Saturday, 20:51 24-09-2022

Humanism in Marxist theory and its epochal meaning

Political theory Saturday, 20:51 24-09-2022
One of the specific values creating the vitality of Marxist theory is its humanism. Marxism presents the unity between humanity, scientific, and revolutionary characters, and it is associated with the cause of emancipating the proletariat in particular, and people in general from oppression and exploitation so as to protect the fundamental human rights, especially those of the working class in society. Humanism of Karl Marx is the factor which generates the new vitality for Marxism today.
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1. Marxism is a humanistic theory

The term “humanism” was popularly used in the 19th century, but the humanistic theories and thoughts had been formed and developed in previous periods such as the 15th century - the Renaissance period. The inspiration for these researches comes from re-discovering the famous works of ancient Egyptian philosophy. The complete works of Platon or Aristotle’s philosophy have been translated and researched more carefully and accurately than the works in the medieval time(1).

Humanism developed strongly in the West in the transition from the feudal period to capitalism, also known as the Renaissance cultural period. The thoughts of this period were characterized by the emphasis and focus on the position and role of people after being suppressed by the feudal regime for a long time and dominated by theocracy in the “Dark Age”. The slogan of this period was that all things belonging to human were not strange at all. The theories and thoughts expressed the humanistic spirit and praised the beauty, quality, and strength of people. This was the great spiritual motivation for mankind to carry out the robust shift to a socio-economic form higher than that of the feudal regime: capitalism. The law in development of thinking was to promote human factor and to release the potential and strength of the people. Any theory including the humanism spirit would have the overwhelming advantage in that historical period.

The way of humanistic thinking was further developed in the early period of the 18th century with such enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, etc. Despite differences, the thinkers all reached agreement on praising the values of freedom, equality, mercy, secularism, and globalism. They appreciated the domination of people’s intelligence, wanted to apply it to the socio-economic reforms, and encouraged individual creativity and activeness. They believed in the improvement of human nature, affection, moral responsibility, and social advancement possibility(2). However, the humanistic theory in this period was metaphysical and abstract; it was the bourgeois humanism, guiding the general goal of human emancipation to serving the interest of the minor bourgeoisie. Thus, the slogans such as Freedom, Equality and Fraternity were just formal and unable to really handle inequality and exploitation issues of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat at that time. This humanism was still formal, partial, and utopian.

With the introduction of Marxism in mid-1840s, humanism evolved to a higher level: real, moral, complete, revolutionary, and scientific humanism. This once again asserted the strong vitality of Marxism in current time.

The situation of Germany in the first 4 decades of the 19th century

In the first decades of the 19th century, Germany still came under the feudal regime, and it was the most backward European country at that time. The religion in Germany also had great influence on society. The German bourgeoisie was born; although advanced, they were weak, scattered, and feeble. Germany was in need of a revolution to completely change the current order. That context facilitated the birth of philosophical theories like a revolution in mind to prepare for the real one. In that context, humanism developed in Germany met the requirements to promote the human factor to prepare the revolutionary force. The concerns about the position and role of people became the topic particularly interested by classical German philosophers including Kant, Hegel, and Feuerbach. They stressed the strength and thinking ability of people. Inheriting such results, Marxist philosophy brought humanism to new heights.

Humanism of Karl Marx - basic characteristics

From the humanistic approach, Marxism has carried the deep humanity since its formation and development. The formation of Marxist humanistic thought was nurtured when he was a schoolboy. Responding to the question “Reflections of a young man on the choice of a profession” in his high school graduation thesis, Marx wrote: “History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy”(3). Thus, right at school, he expressed profound interest in the great life issues and recognized that the noble good value meant to bring happiness for most people. That showed a deep belief in the ability to bring happiness to people with the solutions by themselves, that is, to appreciate the real human strength. That thought of Marx expressed deep humanity, revealing the root of his humanism later.

When first introduced, Marxist theory integrated the humanistic spirit of the European Renaissance period as well as that of the previous philosophical theories, especially Feuerbach’s materialism. Feuerbach’s materialism was the anthropological materialism appreciating people’s love and considering love a solution to building a better society. Feuerbach even adored love like a religion. With the aim of leading people to love, Feuerbach wanted to build a nice humanistic society. However, the theoretical limit of Feuerbach was that it fell into social idealism when the most general law of social development based on the material foundations and conditions, especially material production, was not found. If the moral and spiritual solutions were focused such as love rather than the issues in the material and social foundation, it would fall into idealism and utopia. It was impossible to appeal the oppressed and exploited to love their oppressors and exploiters. Moreover, in his conception of people, Feuerbach approached people with general and abstract characteristics; thus, he identified all the people of different classes in a general nature of species without seeing that people were the harmony of social relations in reality(4) (Theses on Feuerbach). Karl Marx found this limitation in the humanistic thought of Feuerbach and corrected it in his theory with moving idealism to a new phase - dialectic materialism on which the historical dialectic conception was built. However, Marx also inherited and developed the critical spirit of Feuerbach towards religion, limitations and negatives of religion. This was also common in the theories of humanistic trend in this period because religion had been suppressing people, making people extremely tiny before Gods and deities, and causing people to follow the teachings of Gods for a long time (the Dark Ages) as well as in the situation of Germany at that time. People knelt before the gods as well as the royalty. Thus, society became stagnant and slowly developed. Because of this, Marx affirmed that the world of gods should be criticized so that the living world could develop. Marx replaced the belief in God’s magic with that in people’s value and strength.

Karl Marx not only criticized the limitations, negatives, illusions, powerlessness of religion before reality but also saw the values of religion, humanistic spirit of religion as a comfort for people when he gave the remark: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”(5). The illusory consolation of religion was one of the reasons for its existence until today. Humanism of Marx not only criticized religion as a wrong view to pave the way for the appreciation of people’s values but also outlined the humanistic values of religion for us to have a merciful attitude (religious tolerance) which was one of the necessary qualities for people to co-exist in this diverse and complicated world. In the context of globalization today, the spirit of tolerance and respect towards freedom of belief and religion is a manifestation of modern humanism.

An outstanding characteristic in Marxist humanism was that it originated from his immense affection and sympathy towards the agony of the oppressed and exploited working people. Karl Marx showed that in the article “Debates on the Law on the Theft of Wood”. It reflected the reality of the working class and laborer being seriously depraved and exploited in his work Economic and philosophic manuscripts (1844). The workers were separated from the production materials by private ownership and from the products they made and physically and mentally depraved in the capital exploitation regime. That status was caused by the private ownership regime. Here, Karl Marx proposed to remove the private ownership regime to overcome depravation of the proletariat. The work marked the shift from revolutionary democratism to communism.

From the affection and sympathy towards the exploited working people, Karl Mark spent his whole life fighting to emancipate mankind, especially the working people from oppression, exploitation, and depravation. This made a distinct characteristic and higher level of Marxist humanism. It was humanism associated with proletarian liberating struggle in particular and human liberating struggle in general. Marx used to say that happiness was to struggle. Here, Karl Marx meant a struggle to emancipate mankind from oppression, exploitation, and injustice, to fight against people’s depravation, to protect freedom and democracy of the people, and to bring them a better society. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels stated: “In that revolution, the proletariat lose nothing but the chains which tied them”(6). The proletarian revolution is the struggle to emancipate the working people from chains of oppression and exploitation. That manifested the humanistic spirit of Marx: humanism in association with the cause to emancipate mankind and to protect basic human rights, especially the working people in society.

The proletarian revolution awoke the power of the working class with the historical mission to abolish the private ownership, to overturn capitalism, and to build socialism. Marx and Engels discovered that the force of the cause to free people was the working class: “All other classes decline and disappear with the development of the large scale industry, but the proletariat is the product of the large scale industry itself”(7). and “The collapse of bourgeoisie and the proletarian victory are obviously the same”(8). Marx found in the working class the strength to emancipate mankind in the contemporary society, a major force in the capital society as well as the main force that created properties. Although being the most progressive force, they were also exploited the most. Throughout his life, Marx focused on awakening the proletariat to emancipate society as well as mankind from oppression and exploitation. The socialist revolution which has taken place since the 20th century shows the tremendous strength of the proletariat in social development. Awakening people’s strength is the mission of the humanistic thought trends. In this angle, Marxist is also the most humanistic theory.

Thus, the humanity of Marxist theory and proletarian humanism as the theory for people are the voice to defend the exploited working people in the old society, aiming to emancipate mankind from oppression and injustice. This is thorough humanism (handling the economic regime, the root of issues, not just in the limit of thought and spirit) associated with the revolutionary will to emancipate people from oppression and injustice rather than the sentimental pity. This is the noble humanism for the socialist revolutionary cause with a lot of difficulties and sacrifices, but the communists never shrink. In the revolution, there are bright examples of the people who fought and died for the revolutionary cause. Hence, humanity has unity with revolutionism, becoming a part of revolutionism. This shows a characteristic of humanism of Marx: humanism associated with revolutionism, or revolutionary humanism.

Apart from unity between humanity and revolutionism, Marxist theory also shows unity between humanity and scientism - scientific humanism. All the humanistic theory of Marx is a scientific theory, generalizing the popular laws of nature, society, and thought. With the creation of historical materialism, Marxist theory discovers the most common laws of human society. Then, humanism has been based on science. This also shows unity between Marxist humanism and other humanistic trends, and it emphasizes the scientific role in development. Moreover, Marxist humanism is also a scientific theory.

Marxism has a unity between humanity, scientism, and revolutionism. Revolutionism is in unity with humanity: the most revolutionary (emancipation of mankind) is the most humanistic (for mankind the most). Revolution must be connected with humanity so that it becomes complete and thorough. Humanity also has unity with scientism and improves scientism. Marxist scientism actually manifests humanism for human beings. The unity of humanity, scientism, and revolutionism manifests concentration on communist ideal - the ideal of a society in which people are released from oppression, exploitation, and injustice, and they are free to develop comprehensively. Also in such society, “the free development of an individual creates the condition for the free development of everyone”9). This is the highest humanistic spirit in Marxist theory. Humanism is associated with building a better society for people. Not only the Marxist circle but also the modern Western scholars also highly appreciate this humanistic thought of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, considering this one of the greatest values of Marxism.

Thus, thanks to unity between humanism, revolutionism, and scientism, Marxism has been a complete theory with long standing vitality in the development of human thought for nearly two centuries and the coming years.

Marxist theory shows humanism not only in the relation among people in society but also the relation between people and nature. According to Marxism, people and nature are united. A person is the best product of the long evolution of nature. Thus, people’s attitude towards nature is not the absolute or violent domination or ruling over nature but the harmony with nature. This manifests the humanity in the relation between people and nature. Marx and Engels remarked: “Nature is man’s inorganic body,... nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature”(10); “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us (Dialectics of Nature)”. Today, people are aiming at sustainable and harmonious development of economy, society, and environment. This is the manifestation of humanism in people’s relationship with nature. It is also an important characteristic of Marxist humanism.

2. The meaning of Marxist humanism in the current age

Firstly, with the above-mentioned main points, Marxist humanism manifests its strong and long vitality in current age. This age is the transitional period from capitalism to socialism in the global scale. In that robust turn of the time, spiritual motivation from the humanistic theories is extremely necessary to appreciate the people’s values and strength, discover, and free the genuine powers of people to build a new and better society. Marxist theory expresses itself as such a humanistic theory. In Marxist theory, that humanism has unity with scientism and revolutionism makes this theory the guideline for the advancement of mankind.

Secondly, the present era together with the strong development of science and technology with the Industrial Revolution 4.0 has continuously been changing the face of modern society. However, in such development, humanism is required to direct science and overcome the dark sides of modern science. Humanism directs science to best serve the social development for the people. Thus, the humanistic trend in general and Marxist humanism in particular will remain the strongly developed thought tendency at the present and in the future.

Thirdly, in the current society, religion still exists and develops as a spiritual demand of a number of people because it carries the humane and moral values which guide people to the good and ease the pains of the world. Thus, religious tolerance attitude is necessary to ensure the sustainable social development.

Fourthly, people nowadays are targeting sustainable and harmonious development between people and nature, so it is necessary to humanize the relationship between them. Ecological morality is the science to research and humanize this relationship of mankind. Marxist humanism contains the premises for such an ecological morality. Thus, ecological morality today needs to be viewed on the basis of Marxism./.



(1), (2) R.Audi (ed), The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd edition, Cambridge Uni. Press, 1999, p.397, 397.

(3) H.Ghemcop, Our Life (Biography of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels), National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2000, p.8.

(4), (5), (6), (7), (8), (9) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Collected works, vol.1, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2004, p.434, 40, 748, 715, 717, 730.

(10) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Complete works, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2000, vol.42, p.135.



1. Prof., Dr. Hoang Chi Bao (Chief editor), Nature of science and revolution of Marxism - Leninism, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2010.

2. Nguyen Huu Vui, History of philosophy, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 1999.

3. William F.Lawhead, Journey to discover the Western philosophic world, Encyclopedia Publishing House, Hanoi, 2012.

4. M. Rodentan, P. Yudin: Dictionary of philosophy, Truth Publishing House, Hanoi, 1976.

5. Schroeder, W, Continental Philosophy - A Critical Approach, Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

6. Humanism in the renaissance period,

7. R.Audi (ed.), The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd edition, Cambridge Uni. Press, 1999.

Source: Journal of Political theory (online) 23 September 2019

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