The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962

11. Ethics and the ‘Truly Human’ Society

MARX’s vision of the truly human society under Communism, it has been said, is the vision of a society of artists, engaged in creative production. The overcoming of alienation visualised by Marx, it is claimed, is an aesthetic conception, referring to the bond between the artist and the work. He shapes it and forms it and in doing so makes its materials his own. The roots of the conception may be found in the aesthetics of German romanticism, in the philosophy, for instance, of the young Schelling.

The parallel is apt, but to regard Marx’s exposure of alienation and his postulation of activities in which it is overcome as the application of artistic or aesthetic ‘criteria’ is completely to miss the point. The parallel is apt because artists, qua artists, do habitually display freedom from alienation in their artistic activity. Their activity is not subordinated to ends outside the activity. In so far as their motives are artistic, they are not working for reward, or fame, or any other non-artistic end. They are working for the sake of the activity itself. They create, or seek to create, according to the laws of art, not according to laws dictated from outside the activity by non-artistic or anti-artistic motives and ends. There is no significant sense in which artistic activity overcomes — as Marx seems to think — the distinction between man and the objects on which he is working. The sculptor who creates a statue does not thereby obliterate the distinction between man and bronze. He may bruise his toe or break his neck on the statue the following morning. He may discover in it things he did not know were there; he may be influenced by it as the material was moulded by him. But it is true that in the process of production he and his material become part of a single process; that the exchanges between him and the material on which he is working come to him not as externally imposed means to a different end, but as part of the very activity which is his ‘end’. The fact that this activity is not merely an activity ‘governed’ by aesthetic ‘criteria’, but is an activity displaying ethical qualities, an activity which is not merely artistic but also good, comes out in the relations it creates for him with other artists. In so far as he is an artist, he sees other artists not as hostile competitors, but as men whose work assists and inspires his work, whose artistic motives kindled and continue to strengthen his.

The fact that this relation, and the underlying quality of the activity, are not simply aesthetic is sufficiently illustrated by the occurrence of similar relations in other, non-artistic, activities. What has been said of artists is true, in every particular, of scientists and of anyone displaying the spirit of disinterested enquiry in general. It is true not only of the artistic producer, but of anyone seized with the productive spirit. The activities of other producers are to him a source of encouragement, not a threat of competition. He is stimulated by them; he is assisted by their methods and their discoveries; he seeks to emulate, and not to destroy or expropriate, their results.

A characteristic of goods, we have noted, is their rejection of individual ends and desires. They thus confer ‘freedom’ in another sense: they give the individual the capacity of transcending himself, of devoting himself to a movement of which he is merely a vehicle, which existed before him, exists in others beside him and will continue to exist after him. In so far as these goods exist within him, he feels no tension, no conflict, between him and others possessed by the same spirit. It is in this sense that Marx is rightly able to say that the opposition between individual and ‘social’ demands disappears, that wants and enjoyments lose their egoistic nature (see supra, 11, 8).

In the working of evils we have a totally different situation. Here, as Marx himself suggests,[75] we find substituted for the creative, productive, enquiring interest the desire for possession. Here we find the elevation of ‘ends’ to which activities are subjected. Here we find the elevation of particular, individual satisfactions and the conflict of one demand with another. What co-operation exists is in the form of utilisation of common means to diverse ends. There is thus a gulf between the activity undertaken for an end and the end desired; the activity can become distasteful, unwanted, forced. Marx sees clearly this aspect of labour under conditions where the work is performed merely for gain, that is, for an extrinsic object:

[Alienation consists] firstly, in the fact that labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being, in the fact that lie 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. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion, labour is avoided like the plague. External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is labour of self-sacrifice, of mortification.
(M 1, 3, 85 — 6; supra, 11, 7.)

Marx’s insistence that this alienation cannot be overcome by making the products of labour the property of the worker, or social property, but only by superseding the whole conception of property, shows how close he was to an appreciation of the true basis of alienation in the concern with ends, with consumption instead of production, characteristic of evils. And in his critique of political rights and legal justice we have seen his appreciation of the necessary conflict underlying the limited co-operation of evils.

The difference in the organisation and co-operation possible to goods and to evils may be brought out by considering the role of ‘rules’ in the two systems. Both goods and evils will, in the process of their working, formulate certain rules and policies. These may be called their respective moralities. Now, in the operation of goods we find that such rules are subsidiary to the activity itself; they are not required to protect the activity, as a social movement, from the inevitable conflict and dissension within it; they can be flexible and loose. Indeed, as Anderson has stressed,[76] a good — such as enquiry, will be weakened unless it sits loosely to its rules and, for the most part, forgets about them. This, I think, would be admitted by many with regard to education, and it should not be hard for these people to admit it with regard to cultural communication in general. Policy, as we may put it, has to play second fiddle to spontaneity, and goods continue because of their own character — and emphatically not because they are wanted.’ Neither can they be made to continue by being prescribed. In the case of evils, on the other hand, the attempt to impose prescriptive norms and the resultant appeal to hierarchical conceptions of ‘authority’ is a necessary condition for the allaying of internal dissension and conflict — dissension and conflict which, in fact, can only be concealed but not suppressed. It is here that we find the subordination of activities to ‘rules’, the substitution of ‘loyalty’ to institutions and persons for ‘loyalty’ to movements and ways of life and the attempt to shelter rules, ends, institutions and persons from discussion or criticism.

Marx’s vision of Communism, then, is in no sense an ‘artistic’ vision; it rests on his sound, if un-worked-out, perception of the characteristic organisation and ways of working of goods; it rests, that is, on an ethical and not on an aesthetic distinction. The real reason his vision has been called artistic, it seems to me, is not because it embodies aesthetic conceptions, but because the society he portrays seems possible, to his critics, only as a society of artists. Immersion in activity, neglect of rewards, spontaneous co-operation and disinterested appreciation and emulation — the theory runs — are possible only to those engaged in the ‘higher levels’ of creative activity, in ‘pure’ science and art. This seems to me patently false. Artists, as people, can display hatred, envy and greed. They can be found subordinating their work to ‘popular taste’, to religious requirements or to the demands of the market; they can plagiarise, steal and intrigue. Soldiers, fishermen, farmers and artisans can be found exhibiting love or courage, displaying attachment to their activity for its own sake, co-operating spontaneously with their fellows and neglecting all thought of the ‘rewards’ of their work. The distinction between the morality of goods and the morality of evils is rather linked — as Georges Sorel suggests — with the distinction between the morality of the producer and the morality of the consumer. The producer emphasises activities, a way of life, a morality; he is stirred by production everywhere and brought together by the productive spirit with other producers. The consumer emphasises ends, things to be secured; he subordinates himself and his activity to these ends; his sentiments are not productive but proprietary and consumptive; his relations with other consumers involve friction, hypocrisy and envy.

The linking of ethical distinctions with productive and consumptive moralities in history does not imply that men can be classified into those who are producers and those who are consumers, or that the consumptive outlook can be eradicated from human life.[77] Just as the productive, the artistic and the enquiring spirit that enters into men cannot be accounted for by adding the motives of the participants, so it cannot be treated as seizing a ‘whole’ man. Devotion to enquiry can co-exist, in the one person, with proprietorial sentiments or the longing for security, for instance. The former sentiment cannot strengthen or be strengthened by the latter sentiments; the divisiveness of the latter will interfere with the co-operation and admirations spontaneously displayed by the former. But men do display internal conflicts; they are torn by the struggle of goods and evils within them; they recognise both as part of their nature. Nor is there anything in that nature to show that goods must triumph, that evil will be eradicated. If evils are divisive and unstable, goods can also be destroyed or weakened, either by the operation of natural conditions or by the force of evils.

There is no ground, then, for Marx’s optimism, for his belief in the inevitable coming of a society completely given over to goods. He is able to maintain his optimism only by sliding into a confused individualism and an un-empirical doctrine of ontological hierarchies. This is exemplified in his attempt to treat conflict and division as the result of society’s ‘abstraction’ into the individual, in his failure to see conflict as the clash of social movements and ways of living, and in his belief that evils are the result of ‘external’ determination and incompatible with the ‘truly human’ essence of man. The motives Marx unwittingly strengthens in his conception of a society made safe for goods are evil motives: the desires for security and protection, for guarantees that the end striven for will be obtained. Yet these tendencies toward security-seeking, this desire for assurance of rewards and ultimate success, this withdrawal from the view that goods are strengthened in the continuous struggle with evils, are something that Marx helped to liberate in others. They are not something that he valued or needed himself. He himself lived the ‘perilous, fighting life’ (Croce) engaged in by goods; he himself despised the life of prudence and precaution as a base and mean existence.

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The ethical position outlined above is sufficiently radical to cause considerable unease in the minds of most persons confronted by it for the first time. In my own experience, the intelligent objections raised against it have tended to come down to a few basic arguments. A brief attempt to meet these arguments may help to clarify the position a little further.

Many modern philosophers would concede that ‘good’ cannot be both a quality and a relation and that the insistence that qualitative ethical distinction establish no obligations whatever meets most of their arguments against a qualitative treatment of ‘good’. But to treat ‘good’ as a quality that carries no recommendations, they would say, is to fly presumptuously in the face of usage. ‘Good’ is an adjective of commendation; to treat it as anything else is to talk about something other than ‘good’.

To this one can only reply that there is no coherent usage, and that the moral philosopher, in clearing up the confusions, will have to reject some usages and establish others. We are not confronted by one moral usage, but by many; these usages do not provide the ‘ultimate facts’ of moral theory, but embody the often mistaken conclusions of various moral theories. We can, of course, study the history and determining conditions of the normative conceptions and moral attitudes which people have often tried to express through ethical terms; to do this would be to do anthropology, history and sociology, but not ethics. Even such a study could hardly be carried out without having to consider — as a question independent of moral attitudes — whether ethical distinctions exist. If the insistence that ‘good’ is a quality results in the ‘presumptuous’ rejection of ethical ‘norms’, the insistence that ‘good’ is a relation results in the equally ‘presumptuous’ denial of the reality of ethical distinctions. Both the postulation of ‘norms’ and the belief in the reality of ethical distinctions have played an important role in the history of moral speculation; but we cannot consistently uphold both. The former, I have suggested, leads to incoherence and the subversion of any possibility of ethical science, the latter, it seems to me, not only provides a coherent basis for ethics but illuminates social and mental life.

A second objection is that the things I treat as goods or characteristics of goods — enquiry, immersion in an activity, neglect of reward — are not possible to all human beings, and come most easily in fact to those who through class position or occupation are freed from economic need. I have already suggested that I do not accept the view that disinterested enquiry or artistic production is possible only to those whose livelihood is assured. But even if this were in fact so, it would not be an argument against my position. ‘Ought’, says the moralist, ‘implies can’. But I am not a moralist; I am not saying that goods ‘ought’ to be done. Certain natural or social conditions may militate against the emergence and communication of goods; this neither makes the conditions themselves of ethical relevance nor affects the character of ethical activities or motives when they do appear.

Two further arguments are more detailed. One argument claims that mutual co-operation, inspiration, etc., is not exclusive to goods while certain things that I treat as evils — the desire for money or recognition, for instance — are often necessary to produce scientific or artistic creation in a given individual, and may thus be found ‘co-operating’ with goods in a most intimate fashion. Champion billiard players, orchid growers, etc., I have been told, display all the characteristics I claim for artists and scientists: their developments of technique assist one another, they themselves keep in touch with each other, exchange hints, inspire each other. ‘Yet this does not seem to be of any ethical interest.’ I should argue, on the contrary, that it is of ethical interest; the orchid grower and billiard player who exchange information freely with others in their fields, who are inspired by advances in them, are displaying ethical qualities that assimilate their activities to those of the scientist and the artist and the producer in general and radically distinguish them from those fellow-exponents of their craft who are concerned with fame, with profit, with ‘getting one over’ the men whom they see as hostile competitors.

The allied suggestion that scientific and artistic production of a high order frequently display an extraordinary intertwining of motives — of intellectual interest with unusual egotism, ambition or the desire for self-assertion raises more serious issues. It is true that a person’s immersion in good activities may be intensified by evil motives: a man’s scientific work may be goaded on by his desire for wealth, honour and the love of women, as Freud puts it. Nevertheless, it seems to me that such an alliance between good and evil motives can only he of the ‘extrinsic’ kind outlined above. The length of time for which such motives can co-operate without overt friction will depend upon purely fortuitous circumstances. At the same time, the assistance which evils can render goods in specific circumstances seems to me akin to the assistance which non-mental occurrences earthquakes, epidemics or poverty — can render goods and not at all akin to the assistance goods render each other. In general, I should be inclined to suggest that evils, where they assist goods, do so only by inhibiting other evils. A man’s love of money will prevent him from seeking luxury at a particular moment or from showing his envy of his colleagues if he has reason to believe that his reputation and work as a disinterested scientist will get him greater money in the end. But the love of money cannot give him the conception of disinterestedness or the capacity to display it on those occasions that he does display it.

The second and last of the detailed arguments concerns the distinction between goods as involving immersion in an activity in which the distinction between means and ends is unimportant, and bads as involving the elevation of ends. It has been objected that the pursuit of ends need not be the pursuit of possessions, that a man’s end may be the promotion of a good activity, the securing of conditions in which the activity can go forward. This kind of position is often put, with considerable sincerity, by Vice-Chancellors of Universities and heads of scientific and educational institutions. Yet the very difficulties in which such people repeatedly find themselves seem to me to expose their claim. The ‘protection’ of education or culture, the securing of guarantees and conditions as an aim preceding the activity itself, invariably threatens to end in the subordination of education or culture to the non-educational and non-cultural forces whose protection and guarantees it seeks. There can be a consistent and coherent educational, scientific or artistic policy; there cannot be a consistent and coherent policy for securing education, science and art their ‘rightful’ (i.e., protected and guaranteed) place in a society of competing interests and ways of life.

This is not to say that any particular person or institution or movement can escape the problems of practice, of allocating insufficient resources, struggling and at times compromising with inimical movements and concentrating on one thing rather than another. It is to deny both that ethics is in any sense a handbook or a set of principles for such practical accommodations and that any such handbook could be composed. It is to insist, on the contrary, that accommodations are between existing movements, that policies follow and do not precede activities and ways of life. Goods are not constituted by what they aim at, but by what they are.