It is not reasonable to believe that the act of voting for and asking others to vote for small parties can constitute a phenomenon of interest in the future, nor will support for forming labor organizations outside the established frameworks be an important factor in bringing people together.
And because we view such work as too limited, we reject those efforts that are rooted in neighborhoods, in communities, in urban areas, and in our immediate environments. It is clear, however, that this is where the rebuilding of the social fabric will begin when the crisis finally overtakes the centralized structures.
Yet instead of keeping our ears attuned to the undercurrent of the people’s demands for change, we prefer to focus on the superficial game of the powerful elites, the famous, the formers of opinion. We object to the actions of the mass media controlled by economic interests, instead of dedicating ourselves to exercising influence in the smaller media and taking advantage of the many openings for social communication. And if we continue to work as militants within some progressive political organization, our usual tactic is to try to dredge up some incoherent character who can get us “press,” some famous personality who can represent our current of thought because he is more or less palatable to the news media of the prevailing system.
Basically, all of this happens to us because we believe we are defeated and that we have no other recourse than to nurse our growing bitterness in silence. And we call this defeat “dedicating ourselves to our own lives.” Meanwhile, “our own lives” accumulate contradictions as we lose touch with the meaning of and any capacity to choose the conditions in which we want to live. Eventually, we cannot even conceive of the possibility of a great movement for change that can serve as a reference, drawing together the most positive factors in society. And of course our previous disappointments keep us from acting as protagonists in this process of transformation.
5. Moral Consciousness and Short-Term Interests
We have to choose the conditions in which we want to live. If we go against our life project we will not escape from contradiction, which will leave us at the mercy of a long chain of accidents. In taking that direction, what brake can we then apply to slow the cascading events of our lives? Only that of our short-term interests. In our resulting lives of expediency, then, we can imagine extreme situations of every kind befalling us, from which in our rush to escape we will sacrifice every value and all meaning, because our sole focus has become our own immediate benefit.
To avoid such difficulties, we shun any commitment that could draw us toward extreme situations, but of course events themselves will necessarily put us in positions that we have not chosen. It does not require any special brilliance to understand what is sure to happen with those closest to us should they adopt this same position—if they pursue identical benefits, will they not then be in opposition to us? And what is to prevent our whole society from following this same path? In this situation of arbitrariness without limits, naked power will overwhelm everything before it. Where it encounters resistance it will do so with overt violence. Where it doesn’t, it will make do with persuasion that relies for justification on untenable values, to which we will all have to submit, even while in the depths of our hearts we experience how meaningless life has become. And if this comes to pass it will mark the triumph of the Earth’s dehumanization.
To choose a life project within imposed conditions is far from being a simple animal reflex. On the contrary, it is the essential characteristic of the human being. And if we eliminate this quality—which defines the human being—we block human history, and we can expect only the advance of destruction at every step. If we give up the right to choose a life project and an ideal of society, we will find ourselves left with only caricatures of law, values, and meaning. Under such circumstances, what will we then uphold in the face of the neurosis and upheaval we are beginning to experience all around us?
Each of us will have to see what to do with his or her own life, but all of us will have to bear in mind as well that our actions extend beyond ourselves, and this is so regardless of whether our capacity to influence others is great or small. The choice between unifying actions—those with meaning—or contradictory actions dictated by immediacy, is inescapable in every situation in which the direction of life is at issue.
6. Sacrificing One’s Objectives for Circumstantial Success:
Some Habitual Errors
Everyone who is committed to collective action, every person who works with others toward meaningful social objectives, needs to be clear on the numerous errors that have in the past brought ruin upon the best of causes. Ridiculous Machiavellian schemes, personality clashes placed above mutually agreed upon goals, and authoritarian behavior of every stripe fill volumes of history books, as well as our personal memories.
By what right does anyone use a doctrine, a plan of action, a human organization, only to push aside the priorities they themselves have expressed? What right do we have to propose to others an objective and a destiny, only to later place as the primary value some supposed success or need of the moment? What would be the difference between this and the pragmatism we say we repudiate? In following that path, how could there be any coherence among what one thinks, feels, and does?
In every age, “instrumentalists” have committed the same moral fraud of presenting others with an inspiring image of the future, gaining for themselves an immediate image of success. In then sacrificing the intention agreed upon, however, they open the door to negotiating every sort of betrayal with the faction against which they claim to struggle. And this indecency is then justified by some supposed “need” concealed within the initial proposal.
It should be clear that I am not speaking of those changes of conditions and tactics in which all involved understand the connection to the agreed-upon objectives that mobilized them in the first place. Nor am I referring to those mistakes in evaluating situations that can occur in the process of carrying out concrete actions. These observations apply to the immorality that distorts intentions and against which it is indispensable to be alert. It is important to be attentive to ourselves as activists, and also to explain this to others so they understand beforehand that if they break their commitments this will leave our hands as free as theirs.
There is, of course, a whole range of clever tricks for using other people, and there is no way to catalogue them all. Nor will we become “moral censors,” because it is clear that behind this attitude lies a repressive form of consciousness. The objective of such people is to sabotage any action they do not control, immobilizing their companions in struggle with mutual mistrust. And when they smuggle in as contraband from another field supposed values by which they judge our actions, it is good to remember that it is their “morality” that is in question, and that it is not the same as ours. Why, then, would such people choose to be with us?
Finally, it is important to be aware of a less-than-honest gradualism that is used to manipulate situations until in reality they come to oppose their stated objectives. It is in this position that we find all those who accompany us with motives different from those they express. Their mental direction is twisted from the beginning and awaits only the opportunity to manifest itself. In the meantime, they gradually expand their use of codes that, whether overtly or covertly, embody a system of double-speak. This attitude is almost always found among those people who, in the name of some militant organization, disorient activists of good faith, while at the same time they endeavor to make responsibility for their abuses fall on the shoulders of authentic militants.
It is not my intention here to dwell on the familiar “internal problems” that affect every human organization, but it does seem useful to mention the opportunistic root that underlies this behavior, which involves introducing a mobilizing image of the future, gaining for oneself an immediate image of success.
7. The Kingdom of the Secondary
Present circumstances are such that accusers of every stripe and description adopt a prosecutorial tone and demand explanations from us, acting as though it is we who must prove our innocence to them. What is noteworthy is that their basic tactic lies in exalting all that is secondary, and as a consequence obscuring the primary questions.
This attitude recalls the practice of democracy within companies. Employees may discuss, for example, whether the desks in the office should be nearer to or farther from the windows and whether the office should be furnished with flowers or painted in pleasant colors, none of which is in itself bad. Then they vote, and the majority decides the fate of the furniture and the color of the paint, and this is also not in itself bad. But when it comes time to discuss and propose taking a vote on questions of management and operation, a terrified silence falls… and instantly any idea of democracy is frozen, because in reality we are dwelling in the kingdom of the secondary.
Nothing different can be expected from the “prosecutors” of the system. Suddenly some journalist will take on that role—making a preference some of us may have for certain types of food, for example, seem somehow suspicious, or demanding that we “take a stand” on today’s burning questions of sports, astrology, and the catechism. Of course, they are never lacking for some clumsy accusation to which it is assumed we must respond, and in superficially setting the context they bandy about words charged with double meanings as they manipulate contradictory images.
What is important to remember is that those who choose to locate themselves in a faction opposed to us have every right to have us explain to them why they are in no condition to judge us and why we, on the other hand, are fully justified in judging them. They need to realize that it is they who must defend their position against our objections. Of course, whether this can actually take place in any given instance depends on certain conditions being present and the individual skill of the contenders, but it is always exasperating to see people who have every right to take the initiative bow their heads before such incoherence.
It is pathetic, too, to watch various leaders on the television screen as they mouth their witticisms and dance like trained bears with the host of the program, or to see them submitting to every sort of humiliation just to make the front pages. Yet as they watch these wonderful examples, many well-intentioned people fail to realize the extent to which the message they are viewing has been deformed or diluted by the time the mass media release it to the public at large.
These comments have focused on facets of the kingdom of the secondary that operate by displacing attention from the fundamental issues, with the result that what reaches the public—supposedly to enlighten them—is really disinformation. Curiously, a great many progressive people are taken in by this trap, failing to understand very clearly just how their receiving this abundance of apparent “news” in practice leaves them more bewildered than accurately informed.
Finally, this is no time to let languish in the camp of the opposition some positions that in reality we need to defend. Were we to abandon these positions, anyone could reduce our position to mere frivolity simply by affirming that he, too, is for example a “humanist” because he is concerned about what is human; that he is “non-violent” because he deplores war; that he is against discrimination because he has a black friend or a communist friend; that he is an environmentalist because he agrees that we need to protect seals and trees. If pressed, however, such people will be incapable of backing up in any depth the superficial things they say—and the mask will slip, showing their real face, which is anti-humanist, violent, discriminatory, and predatory.
While the previous commentaries on these expressions of the kingdom of the secondary do not really contribute anything new, it is nonetheless worthwhile from time to time to alert those naive activists who, in trying to communicate their ideas, have yet to realize just how strange is this kingdom of the secondary in which they have been interned.
I hope that you will be able to overlook any discomfort experienced on reading a letter perhaps so little related to your own problems and interests, and I trust that in the next letter we will be able to go on to more pleasant things.
With this letter I send my warmest regards,
June 4, 199
Sixth Letter to My Friends
In further correspondence, certain readers of these letters have continued their critiques, demanding greater definition of social and political action as well as the prospects for such efforts to transform the present state of affairs. In these circumstances I could simply confine myself to restating what is found at the beginning of the first letter: “For some time now I have been receiving correspondence from various countries requesting that I explain or elaborate on certain of the subjects addressed in my books. For the most part what they have sought are explanations about such concrete issues as violence, politics, the economy, the environment, as well as social and interpersonal relationships. As you can see, these concerns are many and varied, and it is clear that the answers will have to come from specialists in these fields, which of course I am not.”Although commentaries on these topics have been offered in subsequent letters, it seems that these have not yet managed to satisfy their requests. And this leaves us with a difficulty, for how am I to respond to questions of such broad scope in a writing the length and nature of a letter?
As you know, I participate in a current of opinion, in a movement that during three decades of activity has given rise to numerous institutions and has confronted dictatorships and injustices of every stripe. The efforts of those in this movement have been met with a varied mixture of disinformation, defamation, and deliberate silence. Yet despite these difficulties, this movement has spread around the world, while preserving both its financial and its ideological independence. Had it yielded to expediency, engaging in the usual sordid short-term speculation, it would doubtless have received recognition and press. But this would only have finally consecrated the triumph of the absurd and the victory of everything against which it has struggled.
In its history, the blood of those who participate in this movement has been shed. They have faced imprisonment, deportation, and barriers of every kind. And it is necessary to remember this. In this sense our movement has always felt a close kinship as a tributary of historical humanism, which placed such emphasis on freedom of conscience in the struggle against all obscurantism and in defense of the highest human values. But our movement has also produced works and studies sufficient to provide responses for this era, in which events have finally precipitated a profound crisis. And I will appeal to these works and studies in order to set forth, within the limits of this letter, the fundamental themes and proposals of contemporary humanists.
Statement of the Humanist Movement
Humanists are women and men of this century, of this time. They recognize the achievements of humanism throughout history, and find inspiration in the contributions of many cultures, not only those that today occupy center stage. They are also men and women who recognize that this century and this millennium are drawing to a close, and their project is a new world. Humanists feel that their history is very long and that their future will be even longer. As optimists who believe in freedom and social progress, they fix their gaze on the future, while striving to overcome the general crisis of today.Humanists are internationalists, aspiring to a universal human nation. While understanding the world they live in as a single whole, humanists act in their immediate surroundings. Humanists seek not a uniform world but a world of multiplicity: diverse in ethnicity, languages and customs; diverse in local and regional autonomy; diverse in ideas and aspirations; diverse in beliefs, whether atheist or religious; diverse in occupations and in creativity.
Humanists do not want masters, they have no fondness for authority figures or bosses. Nor do they see themselves as representatives or bosses of anyone else. Humanists want neither a centralized State nor a Parastate in its place. Humanists want neither a police state nor armed gangs as the alternative.
But a wall has arisen between humanist aspirations and the realities of today’s world. The time has come to tear down that wall. To do this, all humanists of the world must unite.
I. Global Capital
This is the great universal truth: Money is everything. Money is government, money is law, money is power. Money is basically sustenance, but more than this it is art, it is philosophy, it is religion. Nothing is done without money, nothing is possible without money. There are no personal relationships without money, there is no intimacy without money. Even peaceful solitude depends on money.
But our relationship with this “universal truth” is contradictory. Most people do not like this state of affairs. And so we find ourselves subject to the tyranny of money—a tyranny that is not abstract, for it has a name, representatives, agents, and well-established procedures.
Today, we are no longer dealing with feudal economies, national industries, or even regional interests. Today, the question is how the surviving economic forms will accommodate to the new dictates of international finance capital. Nothing escapes, as capital worldwide continues to concentrate in ever fewer hands—until even the nation state depends for its survival on credit and loans. All must beg for investment and provide guarantees that give the banking system the ultimate say in decisions. The time is fast approaching when even companies themselves, when every rural area as well as every city, will all be the undisputed property of the banking system. The time of the parastate is coming, a time in which the old order will be swept away.
At the same time, the traditional bonds of solidarity that once joined people together are fast dissolving. We are witnessing the disintegration of the social fabric, and in its place find millions of isolated human beings living disconnected lives, indifferent to each other despite their common suffering. Big capital dominates not only our objectivity, through its control of the means of production, but also our subjectivity, through its control of the means of communication and information.
Under these conditions, those who control capital have the power and technology to do as they please with both our material and our human resources. They deplete irreplaceable natural resources and act with growing disregard for the human being. And just as they have drained everything from companies, industries, and whole governments, so have they deprived even science of its meaning—reducing it to technologies used to generate poverty, destruction, and unemployment.
Humanists do not overstate their case when they contend that the world is now technologically capable of swiftly resolving the problems in employment, food, health care, housing, and education that exist today across vast regions of the planet. If this possibility is not being realized, it is simply because it is prevented by the monstrous speculation of big capital.
By now big capital has exhausted the stage of market economies, and has begun to discipline society to accept the chaos it has itself produced. Yet in the presence of this growing irrationality, it is not the voices of reason that we hear raised in dialectical opposition. Rather, it is the darkest forms of racism, fundamentalism, and fanaticism that are on the rise. And if groups and whole regions are increasingly guided by this new irrationalism, then the space for constructive action by progressive forces will diminish day by day.
On the other hand, millions of working people have already come to recognize that the centralized state is as much a sham as capitalist democracy. And just as working people are standing up against corrupt union bosses, more than ever citizens are questioning their governments and political parties. But it is necessary to give a constructive orientation to these phenomena, which will otherwise stagnate and remain nothing more than spontaneous protests that lead nowhere. For something new to happen, a dialogue about the fundamental factors of our economy must begin in the heart of the community.
For humanists, labor and capital are the principal factors in economic production, while speculation and usury are extraneous. In the present economic circumstances, humanists struggle to totally transform the absurd relationship that has existed between these factors. Until now we have been told that capital receives the profits while workers receive wages, an inequity that has always been justified by the “risk” that capital assumes in investing—as though working people do not risk both their present and their future amid the uncertainties of unemployment and economic crisis.
Another factor in play is management and decision-making in the operation of each company. Earnings not set aside for reinvestment in the enterprise, not used for expansion or diversification, are increasingly diverted into financial speculation, as are profits not used to create new sources of work.
The struggle of working people must therefore be to require maximum productive return from capital. But this cannot happen unless management and directorships are cooperatively shared. How else will it be possible to avoid massive layoffs, business closures, and even the loss of entire industries? For the greatest harm comes from under-investment, fraudulent bankruptcies, forced acquisition of debt, and capital flight—not from profits realized through increased productivity. And if some persist in calling for workers to take possession of the means of production following nineteenth-century teachings, they will have to seriously consider the recent failures of real socialism.
As for the argument that treating capital the same way work is treated will only speed its flight to more advantageous areas, it must be pointed out that this cannot go on much longer because the irrationality of the present economic system is leading to saturation and crisis worldwide. Moreover, this argument, apart from embracing a radical immorality, ignores the historical process in which capital is steadily being transferred to the banking system. As a result, employers and business people are being reduced to the status of employees, stripped of decision-making power in a lengthening chain of command in which they maintain only the appearance of autonomy. And as the recession continues to deepen, these same business people will begin to consider these points more seriously.
Humanists feel the need to act not only on employment issues, but also politically to prevent the State from being solely an instrument of international capital, to ensure a just relationship among the factors of production, and to restore to society its stolen autonomy.
II. Real Democracy Versus Formal Democracy
The edifice of democracy has fallen into ruin as its foundations—the separation of powers, representative government, and respect for minorities—have been eroded.
The theoretical separation of powers has become nonsense. Even a cursory examination of the practices surrounding the origin and composition of the different powers reveals the intimate relationships that link them to each other. And things could hardly be otherwise, for they all form part of one same system. In nation after nation we see one branch gaining supremacy over the others, functions being usurped, corruption and irregularities surfacing—all corresponding to the changing global economic and political situation of each country.
As for representative government, since the extension of universal suffrage people have believed that only a single act is involved when they elect their representative and their representative carries out the mandate received. But as time has passed, people have come to see clearly that there are in fact two acts: a first in which the many elect the few, and a second in which those few betray the many, representing interests foreign to the mandate they received. And this corruption is fed within the political parties, now reduced to little more than a handful of leaders who are totally out of touch with the needs of the people. Through the party machinery, powerful interests finance candidates and then dictate the policies they must follow. This state of affairs reveals a profound crisis in the contemporary conception and implementation of representative democracy.
Humanists struggle to transform the practice of representative government, giving the highest priority to consulting the people directly through referenda, plebiscites, and direct election of candidates. However, in many countries there are still laws that subordinate independent candidates to political parties, or rather to political maneuvering and financial restrictions that prevent them from even reaching the ballot and the free expression of the will of the people.
Every constitution or law that prevents the full possibility of every citizen to elect and to be elected makes a mockery of real democracy, which is above all such legal restrictions. And in order for there to be true equality of opportunity, during elections the news media must be placed at the service of the people, providing all candidates with exactly the same opportunities to communicate with the people.
To address the problem that elected officials regularly fail to carry out their campaign promises, there is also a need to enact laws of political responsibility that will subject such officials to censure, revocation of powers, recall from office, and loss of immunity. The current alternative, under which parties or individuals who do not fulfill their campaign promises risk defeat in future elections, in practice does not hinder in the least the politicians’ second act—betraying the people they represent.
As for directly consulting the people on the most urgent issues, every day the possibilities to do so increase through the use of technology. This does not mean simply giving greater importance to easily manipulated opinion polls and surveys. What it does mean is to facilitate real participation and direct voting by means of today’s advanced computational and communications technologies.
In real democracy, all minorities must be provided with the protections that correspond to their right to representation, as well as all measures needed to advance in practice their full inclusion, participation, and development.
Today, minorities the world over who are the targets of xenophobia and discrimination make anguished pleas for recognition. It is the responsibility of humanists everywhere to bring this issue to the fore, leading the struggle to overcome such neo-fascism, whether overt or covert. In short, to struggle for the rights of minorities is to struggle for the rights of all human beings.
Under the coercion of centralized states—today no more than the unfeeling instruments of big capital—many countries with diverse populations subject entire provinces, regions, or autonomous groups to this same kind of discrimination. This must end through the adoption of federal forms of organization, through which real political power will return to the hands of these historical and cultural entities.
In sum, to give highest priority to the issues of capital and labor, real democracy, and decentralization of the apparatus of the State, is to set the political struggle on the path toward creating a new kind of society—a flexible society constantly changing in harmony with the changing needs of the people, who are now suffocated more each day by their dependence on an inhuman system.
III. The Humanist Position
Humanist action does not draw its inspiration from imaginative theories about God, nature, society, or history. Rather, it begins with life’s necessities, which consist most elementally of avoiding pain and moving toward pleasure. Yet human life entails the additional need to foresee future necessities, based on past experience and the intention to improve the present situation.
Human experience is not simply the product of natural physiological accumulation or selection, as happens in all species. It is social experience and personal experience directed toward overcoming pain in the present and avoiding it in the future. Human work, accumulated in the productions of society, is passed on and transformed from one generation to the next in a continuous struggle to improve the existing or natural conditions, even those of the human body itself. Human beings must therefore be defined as historical beings whose mode of social behavior is capable of transforming both the world and their own nature.
Each time that individuals or human groups violently impose themselves on others, they succeed in detaining history, turning their victims into “natural” objects. Nature does not have intentions, and thus to negate the freedom and intentions of others is to convert them into natural objects without intentions, objects to be used.
Human progress in its slow ascent now needs to transform both nature and society, eliminating the violent animal appropriation of some human beings by others. When this happens, we will pass from pre-history into a fully human history. In the meantime, we can begin with no other central value than the human being, fully realized and completely free. Humanists therefore declare, “Nothing above the human being, and no human being beneath any other.”
If God, the State, money, or any other entity is placed as the central value, this subordinates the human being and creates the condition for the subsequent control or sacrifice of other human beings. Humanists have this point very clear. Whether atheists or religious, humanists do not start with their atheism or their faith as the basis for their view of the world and their actions. They start with the human being and the immediate needs of human beings. And if, in their struggle for a better world, they believe they discover an intention that moves history in a progressive direction, they place this faith or this discovery at the service of the human being.
Humanists address the fundamental problem: to know if one wants to live, and to decide on the conditions in which to do so.
All forms of violence—physical, economic, racial, religious, sexual, ideological, and others—that have been used to block human progress are repugnant to humanists. For humanists, every form of discrimination, whether subtle or overt, is something to be denounced.
Humanists are not violent, but above all they are not cowards, and because their actions have meaning they are unafraid of facing violence. Humanists connect their personal lives with the life of society. They do not pose such false dichotomies as viewing their own lives as separate from the lives of those around them, and in this lies their coherence.
These issues, then, mark a clear dividing line between humanism and anti-humanism: humanism puts labor before big capital, real democracy before formal democracy, decentralization before centralization, anti-discrimination before discrimination, freedom before oppression, and meaning in life before resignation, complicity, and the absurd. Because humanism is based on freedom of choice, it offers the only valid ethic of the present time. And because humanism believes in intention and freedom, it distinguishes between error and bad faith, between one who is mistaken and one who is a traitor.
IV. From Naive Humanism to Conscious Humanism
It is at the base of society, in the places where people work and where they live, that humanism must convert what are now only simple isolated protests into a conscious force oriented toward transforming the economic structures.
The struggles of spirited activists in labor unions and progressive political parties will become more coherent as they transform the leadership of these entities, giving their organizations a new orientation that, above short-range grievances, gives the highest priority to the basic proposals advocated by humanism.
Vast numbers of students and teachers, already sensitive to injustice, are becoming conscious of their will to change as the general crisis touches them. And certainly, members of the press in contact with so much daily tragedy are today in favorable positions to act in a humanist direction, as are those intellectuals whose creations are at odds with the standards promoted by this inhuman system.
In the face of so much human suffering, many positions and organizations today encourage people to unselfishly help the dispossessed and those who suffer discrimination. Associations, volunteer groups, and large numbers of individuals are on occasion moved to make positive contributions. Without doubt, one of their contributions is to generate denunciations of these wrongs. However, such groups do not focus their actions on transforming the underlying structures that give rise to the problems. Their approaches are more closely related to humanitarianism than to conscious humanism, although among these efforts are many conscientious protests and actions that can be extended and deepened.
V. The Anti-Humanist Camp
As the people continue to be suffocated by the forces of big capital, incoherent proposals arise that gain strength by exploiting people’s discontent, focusing it on various scapegoats. At the root of all such neo-fascism is a profound negation of human values. Similarly, there are certain deviant environmental currents that view nature as more important than human beings. No longer do they preach that an environmental catastrophe is a disaster because it endangers humanity—instead to them the only problem is that human beings have damaged nature.
According to certain of these theories, the human being is somehow contaminated, and thus contaminates nature. It would have been better, they contend, had medicine never succeeded in its fight against disease or in prolonging human life. “Earth first!” some cry hysterically, recalling Nazi slogans. It is but a short step from this position to begin discriminating against cultures seen to contaminate or against “impure” foreigners. These currents of thought may be considered anti-humanist because at bottom they hold the human being in contempt, and in keeping with the nihilistic and suicidal tendencies so fashionable today, their mentors reflect this self-hatred.
There is, however, a significant segment of society made up of perceptive people who consider themselves environmentalists because they understand the gravity of the abuses that environmentalism exposes and condemns. And if this environmentalism attains the humanist character that corresponds, it will direct the struggle against those who are actually generating the catastrophes—big capital and its chain of destructive industries and businesses, so closely intertwined with the military-industrial complex.
Before worrying about seals, they will concern themselves with overcoming hunger, overcrowding, infant mortality, disease, and the lack of even minimal standards of housing and sanitation in many parts of the world. They will focus on the unemployment, exploitation, racism, discrimination, and intolerance in a world that is so technologically advanced, yet still generates serious environmental imbalances in the name of ever more irrational growth.
One need not look far to see how the right wing functions as a political instrument of anti-humanism. Dishonesty and bad faith reach such extremes that some exponents periodically present themselves as representatives of “humanism.” Take, for example, those cunning clerics who claim to theorize on the basis of a ridiculous “theocentric humanism.” These people, who invented religious wars and inquisitions, who put to death the very founders of western humanism, are now attempting to appropriate the virtues of their victims. They have recently gone so far as to “forgive the errors” of those historical humanists, and so shameless is their semantic banditry that these representatives of anti-humanism even try to cloak themselves with the term “humanist.”
It would of course be impossible to list the full range of resources, tools, instruments, forms, and expressions that anti-humanism has at its disposal. But having shed light on some of their more deceptive practices should help unsuspecting humanists and those newly realizing they are humanists as they re-think their ideas and the significance of their social practice.
VI. Humanist Action Fronts
With the intention of becoming a broad-based social movement, the vital force of humanism is organizing action fronts in the workplace, neighborhoods, unions, and among social action, political, environmental, and cultural organizations. Such collective action makes it possible for varied progressive forces, groups, and individuals to have greater presence and influence, without losing their own identities or special characteristics. The objective of this movement is to promote a union of forces increasingly able to influence broad strata of the population, orienting the current social transformation.
Humanists are neither naive nor enamored of declarations that belong to more romantic eras, and in this sense they do not view their proposals as the most advanced expression of social consciousness or think of their organization in an unquestioning way. Nor do they claim to represent the majority. Humanists simply act according to their best judgment, focusing on the changes they believe are most suitable and possible for these times in which they happen to live.
This Statement of the Humanist Movement gives greater definition of certain aspects of contemporary humanism, and in the next letter we will go on to consider other matters.
With this letter I send my warmest regards,
April 5, 1993
Seventh Letter to My Friends
This letter will speak of social revolution. But how is this possible, since certain arbiters of opinion have already explained that following the collapse of real socialism the word revolution has fallen out of fashion? Perhaps in the back of their minds is the belief that all revolutions prior to 1917 were simply precursors to the “real” revolution. And if the real revolution has failed, clearly this is a subject that may no longer be discussed.As is their custom, these right-thinking people continue to exercise ideological censorship, assuming the prerogative of conferring or denying legitimacy on words and fashions. The views of these bureaucrats of the spirit (or more precisely, of the media) continue to be diametrically opposed to ours: Previously such people believed the Soviet monolith to be eternal, while today they view the triumph of capitalism as an unalterable reality. They take it for granted that the substance of any revolution must involve bloodshed, accompanied by an indispensable backdrop of marches, gestures, fiery speeches, and banners waving in the breeze.
Hollywood cinematography and Pierre Cardin fashions were constantly present in their formative landscapes, so that today when they consider Islam, for example, they think of women’s dress, which causes them much concern. And when they speak of Japan, as soon as they have discussed the economic plan they can hardly wait to express their indignation that the kimono has never quite been phased out. If as children they were raised on a diet of books and movies about pirates, later they felt drawn to Katmandu, island vacations, preserving the environment, and “natural” fashions. If instead they relished westerns and action movies, later they viewed progress in terms of a war of competition and revolution in terms of gunpowder.
We are immersed in a world of codes of mass communication in which the formers of public opinion impose their message through newspapers, magazines, radio, and television; a world in which writers of limited intelligence determine which themes may even be discussed; a world in which reasonable people inform us about today’s events and explain to us the way things work. The company of those who may express opinion gather daily before the cameras. There in civilized fashion the psychologist, the sociologist, the political consultant, the fashion expert, the journalist who interviewed Khadafy, and the ineffable astrologer hold forth, one after another. And then all of them shout at us in unison: “Revolution? But that’s so completely passé!” In short, public opinion (that is, published opinion) maintains that everything is improving, despite a few setbacks, and certifies, moreover, the demise of the revolution.
But what body of well-articulated ideas has been presented to discredit the revolutionary process in today’s world? To date nothing more serious than talk-show opinions. In the absence of vigorous conceptions that merit rigorous discussion, let us go on at once to matters of substance.
1. Destructive Chaos or Revolution
This series of letters presents a number of commentaries regarding the general situation in which we now live. These descriptions lead to the following dilemma: Either we let ourselves be swept along by the tendency toward a world that is ever more absurd and destructive, or we give events a different direction. Underlying this formulation is the dialectic of freedom versus determinism, the human search for choice and commitment versus the acceptance of mechanical tendencies and processes with their dehumanizing end.
The continuing concentration of big capital to the point of worldwide collapse would be dehumanizing, as would be the results: a world convulsed by hunger and overflowing with refugees; a world of endless fighting, warfare, chaos, and constant fear; a world of abuse of authority, injustice, and erosion of basic liberties; a world in which new forms of obscurantism will triumph. It would be dehumanizing to go once more round the same circle until some other civilization arises, only to mechanically repeat the same stupid steps again—that is, if this is still possible after the collapse of the first planetary civilization that is now beginning to take shape.
Within this long history, however, one’s own life and the life of each generation is so short and so immediate that one sees the wider destiny of all as a simple extension of one’s own destiny, rather than one’s own destiny as a particular case of the wider destiny.
So it is that the lives people live today are far more compelling than any thought of the life that they or their children will live tomorrow. And, of course, for millions of human beings the situation is so urgent that they have no horizon left to consider some hypothetical future that might come to pass.
At this very moment there are already far too many tragedies, and this is more than enough reason to struggle for a profound change in the overall situation. Why, then, do we speak of tomorrow, if the pressing problems of today are so great? Simply, because the image of the future is increasingly manipulated and we are admonished to put up with present circumstances as if this crisis were something insignificant to bear. “Every economic adjustment,” their theories go, “has a social cost.” “It is regrettable,” we are told, “that for all of us to be well off in the future you will have to endure these hard times today.” “And when before,” they ask, “has there ever been such technology and medical care as the wealthy nations have today?” “Soon,” they assure us, “your time will come, too.”
And while they put us off, the actions of those who promise progress for all continue to widen the gap that separates the opulent few from the majorities who suffer ever-greater outrages. The prevailing social order locks things into a vicious circle, feeding on itself as it expands into a worldwide system from which no part of the planet is free.
It is also clear, however, that as positions become more radical and unrest grows more widespread, people everywhere are beginning to see through the hollow promises of society’s leaders.
Will everything end up, then, in the war of all against all? Will the future be culture against culture, continent against continent, region against region? Will it be ethnic group against ethnic group, neighbor against neighbor, and family member against family member as people flail about without direction like wounded animals trying to shake off their pain? Or instead will we include and welcome all the differences within the direction of world revolution?
What I am trying to express is that we are facing the alternative of either destructive chaos, or revolution as a direction that goes beyond the differences among those who are oppressed. I am saying that each day both the global situation and the particular situation of each individual will become more filled with conflict, and it would clearly be suicidal to leave our future in the hands of the same people who have directed this process so far.
No longer do we live in times in which one can simply wipe out all opposition and then the following day proclaim, “Peace reigns in Warsaw.” These are not times in which ten percent of the population can do as they please with the other ninety percent.
Yet today the world is becoming a single closed system where, in the absence of a clear direction for change, capital and power simply continue to accumulate at the expense of everything else. The result is that within this closed system one can expect nothing more than a continued mechanical increase in general disorder. And the paradox of closed systems tells us that any attempt to impose order on the growing disorder will only further accelerate the growth of that disorder. The only way out of this predicament is to revolutionize the system, opening it up to the diversity of human needs and aspirations. Proposed in these terms, the theme of revolution takes on more than usual importance, with a scope and ramifications it could not have had in former times.
2. Of What Revolution Are We Speaking?
the previous letter outlined positions regarding the questions of labor versus big capital, real democracy versus formal democracy, decentralization versus centralization, anti-discrimination versus discrimination, and freedom versus oppression.
If at present capital is steadily being transferred to the banking system, if the banking system continues to gain ownership of companies, nations, regions, and the world, then revolution implies that the banking system be transformed so that its services are made available without charging usurious interest.
If a company is constituted so that capital receives the profits while the workers receive salaries or wages, if company management and decision-making rest solely in the hands of capital, then revolution implies that profits be reinvested, diversified, or used to create new sources of employment, and that management and decision-making be shared by labor and capital.
If the regions, provinces, or states within a country have their hands tied by centralized decision-making, then revolution implies restructuring that centralized power into regional entities forming a federal republic, and for those regions to be similarly decentralized in favor of locally based power, from which all electoral representation must derive.
If health and education are provided in an unequal way to the inhabitants of a country, then revolution implies free access to education and health care for everyone, because these are clearly the two highest values of the revolution and must replace wealth and power in the current social paradigm. Viewing everything in terms of the priorities of education and health care provides the correct framework for dealing with the highly complex economic and technological challenges facing today’s society. It seems that in no other way, certainly not while wealth and power remain the highest values, can a society with evolutionary possibilities be formed.
The central argument employed by capitalism against new proposals is to cast doubt on them by continually asking where the financial resources will come from and how productivity will be increased, implying by this that it is only lending by the banking system and not the work of the people that is the origin of resources. Besides, what is the purpose of productivity if this production simply vanishes at once from the hands of those who produce it?
Nor are we taught anything extraordinary by the model of society that has been in place for some decades in certain parts of the world (and that is now beginning to fall apart). Whether education and health care are really progressing so remarkably in those countries still remains to be seen in light of the growing plagues, which are not only physical but also psycho-social.
If it is part of their education to create an authoritarian, violent, and xenophobic human being, if part of progress in health care is rising alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide, then such a model is obviously not valid. Although as humanists we will continue to admire the well-organized centers of education and the well-equipped hospitals, we will endeavor to ensure that they are placed at the service of all people without distinction. However, in regard to the content and meaning of education and healthcare, there are more than ample grounds on which to object to the present system.
This letter speaks of a social revolution that will result in a dramatic change in people’s living conditions, of a political revolution that will alter the power structure, and ultimately of a human revolution that will create its own paradigms in replacing today’s decadent values. The social revolution to which humanism aspires will come to pass through gaining the political power necessary to carry out appropriate transformations, but gaining that power is not in itself an objective. Moreover, violence is not an essential component of this revolution. What good would it be to follow the repugnant practices of imprisoning and executing one’s enemies? What would be the difference between this and what oppressors have always done?
India’s anti-colonial revolution was brought about by popular pressure and not through violence, and while this revolution remained unfinished due to the limited scope of its ideology, it did demonstrate a new methodology of action and struggle. The revolution that overthrew the Iranian monarchy was also unleashed by popular pressure; a takeover of the centers of political power was not even necessary as these were already “emptied,” destructured, until eventually they ceased to function altogether. Then, the intolerance that followed ruined everything.
Thus, revolutions are possible by various means, including electoral victory. But in every case drastic transformations of society’s structures must immediately be set in motion—beginning with the establishment of a new legal order that, among other things, will fully exhibit the new social relationships of production, prevent abuses of power, and modify the function of those structures that, although they come from the past, are still capable of being improved.
Today, however, neither the revolutions that are dying nor the new ones being born will progress past the stage of speeches within this stagnating social order. They will not develop beyond the stage of organized mobs if they do not advance in the direction signaled by humanism, that is, toward a system of social relationships whose central value is the human being, and not other values such as “productivity” or “a socialist society,” for example.
But to place the human being as the central value implies an idea that is totally distinct from what is generally understood today by the term human being. The current models used to characterize the human being are still far removed from the idea and the sensibility necessary to fully grasp the reality of what is human. Still, and it is important to point this out, beyond the confines of today’s naive and superficial models there are some signs of a revival of critical intelligence. To mention but one case, the work of G. Petrovich1 embodies concepts that presage the present development. He defines revolution as “the creation of an essentially distinct mode of being, different from all being that is non-human, anti-human, and not-yet-entirely-human.” Petrovich concludes by identifying revolution with the highest form of being, as “being in fullness” and “Being-in-Liberty.”
The revolutionary tide already in motion expresses the desperation of the oppressed majorities, and it will not be stopped. But this alone will not be enough, because a suitable direction for this process will not come about solely through the mechanisms of “social practice.” What is imperative at this time, when the human being is so completely circumscribed, is to move from the field of necessity to the field of liberty by means of revolution. Future revolutions, if they are to be more than putsches, palace coups, or the simple redress of class, ethnic, or religious grievances, will have to take on an inclusive and transforming character based on what is essentially human. And beyond the changes they will produce in the concrete situations of their countries, their character will be universalist and their objectives globalizing. Thus, when we speak of “world revolution” it is understood that the character and objectives of any humanist revolution or any revolution that becomes humanist, though it may take place in a limited area, will carry it beyond itself. And every such revolution, no matter how insignificant the location in which it takes place, will involve the essentiality of every human being. World revolution cannot simply be proposed in terms of “success,” but rather in its real and humanizing dimension. Moreover, the new kind of revolutionary who corresponds to this new type of revolution becomes, by essence and by activity, a humanizer of the world.
3. Action Fronts in the Revolutionary Process
Next I would like to expand on certain practical considerations related to creating the conditions necessary for a social force of sufficient unity, organization, and growth to position itself in the direction of a revolutionary process.
Today, the old thesis of forming common fronts among progressive forces based on minimum points of agreement has in practice become only “clusters” of partisan dissidents clinging together without connection to the wider society. The result is that contradictions accumulate among their leaders, who are reduced merely to pursuing media coverage and political self-promotion. During times when a well-funded political party could achieve hegemony over many fragments, it was viable to propose forming common fronts for electoral campaigns. Today, despite the fact that the situation has changed drastically, the traditional left continues to follow these same procedures as if nothing were different.
It is necessary to review the function of the political party in today’s world and to ask whether parties are structures that are still capable of setting revolution in motion. For if the prevailing system has completed the process of swallowing political parties, reducing them to hollow shells in an artificial activity controlled by big capital and the banking system, then a party of mere superstructure without any human base could achieve formal power (but not real power) without in the process necessarily introducing even minimal fundamental change.
For now, political action requires creating a party that attains electoral representation at various levels. It must be clear from the outset, however, that the objective of such representation is to direct the conflict to the heart of established power. In that context, a party member who becomes a representative of the people is not so much a public functionary as a reference who calls attention to the contradictions of the system, organizing the struggle in the direction of the revolution. In other words, party or institutional political work is understood here as the expression of a broader social phenomenon that has its own dynamic. In this way, while a party may reach its greatest level of activity during elections, the different action fronts that from time to time form its base will use these same elections to call public attention to social conflicts and to broaden their organizations.
Here we find important differences from the traditional conception of a party. Indeed, until only a few decades ago the party was thought of as the vanguard of the struggle, bringing together different action fronts. The proposal here is just the opposite: Action fronts organize and develop the base of a social movement, while a party becomes the institutional expression of this movement. In turn, such a party must create conditions so that other progressive political forces will be fully included; it cannot expect them to lose their identity and simply blend in. This party must reach beyond its own identity and form a broad-based front with other forces to include the many progressive factors that are now so fragmented. But this will amount to nothing more than agreements among leadership unless the party has a real base that orients the process.
This proposal is not, however, reversible; that is, this party cannot form part of a front organized by other entities that are merely superstructures. Such a party, whose real strength comes from the base organization, can form a political front with other forces that agree with certain basic conditions established by this party.
Let us now consider the various types of action fronts. Such fronts need to work in the administrative base of each country, focusing on city and local government. The idea is to develop in the workplaces and neighborhoods of the selected areas common fronts committed to actions that address real conflicts that have been correctly prioritized. This last point means that working to redress short-term grievances is meaningless if that struggle does not result in organizational growth and positioning for subsequent steps. It is important to make it clear to everyone just how each conflict is directly related to their standard of living, to health care, and to education (and as their understanding deepens, workers in the fields of health and education will tend to become direct supporters and later form part of the cadres necessary for directly organizing the social base).
The same phenomena that we find taking place with political parties in the present system are also occurring in unions and labor organizations. Thus, the proposal is not to win control of labor organizations or unions but to bring together the workers who will as a consequence replace the former leadership’s control. In this area it is important to encourage all systems of direct elections as well as any conventions and assemblies that commit the leadership—requiring either that they take positions on concrete conflicts that provide meaningful responses to the demands of the base or be bypassed. And certainly, labor action fronts must design their tactics with the objective of growth in the organization of the social base.
Finally, setting in motion social and cultural institutions that act from the base is of the utmost importance, because it allows communities that suffer discrimination or persecution to come together in a context of respect for human rights, finding a common direction notwithstanding their particular differences. The thesis that all ethnic groups, collectivities, and human groupings subject to discrimination must become strong by themselves so as to confront the abuse they are subject to exhibits a significant lack of understanding of the predicament we are all in. It is a position that stems from the notion that “mixing” with foreign elements will cause a loss of identity, when in reality it is precisely their isolated position that leaves them exposed and easily eradicated, or else left in a situation where they become so radical that their persecutors can justify direct action against them. The best guarantee of survival for minorities suffering discrimination is for them to form part of an action front with others to channel the struggle for their demands in a revolutionary direction. After all, it is the system taken as a whole that has created the conditions for discrimination, and these conditions will not disappear until that social order is transformed.
4. Revolutionary Process and Revolutionary Direction
It is important to distinguish between revolutionary process and revolutionary direction. From our point of view, a revolutionary process is understood as a set of mechanical conditions that are generated as the system develops. In this sense, such development creates factors of disorder that are ultimately either supplanted, assert themselves, or end up causing a breakdown of the entire scheme of things. According to this analysis, the globalization toward which the world is now proceeding is generating acute factors of disorder in the overall development of the system. And, as we have discussed in previous letters on more than one occasion, this process is independent of the voluntary action of groups or individuals. the problem that now arises is what, precisely, will be the future of this system, given that it is mechanically proceeding to revolutionize itself without the intervention of any progressive orientation whatsoever.
The orientation at issue depends on human intention and escapes the determinism of the conditions produced by the present system. I have already presented on previous occasions my position on the non-passivity of the human consciousness, its essential quality of not being simply a reflection of objective conditions, its capacity to oppose such conditions and to devise a future situation different from life at present [See “Fourth Letter to My Friends,” sections 3 and 4, and Contributions to Thought].