The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962


Ethics and the Foundations of Marxism

MARX’s belief in the rational, free and completely co-operative society of the human spirit, we have seen, was the foundation and driving force of his intellectual and political development. The structure that followed was high and broad. As it grew it disturbed the foundations, but the basic thrust and design remained. The goal was the same. Man would pass from the realm of conflict and dependence into the realm of co-operation and freedom.

The concern with minimising conflict and maximising co-operation in the abstract is no stranger to moral and political theory, and never has been. It has not normally stemmed from the concern with freedom, however. Liberty, as Croce has said, lives ‘a perilous and fighting life’; the concern with minimising conflict of any kind, with making the world safe for harmony, is more typical of the desires for security and sufficiency, of the motives concerned to establish domination and seek the shelter of submission. It is such movements, such concerns to escape from the conflicts and dangers of history, that moral and political philosophers have all too often been willing to serve. One of Marx’s important contributions to ethics is his bringing out of the despotic conceptions, and the resultant incoherence, underlying their work. There is no harmony of discord with harmony, no way of binding man into freedom. There can be no coherent principles of moral or political obligation. The source of moral obligation, the legal and political sovereign, cannot be exalted above the conflicts and divisions of history. As long as movements and interests conflict, any attempt to bind this conflict cannot be anything more than an attempted domination of some of these movements and interests over the rest. If the community of interest proclaimed by the sovereign were real, there would be no point in such proclamation and no basis or need for the exercise of ‘sovereignty’.

Marx is often accused of having minimised the interdependence of competing movements and interests in society — an interdependence from which, it is claimed, overriding moral and political principles can be elicited. A pluralist view of society — for which Marx helped to lay the foundations — would not have to treat interests as fixed and separate, though Marx’s doctrine of class struggle itself came close to such treatment. The interrelation of movements and interests in a society will reveal affinities as well as conflicts; certain interests may be able to reach adjustments with other interests which will enable both parties to go forward vigorously and amicably. Even where interests seem totally opposed to each other, there will usually be certain boundaries beyond which the conflict cannot be pressed without destroying both the participants. This sense of the affinities between different movements, or of the boundaries to fruitful conflict, is called ‘statesmanship’. But there is nothing in all this to show that there is a public interest ‘higher’ than special interests, or an interest common to all movements which they must satisfy first. The adjustment of interests is not something that precedes and determines the characters and aims of specific interests. On the contrary, it can only follow from them The legal and political structure of a society, its sanctioned rights and duties, represent partly the actual adjustment reached between interests and partly the mechanism arrived at for further adjustments. (No sharp line can be drawn between adjustment and mechanism, since the mechanism itself is reached by adjustment and may be changed by future adjustment.) As Marx saw there is no impartial adjustor standing outside all interests and all history. The adjustments and even the most basic mechanism of adjustment in a society will be formulated in the clash — in the conflicts and the alliances — of specific movements. just as there is no finite number of movements in a society, just as there are no fixed, separate and unchanging interests, so there is no total adjustment, no overall plan, to which all movements and interests can be subordinated or through which they can be expressed. The belief in the possibility of an overall social plan requires the erroneous treatment of interests as atomic, as capable of being counted and moulded into a pattern. The belief in the possibility of ‘rational principles’ for adjustment requires the commercial notion that all interests can be reduced to a common currency. It requires the political theorist to elevate co-operation without considering what it is that co-operates. It requires him to ignore the positive characters of the movements he wants to control and the qualitative distinctions in the interests he wishes to reconcile. This is why his principles can never be concrete. This is why conflict and incoherency break out the moment we seek to ‘apply’ these principles to any specific social situation.

There may, of course, be certain social situations — such as war, or alien domination — when a wide range of movements within the society faces a common impediment or fears a common danger. It is in such situations that talk of the ‘national interest’ or ‘the common good’ gains its maximum degree of plausibility. But even here we find consistently that the concrete policies concealed in these phrases cannot command total support and have to resort to ambiguity, hypocrisy and physical suppression in order to maintain a semblance of social solidarity. In fact, the greater the claims that a common social interest exists, the more urgent the need to manufacture the evidence for social unity, the more vicious the repression of the inescapable protestors and dissidents. That such a common interest is not a true common interest is sufficiently indicated by this need for suppression and the stifling of criticism, by the fetishism invoked to protect the State, the army or the movement of national liberation. That what co-operation does take place is extrinsic and temporary is sufficiently indicated by the invariable disunity, by the struggle for power, that follows victory in war or the attainment of national ‘independence’.

Neither is there anything in the interdependence of movements or social provinces to show that all the participants must have a common policy or a common end. It is true that one party in conflict could cause its own destruction as well as its opponent’s by pressing its demands beyond a certain point. There is nothing in this to produce co-operation while the two competing parties do co-exist, and their co-existence is not a policy to be aimed at but a fact, often pleasing to neither. The point at which mutual destruction will result cannot be laid down by general and immutable principles: it will vary as concrete social situations and alignments vary. In any case, the frequent suggestion that moral and political principles are necessary to save society from chaos and self-destruction is quite false. Movements operate in concrete social situations and formulate policies within these situations; they do not as a general rule press their demands to the point of destroying themselves. The moral and political principles that arise in a society are not the barrier between blindly self-seeking movements and destruction. It is because movements already recognise their mutual dependence that they formulate social codes and political principles: codes and principles that nevertheless vary and conflict as movements vary and conflict, which seek working arrangements and limits to conflict but in no way presuppose that there is an ultimate working arrangement or a final limit.

The main point is that any specific interest in adjustment as such is not higher, but lower than specific interests. There are no ‘rational’ principles on which it can rest or base its supremacy. It does not precede specific interests, but follows them. It is in general not creative but parasitic. It is not above society, but part of it: it, too, is historical, socially determined and partial. Its notion that it controls society instead of being controlled by it is an illusion.

The illusion that policies, or moral and legal principles, are controlling factors in society is one to which the moral and political theorist is especially prone. The chief merit of Marx’s economic or materialist interpretation of history, with all its confusions and difficulties, lies in its exposure of this illusion. Causally, policies will be factors in any given social situation and may affect the changes that take place in that situation. But all the evidence shows that they are not controlling factors in history: they do not precede and determine all historical development. Above all, they are not the policies of ‘reason’ or ‘morality’ or ‘society’; they are the policies of specific, existing movements, the characters and social situation of which precede and determine their aims. Normative ethical and political theory, as Marx realised, has depended largely on obscuring this point: on treating ends, policies and principles as ends, policies and principles in themselves. Once we show that this is not so, that they are ends, policies and principles of specific and historical subjects, conflicting among themselves, the normative pretensions of much moral and political theory are fatally undermined. The vagueness and incoherence that break out in theories of moral and political obligation stand revealed as inescapable results of the illusion on which normative theories rest and not as the mere consequences of an individual theorist’s incompetence. To this conclusion Marx has shown us the way.


Marx’s exposure of normative conceptions was not marred by the crass inconsistencies of Engels. Whatever Marx’s followers may have done, Marx did not proclaim historical evolution, or Marxist science, or the coming revolution, as normative criteria establishing new obligations and new principles for conduct. He was too able and coherent a thinker for that. Nevertheless, his exposure of normative ethics was not as thorough-going as it might have been; not as clear-sighted as it needs to be for the establishment of an ethical science.

Marx prided himself, already in his youth, that he did not confront ‘the world’ with doctrinaire principles of what ‘ought to be’; he did no more than show it the end to which it was inevitably developing. The end Marx foresaw, we have argued, was not a mere utopia, based on nothing but metaphysical illusions. It had a genuine empirical content, an empirical content which ethical theory cannot ignore and on the basis of which a positive ethical science becomes possible. Marx’s positive contribution to the working out of such an ethical science is not great. It rests on unsystematic flashes of insight, on an emotional character in which the morality of freedom and the ability to see qualitative distinctions and ways of living were strong. It does not rest on any reasoned working out of the distinctions that Marx was able to appreciate intuitively or of the cultural tradition in which he himself was an uncompromising participant. Marx perceived, in himself and in others, the characteristic ways in which goods work. He saw that evils were divisive and goods co-operative, that apparent harmony between evils always involved an element of resistance, always required coercion on one side and submission on the other. He saw the connection between freedom and the productive morality; he himself used scientific and artistic creation as the paradigm of free labour. He saw the incoherence and dependence enshrined in any morality that elevated ends and subordinated activities: he realised the different roles played by ‘rules’ in the morality of freedom and the morality of security and protection. The distinctions in the operation of movements, motives and ways of living with which ethical science begins are all displayed in his work. In his comments on religion and punishment, in his analysis of the social effects of capitalism, we find a depth of psychological and historical insight impossible to the man who is not able to grasp the positive distinctions between freedom and slavery, between enterprise and servility, between the untrammelled morality of production and the fetishistic morality of security.

Why could Marx take this no further? Why could he not associate the distinctions he saw so clearly with distinctions in quality? Why could he not see the struggle for freedom as a concrete historical struggle between free movements and unfree movements, co-existing and competing at any one time? To recognise that goods and evils, free and unfree activities, co-exist is to recognise that neither are metaphysically higher, that a struggle which has gone on throughout history points to no ultimate end or resolution. Marx was committed to such an end, to such an ultimate resolution. It required him to treat freedom as the true and self-sufficient state of man, servility and dependence as temporary phenomena that did not stem from any positive human character or any permanent feature of social activity. In his early period he did so frankly by elevating the essential human spirit above the empirical and determined man. In his later period he concentrated on the instability and incoherence of evils, glossing over the concrete foundations and positive character of goods.

What made this evasion possible was Marx’s idealist upbringing and his confused doctrine of freedom as self-determination. Self-determination as a philosophical concept enabled him to treat goods purely negatively, as that which occurs when external dependence and domination have been removed. Man’s character, the nature of his activities and the social organisation in which he lives thus become entirely irrelevant, provided all external determination has been removed. What it is that now determines itself is left — and has to be left — entirely unclear. For self-determination, as we have seen, requires the ultimate removal of all distinctions, the paring away of all qualities, the assumption of an underlying but unspecific human substance into which everything is absorbed.


The belief that evil and the conflict of evils could be eradicated also required a reductionist doctrine — a single course from which all evils and all conflict sprang. That source, for the mature Marx, was private property.[135] In this, and in his allied definition of classes in terms of their relation to property, he proved himself thoroughly the intellectual child of the capitalism he criticised so unsparingly.

The most obvious failure of Marxism has lain in the incorrectness of Marx’s predictions. In each case, this incorrectness has stemmed from his over-estimation of the importance of private property. He failed to see the gains which the working-class might make under capitalism because he saw the worker’s divorce from property as a divorce from all enterprise, control or political power. He failed to recognise the emergence of centralised power in the State because he could not seriously conceive a political, non-property-owning institution gaining or keeping any significant power in a society he saw as dominated by property. He grossly underestimated the social importance of nationalism because he saw the conflict of the propertied and the propertyless as the only fundamental and significant conflict. His followers have been totally unable to give a plausible account of fascism, as they were incapable of appreciating its importance when it first emerged, for similar reasons.

The pattern which Marx saw in historical change was a pattern suggested almost entirely by the transition from the Ancien Regime to capitalist ‘democracy’ — above all, by the French Revolution. It simply did not, and would not, fit Asia. Admittedly, Marx did not see Asia as a disturbing factor in capitalist development because he visualised Asia being thoroughly penetrated by European capitalism, its institutions overthrown, its governments toppled, its social life radically commercialised. He saw this, indeed, as the precondition for freedom after 2,000 years of Oriental stagnation and despotism. But on what did the despotism rest? On private property, on which Marx saw all despotism resting? Climate and territorial conditions, Marx wrote in the New York [Daily] Tribune in 1853, made artificial irrigation by canals and waterworks the basis of Oriental agriculture. The construction and control of these vast waterways ‘necessitated in the Orient, where civilisation was too low and the territorial extent too vast to call into life voluntary association, the interference of the centralising power of the government.’ ‘The key to the Oriental heaven,’ Marx and Engels agreed in an interchange of correspondence in June 1853 (Marx, M III, 1, 477; Engels, ibid., 480), is ‘the fact that there was no private ownership of land.’ A penetrating observation, as Wittfogel has shown,[136] but an observation which entirely destroys the basis for Marx’s belief that a society without private property must be a society of freedom. If the power of the Oriental State rested on its powers of direction and management, then another despotism can be built on the same power. Many people, Wittfogel among them, have seen Soviet society as precisely such a despotism.

The realities of Soviet life and the character of the Communist Party as a historical institution are not best brought out by examining the moral theory proclaimed by Marxism alone. But there can be little doubt that Marx’s reductionism, his proclamation of an ultimate goal supported by history and his failure to emphasise positive distinctions in ways of living have done much to facilitate the Philistinism and the servility that characterise contemporary Marxism. The neglect of positive distinctions, the elevation of historical ‘tasks’ and ‘ends’, enabled the Communist Party to seize centralised power and exercise unprincipled tyranny in the name of a new metaphysical sovereign: history itself. It removed any barriers to opportunism, it facilitated the elevation of ends above forms of organisation and ways of life: it thus reduced all concrete institutions and activities to a subordinate status and a dependent existence. The concentration on the ‘one thing needful’ rested on the same utilitarianism and produced the same dependence and stagnation of enterprise as the capitalist emphasis on material reward. Together with the doctrine that all things are reflections of a fundamental conflict — a doctrine that proved almost fatal to science, speculation and art in Soviet society — it was a godsend to those concerned to stifle independence and creativity, to establish uniformity and total control.

There has recently been something of an advance in Soviet scientific and speculative thought. It is, indeed, one of the features of tyrannies that they are parasitic upon scientific, industrial and artistic movements basically incompatible with the fetishisms of political and intellectual domination. The tyranny requires science and production: in fostering these, it constantly runs the danger of fostering the scientific and the productive spirit as well. It is no accident that serious speculation and intellectual competence in the Soviet Union found their greatest theoretical barrier in crude economic reductionism, in the doctrine of ‘reflections’. Intellectual pressure from men having a certain competence in specific intellectual fields certainly did much to lead to the collapse of thorough-going reductionism. But it is one of the ironies of contemporary Marxism that it has been outweighed by the crude voluntarism which the abandonment of the doctrine has also made possible. The stabilisation of Soviet tyranny has led to a widening of the area of inessential liberties: it has also led to increasing reliance on fetishism, on moral exhortation and moral sanction. It is fast leading to the normative illusion that policy can control society and solve the conflicts of international relations. In all this, there is no significant trace of the freedom and spontaneous co-operation envisaged by Marx. Capitalism, as Marx saw, split man into two: in liberating him as a political citizen it also liberated the avarice and commercialism that could reduce man to dependence. But it did liberate him as a political citizen: it increased the possibilities for movements and institutions to function independently in the social struggle, it made possible organisation and, above all, publicity. The struggle with evils is one in which goods are strengthened as frequently as they are destroyed; in a society in which there was no such struggle there would be no goods. In fact, the struggle continues in all societies, in the societies of Communism and of past Oriental despotisms as it continues under capitalism. But in so far as Marx is right in distinguishing between the alienation of man under capitalism and the enslavement of the whole man in Oriental despotism and feudalism, the Communist society of to day and of the foreseeable future stands with the latter.