure of achievement that is feasible under the circumstances. For not only do such “realistic” accounts consider merely given social forces and fail to create new ones; there is also no guarantee that they accurately estimate even existing forces. What is the real mood of the people, what are their hidden, latent dispositions to endure, to conform, or to resist and rebel—these cannot always be derived from their overt behavior with complete reliability. Furthermore, no matter how much they might be enslaved, programmed, and predictable, human beings are potentially free and able to act in utterly surprising ways. Therefore, we cannot always be sure what the realm of real historical possibilities is, and we can be wrong about the a priori estimated boundaries of that realm. Consequently, what we might “realistically” estimate to be historically impossible, a “mere utopian dream,” may eventually come true, because human conduct may turn out to be much more imaginative, creative, perseverant, unselfish, and courageous than we might reasonably expect on the basis of all available evidence from the past.

IV

For all these reasons, the utopian philosophy of history cannot simply be written off. But it can be transcended. Its basic theoretical limitations are the excessive abstractness of its projections; the absence of any mediation between the unique, present historical situation and a universal vision of the distant future; and a simplistic view of historical determination.

A critical theory of history will preserve the utopian general tendency to go beyond given historical reality, to assume a negative attitude toward irrational and inhumane social structures in the present. But far from simply condemning the present and offering an essentially different vision of the future, it will embark on a concrete interdisciplinary study of the given historical situation—its crucial problems, its economic, political, and cultural constraints, and the existing and possible social forces. Such a critical theory will no longer be pure [22/23] philosophy, and yet its theoretical ground would be constituted by a philosophical study of human being, its basic capacities and needs, and its potential for development.

Only a critical theory that is much richer and more concrete than the articulation of utopias is able to mediate between the singular present situation and a general future horizon of the whole epoch. It will be able to indicate specific types of transitional and intermediary phases of the process; it will be able to point to the practical steps which are necessary in each phase to reach the envisaged objectives.

But nothing is certain and nothing is guaranteed in the whole process. Various alternatives remain open all the time. Most utopias assume a conception of historical determination which is quite obsolete nowadays. There is no linear logic or dialectic of history, no eshaton which will inevitably be reached sooner or later. On the other hand, the historical process is also not so open that one can completely disregard things that happened in the past, the way our ancestors molded their natural and social surroundings and themselves. Habits and products of the past are very real constraints, excluding many ideal, conceivable possibilities, making only a limited set of them likely to occur. But within this limited framework we are free to produce our future history, and we are able to increase our freedom by raising the level of our knowledge, by critically examining and transcending our past conduct, by making bold choices, by avoiding fruitless, wasteful frictions, and by coordinating the activity of all those who share some basic commitments.

This last point is of crucial importance for understanding how lonely, socially isolated philosophers can effectively contribute to the conscious making of history. They overcome their loneliness and isolation when they happen to raise precisely those general issues which translate into articulated theoretical terms the actually experienced grievances, sufferings, and needs of large, powerful (actually or potentially) social groups. Philosophy begins to live when its universal ethical and political ideals become a practical standpoint for a vivid, forceful critique of the narrowness, irrationality, and inhumanity of actual arrangements in one’s own society. The secret of the practical relevance of philosophy is in the meeting of vaguely felt, inarticulated popular needs with elaborate theoretical projects derived from the immensely rich world of culture and ultimately from the accumulated universal experience of thousands of preceding generations.

Without philosophically grounded theory, practical engagement remains shallow, short-lived, and inspired only by the meager experience of one generation in one country or one part of the world during a brief interval of time. Theory is necessary to mediate between this limited particular experience and the comprehensive universal experience of humankind. The greater the crisis of society and the greater [23/24] the urgency of radical global solutions of existing problems, the greater the objective need for philosophical guidance.

V

One of the clearest examples of how philosophy can affect actual history by offering a general orientation to great social movements is the case of the bourgeois democratic revolutions. These are unthinkable without the political philosophy of Montesquieu, Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Jefferson. It is true that the ideas of popular sovereignty, of liberty and equality before the law, of the separation of civil and political society, of the legally grounded order of political authority derived from election and consent, of the separation of powers, of inalienable civil rights—including the right of private property—that these ideas articulated the needs of a new social arrangement in the making and expressed the vital interests of both the rising bourgeoisie and the entire tiers état. But conversely, too, the fact is that those ideas, once formulated by philosophers, gave clarity, rational justification, durability, and deep conviction to vaguely felt drives, bringing forth enormous new forces. Most importantly of all, those ideas expressed the optimal historical possibilities of the epoch; without them, without the liberal political culture and democratic mass movements inspired by them, capitalism would have emerged in a different, authoritarian, populist form—as the twentieth-century examples of fascism, Peronism, and de Gaullism clearly illustrate.

The roots of liberal philosophy are the entire great tradition of humanism, in which since early Stoic philosophy the ideals of freedom and equality were asserted time and again; two centuries of battle against scholastic ideology and every other form of dogmatism and obscurantism; a strong emphasis on experience and action as sources of knowledge since Bacon; the affirmation of subjectivity since Descartes; the detailed elaboration of an exact, calculable rationality in Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz, etc. Liberal political philosophy was an essential part of a new coherent philosophical spirit, and in each phase of its emergence one could demonstrate feedback and interdetermination between this new epochal spirit and the new needs of the growing tiers état.

VI

Another example is Marx’s philosophy. Its starting point is the revolt against the irrationality and inhumanity of established bourgeois society. It begins by taking up the incompletely fulfilled Enlightenment program of universal human emancipation, brotherhood, and equality. [24/25]

It develops by giving a concrete economic and political interpretation of Hegel’s metaphysical idea of alienation. The subject of alienation is man and his activity, his labor, rather than the mystical absolute spirit. And alienation does not consist of mere objectification in nature (because all work is indeed objectification of human projects) but in the fact that human work is not what it could be; it is condemned to be crippled, wasted, reduced to repetitive, mechanical drudgery in the historical conditions of bourgeois society. The project of communism appears at first as the philosophical solution of the problem of economic, political, and religious alienation. Only in 1843, when Marx sought to identify the social force capable of practically bringing this solution to life, did he come to the conclusion that only the working class can be such a force. The crucial point is that the bearer of this great historical mission was not supposed to be the empirically given proletariat, but rather the philosophically enlightened proletariat‑which has become aware of what revolutionary philosophy asserted to be its potential and its mission. This revolution is impossible without philosophy: “The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat. Philosophy can only be realized by the abolition of the proletariat, and the proletariat can only be abolished by the realization of philosophy” (Marx in the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy ofRight’: Introduction). It is true that the working class movement already existed in 1843 when Marx wrote these lines. But Marx’s idea of revolution as universal human emancipation was not and could not have been derived from the existing communist movement, which was rather confused about both its ultimate goals and the means adequate to reach them. Marx’s idea of communist revolution was, on the one hand, a radical consequence of certain fundamental assumptions of the preceding bourgeois revolution: the principle of popular sovereignty, the idea that each individual should be the master over the result of his or her work, and the idea that people have the right to overthrow a government which pursues its own particular interests rather than the general interests of the whole community. On the other hand, Marx’s idea of revolution was derived from Hegel’s concept of transcendence (Aufhebung), only it was applied to socioeconomic formulations rather than to philosophical categories. To transcend, i.e., to revolutionize a socioeconomic formation, meant (1) to abolish its essential structural limitations; (2) to preserve all those institutions and past achievements that are necessary for further development; and (3) to lift the whole society to a higher, more progressive level. Clearly the ideas of “essential limitation,” “development,” and “progress” presupposed more basic anthropological assumptions about human nature and universal human needs and capacities, specifically human creative activity—praxis, assumptions which were explicitly [25/26] stated at the beginning of Marx’s theoretical development and were never abandoned (as any careful reader of the Grundrisse and Capital can ascertain).

Once Marx’s critical theory of history was formulated, it became the most important single factor of subsequent socialist revolutionary movements, even in countries where historical conditions were not ripe for a strong labor movement, let alone a socialist revolution—for example, in Russia, China, and Yugoslavia. More conclusive confirmation can hardly be given for Marx’s dictum that all revolutions are born in the heads of philosophers. To be sure, in all those cases philosophy was a necessary but not sufficient condition. There must have been strong social forces whose interests at least partly coincided with theoretically formulated objectives. And there must have been skillful leadership which was able to translate abstract theory into emotionally appealing symbols of an action program capable of mobilizing and organizing different social groups into a coherent, effective movement.

VII

The crucial problem is not the ineffectiveness of philosophical thought but rather the loss of original meaning in the process of reinterpretation and adaptation to all kinds of historical conditions for which it is not meant. It is in the very nature of philosophy that it cannot be simply applied: each step in its practical application will represent either creative transcendence or deformation and vulgarization. The tragedy of revolutionary philosophical thought is that too often, in the hands of victors and bearers of a new political authority, it becomes suitably adapted and transformed into a new official ideology, into a rationalization and apology of a new social hierarchy. Neither liberalism nor Marxism were able to escape this destiny.

No theory is safeguarded against this specific form of alienation: loss of control over the products of our own intellectual activity and the emergence of practical consequences that betray our original intentions. And yet a clear awareness of the problem is the starting point of its solution.

Philosophy, and science in general, could begin to develop an articulated critical perception of its own use and misuse, of its overall effect on human lives, a kind of philosophical “praxeology.” True, this is to a considerable extent the sphere of the irrational, of passions and interests; this is an “external” question (in Carnap’s terminology). But “the irrational” can become a subject of rational study at a meta-level; a rational will can oppose the irrationality of behavior. Also a question that is external at a certain level of theory building becomes internal at a higher level, following the expansion of our universe of theoretical interest. [26/27]

The general problem is this: if we treat action-oriented philosophy as a symbolic activity which can be translated  into overt practical activity according to certain general principles, then how are those principles to be established in such a way as to minimize the possibilities of degenerate interpretations and applications which betray the original purpose? Thus, if it is the initial intention of an action-oriented philosophy to bring about a more rational society and to create room for the free and creative development of each individual, then instances of its degenerate interpretation and application would include its use to encourage irrational, reckless adventures, to legitimize clearly abortive undertakings attempted under adverse conditions, to justify a demand for the unquestioned loyalty and obedience to whatever is presented as the Cause, and so forth.

In order to prevent the degeneration of an initially rational theory and to secure its adequate translation into rational practical activity we must be able to spell out the inner structure of rational behavior in both cases, when we create theory and when we use it. Degeneration is precisely the situation when theory building follows certain rational rules and theory use does not. The former rules are already known to a considerable extent: they are the subject matter of general methodology or inquiry. The question is then: are not these rules special cases of a general pattern of rational human behavior, of praxis? Is it not possible to generalize them and thus get the rational rules of theory use?

Here I shall only indicate how this can be done.

(1) One of the basic rules of theory building is consistency, in the sense of an absence of contradiction among (actually known and derivable) statements of the theory. An analogous rule of theory use would be consistency between statements and actions. One would have to live one’s philosophy, one’s critical social theory. Practical actions would have to be undertaken under the assumption that the theoretical statements are true. Once it becomes clear that this is no longer possible (because the statements could have after all been wrong and misleading), the theory would have to be revised and generalized, or abandoned.

(2) Another basic methodological rule is antidogmatism, permanent openness to critical reexamination. No proposition can be accepted on the basis of authority and as the mere expression of faith or hope. It has to be both supported by theoretical general arguments and confirmed by empirical evidence. Actions, similarly, cannot be rationally undertaken and justified by reference to authority, tradition, or institution. All practical activity, including that of the leaders‑and especially that of the leaders—must be open to challenge and criticism. Its ultimate resort in attempts at justification must have a universal character, just as in theory building. Here, confirming evidence will be sought in practical experience, and supporting arguments will be derived [27/28] from principles expressing basic human needs and rights. In both there are elements of universal, transcultural validity.

Other instances of analogous rational rules in theory building and theory use may be briefly mentioned: (3) In the same way in which identical criteria of truth must hold for both a theory as a whole and any of its parts, so identical criteria of validation are necessary for ends and means, for long-range and short-range projects of social change. No imaginative theory can justify experimental sloppiness; no noble ends can justify corrupt, immoral means. (4) An old theory incompatible with new facts need not be, and in most cases cannot be, simply rejected; it will be superseded and remain a special case within a new, more general theory, still being correct under certain specific conditions. In the same way, an old social system, when it is no longer able to solve new historical problems, will not be destroyed but transcended. Its basic structural limitations will be abolished, but quite a few institutions and achievements will be incorporated within the new system.

A philosophical praxeology that would demand as much rationality, consistency, critical spirit, openness, clarity, and transcultural solidarity in the practical use of theories as in their building might alert us to the dangers of abuse and help to preserve original purposes.

VIII

What are the prospects for a new world? Whatever deserves to be regarded as a truly new world will probably emerge in a plurality of shapes. There is nothing in the stars nor in the laws of history that strictly determines the outcome of human creativity. But the framework of possibilities among which to choose differs from country to country, depending on the already attained level of material and cultural development and on the specific subjective habits of different social groups formed during preceding historical periods.

If we now ask about the future of the liberal industrialized Western societies, provided that we are reasonably well acquainted with the past and the present, we first need to consider several methods of social change.

While the method of utopian projection may always contribute to the exploration of ideal possibilities, its defects are even more serious in the present-day West than elsewhere. It is not likely to generate any significantly strong new subjective forces for at least two reasons. First, a high level of affluence generates a conformist political culture. Any radical, emotionally loaded new ideas are received with skepticism and rejected by the wealthy silent majority. Second, utopian visions of the just society are compromised because of their association with less developed authoritarian and bureaucratic postrevolutionary societies in the East. [28/29]

Another method is pragmatic: the gradual discovery and creation of the future by trial and error. In this case nothing can be said about the future a priori, nothing in the existing basic structure can be challenged. In this manner one avoids heavy risks and unnecessary destruction, but one also surrenders one’s power to create essentially new and more rational social arrangements.

This method can be improved if politics is enlightened by positive science. In contrast to crude pragmatism, here politics accepts a certain amount of guidance from economics, political science, ecology, and the technical and other sciences. Knowledge produced by these sciences is positive when it assumes the necessity of a given social framework and does not challenge it. But it may promptly indicate important specific problems within the system and urge rational modifications. A series of limited reforms may reduce but not remove a significantly high level of waste in human and natural resources and suffering by underprivileged minorities.

Western liberal societies live today with a false dilemma. The only alternatives seem to be, on the one hand, a utopia of equality which can only be attained by violence and destruction and which too often culminates in a bureaucratic despotism and, on the other hand, an unjust wasteful reality which nevertheless offers, at least, a reasonable level of stability, security, and civil liberty.

But a third alternative is historically possible and indeed optimal: a series of substantive reforms implemented in a peaceful, continuous manner but as a whole transcending the basic social framework of liberal capitalism and bringing to life a more just political and economic participatory democracy. The theoretical ground of such revolutionary reformism is a philosophical and scientific critique of the given society. The method of this critique is the opening and radical solution of the essential problems of the given society. Eonach essential problem represents a certain incompatibility between defining the structural characteristics of liberal capitalism and certain basic needs of human beings to survive, to develop, and genuinely to belong to a social community. To solve such problems radically means to reorganize social institutions and structures and to make them fit these needs.

IX

Five crucial problems deserve to be singled out: privatization, bureaucratization, material and spiritual poverty, alienated labor, and ecological degradation.

(1) Among the strongest human needs is the need to belong to a community, to share common values with other members of a community, and to live in solidarity with them and rationally to coordinate individual activities of general social concern. These needs cannot be fulfilled in liberal capitalism. Its economic arrangements make permanent [29/30] competition and conflict indispensable and push individuals toward increasing privatization. As a surrogate, illusory communities are formed on the basis of shared religious faith and “national interest,” and ultimately on the basis of fear of death and fear of enemies. With the decline of religion and disillusionment with aggressive patriotism, disintegrative forces tend to prevail over integrative ones. A drastic recent example is the actual or imminent economic breakdown of the great American cities and the exodus into suburbs which do not satisfy even the minimal conditions to be considered communities.

The problem appears unsolvable, and it is accordingly believed that the only alternatives are corporate capitalism or the state-owned, state-controlled economy. But there is a third alternative that has already been tested in practice with very positive results, even in the U.S.A. The solution is a policy of strong social support for public economic enterprises and associations, owned and managed by the workers and employees themselves independently of either corporate capital or the state. Only when aggressive competition, insecurity, envy, and hatred are eliminated from the economic sphere can real communal life be brought into existence in the sphere of politics and culture.

(2) There is a universal human capacity and need to participate in social decision making. This need is increasingly strong in all liberal Western countries, especially in Scandinavia and Western Europe. It cannot, however, be fulfilled under the conditions of representative democracy. It is true that in this initial form of democracy, civil liberties are better protected than in any other existing political structure. On the other hand, the growing role of the state in the economy and public welfare has resulted in a rapidly growing bureaucracy, the abuse of power, and corruption. At precisely the same time as better material conditions of life, more leisure, higher quality of education, and a higher level of political culture have enabled millions of citizens to participate meaningfully and rationally in social decision making, the natural tendency of further democratization has been obstructed by the gigantic bureaucratic machinery residing in the state, the political parties, and the enterprises. The problem again looks unsolvable while it is believed that there are only three alternatives: (1) a laissez faire system in which economic coordination and public welfare are completely outside the political sphere; (2) statist, total control over all social processes; or (3) bureaucratic control within the framework of a multiparty parliamentary system. But there is a fourth alternative: building up a network of self-governing bodies composed of elected, nonprofessional delegates of the people, subject to recall and rotation, at all levels of social organization—in the communities and enterprises, at the level of regions and entire branches of socioeconomic [30/31] activity, and at the level of whole society. These bodies, councils and assemblies, would assume responsibility for policy making and overall control in all those—and only those—functions where coordination and rational direction are indispensable. They would assign definite technical tasks to experts and administrators but would retain full power over them and would remain the supreme organs of public authority in their particular fields or territories.

The basic differences between representative and participatory democracy are: first, an incomparably higher degree of active participation of an increasing number of citizens in the latter and, second, a profound change in the character and role of political parties. Parties, themselves hierarchical and more or less bureaucratic organizations, appear in the role of mediators between the people and the government in representative democracy. In the classical form of representative democracy in Great Britain (less so in the U.S.A.), members of Parliament and of the government, once elected, owe their loyalty to their party rather than to their electorate. In participatory democracy members of self-governing bodies, whatever political organization they might belong to, are directly responsible to those who delegated their power to them. Parties are no longer ruling organizations but, at best, political organizations that articulate programs, raise people’s political consciousness, try to mobilize them for specific goals, and help to select the best candidates.

Under these conditions professional politics is no longer needed and bureaucracy loses its raison d’être and disappears as a ruling stratum.

(3) Poverty, once a necessary consequence of low labor productivity, is becoming an anachronism in the wealthy societies of Western Europe and North America. With a $6,000 to $7,000 average national income per capita, it has for the first time in history become possible to satisfy each individual’s elementary needs (for food, housing, basic education, health protection, etc.). In some Northern European countries, especially Sweden, the problem has been solved. In other equally wealthy countries like the U.S.A. there is still about one-fifth of the population that lives under conditions of both material and spiritual misery: inadequately fed, poorly housed in slums, often permanently unemployed, without health protection, without satisfactory education, without almost any culture, and socially discriminated against, especially when they belong to racial minorities. The problem cannot be solved within classical laissez faire capitalism, which needs a segment of unemployed and poor population in order to improve its bargaining position against organized labor. The solution offered by the present American variant of welfare capitalism is partial and inadequate; it involves the humiliation of being unwanted and thrown out of [31/32] any useful work, and it also involves the wasteful and corrupt bureaucratic treatment of welfare programs—which generate considerable resistance to the very idea of social care of the weak, old, and sick.

A genuine solution is possible in a system based upon communal solidarity (rather than privatization) in which organs of self-management would distribute the total amount of socially necessary work among all members of society and secure for each individual a minimum level of income sufficient to cover all basic material and cultural needs.

(4) There is a universal human capacity and need to act freely, spontaneously, imaginatively, to engage in praxis. Modern industrial production, with its extreme specialization and mechanization, destroyed at the outset every trace of creativity which still remained in the work of the artisan. Now, at a much higher level of productivity, it opens up new possibilities of freer organization of work, of beautification of the industrial milieu, of increasing worker participation, and, above all, of substantially reducing the number of obligatory working hours and creating a sufficient amount of leisure. With better education, this leisure time could be used for creative activities, play, communal engagement, and greater participation in the political process.

Most of these possibilities are being wasted. The system is geared toward expansion of output and increase of corporate power, not toward improvement of the quality of each person’s active life. Consequently, increased productivity is used to increase consumption, not to liberate time and to offer each individual substantially more culture and opportunity for praxis. This solution is irrational because, on the one hand, it leads to increasingly wasteful production, and on the other hand it blocks the potential human development of both those workers who must waste their lives in unnecessarily long hours of stupefying work and those who are thrown out of the production process and offered compensation for nonwork.

The rational solution is obviously full employment, decreased working hours, the reduction of waste in production and consumption, and transferring funds from compensation for nonwork to education for creative work.

(5) A system which rests on the need constantly to expand material production and to encourage wasteful consumption is incompatible with the overriding need to use natural resources wisely and to preserve a balanced, healthy natural environment. At the same time as we know how scarce and irrevocably limited certain natural energies are, an entire industry is working hard to create artificial needs and to increase the consumption of those very scarce natural resources. No system can survive for long in such a state of affairs. The only rational solution, quite compatible with solutions of other problems, seems to be to stop the unnecessary depletion of our natural resources, to eliminate [32/33] consumerism, to give all individuals an opportunity to develop higher-level needs that do not require the accumulation of material goods, and to allow a natural transition from excessive comfort to culture, communal engagements, praxis.

In different societies these problems will be solved in different order, in different degrees, with different speed, in more or less peaceful or violent ways, and with more or less ingenuity and fantasy. If they are not solved at all, the old story will be repeated once again. One more civilization will go down the drain forever.

Only a philosophically grounded social theory can see beyond immediate practical problems and provide an epochal critical consciousness that would both alert us to the dangers of degradation and direct us to look for creative and rational long-range solutions. Such a theory will not always reach the majority of people, no matter how loudly it speaks. It will not always mobilize sufficient social energy significantly to accelerate historical progress and radically to reshape existing social forms. But the least it can do is to exert pressure in the proper direction within an otherwise spontaneous development pushed by necessity. There is always a more enlightened part of the ruling class which realizes that certain urgent problems have to be solved even at the price of sacrificing certain existing institutions in order to preserve other, more basic ones. And there is always a chance that reforms meant to be conservative would generate new forces that would carry the process of social change beyond its initial limited intention.

Reason is powerful even when it is not an overwhelming immediate material force. In the struggle of existing irrational material forces it can often manage to give that struggle a rational sense of direction.


SOURCE: Marković, Mihailo. “Reason and Historical Praxis,” in Marxist Humanism and Praxis, edited, with translations, by Gerson S. Sher (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1978), pp. 19-33.


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