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humanism, philosophical and literary movement in which man and his capabilities are the central concern. The term was originally restricted to a point of view prevalent among thinkers in the Renaissance. The distinctive characteristics of Renaissance humanism were its emphasis on classical studies, or the humanities, and a conscious return to classical ideals and forms. The movement led to a restudy of the Scriptures and gave impetus to the Reformation. The term humanist is applied to such diverse men as Giovanni Boccaccio, Petrarch, Lorenzo Valla, Lorenzo de' Medici, Erasmus, and Thomas More. In the 20th cent., F. C. S. Schiller and Irving Babbitt applied the term to their own thought. Modern usage of the term has had diverse meanings, but some contemporary emphases are on lasting human values, cultivation of the classics, and respect for scientific knowledge.


See M. Hadas, Humanism: The Greek Ideal and Its Survival (1960, repr. 1972) and The Living Tradition (1966); J. Maritain, Integral Humanism (tr. 1968, repr. 1973); R. W. Southern, Medieval Humanism (1971).

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  1. a central focus on human needs and on human fulfilment without recourse to religious notions.
  2. an emphasis on the creativity of humanity, and the autonomy and worth of the human SUBJECT.
  3. the emphasis within the writings of the young MARX (including the concern with ALIENATION), seen by those who favour this period of Marx's work as less deterministic than his later work.
‘Humanism’ in philosophy and the social sciences has been a prime target of STRUCTURALISM and POSTSTRUCTURALISM, with their proclamation of the ‘death of the subject’, and the DECENTRED SELF. Humanistic Marxism is the object of criticism by Marxists who emphasize the later more 'S cientific’ Marx of Capital (see ALTHUSSER). See also NIETZSCHE.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a system of historically changing views that recognizes the value of the human being as an individual and his right to liberty, happiness, and the opportunity to develop and express his capabilities. It regards human welfare as the criterion in evaluating social institutions and regards the principles of equality, justice, and humaneness as the desired norm in relations between people.

The conceptions of humanism have a lengthy history. The motifs of humaneness and the love of humanity as well as dreams of happiness and justice can be found in the works of oral folklore, in literature, and in the moral-philosophical and religious concepts of various peoples beginning with the most ancient times. But as a system of views, humanism first took shape in the age of the Renaissance. It appeared at that time as a broad current of social thought, embracing philosophy, philology, literature, and art, and leaving its mark upon the consciousness of the epoch. Humanism took shape in the struggle against feudal ideology, religious dogmatism, and the spiritual dictatorship of the church. In reviving many literary monuments of classical antiquity, the humanists used them to develop a secular culture and educational standard. To theological and scholastic knowledge they counterposed secular knowledge; to religious ascetism they counterposed the enjoyment of life; and instead of the deprecation of man they upheld the ideal of the free, well-rounded personality.

In the 14th and 15th centuries the center of humanist thought was in Italy, where it was represented by such figures as Petrarch, Boccaccio. Lorenzo Valla, Pico della Mirándola, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Subsequently humanism spread to other European countries together with the Reformation. Many great thinkers and artists of that time made their contributions to the development of humanism, for example, Montaigne and Rabelais in France. Shakespeare and F. Bacon in England. L. Vives and Cervantes in Spain. U. Hutten and A. Dürer in Germany, and Erasmus of Rotterdam. The humanism of the Renaissance was one of the main expressions of the upheaval in culture and in world outlook, which reflected the initial formation of capitalist relations. The further development of the ideas of humanism is connected with the social thought of the period of bourgeois revolutions in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th century. The ideologists of the nascent bourgeoisie developed the ideas of the “natural rights” of man, put forward as a criterion for determining the suitability of a social system its correspondence to abstract “human nature,” and sought to discover ways of combining individual welfare and the interests of society by relying on the theory of “enlightened self-interest,” or the concept of individual interest correctly understood. The French Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century, such as P. Holbach. C. A. Helvétius, and D. Diderot, clearly linked humanism to materialism and atheism. Several of the principles of humanism were developed in German classical philosophy. I. Kant put forward the idea of a lasting peace and formulated the postulate that is the essence of humanism—that a person can only be a goal for another and never a means. To be sure, Kant believed that the practical realization of these principles would take place in the indefinite future.

The system of humanist views that developed under conditions of rising capitalism constituted a great achievement for social thought. Nevertheless, the system was internally inconsistent and historically limited, for it was based on an individualistic concept of personality and an abstract notion of the human being. This contradictoriness of abstract humanism came out sharply with the consolidation of capitalism—a system in which human beings are turned into a means of production of capital in direct opposition to the ideals of humanism, a system in which man is subjected to the domination of uncontrolled social forces and laws hostile to him and to the capitalist division of labor that deforms the personality and renders it one-sided. The domination of private property and the division of labor give rise to various forms of human alienation. This shows that the principles of humanism cannot become the norms of human relations on the basis of private property. Criticizing private property, T. More. T. Campanella. Morelli, and G. Mably held the view that only if private property was replaced by communal ownership would humanity be able to attain happiness and well-being. Such ideas are carried further by the great Utopian socialists Saint-Simon, C. Fourier, and R. Owen, who recognized the contradictions in the already existing capitalist system and, inspired by the ideals of humanism, worked out projects for reforming society on socialist principles. However, they were unable to find any practical ways for the building of socialist society, and their concepts of the future contain much that is fantastic together with insights of genius. The humanist tradition in Russian social thought in the 19th century was represented by such revolutionary democrats as A. I. Herzen, V. G. Belinskii, N. G. Cher-nyshevskii, A. N. Dobroliubov, and T. G. Shevchenko. The authors of the great classical works of Russian literature of the 19th century were also inspired by humanist ideas.

A new stage in the development of humanism began with the emergence of Marxism, which rejected the abstract nonhistorical interpretation that viewed “human nature” as a solely biological “substance of the genus.” Instead Marxism presented a scientific, historically concrete concept of human nature, showing that “human nature ... is the totality of all social relations” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3, p. 3). Marxism rejected the abstract supraclass approach to the problems of humanism and placed them instead on a realistic historical foundation, formulating a new conception of humanism, that of proletarian, or socialist, humanism, which included in itself all the best achievements of humanist thought of the past. Marx first showed the realistic way toward realizing the ideals of humanism by linking it with the scientific theory of social development, with the revolutionary movement of the proletariat, and with the struggle for communism. Communism eliminates private property and the exploitation of man by man, national oppression and racial discrimination, and social antagonisms and wars. It overcomes all forms of alienation, places the achievements of science and culture at the service of humanity, and creates the material, social, and spiritual preconditions for the harmonious and all-around development of the free human personality. Under communism labor is transformed from a means to life into the primary need of life, and the highest aim of society becomes the development of the individual himself. That is why Marx termed communism realistic and practical humanism. (See K. Marx and F. Engels, Iz rannikh proizvedenii, 1956, p. 637.)

The opponents of communism deny the humanist nature of Marxism on the grounds that it bases itself on materialism and embraces the theory of class struggle. This criticism is not valid, for materialism, which recognizes the value of life on earth, is oriented toward transforming life in the interests of man, while the Marxist theory of class struggle as an irreplaceable means of solving social problems during the transition to socialism does not at all constitute an apology for violence. This theory justifies the unavoidable use of revolutionary violence in order to suppress the resistance of the minority in the interests of the majority under those conditions where the solution to social problems that have reached a critical state would otherwise be impossible. The Marxist world view is at one and the same time critical in a revolutionary way and humanistic. The ideas of Marxist humanism were made even more specific in the works of V. I. Lenin, who studied the new era of capitalist development, the revolutionary processes of that era, and the beginning of the stage of transition from capitalism to socialism, when these ideas began to actually be realized.

Socialist humanism is the opposite of abstract humanism, which preaches a “humanen ss in general” with no regard for the struggle for true emancipation of man from all forms of exploitation. But within the confines of abstract humanism two fundamental tendencies can be distinguished. On the one hand, the ideas of abstract humanism are used in order to disguise the antihumanistic character of modern capitalism, to criticize socialism, to struggle against the communist world view, and to falsify socialist humanism. On the other hand, there are strata and groups in bourgeois society who adhere to the ideas of abstract humanism but have a critical attitude toward capitalism, favor peace and democracy, and are concerned about the future of humanity. The two world wars unleashed by imperialism, the inhuman theory and practice of fascism (which openly trampled on the principles of humanism), racism, militarism, the arms race, and the threat of nuclear war hanging over the world—all this taken together poses the problems of humanism ever so sharply before humanity. People who take the standpoint of abstract humanism to oppose imperialism and the social ills that it gives rise to are to a certain extent the allies of revolutionary socialist humanism in the struggle for true happiness for man.

The right and “left” revisionists distort the principles of Marxist and socialist humanism. Both types of revisionists actually identify socialist humanism with abstract humanism. But while the right revisionists see in abstract humanist principles the essence of Marxism in general, a “left” revisionist rejects any kind of humanism as being a bourgeois concept. But life itself has shown the correctness of the principles of socialist humanism. With the victory of socialism first in the USSR and subsequently in other countries of the socialist commonwealth, the ideas of Marxist humanism have been confirmed in real and practical ways by the humanist gains of the new social structure, which has chosen as the motto for its further development the humanist principle: “Everything for the sake of man and for the good of man.”


Marx, K. “Ekonomichesko-filosofskie rukopisi 1844 g.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Iz rannikh proizvedenii. Moscow, 1956.
Marx, K. “K kritike gegelevskoi filosofii prava: Vvedenie.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 1.
Marx, K., and F. Engels. “Manifest Kommunisticheskoi partii.” Ibid., vol. 4.
Engels, F. “Razvitie sotsializma ot utopii k nauke.” Ibid., vol. 19.
Lenin, V. I. “Gosudarstvo i revoliutsiia,” ch. 5. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 33.
Lenin, V. I. “Zadachi soiuzov molodezhi.” Ibid., vol. 41.
Programma KPSS (Priniata XXII s’ezdom KPSS). Moscow, 1969.
O preodolenii kul’ta lichnosti i ego posledstvii: Postanovlenie TsK KPSS. Moscow, 1956.
Gramsci, A. “Tiuremnye tetradi.” Izbr. proizv., vol. 3. Moscow, 1959. (Translated from Italian.)
Volgin, V. P. Gumanizm i sotsializm. Moscow, 1955.
Fedoseev, P. N. Sotsializm i gumanizm. Moscow, 1958.
Petrosian, M. I. Gumanizm. Moscow, 1964.
Kurochkin, P. K. Pravoslavie i gumanizm. Moscow, 1962.
Stroitel’ stvo kommunizma i dukhovnyi mir cheloveka. Moscow, 1966.
Konrad, N. I. Zapad i Vostok. Moscow, 1966.
Ot Erazma Rotterdamskogo do Bertrana Rassela: Sb. st. Moscow, 1969.
Il’enkov, E. V. Ob idolakh i idealakh. Moscow, 1968.
Kurella, A. Svoe i chuzhoe. Moscow, 1970.
Simonian, E. A. Kommunizm—eto real’nyi gumanizm. Moscow, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. the denial of any power or moral value superior to that of humanity; the rejection of religion in favour of a belief in the advancement of humanity by its own efforts
2. a philosophical position that stresses the autonomy of human reason in contradistinction to the authority of the Church
3. a cultural movement of the Renaissance, based on classical studies
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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