On the Disappearance of Socialist Humanism

Barbara Epstein

Socialist humanism emerged out of discussions of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts in the late fifties and early sixties due to hopes for the democratization of the Soviet bloc, but it lost traction within the left in the late sixties and early seventies due to the Vietnam War and the resulting rising influence of Maoism. There is still a great deal to be learned from the socialist humanist tradition (A slightly different version was published in Spain in Brumaria 22, Revolution and Subjectivity, 2010) – Editors

6599650-MMarxist humanism and socialist humanism, so closely connected that they can be regarded as one perspective with two names, once had considerable influence on the left.  In the nineteen fifties and the early part of the sixties this perspective was developed, and promoted, by a loose-knit international network of intellectuals.  Marxist humanism was a variety of Marxist theory that emphasized Marx’s writings on alienation, especially as he developed this concept in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, first published in Moscow, in Russian, in 1927, then, in 1932, in the original German; substantial parts of the work first appeared in English in 1958-9.  The development of Marxist humanism as a school of Marxist thought was prompted by the appearance of this work, but there were also political reasons for the appeal of a version of Marxism focused on alienation and the vision of a society in which it might be overcome.

Marxist humanists criticized the version of capitalism that had taken shape in the West in the postwar years for its promotion of consumption, its materialism, and its politically and culturally stifling character.  Marxist humanism was also, even more pointedly, a protest against Stalinism and the version of Marxist theory approved by the Soviet leadership.  Marxist humanist critiques of Western and Soviet societies were joined by the view that parallel processes were taking place in both.  Under both Soviet socialism and Western capitalism, Marxist humanists argued, an elite made the decisions and garnered the profits while the majority served the ends of the system.  Humans were treated as means to ends, in regard to which they had little or no voice.  Both Soviet and Western governments measured their own success in terms of material advancement rather than in terms of the quality of life of the people.  Both societies were characterized by regimentation, conformity, and the repression of dissent (though such repression was much more intense in the Soviet Union than in the West).

Though interest in Marxist humanism was, to a large degree, prompted by its relevance to political issues of the postwar period, its vocabulary was largely philosophical and its primary focus was challenging the version of Marxism endorsed by the Soviet authorities.   Marxist humanists of the postwar years criticized Soviet Marxism for accounting for historical development by stressing the role of objective social forces, and for leaving human consciousness, decision-making, and action as a residual category with little role in social change.  This form of Marxist theory, often referred to as “diamat” (short for dialectical materialism), was, as its critics pointed out, compatible with a bureaucratic and authoritarian society.  The claim that objective forces, such as the development of productive relations, played the dominant role in social change, and that that Marxist analysis was “scientific,” meaning that it was an objective, transparent reflection of reality, suggested that analysis was best left to the experts and the officialdom with whom they were associated, and that the perspectives or desires of ordinary people had little weight.  Marxist humanism emerged as a call for a theoretical perspective that would recognize the mutually constitutive relationship between consciousness and external reality, and also as a demand (or at least a hope) for a form of socialism that would place human needs at the center, including those for material well being, for the opportunity to play an active role in the direction of society, and for free cultural and political expression.

In a sense Georg Lukács was the first Marxist humanist, though he never identified himself as such.  His History and Class Consciousness:  Studies in Marxist Dialectics, first published in 1923, presented an analysis of alienation, based on a close reading of scattered references in Marx’s writings, that anticipated Marx’s fuller development of the concept in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, to be discovered, and published, several years later.[1]  Decades later, in the wake of the Hungarian Uprising and the Polish Spring, both in 1956, intellectuals associated with these movements began to publish work criticizing the orthodox version of Marxism that held sway in the Soviet Union and developing a humanist version of Marxism.  These intellectuals included, in Poland, Leszek Kolakowski and Adam Schaff, and in Hungary, followers of Lukács.

In Yugoslavia, the break between Tito and Stalin in 1948 enabled a group of young philosophers to criticize the official Soviet version of Marxism, which remained dominant among established Yugoslavian philosophers, and to begin to construct a version of Marxism revolving around the concept of alienation, in which their reading of the 1844 Manuscripts played a major role.   The break with the Soviet Union created the space in which such discussions were possible; the fact that many of these young philosophers had participated, as Partisans, in the defense of Yugoslavia from Nazi Germany, and in the subsequent socialist revolution, no doubt bolstered the intellectual independence necessary for this project.

By the early sixties Marxist humanism had become the dominant trend in philosophy in Yugoslavia and the center of opposition to Stalinism. Members of the group founded the Marxist humanist journal, Praxis, in 1964, publishing two editions, one in Serbo-Croatian, and the other, directed at foreign audiences, including articles in English, French and German as well as Serbo-Croatian.  The counterpart to the Praxis School’s focus on the problem of alienation was its critique of bureaucracy as a major source of alienation and an impediment to a truly democratic form of socialism.[2]

The rise of what came to be known as the Praxis School had was made possible by Tito’s 1948 break from the Soviet Union and the subsequent anti-Stalinist tilt of the Yugoslavian Communist Party, which promoted an independent path to socialism for Yugoslavia, based on “self-management,” a conception of workers’ control of their workplaces.  Members of the Praxis School supported the Yugoslavian effort to build an alternative form of socialism, and focused their critique on the Soviet Union. But over the course of the sixties, members of the Praxis School began to perceive problems of bureaucracy in Yugoslavian socialism, and extended their critical gaze to these as well.  The Praxis School’s focus on bureaucracy may not have addressed the main source of Soviet authoritarianism, but it was an apt critique of problems in postwar Yugoslavia.  Tensions between the Yugoslavian Communist Party and the Praxis School steadily increased, and in 1974 the Yugoslavian government closed both editions of Praxis.  Eight members of the Praxis School were dismissed from their departments.  All were ultimately able to find academic positions elsewhere, but the Praxis School never regained its position of influence.

The Praxis School had an impact on oppositional activism as well as on theoretical trends within Marxism. The Praxis group consisted of academics, mostly members of philosophy departments in the University of Belgrade, the University of Zagreb and elsewhere.  Many students were drawn to the Marxist humanist perspective through studying with members of the Praxis group, and especially through participation in the Korčula Summer School, held almost every summer from 1963 to 1974 on an island off the Croatian coast, where members of the Praxis School, and other Praxis authors, engaged in discussion.  The school drew international scholars, including members of the Frankfurt School.  For the older participants in these discussions, including members of the Praxis school, their appeal was largely intellectual, but the students who attended were chafing under restrictions on political activity and expression, and many were anxious to join a Marxist humanist perspective with practical oppositional activity.

In June 1968 a student protest took place at the University of Belgrade, initially over conditions of student life at the University, but quickly broadening into a critique of the limits on political participation in Yugoslavia.  Members of the Praxis School issued a statement of support and some participated in the protests.  But their most important role in the protest lay in their influence on the thinking of many of the students involved.  Historian of the Praxis School Gerson S. Sher writes, “The echoes of many Praxis ideas were audible in the students’ demands.”  But he also points out that the idea that socialism should include popular participation and the right to dissent was not the property of any group.  The perspective of the Praxis School intersected with a widely held view in which support for socialism was combined with disappointment at the form that Yugoslavian socialism had taken.[3]

Marxist humanism and socialist humanism emerged and gained influence among left intellectuals and activists in the West, especially in the US and Britain, over approximately the same period during which the Praxis School exercised influence in Yugoslavia.  Despite the publication of an international edition of Praxis, and despite the almost yearly meetings of the Korčula Summer School, the Praxis School had relatively little influence on the development of Marxist/socialist humanism in the West.  Most publications by members of the Praxis School were in Serbo-Croatian, and thus inaccessible to a Western audience.  Furthermore, the concerns that drove the Western version of Marxist/socialist humanism were not quite the same as those that drove its Yugoslavian counterpart.  For the Praxis School, the central issue was Soviet authoritarianism and its much milder counterpart in Yugoslavia.  For the Western intellectuals who formed the counterpart to the Praxis School, the central issues were the Cold War the possibility of a transition to socialism in Western societies, in the context of advanced capitalism.

The first to develop a Marxist humanist perspective in the West was Raya Dunayevskaya, an influential activist and intellectual with Trotskyist origins.   In her book, Marxism and Freedom…From 1776 Until Today, first published in 1958, Dunayevskaya argued that the concept of alienation was central to Marx’s work, that both his critique of capitalism and his vision of socialism must be understood in light of his grounding in Hegel, in particular in relation to the concept of transcendence, the emergence of unity out of division.  Marx, Dunayevskaya pointed out, first called his philosophy “humanism,” later substituting the term “communism.”[4]

Dunayevskaya criticized the accelerating exploitation of labor in the US, the special oppression of blacks, and the danger of nuclear war.  She criticized the Soviet Union as a state capitalist society and, much earlier than most other left intellectuals, she criticized Maoist China as well; beyond including it in the same category she criticized Mao and the Chinese leadership for threatening the world with a possible nuclear holocaust and boasting that it would suffer least if this were to take place.[5] Dunayevskaya’s influence was no doubt limited by her explicit call for revolution at a time when the US was still under the sway of McCarthyism, by her affiliation with what was to many, even on the left, an obscure revolutionary tendency, and by her excessively optimistic view of working class openness to socialism.

In both Britain and the US, the terms “Marxist humanism” and “socialist humanism” were used to describe different aspects of what amounted to one intellectual and political trend.  “Marxist humanism” emphasized the roots of this perspective in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and Marx’s writings on alienation more generally, and pointed to the debate within Marxist theory with Soviet and other structuralist versions of Marxism.  “Socialist humanism” emphasized the participation of many non-Marxists – Christian socialists and others – in the critique of Soviet socialism and the effort to construct a democratic version of socialism in which the right to dissent would be protected, and free expression would be encouraged.  While the published work of Western Marxist/socialist humanist tended, like that of the Praxis School, toward the theoretical and the philosophical, Western Marxist/socialist humanist circles were much more deeply involved in social movements than their Yugoslavian counterparts.  Out of a desire to stress the ecumenical character of their perspective, they tended to use the term “socialist humanism” in preference to “Marxist humanism,” and thus that is the term that will be used here.

In 1956 Edward P. Thompson and John Saville, both labor 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 the orthodox version of Marxism that held sway in the Soviet Union.  Khrushchev’s public acknowledgement of Stalin’s crimes and his renunciation of Stalinism, in February of that year, led Communists around the world to reconsider their affiliation with the Communist movement.  The Soviet repression of the March uprising in Hungary compounded this crisis.  Thompson and Saville, among many others, left the Communist Party; The Reasoner, renamed The New Reasoner, became the vehicle for a New Left politics that combined opposition to the Cold War, and to both great powers, with support for participatory democracy as the basis for a democratic socialist society.

In 1957 The New Reasoner published an article by E.P. Thompson entitled “Socialist Humanism:  An Epistle to the Philistines,” 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 real men and women, their needs, struggles and outlook.  He 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 structuralism through its focus on culture and ideology, had failed to challenge the prevailing dogmatism by focusing on the analysis of culture rather than insisting that Marxist theory must begin with the needs, thoughts and actions of real human beings, that socialism must have a moral basis, and that Soviet socialism must not be regarded as a model in any way.  Thompson claimed that the Cold War and the arms race sustained ruling groups in both the US and the Soviet Union and enabled political repression in both East and West.  He argued that revolt against the Cold War, and against the repressive regimes that sustained it, was brewing among young people not only in the West, where mass-based peace movements were beginning to appear, but in the Soviet Union and its satellites as well.  Such a revolt, Thompson argued, could develop into an international movement for a democratic socialist societies based on humanist principles.[6]

In the US, socialist humanism developed within the context of the Frankfurt School, relocated, after Hitler’s rise to power, in New York City.  Most members of the school regarded the concept of alienation as central to social criticism, rejected the Soviet version of Marxism, and subscribed to a democratic socialist politics.  In this broad sense, the Frankfurt School as a whole can be considered socialist humanist.  But the work of most members of the Frankfurt School was focused on the analysis of authoritarian trends and the critique of culture rather than on directly political questions.  Two members of the Frankfurt School, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, played leading roles in the development of socialist humanism and, in Fromm’s case especially, in the effort to promote socialist humanism as an international intellectual tendency and as the framework for political action.

The question of alienation and ways to overcome it was a central focus of Fromm’s work.  In his book The Sane Society, published in 1955, he argued that separation from nature is the basic human trauma, creating a sense of emptiness that can be addressed negatively – through the pursuit of power, wealth and fame, and through engagement in relations of dominance and subordination – or positively – through the pursuit of human solidarity and through love and care for others.  Fromm argued that love and solidarity are basic human needs, frustrated by capitalism, and he called for a decentralized socialist society based on cooperation and workers’ participation in management.[7]  In 1961 Fromm published Marx’s Concept of Man, including substantial excerpts from Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, and an essay in which Fromm argued that the concept of alienation was central to the work of the mature as well as the young Marx, and that the Soviet Union represented a departure from Marx’s conception of socialism.[8]

Herbert Marcuse was, like Fromm, concerned with the nature of alienation in postwar capitalist society and the sources of opposition to the structures that create it.  His book One-Dimensional Man, published in 1964, argued that prosperity and the loosening of traditional restrictions on social behavior had undermined previously existing motivations for revolt and thus had created a society of heightened alienation.  He called for a “great refusal,” based on an innate human desire for liberation, likely to be expressed, he believed, by the marginalized and the excluded:  those discriminated against due to race, young people, radical intellectuals.  Marcuse’s ideas reflected the sensibility of the American New Left and also helped to shape it.[9]

Socialist humanism never became a social movement, nor was it ever adopted as the perspective of a social movement.  It remained the perspective of an international network of left intellectuals.  Nevertheless, the writings of socialist humanists had wide influence, striking a chord because they expressed concerns and aspirations felt by many, and in particular, because they reflected a sensibility that was widespread within British and US peace movements, in which socialist humanists played important roles. In both the US and Britain, strong public sentiment for an end to the arms race led to the emergence of peace movements in 1957-1958.  In the US, Erich Fromm was a co-founder of and prominent activist within the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, which raised the issue of nuclear fallout and mobilized protests against the arms race and the Cold War.  In Britain, the early New Left provided a left intellectual dimension to the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament, which pressed for an end to British participation in the arms race, and to the Committee of 100, which mobilized civil disobedience demonstrations involving thousands in an effort to force Britain to leave NATO and adopt a posture of non-alignment.  E.P. Thompson and other intellectuals of the early New Left placed the struggle against the Cold War in the context of a morally based socialist politics and the pursuit of a democratic, egalitarian, and peaceful world. [10]

For many activists in both the British and American peace movement, opposition to the Cold War and the arms race was a component of a broader political perspective: a critique of the role of the US and its allies in the world, and of the conformity, regimentation, and materialism of the postwar US and of other Western capitalist societies.  The one element of socialist humanism that did not strike a nearly universal chord in these movements was socialism. Considerable numbers of activists in both movements believed that socialism would be preferable to capitalism, but few if any felt that socialism was a live issue. Many regarded bureaucracy and authoritarianism as the main obstacles to a better society, and did not believe that the choice between capitalism and socialism was relevant to these issues.  Nevertheless, the early British New Left, within which Thompson was the leading figure, was the most influential intellectual current within the British peace movement.  There were other left groupings within the British peace movement as well, each putting forward its own analysis of the causes and solutions of the Cold War.

The early New Left, in Britain, believed that peaceful coexistence was linked to the prospect of a democratic, egalitarian world.  In the US, the pacifist wing of the peace movement had strong ties to the early civil rights movement, within which pacifism was a significant current.  Socialist humanists were not pacifists.  Nevertheless the two perspectives shared a great deal.  The pacifist view of nonviolence as not just the absence of violence, but as a form of social relations that fostered self-realization, mutual respect and cooperation, had a great deal in common with the socialist humanist conception of solidarity.  Both perspectives, pacifism and socialist humanism, placed priority on the construction of small-scale communities and on the rights of the individual within those communities.  Some pacifist socialists, such as Bayard Rustin, played important roles in both peace and civil rights movements, but socialism was not a concern or even a current within the civil rights movement as a whole. In other respects, however, the outlook of the early civil rights movement was very close to that of socialist humanism.  The early civil rights movement was based on a deeply moral conception of politics.  The conception of “beloved community” in the early civil rights movement was not far from the socialist humanist vision of a society in which alienation would be overcome.

In 1965 Erich Fromm published a collection of articles, by socialist humanists around the world, entitled Socialist Humanism:  An International Symposium.[11] Fromm’s introduction made it clear that he hoped that this volume would strengthen ties among like-minded intellectuals and would increase their influence on social movements of the time.  But in fact, the publication of Socialist Humanism was the high point of the movement’s visibility.  Over the years that followed socialist humanism was eclipsed by other tendencies on the left.  Today socialist humanism is almost forgotten.  What led to the eclipse of this perspective?  And what have we lost in the process?

Peace movement activity in Britain and the US declined sharply in the mid-sixties in response to the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which outlawed aboveground testing, calming public concerns about fallout, and more generally in response to the lowering of tensions between the US and the Soviet Union.   In 1964 student activists began to be aware that the US was conducting a war in Vietnam, a place that hardly any of them had previously heard of.  As the war escalated it became the central concern of movements of the left in the US, and a major focus of movements elsewhere as well.  In the US, opposition to the war in Vietnam vastly expanded the ranks of the left by drawing students and other young people, previously indifferent to politics into active, and angry, opposition.  The centrality of the war, and opposition to it, also transformed the meaning of radicalism.  Opposition to US imperialism replaced opposition to the Cold War and to the arms race.  Peaceful coexistence dropped off the agenda, and liberalism, once regarded as a repository of democratic ideas that needed to be pushed further, or at least put into practice, became the enemy.  The right, it was assumed, had departed and was no longer a problem.

Revolution of a never fully defined sort was adopted as the aim of large numbers of activists and leading sectors of what by the late sixties was described as “the movement,” encompassing feminism, Black Power and other movements of young people of color, as well as the anti-war movement. Many looked to revolutions in what was then called the Third World for inspiration and even as models of what could be accomplished in the US.  The radical politics of the late sixties and early seventies inspired many activists to change the direction of their lives.  The movements of the sixties as a whole transformed American politics and culture, particularly in regard to race and gender, and Black Power and radical feminism, both movements of the late sixties/early seventies, played important roles in this.  But the conception of radicalism adopted by the movement as a whole was, in important respects, not workable.  Revolution was not on the agenda, and liberalism was not, as it would turn out, the main problem.  The right was mobilizing to regain control of American politics.

The shift in the meaning of left politics that took place in the US (and elsewhere also, in different ways) over the course of the sixties was shaped partly by the War in Vietnam and the focus it brought to US aspirations to world dominance, and partly by the Chinese challenge to Soviet leadership of the international left.  Over the course of the postwar years the reputation of the Soviet Union had become increasingly tarnished.   Khrushchev’s 1956 revelations destroyed the credibility of the Soviet Union among leftists and progressives.  Among the radicals of the sixties there were many who respected the legacy of Communist activism but hardly any who looked to the Soviet Union for inspiration or leadership.  The Cuban and Chinese revolutions seemed to suggest a new revolutionary model:  a small group of activists could jump-start a revolution by their discipline, determination, and ability to intervene in a way that would reveal the vulnerability of those in power.  The Chinese claimed that the Soviet policy of peaceful coexistence amounted to revisionism, to a substitution of humanism for class struggle.   The Chinese based their claim to leadership of the world revolutionary movement on the view that anti-imperialism was now the central issue, the Soviet Union had abdicated its role, the Third World was leading the struggle against imperialism and China was in a position to lead the Third World.

In the United States, increasing frustration on the part of activists over the intractability of the issues that they addressed (racism, the continuing escalation of the war) led to disillusionment with efforts to work with liberals, and an increasing sense that liberalism in power was the source of these problems, and that the only path to change was revolution.  At the 1964 Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, liberal Democrats, ostensibly allies of the civil rights movement, failed to support the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s demand that its elected representatives be seated.  At the 1968 Democratic Party convention, anti-war delegates inside the convention were silenced as anti-war protesters outside the convention hall were beaten by police.  Self-described liberals were running the war in Vietnam.  The relatively widespread prosperity enjoyed by Americans, and the reforms and social programs introduced by the New Deal, had, it seemed, become supports to an oppressive social system.  Many activists concluded that prosperity had become a permanent feature of advanced capitalism, that the ruling class had learned that liberal reforms were necessary to keep the system working and prevent revolt, that meaningful changes was not possible within the system and that revolution was necessary.  The question was: which sector of the population would lead the revolution, and how the revolution would be carried out.

By the late sixties the movement was fluid and relatively spontaneous.   Especially after the collapse of the Students for a Democratic Society in 1969, there were few lasting large organizations, and most activity revolved around small groups and projects and individual participation in demonstrations and other actions. Within the chaotic and rapidly changing arena of movement politics the two dominant tendencies were anarchism (though that term was rarely used at the time) and Maoism or other forms of Third Worldism.  The anarchist sector of the left included the women’s movement, especially radical feminism, leftist activists influenced by the counter-culture, and a small pacifist current in the anti-war movement.  Those in this sector tended to think of revolution in terms of the transformation of culture, personal life, and social relations.  They opposed hierarchies of any kind and they saw the creation of alternative institutions as the path to change.

Meanwhile Maoism/Third Worldism, often referred to by its adherents as Marxism-Leninism, was quickly becoming the dominant trend in the anti-war movement, and very influential within Black Power and some other movements of people of color.  Few in these movements read Chinese or had much knowledge of China, and the Chinese leadership, which had little interest in promoting allies among American young people, never did much to facilitate the exchange of information.  The version of Maoism that took hold among American radicals, and others in the west, was inspired by the Chinese challenge to the Soviet Union and by the Cultural Revolution, but was not necessarily based on accurate knowledge of events in China.  Among American radicals, Maoism, or Marxism-Leninism, meant the view that the struggle between US imperialism and anti-imperialist forces had become the most important world conflict, that the anti-imperialist struggle was led by the Third World and its allies in western nations, especially young people and people of color, and, for most, that China was at the head of the anti-imperialist movement (non-Maoist forms of Third Worldism placed Cuba, or, for some, Albania, in this role).  Maoism was further taken to mean that it was incumbent upon Maoists to organize revolutions, which did not require populations already oriented in that direction, but could be brought about, more or less regardless of circumstances, by sufficiently disciplined, dedicated and skilled groups of revolutionaries.  Mainstream Maoism called for the building of hierarchical vanguard parties to lead the revolution, but in France an anti-hierarchical Maoist organization, the Gauche Proletarienne, dominated the left in the early seventies, and in the US the hierarchical Maoist organizations remained small, while many activists came to understand revolution in Maoist or more broadly Third Worldist terms without ever joining Maoist organizations.[12]

In the US left of the late sixties and early seventies, Maoism became the dominant element within a broader, explicitly revolutionary sector of the left.  Within this sector as a whole, Maoism merged with a broader Third Worldism inspired by Third World revolutionary movements generally, and sometimes attempted to emulate them, despite the differences between these societies and the US.  Relatively few organizations within this sector of the left actually engaged in violence but many employed a violent rhetoric.  The Black Panthers had gained a position of respect within the movement as a whole through their community organizing projects and their combination of militancy and willingness to work with whites.  Their reliance on guns as symbols of power, and the culture of violence within the Panther organization, played a major role in legitimizing talk of violence on the part of other activists, many of whom envisioned armed struggle and the seizure of the state at some point in the perhaps not so distant future.   Racial separatism, first advocated by SNCC, was also promoted by the Maoist/Third Worldist wing of the movement, adopted by the emergent women’s movement, and quickly came to be regarded throughout the movement as a basic principle of radical organizing.[13]

The anarchist wing of the movement disagreed with the Maoist wing on many issues, rejecting in particular the hierarchical forms of organization that Maoists engaged in, or at least contemplated.  Anarchists had no interest in seizing the state or in holding state power.  Many Maoists aspired to creating vanguard parties, which, they hoped, would lead the revolution; nothing could have been further from the anarchist conception of politics.  The variety of anarchism that flourished in the movements of the sixties was, on the whole, allergic to violence.    Anarchists rejected the idea of identifying with, let alone supporting or taking direction from, a foreign state.   Anarchism emphasized individual witness and tended toward a moralistic conception of politics; Maoism, on the other hand, presented itself as strategic and tough-minded (however dubious its actual strategies may have been), and free of the moral squeamishness of other sectors of the movement.

Despite these differences there were also many issues on which the anarchist and Maoist trends in the movement converged.   Despite the existence of explicitly Maoist organizations, the influence of Maoism within the movement, or perhaps more accurately of a blend of Maoism and Third Worldism, was based more on the appeal of Third World revolutions, especially the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the charisma of Che Guevara, than on the influence of domestic Maoist groups.  Anarchism was also a broad cultural trend within the movement, not really identified with any organization.  Furthermore, Maoism and anarchism were not pitted against each other ideologically.  Maoist polemics were directed at the Soviet Union and the US Communist Party, not at anarchism.  It was relatively easy for activists to adopt elements of each perspective without thinking that they were crossing any ideological lines.

Anarchism and Maoism shared an orientation toward cultural politics, the view that transforming people’s ideas, and the ideas governing society as a whole, was a major, if not the major, component of revolutionary politics.  The Maoist conception of cultural politics was based on the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but since Maoists and other American activists knew relatively little about what was actually happening in China, it was easy to imagine the Cultural Revolution as a popularly based movement for a democratic and egalitarian society.  In this sense, the cultural version of Maoism shared something of the utopianism that was central to the anarchist current.  Anarchist and Maoist currents also shared a view of reform as an obstacle to revolution.  The Maoist view of Soviet revisionism as its main target, and of bourgeois liberalism as the enemy, overlapped with the view held by anarchists and many other movement activists that the right had ceased to be a problem of any significance, and that liberalism had taken its place as the governing ideology.  Maoists and anarchists both regarded the marginalized, especially blacks and other groups of color, as the main agents of revolution, and tended to set them against the majority of the population.  Neither Maoists nor anarchists were very concerned with the question of how to build a movement of the majority.  Anarchists were concerned with participatory democracy, that is, with promoting popular participation in decision-making, but they were contemptuous of electoral politics.  Maoists had little interest in democracy:  the Maoist conception of revolution revolved around the leadership exerted by a revolutionary elite, with the support of the people; like the anarchists, they had no interest in electoral politics.   Both anarchists and Maoists understood radical politics as a process of polarizing differences.  Both equated compromise with selling out.

The conception of radicalism forged in the late sixties was understandable at the time.  It expressed the anger of a generation over the war in Vietnam, and a utopian vision of a society and world organized differently.  The culture in which it flourished mobilized a large sector of young people; a milder conception of radicalism would probably not have served as well.  But even for the time this conception of radicalism had its drawbacks.  The rhetoric of violence and the threat of actual violence drove many, especially women, out of the movement, and the expectation of imminent revolution led to widespread disappointment.  The view of marginalized groups as agents of revolution tended to blind movement activists to the complex politics of the groups in question, and to the fact that they did not necessarily see eye to eye with young radicals.  The view of liberalism as the main enemy left movement activists unprepared to deal with the resurgence of the right wing in the late seventies.

Today few believe that revolution is around the corner, or advocate revolutionary violence, or call for the seizure of the state.  Few regard the Third World (or the global South, with the exception of Latin America) as a major source of revolutionary or even progressive politics.  Nevertheless some aspects of the late sixties/early seventies conception of radicalism remain.  The conception of reform and revolution as mutually antagonistic seems frozen into the discourse of the left, standing in the way of consideration of what sort of reforms could lead to broader change.  A view of radical politics as the property of the marginalized continues to flourish.  The critique of mainstream culture remains the primary focus of the left, making it difficult to forge alliances with groups that identify with aspects of that culture.

To some degree the persistence of these problems has to do with the fact that no movement as powerful as that of the sixties, especially in its latter period, has arisen since.  Many older leftists remain attached to the revolution that they tried to bring about in their youth, and see any approach other than that as a defeat.  In addition to this post-structuralism, along with its closely related tendency, postmodernism, has played a major role in sustaining a conception of radicalism very close to, and much influenced by, the radicalism of the late sixties/early seventies, especially its Maoist current.  Post-structuralism emerged in Paris at that time and in the context of a mass Maoist left in which many of its founders participated.[14]  Post-structuralism has sustained a conception of radicalism that revolves around an attack on liberalism, a view of democracy as a covert form of control, a celebration of marginalized identities, a conception of resistance revolving around the rebellion of the marginalized and excluded, and a view of unity, on the left as elsewhere, as oppressive.  This conception of radical politics has had wide influence, especially in the academy but also outside it, and has contributed to the marginalization of the left, which now barely exists in the US.

It is not my aim to convince anyone that the version of socialist humanism that was developed in the fifties and sixties holds out the solution to the problems of the left.  Socialist humanism is a set of perspectives, not a political platform.  Furthermore, the socialist humanist writings of forty or fifty years ago either left out, or gave little attention to, many issues that have since become central.  Socialist humanists of that time were unaware of the environment as an issue.  Issues of gender and sexuality were not major priorities for most socialist humanists of that time (Marcuse was an exception here); they supported movements for racial equality but in most cases had little to say beyond this about racism (here Frantz Fanon was the exception). In their discussions of human nature they tended to set humans apart from other animals in a way that now seems exaggerated.  But these gaps resulted from their times, not from basic limitations of their perspective.

We need a political perspective that can help us think about how we could build a movement of the majority, for reforms that could lead to broader social change and ultimately to a socialist society.  We need an inclusive politics that pays particular attention to the needs of those who face racial and other forms of discrimination, but that also focuses on issues of class and that speaks to the needs of the majority.  We need a conception of social change that minimizes violence.  Most people see anyone who advocates violence as part of the problem rather than the solution.  We need a vision of a future society that one might want to live in, and that might be attainable.  Socialist humanism speaks to all of this.  If we do not adopt a socialist humanist perspective or something very much like it, there is a good chance that we will not have a left at all.


Barbara Epstein is recently retired from the History of Consciousness Department at University of California, Santa Cruz. She is working on a book on socialist humanism. Her most recent book is The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-43: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism (UC Press 2008).


[1] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, (Merlin Press: London, 1971.  Robert C. Tucker, in Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Transaction Publishers: New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2001), 10-11, writes that an incomplete version of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 was published in 1927, in Russian; a fuller version was published in the original German, in 1932, also in Moscow.

[2] For a history of the Praxis School, see G. S. Sher, Praxis: Marxist Criticism and Dissent in Socialist Yugoslavia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977).

[3] Ibid., p. 211.

[4] R. Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom…from 1776 until Today (New York: Twayne Publishers, Second Edition, 1964), p. 58.

[5] Ibid., p. 290.

[6] E.P. Thompson, “Socialist Humanism:  An Epistle to the Philistines,” The New Reasoner, 1 (Summer 1957): pp. 105-143.

[7] E. Fromm, The Sane Society (Greenwich: Fawcett Premier Books, 1955).

[8] E. Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1961).

[9] H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).

[10] For an account of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy during this period, see M. S. Katz, Ban the Bomb:  A History of SANE, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, 1957-85 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), Chapters 1-4.  On the history of CND and the role of the New Left within it see R. Taylor, Against the Bomb:  The British Peace Movement 1958-1965 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), especially Chapter 7.

[11] Erich Fromm, ed., Socialist Humanism:  An International Symposium, (New York: Doubleday, 1965).

[12] On French Maoism see A. Belden Fields, Trotskyism and Maoism:  Theory and Practice in France and the United States (Westport: Praeger Press, 1988), Chapter 3.

[13] Max Elbaum describes the Maoist or Marxist-Leninist current in the American left of the late sixties and early seventies in Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London: Verso, 2002), Part II.

[14] On the involvement of poststructuralists and other intellectuals in French Maoism, and its influence on their thinking, see R. Wolin, The Wind from the East:  French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).


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1 Comment

  1. Paul Rubner

    Here in Sydney, Australia, in the late 60s and early 70s, the more radical elements of the anti-war movement were heavily influenced by Trotskyist Third-Worldism, whereas in Melbourne, Maoism was the main radical pole of attraction, especially among students. In Brisbane however, the most influential and radical group was the Self-Management Group — a libertarian socialist organisation much influenced by “Paul Cardan” and UK Solidarity — which at its height had about 300 members and active supporters.

    Socialist humanism was never especially influential here, except superficially in the late 60s, when the concept of “alienation” enjoyed a brief vogue. However, by the early 70s, amongst leftist intellectuals (students and academics), any lingering interest in socialist humanism was unfortunately killed by the growing enthusiasm for the anti-humanist critique of Louis Althusser, and his thesis of the epistemological break in Marx’s intellectual development.