Class  and  Man


Class  and  Man

(1918 – #290)


The struggle of classes fills the whole history of mankind. It is not a discovery of the XIX and XX Centuries, although in these centuries it assumed new acute forms. This struggle occurred way back in the ancient world and there already it had quite varied appearances. Much that is instructive can be gleaned from the book of [Robert von] Pohlmann [1852-1914], “History of Ancient Communism and Socialism”. Certain pages bring to mind the chronology of our own days. The social uprising of the masses always and everywhere was alike as regards its psychological atmosphere. Too much gets repeated in social life, and it is difficult to imagine new combinations and settings. There was many a class communistic movement in the past, and they often assumed a religious hue. Suchlike communistic movements were especially characteristic of the era of the Reformation. The elemental communism of the lower classes is one of the oldest principles, periodically arising and making an attempt to topple the individualistic and hierarchical principles. Communism — is as old as the world, it was there at the cradle of human civilisation. Many a time within history have arisen the lower peoples, and there was the attempt to do away with all the hierarchical and qualitative principles within society and to establish a mechanical equality and mixing. This disruptive leveling and simplification of society always was non-correlative with the progressive historical tasks, with the cultural level. Periodically within history have occurred deluges of chaotic darkness which have striven to topple the societal cosmos and its laws of developement. Such a kind of movement over and over continually could become quite reactionary and throw off a people backwards. The socialist Lassal did not regard as progressive the peasant wars of the Reformation era, he regarded them as reactionary, i.e. contrary to the basic historical tasks of that time. And in elements of the Russian Revolution are active likewise the same old, reactionary forces, in it is stirred up the ancient chaos, lying beneathe the thin layers of Russian civilisation.

The class struggle, the original sin of human societies, tended to deepen and change during the XIX Century. In this progressive century human society became very materialised, it lost its spiritual centre, and the beastly greedy man attained an extreme intensity and expression. The moral character of the bourgeois-capitalistic century makes the struggle of classes for their interests all the more brazen, than in former centuries. And this is connected not with the fact of industrial developement, which is a good per se, but with the spiritual condition of European society. The spiritual poison in this society went from the top down, from the dominating classes to the oppressed classes. The materialistic socialism of Marx and others, having concentrated in itself all the poison of the bourgeois godlessness, failed to restrain itself amidst a more acute perception of the fact of class struggle, — it sanctified this fact and ultimately subjected man to the class. The means of struggle ultimately eclipsed the higher aims of life. Materialistic socialism, enslaved by the economic aspect of capitalistic societies, denies both man and human nature in common, it acknowledges only the class-man, only class collectives. There is begotten an altogether peculiar sense of life, it is only the masses that feel and they altogether cease to sense the individual man. Class represents quantity. Man however represents quality. The class struggle, elevated into an “idea”, has obscured the qualitative image of man. In our harsh era, with all the veils torn away, the naively amusing old mode of idealism is already an impossibility, impossible too is a turning away from the ugly fact of class struggles, from the perceiving of class antagonisms and class solidifications, distorting the nature of man. Class antagonisms and class distortions play an enormous though unappreciated role in social life. But upon this fact of nature ought not to depend our moral judgements and our reflections concerning the spiritual image of man. Human nature can be distorted by the class position of a man, the outward aspects of a man can become determined by class greed and class limitation. But the spiritual core of a man, the individual human image never is determined by class, is not dependent upon the social medium. And anyone, who denies this, winds up denying man, and commits a spiritual homicide. It is godless and immoral, in place of man with his good and bad traits, to see only some collective substance of bourgeois or proletariat. Such an idea of class kills the idea of man. This murder theoretically is committed in Marxism. Within elements of the Russian Revolution it gets to be committed practically and for real in dimensions yet unseen within history. The “bourgeois” man and the “socialistic” man cease to be people for each other, brothers by the One Father of the human race. Within this revolutionary element there cannot be a true liberation of man, since man is negated within his primal basis. The liberation of class as it were constrains and enslaves man.


From such time as the world became Christian and accepted baptism, within its religious consciousness it acknowledged, that people — are brothers, that we have One Heavenly Father. In the Christian world the master and the slave as regards their social trappings cannot look upon each other as wolves, in their sin perhaps they can, but they cannot in their faith. In their moments of clarity, in their spiritual depths they have admitted each other as brothers in Christ. The Christian world has remained a sinful world. It fell, it betrayed its God, it did evil, in it people hated one another, and in place of the law of love they fulfilled a law of hatred. But the sin of hatred, of malice and violence was recognised by all Christians as sin, and not as a virtue, not as a way to an higher life. The faith in man, as the image and likeness of God, has remained a belief of the Christian world. Man may have been bad, but his faith was good, and good was the spiritual foundation itself, lodged within Christ and His Church. Yet within the Christian mankind there occurred a grievous crisis. The soul of peoples and the soul of nations sickened. Faith became impaired, and there ceased to be a belief in man as in the image and likeness of God, since there had ceased to be a true belief in God. The very spiritual foundations of life became altered. Socialism was not to blame for this spiritual downfall, it occurred earlier. Socialism but slavishly adopted this unbelief in man and in God, it merely takes it to the limit and gives it a common expression. The unbelief in man led to the apotheosis of man. The struggle of classes ceased to be a socio-economic fact, it became a spiritual fact, it spread to all the junctures of human nature and human life. There did not remain a single corner of the human soul, within human experiences and human creativity, not intruded upon by the struggle of classes with their interminable pretensions. The theories of economic materialism anticipated and corresponded to the new human actuality — economism, flooding across all the scope of human life. And upon this basis was lost within human society a singular law of the good. The “bourgeois” good and the “socialistic” good want to have nothing in common between them, and over them stands nothing higher, of a single good. And therefore there is no longer a direct relationship of man to man, there is only the relationship of class to class. Revolutionary socialism, as transpiring at present in Russia, ultimately kills the possibility of the brotherhood of people on principle, in its new faith, in its very idea. And as regards this new faith, there is no longer man, there is only the bearer and declarer of an impersonal class substance.

Not only is it that the “proletariat” and the “bourgeoise” are not brothers to each other, being rather instead wolves, but also the proletarian is not a brother with his fellow proletarian, being rather instead “comrades”, comrades in interests, in woe, in togetherness of material desires. Within the socialistic faith, comrade has replaced the brother of the Christian faith. Brothers were united one to another, as children of the One God, through love, through a common spirit. Comrades are united one to another through a commonness of interests, through hatred for the “bourgeoise”, through a like material basis to life. Comrades in their comradeship have a respect for class, but not for man. Such a comradeship kills at the root the brotherhood of people, not only the higher unity of Christian mankind, but even the modicum of unity of civilised mankind. The French Revolution made bad use of the slogan, “Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood”. But brotherhood it did not realise and did not attempt to realise. The socialistic revolution imagines, that it can and ought to realise brotherhood. But it realises only comradeship, bearing an unprecedented divisiveness into mankind. Equality is not brotherhood. Brotherhood is possible only in Christ, only for a Christian mankind, since this — is a revelation of a religion of love. The idea of brotherhood is derived from Christianity and outside of it, it is impossible. The pathos of equality is the pathos of jealousy, and not of love. Movements, begotten by the passion of a leveling equality, breathe vengeance, they do not want to be sacrificial, but rather to take away. Brotherhood — is something organic, equality is however something mechanical. In brotherhood is affirmed every human person, in the equality of “comrades” there however vanishes every person into the quantitative mass. In the brother triumphs man, in the comrade there triumphs class. The comrade becomes a substitute for man. Brother — is a religious category. The citizen — is a political category, a state-legal category. The comrade — is a pseudo-religious category. The “citizen” and the “brother” have justification. But through the idea of the comrade, class kills man. Man to man is not a “comrade”, man to man is a citizen or brother, — a citizen in the state, in worldly society, and a brother — in church, in the society religious. Citizenship is connected with law; brotherhood is connected with love. The comrade denies law and denies love, he admits only common or contrary interests. In this conjunction or disunion of interests, man perishes. Man needs either a citizenly relationship to himself, laws acknowledging him, or a brotherly relationship to him, a relationship of free love.


The Russian people has to go through the school of citizenship. In this school has to be worked out a respect for man and his rights, there has to be perceived the dignity of man, as a being, living within society and the state. Every man and every people has to go through this stage, it is impossible to overleap it. When slaves in revolt declare, that the citizen condition for them is unnecessary and not to their liking, that they at once can pass directly over to an higher condition, then usually they fall into a beastly condition. The school of brotherhood works out the love of man for man, the consciousness of a spiritual commonness. This — is a religious plane, which ought not to be confused with the political plane. It would be unseemly and dishonest to transfer a miracle of religious life over to the life political and social, bestowing the relative with an absolute character. A compulsory brotherhood is impossible. Brotherhood — is the fruition of a free love. Brotherly love — is a blossoming of spiritual life. With the citizen however everything can be obligatory. Everyone can demand a respect for his rights, the acknowledging in him of man, even if there is no love. The socialistic comradeship is in its idea a forced virtue, a coercion to association, greater than that, which a man voluntarily would wish. “Comrade” is an impermissible muddling of “citizen” and “brother”, the mixing together of in society of state and church, the substituting of one plane by another, not that and not this. And these past months the word “comrade” in Russia has assumed a laughable and almost shameful significance. With it is connected for us the destruction of citizenship and an ultimate denial of a brotherhood of love. The class in the guise of the “comrade” has risen up not only against class, but class has risen up against man. In the raging of class hatred they have forgotten about man. Man however is an authentic and enduring reality. It is man that inherits eternity, and not class. Every class is a temporal and transitory phenomenon, it once was not and again will not be. Man is what is concrete. Class however is an abstraction. Within this abstraction are conjoined complex social interests and complex social psyches. But these abstract conjunctions can never form an authentic reality, a real value. The “proletariat” of the socialists is an abstract “idea”, and not a reality. In reality there exist only varied groups of workers, often differing in their interests, and in their manner of soul. Yet they want to compel the workers themself to submit to the abstract idea of the proletariat. And to this bloodless abstraction, like to an idol, they offer human sacrifices.

Class is likewise lacking in that reality, which is had by the nation, and the state. Class — is a very relative mode, it can occupy only a very subordinate position. Everything regarding “class” relates to the outward trappings of life, and not to the core. The attempt to posit at the basis of the fate of society the idea of class and the fact of class is a demonic attempt, it is directed at the extermination of man, of nation, the state, the church, all the genuine realities. Class, that to which they ascribe the supremacy, undermines everything of value and distorts all the vital settings of value. The working class, persuaded, that it is the sole chosen class, leaves no place for living, it steals and cripples everything. In Russia there will be no free citizenry, as long as Russians live under the power of the demonic idea of class. And this dark class idea will extirpate the remnants of brotherhood in the Russian people, as a Christian people. The hypnotic effect of the class idea distorts even socialism itself and bestows it a destructive and suicidal character. If socialism were possible and allowable, then at its foundation ought to be put man, and not class. Against class absolutism it is necessary to preach a crusade. In the darkness of the Russian people, in the grip of a false idea, deceived and abused, there ought to awaken man, the human image and the human dignity. The conceit and impudence of class are not an human worthiness, in them man perishes. In the masses of the workers and the peasants not only does man not awaken, but ultimately he becomes forgotten and sinks into the element of dark instincts. The Bolshevik collectivism also is a final obscuring in Russia of the human principle, of the human person, of the human image. The proletarian class communism on Russian soil is an experiencing of a primitive human communism. The revolution has set loose this communistic darkness, but it has done nothing in the life of the masses of the people for the developement of a free citizenry. A new and better life will begin in Russia, when the bright spirit of man wins out over the dark demon of class.

Nikolai Berdyaev.

8 January 1918

©  2006  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1918 – 290 – en)

KLASS I CHELOVEK. Article originally published in the weekly Journal “Narodopravstvo”, No. 20, 8 January 1918, p. 2-4.

Republished in Tom 4 of  Berdiaev Collected Works by YMCA Press, in the collection of 1917-1918 Berdyaev articles under the title, “Dukhovnye osnovy russkoi revoliutsii (Stat’i 1917-18)” (“Spiritual Grounds of the Russian Revolution (Articles 1917-18)”,  Paris, 1990,  p. 56-64.