The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962

10. The Rejection of Moralism, of ‘Rights’ and of Normative Law

MARX’s rejection of moralism, of abstract rights and of normative law is commonly connected with his determinism. There is, as we have seen, some basis for this. He rightly insists that moral ‘principles’, constitutional rights and legal enactments are not rational and eternal ‘norms’ that logically precede society and determine its character from above. He sees correctly that principles, codes and rights follow from ways of living, from social activities and pursuits, and not vice versa, that it is to a specific function or movement, activity or class, that rights belong. As the character or social distribution of functions, classes and movements changes, the ‘accepted’ moral principles, constitutional rights and legal systems will also change.

The young Marx, however, is also concerned to make a more fundamental criticism of moralism, of the erection of rights and duties and of the compulsive application of law. This is an ethical criticism. Moralism, the postulation of rights and duties and the application of legal punishments and sanctions seek to bind men from outside. They are therefore forms of bondage and not of freedom. As such, they cannot produce freedom. This, we may remember, was his criticism of Hegel’s conception of a coercive State that was nevertheless ‘the rational form of freedom’. These things, in their coercion, are evils and cannot be productive of good.

The ethical theory outlined above enables us to make sense of this. Though Marx is content to rest on the confused opposition of ‘self-determination’ and coercion, his position depends on the implicit recognition of the distinction between spontaneous co-operation and communication characteristic of goods and the only apparent harmony, the eliciting of no more than external compliance, characteristic of the repression practised by evils. The position might be illustrated by means of Marx’s distinction between coercive punishment and punishment under ‘truly human’ conditions — punishment passed by the criminal on himself (supra, I, 3). Marx is unable to put his view coherently precisely because he is still working with the conception of human self-determination and thus with the conception of the whole individual. But he is able to show that retributive punishment is radically different in its effects from the spontaneous co-operation elicited by goods — the state when the criminal sees ‘in other men his natural saviours’. Thus goods operate by liberating the capacities that are themselves good within the criminal, placing before these the material required for their development. The ‘regeneration’ of the criminal would then be self-regeneration in the sense that it is the goods within him, strengthened by assistance and not by repression, which would have overcome the evils within him. While there would be no guarantee that the regeneration, the dominance of good motives, was permanent, no reason to suppose that evil motives could be entirely eliminated from any human mind, there would be an obvious sense in which the regeneration was true regeneration, was a genuine development of the goods within him. The regeneration practised by Sue, on the other hand, would be of a different character. Here, though the emphasis is still moral, still on producing certain mental habits within the criminal, the appeal is to evil motives. It is the longing for security, for comfort and consolation which Sue seeks to arouse and to utilise. But these motives will not establish genuine and lasting co-operation. They are by their very nature divisive; they rest on that elevation of the particular which is commonly called egoism. They must constantly be protected and sheltered from the operation of goods. Vitality, freedom and sincerity will be their enemies, knowledge and productive capacity will threaten them. It is, as Marx sees, no accident that the gang-leader’s eyes have to be gouged out so that he can learn to pray.

The same point, as Marx also saw, applies to the ‘ethic’ of Christianity. It, too, has to weaken goods in order to utilise evils. It has, in fact, no conception of the productive forces that operate within individuals, no conception of freedom, of spontaneous co-operation. It preaches the subordination of man to ‘higher powers’ and — ultimately — to egoistic ends.

Marx is wrong in thinking that vitality, freedom, sincerity and the capacities for production and spontaneous co-operation are somehow more truly human than the search for security, than avarice, the demand for protection, the longing for comfort and consolation. But he sees correctly that these evils are unable to overcome goods entirely and that they can neither form a coherent, stable system of their own or reach a stable and coherent accommodation with goods. It is thus that he can point to the contradictions in ‘the rights of the citizen’ and ‘the rights of man’ (supra, II, 6). The accommodation of political State and civil society becomes a harmony of discord with harmony; the freedom of evils becomes their ‘right’ to seek to destroy each other. ‘The human right of freedom is not based on the connection of man with man, but rather on the separation of man from man ... Man’s right of private property ... is the right of self-interest ... It allows every man to find not the realisation, but the limitation, of his freedom ... Security is the guarantee of egoism.’ (’On the Jewish Question’, supra II, 6.)

If we accept as the foundation of moral theory the utilitarian concern with ends and neglect the character of the motives and activities pursuing these ends, then — as Marx saw — we are necessarily driven into incoherence. Acquisitiveness conflicts with acquisitiveness, greed interferes with greed, security threatens security. Even if it were true that all persons display these demands, the fact that they are common to all still establishes no single common interest, no genuine basis for co-operation. This, I should argue, is the empirical content of Marx’s distinction between mere numerical universality and a qualitative, intensional universality. For the utilitarian, with his elevation of divisive demands, ‘society ... appears as a frame external to individuals, as a limitation of their original independence. The sole thread that keeps them together is natural necessity, needs and private interest, the preservation of their property and of their egoistic person.’ (supra, II, 6.) Thus — though Marx did not go on to say this explicitly — the ,principles’ of civil society and of the utilitarian elevation of individual ends cannot be formulated: the divisiveness of the ends accepted by the utilitarian is reflected in the incoherence of his principles. The ‘right to liberty’, for instance, cannot be proclaimed as such: it becomes the right ‘to liberty that does not interfere with the liberty of others’, and thus establishes as principle that I may not interfere with the liberty of others, but their liberties may interfere with mine. Subsidiary shifts have to be resorted to: we are exhorted to avoid unnecessary interference with people’s liberty, where what is ‘necessary’ can never be established; we are told that the principle of liberty is after all not a principle, but a defeasible presumption, the operation of which is dependent on moral climate and political, legal and social policy. Whilst these devices might serve in the operation of a compromise legal code, helping to mitigate some conflicts and to make oppression more palatable, beside allowing the system to respond to changes in the balance of social forces, they establish neither a common interest nor a scientific foundation for ethics. Their very instability is a mark of the evils with which they seek compromise. The granting of ‘liberty’ to an activity, as Marx also saw, does not make it free.

Marx’s contrast between the ‘rational society’ and the political structure of ‘civil society’, then, might be seen as a sound perception of the contrast between what we might call ‘ethical justice’ and ‘political justice’. ‘Political justice’ is a compromise, a temporary working arrangement among hostile and divergent movements. Because these movements do diverge, because even the seeking of common ends does not imply the common, co-operative seeking of these ends, Marx has been able to show, the ‘principles of political justice’ cannot be developed coherently or established as permanent.

‘Ethical justice’, on the other hand, is rooted in the spontaneous co-operation of goods — a co-operation that we shall now turn to examine.