Marx @ 200: Beyond Abstract Humanism

May 26, 2018


Dinesh K. Verma and Mohammad Bilal,

Research Scholars and Social Activists, 

Ambedkar University, Delhi (AUD)


Every ideology has certain elements which distinguish it from others. Erasing these elements would render it indistinguishable from other contrasting ideologies. Likewise, if one removes the element of class struggle from Marxism, then one effaces the crucial difference between Marxism and abstract hollow humanism. In a recent article by Apoorvanand in the Indian Express (Marx, the Humanist; a vain attempt has been made to deprive Marxism of its specific, defining element.

Apoorvanand writes, “Marx is seen as a theoretician of revolution which would free the proletariat. But Marx assures the fearful bourgeoisie that the revolution would liberate them too. He bemoans that the creative energy the bourgeois has unleashed cannot realize its potential as it is dedicated only towards profit. Marx would like them to involve themselves in the more difficult task of ‘free development of their physical and spiritual energies’”. Apoorvanand goes on to further portray a similarity between Marx and Gandhi.

It is true that Marx in his student life was influenced by humanist thoughts. It can easily be seen in an essay which he wrote as part of his final school examinations. The essay titled, ‘Reflections of a Young Man on The Choice of a Profession’, outlines his belief in social duty and by extension service to humanity as the ultimate aim of his life. Marx writes, “If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for humankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions”. 

Humanism as a thought-system bestows agency and value to all human beings, overlooking the social divisions and hierarchies between them, and projects itself as establishing ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ as the founding principle of human life. According to Apoorvanand, such contemplation on humanity can also be witnessed in Marx’s writings, and thus, Marx should be placed amongst humanists. And so, in spite of amassing wealth, the capitalist can also be an alienated soul, who then should not fear Marxism but see it as an endeavor to regain the alienated humanity.  

‘Human’ has been the subject of Marx’s thought. His guiding principle has been the need for a human society free of exploitation and oppression, and where the maxim of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ prevails in the truest sense. In other words, he desired human emancipation. However, in a significant way he differed from humanists regarding the means and methods to achieve the aim and held them to task for failing to adhere to their aim. Marx categorically argued that in a class-divided society the interests of human-species could not be the same, and therefore, class-struggle was necessary to transform human society. But in the article, Apoorvanand makes it seem incumbent on Marxism to liberate even the exploiter capitalist class (bourgeoisie) by enabling “free development of their spiritual and physical energies”. In the process, Apoorvanand robs Marxism of the sight to see its enemy in the bourgeoisie – a class which thrives on the brutal exploitation and appropriation of human labour, and therefore ends up portraying Marxism not as a struggle against such exploitation of masses, but as an apologia to the exploiters. 

In contrast, according to Marx, such humanism is untenable and undesirable since it breeds complacency in however minute a way towards the real antagonisms in human society. Marx argues in The Poverty of Philosophy: “The whole theory of this school rests on interminable distinctions between theory and practice, between principles and results, between ideas and application, between form and content, between essence and reality, between right and fact, between the good side and the bad side.” In this way, Marx rejects humanism as it negates the basic fact of mutual antagonism between classes, and seeks to make everyone equally human. This principle is devoid of reality, and therefore, hides the real antagonisms prevailing in society. Marx characterizes this principle as working to maintain the dominance of capitalist class over the exploited masses.

Marx sees history as being a struggle between classes, and terms this class-struggle necessary to put an end to exploitative bourgeois society. In the last pages of his book, The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx explicates: “[T]he antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is a struggle of class against class, a struggle which carried to its highest expression is a total revolution. Indeed, is it at all surprising that a society founded on the opposition of classes should culminate in brutal contradiction, the shock of body against body, as its final denouement?” He further cites George Sand and emphasizes that last words in a continuously changing society would remain: “Combat or Death: bloody struggle or extinction. It is thus that the question is inexorably put”. Later, in The Communist Manifesto, Marx announces the necessity of class-struggle with the words: “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution”. 

Despite such obviousness of Marx’s thought, Apoorvanand chooses to caricature Marx as an apologetic humanist, seemingly on the basis of his early writings. But is it a true picture? Should not Marx’s evolving consciousness be juxtaposed to the unfolding of history and therefore be seen as a product of his circumstances. It is known that early humanist Marx was influenced by Hegel and Feuerbach; but his consciousness, and thereby, his thought underwent a drastic change when he joined forces with the emerging movements of the working class. In this context, he began to clearly formulate the desirability and inevitability of the emergence of a humanist society that transcends from being a mere figment of imagination to a desired reality––an end of class-divided society, albeit through class-struggle.

The transformation which Marx’s thought underwent has been emphasized by the French philosopher Louis Althusser, who sees Marx’s writings as being products of two distinct phases in his life, i.e. of ‘Young Marx’ and of ‘Mature Marx’. He sees Marx’s early writings as influenced by Hegel and Feuerbach, and the subsequent trajectory of his thought as a result of his involvement in labour movement, wherein humanism is absent. Althusser sees a stark epistemological break between ‘Young Marx’ and ‘Mature Marx’. The early writings of Marx on the basis of which he is being characterized a humanist were not deigned important for publication by Marx himself. These writings were published almost 90 years after they were penned and 40 years after Marx’s death!

Today, when society is split sharply into irreconcilable class antagonisms, talking about class-harmony amounts to kowtowing to the exploiters, i.e. the ruling capitalist class. Attempts are being made to cage Marx’s ideas within the narrow limits of class-harmony, conceptualized as humanism, and therefore are divested of any revolutionary prowess. Such humanism neglects the determining laws of society and therefore fails to actualize itself. In contrast, Marx’s thoughts are unabashedly opposed to exploiters and conceptualized as the need of the labouring masses; thereby necessitating the primacy of class-struggle. It is only by abolishing private property and exploitation that a base is created whereby fraternity among humans can be finally realized. Marx needs to be freed from the clutches of imposters, who are hell bent on portraying their own opinions as that of Marx. Let Marx remain a Marxist and let us eschew irrelevant mental efforts to declare him a hollow humanist.