Failure of Marxism-Leninism as Secular Humanism in Practice

Extract from "In Defense of Eupraxophy" Paul Kurtz Humanism Today 1991

The late Paul Kurtz was a Professor of Philosophy, SUNY, Buffalo, NY. President of Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH).

With failure of Marxist-Leninism as the most prominent form of secular Humanism "in practice" Dr. Kurtz is searching for a way to revitalize Humanism and blames its failures on Christianity, etc. The rest is from Dr. Kurtz with a few comments from myself in bold.

See part 1 Secular Humanist Violence Fails to Suppress Religion

I think one explanation for the growth of Leninist-Marxist philosophy, during its heyday, was that the fact that it offered an ideological substitute, a kind of secular utopian vision, for the eschatological myths of religion.

One reason for its failure was that the paradise promised on Earth did not occur; and that people could immediately see that all of the high dreams and hopes for human salvation by building a Garden of Eden on the planet could not be achieved through the means employed by Communists--creating a totalitarian society in which freedom, creativity, and discovery were throttled.

The advantage which Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other eschatological religions have is that their utopian visions of the next life are not as easily disconfirmed as were the secular visions of Marxist utopianism.

The failure of Marxism was that its short-range predictions of building a better world were shown, by comparison with capitalist, non-Marxist, and democratic societies, to be at a disadvantage; and indeed the workers and ordinary people in non-Marxist lands achieved a better standard of living, enjoyed a more creative level, with greater cultural enrichment, than those in the banal kind of Marxist societies developed by bureaucracies.

Webmaster comment: Then what is Dr. Kurtz' problem? The very societies that in fact are very religious such as America have the greatest freedom, standard of living, and creativity in human history. So what are these secular Humanists trying to fix? They seem to be a collection of bitter elitists angry over the fact their religion just doesn't sell.

After a century of Marxism--and Marx was no doubt the greatest humanist thinker of the nineteenth century--and after the patent failure of Marxism, the question can now be raised, "Where does atheism now stand? Why has the atheist/freethought/rationalist movement failed? Why is it so weak in so many countries of the world?

Defining a Secular Outlook: Humanism

Now it is no doubt true that secularism and modernism are growing, and that large sectors of the world, under the impact of science, technology, and the democratic revolutions of our time, are liberating people from ancient myths and ecclesiastical priesthoods.

So there have been gains. But at the same time there has been a failure to define a secular outlook, or to provide an authentic ethical philosophy which can seize the imagination of ordinary people and enter into their lives.

The influence of science and secularism persists because of the great advantages they provide in satisfying human needs and in creating a better life by means of technology.

But in spite of the scientific/technological revolution, the secularist outlook will not succeed in enlisting human devotion and dedication unless it appeals not simply to the mind, but to the hearts of men and women; unless, that is, it is able to arouse and stimulate feeling, and unless there is some intensity of emotion.

And that is why I think that the term "humanism" is crucial, because humanism is an effort to suggest that if we reject God and proclaim that "God is dead," we need to affirm human worth.

The chief aim of humanism is to create the conditions for the good life here and now, and beyond that to build a global ethics for the world community. The purpose of humanism is to realize and fulfill all the things of which we are capable, and to advance human freedom.

Accordingly, there is a positive agenda of humanism, which is constructive, prescriptive, and ethical. Therefore, at the very least, we need to say that yes, we are atheists, but we are also humanists. Humanism has a basic cognitive aspect, and it involves a commitment to rationalism.

Again, the rationalist position is cerebral and intellectual--it is committed to the open mind. free inquiry. and skepticism. Rationalists are prepared to examine any claim to truth, but unless it can be supported evidentially, they will suspend judgment or reject it.

But humanism involves not simply that, but a way of life. Humanism must address itself to the heart and the passions; it must have some relevance to practice and conduct; and it must have some effect upon how we live.

I submit that broadly conceived the freethought movement has failed in that direction. Marxism was an effort to apply humanism to practice, and indeed Marx said that atheism was merely abstract, that it only became meaningfully expressed when it was realized in terms of Communism; and so Communism offered a program and an agenda for the future liberation of mankind.

The Marxist-Leninists failed because they developed a new tyranny. And so we now see that Marxism without freedom is not an authentic humanism. But we must not give up on Marx's basic insight that humanism only has meaning if it is related to practice.