The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962


KARL MARX, I shall argue in this book, came to Communism in the interests of freedom, not of security. In his early years he sought to free himself from the pressure exercised by the mediocre German police state of Frederick William, IV. He rejected its censorship, its elevation of authority and of religion, its cultural Philistinism and its empty talk of national interest and moral duty. Later he came to believe that such pressures and such human dependence could not be destroyed without destroying capitalism and the whole system of private property from which capitalism had developed.

At the end of his Economico-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx paints a picture of the society of Communism, of the society of true and ultimate human freedom. Sympathetic critics have called it the picture of a society of artists, creating freely and consciously, working together in perfect harmony. In such a society, Marx believed, there would be no State, no criminals, no conflicts. Each man would be ‘caught up’ in productive labour with other men. The struggle would be a common struggle; in his work, and in other men, man would find not dependence and unpleasantness, but freedom and happiness, just as artists find inspiration in their own work and in the work of other artists. Truly free men will thus need no rules imposed from above, no moral exhortations to do their duty, no ‘authorities’ laying down what is to be done. Art cannot be created by plans imposed from outside; it knows no authorities and no discipline except the authority and the discipline of art itself. This discipline and authority every artist accepts freely and consciously; it is this and this alone that makes him an artist. No government authority, no patron or overseer, can make him one. What is true of art, Marx believed, is true of all free, productive labour.

This vision of Communism remained with Marx all his life. It comes out clearly in the German Ideology of 1846, in the notes and drafts he made between 1850-9, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875. It runs through all three volumes of Das Kapital. It is a vision of freedom, of spontaneous co-operation, of men’s conscious self-determination. It is not a vision of economic plenty or social security. Engels may have seen Communism that way; Marx did not. Freedom, for Marx, lay in struggle, but in conscious, co-operative struggle. The desire for security under the protection of authority would have seemed to him a base desire, born of ‘inhuman’ conditions.

Marx’s vision, I shall argue, rests on a sound if unworked-out perception of positive ethical distinctions, of the difference between the spontaneous co-operation of goods and the forced and extrinsic temporary alliances possible to evils, of the tension between the producer’s morality of freedom and enterprise and the consumer’s concern with ends, with securities, profits and returns. The fundamental weakness of Marx’s thought lies in his failure to work out the distinction between freedom and servility in positive terms, in terms of the character of the processes and movements involved. 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 ways 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 socialist or Communist society would be the society of true freedom and enterprise, in which capitalist morality had been entirely destroyed. Marx 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: from the concern with economic ends over ways of living, from the belief in the universal exchangeability and rational control of all things as mere means to a common commercial end. The socialist’s vision of society, as Rosa Luxemburg once said of Lenin, is the capitalist’s vision of a factory, ‘efficiently’ run by an overseer. The conception of economic planning is a capitalist conception: the capitalist 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, with prospects of higher 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;[1] a class whose future was determined not by its character, but by its deprivation. 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, for instance, 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. It is a servile conception, appealing, however unwittingly on Marx’s part, to the demands for security and sufficiency, to the longing for certain returns. Its servile character was strengthened even further by the fact that it was Engels, with his blindness for alienation, with his crude evolutionism and his utilitarian concern with economic satisfaction, who became the ‘ideologue’ — the propagandist and populariser — of Marxism.

It is obvious that the labour movement, and even the socialist movement, were at no stage wholly given over to enterprise. The search for security, for welfare and economic sufficiency, was always a powerful motive within them. But it is also obvious that propaganda of a Marxist colour, with its insistence on ends and aims, its elevation of economic rewards, 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, as a result of his failure to highlight ways of life and organisation over ‘ends’ and policies, ethical distinctions did not play a central part in the splits and controversies that racked Marxism. The revisionists in the 1890s, it is true, made much ado about their Kantian ethics. 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, Western workers were displaying 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 abandoned. Socialism became a matter of negotiation and of demand for improved conditions and greater security within the existing society. This was the path of reformism. Notably, the Marxist neglect of ethics prevented Marxists 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 of professional revolutionaries 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’. Marx’s work laid no foundations for thoroughly exposing the course the Communist Party under Lenin 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 erection of this despotism points not to the worthlessness of Marx’s vision, but rather to its half-heartedness. A radical of genius, Marx was, in the end, not radical enough.

Karl Marx is still best known for the political and economic writings of his maturity that were published in his own lifetime. These, and these alone, form the popular corpus of Marx’s work; they have been widely disseminated in English translations. For any thorough understanding of Marx and his thought they are not enough. The ethical enquirer, especially, must take into account Marx’s earlier, more philosophical, writings and the notes and drafts not meant for publication as they stood which Marx habitually made throughout his life. Marx’s mature writings notoriously eschew any direct consideration of ethical or philosophical questions; it is in the earlier writings and private drafts that we shall find the key to his ethical views and their puzzling place in his mature beliefs. The study that follows therefore draws heavily on those of Marx’s writings that preceded the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848 and on the notes and drafts that Marx compiled between 1850 and 1859. The former have been published in the language of composition (usually German) in the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, brought out by the Marx-Engels Verlag, Frankfurt-Berlin, between 1927 and 1932. The latter, first published in Moscow in 1939 and 1941, have been republished in the original German by the Dietz Verlag, Berlin, under the title Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Oekonomie (1953). The major portion of these writings has not been translated into English; the rendering of those writings that have been translated is not always satisfactory. Greater space than would otherwise be necessary has therefore been devoted to the translation and presentation of relevant passages from these works. Where the source reference is a foreign-language text, the translation is my own unless otherwise indicated.

The Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe was not completed, though it contains all of Marx and Engels’ extant writings down to 1848 and the entire Marx-Engels correspondence. Its original editor, the Communist D. Riazanov, was removed; he died in a Stalinist prison. Some of Marx’s writings had been tampered with in earlier editions and were to be tampered with again in later Soviet editions; the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, most scholars agree, shows no signs of any conscious unfaithfulness to the originals.[2] Despite its incompleteness, it is still indispensable. From Marx’s mature political writings I cite verbatim less frequently; here I have found the current English translations quite adequate. I have preferred, however, to use the German text in citing from Capital since I was largely looking for philosophical terms and overtones that might unwittingly be lost in any translation. In making these citations, I append references to the (Kerr) English edition for comparison.

Accuracy in translating Marx’s more philosophic writings is extremely important to a sound understanding of his views. His constructions are involved; his language is studded with philosophical terms; his sentences are often ungrammatical. He plays with words and makes deliberate use of their overtones or their ambiguity. He sets out a sequence and then fails to follow it; he poses questions and leaves them unanswered. I have thought it neither illuminating nor proper to ,tidy up’ the young Marx’s writing, to turn a clumsy, Hegelian German into elegant empirical English that eschews vagueness, metaphysics or ambiguity. To do that would be to present as Marx a man who is not Marx.

Presenting the metaphysical side of Marx faithfully and yet convincingly in English is not easy. Words like ‘essence’, ‘true reality’, ‘actuality’ and ‘objectification’ do not sit readily on an English tongue. Those raised in traditional German culture will read their German counterparts without the least unease, often even without stopping to ask what they mean. Most Englishmen, faced with these words in English, will not. To translate Hegel into English, it has been said, is to rob him of much of his plausibility. The same is often true of the early Marx. But to shear Marx of his metaphysics, or to translate his earlier Hegelian conceptions as though they were his later Communist ones, as many translators have done, is to misunderstand and to misrepresent Marx’s thought. At the risk of leaving a Hegelian clumsiness where many previous translators have felt justified in substituting a pamphleteering simplicity, I have striven not to do so.

The genius displayed in Marx’s writings — the suggestive power of his leading ideas, the illumination afforded by his subsidiary insights, the interest of his very inconsistencies — has made writing this book as exciting and stimulating as it has often been difficult. No author could wish for a more interesting body of work, or for a more impressive man, as his subject.

Work and thought requires time. The main work on this book was done — under the supervision of Professor P. H. Partridge — in the two-and-a-half years that I held one of the generous research scholarships awarded by the Australian National University in Canberra; the manuscript of this book has been accepted as a thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in that University. Without the opportunities for untroubled research offered by what is now the A.N.U.’s Institute of Advanced Studies, the writing of this book would have taken many more years.

Intellectually, I owe my greatest debt to John Anderson, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy in the University of Sydney, under whom I read as an undergraduate and for whom I retain the highest admiration, friendship and respect. Many younger men who have worked on Marx — Georg Lukacs and Sidney Hook, for instance — have tended to see in Marx the doctrines of their first teachers. No doubt I have done the same. But Anderson’s social theory and ethical position, on which I have drawn heavily, still seem to me to illuminate both Marx and the subjects with which Marx is dealing. Specific debts to Anderson are acknowledged in the text; though his influence on my thought has been wider than these acknowledgments indicate, this should not be taken to imply that he necessarily agrees with my interpretation of Marx or with the formulation and applications his own doctrines are given here. Those interested in Anderson’s position should consult Anderson’s work.

Alice Tay Erh Soon has shared in all the trials — intellectual, psychological and financial — that accompanied the writing of this book. Chapter 3 on ‘The Natural Law of Freedom’ and Chapter 16 on ‘Law and Morality in Soviet Society’ are based on articles dealing with Marxism and law which we published jointly; she has read and re-read the drafts that became the rest of this book with untiring patience. Without her steadfastness and encouragement during the unrewarding period when I lectured in the University of Malaya in Singapore and amid the uncertainties of a far more stimulating year in London, this book would hardly have been completed.

In London, tool I gained much encouragement from new but warm friendships with men working in or around my field — notably with Dr. George L. Kline of Bryn Mawr, Mr. Leo Labedz, Mr. Walter Z. Laqueur, Mr. George Lichtheim, and M. Maximilien Rubel of Paris.

Preliminary drafts and studies for this book have been published in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, the Hibbert Journal, the Indian Journal of Philosophy and Soviet Survey. I am grateful to the editors of these journals for permitting me to draw freely on the material published by them, and to Professor John Anderson and Professor A. K. Stout, editor of the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, for allowing me to cite from Anderson’s contributions to that journal.

Eugene Kamenka
Canberra, March 1962