The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962

2. The Free Individual

THAT the young Marx took his criteria of freedom and harmony to establish positive moral and ethical ‘principles’, eternally and immutably true, his earliest work leaves no doubt. Thus, in his Remarks on the Most Recent Prussian Instruction to Censors (one of the Anekdota contributions, written in January-February, 1842), Marx notes that the instruction has substituted the words ‘decency, propriety and external decorum’ for the words ‘morality and the decent proprieties’ in the original law. ‘We see’, writes Marx, ‘how morality as morality, as the principle of the world, which obeys its own laws, disappears, and in place of the essential character we have external appearance, a decorousness imposed by the police, a conventional propriety’ (M I, 1-i, 161). But for Marx, positive morality does not disappear, nor can it be explained away. After arguing that censorship is evil in all its aspects, he concludes: ‘That which is in general bad, remains bad, no matter which individual is the carrier of badness, whether a private critic or an employee of the Government. Only in the latter case, the badness is authorised and regarded from above as necessary in order to bring to realisation the good from below.’ (M I, 1-i, 165.) This, for Marx, is no excuse. ‘We have shown’, he writes in his Rheinische Zeitung articles on the debates on freedom of the press in the sixth Rhenish Diet, ‘that the press law is a right and the censorship law a wrong. The censorship, however, itself admits that it is not an end in itself, that it is not in itself good, that it therefore rests on the principle: “the end makes holy the means.” But an end which necessitates unholy means is not a holy end.’ (M I, 1-i, 2 11.) Again, when the representative of the knights in the Diet argues that all men are imperfect and need guidance and education, Marx insists that we cannot abandon objective standards merely because all things are allegedly imperfect: ‘If then all things human are imperfect by their very existence, shall we therefore jumble up everything together, respect everything equally the good and the bad, the truth and the lie?’ (M I, 1-i, 201).

The positive distinction between the good and the bad stems for Marx from the positive distinction between self-determination and dependence. In his comment on the Prussian censorship instruction, Marx emphatically distinguishes true morality from the spurious, evil morality of religion: ‘Morality rests on the autonomy, religion on the heteronomy of the human spirit’ (M I, 1-i, 161). Again, in the Rheinische Zeitung discussion of press freedom and censorship, he writes:

From the standpoint of the Idea, it is self-evident that freedom of the press has a justification quite different from that of censorship, in so far as it is itself a form of the Idea, of freedom, a positive good, whereas censorship is a form of bondage, the polemic of a Weltanschauung of appearance against the Weltanschauung of the essence. It is something merely negative in character.
(M I, 1-i, 201.)

The identification of self-determination and good comes out still more strongly a little later in the same article:

The censored press remains bad, even if it brings forth good products, for these products are good only in so far as they represent the free press within the censored press, and in so far as it is not part of their character to be products of the censored press. The free press remains good, even if it brings forth bad products, for these products are apostates from the character of the free press. A eunuch remains a bad man, even if he has a good voice. Nature remains good even if it brings forth abortions.
(M I, 1-i, 205.)

and again when Marx rejects the view that freedom of the press can be defended as a case of freedom to exercise a craft:

The freedom to exercise a craft is just the freedom to exercise a craft and no other freedom, because within it the nature of the craft takes form undisturbed according to its inner rules of life; freedom of the courts is freedom of the courts, if the courts follow their own rules of law and not those of some other sphere, e.g., of religion. Every specific sphere of freedom is the freedom of a specific sphere, just as every specific way of life is a specific nature’s way of living.
(M I, 1-i, 221.)

For Marx, as for Spinoza, then, ‘to act absolutely in obedience to virtue is nothing else but to act according to the laws of one’s own nature.‘[24] As much a determinist as Spinoza, Marx sees quite rightly that a theory of freedom could not be erected coherently on the basis of indeterminacy, and no conception is further from his mind when he is writing about morality than that of absolute, or unlimited, ‘freedom of the will’. What is for Marx the closest empirical approach to such a conception, the capricious action not in harmony with man’s essential being, is as destructive of freedom on his view as ‘passions’ were on Spinoza’s. But freedom, on rather traditional grounds which Marx never examines thoroughly, is taken by him as necessarily and exclusively of the essence of man. Freedom distinguishes man — the potential master of his environment — from the animal — necessarily the slave of its environment. Thus Marx contemptuously rejects, in the preliminary notes to his dissertation, Plutarch’s treatment of fear of the divine as a means of bettering the unjust: ‘In so far as in fear, and namely in an inner, unextinguishable fear, man is treated as an animal, then in an animal it is a matter of complete indifference how it is kept in restraint. If a philosopher does not consider it the height of infamy to regard man as an animal, then he cannot be made to understand anything at all.’ (M I, 1-i, 114.) For Marx, ‘freedom is so thoroughly the essence of man, that its very opponents bring it into actuality even while they struggle against its reality ... No man fights freedom, at most he fights against the freedom of others’ (Discussion of press debates, M I, 1-i, 202).

If Marx’s belief in freedom was largely moulded by Hegelian philosophy and the intellectual climate of the Vormärz, it received powerful reinforcement from his outstanding character trait — his almost Nietzschean concern with dignity, seen as independence and mastery over things.[25] The strain breaks out already amid the high-flown idealism of his school examination essay, Reflections of a Youth in Choosing a Career:

Dignity is that which raises man the most, which lends to his actions, to all his strivings, a higher nobility, which leaves him unimpaired, admired by the multitude and elevated above it. Dignity, however, can be afforded only by that position in which we do not appear as servile instruments, but where we create independently within our circle.
(M I, 1-ii, 166.)

It is this psychological trait, too, which accounts for the fire in passages like the following from his discussion of the debates on press freedom:

A country which, like the old Athens, treats boot-lickers, parasites, toadies as exceptions from the general standard of reason, as public fools, is the country of independence and self-government. A people which, like all people of the best of times, claims the right to think and utter the truth only for the court fool, can only be a people that is dependent and without identity.
(M I, 1-i, 184.)

Time and time again his aggressive independence and his moral commitment to freedom burst out, in passages that punctuated his work long after he had ceased to be a Young Hegelian, long after he had stopped proclaiming a rational morality and had turned from philosophy to his ‘scientific work’. ‘The social principles of Christianity’, he wrote angrily in the Deutsche-Brusseler Zeitung in 1847,[26] ‘preach cowardice, self-contempt, debasement, subjugation, humility, in short, all the properties of the canaille, and the proletariat, which does not want to be treated as canaille, needs its courage, its consciousness of self, its pride and its independence, far more than its bread.’ Six years later Marx was writing in the New York Daily Tribune’[27] on the village communities of India:

We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man to be the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never-changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalising worship of nature exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.

Twenty years after that, when one of his daughters handed him a Victorian questionnaire asking him, inter alia, to state the vice he detested most, he wrote: ‘Servility.’[28]

It was on behalf of the free, self-determined man, then that Marx rejected the repressive Prussian police State. It was on behalf of the free man that late in 1843 he became a socialist and joined Ruge and Bakunin in issuing the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher of 1844. Ruge speaks for them all when he writes to Marx in the ‘Correspondence of 1843’, published in the Jahrbücher as a prefatory statement of the journal’s raison d'etre: ‘I call revolution the conversion of all hearts and the raising of all hands on behalf of the honour of the free man, the free State which belongs to no master, but which is itself public being, which belongs only to itself’ (M I, 1-i, 558). Bakunin, too, speaks of ,the State, whose principle now finally is really man’ (loc. cit., p. 566), while Marx proclaims precisely those principles which we have seen in his earliest work:

The criticism of religion 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, conditions which cannot be better portrayed than in the exclamation of a Frenchman at hearing of a projected tax on dogs: Poor dogs! They want to treat you like men!
(’towards the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction’,[29]
M I, 1-i, 614-15.)

Man’s self-esteem, freedom, must be awakened once more in the heart of these men. Only this feeling, which disappeared from the world with the Greeks and from the blue mists of heaven with Christianity, can once more make from a society a fellowship of men working for their highest purposes, a democratic State.
(‘Corr. of 1843’, M I, 1-i, 561.)

For the social conditions that would produce the free man Marx was to struggle for the next forty years. In the intensity of the struggle he never again turned to ask what the ‘realm of freedom’ might mean. That problem, he thought, he had solved before the struggle began. From 1844 onward Marx’s primary interest was not in the nature of freedom, but in the developments by which it would come about.

In his earliest work, this problem does not yet occupy his mind at all. (The conditions of censorship under which he worked no doubt helped to keep him away from it.) Against what he believed to be the disintegrating conditions of servitude around him, he is concerned to hold up the truly human morality, law and society. His conception of the latter two we shall now examine.