Monday, October 26, 2015

Joseph Hansen on Marxism, humanism, and Corliss Lamont

Joseph Hansen, "Corliss Lamont on Humanism," International Socialist Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, Fall 1958, pp. 153-155.

I have blogged previously on an ideological contestation that belongs to the dead past, between Marxists and the left liberals who once were prominent in the American humanist movement. I discussed articles written by two anti-Stalinist intellectuals, Paul Mattick, and George Novack, the leading philosopher and intellectual force of the American Trotskyist movement, specifically within the Socialist Workers Party. Joseph Hansen was also a prominent Trotskyist. Here he reviews the 1957 revised edition of Corliss Lamont's The Philosophy of Humanism.

Hansen begins with a positive appraisal of Lamont's political activism and his naturalistic humanist stance. Lamont places Marxists in the ranks of naturalistic humanists. Lamont, however, sees a difference between Marxists and Humanists with respect to democracy, and with a respect to materialism as distinct from naturalism. Materialism tends to emphasize matter more than Nature, thus being more prone to oversimplification and reductionism. Materialism is generally more radical, uncompromising, and militant. Hansen disagrees with Lamont's judgments. Contrary to Stalinism, Hansen finds socialism as the logical outcome of democracy.

Hansen finds the fundamental difference between Marxism and Humanism to be in their approach to human nature and history. Corliss's humanism is founded on a conception of human nature and the struggle between rationality and irrationality. For Marxism, human nature has a plasticity which bends human capacities in certain directions as a product of social and historical development.

While Hansen would presumably wish to avoid the charge of reductionism, he expresses himself in a peculiar way:
The “good” or “evil” effect of forces, circumstances, and struggles is related to their ultimate effect on labor productivity. The pivot is the social structure which is “good” if it corresponds to the development of the technological base, “evil” if it has become antiquated and a brake on technology.
This is unfortunate, but Hansen then emphasizes distinctively human needs beyond the animal needs acknowledged by Humanism. More importantly, Humanism neglects the class struggle, basing its explanatory principles on psychological abstractions, whereas for Marxism "definite classes carry forward at a definite time the interests of humanity as a whole." So now we are back at the crudities that can be found in both Trotskyism and Stalinism.

Interestingly, Hansen differs from Lamont on Franklin Roosevelt's historical 1944 declaration concerning an economic Bill of Rights. While Lamont apparently takes Roosevelt seriously, Hansen sees Roosevelt's speech as deceptive and demagogic. Hansen then discusses the threat of nuclear war, attacking Lamont's illusions about the League of Nations and the United Nations. Only socialism can prevent war and secure survival and peace.