The Sources of Socialist Humanism


Ivan Sviták

"Where have we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?" These three simple questions were the title of a painting by an artist who, at the close of the last century, left Europe—not because he preferred the empty idyll of the Tahitian islands, but because he wanted to seek the attitudes of life that, by the primitiveness of the questions they posed, could give rise to endless paraphrases of the key problem of the meaning of life. Thus the artist Paul Gauguin, with no philosophical, religious, or scientific ambitions, expressed the very questions that may be considered the main problem of all the religions of the world and the basic concept of all past philosophies of man, as well as the central content of every humanism.

Who is man? The answer to Gauguin's simple question is very difficult and at the same time very important. The most general instruments of human thinking, i.e., categories, cannot really be scientifically defined, precisely because they are categories, or very general notions. They are so basic and fundamental that they are subordinate only to the concept of being, so that a true definition could state only that categories exist. That in itself would have no meaning, and as a definition it would be absurd. The same can be said of man, not only because he is the category of all categories, but because he himself is their creator. He is on both ends of the definition at the same time: he is both definiens and definiendum. If we nevertheless wish to define man, [154/155] the best way to do so is by his history. Man is a history of his own definitions, the determination of himself. So far, the number of definitions that have been put forward throughout the history and the development of man's understanding of himself are, to a certain extent, in accord with the history of social formations. The image man has created of himself has varied, because man has reflected the world and himself in the world in various ways, depending upon the social relationships he has had. Although biologically Homo sapiens has remained the same, his consciousness of himself and his self-understanding have changed with his changing social organization. Man's monumental self-portraits, and his understanding of the historical process of his own development of thinking, are still, to a certain extent, the live nucleus of mass ideologies and the basic concept which animates both such ideologies and the arts, religion, and philosophy. Homo peccator, the essential concept of Christianity; Homo faber, the center of liberal doctrine; and the Socialist vision of nonalienated, total man—these are various answers to the ancient question of human meaning.

A knowledge of the various answers to the question of man—those currently given by the East and the West, as well as the traditional Christian, liberal, and socialist answers—is a prerequisite of mutual understanding. In the dialogue of ideologies, where reproaches for the absence of humanism are often heard, it is important to remember that Marxism stems from the same classical sources of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European humanism as non-Marxist and nonsocialist traditions. An understanding of this common source and link between different humanist ideologies—an understanding of man as the central value of history—has become more important today than the study of the differences among the various types of humanism.

Socialist humanism did not develop by the blind mechanism of economic history, but by solving the "eternal" questions of man and his significance in the universe. In spite of the fact that man's development may seem preordained by the solution of the social problems of industrial society, this is in fact an illusion. Reducing [155/156] the socialist movement and its concept of man to the realization of social reform and revolution means passing over an important dimension of socialism—its humanistic aim. The birth of socialist thought was the result of the development of European humanism, a tradition that has its deepest roots in ancient Greece, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment.

The Prologue to Marxist Humanism

For many centuries of the Christian era the concept of man was dominated by the idea of the dualism of body and soul. Anthropology was a theological discipline primarily concerned with the relationship of man to God, although the amount of knowledge about the soul was far less than the available knowledge about the human body. Then, in the nineteenth century, came Ludwig Feuerbach. Preserving the secular concept of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, Feuerbach reversed the theological point of view and proclaimed that man was God, thus becoming one of the discoverers of modern man.

Feuerbach's anthropology, a universal science of man, was the peak of pre-Marxist humanism. It represents a historical development where philosophical knowledge arrived at a formulation of the scope and aim of the study of the human race—a theory of man. Feuerbach's materialistic concept was in sharp contradiction to the spiritualistic Christian concept, because its point of departure was not an abstract notion of man, but concrete man. Speculative philosophy put the essence of man outside himself; Hegel's system even placed thinking outside man, and made it a special nonhuman substance. Against this philosophy, which alienates man from his essence, Feuerbach saw man as a sensual being and sketched a grandiose concept of a dialectical triad in which primitive man, living in harmony with his natural essence, goes through religious alienation and becomes a victim of his own projection until the necessity to return to himself brings his reintegration. [156/157]

In Feuerbach's case, philosophical humanism did not use speculation—as it had during most of its history—but rather a union with the knowledge acquired by the natural sciences. Man, said Feuerbach, should be understood as an entity, not as a thinking ego; he should become a personalized, practical, active agent. Where previous systems had always fused the ego with some act of intellectual consciousness, Feuerbach liberated concrete man in all his reality, not only in his thinking. And in this "real humanism" lay the basic theoretical position of later Marxism and socialism.

In Feuerbach's system elements of "vulgar" materialism blend with a deep philosophical understanding of man; a vague anticipation of socialism as human solidarity is joined with the utopian solution of the renaissance of man through love; a mystic relationship between the man-God and his fellowmen is linked with an objective, realistic understanding of the importance of concrete human relationships. The indistinct vision of love and the communion of human hearts is the starting point of a road leading to a scientific understanding of man. The conclusion of Feuerbach's Principles of the Philosophy of the Future proclaims the necessity of abandoning speculation completely, and this is the beginning of the future humanism of Karl Marx. The whole of man—the total thinking, feeling, loving man—becomes the subject of the new philosophy and of atheistic, humanistic anthropology.

Feuerbach's concept broke through not only Hegelian but all other abstractions, and its importance is multiplied when we realize that in Feuerbach love is a transformed Christian love of one's neighbor. For Feuerbach love is not only sensual bliss but also the very definition of man's social belonging, an expression of his substance, of his unity with other men. Love is human naturalness, an affirmation of man's humanness. Feuerbach's man always exists in a dialectical unity of "I and Thou," or, to be more exact, man himself is "I and Thou." Man is defined as a relationship. For the first time in the history of philosophical anthropology man is recognized as a constantly changing relationship. I is firmly anchored in Thou. The concrete human relations that Feuerbach's [157/158] philosophy introduced to us are not so fruitful as Marx's later concept of man as the whole sum of social relations. But they nevertheless lay the foundation for this concept.

Feuerbach transformed love into a concrete human category, and made it an important aspect of his total man. But, despite his efforts toward a concrete concept, he remained the prisoner of an abstract cult of man, unable to explain him in all his social aspects. In the narrow concept of I and Thou, he understood man quite concretely in the field of sexual and family relations. However, this was the only truly concrete aspect he was able to capture. Man as a whole remained a kind of vague, deified man-God. And when the historical process, striving toward a socialist society, replaced the utopian way of achieving love among people, Feuerbach's theories gave way to the revolutionary practice of the people themselves. The theoretical expression of this further phase of humanism was a historical, materialistic, and dialectical understanding of man and his role in the transformation of the world.

Fundamentals of Marxist Humanism

This new kind of humanism was formulated for the first time in Paris, in the spring of 1844, by a twenty-six-year-old immigrant from Germany named Karl Marx. His unfinished manuscript had one of the most dramatic fates of any book. Even today any reference to Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 arouses the interest of both orthodox and unorthodox Marxists. The gist of this work can be expressed as follows: Communism without humanism is no communism and humanism without communism cannot be humanism. From the maze of the Hegelian and Feuerbachian prose in which Marx then wrote, at least three important concepts of man emerge, which form the basis of Marxian humanism. Together they comprise a historical triad of the human race's dramatic process of development, from the state of a natural identity through its social development to [158/159] its own freedom; from the alienation of its humane basis through the overcoming of alienation to the goal of history—communism; from nature through inhumaneness to humaneness. The grand contours of the picture Marx painted of man's self-understanding and self-realization rise above anything that the theories of the Enlightenment created, either in its French mechanistic-materialistic branch, or in its German, Hegelian idealistic branch. Marx transcends the limits of bourgeois society within which even the most radical bourgeois democratic ideology had until then remained. The concept of man as a separate individual was surpassed.

To give a complete picture of Marx's understanding of anthropology, one must refer to his later works. Limiting the Marxist philosophy of man to the works of the young Marx would misrepresent Marx's humanism. Since Landshut has tried to introduce ethics into anthropology, anti-Marxist critics have "theologized" Marx's concept of man. They have misinterpreted the meaning of man's path from primeval freedom through alienation to future freedom as the fall of man, his penitence, and salvation. But any interpretation of Marx which is not in accord with the spirit of contemporary science is not correct, whether it be an ideological concept of ethical socialism, theology, revisionism, or orthodox dogmatism. And, at the same time, any concept that would exclude from communism the humanistic basis of the young Marx, be it in favor of the mechanics of economic forces, the class struggle, the interest of the ruling class, or power of the contemporary state, is an antihumanist and anti-Marxist concept, regardless of the phraseology used.

Marx's picture of man, compared to earlier philosophical ideas, differs qualitatively, especially in the concept of man as an active subject, his own creator, who struggles with forms of alienation and consummates himself. This radical change must be stressed, without denying that the existentialist branch of philosophical thinking has formed yet another concept of man. Marx's dialectical anthropology is not final, because knowledge, which becomes part of science, is subject to the criticism of time, and because the [159/160] further development of science transcends it. The works of Marx are thus not the end of the history of anthropology and humanism, but a turning point, after which anthropological typology continues. The most important mark of dialectical anthropology is the constant broadening of the concept of man, as the model becomes more and more complicated. The cycle of change in the concept of man that has taken place in philosophy during the last six thousand years continues as an exponential curve beyond Marx himself. One can picture the growth of scientific knowledge about man as a quickly rising curve, climbing to the open future, like man himself.

Marx's concept of humanism brought a basic change into the history of humanism, since it was more than the mere metaphysical speculation of the German philosophy of the time. It transcended older philosophies and formed an anti-illusionist, antiideological social and historical basis for scientific anthropology. Among other things, it brought to a close the old philosophy of man by laying the basis for a science of man.

Marx formulated the prerequisites of humanism, founded on a scientific anthropology. One hundred years after Marx, there are, of course, a number of specific branches of science which either did not exist in the second half of the last century or were of negligible importance. Scientific anthropology and humanism have a new empirical basis, although the ideas and concepts of Marx's theory have not lost their validity. As the discoverer of the real mechanism of human alienation, Marx is basically in accord with contemporary science—with the understanding of man as a process, an open system, a flowing equilibrium. Modern science is filling in the contours of man sketched by the young and versatile genius with dialectical concreteness during a Paris spring. Marxist philosophy is an organic product of European culture and of a European, that is to say, classical and humanist, concept of man. If Marxist philosophy is now to begin to formulate the socialist-humanist concept of man and to expound the ideas contained in Marx's manuscripts, it must do this in accordance not only with the classical heritage of the pre-Marxist [160/161] concept of man, but with that of contemporary science. Marxist philosophers are aware of the fact that they have yet to formulate a more detailed answer to the question, "Who is man?" than the broad contours formulated one hundred and twenty years ago by a young German philosopher.

Scientific Anthropology as the Basis of Socialist Humanism

In recent years, problems of theoretical humanism have been neglected and deformed in Marxist philosophy by the personality cult. The achievements of contemporary social science have not been sufficiently absorbed by the philosophy of dialectical materialism. The work of Roger Garaudy, Adam Schaff, and Karel Kosík in evaluating contemporary philosophical anthropology and existentialism is an important step forward in the whole approach to the problem, but these authors themselves do not consider their conclusions definite. Marxist historiography has not yet come to grips with the works of Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Scheler.

With the enormous specialization that has taken place in the natural sciences during the last hundred years, the amassed knowledge concerning man has come to form several separate branches of science. Besides philosophical anthropologies, of which there are a number, at least eight special branches of anthropology come into existence that deal with the realities of man by scientific methods as well as by philosophical reflection. If there is a point of departure in humanism that follows Karl Marx, it is the attempt to draw conclusions about man on a firmer basis than philosophical reasonings offer, in short, on the basis of science. Marx's contribution was to show how barren were the pretensions of any metaphysics aspiring to capture the world in its totality and express its entirety; he proved that from a scientific point of view man cannot be described effectively by any philosophical anthropology; he must be subjected to the analytical scalpel of the scientific method, which can disclose the [161/162] biological, psychological, historical, and social tissues of human existence, and give philosophy the material for forming a synthesis. In the twentieth century, humanism must be supplemented by the scientific analysis of man.

Insofar as the main branches of science have produced a great amount of knowledge about man, we may speak of physical, biological, psychological, sociological, cultural, prehistoric, economic and ethnographic anthropology, each of which answers the question of who man is through specialized methods. Without trespassing beyond their own methodology, these sciences treat the origin of man, his specifications in comparison to animals, his personality as the creator of culture, his history, social relationships, ecology, economic possibilities, etc. Single problems have been worked out to various degrees; some remain long-range tasks for a future anthropological synthesis, while for others there is already elaborate and to some extent generalized material. Biological, historical, sociological and psychological data make it possible to issue the most important results of contemporary knowledge about man as a synthetic science—anthropology—and to form a sufficiently large fund of knowledge for modern humanism and philosophical theory to draw upon.

In the field of contemporary biology, entirely new knowledge has come to light: man has been shown to be an open, unspecialized entity, the product of a specific rhythm of growth (as described by A. Portmann), which is unique in the development of life and achieves a very special standing in the animal world. Biology has proved that man's first year of life is an extremely important phase of his growth, similar to what in other mammals takes place during the development of the embyro inside the womb, and that the period of acquiring knowledge, which is exceptionally long in man, produces a peculiar rhythm of life in regard to sexual maturity and the cycle of reproduction—all of which suggests that man's distinction from animals has biological foundations.

Similarly, revolutionary information on man has been contributed by modern psychology, which in both its branches, the [162/163] Pavlovian and the Freudian, has substantially changed the previously held image of man as a reasoning individual by showing that many forces besides consciousness govern him. Whatever the terminology, the psychologists' image of man is always of an entity of many layers, of which reason is not the most important. Man is seen as constantly changing, and all the manifold roles through which the individual passes in his development are taken into account. The psychology of the personality, together with social psychology, delves into the structure of human nature and at the same time provides a great many empirical facts.

After biology and psychology, sociology has achieved the most important new understanding of man. Aristotle's words about the society of man were given a new content when Marx approached man as a set of not only personal but social relations. At the same time, the concept of man as a member of a collective class—a nation, family, or larger or smaller social group—has made it possible to understand the social aspect of human existence and the growing importance of groups in the life of modern man. Whole social classes have accepted the revolutionary idea that a change in man requires a change in the given social relationships; that a program of changing the world is in accord with the evolution of society. Man is discovering himself as the conscious creator of social relationships and, thanks to Marx and Freud, now knows that, because of alienation, he has been a mere plaything in the hands of forces which he did not understand. This fuller knowledge of man has not remained the privilege of a few, but has become the theory of living, human, transforming practice. Man knows now that to "think means to change," as Bertolt Brecht so aptly put it.

Scientific anthropology is beginning to formulate its first answers to the problem of human existence, with due acknowledgment to past thinkers. Man is an open entity, a personality, and the sum of his relationships. He originated in nature, in history, in the development of societies and cultures; he is going forth to a humane world, toward the mastery of technology, the creation and the metamorphosis of man in time. "Where have we come [163/164] from? Who are we? Where are we going?" We come from history; we are people; we are going forth to meet ourselves. These are the prolegomena of scientific anthropology to socialist humanism, to the philosophy of man, to the philosophy of man's freedom.

The Future of Humanism

It is, of course, impossible to reduce socialist humanism to the empirical data of the sciences, because it is also concerned with the problem of values and a vision of the future of mankind, which goes beyond science.

Pierre Lecomte du Noüy tells us that the future of man is the only transcendentalism left to materialists who deny God. We agree that the question of the future of mankind is indeed one of the most important. Religious thinkers have been convinced that the history of personalities, nations and the whole of mankind was in some manner predestined. The question of the goal of history or the future of man was thus senseless, because history was a revelation of God's aims. In the later years of the Enlightenment an uncritical belief in the progress of mankind was prevalent, but the people of the twentieth century have reached beyond this belief, only to strive the harder for their own rational futures as the sole alternative to total destruction. The world of tomorrow is a modern world without war, a world of mutual enrichment of cultures. The future of mankind will be conditioned by the mastery of technology, economic growth, automation of production and an invasion of the sciences into the everyday life of man, which will perhaps free man for creation and thus change his way of life. This perspective of economic affluence and a society without classes presents a vision whose contours are lost to the scientist in the space of the cosmos and the depth of time, where science remains silent and the philosopher and poet have their say.

This is where true philosophy begins, because here begins an [164/165] area of reasoning that empirical science cannot encompass. Here scientific anthropology is transformed into active and concrete humanism, into practical human activity, which is leading the world in the direction of socialism. But the essence of socialism is not the growth of material wealth; it is the full development of man and his liberation. The older utopians as well as modern scientists have envisioned a socialist society where man can freely develop his talents and reasoning; where he can cultivate his feelings and grasp the richness and beauty of the world. Socialism has always been a concept of broader freedom for man. Marx saw future society as a realization of the humanist ideas of the past, as real communism, which frees man. Unless socialism brings to life the ideas from which it was born, it cannot bring to life Marx's program. Marxism is a program of human freedom, and if it is not this, it is not Marxism.

The guarantee of the humanist future of socialism lies only in the people themselves, in their actions. Unlike past centuries, when man was dragged through history as a sacrifice to his own needs, when he was a passive thing in the hands of blind social forces, constantly plagued by war, hunger, and oppression, the twentieth century offers man a chance to direct history. Only in our century have people realized that it is possible to change the world. If they go about it with full consciousness, they will not go against their own interests, will not transform themselves into a society of mechanized robots and prefabricated automatons, but will strive for the human content of future society. The actions of the people today, their knowledge that socialism does not exist without humanism, are of the utmost importance. Socialism is concerned not only with the development of productive forces and technology, but also with the content of social relationships, the problems of people and the character of man. Increased technology without a change in human relations can bring only the dark future of George Orwell's 1984, not socialism. The inhuman technocracy of Orwell's pessimistic utopia represents a world that has lost its humanist tradition. Socialism cannot relinquish this tradition without giving up the rationale of its existence and [165/166] its roots. The people themselves are responsible for socialist humanism, and nobody can take responsibility away from them—not a strong personality, or weapons, or institutions, or technical perfection. The people alone, in their actions, must answer for the socialist content of humanism.

SOURCE: Sviták, Ivan. “The Sources of Socialist Humanism” (1963), in Man and his World: A Marxian View; translated by Jarmila Veltrusky (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1970), pp. 154-166.

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