Man, Henri de (1885–1953)

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MAN, HENRI DE (1885–1953)


Belgian socialist.

A native of Antwerp and a product of the prosperous Belgian bourgeoisie, Henri de Man became a major figure of European socialism. He was a leader among the many socialist theorists and activists of the early twentieth century who rejected orthodox Marxism and sought a new foundation for progressive politics.

According to de Man, Karl Marx's (1818–1883) theories, although perhaps well suited to the nineteenth century, were unhelpful in adequately addressing the realities of post–World War I capitalism. Bourgeois society had demonstrated, among other things, a kind of resilience that Marxist categories could not explain. The capitalist system of production and consumption had not produced a growing and increasingly immiserated proletariat. To the contrary, it had proven itself astonishingly effective in providing genuine material benefits to ever-wider segments of society. Moreover, Marxist class analysis could not account for the enormous success of American capitalism where, according to de Man's own firsthand observations, class consciousness, at least of the kind that had long characterized European societies, was largely absent.

In place of orthodox Marxism, de Man proposed a kind of humanism that was not limited to class analysis, that transcended purely economic notions of exploitation, and that sought to reestablish the importance of democratic culture and democratic politics for the socialist movement. The presumption of a purely utilitarian calculus of human wants, rooted in economic self-interest, was a serious defect that Marxism shared with bourgeois political economy. In response, de Man pursued larger notions of justice and human liberation involving, among other things, serious programs of worker education on the basis of which socialists might establish a truly democratic and responsible system of worker control over the industrial enterprise. He rejected what he regarded as abstract, mechanistic approaches to social analysis, Marxist and non-Marxist alike, and sought to emphasize instead the actual psychological features of modern social life.

De Man was a prolific and highly influential writer. But he is also one of those figures whose biography is perhaps as notable as his oeuvre. He was certainly the leading Belgian socialist of his time. He knew and worked with many of the great figures of the European Left, including Rosa Luxemburg (1870–1919), Karl Liebknecht (1871–1919), Karl Kautsky (1854–1938), and Leon Trotsky (1879–1940). Originally a radical Marxist roughly in the mold of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, de Man's views began to change with the advent of World War I. While socialists generally repudiated the war, de Man was deeply affected by the manifest victimization of Belgium. He enlisted in the Belgian army, fought in the trenches, and was decorated for valor.

After the war he visited Soviet Russia and witnessed the excesses of bolshevism; lived for a time in the Puget Sound area of Washington State, where he experienced the workings of American capitalism; and eventually moved to Germany, where he became a professor of social psychology at the University of Frankfurt, published his most important works—including The Psychology of Socialism (1926), Joy in Work (1927), and The Socialist Idea (1933)—and observed the rise of Nazism. After returning to Belgium in 1937 he authored the famous Plan du Travail, adopted by the Belgian Labor Party as a pragmatic economic strategy for dealing with the problems of the Great Depression. Eventually, he became a minister in the government.

Temperamentally ill suited to the give-and-take of official political life, de Man began to doubt the efficacy of democracy. In the face of the looming Nazi threat, he advocated a policy of appeasement, suggested that National Socialism could be a viable form of socialism, and was, in the end, nearly alone in supporting Leopold III's (r. 1934–1951) decision to surrender to, and even to embrace, the German invasion. De Man's notorious "Manifesto to the Members of the Belgian Labor Party" (1940) praised the Nazi regime as one that "has lessened class differences much more efficaciously than the self-styled democrats" and welcomed the prospect of an authoritarian type of socialism. For this, he earned the deep and enduring enmity of his countrymen. De Man fled Belgium in 1941 and after the war was convicted in absentia for treason as a collaborationist against the Belgian state—a symbol, to some, of the perils inherent in any attempt to adapt socialism to dictatorship.

See alsoBelgium; Collaboration; Socialism .


Primary Sources

Man, Hendrik de. A Documentary Study of Hendrik de Man, Socialist Critic of Marxism. Compiled, edited, and largely translated by Peter Dodge. Princeton, N.J., 1979.

——. The Psychology of Marxian Socialism. Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. New Brunswick, N.J., 1985. Translation of Zur Psychologie des Socialismus.

Secondary Sources

Dodge, Peter. Beyond Marxism: The Faith and Works of Hendrik de Man. The Hague, 1966.

Peter J. Steinberger