Karl Marx as a Humanist

by Victor Gunasekara

T here can be little doubt that Karl Marx was the thinker, writer and activist of the Nineteenth Century who had the greatest impact on the events of the Twentieth. The object of adulation by many who distorted his ideas to suit their own ends and the subject of derision by others who sought to foist on him a political agenda he never espoused, there have been few dispassionate and objective assessments of the ideas of Marx.

              Now with the collapse of Communism and the dawn of a new Century the time is perhaps ripe to re-evaluate the ideas of Marx in an objective manner. In such a re-evaluation the role of Marx as a Humanist must occupy a central place. Marx of course is best known for his theories on economics, politics and history. But what is not quite clearly understood is that some of these views were based on his general philosophical position. And central to Marx’s philosophy was his humanism which he had embraced quite early in his life.

              There has been little appreciation of Marx’s humanist views by modern Humanists. Many of them have denigrated Marx foisting on him views that he never supported. Such Humanists have often fallen prey to the general prejudices of their age and participated in the anti-communist hysteria which had been whipped up by the ruling political and religious establishments. Had they put into effect the Humanist principle of the rational evaluation of all ideas in their own right and in connection with their implications for the freedom and weal of humanity they may perhaps have come to a different conclusion. However it is not too late to repair this deficiency. This essay may be considered a modest step in that direction.

              We must make an initial distinction between the views of Marx and what came to be called Marxism. Even in his own lifetime Marx became aware of the distinction between the two, and in a celebrated comment to the French Socialist Paul Lafargue said: “Moi, je ne suis pas marxiste!”. It was only after his death that varieties of Marxism really proliferated. So in this essay we shall be commenting of the views of Karl Marx the person, not of Marxism, the ideology.

Two Phases in Marx’s Writings

              The literary activity of Marx commences with his doctoral dissertation (1841) which dealt with a comparison of the ideas of the Greek philosophers Epicurus and Democritus, which led him to defend of the atheism of Epicurus. It continued uninterrupted right up to his death. His enormous literary activity could be divided into two phases roughly separated by the work for which he is best known the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) written jointly with his lifelong collaborator Friedrich Engels.

              Some students of Marx have made a distinction between the early Marx and the later Marx. While there is a distinct shift of emphasis in the subjects that interested him there is no essential contradiction in the thinking of the early Marx and the later Marx. However Marx did modify some of his earlier views, and new aspects came into his purview in his later writings. Such changes where they can detected were by no means an improvement. Whether such changes constitute a radical shift in his thinking is a matter for some argument.

              It the early Marx philosophical questions dominate his thinking. It is in this phase that was the formative stage of his humanism. In the second stage his interest shifts to economics, politics and history. These two phases however were not intellectually separate and Marx never abandoned the philosophical position he adopted in the 1840s. The economic and political schema that he devised were rooted in his early philosophical positions, particularly his atheism and humanism. His idea of historical determinism, which contains some fundamental insights, was however the weakest part of Marx’s theories, containing as it does some messianic elements [Note 1] Click . This article will concentrate mainly on the first phase of Marx’s literary activity which are relatively free from his later more controversial theories.

              Unfortunately much of Marx’s early writings did not receive much publicity even in his own lifetime, and some were translated from the original German only in the Twentieth century. It is perhaps because of the neglect of Marx’s early writings that his position as a leading humanist of the nineteenth century has not received due recognition. The political manifesto and the economic theories of the later Marx, not to mention his role as an activist in the international labour movement provided much more explosive material and these soon dominated the public perception of Marx.

The Origins of Marx’s Philosophy

              The philosophy of Marx was rooted in the intellectual environment of Germany in which Marx grew up as a student. The dominant philosophical influence was that Friedrich Hegel who acceded to the Chair of Philosophy at Berlin University in 1818. After his death in 1831 his followers split into two camps the Old or Right Wing Hegelians and the Young or Left Wing Hegelians. The old Hegelians remained true to Hegel’s original ideas which involved support for an absolutist monarchy founded upon (theistic) religion.[Note 2] Click Marx however belonged to the Left Wing Hegelians who looked upon the State as one founded on reason and not religion. Marx probably moved furthest to the left of all the “Left Hegelians” and even argued that the State itself should be replaced by the common humanity of man.

               It is from this position that Marx criticised other Left Hegelians like Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach. The most important of his early works, The Holy Family (1844) a critique of Bauer and his associates, The German Ideology (1847) a critique of Feuerbach, and The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) a critique of the French socialist Prudhon, were polemical in nature,. This trilogy of works was complemented by his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844) which is the most comprehensive statement of Marx’s early thinking.

              While we cannot examine the entire spectrum of Marx’s interests in philosophical questions there are specific aspects that are necessary to consider if we are to ascertain his credentials to be considered the leading Humanist of his age. There are at least three aspects to consider.

              The most basic of these is to consider his view of religion in general and of Judeo-Christianity which was the dominance religion in Europe in particular. This will invariably involve a consideration of Marx’s atheism. It is this aspect of Marx’s philosophy that sets him closest to modern Secular Humanism.

              Next in importance comes Marx’s views on the nature of man, or more specifically man-in-society, for Marx does not consider it possible for humans to exist in isolation. It is here that we will have to consider his concepts of alienation and estrangement and what they mean in a humanist context.

              Finally we have to consider the ethical system which underlies Marx’s thought even if he does not consider ethical questions explicitly.

Marx and Religion

              It is best to begin with Marx’s approach to religion which for him was identical to Judeo-Christian religion [Note 3] Click . In the Germany in which Marx grew up the critical examination of Christianity had already begun. David Friedrich Strauss in his Das Leben Jesu (1835) had called into question the interpretation of the Gospel account of Jesus’ career which was officially accepted by the leading Christian sects. Strauss showed that the New Testament narratives were not historical accounts of the alleged founder of Christianity but were myths no different to the other myths which Christians had condemned. The critique of Christianity was carried further by Feuerbach in his The Essence of Christianity (1841). Marx accepted the rational methods that lay behind these critiques of the Christian religion, but he took his own critique much further.

              Feuerbach had argued that God was simply a projection of humanity to an alien (or artificial) being, investing this being with what are essentially human qualities like compassion and wisdom. Marx however went further and showed that the myth of God was deliberately exploited by organised religion to keep man in bondage and to exploit humanity for the economic gain or temporal power of religious elites.

              Marx was an uncompromising atheist [Note 4] Click , perhaps even more atheistic than some modern day secular Humanists who take a more agnostic position. Marx's atheism was what has attracted the greatest ire of the religionists. Hegel (a Lutheran) had considered Christianity the most “absolute and perfect” religion. However while many of the "Young Hegelians" were prepared to accept Strauss' allegorical interpretation, and considered this a sufficiently radical position to take, Marx went to the root of the matter by examining the "arguments" for God's existence. Marx not only agreed with philosophers like Kant in rejecting the traditional arguments, but also rejected the "new" ones proposed by Kant. In fact he went further and showed that the so-called proofs for the existence of God were really proofs for his (or her or its) non-existence:


“... all proofs of the existence of God are proofs of his non-existence. They are refutations of all concepts of a God. The true proofs should have the opposite character: ‘Since nature has been badly constructed God exists’, ‘Because this world is without reason, therefore God exists’, ‘Because there is no thought, there is God'. But what does that say, except that, for whom the world appears without reason, hence who is without reason himself, for him God exists? Or lack of reason is the existence of God” (Appendix to Doctoral Dissertation, V.1, pp.104-5)

The argument that Marx advances here to disprove the existence of God is sometimes called the “argument from evil” which is still one of the most potent arguments against the God idea. However what is particularly appealing to Humanists (and modern Rationalists) is the appeal to reason. Religion and Reason occupy diametrically opposite ends of a spectrum which not all the ingenuity of theologians down the ages have not been able to bridge. It is difficult to find in the Western literature before Marx of a more forthright statement of this fact.

              A classic statement of what Marx understood as religion is given his Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel s Philosophy of Law (1844), which was the only part of this work to be published in Marx's life-time. In view of frequent misquotations from this source it is worth quoting the passage at some length:


“Religion is the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being encamped outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state and society. This state, this society, produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress, and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” (Collected Works, V.111, p.175]

 Thus in Marx's view religion is an artificial creation of the human mind, seeking to explain that which appears inexplicable, to justify that which is often unjustifiable, and to console those who seek consolation. The purpose of religion is primarily to conceal reality in a veil of delusion. In its essence religion is an illusion, very much as Freud was later to consider it. Marx’s description of religion as the opiate of deluded people applies particularly to theistic religion, in particular to Christianity because as Marx observes elsewhere: "Christianity is the religion par excellence" (V.III, p.30).

              Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels unmasks the true nature of theistic religion in even more forthright and forceful language. Commenting on a book by Carlyle which itself had been critical of religion Engels writes:


“We too attack the hypocrisy of the present Christian state of the world; the struggle against it, our liberation from it and the liberation of the world from it are ultimately our sole occupation; but because through the development of philosophy we are able to discern this hypocrisy, and because we are waging the struggle scientifically the nature of this hypocrisy is no longer so strange and incomprehensible to us as it admittedly still is to Carlyle. This hypocrisy is traced back by us to religion, the first word of which is a lie - or does religion not begin by showing us something human and claiming it something superhuman, something divine? But because we know that all this lying and immorality follows from religion, that religious hypocrisy, theology, is the archetype of all other lies and hypocrisy, we are justified in extending the term “theology” to the whole untruth and hypocrisy of the present, as was originally done by Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer." [V. III, p.462].

A careful study of these statements by Marx and Engels show the closeness of the task which these writers took upon themselves when compared to that confronting Humanists in the present “post-modern” era. Post-modernism does not offer a single new idea, merely repeating the kind of deception which Marx and Engels was particularly at pains to expose. Humanists can gain many insights from Marx in their task of combating post-modernism.

              Marx exposes the social and political underpinnings of religion which theologians are at pains to conceal. The critique of religion to Marx was no mere intellectual exercise. It was the critique of a particular social and political order which underlies and in turn supports the religious myth. The principal accouterments of religion, its subservience to authority, its renunciation, its hierarchical structure etc. all have their parallels in the political world and are in fact meant to support an exploitative scheme. Modern Humanists are also concerned with the social consequences of religion and so Marx’s analysis here is of some importance. However very often modern Humanists tend to treat social issues as independent of religion when in fact they may have a close connection with it. Thus when modern Humanists concern themselves with the peripheral issues which are gaining increasing importance they ignore the religious underpinnings.

              It may perhaps be appropriate to mention in concluding these comments that Marx’s analysis of religion was focussed exclusively on the dominant religious traditions of Europe and may not be applicable in other contexts.[NOTE 5] Click

Marx’s Concept of Man

              Marx looked upon man [NOTE 6 Click ] as a social being, i.e. man cannot really be divorced from the social nexus in which he operates. And as society continually changes to adapt itself to other factors so will the nature of human wants and even values. As a general statement this many be acceptable to modern humanists even if the specific linkages identified by Marx not be.

              In the Marxian scheme it is the “mode of production” that is the autonomous variable whose movement forces a change in all other elements of the “superstructure”. Social relations must conform to the productive relations which underlie society. In most social systems there is no complete harmony between these two and this conflict provided the dynamic for change. Marx thought that these “contradictions” will be eliminated in the ideal state of “communism” which he saw as the culmination of the historical process. [Note 7 Click ]

              We have already referred to Marx’s assertion that “the human essence has no true reality”, and that religion seeks to impute a “soul” to what are essentially “soulless conditions”. These conclusions Marx arrived at through his analysis of the nature of human existence. Central to Marx's thinking in this area are his concepts of Entäusserung (alienation) and Entfremdung (estrangement), both of which terms are usually referred to simply as "alienation", which practice we shall adopt.

               What Marx understood precisely by these terms have. been the subject of some debate. One interpretation by L. D. Easton and K. M. Guddat is: “By ‘alienation’ Marx meant, in general terms, that the projections of human experience in thought or social institutions are misleadingly separated from man in abstract speculation and acquire a harmful power over him in his social life, dividing him from himself and his fellow men so that he is never truly whole and never truly ‘at home’” (Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, New York, 1961, p.11). This definition emphasises that aspect of alienation which interested Marx the most, viz. the alienation of man-as-producer from the products of his labour. But several other aspects of alienation are also mentioned by Marx. One of these kinds of alienation is the alienation of man from his true nature which Marx calls the ‘species-being’ (Gattungswesen) of man. It is because of this alienation that an artificial construct referred to variously as ‘human essence’ , ‘Ego’, ‘soul’, etc. becomes necessary.

              Marx rejected the crude materialist view that man is purely a product of nature as well as the idealist view which imposes a kind of religious alienation subordinating the human to God. The term Marx uses to denote his position, viz. Dialectical or Historical Materialism may not have been the most felicitous but it does emphasise the interdependence between man, nature and past historical experience.

              In order to compare Marx’s view of human nature with that of Humanism we have to consider what the Humanist view of the essence of man is. Surprising as it may seem even though man occupies a central place in Humanism very little attention has been paid to this question. Many Humanists would of course reject the dualistic view inherent in the religious-idealist view (just as Marx did). But this is a negative stance. On the positive side there is much less agreement. Some veer towards a mechanistic view and consider that biology alone determines the nature of man. But if this is so then other species emerging from the same evolutionary-biological process would need to be given co-equal consideration. But this has not been the case as shown by the neglect of non-human species in the general Humanist ethical outlook. [Note 8] Click But most would accept a position similar to Marx as the essence of man being determined by man’s interaction with the external environment.

              Thus in this aspect as well there is closer affinity between the ideas of Marx and those of modern Humanism than most Humanists would be willing to concede.

The Ethics of Marx

              The attitude to ethics is another ground on which an affinity could be established between Marx and Humanism – but once again with some important differences.

              First of all it is necessary to debunk the view that the system which Marx was interested in was devoid of an ethical dimension. This may be true of Marxists and other revolutionaries who acted in Marx’s name for whom the pursuit of power in the name of the proletariat or some other disadvantaged group became an end in itself with this end justifying any means used. Of course Marx opposed an abstract ethical idealism which appealed to generalised notions like love, justice, freedom, fraternity, etc. without defining the context in which these virtues were supposed to operate. Very often such ethical absolutists ended up doing the very opposite of what their ethics advocate. The history of Christianity is replete with examples of the operation of this principle.

              Marx had to have a system of working ethics because of his concern for action. Thus even if there is no lengthy explicit discussion of ethics in Marx’s writings what we would consider ethical considerations pervade it. Indeed it is not possible for one whose chief main was to make ‘philosophy’ an instrument of change rather than one of intellectual contemplation [Note 9] Click to be entirely free of ethical considerations.

              Ethics has also been central to the Humanist endeavour. Where Humanism differs from cognate interests like atheism, rationalism or scepticism is that it claims to advance a scheme of secular ethics which can be a better substitute for what passes for ethics in religion.

              A good summary of Marx’s position on ethics is given by the modern philosopher Sidney Hook:


“For Marx no social life is possible without human consciousness. And there is no characteristically human consciousness without ethical ideals of some kind. But Marx went on to inquire what the source of these ideals is, when, why and where they change, and what provided relative justification of any ideal in the present. He does not deny the reality of ideals in seeking to explain their social basis. Nor does he deny their normative character in grounding them on human need. He differs from all whom he criticises as Utopian not in that he has no ethics but in that he has a naturalistic ethics. And he departs from the disguised Machiavellian ethics of Hegel and the Hobbesian morality of latter-day social Darwinists - which are both in essence naturalistic – in that he has a revolutionary ethics. Against the abstract morality of Kant and Christ, Marx held that ethics represents a series of demands, not a series of demonstrations or intuitions. His ethics is a class ethics. The ethics which were opposed to it were also, he maintained, class ethics. Peel their pseudo-logical husk away and the kernel will be found to be a concrete class need. It is inevitable that each class consider its ethical demands as absolute: it is not inevitable that it pretend that these demands are impartial or universal. Behind class rights are class needs.” (From Hegel to Marx, University of Michigan Press, 1962)

This summary of Marx’s views on ethics, which can be regarded as broadly correct, invites some comparison with humanist ethics. We have to consider not the specific ethical rules which depend on the interests of the two parties but the broad meta-ethical principles which underlie the two systems. We do not have the space to make a comprehensive examination of this question but will comment only on a couple of the issues raised by Sidney Hook’s summary.

              On the central question whether ethical systems are relative or absolute both tend towards a position of conditional relativity. Marx traced the relativity to the dominant mode of production and the class relationships it creates. Humanists do not have an agreed position on this and would generally subscribe the principle of a “social need” which Marx also emphasises. This is one area where Humanist ethical thinking has to be placed on a firmer ground.

              Both Marx and Humanism assert the need for a normative basis for ethics for without such a basis no comprehensive ethical rules can be established. On this question some Humanists argue for a purely positivistic and relativistic approach. This can sometimes lead Humanists to take xenophobic, racist, sexist or speciesist positions, and might even put them in the company of those espousing far right views [Note 10] Click . Marx is clearer understanding of the importance of generally free of such considerations even though you might not find a specific discussion of these in his writings.

Marx’s Place in Humanist Thinking

              To evaluate the place of Marx in Humanist thought in general we have to consider the state of Humanism in the first half of the nineteenth century. At this time humanism had not advanced much from the views expressed by the thinkers of the European Enlightenment. Even the term was not used widely except in the Renaissance sense of the revival of Classical learning.

              While the Enlightenment philosophers argued for a generally anti-clerical position, for freedom of expression and supported the new spirit of scientific enquiry many aspects of what today would be considered essential in Humanism was missing. The ethics advocated by most of the philosophers were essentially Christian ethics even though they may have adopted a deistic position on the question of God.

              In England a more progressive position was taken by writers like David Hume but in general his views were not widely accepted. At the dawn of the Eighteenth century Utilitarianism provided the basis for Humanist thinking. Perhaps the best known exponent of British Humanism during the first half of the nineteenth century was John Stuart Mill who advocated many novel Humanist positions on issues like the position of women. But his politics leaned towards a kind of liberalism rather than a radical humanism.

              The situation in Germany and France was somewhat better. We have already mentioned the Left Hegelians who advanced a more robust critique of religionism particularly Christianity. Marx himself was an heir to this tradition. In France too the revolutionary tradition was still strong, despite the Counter-revolution and a strong tradition of “Utopian” socialism advanced humanistic ideas.

              Marx himself does not use the term Humanism in an ideological sense. Yet the human concern was central to him just as the Divine was central not only to the old-style religionists but also to some of the Enlightenment thinkers. Marx coupled this with a thoroughgoing recognition of the ethical dimension. These constitute the authentic humanist credentials of Marx. We can endorse the following conclusion by a recent writer:


“By substituting an ‘absolute’ human community for a transcendent diving absolute, Marxism claims to fulfil the deepest aspiration of modern thought. It claims to accomplish the complete coincidence of a thorough-going humanism of liberty and a universally acknowledged order of absolute truth and value” (Patrick Masterson, Atheism and Alienation, Penguin Books, 1971)

The only change that could be suggested to this conclusion is to replace ‘Marxism” with the ‘views of Marx’, because the heritage of Marx was appropriated by others who were alienated from Marx’s essential Humanism.