MacIntyre’s Forgotten answers

Issue: 121

Chris Harman

Paul Blackledge and Neil Davidson (eds) Alasdair MacIntyre’s Engagement with Marxism: Selected Writings 195374 (Brill, 2008), £101.57

“The man who solved the Irish Question” was how Alasdair MacIntyre described James Connolly in an article in an early issue of New Left Review which is reprinted in this collection. MacIntyre was the man who came close to solving the problem of the relation between Marxism and morality—and then forgot the answer. Today he is one of the most renowned mainstream academic philosophers and a committed adherent of Roman Catholicism, albeit with an interpretation of what that means rather different to the current pope. What was his achievement as a Marxist, and what led him then to take a different path?

The achievement is to be found in some of the earlier pieces in this collection. Some of us have kept tattered photocopies of “What is Marxist Theory For”, “Notes from the Moral Wilderness” or “Breaking the Chains of Reason” for decades and it is fantastic to find them back in print.

MacIntyre wrote them in the late 1950s as part of the wider flowering of creative Marxist discussion among the early “New Left”—intellectuals and workers who had broken with Communist Party politics under the impact of the 1956 revolt against Stalinism that culminated in workers’ councils confronting Russian tanks in Hungary.

The New Left was a far from homogenous grouping. What bound it together was the sense that socialism should in some way or other come from below and be based on democratic structures, without being clear as to whether this would be achieved by reform or revolution. Its talk of “socialist humanism” or “Marxist humanism” amounted to insisting that socialism was the product of human agency, with the mass of people taking charge of their own destinies. This gave a certain excitement to its early discussions and enabled it to influence a good number of the young people involved in the huge protests against nuclear weapons at the time.

It was a great advance on the Stalinised caricature of Marxism that both the Communist Party and its liberal critics presented. That caricature saw progress as a mere reflex of the development of the means of production and socialist morality as any pragmatic move needed to advance the goals of the USSR. But rejection of the caricature did not mean any clarity on what was to replace it. If the building up of the means of production did not automatically lead to socialist advance, what role did the “economic base” play in history? And if morality was not just a question of the ends justifying any means, what was the alternative?

MacIntyre set out to answer these questions—and as he did so moved on from the vague Marxist humanism of the New Left milieu to an identification with Trotskyism that lasted nearly a decade, first as a member of the Socialist Labour League1 and then the International Socialists. His answer was essentially based on Marx’s early writings. These provide an account of human beings as above all else social beings. History is the history of successive generations of human beings transforming the world around them by collective action. But this transformation takes on an “alienated” form, in which past human action congeals into class societies that distort future human action. It is only by the working class taking over the enormously productive economic apparatus created by capitalism that we can return to a truly human society.

This has enormous implications for the question of morality. The alienation of capitalist society means the very notions by which we organise our relations with other people—and evaluate our own behaviour—become distorted. What we are taught we must do clashes with what we feel we need to do—and with other things we are taught to do. Moral judgements take on an arbitrary nature, and the attempts by modern philosophers to codify systems of ethics are equally arbitrary. It seems that we can choose to abide by one moral code or another, just as we can choose whether to wear a white shirt or a blue one. There is then no objective basis for making a moral decision or, as it is usually put, a factual description of the world cannot tell you how to behave—”is” cannot determine “ought”.

Yet moral decisions are ones we have to make. Socialists in 1956 had to decide whether they supported or opposed the crushing of the Hungarian uprising. Socialists today have to decide whether to support or oppose the Nato bombing of Afghan and Pakistani villages. And you cannot make such decisions just by uncritically examining your own conscience, since it contains all sorts of notions of “right” and “wrong” that reflect your upbringing in capitalist society. You have to at least try to find an objective basis for making such choices.

For MacIntyre in his revolutionary years, the objective basis lay in the struggle to revolutionise society from below through working class solidarity. Engagement in that struggle could provide a sense of how humanity could organise itself so as to overcome the alienation that causes needs and values to clash with each other. The conditions for developing that struggle provided the conditions for establishing “the good society” in which needs and values coincide. And it was from this vantage point that you could then arrive at criteria for making judgements about individual behaviour, including your own. The nature of capitalism and the struggle against it (“is” statements) determined what you had to do (“ought statements”).

MacIntyre only went so far in developing these ideas and then abandoned them, leaving only vague traces in his later writings. The Short History of Ethics he wrote in the mid-1960s is very valuable in locating the way in which different moral codes reflect the contradictory situations in which human beings have found themselves at various points in history, but it does not provide a guide for the present. In his most praised mainstream philosophical work, After Virtue, there is a strong recognition that existing society produces a clash between values and needs, but the socialist struggle is no longer the way to overcome the clash.

Some of the later pieces in this collection hint as to why he turned in that direction. He came to the conclusion at some point in the mid to late 1960s that the working class was not going to present the revolutionary challenge to capitalist society of which he had once been convinced it was capable. Factual analysis, he decided, did not lead to his old conclusion, and if the “is” was wrong, so then was the “ought”.

It was his analysis of capitalism, as shown in pieces such as “Prediction and Politics” and “Labour Policy and Capitalist Planning”, that was inadequate. He moved from the near-apocalyptic notions of the Socialist Labour League about the imminent collapse of the system (this was at the height of the post-war boom in the late 1950s) to a belief that state intervention could prolong the boom forever, with “the possibility of the capitalist coming to understand the system and taking steps to prevent the system collapsing”. The Marx who wrote Capital, he argued in 1964, had not foreseen this because he had fallen into the same trap as bourgeois political economy of seeing the development of capitalism as determined by “abstract categories”.

Marx, he argued, had returned “to the notion of inevitable and necessary laws governing human affairs—just the notion that the young Marx had attacked as a symptom of false consciousness and alienation”.

But it was MacIntyre who did not grasp the full degree of alienation captured by Marx in works such as Capital. Capitalism has developed into a system whose central dynamic of competitive accumulation escapes the control of its beneficiaries as well as its victims. It was precisely this insight that led the main theoreticians of the International Socialists while MacIntyre was a member, Tony Cliff and Mike Kidron, to provide an explanation of the long boom as a product of that supreme expression of alienation—the Mutually Assured Destruction of two rival ruling classes. This, they concluded, would, in a matter of years, give way to a new period of crises and intensified class struggle.

From a correct factual analysis they drew the correct conclusions as to what ought to be done; from a mistaken factual analysis, MacIntyre rejected their analysis of the “permanent arms economy” and like the social democrats of the time believed that state intervention could enable capitalism to postpone crisis and provide positive reforms indefinitely. But whereas the social democrats were led by their incorrect conclusions to embrace the system, MacIntyre continued to abhor it without being able to see it producing any agency that would fight against it. He broke with the International Socialists, regarded the insurgency of 1968 with disdain and turned his back on what he had once seen as the way out of the “moral wilderness”.

In an epilogue to this collection, written in 1995, he sees the alternative in “the modes of social practice in some relatively small-scale and local communities in which social relationships are informed by a shared allegiance to the goods internal to communal practices so that the uses of power and wealth are subordinated to the achievement of those goods”, which “make possible a form of life in which participants pursue their own goods rationally and critically, rather than having continually to struggle, with greater or lesser success, against being reduced to the status of instruments of this or that type of capital formation”.

It all reads to me like a call for hippie communes without hippies. If MacIntyre means by “morality” what he used to mean by it, such communities cannot be a moral response to what the system is doing to humanity in the 21st century, however personally satisfying they might be. We are faced with the depredations of a system of alienated labour that has escaped from all control. The global economic crisis, the “war on terror”, the periodic pillaging of the poorest countries, the “world of slums” and climate change are all expressions of this. There is a race between barbarism and socialism in which, at the moment, the odds are on barbarism. Cultivating your own garden with a few other people may be more pleasant than slaving for capital, but to identify it as a moral choice is to fall back precisely into the arbitrariness that the MacIntyre once castigated.

The very fact that you can criticise the old MacIntyre by the standards of the young shows the value of the earlier writings. Paul Blackledge and Neil Davidson have done a marvellous job in putting this collection together. MacIntyre may have forgotten answers he came close to finding. There is now no reason why other people should not build on his old insights and move in a very different direction to him.


1: Later, long after he left, renamed the Workers Revolutionary Party.