The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962
PART FIVE. Communism and Ethics
THE fundamental weakness of Marx’s thought, then, lies in his failure to work out a theory of classes and organisations, and of freedom and servility, in positive terms, in terms of the character of the processes and movements involved. What things are is prior to their possible adjustments and their aims; it is in the struggle of specific movements and organisations that adjustments arise and aims are formulated. It is only because Marx glosses over the positive character of social movements and ways of living that he is able to believe in a classless society, in a society in which the conflict of movements and way of living has disappeared. The transition to socialism thus becomes something he simply cannot afford to examine seriously: the precise character of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the ‘values’ and ways of living represented by the people in whose hands it would lie, have to be left out of account. Here he is driven back on a crude economic reductionism: the abolition of private property destroys the foundation on which competing interests rest.
Socialism, on Marx’s view, would be born out of capitalism. But it would be the society of true freedom and enterprise, in which the capitalist morality had been entirely destroyed. He was right in the first proposition and wrong in the second. Socialism was born of capitalism. But it was not the result of the catastrophic collapse of capitalism. On the contrary, it sprang from the very ideology fostered by capitalism: the concern with economic ends over ways of living, the belief in the universal exchangeability of all things, in the possibility of rational control of all things seen as mere means to a commercial end. The socialist’s vision of society, as Rosa Luxemburg once said of Lenin, is the capitalist’s vision of a factory, run by an overseer. The conception of economic planning, Schumpeter has pointed out, is a capitalist conception: the capitalism manager is the prototype of the socialist administrator. Both depend in their ideology on the commercial morality of utilitarianism: on the conception that all things can be treated and assessed as means to ends and that ends can be reduced to a common measure.
Marx had a strong desire to believe that the proletariat, in its misery, yearned for initiative, enterprise and freedom, that it rejected servility, careerism, and the concern with security as Marx himself had rejected them. It would not be bought off with ameliorated conditions, prospects of greater rewards, or of ‘opportunities’ for the individual to ‘better’ himself. But Marx was not prepared to make such a claim part of his theory, to see socialism as the extension and culmination of the freedom and enterprise already displayed by the worker. Essentially, he stuck to his negative view of the proletariat as the most suffering class; a class whose future was determined not by its character, but by its conditions. This prevented him from paying serious attention to freedom and enterprise as historic traditions, operating in any society, strengthened and not necessarily weakened in the struggle against adversity. It prevented him from seeing the importance of other forms of production and of other manifestations of the productive spirit in social life: of artistic and scientific production as continuing traditions capable of supporting and strengthening the productive spirit in industry. Instead, Marx chose to rely on ‘history’, to hold out to the proletariat the vision of a classless society made safe for goods, where enterprise and freedom would be guaranteed by the economic foundations of society itself, where freedom would not lie in struggle, but follow from mere existence. The servile character of such a conception, its appeal to the demands for safety and for security, for certain returns, has been noted already. Its servile character was even further strengthened by the fact that it was Engels, with his blindness for alienation, with his crude evolutionism, his utilitarian concern with economic satisfaction, who became the ‘ideologue’ — the propagandist and populariser — of Marxism.
There can be no question that the labour movement, and even the socialist movement, was at no stage wholly given over to enterprise. The search for security, for welfare and economic sufficiency, was always a powerful motive within it. But there can also be no question that propaganda of a Marxist colour, with its insistence on ends and aims, its elevation of consumer’s demands, did much to destroy what enterprise there was. In their controversies with anarchists and syndicalists Marxists may have been able to expose much that was utopian in both movements. But against the anarcho-syndicalist elevation of the free and enterprising character of the existing working-class, Marxists were upholding a servile and unfree morality.
Partly as a result of Marx’s failure to deal positively with ethical questions, to highlight ways of life and of organisation, ethical distinctions did not play a central part in the splits and controversies that racked Marxism. The revisionists in the 1890’s, it is true, made much ado about their Kantian ethics, and Bernstein proclaimed his seemingly sound slogan: ‘The movement is everything, the goal is nothing.’ But Bernstein, for all this, preached security and sufficiency all his life. The real issue confronting Marxists was not ethics, but the consequences of their neglect of ethics. Marx had been wrong in forecasting the imminent collapse of capitalism and the growing pauperisation of the worker; no longer driven by needs, the workers were displaying their character, their preference for rewards and security over freedom and struggle. If one wanted to follow the worker, the Marxist vision of a radically new society born of struggle had to be dropped. Socialism became a matter of negotiation and demand for improved conditions and greater security within existing conditions. This was the path of reformism. Notably, the Marxist neglect of ethics prevented them from attacking reformism for its elevation of rewards and security; the orthodox Marxists had to argue instead — quite implausibly — that the reformists were bound to fail, that increased rewards and greater security could not last under capitalism.
Orthodox Marxists, clinging to the vision, had to find a substitute for the proletariat. Lenin, drawing on Russian Populism, found it in the revolutionary intelligentsia and the centralised hierarchical party, acting as the ‘vanguard’ of the working-class, driving it beyond the bread-and-butter politics at which the working-class by itself would always remain. Enterprise was not to be won by the worker but for him.
The bringing of freedom and enterprise to somebody is not a free but a despotic conception. Yet Marx, too, had seen freedom as something that would be brought to the worker by ‘history’. His work laid no foundations for exposing the course the Communist Party was soon to follow. Indeed, his failure to see freedom as a force within history, his treatment of it as merely a final end, made it possible to erect despotism in his name. The point is Marx’s refusal to consider the qualities of movements and institutions themselves, his idealist insistence that to do so is to treat them ‘abstractly’. It is their role in history, not their character, that matters to Marx. Social movements and relationships are not good or bad, but progressive or reactionary, doing ‘the work of history’ or frustrating it. There is no point in judging in isolation, especially when the path of history is not one of slow steady improvement, but one of inevitable conflicts, necessary miseries, and later resolutions.
‘Reason,’ Hegel had said in one of the most famous passages in his Encyclopedia, ‘is as cunning as it is powerful. Cunning may be said to lie in the inter-mediative action, which, while it permits the objects to follow their own bent and act upon one another till they waste away, and does not itself directly interfere in this process, is nevertheless only working out the execution of its aims. With this explanation, Divine Providence may be said to stand to the world and its process in the capacity of absolute cunning. God lets men direct their particular passions and interests as they please; but the result is the accomplishment of — not their plans, but His, and these differ directly from the ends primarily sought by those whom He employs.’ (Wallace translation, Section 209.) In the Communist Manifesto especially, Marx also emphasised this disparity between the character of men’s actions and intentions and the results that inevitably followed from them. The exploitation of slaves made inevitable the agricultural development of feudalism; the greed of the capitalist merchant built industrialism; the increasing misery of the proletarian was the indispensable precondition of the rational society of the future. In the face of the ethical qualities of the end, the ethical qualities of the preceding stages, if they could be spoken of at all, were irrelevant. If history proceeds inevitably toward the truly rational, then, indeed, one can say with Hegel — Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht.
For the Communist Party, as ‘the party of history’, the principle was of inestimable value in imposing iron discipline and unquestioning obedience in a period of militant struggle accompanied by the opportunism of constantly shifting tactics. Reinforced by Marxist essentialism, by the conception that each stage of history requires the solution of a dominant ‘task’, the victory of the proletariat under the leadership of the Communist Party became the only relevant moral criterion in the period of struggle under capitalism. (Stealing from capitalist employers used to be denounced in party catechisms on the simple ground that it would discredit the party in the eyes of the public.) Lenin, claiming that there is no shred of ethics in Marxism from beginning to end, repeatedly emphasised the moral primacy of proletarian victory.
Trotsky, in his Their Morals and Ours, took the same line. A gun in itself is neither good nor evil; it becomes good in the hands of a proletarian fighting for the classless society and evil in the hands of a capitalist fighting for oppression and exploitation. At the same time, within the party and within the Soviet Union the principle could always be used to justify those who actually gained and kept power. History was on their side. It is this which plants the first seeds of doubt in the mind of the anti-Stalinist Rubashov sitting in his prison cell in Darkness at Noon; within Marxism he can find no answer.