Eugene Kamenka 1965

Marxian Humanism and the Crisis in Socialist Ethics

Source: Socialist Humanism, edited by Erich Fromm, Doubleday & Co., 1965;


“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they."[1] It was for the sake of liberating men from these chains (chains which Rousseau thought could he made “legitimate”) that Marx became a radical critic of society; it was in the name of freedom, and not of security, that Marx turned to Communism. The vision before his eyes, from his youth onward, was that of the creative, self-determined man, master of his environment, of the universe, and of himself, co-operating, spontaneously and harmoniously, with all other men as “aspects” of the human spirit liberated within him. “Dignity,” the young Marx writes in a secondary school essay, “can be afforded only by that position in which we do not appear as servile instruments”; “the criticism of religion,” he writes in the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher nine years later, “ends in the teaching that man is the highest being for man, it ends, i.e., with the categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a debased, forsaken, contemptible being forced into servitude.” Communism, for Marx, meant neither the mere abolition of poverty nor that abstract application of fairness which he rejected so scathingly in his Critique of the Gotha Programme — the triumph of distributive justice in social affairs. Least of all did Marx see communism as a form of state socialism in which governmental or “representative” power and authority replaced individual power and authority over men. Ultimately more consistent than Rousseau, Marx implicitly rejected any possible justification for the “chains” that bind men together; in the belief that Rousseau’s general, universal will could and would flower in history, Marx confidently predicted that all social chains would wither away. Communism would be the society of freedom, in which man became the subject and ceased to be the object of power. No longer would man’s nature and actions be determined by something outside himself, either by the state, society, man’s social situation, his animal needs, or by other men. No longer would man’s fellow human beings confront him as competitors, enslaving him and themselves to the inexorable demands of competitive economic life. For the first time in human history, society, technology, and the whole range of human conduct and relations would become expressions of man’s true being and cease to be limitations upon that being. In his own life, man would find that true and ultimate freedom which is the necessary destiny of man; in other men he would find partners in that spontaneous but co-operative creativity that distinguishes man as a universal and social being from the animal as a limited and particular one. Man would become praxis — the subject and not the object of history.

“The critique of society which forms the substance of Marx’s work,” Dr. Maximilien Rubel correctly reminds us[2], “has, essentially, two targets: the State and Money.” The State, for Marx, was the visible, institutionalized expression of political power over men; money, both the visible means and the secret but indispensable ground of the more fundamental and pervasive economic power over men. If Marx was concerned with the critique of politics and economics, it was because he saw in these critiques the key to understanding the human condition and grasping the necessary foundations for the elimination of power over men.

In Marx’s earlier works, especially in his contributions to the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher, in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, and in the German Ideology that he wrote with Engels in 1845-46, we are presented with an analysis of the nature and foundations of human dependence subtler and less dated than the crude class theory of human dependence which Marx’s vulgarizing disciples have drawn out of his popular political pamphlets. In these earlier works, Marx makes it clear that he does not see man enslaved simply by other men: the citizen by a dictatorial police state, the worker by a greedy and grasping capitalist. All past and present social systems may resolve themselves, from one point of view, into systems made up of masters and slaves — but the masters are no more free than the slaves, both live in a relationship of mutual hostility and of insurmountable mutual dependence, both are governed by the system that makes them play out their allotted roles, whether they will or not. Marx sees this dependence as arising “naturally” from the division of labor and the consequent introduction of private ownership. But the possibilities of intensifying dependence, of alienating man from his work, his products, and his fellow human beings, are vastly increased with the rise of money as a universal medium of exchange. Money — into which everything can be converted — makes everything saleable, and enables man to separate from himself not only his goods, the product of his work, but even from his work itself, which he can now sell to another. “Money lowers all the gods of mankind and transforms them into a commodity. Money is the universal, self-constituting value of all things. It has therefore robbed the whole world, both the human world and nature, of its own peculiar value. Money is the essence of man’s work and existence, alienated from man, and this alien essence dominates him and he prays to it."[3]

Man’s alienation, for Marx, is expressed in the fact that man’s forces, products, and creations — all those things that are extensions of man’s personality and should serve directly to enrich it — are split off from man; they acquire independent status and power and turn back on man to dominate him as his master. It is he who becomes their servant. As the division of labor, the use of money, and the growth of private property increase, man’s alienation becomes more acute, reaching its highest point in modern capitalist society. Here the worker is alienated from his product, from the work that he sells on the labor market,” from other men who confront him as capitalists exploiting his labor or as workers competing for jobs, and from nature and society which confront him as limitations and not as fulfillments of his personality. It is this alienation — expressed in the intellectual field by the compartmentalization of the science of man and society into the “abstract” study of economic man, legal man, ethical man, etc. — which Marx portrays vividly in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts:

The more riches the worker produces, the more his production increases in power and scope, the poorer he becomes. The more commodities a worker produces, the cheaper a commodity he becomes. The devaluation of the world of men proceeds in direct proportion to the exploitation of the values of the world of things. Labour not only produces commodities, but it turns itself and the worker into commodities ... [4]

Not only the products of man’s work, but the very activity of this work are alienated from man. The alienation within the worker’s activity consists:

First, in the fact that labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being, in the fact that he therefore does not affirm himself in his work, but negates himself in it, that he does not feel content, but unhappy in it, that he develops no free physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. Therefore the worker feels himself only outside his work, while in his work he feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working and when he works he is not at home. His work, therefore, is not voluntary but coerced; it is forced labour. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying needs external to it . . .

The result therefore is that man (the worker) no longer feels himself acting freely except in his animal functions, eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling, ornaments, etc., while in his human functions he feels more and more like an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.

Drinking, eating and procreating are admittedly also genuinely human functions. But in their abstraction, which separates them from the remaining range of human functions and turns them into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal.[5]

The source of all the distinctions between the savage and the civilized man, Rousseau writes, “is that the savage lives within himself, while social man lives constantly outside himself, and only knows how to live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the consciousness of his own existence from the judgment of others concerning him."[6] Marx, in his early (and, I should argue, in his later) work seeks to show the necessary foundation of this alienation in economic life, in a division of labor organized on the basis of private property, in the use of money that make it possible to convert all things, even labor and care and affection and love, into commodities that are bought and sold. For Marx the division of labor and private property is, of course, inevitable, even necessary, at a certain period of history — only through it can man develop his capacities and realize his limitless potentialities. The savage has not yet separated his labor from himself, has not yet learned to produce for any purpose but use; but in his desperate struggle to satisfy his basic (animal) needs, in his pitiful dependence on nature, he is also man in bondage. To master nature and to overcome human alienation — in these achievements lies the key to the freedom of man. Capitalism has done the former; socialism, Marx believed, would accomplish the latter.

At the end of his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx painted a picture of the communist society, the society of true and ultimate human freedom. Sympathetic critics have called it the picture of a society of artists, creating freely and consciously, working together in spontaneous and perfect harmony. In such a society, Marx believed, there would be no state, no criminals, no conflicts, no need for punitive authority and coercive rules. Each man would be “caught up” in productive labor with other men, fulfilling himself in social, co-operative creation. The struggle would be a common struggle: in his work, and in other men, man would find not dependence and unpleasantness, but freedom and satisfaction, just as artists find inspiration and satisfaction in their own work and in the work of other artists. Truly free men rising above the very conception of property will thus need no rules imposed from above, no moral exhortations to do their duty, no “authorities” laying down what is to be done. Art cannot be created by plans imposed from outside; it knows no authorities and no discipline except the authority and the discipline of art itself. What is true of art, Marx believed, is true of all free, productive labor. just as true communism, for Marx, is not that crude “communism” which “is so much under the sway of material property, that it wants to destroy everything which cannot be owned by everybody as private property; it wants forcibly to cut away talent, etc.”;[7] so “free labor,” for Marx, is not “mere fun, mere amusement, as Fourier thinks with all the naivete of a grisette. Truly free labor, e.g., composition, is damned serious at the same time, it is the most intensive exertion."[8]

The vision of communism outlined here, I believe, remained with Marx all his life. It comes out clearly in the German Ideology of 1845-46, in the notes and drafts he made between 185o and 1859, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme in 1875. It runs through all three volumes of Das Kapital. It is a vision of freedom, of spontaneous co-operation, of men’s conscious self-determination once they are freed from dependence and need. It is not merely a vision of economic plenty or social security. Engels may have seen communism that way; Marx did not. To the end of his life, through the “economic filth” that he waded through so conscientiously and unwillingly, Marx remained the philosopher, the apostle, and the predicter of freedom.


The intellectual crisis in the democratic socialist movement today is a crisis in socialist ethics: a crisis that stems from the tension between Marx’s emphasis on economic rationalism and material sufficiency, his interest in what he saw as the economic preconditions of freedom and his emphasis on a truly human morality that would overcome the very conception of property and the divorce between means and ends. Georges Sorel dramatized this conflict in Marxian thinking in his picture of the historic conflict between the ethics of the consumer, interested in profits and returns, seeking security, seeing all things as means to a commercial end, and the ethics of the producer, based on the “heroic” values of disinterested creativity, co-operation, emulation, and indifference to reward. The German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, in part consciously influenced by Marx, strikingly developed Marx’s contrast between the commercial, divisive society of capitalism and the unalienated society of communism into a sociological category, the contrast between the commercial, divisive Gesellschaft and the organic fellowship of the Gemeinschaft. Gesellschaft is the bourgeois commercial society in

which the cash nexus tends to drive out all other social ties and relationships, in which men become bound only by contract and commercial exchange, in which the city dominates the country and the trading class converts the whole land into a market, in which the “common, social sphere” is based on the fleeting moment when men meet in barter, when they have what the law of contract calls “a [transitory] meeting of minds.” The “common sphere” of the Gemeinschaft, on the other hand, rests on a natural harmony, on the ties of tradition, friendship, and the common acceptance of a religious order; production is primarily agricultural and for use, society is based on status relations that prevent any man from treating another “abstractly.” In the Gemeinschaft men are essentially united in spite of all separating factors; they act on each other’s behalf. In the Gesellschaft they are essentially separated in spite of all uniting factors; here every man is isolated and by himself, other men confront him as competitors and alien intruders. The distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, for Tönnies, is intimately associated with the distinction between two kinds of will, each of them characteristic of one of the two societies. The Gemeinschaft is based on the Wesenwille, the natural or integral will in which a man expresses his whole personality and in which there is no developed differentiation between means and ends. Against this stands the Kürwille, the rational but in a sense capricious will characteristic of Gesellschaft, the will in which means and ends have been sharply differentiated and in which what Max Weber calls zweckrationale (purposefully rational) behavior prevails. In his pamphlet on property, published in 1926, Tönnies illustrates the difference. Property which is the object of the natural will is so closely bound to the nature of the person that any separation from it necessarily produces unhappiness: the owner and his property fuse together, the property becomes part of the owner, loved and cherished as his own creation. This is the way that men are inclined to behave toward living things that they own, toward their house and yard, and, toward the “sod” which they and their forefathers have worked for generations. In the relationships that result from the natural will there is no sharp differentiation of pleasure and pain, satisfaction and dissatisfaction: the farmer finds in his land both sorrow and joy, duty and pleasure, obligation and privilege. The rational will, on the other hand, finds its paradigmatic expression in the relationship to money, to property that is expressed as credit or debit in a ledger, to “hands” who cost so and so much in wages. The ultimate consummation of the property of the rational will is the commercial share, held by an owner who has not even seen the property it confers on him. It is in these relationships that joy and sorrow, satisfaction and dissatisfaction, are sharply differentiated: profit is plus, joy, satisfaction; loss is minus, sorrow, dissatisfaction. Here is the consummation of utilitarian morality: everything is abstracted, tom out of its living context, subsumed under an alienated end.

In the advanced Western society of industrialism, where social mobility and redistributions of wages, status, and opportunity have hopelessly blurred and diffused the simple cleavages of traditional class conflicts and where growing affluence has destroyed the plausibility of linking the concept of alienation with that of poverty, some of the ablest of socialist thinkers have returned to the young Marx read in the light of Tönnies. The contemporary socialist critique of capitalism, they say, cannot rest any longer on allegations of the worker’s impoverishment and material exploitation: it must focus instead on the failure of capitalism to provide a Gemeinschaft, a sense of community, and on the manipulation of human beings in the interests of commercial ends, on the way in which capitalism molds man into seeking transitory material satisfactions. In the societies claiming to march toward communism, on the other hand, the ablest of the social critics — such men as Ernst Bloch and Leszek Kolakowski, supported by a number of Yugoslav philosophers — have used Marx’s vision of communism as a true fraternity in which the opposition between individual and society would have been overcome as a way of criticizing the authoritarian concepts of Gemeinschaft and the emphasis on obedience and subservience preached by the Party theologues. It is in Marxian humanism, and not in the commercial morality of Fabianism and “advanced” trade unions, that non-bureaucratic socialists see the greatest chances of an ethical renewal. There are admittedly those, in Portugal, in large parts of Italy, and in the “underdeveloped” countries outside Europe, to whom classical Marxism still makes an appeal because the situation in their countries is not a “twentieth-century situation”; because, like the men to whom the Communist Manifesto was addressed, they are still waging the struggle for political democracy, the abolition of seigneurial privileges and the freeing of economic development from the restraints, not of capitalism, but of traditional society. The paradox is that to most of these people Marxism is only a way of destroying conditions that stand between them and the twentieth century. Instead of leading man from the Gesellschaft of capitalism into the free, fraternal Gemeinschaft of communism, the class struggle in their hands becomes at best a means for leading man from the oppressive Gemeinschaft of precapitalist society into the Gesellschaft of the modern industrial age. It is deeply significant that our most realistic hopes for genuine political liberalization in the Soviet Union and — ultimately — in Communist China, rest on the growth of specialization, the comparative overcoming of chronic shortages and the rise of a consumers’ market: in short, on the increasing permeation of some of the values that distinguish capitalist society from traditional, authoritarian society.

Here, then, lies the fundamental problem for socialist humanists. Classical Marxism welded together, in one tremendous act of force and faith, the affirmation of industrial development and the longing for the brotherhood and community of the feudal-agrarian village. The machines that robbed man of his individuality, it taught, had a historic mission: while they seemed to support and extend the naked divisiveness of commercial society, they would end by overthrowing it and leading to the Kingdom of Man. The paths to political and economic democracy, to material satisfaction, and to freedom in the fullest possible sense, were all one and the same path. Today, the paths have divided, not in two or three, but in a hundred directions, and the world demands a new map from those who wish to erect a new signpost.

From the work of Marx and Tönnies, from the concepts of alienation and Gemeinschaft, it is possible, I believe, to construct a radical ethic: an ethic linked with the acquisition of knowledge, with the traditions of spiritual and material production and of political enterprise and democracy. But it will be an ethic of struggle and criticism, which carries with it no guarantee of success. History is neither the story of the progressive unfolding of a spontaneously co-operative human essence nor is it the inevitable march toward a truly just and human society. History is the battleground of competing traditions, movements, and ways of life: it presents us with no total story and no final end. And what is true of history is equally true of society. The socialist humanist, like the exiled Trotsky, will have to recognize that “history” and “society” can confront us with one outrage after another; when they do, he will, like Trotsky, have to fight back with his fists.

Even in the formulation of a critical program, there are problems that must be faced squarely. The work of Tönnies, in elaborating the concept of Gemeinschaft, runs together the brotherhood of a working team of equals and the paternalism of a feudal community in which everyone knows and accepts his place. The Promethean socialist vision of the non-commercial society is distinguished from the Romantic conservative vision by its rejection of hierarchy and by that alone; yet it is precisely on this point that socialist collectivist practice has failed when working on any scale but the infinitesimal. A great part of the heritage of democratic socialism, and of the socialist concept of freedom, rests on the “open” society created by capitalist development: the Gesellschaft that freed men from the bonds of religious and feudal authority, created the ideal of individualism, cut the oppression of the extended family, and vastly increased the area of the “private” as opposed to the “public.” The divorce of means and ends has multiplied to an incredible extent the scope and Power of human production; the capitalist market, as Hayek and von Mises have emphasized, has created a model by which men find it possible to agree to common means while feeling that they can maintain their diverse individual ends.

This feeling is no doubt partly illusory. Capitalist means do shape the ends that people pursue and such ends acquire no special ethical “sanctity” simply because they are pursued. But in developing a theory of freedom we can no longer follow Marx in his tacit reliance on the essentially co-operative nature of the human spirit, freed from economic bonds. Neither can we simply rely on the factory as the school of revolution: if modem industrial development has taught new forms of co-operation, it has also raised new and mightier forms of bureaucratization. If the growth of science and technology increasingly liberates man from physically unpleasant work and increasingly tends to eliminate the direct use of power in allocating material resources, it also constantly increases the need for management and direction and the subtler economic and social dependence of man. If we have to revise, to some extent, Marx’s concept of man, we must revise, far more radically, Marx’s view of industrial society. To this task, I hope, some of my fellow contributors will be addressing themselves.

Author’s Footnotes

1 J.-J. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book I, ch. 1.

2 Maximilien Rubel, “Le Concept de democratie chez Marx,” in Contrat Social, Vol. VI, no. 4.

3 Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question”; my translation from Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA; Frankfurt am Main: Marx — Engels Lenin Institute, 1927 f.), Section I, Vol. I-i, p. 603.

4 MEGA, Section I, Vol. 3, p. 82.

5 Ibid., pp. 85 — 86.

6 A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, in J. — J. Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses (London: J. M. Dent & Sons [Everyman’s Library], 1913), p. 237. My colleague, Mr. S. I. Benn, kindly drew my attention to the passage.

7 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, MEGA, Section 1, Vol. 3, PP. 111-12.

8 From the draft notes (1857 — 58) that grew into the Critique of Political Economy and were first published in 1939; here cited from the German edition, Karl Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Oekonomie (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1953), p. 505.