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For Humanism Explorations in Theory and Politics

Edited by David Alderson and Robert Spencer

1 The Rise, Decline and Possible Revival of Socialist Humanism Barbara Epstein

Socialist humanism was an international current, in some instances expressed in political activism as well as in intellectual work, that appeared in the 1940s and 1950s and reached its point of greatest influence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Of the two terms, socialism and humanism, the meaning of socialism is reasonably clear: socialists are those who are in favour of a society based on cooperation and the common good, rather than competition and profit for the few. What humanism means is less clear. Some use it to describe the outlook of the irreligious. This somewhat old-fashioned usage of the term suggests that the basic division within the intellectual world is between those who believe in God and those who do not. Others use it in a more contemporary way to refer to those who place humans at the centre of their intellectual universe; often the term antihumanism is used in this way to cast the same sort of doubt on a human-centred perspective that the Enlightenment cast on a God-centred perspective. Yet others use humanism to refer to those who are ideologically committed to a sunny view of humanity, according to which humans have only good impulses, no evil ones, and social progress is inevitable. In this view, humanists are naĂŻve optimists. None of the above definitions accurately describes the outlook of Left intellectuals and activists who identified with socialist humanism in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Socialist humanism was not equivalent to atheism, agnosticism or secularism: there were some socialist humanists who were religious, and many whose thought was strongly influenced by religious traditions. Socialist humanism asked what human nature consists of and what sort of society would be most conducive to human thriving. Though this was a discussion about humans and their capabilities, it was not an assertion that nature exists to serve human needs or that


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humans should dominate other species and the natural environment. Some socialist humanists saw God or spirit of some sort as the centre, and some criticised the pursuit of human mastery over nature. None of the leading socialist humanist writers of the mid-twentieth-century thought that progress was inevitable or that humans were either devoid of socially destructive impulses, or perfectable. What socialist humanists did (and do) believe is that there is such a thing as human nature, that is, that humans, like other animal species, have characteristics, including specific needs, abilities, and limits to those abilities. Socialist humanism is based on the view that humans require social cooperation and support, are capable of collective effort and individual creativity, and are most likely to thrive in egalitarian communities dedicated to the common welfare rather than to the pursuit of private profit. Socialist humanists also believe that humans are capable of empathy, rational thought and effective planning, and that a better society, and world, is therefore possible. The socialist humanist perspective, as it was developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, did not focus on the welfare of non-human animals or of the natural environment. But in the intervening years it has become clear that the welfare of the human race is linked to the health of the environment. An expansion of human concern to include the welfare of other living creatures, and of the planet, is clearly compatible with socialist humanism. * * * Socialist humanism flourished as a set of international networks of intellectuals, and as an outlook with influence in peace and to some degree other social movements, from 1956 to the late 1960s. Socialist humanism drew upon Marx’s concept of alienation, developed in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, unknown before being published in Moscow in 1932 in the original German. Over the following decades, selections were published in French and then in English.1 Marx’s analysis of alienation as the result of a form of production based on private profit created the basis for a critique of capitalism based on capitalism’s impact on the human spirit. Marx argued that the alienation of the worker from her/his product led to the alienation of the worker from other humans, and even to self-alienation. Marx’s concept of alienation is humanist both in the sense that it points to the dehumanising character of capitalist relations, and also in its implication that humans must be the

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authors of their own liberation. Marx continued to employ the concept of alienation in his subsequent work, but it is possible to read his later analysis of capitalist political economy as suggesting that the structural contradictions within capitalism are the system’s greatest weakness and the most likely source of capitalism’s demise, and that human experience and action are secondary. * * * The ‘scientific socialism’ of the first half of the twentieth century emphasised the structural side of Marx’s analysis; the Soviets used this perspective to downplay the role of collective action in social change, and to justify substituting party rule for democracy. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts provided the basis for a challenge to this perspective within the context of Marxism, and gave Marxist and socialist humanists a common theoretical reference point. Even socialist humanists who did not regard themselves as Marxists, such as Martin Buber, appreciated Marx’s writings on alienation. Many Marxists, philosophers and others, who were drawn to this perspective, called themselves Marxist humanists, but Erich Fromm and others used the term socialist humanism instead, so as to include socialists who did not consider themselves Marxists. In this chapter I use the term ‘socialist humanism’ to refer not only to those who so described themselves but also those who preferred the term ‘Marxist humanism’. In some respects, though, the humanist tradition I trace here becomes visible through its differentiation from the dogmatisms of both ‘scientific’ Marxism and subsequent antihumanism. The publication of Marx’s early work on alienation provided the intellectual background for the development of socialist humanism, but it took the succession of shocks to the Stalinist version of socialism that occurred during 1956 to turn what had been a trickle in Marxist thought into a current with intellectual and political influence. The first and most important of these shocks was the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February, at which Khrushchev denounced and enumerated Stalin’s crimes and later officially announced his policy of peaceful coexistence with the capitalist West. The second shock was the Hungarian Uprising and the Soviet repression of it, in October and November. Khrushchev’s acknowledgement and description of Stalin’s crimes threw the international Communist movement into


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crisis, leading many to leave Communist parties to which they had devoted their lives, suggesting that there might be an opening for a more democratic form of socialism in the Soviet Union, or if not that at least a more democratic form of socialism might become the goal of a newly configured world Left. Khrushchev’s promulgation of his policy of peaceful coexistence suggested the possibility of a break in the Cold War. The Hungarian Uprising later the same year led to hopes that Eastern European peoples might be ready to challenge Soviet control; the harsh Soviet response to the uprising reinforced the opposition of many who had left the Communist parties, and other socialists and Marxists, to Soviet repression of democratic initiatives. The purpose of this chapter is to indicate the main themes of socialist humanist thought in the 1950s and 1960s, to explain why socialist humanism disappeared from the intellectual and political agenda of the Left in the US and Western Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and to argue that its core insights remain valid, and would still be of use to the Left. This is not to suggest that socialist humanism is the solution to all or even most of the problems of the contemporary Left. Socialist and Marxist humanism were products of a particular period. Neither had a great deal to say about issues that have since become priorities for movements for social change: environmental crisis, race, gender, sexuality, technology and its social impact. Neither had much to say about strategy for the Left or about organisational questions. Socialist humanists of the late 1950s and early 1960s opposed the Cold War and hoped that an end to it would open up space for movements for democratic forms of socialism in both East and West, based on decentralised communities and popular participation rather than bureaucratic control, and that should also involve workers’ control of their labour. They defended utopian thinking as a necessary intellectual framework for efforts to bring about change, arguing that even if the future society that we imagine will never be achieved, formulating the goal is a precondition of any advance towards it. In these respects socialist humanism shared a good deal with anarchism; in its orientation towards nonviolent means of change, it came close to pacifism. Socialist humanism made the question of what kind of society we want to live in central. It criticised any form of socialism that would set social solidarity against freedom of expression and the right to dissent, and more broadly it stressed the need to create the conditions under which individual creativity could flourish. Socialist

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humanism challenged dogmatism by insisting that the future remains open and that no theory can predict it with certainty. I begin this chapter with a more or less historical survey of the main contributions to socialist humanist thought, emphasising their common themes. Some socialist humanist writers, such as E. P. Thompson, were and remain well known, but primarily for work other than their writings directly addressing socialist humanism. Others, well known on the Left at that time, are no longer widely read. I divide my survey between those for whom socialist humanism was a political as well as an intellectual project, and those whose engagement with it was primarily intellectual. Whose work fell into which of these categories was mostly a question of where they lived: in the West the themes of socialist humanism aligned most easily with the concerns of the peace movements of the late 1950s and the early 1960s, while for the dissident movements in Eastern Europe sustained activity beyond writing and speaking was often difficult. The Praxis School, a group of dissident Yugoslavian philosophers, were able to use the relative openness of Yugoslavian society under Tito to challenge Soviet Marxism and to criticise elements of the Soviet bureaucratic mindset in Yugoslavia itself, but their work took place largely on the plane of philosophical debates. A number of Left theorists in continental Western Europe, especially in France and Germany, aligned themselves with and contributed to socialist humanism, but in the absence of active peace movements their views were expressed through their written work and not through activism. In Britain and the US, socialist humanists who were activists as well as intellectuals brought their perspectives to their political activity as well as to their intellectual work. In Britain, socialist humanism had influence within the peace movement. In the US, currents of thought among peace and civil rights activists overlapped with socialist humanism. In both Britain and the US, many of the tens of thousands who left the Communist parties in the wake of Khrushchev’s disclosures continued to engage in political activity and remained socialists while rejecting the authoritarian version of socialism that held sway in the Soviet Union. In Britain many former Communists explicitly identified with socialist humanism, as did others in the early New Left.2 In the United States McCarthyism made it difficult openly to criticise the Soviet Union without appearing to align oneself with the repression of leftists. But many of the Left projects that emerged as McCarthyism receded were influenced by former Communists for whom the Soviet Union was an


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embarrassment and whose major point of political reference was the 1930s, with the Popular Front at home and the anti-fascist struggle abroad. The New Left that emerged in the US in the early 1960s shared socialist humanism’s orientation towards utopian thinking and its vision of participatory politics in a decentralised society without necessarily being in favour of socialism. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the American Left and much of the European Left lost interest in socialist humanism. The Cold War had abated and the danger of nuclear war had ceased to be a major focus of protest. By 1968 the Vietnam War had become the central issue for the Left, especially in the US. In the context of the war the New Left grew and anger and militancy escalated. The Sino-Soviet split, the Chinese critique of the Soviet Union, and the rise of Third World revolutionary movements, especially the Chinese Cultural Revolution, offered a new conception of Left politics to young radicals in the US and elsewhere in the West. According to the Maoist, or more broadly Third Worldist, perspective, the central struggle in the world was between the imperialist West and the anti-imperialist movements of the East, and the task of leftists, now more often calling themselves radicals, in the West, was to support Third World revolutionary movements and look forward to following their example. The critique of the Soviet Union no longer focused on its undemocratic character and its repression of dissent but rather on the charge that it was too compromising in its stance towards the US. From this perspective, the Soviet policy of peaceful coexistence was an obstacle to the struggle against imperialism, and liberal reform was an obstacle to revolution in the capitalist West. Third Worldism swept the US Left and movements of the Left in Europe, especially those on the continent. Against the background of the hyper-militancy and revolutionary expectations of the Left in the late 1960s and early 1970s, socialist humanism seemed tepid. * * * Many of the issues of the Vietnam era are still with us, along with others that have appeared since then, or have become more urgent. The US continues to engage in foreign wars despite the repeated experience of seeing its intervention only make things worse for the peoples of the affected countries. The gap in wealth and power between the US, and the advanced capitalist countries of the West generally, on the one hand, and

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the rest of the world on the other, has grown. In the US we face a widening gap in wealth and power and a political arena that is increasingly detached from and unresponsive to the public. Along with the rest of the planet we face looming environmental catastrophes. But the exuberant, ultra-leftist politics that appealed to so many young people during the Vietnam era now seem like quaint memories of a very different moment. Perhaps a return to the legacy of socialist humanism may provide suggestions for a Left politics appropriate for a more sober time.

socialist humanism as a political project In 1956, E. P. Thompson and John Saville, both labour historians and both then members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, launched The Reasoner, a dissident inner-party journal focused on the critique of Stalinism and Soviet Marxism. In the wake of the Soviet repression of the Hungarian Uprising, Thompson and Saville, among many others, left the Communist Party. The Reasoner, renamed The New Reasoner, became the vehicle for a politics that combined opposition to the Cold War and to both great powers, with advocacy of participatory democracy as the basis for a democratic socialist society. It expressed and helped to shape the perspective of many of those who had left the Communist Party of Great Britain in the wake of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalinism, and it also influenced the thinking of young people just entering the political arena, drawn to the socialist Left but uninterested in aligning themselves with the Soviet Union. In 1957 The New Reasoner published an article by E. P. Thompson entitled ‘Socialist Humanism: An Epistle to the Philistines’,3 a call for a revolt against Stalinism within the international Left in the name of a socialist humanism which, Thompson argued, replaced the abstractions of official Soviet Marxist theory with the needs, struggles and outlook of real men and women. Thompson argued that the entire Communist movement had been infected with the dogmatism inherent in the official brand of Marxist theory, and that even Western Marxism, despite having moved away from structural analysis through its focus on culture and ideology, had failed to challenge the prevailing dogmatism. Marxist theory must begin with the needs, thoughts and actions of real human beings. Socialism must have a moral basis and Soviet socialism must not be regarded as a model in any way. Thompson argued that the Cold War and the arms race sustained ruling groups in both the Soviet Union

'For Humanism: Explorations in Theory and Politics' edited by David Alderson and Robert Spencer  

Today, anti-humanism is a dominant, even definitive, feature of contemporary theory. This book sets out to challenge this by establishing th...