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Marxist humanism is an international body of thought and political action rooted in an interpretation of the works of Karl Marx. The tendency was born in the 1940s and reached a degree of prominence in the 1950's and 1960's before being largely outshined by the anti-humanist Marxism of Louis Althusser.
Marxist humanism is an investigation into "what human nature consists of and what sort of society would be most conductive to human thriving" from a critical perspective rooted in Marxist philosophy. Marxist humanists argue that Marx himself was concerned with investigating similar questions. As such, contrary to the interpretations of Marx rooted in structuralist Marxism, Marxist humanists argue that Marx's work, rather than being an outright rejection, was an extension or transcendence of enlightenment humanism, extending humanist critique into the realm of human organization rather than limiting it to the critique of religion.
Marxist humanism holds that Marx maintained his notion of alienation first laid out in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 until his death in 1883. Teodor Shanin and Raya Dunayevskaya go further, asserting that not only is alienation present in the late Marx, but that there is no meaningful distinction to be made between the "young Marx" and "mature Marx".
Philosopher Wang Roushui summarized the essence of Marxist humanism in his essay "A Defense of Humanism":
Whatever humanism may be, it has as its common principle, in simple terms, human value. The various humanisms may differ greatly in their interpretations of human value, but...such differences are merely as between one humanism and another....Marx often used the expression "human value" in an approving sense, and it is certainly not exclusively bourgeois jargon. Historically, humanism played not merely an antifeudal role, but also an anti-capitalist one; hence it cannot be said that humanism can never be other than bourgeois ideology. Marx did indeed criticize the humanism of [Ludwig] Feuerbach, but far from utterly denying humanism, he brought it to a higher stage of development. Marx and Feuerbach both placed many in the highest position and recognized no essence higher than man's. But Feuerbach only opposed ideological illusions of superhuman forces, whereas Marx went further and opposed all the actual social relations that degraded man to the status of nonhuman. Marx was able to reach this revolutionary conclusion because he grasped actual man, social man....The humanism we advocate is again Marxist humanism and no other. The noun "humanism" expresses its genetic link with historical humanism; the adjective "Marxist" expresses its difference from other humanism.
The early Marx, influenced by Feuerbach's humanistic inversion of Hegelian idealism, articulated a concept of species-being, according to which man's essential nature is that of a free producer, freely reproducing their own conditions of life. However, under capitalism individuals are alienated from their productive activity insofar as they are compelled to sell their labor-power as a commodity to a capitalist; their sensuous life-activity, or labor, thus appears to them as something objective, a commodity to be bought and sold like any other. Thus, to overcome alienation and allow humankind to realize its species-being, the wage-labor system must be transcended, and the separation of the laborer from the means of labor abolished.
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Marxist humanism has been quite controversial even within Marxist circles. Famously, Louis Althusser, the French Structuralist Marxist, criticised Marxist Humanists for not recognizing what he considered to be the fundamental dichotomy between the theory of the 'Young Marx' and 'Mature Marx'. Althusser believed Marx's thought to be marked by a radical epistemological break, to have occurred some time in-between the publication of the Holy Family and the drafting of the German Ideology. For Althusser, the humanism of Marx's early writings—influenced by Hegel and Feuerbach—is fundamentally incongruous with the "scientific", structure-concerned theory he argued were to be found in Marx's later works such as Das Kapital.
Althusser was quite critical of what he perceived to be a reliance among Marxist humanists on Marx's 1844 Manuscripts. Marxist humanists, however, strongly dispute this. Marxist humanist activist Lilia D. Monzó states that "Marxist-Humanism... considers the totality of Marx’s works, recognizing that his early work in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, was profoundly humanist and led to and embeds his later works, including Capital." Additionally, they point out that the groundwork for Marxist humanist ideas was worked out by Georg Lukacs in his work History and Class Consciousness, published nine years before Marx's 1844 Manuscripts were available.
Notable thinkers associated with Marxist humanism include: