Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Socialism & Humanism: Novack & Mattick

Written 11 April 2007 (now edited):

Someone recommended these texts as introductions to the relationship between Humanism and Socialism:

Paul Mattick, "Humanism and Socialism" (1965)

George Novack (William F. Warde, pseud.), "Socialism and Humanism" (1959)

As a rule American freethinkers, atheists, and secular humanists have no relevant background to evaluate these sources. Not being a proselytizer, I'm not out to convert people. Then again, I'm all for united fronts. My response below illustrates my caveats regarding the relation between abstract philosophical perspectives and social theory.

(1) I read Novack extensively many years ago, but I don't remember everything. I am less familiar with Mattick, though I do know in general what he wrote about. Are you interested in their thoughts on humanism, or in their specific theoretical analysis of socioeconomic systems? What do you seek to learn from them?

As for the connection of socialism with humanism, the issue immediately becomes more general and philosophical, which is fine, but then the specificity of history and politics and economics and sociology can get lost, if the discussion gets limited to very general principles.

Except for certain French intellectuals since the '60s (and their groupies), pretty much everyone in the socialist camp has seen socialism as inherently humanist, however we might view them.

But aside from that, there are so many different standpoints grouped under this general political rubric, I would not consider any text authoritative. I would need something more to go on about what a person wants to know before I would make recommendations for a particular reading trajectory.

(2) My reactions re Novack:

Generally, without a background re some author in question, it can be difficult to evaluate his or her statements, as there are unstated assumptions behind some of them.

Novack was an orthodox Trotskyist, a reasonably intelligent man who played an interesting historical role, most notably in organizing a counter-trial with John Dewey to oppose Stalin's frame-up of Trotsky.

With respect to this essay, I'll focus only on my quibbles.

(a) Novack states categorically that while Marxism and Humanism overlap, they are two different categories. But this is a bad move to make, for there is a misleading tacit assumption. He is equating "humanism" as a general concept with the de facto American humanist movement, as one can see viz. his remarks about Corliss Lamont. But this or that American humanist or group of them is one thing; "humanism" as a historical movement is broader, and "humanism" as an abstract concept, is not inherently synonymous with either of the two, certainly not with the former.

Novack is correct in his criticisms of prevailing tendencies among humanists in our neck of the woods, who are scientific materialists with respect to nature but fall down in their analysis of society. Many are social reformers as well, says Novack, but fail to go all the way.

But what is "all the way", exactly? I will defer this question for the moment.

(b) Socialist humanism: E.P. Thompson published his epochal The Making of the English Working Class in 1963. Novack's essay came out in 1959. At that time, Thompson's major work was a huge bio of William Morris. So yeah, Thompson had romantic tendencies, which also helped him break from the Communist Party of Britain, which like all such parties, made their intellectuals miserable.

And Irving Howe had his origins in the Trotskyist movement, though he became softer in the 1950s.

Now note that Novack is a defender of scientific socialism, and he is addressing the generation that has just discovered the "young Marx" as an alternative to Stalinism. Novack, whose original audience consisted of Trotskyist hacks, is out to warn his comrades of competing ideological tendencies, and is thus wary of the "reversion" to the young, humanistic Marx, shorn of political economy and scientific socialism.

However, Novack's admonitions show him in his role as a hack, defending one doctrine against another. While he is not exactly wrong, he is not completely on the right track either. This is because, on the philosophical plane, he has not calibrated the relationship between different levels of abstraction. Humanism is more philosophically abstract than a proper social theory--"scientific socialism" or any other--humanism is a philosophy of a very general nature, not specifically tied to a given sociology, politics, or even ontology and epistemology, even if it has a social history that can be traced and analyzed. That is, humanism consists of general tenets which overlap a number of different philosophical and political and social positions.

Novack collapses the general orientation of humanism as a concept into the specifics of its ideological trajectory and intellectual representatives, drawing the conclusion that those (in the Marxist camp, especially) who set their tents up under "Humanism" are decent progressives but deficient from the standpoint of Marxism, which for Novack means scientific socialism, where they should be setting up their tents.

But I would not make such an argument, first of all because my recommendations for people would have something to do with the actual claims they are making and their purposes for making them, and with respect to my purposes in interacting with them. But my purposes in interacting with people are not driven in all circumstances by schnorring for a particular political or theoretical position.

When you make reading recommendations, you have to take into account the presuppositions of the author and of the audience, and it is unwise to sic Novack on people without explaining where he is coming from first. I don't think Novack is the ideal introduction for people, because there is a lot assumed that should not be assumed in an introductory presentation.

(3) There is a Mattick Sr. and a Mattick Jr. and I am not clear whether their positions differ. But I'll go out on a limb. Mattick (I'll assume both for now) is not only anti-Stalinist, but also not a Trotskyist. His position is more radically different and he probably fits in closer to council communism and the state capitalism position, for those who know what these terms mean.

Mattick paints the ideological history of capitalism and its relation to humanism with a broad brush, and probably not for an entirely uninitiated audience.

Mattick then proceeds to the young, humanist Marx and then stresses his shift. For those who don't know, this means the shift from Marx in 1844 to Marx in 1845-6, as expressed in The German Ideology. And so we come to the end of Part II of Mattick's essay.

Now I don't disagree with his sketch, except for one subtle point, which may be difficult to explain in this brief post. When Mattick contrasts Marx's shift from a general position on human nature to a view on social humanity from the perspective of class society and class struggle, he is correct, sort of, but there's a very dangerous lacuna, a hole which countless people have fallen into. There's a shift in the level of abstraction. The old abstract humanism becomes invalidated, but I emphasize that this is so from the vantage point of a level of abstraction which functions at a level of explanation.

That is to say, I don't see abstract philosophical statements as worthy of being discarded once they are discredited as foundational explanatory positions. Philosophical general statements are still legitimate as long as they don't pretend to be social explanations. That's all I can say in the course of one post.

Mattick's take on "socialist humanism" is a cut above Novack's, because Mattick does not share the assumptions of orthodox Trotskyism which sees Stalinist states as degenerated workers' states.

However, Mattick fails to deliver the punchline on socialist humanism. I'm assuming he must think it a reaction which is limited, but from a theoretical and political base different from that of Novack.

But, in my view, like Novack, Mattick sees "humanism" as an inadequate position, because it only deals with alienation in general, not in its theoretically adequate social specificity.

While I don't exactly disagree, I don't exactly agree either. Why not? Because I conceive the relation between general philosophical statements and theoretical adequacy different from both gentlemen, because I recognize different levels of abstraction which can both work when not confused with one another.

What does this mean on a more down-to-earth level? It means the far left gives me a royal pain up my ass, whether it be Trotskyism, council communism, . . . or anarchism. Politically, I despise all these people (except Chomsky), while I can engage them on a more general critical level (though 99.9& of anarchists are idiots, and the other 0.1 % are analytically limited, and that includes Chomsky.)

I'm warning that texts such as these by Novack and Mattick should not be inflicted on an unsuspecting public without thinking through what one hopes to accomplish in doing so. Too much is being assumed.

I don't like the far left because its politics are childish. There is a lack of mediation between their abstract positions and real world interventions. Which means, in the context of the secular humanist movement under discussion, that there is a lack of mediation between general positions on Marxism and on its relationship to humanism, and on the relationship of both to practical political action.

(4) As a counterweight to Novack and Mattick, I heartily recommend two books I have just read, both by Stephen Eric Bronner:

(1) Reclaiming the Enlightenment,
(2) Ideas in Action.

Both deal with ideological and political history. The first leans more towards the general ideas of interest to us, because of the inherent interconnection between the Enlightenment and humanism. The second delves more into political philosophies and their practical histories.

Now as a nitpicker I have some philosophical subtle criticisms of Bronner, but in the less esoteric realm I broadly agree. The punchline is that Bronner has an animus against far left romanticism, and he reminds me why I can't stand these people, even though I have just as little patience with conventional liberals and thoughtless realpolitik.

1 comment:

stripey7 said...

It's remarkable how many people cite that 1959 article by Novack as representative of his views on humanism, but seem oblivious of the fact he wrote a book in the mid-'70s, titled _Humanism and Socialism_, wherein he laid out quite cogently a rigorous, materialist conception of humanism, and positing socialist humanism as the latest phase in its development, following on the older "Christian humanism" and "liberalistic humanism."