The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962

Preliminaries: Marx, Marxism and Ethics

THE relationship between Marxism and ethics is often alluded to and rarely explored. The disputes that surround it have produced little precision or clarity concerning the issues involved; so far they have generally illuminated neither Marxism nor ethics. Marx himself wrote nothing devoted directly to the problems of moral philosophy. Nowhere did he analyse critically the meaning of moral terms or the basis of ethical distinctions; nowhere did he consider carefully the concept of moral obligation or the criteria for distinguishing moral demands from other demands. He did, it is true, emphatically reject the conception of ethics as a normative science; he denied completely the existence of ‘values’, ‘norms’ and ‘ideals’ above or outside the empirical realm of facts. He prided himself that he had not asked what ought to be, but only what is. Yet the answers he gave to his question have seemed to many of his disciples and critics implicitly ethical and/or advocative. He called feudalism a state of bondage; he described the dehumanisation of the worker under capitalism in terms highly reminiscent of ethical writing; he identified the empirical culmination of history with the emergence of ‘rational’ and ‘truly intelligible’ human relations. Many of the ‘contradictions’ that play so large a part in his exposure of capitalism smack of moral as well as logical ‘contradictions’. His life and work seem to proclaim a unity of theory and practice, of science and advocacy, that characterises the ethical Weltanschauung rather than the positive ‘value-free’ science. Even his own disciples seem uncertain whether Marx revolutionised the foundations of ethics or showed that it could have no foundation.

The tensions that appear to lie beneath the surface of Marx’s work, and to which he may have had a coherent solution, break out as crass inconsistencies in the ‘philosophical’ works of his leading collaborator and disciple, Friedrich Engels. The ‘co-founder’ of Marxism asserts in one ill-considered breath that all moral judgments are relative and that moralities have in fact progressed: he rejects all absolute moral values and yet foretells the rise of ‘a truly human morality’ (AD 104-109). Under his influence, dogmatic Marxists have vacillated helplessly between the belief that Marxism is a ‘value-free’ science which destroys the very basis of moralism and exposes moral demands as no more than economic interests in disguise and the belief that Marxism is the most progressive, the most humane and the most ethical of all world-views. Hilferding, it is true, sought to resolve the contradiction ruthlessly. ‘The theory of Marxism, as well as its practice,’ he wrote in 1910,[3] ‘is free from judgments of value. It is therefore false to conceive, as is widely done, intra et extra muros, that Marxism and socialism are as such identical. For logically, regarded as a scientific system and apart from its historical effect, Marxism is only a theory of the laws of movement of society formulated in general terms by the Marxian conception of history; the Marxian economics applying in particular to the period of commodity-producing society. But insight into the validity of Marxism, which includes insight into the necessity of socialism, is by no means a matter of value judgments and just as little an indication to practical procedure. For it is one thing to recognise a necessity, and another thing to work for this necessity. It is quite possible for someone convinced of the final victory of socialism to fight against it.’ Whatever the logical position may be, Hilferding’s analysis has not commended itself to Marxist writers and does not fit readily into a Marxist system. Marx himself would not have conceded the distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘values” science’ and ‘attitude’, in the crude terms suggested by Hilferding. Thus the doyen of contemporary Soviet moral philosophers, A. F. Shishkin, writes: ‘Marxist ethics does not “prescribe” norms, it deduces them from the social being of men; it does not divorce “values” from facts, the “ought” from the “is”.'[4]

The attempt to combine description and advocacy, to claim scientific objectivity and yet ‘deduce’ moral ‘norms’ and social ‘principles’, appeared cautiously in the work of Marx and crassly in the work of Engels; it has remained, despite Hilferding, the most obvious feature of subsequent Marxist writing on ethics. Kautsky, for instance, proclaimed[5] that ‘it was the materialist interpretation of history which first completely deposed the moral ideal as the directing factor of social revolution” and added, in the same sentence, that this theory has ‘taught us to deduce our social aims solely from the knowledge of the material foundations’, i.e., it has shown us what we ought to do. Lenin insisted that Marxism ‘contains no shred of ethics from beginning to end’ — and then went on to speak of ‘the simple and fundamental rules of every-day social life'[6] and of ‘the revolutionary consciousness of Justice'[7] to be established by Communism. More recently, the Soviet philosopher P. A. Sharia wrote:[8] ‘The founders of Marxism had no need to separate out a special science of ethics, since the scientific theory of social development created by them already provided a scientific foundation for morality as one of the forms of social consciousness as well ... One must not confuse two things: the basing of socialism on ethics, which the classics of Marxism-Leninism attacked bitterly, and the ethical nature of Marxism itself, as the most progressive, scientific world-view, striving toward incessant progress, toward the liberation of exploited and suffering humanity.’ Consciously or unconsciously, virtually every Marxist has sought to have it both ways.

Marxism has become a dogma. Like Christianity, it speaks in the name of its founder more frequently than it speaks with his voice. Its sacred texts — ‘the great classics of Marxism-Leninism’ — are not confined to the writings of Marx; its most general conclusions and simplified catechisms were not formulated by him. Marx’s life-long friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, was elevated (partly by himself) to the status of co-founder of Marxism and intellectual alter ego of Marx. Lenin and then Stalin were proclaimed ‘disciples of genius’, clarifying the thought of the Master and building on its foundations. A world-wide political party, fighting or governing in his name, has claimed to be the sole repository of orthodox Marxism and the final arbiter of ‘what Marx really meant’. ‘Since the publication of Comrade Stalin’s new works on linguistics, intended to provide the basis for all scientific knowledge and not only for Soviet-Marxist linguistics, many debatable questions of logic have been automatically settled.’ Thus wrote one of the ablest and most independent of Soviet philosophers, the Georgian S. K. Bakradze, in Voprosy Filosofii for 1950-1. Was Stalin speaking in his own name or Marx’s? It was not a question a Soviet Marxist could ask. As the number of ‘Marxist’ pronouncements and ‘classics’ increased, Marx steadily slipped from one’s grasp. The abundance of followers and interpreters obscured rather than illuminated his thought. ‘Joint founders’, ‘inspired disciples’ may carry the prestige of numbers; they do not make for a single view.

Marx has been widely read as the great founder of ‘scientific socialism’ for at least seventy years — he has been dead for seventy-eight. Yet there is still no complete, scholarly edition of his work; there is no definitive biography, no monumental study of his thought. His early, more philosophical writings had been printed in the minor journals and newspapers for which they were written or left in manuscript to ‘the gnawing criticism of the mice'; their systematic publication did not commence until 1927. The tireless notes, comments and drafts that formed a considerable part of Marx’s mature output and that throw important light on the basis and development of his thought have attracted increasing attention in the recent revival of Marxian scholarship; most of them were unavailable and almost unknown before 1939; some, at least, are still unpublished. In the decisive years that saw the building of Communist ideology, Marx’s unalloyed influence rested on his political pamphlets dealing with concrete contemporary affairs and on the detailed economic and economico-historical studies culminating in Das Kapital. Marx, in his serious work, propounded no general principles as a substitute for detailed knowledge. It was Engels who became at once the populariser, the systematiser and the ‘philosopher’ of Marxism. It was he, and not Marx, who compressed Marx’s thought into a few simple principles. To Marx, few things were simple. For those who wanted to master his thought, he provided no short course, no quintessence of Marxism. To do this was the work of other, less able, minds.

All this is not to say that there is no connexion between the works of Marx and the corpus of Marxism. It is rather to warn that the connexion must be examined carefully and never taken on trust. ‘The ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism’ is a legitimate field of enquiry. It is neither synonymous with the study of Marx nor of the same intrinsic intellectual interest. The subtle ambiguities and suppressed conflicts in Marx’s position are often made evident by the clumsy restatements of his disciples; none of these disciples can be regarded as an equal partner of Marx’s in the building of a Marxian system and a Marxist philosophy. Where these disciples claim, like Engels, to speak on Marx’s behalf, or to expound a view shared by him, they must be treated with the suspicion appropriate to dealing with any disciple ‘expounding’ a master. For the first and most profound distinction between Marx and his disciples is a distinction in intellectual capacity.

Marxism, Georges Sorel argues in his La Decomposition du Marxisme, is not the simple, coherent and purely empirical science it sometimes pretends to be. For Sorel it is in fact three things. a set of dogmas, a canon of historical interpretation and a heroic social myth meant to promote working-class education and strength. The dogmas, Sorel thought, were absurd; the canon could be very useful; the myth was to be judged in terms of its effectiveness, not of its truth. The word ‘dogmas’, of course, is pejorative: Marx was aggressive, self-confident and much given to regarding his opponents as fools; he was neither a believer in dogmas nor an expounder of them. (Herein lies a second distinction between him and his followers.) But for all his intellectual caution, for all his dislike of generalities ‘abstracted’ from concrete facts, his leading works between 1845 and 1875 unmistakably — if not unambiguously — embody the set of general propositions and conclusions which Marxists have summarised as the fundamental principles of Marxism and treated as political dogmas. There is the ‘materialist interpretation of history’ — the proposition that ‘the mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and intellectual processes of life’.[9] There is his distinction between the forces of production and the relations of production and his belief that social change takes place — violently — when the relations of production cease to correspond with the forces of production and become fetters upon them. There is his allied doctrine that society is divided into competing classes, whose struggle for mastery is reflected in the political institutions and theoretical life of any given period. There is his suggestion that the capitalist state is merely the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. Finally, there is his detailed analysis of the economic processes of capitalism — his belief that the capitalist system must inevitably collapse through the very logic of its own development and give way to a dictatorship of the proletariat to be followed by the unflowering of the rational society of Communism. These are the doctrines most commonly associated with Marx’s name and the chief link between him and his ‘orthodox’ disciples. They formed the basis of the Communist Weltanschauung; they were for many years, and officially are even now, the test of Marxist orthodoxy.

Apart from the detailed analysis of the economic processes of capitalism, all the propositions outlined above suggest a general philosophy of history and the basis of a universal view. Marxists, indeed, have treated them as such. But virtually every one of the propositions is surrounded by ambiguity and qualified or contradicted by some of the most brilliant of Marx’s specific insights in specific fields. Time and time again, critics who assume quite fairly from these general propositions that Marx could not have foreseen or accounted for the emergence of fascism, the rise of capitalist managers, the existence of a state bureaucracy or the economic effects of law find that Marx did foresee them or mention them, at whatever cost to his general theory. The ‘materialist interpretation of history’ and the materialist reduction of ideologies have become Marxist dogmas, but their precise content has always been, and remains, far from clear. To Marx himself, they were not even dogmas to be followed at all costs.

Marx’s conclusions concerning the fate of capitalism are unquestionably at first sight the most specific of his doctrines; they also seemed to his immediate followers the doctrines most pregnant with contemporary significance and the most conclusive in establishing that Marxism is the most ‘advanced’ of all sciences.[10] Beginning with the Ricardian theory that the value of a commodity is the amount of labour ‘embodied’ within it, Marx sought to show that the capitalist’s profit depended upon the extraction of ‘surplus value’ from hired labour by paying the labourer less than the values the labourer produced. The well-being of the bourgeois thus necessarily implied the misery of the proletarian. The very nature of capitalist competition, Marx was understood to be saying, would lead and was leading to recurrent crises, to the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, to the proletarianisation of unsuccessful capitalists, petty bourgeoise and other intermediate classes and to ever-increasing misery for the proletariat. Goaded by its destitution, the proletariat would rebel against a bourgeoisie no longer capable of supporting society or itself. It would establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, abolish private property, socialise the means of production, distribution and exchange and usher in the ultimate truly human society of rational economic planning and free associative production.

For a period, such doctrines seemed more than an intellectual tour de force; they carried conviction and appeal. Capitalist crises, unemployment and the miseries attendant upon rapid industrialisation were real and disturbing phenomena, belying the moralistic optimism of classical economists and the pious hypocrisy of Protestant industrialists. There seemed no reason why uncontrolled competition should not lead precisely where Marx said it would lead; the human debasement and destitution it had brought in its wake were all too evident.

As the basis for an ideology and a social myth, Marx’s doctrines skilfully if unconsciously combined the messianic faith of a future state of bliss with the growing prestige of objective empirical science, the wistful longing for the community and fellowship of the feudal-agrarian past with the realistic acceptance of the inescapable process of ever-increasing industrialisation. What anarchists and utopians strove to make possible, Marx seemed to prove inevitable. Where they posited a conflict between the proletarian’s work and his hopes, Marx showed the proletarian’s work leading inevitably to the fulfilment of his hopes. History only seemed to crucify man; in fact, it was working toward his restoration.

The effectiveness of the myth even was weakened — though not completely destroyed — as the doctrines on which it rested became less convincing. Precisely that dynamic quality of capitalism which Marx had been the first to appreciate thoroughly, its continual transformation of the social background in which it operated, quickly made his analysis too simple, too primitive, too crude. The catastrophes he predicted did not occur; there are some indications that in the last years of his life Marx may no longer have expected them to occur. Kautsky, it is true, in drawing up the Erfurter Program of 1891, still envisaged a bleak future of mounting class tensions, increasing centralisation of wealth and the certainty of ‘growing insecurity, misery, oppression, enslavement, debasement, exploitation’ for the proletariat and the sinking middle class. Eduard Bernstein only eight years later saw evidence of increasing order, security, tranquillity, prosperity and a more equitable distribution of wealth. Statistics, he argued in his Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie (The Presuppositions of Socialism and the Tasks Facing Social Democracy), proved that the middle classes were holding their own and that the incomes of wage-earners were actually rising, small-scale enterprise were still flourishing alongside the industrial giants, business cycles were continuing to flatten out, social tensions were lessening, ownership of property was becoming more widespread.[11] Bernstein’s statistics were hotly contested; nevertheless, Marxist attention shifted from the unprofitable expectation of internal economic collapse to the national economic rivalries between competing capitalist countries, thus implicitly confirming Bernstein’s analysis of the situation. The Austrian Marxists discovered that capitalism was moving into a new state of ‘finance-capitalism’ in which the banks were assuming the power previously held by the great industrialists; Lenin, basing himself on the work of J. A. Hobson, proclaimed in 1916 that this period of ‘finance-capitalism’ or imperialism was the final stage preceding the collapse of the entire capitalist system. The more developed countries, he argued in his pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, had already reached the point where they were producing more goods than their home markets could absorb; they were therefore driven to find markets in backward countries where they could get raw materials in exchange. These countries were then annexed, while the ‘superprofits’ derived from the exploitation of their peoples were used to bribe the proletariat in metropolitan countries with better wages and conditions that seemed to belie the Marxist prognosis. But the struggle for markets in a world where there were no new territories to be discovered implied an inescapable series of imperialist wars, while the creation and exploitation of a proletariat in the backward countries only added a further nail to the coffin of capitalism.

Lenin’s thesis became and remained of vital importance to the Communist movement — not because it successfully explained the failure of Marxist expectations of a world-wide capitalist collapse, but because it provided a theoretical justification for Communist revolution in such industrially backward countries as Russia and because it enabled Communists to mobilise totally new forces and different resentments into the ‘national-liberation’ Communism preached in Asian countries. But as proof that the inevitable, catastrophic collapse of capitalism through its own ‘contradictions’ has merely been delayed, the Austro-Marxist and Leninist thesis has also ceased to convince. However great the underlying tensions in a system resting largely on private capitalism, the Marxian picture of an uncontrolled competitive capitalism propelling itself inexorably towards catastrophic collapse has proved quite false. Even conceding that Marx had been somewhat more cautious about the pauperisation of the proletariat than many of his disciples, and had recognised various countervailing tendencies, Marx had erred basically and most seriously in neglecting the rise in the real value of wages that could and did occur under capitalism as a result of technological advance. At the same time, legislative interference with working conditions gathered pace within a few years of the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867; the trade union movement overcame its legal disabilities and grew in strength and bargaining power. The skilled worker has thus moved slowly but steadily toward a middle-class standard of living and a middle-class ideology; even the living conditions and purchasing power of the shrinking class of unskilled labourers have patently risen and continue to rise.

Arguments can still be adduced in favour of the validity of some of Marx’s long-range predictions. The movement toward more and more social control, not only through Communist expansion but also within the Western ‘capitalist’ world, is an obvious feature of our time; Marx’s suggestion in the third volume of Capital that the nature of the capitalist process of production and the emergence of a class of capitalist managers would produce a certain ‘socialisation from within’ under capitalism seems today peculiarly striking and relevant. The tremendous strides made by Soviet technology are seen by some, at least, as vivid proof of the fact that socialist production is more ‘rational’ and therefore bound to triumph in economic competition. But by and large, despite the prevision and suggestiveness of many of his insights, the leading themes in Marx’s analysis of capitalism have become irrelevant to the economic problems and economic conflicts of our time. Even thirty years ago, a serious book on Marx would have largely consisted of a detailed examination and criticism of the central Marxist dogmas outlined above. To the mature Marx, unquestionably, these were the central and most important aspects of his work; to us their interest has already become largely historical.

Truly great men and truly great works have something to say to each generation. They do not come back as unrecognised elements of a cultural inheritance; they come back, as Schumpeter put it, ‘in their individual garb with their personal scars which people may see and touch.'[12] Each generation finds in them new features, new sources of illumination. The specific predictions Marx made, which seemed so important and challenging to earlier generations, now seem to us false. The general canons that permeate Marx’s work — his recognition of the relatedness of all social phenomena, his emphasis on the existence of social conflict, on the impossibility of standing outside or of manipulating society and on the importance of production in social life — still need to be hammered home against voluntarists, individualists and social engineers; but poorly learnt as they may have been, they bring us today no new, unsuspected insights. Yet Marx still has much to say to us.

While the Marxist picture of capitalism still appeared to the less able or more fanatical to be truthful and relevant, West European Marxists were largely immersed in the task of ‘exposing’ the contradictions of capitalism. The relation of Marxism to ethics and the foundations of a positive morality of Communism did not seem burning practical issues. When Marxists in the advanced industrial countries did deal with ethics, they tended to concentrate on the Marxist critique of morality, using it to distinguish their ‘scientific socialism’ from the woolly, unscientific humanitarianism of liberals, social democrats and revisionists. Even the serious critics of Marxism in this period, unless themselves moralisers, mostly thought the Marxist relation to ethics a side issue. On the whole, the attitude taken by Marxists accorded well with the intellectual climate in capitalist countries. It could draw on the science-worship of the late nineteenth century[13] and the scientific positivism of the earlier part of the twentieth century; it could mobilise, quite effectively, the young intellectual’s contempt for moralism, cant and hypocrisy. At the same time, it was useful to a party leadership which, from the time of Lenin, began increasingly to pursue a course of unprincipled, opportunistic tactics and consistently refused to consider the character, rather than the aim, of the proletarian movement.[14]

The anti-moralistic strain in West European Marxism did not lead, as we have seen, to a thorough-going rejection of norms, duties and principles, or to a shedding of all ethical assumptions. Marxists continued to speak of society evolving towards something ‘higher’, ‘more magnificent'; they were neither willing nor able to discard the Messianism, the mingling of logic and ethics into an optimistic metaphysic of history, which had given Marxism so much of its popular and intellectual appeal. They wanted to have it both ways. But when speaking directly of ethics, they tended to protest their amoralism.

The development of the Soviet Union, as we shall see in Chapter 16, created new problems and with them new attitudes and new interpretations of Marx. The Soviet radicalism of the early twenties was soon abandoned; dangerous tensions were discovered between moral scepticism and party and national discipline. A period of the glorification of economic planning (and of stringent secret police controls) was followed by a frank insistence from the late thirties onward on traditional means of ensuring social stability. Soviet propaganda increasingly emphasised the importance of patriotism, obedience to the ‘will of the community’, respect for Soviet law and for the norms of Soviet morality. As conventional moral slogans became more and more part of the Soviet machinery of government, even the materialist interpretation of history was steadily reinterpreted to give greater prestige and independence to ‘ideological’ factors.[15]

Soviet party leaders and theoreticians have begun to emphasise the importance of ethics in Marxism for patently political reasons and because the radical Marxism of the twenties has become increasingly irrelevant to their problems and purposes. From a different angle, Marx critics in Western Europe and Communist revisionists in Eastern Europe have displayed growing interest in the philosophico-ethical conceptions that underlie the work of the younger Marx. Chief among these conceptions is that of ‘alienation’. the notion that in modern capitalist society man is estranged or alienated from what are properly his functions and creations and that instead of controlling them he is controlled by them. This concept is never mentioned in the well-known mature works of Marx; but the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs suggested with impressive insight in his Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (1923) that the Hegelian concept of alienation was nevertheless an underlying theme of Marx’s mature work. A few years later, the publication of Marx’s early manuscripts was to document fully the development Lukacs had postulated. The publication of these works no doubt gave a new fillip to philosophical examinations of Marx; but the main cause is again political and ideological. Precisely because Marx’s leading economic and social doctrines no longer make the impact they did, radical critics seek comfort or enlightenment in his metaphysics. To left-wing radicals in the West, the concept of alienation suggests a subtler and more plausible critique of contemporary society than the Marxist slogans of the past; to the revisionist philosophers in Eastern Europe Marx’s philosophical concepts offer support in the struggle for freedom against the Party machine and the doctrinaire Marxism of the Party theologues.

Two recent trends thus again highlight the problem of the relation between Marx, the Marxism preached in his name and ethics. Neither trend, I should argue, has led to its solution. From the Soviet side there has been a refusal to face up to the distinctions between Marx and his disciples, including Engels, as well as a refusal or inability to grasp the fundamental difficulties that have to be solved by a moral philosophy or science of ethics. The work of the non-Soviet radicals and recent philosophical Marx critics deserves far greater respect; but the willingness it displays to examine Marx freshly and critically is not generally matched by a similar willingness to deal with the nature of ethics freshly and critically. To throw truly penetrating light on the relation between Marx, Marxism and ethics we must be willing to do both.