In 1968, the eminent moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre released a revised edition of his book Marxism and Christianity, a sympathetic reflection on Marxism as “a secular doctrine.” Small groups of “self-styled humanists, gathered together in ethical societies and freethinking groups,” he writes early in the first chapter, “present a picture of a pathetic kind, being on the whole less successful than the orthodox churches in gaining a hearing.” The only secular system of thought, he goes on, that “retains the scope of traditional religion in offering an interpretation of human existence by means of which men may situate themselves in the world” and pursues goals “that transcend those” made available by their proximate circumstances, is Marxism.
MacIntyre was right, but his comments might seem to imply that Marxism and organized humanism were wholly separate things. They were not. As I have shown elsewhere, Marxism was a major influence on mainstream humanism for an entire century beginning in the late 1870s.
That the mainstream humanist movement was socially marginal surely had something to do with Americans’ near-complete ignorance about democratic socialism and their generally reflexive conflation of anything socialist with Soviet-style authoritarianism. “Pathetic” as its general irrelevance may have been, within the context of recurrent Red Scares, McCarthyite witch hunts, inveterate anti-Leftist repression, and incessant pro-capitalist propaganda, there was a kind of heroism in humanism’s longtime espousal of socialistic principles. Alas, with the rise of Reaganism and the triumph of neoliberalism, economic radicalism has become all but extinct within organized humanism.
These days, remnants of that left-wing radicalism are nearly always obscure. Interestingly, one of them, the Fellowship of Humanity, a small “humanist church” located in Oakland, California, is the “first and oldest affiliate” of the American Humanist Association (Edwin H. Wilson, The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto, 1995). It is also, I would argue, an edifying and especially admirable exemplar of humanist philosophy.
In order to understand why the Fellowship is special, it’s necessary to do three things. The first is to connect the dots between socialism and humanist ethics. Humanism emphasizes human flourishing. For people to fully flourish, they need to be in a condition of economic wellbeing. Thus, humanism is utterly incoherent if it fails to focus on the problems of poverty and economic oppression.
The second is to keep in mind organized humanism’s modern origins. Both Ethical Culture and organized secular humanism were originally formed with the amelioration of poverty and economic injustice as core concerns. Consider Humanist Manifesto I. Published in 1933 in the New Humanist magazine (forerunner of the Humanist), Humanist Manifesto I clearly calls for replacing capitalism with democratic socialism. Humanists, one of its provisions says,
are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good.
These two things are necessarily connected. Under capitalism, the pillars of which include the exploitation of workers and the maintenance of large pools of insecure and unemployed people, there’s never been a period in which Americans haven’t been poor in large numbers. To the extent that it produces poverty and economic inequality and the suffering and traumas associated with them, capitalism is in fact anti-humanist. Hence the belief, shared by humanism’s founders and, as we’ll see below, members of the Fellowship, that it should be replaced with an economic paradigm aimed at fairness and the general welfare.
The third thing is to look at the Fellowship’s history. Founded by breakaway members of a Unitarian congregation, the Fellowship of Humanity was incorporated in 1935 as not only a humanist but an explicitly socialist organization. Its creation was largely inspired by the End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement, the main vehicle for the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign of the socialist writer Upton Sinclair. The New York Times called EPIC, in which Fellowship founders were very active, “the first serious movement against the profit system in the United States.”
With the exception of a few brief periods (one of which almost saw the organization fold), the Fellowship has always been committed to economic radicalism. At the height of Cold War hysteria during the 1950s and ’60s, the group’s building functioned as a communist community center. During the early 1970s, and again in the mid ’80s, communists held the role of president. Florence Windfall, a recent Fellowship president, calls these periods “heydays” for the organization. Windfall, a socialist advocate for “cooperative economics,” explains that, today, Fellowship members oppose “the present global economic system of corporate capitalism and predatory banking.”
Fittingly, then, the group has a long tradition of staunch support for organized labor. Referring to the building the Fellowship has long called home, Windfall wrote to me that “we consider Humanist Hall to be a Labor Hall.” The alliance with labor, as with the commitment to socialism, is part of the Fellowship’s broader commitment to equality. “We have long been inspired to bond with workers to defeat the capitalist class,” Windfall relates. “Ending poverty would mean ending the class system in which there is a sharp distinction between the rich owners of capital and the poor workers creating goods and services.”
Unfortunately, the Fellowship, whose members embrace what Windfall nicely calls “retro-humanism,” appears to be unique. As far as I can tell, of the more than 200 chapters and affiliates of the American Humanist Association, today the Fellowship is the only one that explicitly identifies as a socialist organization.
As James H. Stam observes, despite major changes in his philosophical beliefs, MacIntyre has always “maintained that Marxist socio-political critique and moral analysis is the most cogent and powerful available to us.” Applying Marxist analysis to our contemporary situation, the philosopher Terry Eagleton, a self-described “tragic humanist,” calls capitalism “the sorcerer’s apprentice.” It has “summoned up powers which have spun wildly out of control and now threaten to destroy us.” The function of socialism, as he says, is to bring “those powers…under rational human control.” Members of the Fellowship of Humanity have, quite rightly, long thought likewise.