Essay: Marx’s Humanism under Marxology’s knife

May 8, 2021

From the May-June 2021 issue of News & Letters

by Franklin Dmitryev

Mehmet Tabak, Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution and Freedom: A Critical Reconstruction. Published by Mehmet Tabak, 2020. 179 pp.

Amid multiple deep crises, revolts have been challenging the racist, sexist, capitalist world system in both activity and thought, and those in turn have been met by ferocious counterrevolutions, fascist movements, and an onslaught of regressive, anti-rational ideology.

N&L has singled out the humanism in the women’s struggles, the George Floyd protests, and Indigenous and climate movements. That is linked to the new interest manifested among the youth from those struggles in socialism, in Marx, in abolition, and explicit attacks against capitalism as inherently linked to what they are struggling against.

The challenge from below in ideas as well as activity naturally provoked both sympathy and stirrings of thought in some radical intellectuals. The term “Marxist humanism” has been bandied about and stretched to cover people who would never accept the label, from M.N. Roy to Cornel West.[1]


Nevertheless, the pull of previously held attitudes, including the assumption of the backwardness of the masses and received understandings of what Marxism is, make it very difficult for the radical intellectuals to escape the morass of academic eclecticism and what Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S., singled out as post-Marx Marxism as a pejorative, which breaks parts of Marx’s body of ideas off from the totality of his philosophy of revolution in permanence.[2]

In many cases, the word “revolution” comes to mean something far less than revolutionary, and many of these intellectuals have internalized the defeats of revolution, an internalization that has characterized so much of radical theory since the failure of the near-revolutions of 1968.

Mehmet Tabak’s new book Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution and Freedom: A Critical Reconstruction stresses the humanism of Marx—as well as Marx’s critique of alienation and his concept of dealienation as the proletariat’s self-emancipation—though he does not use the term “Marxist humanism.” His earlier book Dialectics of Human Nature in Marx’s Philosophy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) was rooted in the Hegelian-Marxian dialectic and was excellent within the limits Tabak set himself for both books: not relating any of it to today’s world or entering into debates other than debates on interpretation of Marx. These are therefore works of Marxology, not Marxism. Still, the earlier book, written at the time of the Arab Spring and international Occupy movements, emanated a revolutionary spirit missing from the new book, written after years of counterrevolution and retrogression.

“From the Depths,” by William Balfour-Ker.

Sadly, Tabak goes to some length in this new, short book to misinterpret Marx’s critiques of utopianism, moralizing, and Blanquism in a highly undialectical way, in order to reduce Marx to an ethically based utopian gradualist.


The new book usually hyphenates “humanist” as “humanist-ethical,” and charges Marx with an “unresolvable” contradiction between attacking morality as ideology and issuing his own moral condemnation of the alienation and slavery of capitalism. He goes so far as to call Marx “surprisingly thoughtless” for attacking “eternal ideas” like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s “eternal justice.” Tabak links that “thoughtlessness” with Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, which attacked, as he quotes from Marx, the “verbal rubbish” of “equal right” and “fair distribution.” He does not mention that Marx totally demolished that rubbish with a concrete, dialectical critique.

To Marx’s rescue comes—Mehmet Tabak of eight years prior, explaining Marx’s rejection of ideology that views morality as the creator rather than expression of real human relations:

“When we discuss law, justice, and morality in the Marxian context, we are necessarily discussing various moments of the superstructure. When we discuss them as moments of the superstructure of bourgeois society, we are also discussing ideological constructs. Ideological constructs necessarily involve inversion and alienation. In other words, the superstructure is an inversion of the alienated, ‘sensibly-concrete’ world….

“Thus, criticism, as [Marx] tells us elsewhere, should not amount to moral denying without understanding and explaining the existing social relations in their historical context….

“Real criticism must develop out of the criticism of the existing society and into its dialectical, revolutionary overthrow. This is not simply a logical necessity, but one that seeks to emancipate the working class, and therefore the entire society in real, practical terms.” (Dialectics of Human Nature in Marx’s Philosophy, pp. 107, 108, 135)


Tabak further claims that Marx, despite criticizing utopianism, was himself a utopian who imagined a future based on his ethical/moral ideas. He tosses aside Marx’s critique of utopians for inventing a future from their own heads instead of grasping the objectivity of the future in the present. Again, Tabak 2012 supplies a rebuttal:

“[Marx’s] standard of criticism emerges out of the present conditions he seeks to explain, whereas his opponents either refuse to criticize the existing state of affairs or criticize them on the basis of a completely utopian or imagined ‘idyllic’ model.…[U]nlike utopianism, ‘the theoretical conclusions of the Communists’ spring out of the development of the existing mode of production and the contradictory class relations on which this mode of production is based. They are not ‘based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered by this or that would-be universal reformer.’” (Dialectics of Human Nature in Marx’s Philosophy, pp. 172, 138)


Finally, Tabak 2020 claims that Marx after 1850 subscribed to a “revolutionary gradualism.” Since the only alternatives he presents are gradualism vs. Blanquist conspiracy, it is clear that Tabak is opposing revolution as a historic act of masses in motion. Naturally, to Marxist-Humanists, that overthrow is only the first act of revolution in permanence, but without it you do not even reach first negation, let alone skip to the negation of the negation in the creation of a new human society.

One of Marx’s sharpest critiques of Blanquism was published in April 1850, during his so-called Blanquist period. Remarkably, Tabak quotes it as supposed proof of Marx’s repudiation of his views in the March 1850 Address to the Communist League on permanent revolution. Tabak quotes Marx and Engels as follows:

“It need scarcely be added that these conspirators do not confine themselves to the general organizing of the revolutionary proletariat. It is precisely their business to anticipate the process of revolutionary development, to bring it artificially to crisis-point, to launch a revolution on the spur of the moment, without the conditions for a revolution. For them the only condition for revolution is the adequate preparation of their conspiracy. They are the alchemists of the revolution….Occupied with such scheming, they have no other purpose than the most immediate one of overthrowing the existing government and have the profoundest contempt for the more theoretical enlightenment of the proletariat about their class interests.” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 10, p. 318)

But that is the critique that Marx always held, from his very first writing on permanent revolution. The fact is that two months later, the June 1850 Address to the Communist League, written by Marx and Engels, was based on the March Address and still anticipating an impending “new revolution.” So Tabak’s timeline makes no sense.

His forced identity between conspiratorial coups and revolutionary masses in motion is behind his chronological confusion. He wrongly claims that the 1850 Address was “plotting an armed insurrection” and was “in agreement with the Blanquists” (p. 79).

All this is in service of foisting on Marx, post-1850, a position of “gradualism.” The myth of Marx as Blanquist around the time of the 1848 revolutions, after all, originated with Eduard Bernstein, who wanted to revise Marxism into reformism, rather than revolution, and to base socialism on an ethical justification.[3] As a result, the word revolution is once again totally separated from its reality and now Marx is turned into its enemy. His philosophy of revolution in permanence is kicked to the curb by Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution and Freedom.

There is absolutely no hint of this evisceration of the concept of revolution in Tabak’s earlier book, though it repeatedly expressed his “hope to further comment on Marx’s theories of revolution and communism in a future work” (p. 172).

Once permanent revolution is sidelined in favor of gradualist “revolution,” the depth and totality of the needed uprooting of human relations can hardly live up to the profound critique of alienation that is central to both of these books by Tabak. Several times he quotes Marx’s 1844 “Private Property and Communism” on communism being the negation of the negation, without ever mentioning what is so central to Marxist-Humanism, that “communism, as such, is not the goal of human development, the form of human society,”[4] which is featured in the writing of Raya Dunayevskaya on page 4 of this issue. This reinforces a certain abstractness in his concepts of dealienation and revolution.


Marx’s Humanism was brought back onto the historic stage in the 1950s, not by “critical reconstructions” abstracted from contemporary crises, but by revolutions, from East Europe rising against “Communist” domination to Africa claiming independence from Western imperialism. It began with the workers’ battles against automation, when, as Dunayevskaya points out,

“The American workers raised, in a most concrete manner, the philosophic question raised by Marx regarding the division between mental and manual labor which characterized all class societies. The crucial difference between the workers raising the question, ‘What Kind of Labor Should Men Perform?’ and the learned who were raising the question about ‘the alienation of labor’ turns on the positive aspects of Humanism.

In other words, where radical intellectuals stopped at the negative, the somewhat abstract critique of alienation, the striking workers, in their battle against the new concrete form of alienation—the technology of automation—brought out the positive in the negative.

As Dunayevskaya comprehends it:

“Unless the fusion of mental and manual activity were re-established within a man so that his body, his mind, his heart were all functioning as a human entity, there would be no new society.

“Without the re-creation of the whole-ness of man, the abolition of private property would not be a great improvement; communism was not ‘the goal of human development, the form of human society.’ In a word, Marx was against any exploitation of man by man; he wanted new, truly human relations, beginning with labor at the point of production. He insisted that you could not counterpose the individual to ‘society’ because the ‘individual is the social entity’; the only proof that freedom was real, was that it was for all, and meant doing and thinking incorporated in the same person.”[5] It is unfortunate to see a scholar of Mehmet Tabak’s caliber regress from his profound earlier work.

More than that, it tells a tale of the tacit defeatism prevalent in contemporary Marxology and Marxism, academic or otherwise.

To rediscover Marx’s Humanism but subject him to one-sided, undialectical misreading only in order to rebury him as a “gradualist” and ethical utopian, only serves to deepen the separation of the intellectual both from the revolutionary ideas of Marxist-Humanism and from the concrete movements from practice that are on this historic stage and reaching for Humanism, socialism, the abolition of capitalism and its apparatus of repression, and the creation of a new society founded on new human relations. Those movements demand a new relationship with the movement from theory.

[1] See “Cornel West and Marxist Humanism” by Christian Fuchs, Critical Sociology, January 2021. M.N. Roy, a founding Indian Communist, broke with Marxism by the 1940s, before Marxist humanism arose, while Cornel West describes himself as a “non-Marxist socialist.”

[2] On post-Marx Marxism as pejorative, see Raya Dunayevskaya, “Karl Marx—From Critic of Hegel to Author of Capital and Theorist of ‘Revolution in Permanence,’” Part III of Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (University of Illinois Press, 1991).

[3] See “Marx’s Theory of Permanent Revolution, 1843-1883” in Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, pp. 158-62, and “The ‘Blanquist’ Myth” and “The Address to the Communist League of March 1850” in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. 2 (Monthly Review Press, 1978), pp. 591-92, 599-612.

[4] “Private Property and Communism,” in Raya Dunayevskaya, Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution in Permanence for Our Day (Haymarket, 2019), p. 340.

[5] From the letters excerpted on pages 4-5, this issue.

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