Marxism and ethics

Issue: 120

Paul Blackledge

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all1.2

There is a widespread myth that Marx either rejected ethics altogether or that his comments on ethics and morality are at best incoherent.3 These claims have a superficial plausibility. For instance, he could argue that the emergence of a contradiction between capitalists and workers “shattered the basis for all morality, whether the morality of asceticism or of enjoyment”,4 yet he used moral language to condemn the “vampire-like” nature of capitalism and the “hired prizefighters” who attempted to justify it, while heaping moral praise on the honesty of the British Factory Inspectors.5

Such apparently contradictory statements have been seized upon to suggest not only that Marx’s criticisms of morality are incoherent but also that his use of a fairly standard moral vocabulary in Capital undermines the scientific pretensions of this work. As we shall see, these criticisms miss their mark.

It is true that Marx did aim to escape the “impotence”6 of the moralistic forms of anti-capitalism he encountered in the 1840s. But this did not involve an outright rejection of ethics.7 His criticisms of morality should be understood as a more limited rejection of the modern liberal assumption, perhaps best expressed by Immanuel Kant, that moral behaviour involves the suppression of natural desires that are seen as selfish and individualistic.8

The starting point for Marx’s alternative ethics is the collective struggles of workers against their exploitation. He argued that these struggles expose the limitations of freedom in a capitalist society while simultaneously engendering virtues of solidarity that point beyond the limits of liberal conceptions of morality.

It is from this perspective that he revealed the historical and political biases that are assumed by modern moral theory while pointing beyond it to a justifiable ethical critique of capitalism, and from which we are able to differentiate between what Leon Trotsky called “their morals and ours”.9

Ethics before Marx

The novelty of modern post-Kantian moral theory becomes apparent if we compare it with the classical Greek conception of ethics. Greek ethics, especially as developed by Aristotle,10 was unlike modern moral philosophy in that it did not suppose that to be good entailed acting in opposition to our desires. Aristotle held to a naturalistic ethics that related the idea of good to fulfilling human needs and desires.11 The good for man is eudaimonia.12 This is usually translated as happiness, wellbeing, self-realisation or flourishing, and Aristole relates it to our human nature or essence. In his model the virtues are those qualities which would enable individuals to flourish within a community.13 And because Aristotle recognised that humans are only able to flourish within communities—he defines us as “political animals”—he made a direct link between ethics and politics. The question of how we are to flourish led directly to questions of what form of social and political community would best allow us to flourish. Consequently, as against those who would suggest an unbridgeable gulf between ethics and politics, Aristotle declared the subject matter of his book on ethics to be politics: “The science that studies the supreme Good for man is politics”.14

While the specificities of Aristotle’s account of what it is to flourish were distorted by his “class-bound conservatism”,15 there is nothing intrinsically elitist about his system.16 It does, however, presuppose a pre-Darwinian model of human nature that is at odds both with modern liberal conceptions of individual egoism and with Marx’s historical humanism.

At the centre of liberal political theory is the egoistic individual. While this model of our individuality is often assumed to be obviously true, the biological fact of our individuality should not be confused with the ideology of individualism. To see why this is so it is instructive to recognise that the first intellectuals to put the figure of the individual at the centre of their works were Machiavelli and Luther, both writing in the early 1500s,17 and the first systematic attempt to conceptualise individualism was articulated more than another century later by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651).

According to Hobbes the central fact of human nature is a desire for self-preservation. From this physiological starting point he concludes that in a situation of material scarcity individuals would tend to come into conflict with each other over resources and this would result in a “war of all against all”.18 He argues that in this context concepts such as good and bad relate to the need for self-preservation. Consequently, if by killing you I acquire the resources necessary to live, then while this would be bad for you it would be good for me. Accordingly, the might of the individual becomes the basis for what is right.

Since the 17th century, moral theory has attempted to escape the relativistic consequence of Hobbes’s thought while continuing to accept something like his model of competitive individualism.

Marx points to a fundamental problem with this approach. The further one looks back into history, he writes, “the more does the individual…appear as dependent, as belonging to a greater whole”. Through pre-history and on through pre-capitalist modes of production the individual’s sense of self was mediated through family and clan units. Conversely, it is only with the rise of capitalism that social relations between people “confront the individual as mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity”.19 The “private interests” assumed to be natural by Hobbes, and following him modern moral theory, are a product of history. They are “already a socially determined interest, which can be achieved only within the conditions laid down by society and with the means provided by society”.20 Whereas in pre-capitalist societies individuals conceive themselves through mutual relations involving obligations; in modern capitalist society individuals appear “unconstrained by any social bonds”.21

Engels points out that in the medieval period, despite the fact that the bulk of peasant production and appropriation was carried out individually, local bonds of solidarity among feudal Europe’s peasantry were underpinned by those forms of communal land which the peasantry needed in order to survive and which helped them resist lordly power.22 By contrast the emergence and eventual dominance of capitalist market relations involve production becoming socialised while appropriation remains individualised.23 This generates a contradictory relationship. Socialised production means that humans depend for their very existence upon a massive web of connections through each other, whereas individual appropriation implies that these individuals confront each other merely as competitors. Modern moral theory arose against the background of this contradiction. So, whereas pre-modern thinkers had assumed that people are social animals and thus that individuals cannot be understood except as part of society, modern moral theory is confronted by the reality of society but can only conceive it negatively as a series of Hobbesian competitors.

Social contract theory, utilitarianism, Kantianism and even modern virtue ethics can all be understood as attempts to provide an answer to the problem of how to formulate a common good in a world of egoistic individuals. While Marx’s criticisms of morality involve a rejection of these approaches, his criticism of Kant does not involve a crude materialist rejection of the concept of human freedom. Rather he follows Kant in putting human freedom at the centre of his social theory, while arguing that Kant fails to understand real human freedom.

Roughly speaking, Kant argued that morality involves the use of reason to overcome our natural competitiveness so as to allow us to come together in mutual respect. The moral law for him, as for the Protestant tradition in which he was raised, acts as an impediment to our selfish and sinful desires. He could not accept Aristotle’s naturalistic approach to ethics since he believed our selfish nature prevents our needs from underpinning a moral order. It is this that underlies the modern claim that there is no necessary connection between statements of fact and value judgements—or between “is and ought” as it is often put. The 18th century philosopher David Hume had asked how, if it all, it was possible to move from describing a situation to judging it.24 Kant answered that there was an unbridgeable gulf between these two terms: there could be no non-moral reasons for a moral act.

Kant’s aim was to provide good reasons for acting in line with an unconditional moral requirement he called the “categorical imperative”. One of its formulations was to “act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end”.25 Such arguments had a powerful appeal to generations of radicals. Writing in 1925, the “Austro-Marxist” Max Adler argued that “Kant’s ethic represents a philosophical expression of the human aims of socialism”,26 and a revolutionary of the stature of Karl Liebknecht embraced Kant’s ideas. However, so too have much more conservative figures, and Kant himself accepted a number of what we would consider to be “very extreme (even repellent) positions on certain ethical issues”.27 Indeed, precisely because he sought to provide existing moral opinion with theoretical rigour his thought has been labelled as “an essentially conservative view”.28

This ambiguity points to an important problem with his approach: it fails to provide a concrete guide to action. The later German philosopher Hegel pointed to the abstract nature of Kant’s morality, which he characterised at one point by its “sublime hollowness and uniquely consistent vacuity”.29 More generally, he argued that Kant’s moral standpoint, far from being the perspective of pure reason, in fact reflected “the ethical life of the bourgeois or private individual”.30

The Marxist philosopher Lucien Goldmann, commenting on Hegel’s claim, suggests a more general weakness with modern moral theories. He argues that “it is not Kant’s ethic which is an empty form but that of actual man in bourgeois individualist society”. By assuming bourgeois individualism Kant is compelled to conclude that the universal moral community posited by the categorical imperative can only exist at a formal rather than at a real level. For him, our very nature causes our needs and desires to be those of atomised, competitive individuals, and so he could conceive of no social basis for acting as he believed we should, except by way of some duty which pulls against those needs and desires.31 Other bourgeois moral theories, by assuming an egoistic model of human nature, are just as incapable of envisaging a way of overcoming the gap between our individual needs and desires on the one hand, and the reality that we live in a social world on the other.

Consequently, such theorists tend to view morality and community as top-down impositions on people. And whereas conservatives embrace this authoritarianism, anarchists and liberals either reject or seek to ameliorate it. Alternatively, utilitarianism, the dominant voice of moral theory in the English speaking world over the last couple of centuries, attempts to deal with the problem by denying its existence. Instead the utilitarians argue that individual selfishness leads to a general increase in wealth, which in turn makes us all happier. Whatever its radical roots, this approach has been used to justify all manner of inhuman acts in the name of their future consequences,32 and by conflating happiness with increased wealth it is blind to the way that modern societies generate so much unhappiness.33

The fact that utilitarianism is simultaneously so inadequate as a moral theory and so popular among apologists for the status quo reflects a deeper problem with modern moral theory. Because we live in a fragmented world of competing interests reason itself becomes fragmented into so many competing arguments for different visions of what is right. So modern moral philosophers can agree, for example, that the world is an incredibly socially unequal place, but disagree as to whether or not this is a desirable situation. For instance, contemporary political philosophy is dominated by a debate between libertarians such as Robert Nozick who excuse social inequalities by defending private property rights and egalitarians such as John Rawls who justify such inequalities only in so far as they “benefit the least advantaged”.34 In a classic commentary on such debates Alasdair MacIntyre suggested that the variety of arguments deployed to rationally justify each modern approach to the question of how we ought to live are best understood as varieties of “emotivism”—the belief that the phrase “this is good” can essentially be translated as “I approve of it”.35 This explains both the intractability of these debates, and the fact that moral and political philosophy tends to be a graveyard for political practice. By suggesting that there is no way of agreeing about the kind of world we should live in, these debates undermine any positive model of a better world and therefore tend to act as a tacit apology for the status quo.36

One attempt to escape this predicament involves a return to classical (Greek) virtue ethics.37 Instead of focusing on the intentions of actors or the consequences of actions, virtue ethicists insist that the key ethical question should be, “What kind of person ought I be?” Unfortunately, while these writers hark back to classical discussions of ethics, Aristotle’s model of human nature is not only inadequate once we accept Darwin’s proof that humans are a product of natural evolution, but it is also at odds with liberal conceptions of our natural state as one of conflict. Developing a virtue ethics that goes beyond the limits of liberalism by drawing together individual and social conceptions of the good requires that we indicate some social and historically specific practices through which non-egoistic forms of human relations might emerge. It was Hegel who first pointed towards a solution to this dilemma by suggesting a historical model of human nature.

Both modern and classical conceptions of ethics share one common theme. They tend to treat the very different social contexts in which they were formulated as unchanging features of nature.38 Hegel’s great contribution to moral theory started from a historical comparison of these two contexts: asking how and why we (or more precisely Germans at the turn of the 19th century) are different from ancient Greeks. By doing this he began a process, later completed by Marx, of synthesising and overcoming the limitations of both Kantian morality and Aristotelian ethics.

Just as Aristotle sought to base his ethics on a model of human essence, Hegel insisted that ethics must start from a model of “what human beings are”. It is only when they are so grounded that it is possible to say “that some modes of life are suited to our nature, whereas others are not”.39 He followed Aristotle in assuming that the goal of life is self-realisation, but he broke with him by arguing that it is only by way of freedom that this is possible. Whereas Aristotle insisted that happiness is the end of life, Hegel believed with Kant that the end of life was freedom.40 But unlike Kant, who counterposed freedom to necessity, he insisted that to act freely was to act in accordance with necessity.41 He thus criticised “Kant for seeing dichotomies in the self between freedom and nature…where he ought to have seen freedom as actualising nature”.42 Moreover, he believed that moral laws, far from being universal in some transhistoric sense, are in fact only intelligible “in the context of a particular community”, and can be universalised only to the extent that “communities grow and consolidate into an international community”.43

Hegel thus provided a social content to the concept of freedom by relating it to the movement of “a living social whole”.44 In so doing, he simultaneously worked a dramatic change on Aristotle’s concept of happiness. For if human nature evolves with the cultural evolution of communities then so too does the meaning of self-realisation. His ethics is therefore best understood as a form of “dialectical or historicised naturalism”.45 It was this historical understanding of human nature that provided Marx with the basis from which he went beyond existing materialist (Hobbesian) and idealist (Kantian) models of agency.

There is something appealing about both materialist and idealist models of human behaviour. It seems intuitively right to suppose that underlying the complex web of our actions is a desire to meet our natural needs, but it also true that on many occasions we choose to act so as to either suppress or order our desires. If the materialists reduce us to little more than machines built for the satisfaction of our natural desires, the idealists suggest that we should repress our natural desires when we make decisions about the ways we ought to act. These two approaches therefore look less like alternatives than they do opposite variations on the same mistake: both analyse our actions in a way that makes them “unintelligible as a form of human action”.46 Marx aimed to overcome this opposition between materialism and idealism in his theory of history. In effect he took Hegel’s attempt to synthesise causal, materialist models of behaviour with purposeful, idealist accounts of action and, by divesting the result of its religious colouration, provide a framework through which our actions could be understood as free human actions.47 It was from this perspective that Marx disassociated his theory of history from both crude materialism and idealism (moralism):

The chief defect of all hitherto-existing materialism…is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradiction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism—which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.48

Against both materialism and idealism Marx outlined a historical model of agency which underpinned both the scientific and moral aspects of his anti-capitalism. Thus his ethics escape the nihilistic limits of modern moral discourse without totally dismissing moral language.

Marxism and the moral standpoint

There is an important difference between social and natural “facts”. Physical laws operate irrespective of whether or not people are there to experience them, whereas social systems are reproduced through human practice and so are dependent for their reproduction on conscious human action. The law of gravity is a fact, and my thoughts about it are irrelevant to how it operates on me; the law of value, by contrast, can be transformed by human action. However, to any isolated individual in the modern world social laws appear to be as objective as natural laws. The capitalist system seems to carry on regardless of our individual actions, such that while we are free to act howsoever we please, our freedom seems to have little impact beyond our personal relations. We are free to do anything except change the world.

The situation is somewhat different when we engage in collective struggles. The sheer scale of the 2003 global demonstrations against the war in Iraq gave rise to a feeling that the “facts” of imperialism could be challenged. Even more profoundly, when workers are involved in heightened periods of class struggle not only are they able to recognise their power to reorder the world, but in so doing they can begin to recognise that social “facts” are not as stable as they appear to atomised individuals.

Such actions create the possibility that workers might begin to see that the alienated world, which normally appears as a power over them, is actually a product of their labours and that it is within their powers to change it. If the social world appears as a pre-given brute fact when we engage with it as atomised individuals, when we act together, and especially when workers act together, its true nature as a product of our labour can become apparent. Marx argued that this is precisely what happened in 1844 when the Silesian weavers rose against their bourgeois masters, and it was in the light of this movement that he became a “Marxist”.49 Typically modern moral theory fails to recognise the importance of this kind of practice because it assumes that egoism is a fact of nature.

A consequence of this assumption is brought out in Marx’s critique of Max Stirner’s anarchism. In The Ego and His Own (1844) Stirner set out to deny the “truth” of concepts such as nation, state, god, humanity, etc, which had up to that point, he claimed, ruled over individuals through the mechanism of moral ideology. He dismissed any movement, including communism, which sought to overcome egoism as but a new version of authoritarian moralism.50 In a devastating critique of this argument Marx argued that Stirner was unable to conceptualise community except as a moral imposition upon individuals because he believed that modern egoism was a universal fact of human nature.51 This assumption informed Stirner’s belief that the concept of workers’ solidarity was “quite incomprehensible”. By contrast, Marx showed that because egoistic and more social forms of individualism had emerged in the modern world, morality, as it was understood by Stirner, was an essential authoritarian characteristic only of bourgeois communities. Alternatively, Marx argued, because solidarity had become a real need for workers, there was no need to impose the idea of community on them. This is why, in stark contrast to modern liberal criticisms of the implicit authoritarianism of his ideas,52 he claimed that “communists do not preach morality”.53

Marx insists that it is a mistake to reduce all modern forms of individualism to the egoistic type. Collective revolts against capital expose the limitations of the liberal concept of freedom while expressing the deep, shared and growing need for solidarity that could provide a concrete content to a new form of social individuality. It is from this perspective that he concretises the abstract idea of freedom by asking “Whose freedom?”54

As against the standard textbook caricature of his ideas as crudely materialist, Marx does not deny the concept of human freedom. Rather he exposes liberalism’s treatment of the unfreedoms of capitalist society as ordained by nature. Indeed, the concept of human freedom is a major theme of both his early and his mature work. Thus in the Grundrisse he defined freedom as a process through which “social individuals” come to realise themselves through their labours.55 Similarly, in Capital he argued:

Freedom…can consist only in this, that socialised man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their common control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power.56

In fact “the central theme of Marx’s moral theory is how to realise human freedom”.57 Concretely, he points to the way that the meaning of freedom evolves over time through a process of collective struggles that are best understood against the background of the development of humanity’s productive forces.58 This should in no way be read as evidence that Marx reduced freedom to economic growth, for he insists that “although an individual cannot become free in isolation from others, nonetheless it is only individuals who are free”.59

Marx’s ethical judgements therefore relate to real historical struggles for freedom. Specifically, workers’ struggles against exploitation not only provide him with a basis from which he condemns modern society,60 but also expose the limitations of freedom within it. From the “legal standpoint” commodity exchange presupposes nothing more than “the worker’s power to dispose freely of his own capacities, and the money owner or commodity owner’s power to dispose freely of the values that belong to him”. Nonetheless, despite their formal freedoms workers have no control over the means of production. They feel a “silent compulsion” to work for capitalists,61 and factory work itself “confiscates every atom of freedom” from them.62 This is a consequence of the very structure of capitalist production, where Marx recognised a mutual connection between the anarchic relations between units of capital and the despotic relationship between capitalists and workers within the factory.63

This relationship provides the backdrop to the “dialectical inversion” that Marx argues occurs at the point of production between, on the one hand, the equal exchange of commodities and, on the other hand, the appropriation of value from the worker by the capitalist. Far from being a confusing and unnecessary addition to an otherwise powerful argument,64 this claim comes after around 400 pages in my Penguin edition of Capital in which Marx excavates in great detail the process whereby the capitalists “consume” labour power.65 Moreover, it is built upon what he claims was one of “the best points” in his book: “the twofold character of labour, according to whether it is expressed in use value or exchange value”.66 It is through the process of the production of absolute and relative surplus value that capitalists attempt to profit from their investment in labour power by forcing workers to work as hard, and for as long, as is possible. Moreover, the ensuing struggle at the point of production—the “protracted more or less concealed civil war between capitalist class and the working class”—is the very basis for both Marx’s politics and his ethics.67

This ethics is not to be confused with abstract morality. There is no standpoint from which we might agree on the “fair distribution of the proceeds of labour”. “Does not the bourgeoisie”, he wrote, “claim that the present-day distribution is ‘just’? And given the present mode of production is it not, in fact, the only ‘just’ system of distribution?”68 To attempt to persuade the bourgeoisie of the injustices of the capitalist system would be to miss the point. What appears unjust from the perspective of workers’ struggles appears perfectly fair from the capitalist’s perspective. This is why the class struggle within bourgeois society manifests itself as a conflict of “right against right”, and that between “equal rights, force decides”.69

Importantly, Marx claims that the truth of the process of exploitation is obscured so long as it is seen from the point of view of atomised individuals, to become fully apparent only when examined from the point of view of workers’ struggles which hold the key to grasping the totality of the capitalist system:

To be sure, the matter looks quite different if we consider capitalist production in the uninterrupted flow of its renewal, and if, in place of the individual capitalist and the individual worker, we view them in their totality, as the capitalist class and the working class confronting each other. But in so doing we should be applying standards entirely foreign to commodity production.70

This claim provides the all-important point of contact between Marx’s scientific, explanatory account of the dynamics of the capitalist mode of production and his normative critique of capitalism. As against the bourgeois separation of “is” and “ought”, these two aspects of Marx’s social theory are best understood as two sides of the same coin: the labour theory of value underpins Marxism both as a social science and as a normative critique. Moreover, this argument provides the key to understanding Marx’s condemnation of morality. He dismisses those moral attitudes which pretend to offer some mechanism through which a universal good might be promoted in a world in which social divisions undermine such a project, and he does this from the point of view of a class based morality which, he believes, is in its purpose genuinely universal in a historical sense.71

Marxism, therefore, both presupposes and reaffirms the sort of social practice—collective working class struggles—which not only reveals the facts of exploitation but also points to a potential alternative mode of production. As Terry Eagleton argues, “In the critical consciousness of any oppressed group or class, the understanding and the transforming of reality, ‘fact’ and ‘value’, are not separable processes but aspects of the same phenomenon”.72

It is from this perspective that Marx criticises, among other ideas, Proudhon’s concept of “eternal justice”, an idea that informs more recent campaigns for “fair trade”. He argues that Proudhon’s attempt, in What is Property?, to “turn political economy’s premises…against its conclusions”73 reflects his inability to look beneath the surface appearance of equal exchange in a system of generalised commodity production to the underlying appropriation of value from workers. “We may well”, wrote Marx, “feel astonished at the cleverness of Proudhon who would abolish capitalist property—by enforcing the eternal laws of property which are themselves based on commodity production!”74 Marx’s criticism of Proudhon’s concept of “eternal justice” is simply a rejection of Proudhon’s confused moralism, rather than a rejection of moral discourse per se.

Marx first explored the superficiality of political economy in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844). Here he argued that, while Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the fathers of modern economics, show that capitalism is dehumanising, they do not prove that it is natural. Smith’s and Ricardo’s variations on the labour theory of value entail that capital “is nothing but accumulated labour”, yet they justify a situation in which the worker, “far from being in a position to buy everything, must sell himself and his humanity”. Marx explains that capital itself is no neutral arbiter set up to mediate the exchange of commodities in the marketplace. On the contrary, it is a social relationship through which labour is controlled: “Capital is, therefore, the power to command labour, and its products. The capitalist possesses this power not on account of his personal or human properties but insofar as he is an owner of capital.” Given Smith’s claim that capital is nothing but “a certain quantity of labour stocked and stored up”,75 it follows that as the store of labour expands so does the power of the capitalist over the worker. Consequently, “the misery of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and volume of his production”.76 This is quite the most perverse of situations. Increasing social wealth goes hand in hand with decreasing autonomy!

While the direct costs of this mode of production are felt most acutely by the working class, the capitalists are by no means immune to the power of capital. The market imposes its logic upon them just as much as it does upon the workers. While “the capitalist, by means of capital, exercises his power to command labour…capital, in its turn, is able to rule the capitalist himself”.77 Capital acts as an ever expanding power over everyone within the capitalist system. This, broadly speaking, is the meaning of Marx’s concept of alienation. Whereas it is our nature to work together to meet our needs, under capitalism we lose control over what and how we produce, and consequently lose sight of the fact that producing together is our essence. Indeed, rather than realising ourselves through production, that which we produce comes to stand opposed to us “as something alien, as a power independent of the producer”.78 It is because of this that capitalist relations of production warp our very nature.

Alienation therefore is “the obverse of self-realisation”.79 Moreover, the ends of production are alienated from workers and capitalists alike, and the act of producing becomes for both groups a mere means to maintain their existence. Thus the division between means and ends proves to have social roots.

Therefore, just as facts and values are separated in the modern world, alienation means that whereas life had once been lived as a totality it was now split into various contradictory spheres of existence—the moral, the economic and so forth—each with its own distinct standards. Marx illustrates this situation with an example taken from contemporary French society. When French working class women felt compelled to prostitute themselves so that the family might eat, they experienced the contradictory pressures of moral and economic pressures. If the former taught them to respect their humanity, by the standards of the latter they were mere commodities to be sold to the highest bidder in the marketplace.80

Although both main classes in capitalist society are affected by alienation, they experience this in different ways:

The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement; it recognises estrangement as its own power and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence.81

It is this differential experience of alienation that underpins the modern form of class struggle. On this issue, Marx was keen to point out that, while socialist writers ascribe both a revolutionary and an emancipatory role to the proletariat, this should not be understood as implying that they believed workers to be “gods”. Conversely, neither did they fall into the trap of dismissing the emancipatory potential of the working class. Marx argued that it was capitalism’s inhumanity that compelled workers to rebel against their situation and to grasp towards those forms of association through which they could make concrete that which for Kant was merely an abstract proposition: the goal of treating others not as means to their ends but as an end in themselves.82 This was no abstract deduction on Marx’s part, but rather was an empirical observation of existing tendencies.

It was thus from the standpoint of the struggles of the working class that the split between facts and values on the one hand, and means and ends on the other was put into a historical context, and the conception of individual rights challenged from the point of view of workers’ collective struggles.83

Virtues, working class struggle and the party

Recently it has been argued that Marx failed to justify the ethical significance of working class practice, and therefore wrapped himself in a contradiction from which he was unable to escape.84 According to this argument, Marx’s theory of alienation simultaneously seems to imply that “knowledge of human nature gives the standard for political change” but that our alienation from this nature prevents workers developing such a knowledge.85 Thus, whereas Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach famously proposes a break with philosophy—”the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it”—this is an impossible dream because alienated human life cannot provide a window to some supposed real humanity.86

Such claims about a dichotomy within Marx’s thought between human nature as it could be under socialism and as it is under capitalism miss the point. For Marx, our nature evolves in a context of humanity’s developing productive powers and the struggle for control over those powers. He argues against any romantic notion of a natural human solidarity, claiming that “individuals cannot gain mastery over their own social interconnections before they have created them”. If “in earlier stages of development the single individual seems to have developed more fully”, this was only because these individuals had not yet fully worked out their mutual “relationships”. Bourgeois thought tends to confront the horrors of bourgeois society with an impotent, romantic alternative, but it is “ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness”.87 The problem Marx addresses is not whether workers have the capacity to recreate some pristine humanity out of their alienated existence. Rather he criticises the existing social order from the point of view of real struggles against it, judging that workers’ struggles point towards a fuller realisation of human freedom. This is why, as Hal Draper points out, rather than use the abstract word “socialism” to describe their goal, Marx and Engels more usually wrote of “workers’ power”.88

Workers feel their alienation as dehumanisation against which they tend to struggle for self-realisation. Moreover, it is through such collective struggles that they tend to change as the need for solidarity engenders a more socialistic attitude. So in 1853 Marx wrote that “the continual conflicts between masters and men are…the indispensable means of holding up the spirit of the labouring classes, of combining them into one great association against the encroachment of the ruling class, and of preventing them from becoming apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well-fed instruments of production”.89 Six years earlier he had pointed out how the struggle to form associations (trade unions), became inexplicable to classical political economy once workers began to turn over to the associations, for the sake of association, “a good part of their wages”. “The domination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests.” Consequently, whereas political economy was able only to understand atomised individualism, Marx showed how a new social rationality emerged within the working class.90 Marx thus suggests not only that workers feel compelled to struggle against the power of capital, but that in so doing they begin to create modes of existence, which also offer a virtuous alternative to the egoism characteristic not only of capitalist society generally, but also of working class life within that society.

When communist workmen gather together, their immediate aim is instruction, propaganda, etc. But at the same time, they acquire a new need—the need for society—and what appears as a means has become an end. This practical development can be most strikingly observed in the gatherings of French socialist workers. Smoking, eating, and drinking, etc, are no longer means of creating links between people. Company, association, conversation, which in turn has society as its goal, is enough for them. The brotherhood of man is not a hollow phrase, it is a reality, and the nobility of man shines forth upon us from their work worn figures.91

By forming and being active within trade unions and working class political parties, workers create institutions through which they change themselves. Working together in such institutions becomes a day to day practice that both presupposes the need for solidarity and engenders a spirit of solidarity within the working class. The virtues or character traits that are thus promoted stand in direct opposition to the competitive individualism of the capitalist marketplace.

These struggles provide the basis for Marx’s involvement in the “creation of an independent organisation of the workers’ party”.92 Because he insisted that socialism can only come from below, he realised that it will necessarily emerge out of sectional and fragmented struggles which create differences between more and less advanced workers, and consequently results in the emergence of socialist leaders.93 As John Molyneux has argued, Marx’s conception of the revolutionary party “absolutely ruled out” both the “conspiratorial” idea of the party of as a small elite acting for the working class and the “authoritarian view” of the party handing orders down to the class from above. Against both of these models, Marx firmly established “the concept of leadership won on the basis of performance in the class struggle”.94 Whereas socialist and anarchist sectarians prescribed a set course, deduced from doctrine, to the workers’ movement, Marx looked “among the genuine elements of the class movement for the real basis of his agitation”.95 In his political practice both in the 1840s and in the period of the First International he was concerned centrally with the need to foster the struggles of the working class as a class, while simultaneously challenging those forces, for instance anti-Irish racism in England, which grew out of and acted to reinforce and extend divisions within the proletariat.96

Among subsequent generations of Marxists perhaps Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci most powerfully extended these ideas in their commentaries on Lenin’s contribution to Marxism. In his Lenin Lukács argued that the workers’ councils or soviets, which had emerged spontaneously in periods of heightened class struggle since the Russian Revolution of 1905, were “already essentially the weapons of the proletariat organising itself as a class” against the old state and the bourgeoisie.97 Moreover, they acted as a potential bridge between the “is” of existing society and the “ought” of socialism. As opposed to the institutions of bourgeois democracy which relate to voters as “abstract individuals”, these structures organise workers as “concrete human beings who occupy specific positions within social production”. So, whereas bourgeois parliaments tend towards “disorganising” the working class, soviets represent an organic attempt by the proletariat to “counteract this process”.98 These spontaneous institutions of workers’ struggle provided, he claimed, a potential ethical basis from which to criticise the alienation of capitalist society. Thus, while “class consciousness is the ‘ethics’ of the proletariat” which is concretely expressed through “the party”,99 this ethical standpoint is itself rooted in the spontaneous institutions of workers’ struggle.

A similar argument was developed by Gramsci. In an allusion to a phrase from Marx’s preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy he wrote that “the scientific base for a morality of historical materialism is to be looked for, in my opinion, in the affirmation that ‘society does not pose for itself tasks the conditions for whose resolution do not already exist’. Where these conditions exist ‘the solution of the tasks becomes “duty”, “will” becomes free’”.100 More generally he took up the notion of “ethico-political history” developed by the idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce in an attempt to place individual agency at the centre of the historical process. Gramsci argued that authentic Marxism “does not exclude ethico-political history”, and that Lenin’s revolutionary practice lay in asserting the fundamental importance of this moment, the moment of hegemony, to the historical process.101

Concretely, in the midst of the struggles of the Turin factory workers in 1919 and 1920 the group around Gramsci’s newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo sought to provide an answer to the question of how “the dictatorship of the proletariat” might move from being an abstract slogan to a concrete end of action.102 In answer to the question, “How are the immense social forces unleashed by the war to be harnessed?” Gramsci answered that “the socialist state exists potentially in the institutions of social life characteristic of the exploited working class”.103 In thus rooting revolutionary politics within the real movement of workers, Gramsci’s Marxism began to realise an ethics that went beyond the contradictions of bourgeois thought.104

From this perspective the moral dimension of politics is neither an abstract imperative imposed upon individuals in the name of some supposedly disembodied reason, nor a distraction from an otherwise automatic process of the growth of working class socialist consciousness. Rather socialist morality is the flipside of the scientific critique of political economy As Michael Löwy argues:

At bottom what we have here is not even an interpretation “linked with” or “accompanied by” a practice but a total human activity, practical-critical activity in which theory is already revolutionary praxis, and practice is loaded with theoretical significance.105

Collective working class struggles both reveal and provide a basis for the condemnation of exploitation and alienation while simultaneously acting as the concrete form of solidarity that is both the means to and end of socialism. Whereas modern moral philosophy is a reflection of our alienated existence under capitalism, Marxism, both as an explanatory account of the dynamics of capitalism and as a condemnation of this system, is rooted in these collective struggles of workers against alienation. Practice does not and cannot therefore follow theory in the way that modern moral theory would have us suppose, for it is universally true that we can theorise only from specific standpoints. As Alasdair MacIntyre argued when he was still a Marxist, “One cannot first understand the world and only then act on it. How one understands the world will depend in part on the decision implicit in one’s already taken actions. The wager of action is unavoidable”.106


Terry Eagleton suggests that “Marx does indeed possess an ‘absolute’ moral criterion: the unquestionable virtue of the rich, all-round expansion of capacities for each individual. It is from this standpoint that any social formation is to be assessed”.107 To flourish in this way requires both that our basic needs are first met, and that new needs are also met. Marx’s famous needs principle—from each according to abilities, to each according to need108—is therefore best understood as referring to historically evolving needs which are articulated at specific junctures through debates, first within the various historical movements of the oppressed and finally under socialism.109 And because Marx recognises that we are social individuals, he implies a model of discrimination between various powers: “We should foster only those powers which allow an individual to realise herself through and in terms of the similar free self-realisation of others. It is this, above all, which distinguishes socialism from liberalism”.110 Furthermore, Marx shows that liberalism, far from representing the disinterested power of reason, in fact acts to legitimise modern capitalist social relations by treating them as natural facts.111 And if liberalism emerged in the 17th century as a reflection of the “interests of the new commercial middle classes”,112 in so far as it continues to naturalise modern social relations it continues to reflect similar interests today.

Socialism, by contrast, is not a moral doctrine in the modern sense of this term because it neither pretends to be disinterested nor is it to be imposed upon otherwise egoistic individuals from above. Marx argued that although socialism is rooted in the particular interests of the working class its success is ultimately in the universal interest. And in stark contrast to the liberal conflation of individual rights with property rights, Marx argues that because capitalist relations of production lead to “the domination of material relations over individuals and the suppression of individuality”, modern individuals are set the “definite task” of overthrowing this mode of production and replacing it with a communist reorganisation of society.113

One of the roles of intellectuals in this movement against alienation is to make explicit that which is implicit in those struggles. “We do not say to the world: cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire even if it does not want to”.114 Marx’s socialism is therefore, in Engels’ words, “nothing but the reflex, in thought” of the social conflicts endemic to capitalism.115 Nevertheless, Marx was well aware that although revolutions are inevitable their success is not, and his social theory consequently involves a call to action. In the modern world this entails both engagement with, and fanning the flames of, those collective struggles against the dehumanising and alienating effects of capitalism through which our need for solidarity both emerges and is realised. This perspective is ethical in the sense that Marx completed Hegel’s attempt to synthesise Kant’s concept of freedom with the Aristotelian aim of fostering those forms of life that allow us to “excel at being human”.116

Marx’s ethics thus act as a pivot between his theories of history, economics and politics. If the collective struggles of workers reveal the true essence of capitalism as an exploitative mode of production, they also show that the world in which we live is not a ready made thing but is rather a product of human agency117 that can be remade by the “new fangled” working class.118 And if the workers’ need for solidarity grows as a response to the collective experience of exploitation, this kind of solidarity also acts as the basis for a real alternative to capitalist competition.119


1: Thanks to Colin Barker, Joseph Choonara, Neil Davidson, Kristyn Gorton, Chris Harman, Rob Jackson, Rick Kuhn and Jonathan Maunder for comments on a draft of this paper. My understanding of Marx’s ethics is greatly indebted to the early Marxist writings of Alasdair MacIntyre-see Blackledge and Davidson, 2008. See also Harman, 1996.

2: Marx and Engels, 1973, p87.

3: See, for instance, Critchley, 2007, p93, and Cohen, 2000, pp101-103.

4: Marx and Engels, 1987b, p419.

5: Marx, 1976, pp416, 97, 406.

6: Marx, favourably quoting the utopian socialist Charles Fourier in The Holy Family-Marx and Engels, 1987a, p201.

7: Brenkert, 1983, p17.

8: Wood, 2005, pp132-134, 149. For the distinction between ethics and morality see Williams, 2006, p6.

9: Trotsky, 1973. While considerations of space preclude a discussion of Trotsky’s pamphlet here, I discuss it in the context of the ideas of Georg Lukács, Lenin, Henryk Grossman and Evgeny Pashukanis in Blackledge, 2008. For MacIntyre’s reply see MacIntyre, 2008. Interested readers might also wish to consult Blackledge, forthcoming.

10: Marx described Aristotle as the “greatest thinker of antiquity”. Marx, 1976, p532.

11: MacIntyre, 1985, pp122, 135.

12: Aristotle 1976, p63.

13: MacIntyre, 1985, p148.

14: Aristotle, 1976, p64; MacIntyre, 1966, p57.

15: MacIntyre, 1966, p68.

16: Knight, 2007, p14 onwards; see also Nederman, 2008.

17: MacIntyre, 1966, p121.

18: Hobbes, 1998. See especially chapter 13.

19: Marx, 1973a, p84.

20: Marx, 1973a, p156.

21: MacIntyre, 1966, pp121-128.

22: Engels, 1972, pp123, 216. See also Anderson, 1974, p148.

23: Engels, 1947, pp. 327-328.

24: The classic statement of this argument comes in the final paragraph of book III, part I, section i of Hume, 1965. See also MacIntyre, 1966, pp171-174 and MacIntyre, 1971a.

25: Kant, 1948, p91.

26: Adler, 1978, p63.

27: Wood, 2005, p130.

28: MacIntyre, 1966, p191.

29: Lukács, 1975, p287; Taylor, 1975, p371; Hegel, 1952, pp89-90.

30: Wood, 1990, p132.

31: Goldmann, 1971, p174.

32: See, for instance, Bentham, 1990, pp9-10. For a critique of utilitarianism see MacIntyre, 1964.

33: Ferguson, 2008; See also Frank, 1999, and Wilkinson, 2005.

34: Callinicos, 2000, pp36-87.

35: MacIntyre, 1985, p12.

36: Reiman, 1991, p147.

37: For a readable introduction to virtue ethics see Slote, 1997.

38: MacIntyre, 1985, p159.

39: Wood, 1990, pp32, 17.

40: Wood, 1990, pp33, 20.

41: Hegel, 1956, p26; Lukács, 1975, p354; Engels, 1947, p140.

42: Wood, 1990, p70.

43: Solomon, 1983, pp480-481.

44: Lukács, 1975, p153.

45: Wood, 1990, p33.

46: MacIntyre, 1998, p42.

47: Lukács, 1975, p345.

48: Marx, 1975a, p422.

49: See Marx, 1975b, p415; Blackburn, 1977, pp27-30.

50: Arthur, 1970, pp. 25, 28-29. See also McLellan, 1969, p119.

51: Marx and Engels, 1987b, p211.

52: Berlin, 1997.

53: Marx and Engels, 1987b, p247.

54: Marx, quoted in Draper, 1977, p273.

55: Gould, 1978, pp101-128; Gilbert, 1981, p98; Sayers, 1998, pp36-59; Marx and Engels, 1987b, pp218, 225; Marx, 1976, p283; Wood, 1981, p17.

56: Marx, 1981, p959.

57: Mészáros, 1975, p162.

58: Marx and Engels, 1987b, pp74 onwards; Marx, 1981, p959.

59: Gould, 1978, p108.

60: Sayers, 1998, p124. See also Husami, 1980, p49.

61: Marx, 1976, pp729, 899.

62: Marx, 1976, p548.

63: Barker, Colin, 1991, p207. Marx’s references to the “despotism in the manufacturing division of labour” and the “organised despotism of the factory system” can be found in Marx, 1976, p477 and Marx, 1994, p29.

64: A claim made in Geras, 1989.

65: Marx, 1976, chapters 7-17; the comment on consumption is to be found on p291.

66: Marx, 1987a, p407.

67: Marx, 1976, p412.

68: Marx, 1974, p344.

69: Marx, 1976, p344.

70: Marx, 1976, p732.

71: Engels, 1947, p118; Marx, Karl, 1975c, p255.

72: Eagleton, 1990, p225.

73: McNally, 1993, pp141-143; see also Proudhon, 1994.

74: Marx, 1976, p734.

75: Marx, 1975d, p295.

76: Marx, 1975d, p322.

77: Marx, 1975d, p295.

78: Marx, 1975d, pp322-334; Marx, 1975e, pp266-269.

79: Norman, 1983, p174. See also Miller, 1989, p178; Miller, 1984, pp76 onwards; Wood, 1981, p126.

80: Marx, 1975d, p362.

81: Marx and Engels, 1987a, p36.

82: Goldmann, 1971, pp199, 211.

83: Marx, 1975f, p231.

84: Brudney, 1998, p197.

85: Brudney, 1998, pp4, 224-226.

86: Brudney, 1998, p361.

87: Marx, 1973a, pp161-162.

88: Draper, 1978, p24.

89: Marx, 1987b, p43.

90: Marx, from the “The Poverty of Philosophy”, quoted in Lapides, 1987, p34.

91: Marx, 1975d, p365.

92: Marx, 1973b, p324.

93: Lih, 2006, p556.

94: Molyneux, 1986, p17.

95: Marx, 1987c, pp111-112.

96: Collins and Abramsky, 1965, pp39, 45; Harris, 1990, pp44-45; Gilbert, 1981.

97: Lukács, 1970, p63.

98: Lukács, 1970, pp65-66.

99: Lukács, 1971, pp41-42.

100: Gramsci, 1971, pp409-410.

101: Gramsci, 1995, pp329; 345-346; 357; 360.

102: Gramsci, 1977, p68.

1103: Gramsci, 1977, p65.

104: Some people have claimed that Gramsci’s embrace of Leninism undermined the powerful ethical dimensions of his earlier Marxism (see, for instance, Boggs, 1976, p86), but his stress on the need for the party did not mean he had forgotten the strengths of the Ordine Nuovo period. See the section of International Socialism 114 devoted to Gramsci, with articles by Megan Trudell, Chris Bambery, Chris Harman and Adrian Budd.

105: Löwy, 2003, p109.

106: MacIntyre, 1971b, p84.

107: Eagleton, 1990, pp223, 226; see also Marx, 1973a, pp487-488.

108: Marx, 1974, p347.

109: Sayers, 1998, pp125-129; Geras, 1989, p264.

110: Eagleton, 1990, p224.

111: Reiman, 1991, p147.

112: Ramsay, 1997, p7.

113: Marx and Engels, 1987b, p438.

114: Marx, 1975g, p144.

115: Engels, 1947, p325.

116: Eagleton, 2003, p142; see also Eagleton, 2007.

117: On this, see Lukács’s claim that from the standpoint of workers’ struggles we are able to recognise “the problem of the present as a historical problem”. Lukács, 1971, pp157-158.

118: This phrase is taken from Marx, 1973c, p300.

119: Goldmann, 1968, p18.


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