Marxist Humanism and Praxis

Edited, with translations, by Gerson S. Sher


This volume presents a collection of essays by the principal members of it group of Yugoslav philosophers who have perhaps become best known in the international context by the name of their now defunct journal, Praxis. As philosophers, they have made vital contributions to the theory of Marxist humanism, provoking widespread debate about the essential humanist dimension of Marx’s thought, the points of convergence and divergence of Marxism with other philosophical persuasions, and the nature of philosophical discourse. As members of their own society, they have drawn attention to the extent to which “official” Marxism, as represented by the regime’s ideology, has been divested of its humanist thrust and critical cutting edge through association with the institutions of social power, and for this many of them have had to pay dearly. Though widely respected in the world philosophical community, in Yugoslavia several members of the Praxis group are barred from teaching, making public appearances, publishing, or responding to scurrilous attacks in the press; their journal Praxis, once a lively Yugoslav and international forum for discussion of the issues of Marxist humanism and of the ambitious Yugoslav experiment in workers’ self-management, has been silenced. [1] While the repression of the Praxis group may not be the most serious instance of intellectual persecution in [1/2] Eastern Europe today in terms of physical hardship or imprisonment, it is certainly among the most tragic.

Praxis was a natural outgrowth of the Yugoslav Revolution, a unique series of events that began by embracing the principles of Stalinism and that culminated by just as passionately advocating the revolutionary principle of socialist humanism. It was the great theoretical accomplishment of Praxis to elaborate a systematic philosophical basis for that principle in an equally revolutionary reinterpretation of Marx himself, a reinterpretation based firmly upon the premise that Marxism is first and foremost a philosophy of man. But the conclusions ultimately reached by that reinterpretation, as well as the internal logic of the process of reinterpretation itself, were such that the Praxis enterprise was virtually destined to result in a more or less fundamental confrontation with the authorities, if not, perhaps, in a total rupture.

Why this was so can be seen from a brief sketch of the premises of Praxis theory. Underlying the humanist interpretation of Marxism is a radically dynamic view of man and his relation to nature, history, and society. It is a view of man that stands in direct contrast to that of the orthodox Marxist school, for which man is merely a passive creature of objective forces—“laws of movement” of nature, history, and society—which exist externally and independently of him. Man is a being of praxis, of practical activity which seeks to challenge, destroy, and transcend the limitations that everyday existence places upon his ability to develop as a free, creative being. Yet because this practical activity transpires in a world of objects and symbols and must ultimately assume objective form, it is capable of becoming alienated from its source. Thus man comes to confront the product of his activity as an estranged and hostile force that is the agent of his enslavement rather than of his liberation. By the same token, it is the consciousness of this very state of alienation that provides man with the impulse for new acts of praxis. This interaction between praxis and alienation so characteristic of all human activity, not the general properties of matter or movement in some metaphysical sense, is the source of the revolutionary dialectic.

Just as Marxist humanism stresses the dynamic side of human nature, it presupposes a dynamic role for theory as well. And while the Praxis Marxists may have devoted the greater part of their philosophical oeuvre to elaborating a profoundly humanist vision of man, perhaps their most important theoretical and indeed practical contribution lies in their view of theory itself. Theory—or, more broadly, consciousness—emerges not merely as a passive reflection of objective reality, but instead as the product of man's creative confrontation with reality, which itself must be understood not as that which is merely given in the present but as a sum of historically conditioned possibilities. Indeed one of the most vital tasks of consciousness is to identify those possibilities by penetrating and exposing the mystifications of ideology and by recognizing [2/3] alienation in all its forms. Consciousness—or, more accurately, radical, critical consciousness—thus becomes the touchstone of all praxis, from the microlevel of man’s daily interaction with the world to the macrolevel of the transformation of political structures and social systems. What is at issue, then, is not merely the status of Lenin’s mechanistic reflection theory or even of the orthodox Marxist thesis of the relationship of base to superstructure, but the very ability of Marxism to remain a potent tool for the critical examination of reality in the postrevolutionary era. With Marx himself, the Praxis Marxists stressed at the very outset their commitment to a "critique of all existing conditions," which must, in Marx's words, be “ruthless in two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be.” [2]

The Praxis Marxists took this challenge literally. Their commitment to radical criticism led them not only to reject the dogmas of dialectical materialism in the name of a humanist philosophy of man more faithful to Marx's original meaning, but also to defy authoritative interpretations of existing social and political reality, to subject contemporary incarnations of socialist practice to unremitting criticism, and to undertake the unwelcome task of reminding political leaders of how far their efforts had strayed from originally charted ideals. To be sure, this course involved taking certain risks. Not least of these was the risk of running afoul of those in authority, of ruffling the feathers of this or that politician who might find cause to take exception to their barbs, or of exacerbating controversy when it was politically more convenient to stifle it. Yet the fact that they were willing to take these risks itself signified a basic level of trust on their part toward the political system. For the "Yugoslav path" was to have represented a radically new departure in the history of socialism, a decisive rejection of the Soviet authoritarian model and a bold experiment in truly democratic socialism characterized by workers' self-management, economic rationality, and a relaxation of Party control in the area of culture. In order to ensure that the new democratic forms generated in the course of the experiment were not to degenerate into new forms of alienated authority and repression, the Praxis Marxists came to believe that criticism—persistent, incisive, uncensored, philosophically grounded, theoretically sound Marxist criticism—was a vital component of that sustained effort at social transformation. In his essay on "Authority and Authoritarian Thinking" in this volume, Ljubomir Tadić expresses this idea in the following way: "The principal difference between socialism and every form of authoritarian thought is best expressed in the difference between the status of the citizen and that of the subject. For only the citizen is a being with the 'gift' of free speech. The mentality of the subject, in contrast, is distinguished by silence and respect toward higher authority." Indeed in their constantly recurring emphasis on the [3/4] supreme importance of the freedom of criticism to the goal of democratic socialism, the Praxis Marxists have made an important contribution to democratic theory in general in an age when the dominant forms Of "socialism" and "democracy" cast ominous shadows on the prospects of a humane and truly democratic world order.

The journal Praxis, on the pages of which many of the contributions to this volume appeared for the first time, was in fact nothing less than a bold attempt to institutionalize theoretical criticism informed by Marxist‑humanist philosophy as an integral part of the Yugoslav experiment. And for over a decade, from 1964 to 1975, the Praxis Marxists were unprecedentedly successful in this effort. To appreciate the significance of their accomplishment it is necessary to view it in the broader context of East European development since World War II. Nowhere else in Eastern Europe has there arisen such a sustained, public, animated, unfettered, and candid dialogue concerning the founding principles of the society, the sociopolitical and cultural forms that have evolved under communist rule, and the nature of political authority. Nowhere else has such debate, even when it has surfaced no matter how briefly, been accorded the degree of acceptance and even legitimacy that it earned in Yugoslavia, and nowhere else did it attract such broad international interest among Marxists of all persuasions, socialists, humanists, social scientists and philosophers, students, and many others—not excluding the official custodians of truth of the communist one-­party states. That all this occurred within the theoretical framework of a humanist interpretation of Marxist theory testifies to the elasticity and depth of an intellectual structure that is capable of recognizing, criticizing, and rectifying its own failures. That all this occurred in Yugoslavia, moreover, testifies not only to the extraordinary elasticity and resilience of that remarkable country and its political structure, but also, in the wake of the forceful termination of the Praxis experiment, to the gradual loss of some of those very qualities that have hitherto made the Yugoslav experiment a unique and bold adventure in democratic socialism.

The essays gathered in this volume are but a meager representation of the writings of members of the Praxis group. As suggested by the title of the leading essay by Gajo Petrović, Praxis’s primary spokesman and coeditor‑in-­chief throughout its often stormy existence, the general theme of these contributions is the relationship between philosophy and politics in socialism. What are the boundaries and areas of overlap between them? Must philosophy in a socialist society necessarily be the handmaiden of politics, and if not, must it necessarily be cast in the role of antagonist? To what extent, moreover, can socialist political life be governed by philosophical principles if, as Marx put it, the realization of philosophy implies that the philosophical must become worldly, and the world philosophical? The answers offered by the Praxis Marxists may [4/5] largely be informed by their own personal experiences and aspirations, but they are of an intrinsic value that is not exhausted by considerations of time and place alone.

The structure of the collection follows a distinction made by Petrović early in his opening essay among socialism as a social order, socialism as a movement, and socialism as instrumental theory—or, what is often the same thing, as ideology. A final section is devoted to a theoretical discussion of the question of socialism and human rights, a term which has entered popular parlance of late but which, as its uneven history in the worlds of both academic philosophy and everyday practice has suggested, may be in need of serious critical analysis. As for the scope of essays represented here, the editor takes full responsibility for any shortcoming that may result from the relatively narrow thematic focus in the limited space available. It would require more than one volume to do justice to the dizzyingly broad spectrum of Praxis theory.

With the exception of the essays by Petrović, Vranicki, and Stojanović, which are reproduced here from earlier English translations by permission of their publishers, the contributions to this volume appear here in English for the first time, and some of them for the first time in any foreign language. In translating these essays, I have taken the liberty of providing references to all works cited in English-language editions when available for the reader’s convenience.

Gerson S. Sher  
Reston, Virginia


1.  For an account of the Praxis experience, see my Praxis and Marxist Criticism and Dissent in Socialist Yugoslavia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977).

2.  Karl Marx to Arnold Ruge, September 1843, in Robert C. Tucker (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1972), p. 8.

SOURCE: Marxist Humanism and Praxis, edited, with translations, by Gerson S. Sher. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1978. iv, 183 pp. Introduction, pp. 1-5.

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