When Karl Marx articulated his view of the humanist purpose of ‘communism’ in 1844, he could not have anticipated that so few people – many of whom would later claim to be following in his footsteps – would simply not comprehend it’s central importance. In 20th century Russia, for example, the Bolsheviks demonstrated a complete disregard for anything even coming close to the concept of revolutionary-humanism. There political ideology drove out humanity. Neither could Marx have forseen that the word he used – ‘communist’ – would become so attached to the despicable regime initiated by the Leninists and consolidated by the Stalinists, that it would in a very short time become an anathema among a majority of working people. The concept as well as the practice, as carried out by the Bolsheviks, became something to avoid rather than embrace.
In the 21st century the word ‘communism’ has also been abandoned by most of what is left of the anti-capitalist tradition, but missing too has been the idea of humanism. There is still very little reference to this viewpoint which was so central to Marx’s criticism of capitalism. There is even less which resembles it in practice. Political ideology still obscures social understanding. This year (2017) will mark the 100th anniversary of the revolutionary uprising occuring in Russia during October 1917. So it is perhaps fitting that among all the likely evaluations to come this year, the importance of the concept of revolutionary-humanism and it’s century-long absence in anti-capitalist circles should be stressed on this blog. Among many references he made to the humanist purpose of a revolutionary post-capitalist transformation, Marx wrote the following;
“..communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (ie human) being – a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism.” (Marx Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. 3rd Manuscript.)
In this extract we see that the term used at the time – communism – had been given an important and explicit link by Marx to the terms humanism and naturalism. The word was not used to describe a political position but to propose a post-capitalist form of egalitarian social cohesion. There is also a clear reference to humanity completing a ‘return’ to its natural state as communities of fully social many-sided beings. This ‘return’ had implicit and explicit revolutionary implications as his frequent references to revolution made absolutely clear. Hence it is obvious that he was advocating a ‘revolutionary-humanist’ content and purpose to any post-capitalist transition.
Such a ‘return’ of humanity to its naturalistic and social essence was considered desirable by Marx because he concluded that successive modes of production had severely distorted the essence of what it is to be human. I might add at this point that the extent of this distortion under capitalist production has been considerable. This most recent economic system based upon the domination of capital over production is the probable cause of the many kinds of human physical and mental problems which have been identified by physicians and psychologists over the last 100 years. More of that later.
Meanwhile the idea of a ‘return’ to a previous more ‘humane’ condition presupposes at least a basic understanding of what that condition was (and is) as well as what had propelled humanity away from such a distantly-evolved social form (over millions of years) and still prevents such a return. Marx identified a key factor in this separation was the removal of production from the direct control of those who did the producing – now catagorised as workers. Or as Marx also described it – the ‘estrangement’ of the worker from his or her means of production and the resulting products.
Removing the direct ownership and control of the means of production and the objects of production from the majority of those who produce them, was not just a process of thinly disguised theft. It was much more devastating than that. In fact this historic process of dispossession had denied those who produce the full extent of their many-sided ‘human’ species potential. As a consequence, a one-sided, class-based development of humanity began which continues today under the capitalist system of production.
Humanity: divided by socio-economic class.
Wherever this separation occurred, one class of humanity (originally the slaves and serfs etc.) was forced (invariably by armed elites) to do all the necessary work, all or most of the time, whilst a privileged class, the elite, chose what to do from all the unecessary types of work which then became possible. With a few exceptions, the slave, serf and peasant classes of the past lived a life of mundane repetitive tasks acted out in fields, mines, workshops, the front line ranks of the military and of course endlessly cleaning the homes of the rich. The former natural symbiosis within egalitarian human communities was replaced by the parasitism of a ruling and privileged strata.
In contrast to those henceforth destined to become the workforce, the elite were then relieved of the need to labour for their essentials and were thus free to chose to consume, to command, to philosophise, to dramatise, to explore, to invent, to read and write etc., often ranging from one activity to another as the mood or muse struck them. In other words, the establishment of Religion and other forms of ‘high-culture’ such as Art, Drama, Literature, Mathematics, Philosophy etc., was achieved on the backs of those who toiled away in the fields, mines, workshops and kitchens. The original voluntary social cohesion of human communities was eroded, force and ill disguised class warfare replaced it.
For generations of working people in particular, faced with a life time of hard labour, religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism) became the intellectual refuge rationalising their continued (and seemingly eternal) oppression. Religion was promoted as, and achieved a form of, emotional rejection of this world, and for some, it invited belief in the fantasy of a better egalitarian future in an imaginary realm (heaven) beyond the grave. The priestly caste by professionalising the myth and mystery associated with religion, and like the military elites were able to carve out lucrative careers for themselves by also grabbing a share of necessary production by tithe or gift.
The rejection of the ‘this world’ reality by the masses, in favour of an imaginary ‘otherworld’ was perhaps the first recorded form of a mass psychological disorder. However, it was not a self-imposed disorder but one arising from the ruthless imposition of class based societies. Human beings intellectually rejecting existing human society in favour of an imaginary one is not evidence of a rational state of mind, particularly when this rejection was linked to a future life after death. The normal rational outcome of disatisfaction engendered in the lives of humans is to change what they are doing. Therefore, it is only when change is made impossible by a socio-economic system based upon power over others, that fantasy makes its appearance in preference to reality.
The normalisation of one-sided human labour.
Again with exceptions, the modern system of capitalist wage-slavery, replicates essentially the same pattern of earlier class divisions. The working classes (white-collar and blue) are more or less compelled by want and need to do all the necessary work of, producing food, building, educating, healing, transporting, cleaning, recording, administrating etc., whilst the elite classes more or less choose to do what interests them. And as we know the capitalist bourgeois democratic system also continues the vast differences in the allocation of wealth derived from the productivity of working people’s labour-power. By the way, the fact that this was also the case in the Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe etc., reveals that the only difference between these authoritarian regimes and typical capitalist democracies, was (and is) the lack of accumulation of excessive wealth by the former elites.
Capitalist production methods expanded the number and type of employments but at the same time continued to reduce the workers productive activity to the most extreme routine, repetative and simplest mechanical or intellectual tasks. In addition its bourgeous representatives (economists, educators, politicians, etc.) by their domination of the pro-capitalist narrative declared this form of labour as perfectly ‘normal’. Indeed, they still do. For these reasons, the capitalist mode of production offers the vast majority of ordinary working people, no other form of life-long productive existence except repetitive drudgery. Fifty years of weekly and yearly monotonous, repetative graft is their lot until retirement or death releases them from this so-called privilege. And they do learn to count themselves the lucky ones if no bouts of unemployed poverty (or forced war duties) interupt their many years of toil.
This forced adaptation of the bulk of humanity to live within class structures of oppression and to endure almost life-long monotonous and precarious exploitation also sits heavily upon the social and emotional development of humanity. Large numbers of stunted bodies, frustrated emotions and crippled intellects are the inevitable outcomes of this mode of production. Marx noted that under the capitalist mode of production, the workers labour had been even further transformed from a rounded form of self-expression (combining curiosity, skills and knowledge) prior to working age, into a largely de-skilled commodity to be bought and sold – as they saw fit – by the owners of capital. Thus under the domination of capital he suggested that;
“Production does not simply produce man as a commodity, the human commodity, man in the role of commodity; it produces him in keeping with this role as a mentally and physically de-humanised being.” (ibid)
Under the capitalist mode of production, the position the majority of working people are placed in, produces more or less physically and mentally de-humanised beings. Competition for jobs and services introduced by capitalism, also takes its toll both physically and psychologically. On the physical side we know this assertion to be true from the statistics of accidents and illnesses at work which were reduced during the 20th century – but not eliminated – by the existence of large numbers of health and safety regulations. Regulations incidentally, which had to (and still have to) be imposed by law upon the callous individual or collective owners of capital.
In some branches of capitalist industry there is still ample evidence of occupational illnesses and premature deaths due to long exposure to unhealthy, dangerous and stressful working and living conditions. None of these symptoms are a result of natural, socially agreed or humane forms of production. Although, the link is not as easily demonstrated, the frequency and variety of incidents of mental illness and increasing anti-social behaviour in advanced capitalist countries, must be related to the capitalist mode of production as a whole. Such a conclusion is probable and warranted since these symptoms have clearly increased incrementally during the period of its domination.
To some readers it may seem that Marx made a sweeping generalisation in asserting that capitalist production system also produces mentally de-humanised human beings, but how else do we account for the general lack of humanity within so many modern humans? The existence, on a global scale, of ideas and attitudes, implementing and justifying warfare, mass bombing and rationalising collatoral damage, are not simply the ideas of a few individuals. Although those who act out the logic of these inhuman ideas are in a minority, they still represent a social trend of some magnitude. This is not how humanity started out and is not what most people want, but the system ensures it’s what we get.
And how else do we account for the mental attitudes or physical aptitudes enabling torture, rape, murder, genocide (not to mention suicide) to take place? If it is not normal for members of any species to do these things to other members of its own species or themselves – then it is certainly not normal for humans. These widespread symptoms can only be evidence of a socio-economic system which routinely creates de-humanised beings. And of course this de-humanising effect doesn’t just take place among those who are compelled by the system to become one-dimensional wage-slaves or resentful economic rejects through unemployment. The process of de-humanising takes place among the ruling classes and the intermediate classes also.
The de-humanising of other classes.
Those who live off the proceeds of capital at the highest level care little about the lives and general welfare of those who produce the wealth in the first place. Providing profits or interest on capital continues to flow into their bank accounts they are able to turn a blind eye to any impoverished circumstances endured by the workers who directly produce their profits. Likewise the lives of those who produce their food, water, their clothes, their buildings, their electricity, their forms of transport etc., are of no practical concern to those who benefit from capital investment. The profit seeking actions of employers often cause working people to strike or otherwise rebel in order to prevent their non-work lives getting worse or if they want to lessen the level of their exploitation. Human beings have not always treated (and many still do not treat) other human beings this way. Only class divided societies create such crippled humanities.
The indifference by elites to the welfare and circumstances of other human beings, many of them amongst whom they live, is exactly an expression and practical result of de-humanised human beings. To continue in the role of wealthy parasites living upon the combined efforts of productive working classes, members of these elite sections have to suspend or eliminate any serious empathy or real concern for these fellow human beings, inhabiting factories, fields, slums, foodbanks, soup kitchens or gutters. They have to dispense with any moral conscience or ocasionally appease it with a morsel of charity, before buying themselves another house or yacht. Yet empathy and concern along with having a conscience are among the hallmark achievements of evolved humanity. By supressing or dispensing with these characteristics in general (apart from immediate family) those who live off capital have become more than just partly de-humanised.
A similar pattern of indifference arises among those well-salaried non-productive professionals who staff, the Church, the State, the Media, the Universities, the Arts, the Sports, etc. They too witness, the vast concentrations of wealth accumulating in one section of society and the relative and absolute levels of poverty in their own countries and globally, yet do nothing except occasionally hitch a ride on the charitable band-wagon. Their bad consciences are apparently eased a little by helping to drip a little food and clean water into the mouths of a few of the most desperate and devastated communities.
These recipients of food, water and medical aid are communities moreover, who are suffering from the past and present colonial, imperial and neo-liberal incursions into their lives and economies. As a relative new generation benefitting from the wealth extraction of the past, these current middle-classes willingly accept the capitalist invitation to partially or totally suspend their humanity in order to obtain the dubious monetary and social privileges offered to them. In exchange for this middling, and often ‘fiddling’ position, they offer their continued support in maintaining the capitalist mode of production.
Clearly, humanity is now facing, if not yet facing up to, major problems. Ecological destruction, atmospheric pollution, an increased lack of social cohesion, a collapse of the welfare state model and rising levels of unemployment and poverty along with wars and proxy wars, are all the result of the capitalist mode of production. Reformist and revolutionary political ideas and strategies to solve the fundamental problems arising from the domination of capital have been repeatedly tried and failed. Something better is needed. In the realm of ideas I suggest that something is revolutionary-humanism. In ‘REVOLUTIONARY-HUMANISM (Part 2)’ evidence will be provided of the way in which the de-humanisation caused by the class – based system of capitalist production, manifests itself in the intellectual spheres of production.
R. Ratcliffe (March 2017)