Dialectics of morality

Issue: 113

Chris Harman

A review of Alex Callinicos, The Resources of Critique (Polity, 2006), £16.99

Alex Callinicos attempts to deal with important questions in this book. How is it possible for people conditioned by the structures of a certain society to go beyond these (a process Alex calls ‘transcendence’) to fight for a different society? How is it possible to find criteria of truth that escape social conditioning? And is it possible to lay down universally valid moral principles?

Alex approaches the issues by a critical appraisal of a number of recent philosophical and sociological works, by thinkers such as Badiou, Habermas, Zizek, Bidet and Negri. Readers should be warned that in doing so he adopts a style of writing much more difficult to follow than the lucid exposition of ideas he provides in the weekly columns he writes for Socialist Worker, and in works like An Anticapialist Manifesto and The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx. In this book he confronts the thinkers he deals with in their own, often opaque, terms: it is as if, in taking on such opponents, he has been forced onto their own ground. I know experienced International Socialism readers who have struggled to get through the book, and a couple who have given up in the process. His endeavour is, however, a worthy one—even though I disagree with some of his conclusions.

His discussion on agency centres around the ideas of Badiou and Zizek, both of whom, according to him, see sudden revolutionary change as arising, in an almost mystical way, out of nothing. He argues that there are sudden ‘leaps’, when people begin to act in ways that break with their own conditioning, but that these can be understood as a reaction to contradictions in reality not immediately observable on the surface. He bases much of his argument on the ‘realist’ theory of science presented by philosopher Roy Bhaskar (before he moved towards notions of spirituality derived from Buddhism). This sees reality as operating at different levels, so what is happening at the surface does not tell us what is really happening and what can happen. Tensions below lead to sudden breaks at the surface level: ‘strains within and between…structures…may well destabilise existing social relations and…motivate actors to seek change.’

These notions are not something particularly new discovered by Bhaskar. Marx pointed out in volume III of Capital, ‘All science would be superfluous if the outward appearance was the essence of things.’ Lukács stressed the distinction between different levels of reality in History and Class Consciousness, and much the same distinction exists in Engels’ discussion on ‘the real and the rational’ in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. But I do see some weaknesses in Alex’s approach to these questions. Although he is prepared to accept elements of the materialist dialectic working as operating in nature, in a way in which he used not to, he still dismisses certain dialectical notions, reducing the dialectic just to the transformation of quantity into quality.

He does not see how the notion of the ‘identity’ or ‘interpenetration’ of opposites provides an insight into the endless, contradictory dynamic of change in nature and society, with the fixed forms correctly categorised using formal logic transmuting in ways which it cannot grasp. And by dismissing the ‘negation of the negation’ as ‘idealistic’, he misses out on something central. Living things are not merely the sum total of the conditions which act externally on them (their ‘negation’) but absorb these conditions and react back on them, creating something new (‘negating’ their ‘negation’). Applied to humanity, it means that those who suffer passively from the conditions in which they find themselves have the potential of becoming conscious of the causes of their suffering and striving to master them. Alienation itself creates the possibility of the struggle against alienation (‘A is for alienation that makes me the man that I am,’ as the revolutionary folk singer of the late 1960s Alex Glasgow phrased it).

But not grasping these points fully, Alex weakens a generally correct approach to the question of agency and revolutionary change. Much less satisfactory, in my view, are his attempts to deal with the questions of objective knowledge and non-relativistic morality.

After spelling out the relativist case (in the version put by recent continental philosophers, although he could have done so using people who put the same ideas in a different form 40 or even 100 years ago), his own refutations seem a little feeble. On knowledge he seems to say that science has developed a set of procedures, and these enable us to get objective knowledge. But it is difficult see from his arguments what justifies these procedures.

Things are very much the same when it comes to morality. Alex claims that Marxism has suffered from a lack of an explicit morality in the past—‘an ethical deficit’. But his own attempt to provide one rests on what seems an arbitrary procedure.

After recognising that different moral codes are shaped by different social circumstances, he then claims that it is possible to escape from relativism by adapting the ‘liberal egalitarianism’ of the America philosopher Rawls (which is itself derived from Kant’s notion that asserting one’s own humanity means recognising others as ‘ends’ and not ‘means’) so as to justify a moral code with equality as its core precept. As I read the book, I waited expectantly to arrive at the pages in which Alex provided some reason other than his own predilections (which I of course sympathise with) for this approach. But they do not exist. He has not solved the task he set himself.

My view is that the weaknesses of Alex’s arguments come from his not taking seriously enough Marx’s comment in his Theses on Feurbach ‘that man must prove the truth, ie the reality and power, the this-worldliness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality and non-reality of thinking which isolates itself from practice is a purely scholastic question’. It is this approach which is encapsulated in Gramsci’s description of Marxism as ‘the philosophy of practice’.

Knowledge and moral systems both arise out of human activity—and that activity has been socially organised ever since our ancestors descended from the trees (indeed, even before that, studies of our closest primate cousins suggest). Through 99.99 percent of history humans’ interaction with each other and the world has been limited and so too necessarily has been their understanding of the world. In hunter-gatherer or peasant societies it is restricted to a very narrow geographic compass, with little knowledge of what is happening beyond the immediate region. So certainties about what is involved in the everyday tasks of making a livelihood are fitted into mythical accounts of the wider world.

In class societies knowledge is also limited by social factors. People do, of course, know what they themselves are doing. But the possibilities of fitting this into a wider framework of understanding are shaped socially. The leisure which provides opportunities to generalise about the world at large has generally been available only to the ruling classes and those who ingratiate themselves with them. But the practices of established ruling classes divorce them from much of the labour of interacting materially with nature (‘work’ is beneath them) and create a barrier to them seeing the world other than in their own narrow perspectives. And any established ruling class has to sanctify its rule with superstitions and irrational beliefs and is therefore frightened of developments of knowledge which undermine these. Meanwhile, the exploitation and oppression of the masses limits and distorts their understanding of reality in so far as they remain passive victims of class society.

But the fact that all knowledge is conditioned by social practice does not necessarily have to lead to relativism. For some forms of social practice cover a wider compass and so provide better insights into reality than others. A social class that is driven to confront the power of an existing ruling class has an interest in understanding the social process that produced that class’s power—that is, in going to the root of things in a way the ruling class does not. Intellectuals who identify with its struggles are capable of going beyond the old levels of knowledge—of understanding both the standpoint of the intellectuals of the old ruling class and the limitations to that standpoint. The claim to deeper knowledge cannot, of course, come simply from claiming to represent a new class. It has to be validated by an ability to take on the most difficult of the arguments put in the past, but to show that doing so involves a different perspective from the old one. This is the process Marx undertakes in Capital, which is simultaneously a completion of the efforts of Smith, Ricardo and other classical political economists and a critique of their perspective. It is this also which George Lukács attempted to undertake in the central piece on philosophy in History and Class Consciousness.

But the method does not only apply to knowledge of the world. It also has implications for morality. Moral concepts are not arbitrary concepts made up by or imposed on individuals. They are social products. They assert a view of what human beings should do if a society is to continue functioning so as to satisfy the needs of its members. To be ‘good’ is to behave socially in certain ways (or at least not to ‘misbehave’).In a stable, cohesive society which provides clear benefits to all its participants, what is involved is unproblematic. In, for instance, the foraging (‘hunter-gathering’) societies described by Richard Lee and Eleanor Leacock, people accepted unquestioningly that what was ‘good’ was fulfilment of their roles. They might have failed to do what they should, but would not then question that they had done ‘wrong’.

But things change with the move from such primitive communist societies to class societies. Then contradictory notions of what is ‘good’ arise. People are torn between contradictory moral codes. This, for instance, is where the power of the ancient Greek tragedy comes from—to abide by an old code is to infringe a new one. In the process moral codes of any sort can come to seem arbitrary as different social groups counterpose their codes to each other. Yet the very fact that they can argue over what is ‘good’ means that they all recognise, implicitly, that some code is necessary for social living to continue. Arguments over what is ‘good’ rest on arguments about reality, even if they seem not too. ‘Ought’ does rely on arguments about what ‘is’.

The central parameters within which these arguments take place are class ones. A class which fights to preserve existing society has one set of notions about what is necessary to keep society going, and attempts to impose on people the moral notions that correspond to this. It has to portray the values it propagates as the values necessary for society as a whole, what is good for itself as absolutely ‘good’. By contrast, a class which feels its needs are not met and presses for society to be reconstituted on a different basis necessarily begins to advance different interpretations of moral notions. The contradictory interpretations become most intense when society enters deep economic and social crises, in which ‘things cannot continue in the old way.’

Alex criticises as ‘relativistic’ what he sees as the traditional Marxist approach of denying that there can be any moral standpoint outside the context of a particular form of society. But the charge of relativism fails once you see the clash between rival moral codes as between those that try to preserve an old order which increasingly prevents society functioning on behalf of its members (threatening the reversion of ‘civilisation’ to ‘barbarism’ or the ‘mutual destruction of the contending classes’), and others that point forward to a reconstitution of society on a new basis.

The successive ‘modes of production’ humanity has lived through since the rise of class society five or six thousand years ago have not only involved different economic organisation; they have also represented different stages of simultaneously developing and hindering the capacity of human society to fulfil the needs of its members. And with capitalism we have the stage of a mode of production that not merely rests on the exploitation of most of society’s members, but which threatens the destruction of social living as such if it is allowed to persist. This is ‘immoral’ by any criteria of what is ‘good’. By contrast the struggles of the main exploited class under this system do throw up the notions of solidarity, sharing and egalitarianism. These lay the basis for a new morality (or rather, the rebirth ‘at a higher level’ of the morality of primitive communism) which offers a way out of such destructive tendencies. This is what the young Marx meant when he spoke of the proletariat as a ‘universal class’.

An approach that sees things in such terms provides a better basis for judging capitalism than the ‘liberal egalitarianism’ of Rawls.

Yet for all its problems this is a book which takes up important questions, even if it does not always provide answers.