Jesudas M Athyal

Religion, Marxism & Humanism In Dialogue
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Religion, Marxism & Humanism In Dialogue


The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Socialism in several East European countries have simultaneously re-kindled an interest in "humanism" as the underlying value in all socio-political systems. Of course, whether humanism is not at the heart of the Marxist ideology, continues to be an unsettled academic question. Marxists themselves would prefer the term, 'the socialist man’ to any references to the 'humanist', to underscore the political content of any socio-political system. According to this analysis, Socialism failed because the socialist societies succumbed to the lure of sophisticated consumer goods and capitalist cultural values, dangled from across the borders. It neglected the task of building 'the socialist man’ as envisaged by Marx and Engels.... 'The creation of the socialist man was, quite evidently, not a part of the political agenda and therefore excluded from the academic fora" (Ashok Mitra, Social Scientist, July-August 1994, p.5). Thus, the failure of the socialist system is analysed as a failure at the political front alone. There is, of course, no doubt that the historical information available now that the earlier writings of Marx contain the rudiments of a ‘Marxist humanism’ is extremely important for any current discussion on humanism. More of that later. What is important at this stage is that contemporary history also reiterates the belief that any socio-political ideology, to sustain the onslaught of time, must be rooted in a holistic philosophy that values the humanity of humankind. As M.N. Roy put it almost half a century ago: ‘Except on the basis of a philosophy embracing the totality of existence, all approaches to the problems of individuals and social life are bound to be misleading’.


An interesting offshoot of the current debate on “reforming Marxism” is the preparedness to treat religion as something more than a ‘a mere relic from the past’ which would be swept away in the inevitable and dialectical course of history. Of course, the similarities between religion, particularly Christianity and Marxism in the composition and mentality of early Christian and communist groups, their relations with society as a whole and the emergence of ideological conflicts are not totally unknown to Marxist theoreticians. Several statements from Engels himself show ‘remarkable points of contact’ between them (S.F Kissin). Moreover, Christian theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Nicholas Berdyaev and Jaques Maritain endorse the similarities between institutions and concepts of early communism and early Christianity.  What is of greater interest for us is the analysis of the Marxist theoretician Shashi Joshi that Marxism and religion underwent in the recent past a crisis of varying proportions and sections from within the fold have sought to overcome it and restore what they perceive as its original pristine purity by a return to the source and scriptural reinterpretation (Shashi Joshi, Economic and Political Weekly, Now. 9, 1991, p.2564). Further, Joshi claims that this has led to the emergence of the twin phenomenon of humanistic socialism on the one hand and liberation theology on the other.  Whether such direct parallels between the revolutionary changes in Marxism and religion as claimed by Joshi, can be drawn, is indeed a matter to be probed further. What is important in our context however is that the willingness of the liberation theologians to treat Marxism as a tool for social analysis and Marxist appreciation of the liberative element of religion, have emerged today as strong points for a continuing dialogue between faith and ideology. Indeed, the humanism of the religious believer and the humanism of the subscriber to Marxian ideals appear to meet as allies at this stage.


What is attempted in this paper is an identification of those humanist elements in religion, Marxism and post Marxism which can be the basis of such a dialogue.


The Philosophical Roots


The term ‘humanism’ is generally understood in the context of an ideological system that considers the human being as the measure of all things. The rudiments of humanism can be found in various ancient philosophical systems. The Greek Philosophy originated as an inquiry into the humanistic problems of knowledge and conduct as elaborated in the theories of Heraclitus and Parmenides. The Sophists and Socrates turned away from ontological and cosmological speculations regarding the constitution and origin of the external world and devoted their attention almost exclusively to the problems of human beings – to human knowledge and conduct.


Similarly, ancient Hebrew philosophy also represented a humanism which visualized the highest and the most desirable human state as a life in communion with God. As Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian, put it:


God speaks to every man through the life which he gives him again the again. Therefore, man can only answer God with the whole of life – with they way in which he lives this given life. The Jewish teaching of the wholeness of life is the other side of the Jewish teaching of the unit of God. Because God bestows not only spirit on man, but the whole of his existence, from its “lowest” to its “highest” levels as well, man can fulfill the obligations of his partnership with God by no spiritual attitude, by no worship, on no scared upper story; the whole of life is required, everyone of its areas and everyone of its circumstances (Quoted in Philosophy for a time of Crisis, (ed) Adrienne Koch, New York, 1959, p. 191).


While such a humanism falls short of the secular criterion in treating the human being as an autonomous and self-sufficient entity, it does place the total human being in a harmonious relationship with the rest of humanity, nature and the transcendental reality. Unlike the Sophist and the Socratic Greek theory of human beings, thus, the Hebrew thought represents humanism which is essentially theistic in nature.


The ancient Stoics too had developed a humanism which placed the human in harmony with God and nature. Reason was considered as the highest virtue and a life in accordance with rational laws, the most ideal. Human existence should be intellectual, and all bodily pains and pleasures should be despised. A harmony between the human will and universal reason constitutes virtue. The Stoics thus developed a humanism based on ethical norms. On the other hand, the Epicurean philosophy was essentially materialistic and individualistic in nature. By freeing atomism of its original naivety, Epicuros made room for individual freedom in a law-governed universe, in a world ‘obeying the laws of nature’. This humanism too was rooted in ethical values as the rules of physical science were considered as subordinate to and dependent on moral science. However, the metaphysical and ethical aspects of the Epicurean humanism did not prevent human beings from being essentially “epicurean”, for,


his philosophy was the art of enjoying life; it had no concern for death or the power of the Gods whom he called the product of delusion; it was indifferent to the future, because there was nothing after death, the soul being a congerie of atoms which dissolved into its constituents’ (Koch, p. 191).


In short, despite its spiritual and moral aspects, Epicurean humanism was rooted in the hedonistic, materialistic and atheistic streams of the ancient Greek Philosophy.


Coming to the middle ages, the rational and humanist thought of the Christian era permeated to the religious structures as well. In Europe, the Arabs were the torch-bearers of scientific knowledge and rationalism. This paved the way for the Renaissance in the Continent later. The spirit of free inquiry and humanism had entered the church structures as well. There was a growing demand for reform in the Church, moderation of the ecclesiastical authority and liberalizing of the dogmatic orthodoxy. A passionate appeal to the Church to return to it’s ‘humanist roots’ however, was interpreted by the Church leaders as heresy and atheism. The way was thus paved for the Church to be reduced to a de-humanised, institutionalised entity.


The spirit of rational inquiry and humanism however, had permeated far too deep into the society to be put down by a dogmatic ecclesiastical leadership. The spectacular progress and achievements of science since the Renaissance had a profound impact on human life and mind. The traditional religious belief had instilled in human beings the feeling that everything this-worldly is evil and that what is of real value is the life beyond. Such spiritualization of the universe and life led effectively to a degradation of the human being. Renaissance, on the other hand, with a passionate love for nature and appreciation of the good things in life, blazed the humanist trail by negating all de-humanising forces. In Lord Acton’s words, the Renaissance, by a passionate worship of beauty and the joys of life, place ‘the aesthetic against the ascetic’. Thus, the Renaissance was a crucial phase in history as it liberated the human from the clutches of the dehumanizing forces and restored his/her humanity.


Humanism, as it evolved into a well-defined philosophical system during the Renaissance, had a definite spiritual dimension as well. The supernaturalism of the traditional religious belief was opposed to naturalism. Human as well as universal nature, placed against the supposedly transcendental dimension, was projected as finite and blemished. Renascent humanism, on the other hand, held that ‘ if God had made man after his own image, the flesh could not be impure; its desires could not be sinful and to satisfy them could not be immoral’ (M.N. Roy, Reason, Romanticism and Revolution (Volume-I), p.79). What humanism did was not to negate moral or ethical values but to re-define them in the light of the emerging rational and scientific spirit. In tackling the moral as well as aesthetic question, however, renascent humanism did not fall back on the Greek or Christian philosophical systems of abstract speculation and spiritualism. Rather, the approach of the renascent humanist was practical. “They did not theorise about the relation between ethics and aesthetics; they lived a life which indicated a solution of the old problem. It confronted them in a somewhat different form, as the conflict between asceticism and aesthetic.” The essential characteristic of renascent morality was humanist because the human being was taken as the measure of all things and naturalist, because it was morality that does not shun but enjoy the goodness of nature.


Marxian Humanism


Marxism, by definition, seeks to analyse human alienation in society and projects the vision of a new social order where the humanity of the alienated people is restored – and thus Marxism can be characterized as a humanist philosophy. Though the entire Marxian theoretical edifice is built on such a humanist basis, the writings of the ‘latter’ (or ‘mature’) Marx are devoted to a scientific analysis of the economic and social factors responsible for human alienation. Humanist references are rare here and when made, are coated heavily with economic and social thoughts. It is the writings of the ‘early’ (or ‘young’) Marx, first published in 1932, that presents the humanist philosophy in a most explicit manner, from the Marxian perspective. While there is no unanimity of opinion on whether the works of the ‘mature’ Marx were an extension or a negation of the earlier humanist framework, what is undisputed is that any study of the humanist philosophy of Marx need be based on his earlier writings, known otherwise as the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Accordingly, these are taken as the basis for an analysis of Marx’s humanist philosophy here.


The basis of Marxian humanism is Marx’s materialism which is identified as historical, dialectical and practical (however, Marx made a distinction between the classical materialism which is essentially metaphysical and the historical or dialectical form of materialism). Marxian materialism as an anti-metaphysical and anti-speculative system developed under the philosophical influence of the Hegelian thought. Hegel’s philosophy, on its part, came as the culmination of German idealism and speculative metaphysics. The credit for laying the dialectical framework of Marx’s thought, goes to the Hegelian methodology. However, Marx acknowledged Feuerbach as “the philosopher who had brought down the idealistic speculation of Hegel with his materialism and thus had brought about a decisive defeat of all metaphysics by overcoming the highest and most sophisticated expression” (Bastiaan Wielenga, Introduction to Marxism, Bangalore, 1984, p.289).


According to Marx, the distinction between classical materialism and dialectic materialism is essentially humanist in nature. The old materialism contemplated nature as an object, studies its laws, and eventually reduced everything to the operations of these laws. Consequently, the worth of the human person was reduced to that of a cog in a machinery. Even the thought – process of human beings was considered nothing more than mere ‘physical reflexes of the brain’. Thus classical materialism was in reality mechanical misanthropy. The philosophy that originated in such an environment was one far removed from the existential realities of human beings. Even the humanism of Feuerbach and his contemporaries, did not take the historical dimension as of any consequence.


The principle of dialectics applies to the humanizing process of the human-nature relationship as well. Classical history had treated ‘human history’ as part and parcel of ‘natural history’. While such a characterization underlined the continuity of the human-nature dialectic, on the other hand, it had relegated the human role to a secondary position. What was overlooked is the invariable link between the two. ‘Just as it is impossible to study nature without human beings, so it is impossible to study human beings without nature’. Nature and human history are not only closely connected but they condition each other as well. Within the natural process, both operate in dialectical tension.


Marxian humanism also affirms that the humanization of the human person is possible only by the humanization of nature. The nature as an exploitated social structure, stands in contradiction to the essence of human beings or the human values. Marx defined such a contradiction as ‘alienation’ and proceeded to analyse the roots of such alienation in the political and economic spheres. Private property, the separation of labour, capital, land, wages, profit, ground rent and also the division of labour, competition and the concept of exchange value are identified as the areas where the alienation of the human occurs in a most glaring and gross manner. There is an invariable and negative link between the human who produces and his/her production.


Marx thus envisaged a humanizing process by transforming the exploitative social structures and money relations to a more egalitarian, harmonious and just order. All labour is social and need be organized from the proletarian perspective. Not only labour but the resultant production too is social. Since both labour and production are social, such a process links human to human and relates the atomized individual to the whole society. Marx identified the whole production process and the society as invariably linked to and dependent on nature.


Post-Marxian Humanism


It is generally agreed by the Marxist as well as non Marxist scholars that Marx stands essentially in the European humanist tradition though he made a distinctly original contribution to it. Following Marx, there was a wave of existential humanist-interpretation of Marxism which focused on alienation-anthropological question. Initially, there were strong tendencies to dissociate the ‘economic-social’ Marx of the latter period from the ‘humanist-philosophical’ Marx of the former period. However, a more comprehensive study established the integral relationship between the philosophical and the materialistic trends in Marxian theory.


While there are many historical and philosophical reasons for a re-assertion of the humanist emphasis in the post-Marxist period, one important reason is the de-generation of Marxism as the dogmatised ideology of the Marxian State. There were wide-spread criticisms, even in Marxist circles, about the “excesses’ committed by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union in the nineteen thirties. While most of the critics were neo-Marxists or post-Marxists, a radically different approach to Marxism came from another sector of the Communist establishment – China. The political theory of Mao Tse tung emerged from the context of the revolutionary practices in mainland China. Mao did not attack Stalin directly, but his propositions, aiming at a rejection of dogmatism, deviated from orthodox Marxist position. Inspired by  revolutionary practice, it is generally considered that Mao comes closest to the spirit of the Feuerbachian Theses. He starts with the critique of pre-Marxian materialism which examined the problem of knowledge apart from the social nature of man and apart from his historical development. Mao’s political theory can be seen as a combination of the Feuerbachian and Marxian humanism applied to the specificities of the Chinese situation. Along with Marx, Mao too maintained that the human person’s social practice alone is the criterion on the truth of his/her knowledge of the external world.


The Polish Marxist philosopher Adam Schaff, on the other hand, critiqued Marxian socialism from the European humanist tradition. Schaff’s attempt was to defend the humanist characteristic of Marxism, against the criticism of some neo-Marxists that Marxism essentially is ‘theoretical anti-humanism’. Their position was that Marx presented a ‘scientific breakthrough’ and that his scientific socialism represents a break with the traditions of bourgeois humanism. The French philosopher Louis Althusser was among the foremost in developing a critique of Marxian humanism which focuses on the central role of human beings as the subjects of history. Althusser held that in order to arrive at a scientific understanding of society, Marxist theory has to focus not on the conscious activities of the human subject but on the unconscious structures which these activities presuppose. He cautioned against the danger of Marxism slipping into the individualist Feuerbachian humanism instead of a revolutionary social praxis.


Like Mao, Althusser too developed his Marxian critique against the background of the de-humanisation under Stalin. Significantly, it was during the post-Stalinist period that the early writings of Marx – The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts - were discovered. In the Manuscripts, as noted earlier, human alienation and emancipation become the central themes. Against the background of the discoveries of the Manuscripts and the de-humanist image of Stalin, many Communist states in East Europe stressed the need for a re-affirmation of the humanist values within the Marxian framework.


Striking a warning note however, Althusser added that such generalized interpretation of Marxian theory could erode the revolutionary potential of Marxism. He saw in such humanist talk ‘the danger of petty-bourgeois values undermining the firm foundations of scientific socialism and hampering the class struggle’.  He conceded that alienation and the complete emancipation of the human species are indeed the humanistic basis of the anthropological Marx. But the humanism of the early Marx need be rejected ‘for the sake of a proper discovery and distinction of the real breakthrough achieved by the mature Marx’ (Lois Althussar, Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, New York, 1971, p. 105). This, Althusser calls, is the “epistemological break’ where Marx gave up both the Hegelian idealism and Feuerbachian humanism and started studying history with structural concepts such as forces of production and relations of production.


Althusser’s analysis thus is that Marx gave a structural analysis in which the relations of production, and not the isolated human beings, play the crucial role. The individual human being is made the subject of history in the Marxian scientific analysis of society. The epistemological break is with the bourgeois humanist theory which places the pursuit of the individual human being after wealth and status, the center of history. Marx discovered the crucial role of the material and technological conditions of production. He presented the ‘mode of production’ rather than, ‘man’ as the key to a scientific analysis of society. In such a sense, it has often been pointed out that Marxian humanism is theoretically ‘anti-humanism’ in nature.


Bastiaan Wielenga, reviewing Althusser’s critique of Marxism, points out that Althusser overlooks that Marx, with his scientific analysis, is not presenting a new general truth, but that he is involved in a concrete critique of the capitalist mode of production. What is important is that it is capitalism which turns the productive process against the human beings, thus degrading their humanhood. Even for the latter Marx, the confrontation is not between the mechanical and inanimate objects called ‘capital’ and ‘labour’; the tension essentially is between ‘dead labour’ and ‘living labour’ where the former dominate over and exploit the latter. It is the throbbing human labour that stands at the centre, as being reified, alienated and subordinated to the laws of motion of capital. Under the capitalist conditions thus, the human have been turned from being the subjects to be the objects of history. It is this humanist emphasis in Marx which Althusser seems to miss in his critique. The Marxian emphasis on ‘the subjective element of living labour’ is not presented as an apology for bourgeois humanist illusions, but in order to criticize it from a socialist perspective.


The Challenge Ahead


For Marx, the tyranny of religion is the consequence of the tyranny of private property and the division of labour in the ‘natural’ change of history. Religion represents the secular and religious forms of alienation. The abolition of this basic form of alienation, consequently, becomes the condition for the abolition of all human alienation. That this process is completed only under a Communist system is the position of the Marxian humanist theory.


Apart from the role of the oppressive religious structures, the Marxian theory has fundamental philosophical problems with the theistic position as well.  Here too, the approach is essentially humanistic as the purpose of the Marxian rejection of God, is to affirm the centrality of the human being. The symbol of Prometheus, the Greek mythological figure, is chosen to make this point. The confession of Prometheus in simple words, “I hate the pack of gods”, is its own confession, its own aphorism against all heavenly and earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity. It will have none other beside.


Prometheus best represents the ‘militant’ humanism of Marx. The mythological figure symbolizes the liberation of the oppressed humanity. As a contemporary dialectics of the ‘Magnificat’, the symbol points towards the need to bring the gods down from their exalted positions, in order to lift the human to the heavens. Paradoxically, Prometheus also symbolises the point of entry in a Marxist - religious dialogue today. The emergence of liberation theologies that reject the academic, transcendental nature of traditional theology and affirm the humanity of all humankind and the integrity of creation has been a phenomenon in all religions in the modern period. As a result, a section of the theologians and clergy have involved themselves in the struggles of the economically oppressed and socially marginalized people, especially in the third world societies. Several concerned individuals from religions as well as Marxist backgrounds are convinced that a fusion of the two ideas is the urgent task today. The need to preserve the delicate eco-system, combat the forces of communalism and religious fundamentalism and resist the capitalist and imperialist onslaught of neo-colonialism on the non-western societies are a few of the major challenges before the liberative sections in the various religions and the Marxist/Socialist camp today. By striving together to redeem the lost humanity of humankind, a new humanism will be born.