Marx and morals

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What does Marxism say about ethics? Mark L Thomas argues that Marx had a coherent theory of ethics that can overcome the contradictions of bourgeois morality, which is the subject of a new book by Paul Blackledge

When David Cameron or Iain Duncan Smith offers moral lectures to the poor about the merits of hard work and independence, socialists understandably turn away in disgust at their hypocrisy. It is wrong, they tell us, to "live off the state", yet the bankers who made millions speculating in financial markets but turned to government to bail them out when their bets went bad, are barely chided. Violence is loudly condemned when it is rioters overturning police cars or strikers stopping scabs crossing a picket line, but invading foreign countries and inflicting untold carnage is not only acceptable but invariably described as moral.

In a class divided society much talk of morality is simply a cloak for the interests of those who rule over us. In Plato's book The Republic the sophist thinker Thrasymachus denounces justice as the "advantage of the stronger" (the rest of The Republic is an attempt by Plato to refute this charge). Two and a half thousand years later, though we live in a very different form of class society from ancient Greece, one based on free labour rather than slavery, Thrasymachus's indictment retains its force.

But is all morality simply ruling class ideology? After all, socialists frequently condemn as wrong much of what takes place in our world. That the richest three people in the world have a combined wealth greater than the world's 48 poorest countries, while billions struggle to have enough to eat each day or find access to clean water is immoral, most of us would say.

But on what do we base such moral judgements? Are socialists being incoherent when they reject the existence of some neutral set of moral rules we can appeal to while at the same time expressing moral outrage at the events around us?

This is certainly the accusation that has been thrown at Marx. Marx is often seen as suffering from an "ethical deficit" since he denies history is driven by moral laws and rejects any notion of a universal moral standard that exists in all human societies regardless of time and place. Yet Marx too is animated by a moral passion - in Capital, he not only dissects the inner laws of the capitalist economy but also condemns it as a "vampire-like" system and denounces its intellectual apologists as little more than "hired prize-fighters".

A virtuous life?
The great merit of Paul Blackledge's book is that it not only offers a compelling resolution to this apparent paradox but in so doing provides an alternative to the dominant conceptions of morality that we face today, but which are unable to answer that most pressing question: how can we live a virtuous life in a world where community and virtue are constantly undermined by the destructive rule of capitalism?

At the heart of modern liberal morality is a fundamental divide between our needs and desires on the one hand, and on the other our supposed moral duties. There is an assumed gulf between what we want to do to satisfy our selfish interests and what is held to be right. Disinterested altruism and selfish egoism appear to stand in irrevocable opposition. How then can a stable moral society be created? This has been a central problem facing bourgeois thinkers since the 17th century.

One response has been to judge morality not in terms of our subjective intentions but in terms of the outcomes of our actions (sometimes called a "consequentialist" approach to ethics). The question is then: can selfish acts nonetheless generate morally good results?

Adam Smith's "invisible hand" of the free market is the most famous positive answer to this question. Despite everyone acting only in their perceived self-interest, the unplanned and spontaneous result of the workings of the market is beneficial to all and generates social harmony. The market, in other words capitalist social relations, is thus identified with freedom and a moral society.

Yet this clashes with our experience of the market as a social practice that is far from ensuring harmony and the collective good. Instead it generates vast (and growing) inequalities, repeated crises and social upheaval.

And can we really give no role to our intentions in how we understand what it is to act in a moral fashion?

Indeed, the fear among many bourgeois moralists is not that the market will lead to harmony but that the competitive interests at its heart will tear society apart. Thomas Hobbes writing in the mid-17th century in the midst of the English Revolution, famously invoked the threat of a "war of all against all". His solution in his key work, Leviathan, was for everyone to voluntarily give up their individual freedom to an absolutist state that would impose morality from above.

And, a century and quarter later, the German idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant, established the still dominant conception of morality - that is, a set of universal moral obligations and duties (Kant called these the "categorical imperative") that we freely decide to act on to restrain our natural desires and impulses. As Terry Eagleton has quipped, as far as Kant is concerned, if it feels good then it's probably wrong.

Kant replaces Hobbes's policeman in the form of an external state machine that dominates us with a policeman in our heads to ensure we resist the temptations of our natural impulses and instead act in a moral manner.

But again, can it be the case that our needs and desires are utterly opposed to living an ethical life?

In fact, Adam Smith, Hobbes and Kant all share with modern liberal morality a common conception: that the egoistic, atomised and competitive individual is the essence of our human nature. They assume, in other words, that capitalism is natural.

Marx has a very different starting point, as Blackledge shows. Humans are social beings who are compelled to engage in co-operative, collaborative labour on nature to survive. The emergence of a surplus over and above immediate sustenance as the productivity of labour expanded was a precondition for the emergence of class division. For the first time in history a minority could be freed from direct labour around 5,000 years ago.

The form that class division takes under capitalism, with workers who are legally free but with no ownership or control over the means of making a living, is a recent historical product (a few centuries in parts of western Europe and North America, much more recent in other parts of the world). It is not some expression of an innate underlying human nature.

And far from the market being the concrete embodiment of human freedom, capitalism is a world where human beings are dominated by the products of their labour (they are "alienated", as Marx puts it).

MacIntyre's morality
How does this link to an understanding of morality? Blackledge draws on the insights of Alasdair MacIntyre, today a leading academic moral philosopher, but who in the late 1950s and 1960s made an important contribution to the debates of the New Left as it attempted to disentangle the genuine Marxist tradition of socialism from below from Stalinism.

MacIntyre grasped that Marx saw how workers' collective struggles can overcome the gulf between human desires and duties that exists under capitalism. In fighting together for their needs - better conditions, wages and so on - acting in the collective interest itself becomes something workers also need and desire.

As Blackledge puts it, "The solidarity expressed in workers' collective struggles illuminates the fact that community, in a much deeper sense than a mere collection of egoistic atoms, has become both a real human need and also a potentially realisable desire of specific historical agents."

So workers are not simply fighting to impose their own class based morality (the right to strike, the right to break laws surrounding private property, even the need to use violence under some circumstances against the capitalist state and so on) but in so doing they are fighting for the liberation of the whole of humanity.

Blackledge charts the way that Marx's insights were lost as the dominant parties of the pre First World War socialist movement, grouped together in the Second International, increasingly came to combine revolutionary rhetoric with reformist practice. Marxism was transformed into a form of fatalism, where history moves independently of human practice and will. The collective practice of workers' struggles which offer the basis for overcoming the gulf between needs and duties was pushed into the background.

Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, Luxemburg and Luk√°cs all challenged this conception as the Russian Revolution helped restore human activity to the core of Marxism. But the isolation and defeat of the Russian revolution and the triumph of the Stalinist bureaucracy once again resulted in Marxism becoming identified with the denial of the central role of human agency in history.

Yet the expansion of human freedom through workers' own struggles is the key to Marx's strategy for both a social and a moral transformation. As Alasdair MacIntyre put it in 1960, "The topic of freedom is also the topic of revolution."

Paul Blackledge, Marxism and Ethics: Freedom, Desire and Revolution has just been published in paperback by Suny (2012)