Secular Humanism—a Road to Socialism?

Allen H. Agnitti

After reviewing the “The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles, which appears in many issues of Free Inquiry, one might consider the following as an accurate paraphrase: “In addition to the commitment to a number of basic values, hard knowledge, and rational calculation … it is an obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions which produce avoidable suffering, oppression, hunger, wars, racial and national hatred, insatiable greed, and vindictive envy.” It does seem to capture the gist of several Statement affirmations; it is also a definition of democratic socialism from a prominent twentieth-century secular voice, Lesjek Kolakowski1. What is notable in both is a voice of compassion and a concern for social justice.

A secular viewpoint does not always entail a humanistic one. The cause of secularism alone would bring into the fold a variety of harsh and callous voices, such as social Darwinists and partisans of the repugnant philosophy of Ayn Rand. But in adding humanist to secularism, one draws a bold line of separation, leaving outside Rand’s followers and, I would suggest, most of the contemporary champions of capitalism and the “neo-liberal” gospel of austerity. Can capitalism in any of its versions be viewed as a path to the goals expressed by Kolakowski or in Free Inquiry’s list of affirmations? Other than occasional humanistic concerns voiced in its early days by Adam Smith, one would be hard pressed to synchronize capitalist doctrines with the humanist agenda above.

Like secularism, the term socialism is a big tent under which one finds various doctrines coexisting uneasily or at times in conflict. Many secular humanists would shy away from the label “socialism”—or even the qualified form of democratic socialism—for a variety of reasons: having been raised in the Cold War intellectual climate in which capitalism was all-American and not to be challenged, or associating socialism with its U.S.S.R. version, or adhering to capitalism in the belief that it created the beneficial advances of the modern age, or fearing the encroachments of “big government,” or simply rejecting the label for more socially acceptable terms such as liberal or progressive.

One does find different roads leading to socialism, some of them nonsecular. Michael Harrington, secularist and founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, was inspired in his early days by Catholic socialist Dorothy Day. Liberation theology in its day led to reformist programs shared by socialists. In the nineteenth century’s Gilded Age, there were Protestant ministers with similar goals to the secular socialist Eugene V. Debs and reform advocates similar to the hero of Albion Tourgee’s novel Murvale Eastman: Christian Socialist. One of G. K. Chesterton’s critical analyses of capitalism concluded that, unlike past systems of social control relying on force, the capitalist liberal order, complacent in its bestowal of equal political rights, had “produced a peculiar thing, which may be called oppression by oblivion.”2

The more notable advocates of socialism, however, have come from a nonreligious perspective. The socialist proponent has more often than not been anticlerical if not antireligious. Commonly associated with a nonreligious viewpoint, socialism has often been identified with forces of godlessness and immorality by church hierarchs intent on preserving the status quo or even championing a reactionary agenda. The most recent prominent secular advocates for a democratic socialist agenda have been Harrington and Barbara Ehrenreich. The tireless campaigner for Fabian socialism, George Bernard Shaw, included humorous barbs against organized religion among his critiques of capitalism. Of course, one of the most renowned secular champions of socialism is Karl Marx. The spectral figure of Marx is an obstacle for many who might consider the socialist perspective, owing to his most prominent progeny—Marxism-Leninism, the U.S.S.R., and Stalinism.

For those uneasy with the Marxist heritage or exasperated by fruitless discussions of historical materialism, there is another secular road to socialism, one found in the heritage of the Enlightenment—the pursuit of liberty. This ideal led to the separation of church and state, to affirmations of “the rights of man,” and to the advent of liberalism. Like socialism, there have been a variety of beliefs associated with the term liberalism, because liberty has been variously defined, often in line with a class perspective. For an illustration, one might look at the disparate opinions propounded by members of France’s National Assembly as it evolved after the 1789 revolution.

Tracing the evolution of Liberalism from the early advocates of laissez-faire capitalism on, one finds several prominent liberal thinkers ending up with a socialist agenda, especially after weighing the social horrors of the Gilded Age while exploring the question “What is it to be free?” The creep toward a socialist perspective is often first spotted in the later works of the utilitarian John Stuart Mill, then in the work of the idealist philosopher Thomas Hill Green. The trend blossoms to fruition in the sociological and philosophical works of L. T. Hobhouse such as Liberalism (1911) and The Elements of Social Justice (1922).

In Italy, a similar development is reflected in the works of Norberto Bobbio (1919–2004) and, most concisely and cogently, in Liberal Socialism, the major work of Carlo Rosselli, a leading opponent of Mussolini’s regime and victim of Fascist assassins in 1937. His recommendations for a more just society follow his exposition of why the Marxist perspective has devolved into distressing and sterile debates among various revisionists and “true” Marxists. Abandoning the Marxist path, he instead embraces the concept of liberty in a manner similar to Hobhouse, expanding its definition to include the social conditions that would enable each person to reach for the fulfillment of individual potential. As another Italian liberal put it, the “formation of human individualities is the work of freedom”; the liberal presupposes “that this capacity belongs to every man as man, and is not the privilege of a few.”3 Rosselli wrote:

Socialism … is not the proletariat in power; it is not even material equality. Socialism, grasped in its essential aspect, is the progressive actualization of the idea of liberty and justice among men: an innate idea that lies more or less buried under the sediment of centuries in the marrow of every human being. It is the progressive effort to ensure an equal chance of living the only life worthy of the name to all humans, setting them free from the enslavement to the material world and material needs that today still dominate the greater number, allowing them the possibility freely to develop their personalities in a continuous struggle for perfection against their primitive and bestial instincts and against the corruptions of a civilization too much the prey of the demons of success and money.4

And from Hobhouse’s Liberalism:

Liberal socialism … must emerge from the efforts of society as a whole to secure a fuller measure of justice, and a better organization of mutual aid. … It must give the average man free play in the personal life for which he really cares. It must be founded on liberty, and must make not for the suppression but for the development of personality.

… That there are rights of property we all admit. Is there not perhaps a general right to property? Is there not something radically wrong with an economic system under which through the laws of inheritance and bequest vast inequalities are perpetuated? Ought we to acquiesce in a condition in which the great majority are born to nothing except what they can earn, while some are born to more than the social value of any individual of whatever merit?

Rosselli and Hobhouse both emphasize that liberal socialism is a road without a utopian final destination; rather, as might be inferred from Kolakowski’s definition, socialism’s goal is simply to continue a never-ending struggle for freedom and justice.

Another tradition in line with liberal socialism, the political legacy from the Progressive era, would be an additional platform for secular humanists promoting social justice. The rousing 1910 speech of Teddy Roosevelt in Osawatomie, Kansas; the inspiring words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—his Four Freedoms speech, among others; the achievements of President Johnson’s Great Society programs; and the works of Herbert Croly such as The Promise of American Life (1909) and Progressive Democracy (1915), compose a testament to our country’s past concern with fairness in the distribution of wealth. The predominant popular meaning for liberal stems from this tradition.

Embracing the liberal version of socialism might continue an unattractive position for many Americans, faced with their neighbors’ automatic dismissal, or even hostility, whenever one introduces into a conversation the term socialist—and in some cases even liberal. To focus on the definition of liberty, however, is to remain as all-American as the proverbial apple pie.

In brief, the right to life and liberty must mean more than civil rights; it must also include a life free of indigence. For those just struggling to exist, political freedom has little significance. Liberty includes property rights but must refer not to the right to amass wealth to the detriment of others­ but to the right for everyone to have the minimal amount of property that is necessary to satisfy basic needs and to enable one to develop one’s potential to the fullest. Liberty also means a right to work, because one can only truly live by work. A defect of the current economic system is that the working person can only work on condition that some person or private organization permits him to work; it leaves workers vulnerable and defenseless against an economy’s upheavals and transitions. A worker without the contractual rights provided by a strong union or by legislation is a worker without freedom.

These rights are not beyond the resources of our economy. The progressive-era legacy includes two major tools for obtaining social justice: the graduated income tax and the inheritance tax—two measures strengthened during the New Deal era, still substantial in the Eisenhower era, and currently emasculated by policies adopted in the decades since the election of Ronald Reagan. Another tool to ensure social justice is the rights of labor in the workplace, once again a measure proposed by socialists and implemented to some extent by progressives.

What we see in American history is an oscillation on the political spectrum. Neither laissez-faire capitalism nor a socialist variant, our mixed economy reflects the continuing existence of past advances toward a fairer society. Even with today’s pathetic national leadership, we still see in effect measures proposed by socialists and other progressive activists and implemented during past progressive eras. The United States is far behind today’s social democracies in Europe, but we have not yet sunk to the level of plutocratic dominance that marked the Gilded Age’s laissez-faire culture.

In the rationales offered by advocates of less regulation and further reduction of taxes on large capital accumulations, one hears echoes of Gilded Age arguments: look at the increasing national wealth, respect the will of God, acknowledge that the strong dominating the weak is nature’s way, do not cater to the moral weaknesses of the lower classes. But one hears no solutions from the capitalist champion when the following issues are raised: inadequate food, housing, education, and medical care; millions of working poor, unemployed, or those on the brink of financial insolvency; the dominant role of big money in our political process. To answer with the sanctity of property rights as narrowly defined, trickle-down theories, and rags-to-riches fairy tales is truly to consign the struggling lower and middle classes to oblivion.

A response to our society’s increasingly unjust distribution of wealth can begin with Shaw’s moral affirmation regarding a similar situation in Victorian England: “As I see it, this is not a thing to be argued about or to take sides about. It is stupid and wicked on the face of it … .” While one can credit capitalist theory with its recognition of the roles of self-interest, competition, and the market law of supply and demand, the continuing injustice of the distribution of wealth demands more than celebrations of increased production and technological advances.

As is especially evident in the Trump era, many opponents of secularism have aligned with the forces of plutocracy. The secularist continues the struggle to preserve the liberty signified by the doctrine of church-state separation. The secular humanist must not only preserve that liberty but also expand the conception of freedom until it includes the goal of a fair society. Secular humanism thus combines a nonreligious view of life with a commitment to continuing on the road to social justice—whatever one calls that road—whether socialism, progressivism, liberalism, or just humanism.



  1. Polish philosopher and intellectual historian, quoted by former U.K. Chancellor Denis Healey in The Time of My Life (1989).
  2. G. K. Chesterton, Cobbett and Capitalism (1926).
  3. Guido de Ruggiero, The History of European Liberalism, trans. R. G. Collingwood, 1925.
  4. Socialismo liberale (Liberal Socialism), trans. Wm McCuaig, ed. Nadia Urbinati, 1930s.

Allen H. Agnitti

Allen H. Agnitti is an adjunct instructor in history and an attorney. The above is adapted from his With a Thousand Antennas: A Dilettante’s Story (Dog Ear Publishing, 2016).

After reviewing the “The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles,” which appears in many issues of Free Inquiry, one might consider the following as an accurate paraphrase: “In addition to the commitment to a number of basic values, hard knowledge, and rational calculation … it is an obstinate will to erode by inches the …

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