Karl Kautsky

Ethics and the Materialist Conception Of History

Chapter II
The Ethical Systems of The Period of the Enlightenment

After the Renaissance the study of nature again began to arouse interest, and with it also philosophy, which from then till well into the eighteenth century became principally natural philosophy, and as such raised our knowledge of the world to far above the level reached in the ancient world. They set out from the progress which the Arabs had made in natural science during the middle ages over the Creeks. The high-water mark of this development is certainly formed by the theory of Spinoza (1632-1677).

Ethics took a second place with these thinkers. It was subordinated to natural science, of which it formed a part. But it came again to the fore so soon as the rapid development of Capitalism in west Europe in the eighteenth century had created a similar situation to that which had been created by the economic awakening which followed on the Persian wars in Greece. Then began, to speak in modern language, a revaluing of all values, and therewith a zealous thinking out and investigation into the foundation and essence of all morality. With that went certainly an eager research into the nature of the new method of production. Simultaneously with the appearance of ethics there began a new science of which the ancients were ignorant, the special child of the capitalist system of production, whose explanation it serves: political economy.

In Ethics, however, we find three schools of thought side by side, which often run parallel to the three systems of the ancients, the Platonic, the Epicurean, and the Stoic: An anti-materialist – the traditional Christian – a materialist, and finally a middle system between the two. The optimism and joy of life in the rising Bourgeoisie, at least in their progressive elements, especially their intellectuals, felt itself strong enough to show itself openly and to throw aside all hypocritical masks, which the ruling Christianity had hitherto forced on them. And miserable as frequently the present might be, yet the uprising Bourgeoisie felt that the best part of reality, the future belonged to them, and they felt the ability in themselves to change the vale of tears into a Paradise, in which man could follow his inclinations. In reality and in the natural impulses of man their thinkers saw the germs of all good and not all evil. This new school of thought found a thankful public not only among the more progressive elements in the Bourgeoisie, but also in the court nobility, who at that period had acquired such an absolute power in the state that even they thought that they could dispense with all Christian hypocrisy in their life of pleasure, all the more as they were now divided by a deep chasm from the life of the people. They looked on citizens and peasants as being of a lower order to whom their philosophy was incomprehensible, so that they could freely and undisturbedly develop it without fear of shaking their own means of rule, the Christian religion, and Ethics.

The conditions of the new view of life and ethics developed most vigorously in France. There they came most clearly and courageously to expression. But as in the case of the ancient Epicureanism so in the enlightenment philosophy of Lametrie (1709-1751), Holbach (1723-1789), Helvetius (1715-1771), the ethic of egoism, of utility or pleasure, stood in close logical connection with a materialist view of the universe. The world as experience presents it to us appeared the only one which can be taken into account by us. The causes of this new Epicureanism had great similarity to the ancient, as well as the results at which both arrived. Nevertheless they were in one very essential point of a totally different character. The old Epicureanism did not arise as the disturber of the traditional religious views: it had understood how to accommodate itself to them. It was, however, not the theory of a revolutionary class, it did not preach war, but contemplative enjoyments. Far more was the Platonic idealism and theism the theory of the overthrow of the traditional religious views, a theory of the discontented classes.

Otherwise was it with the Philosophy of Enlightenment. Certainly even this had a conservative root, it regarded contemplative enjoyment as happiness, that is so far as it served the needs of the court nobility, which drew its living from the existing autocratic regime. But in the main it was the philosophy of the most intelligent and farthest developed as well as the most courageous elements in the Bourgeoisie. It gave them a revolutionary character. Standing from the very beginning in the most absolute opposition to the traditional religion and ethics they acquired more and more, the more the Bourgeoisie increased in strength and class consciousness, the conception of a fight – a conception which was quite strange to the old Epicureans – the fight against priests and tyrants; the fight for new ideals.

The nature and method of the moral views and the height of the moral passions are according to the French materialists determined by the conditions of human life, especially by the constitution of the state as well as by education. It is always self interest that determines men; it can, however, become a very social interest, if society is so organized that the individual interest coincides with the interest of the community, so that the passions of men serve the common welfare. True virtue consists in the care for the common weal, it can only flourish where the commonwealth at the same rime advances the interests of the individual, where he cannot damage the commonwealth without damaging himself.

It is incapacity to perceive the more durable interests of mankind, ignorance as to the best form of government, society and education which renders a state of affairs possible which of necessity brings the individual interest into conflict with that of the community. It only remains to make an end of this ignorance, to find a form of state, society and education corresponding to the demands of reason, in order to establish happiness and virtue on a firm and eternal foundation. Here we come on the revolutionary essence of the French materialism, which indicts the existing state as the cause of immorality. With that it raises itself above the level of Epicureanism, with that, however, it weakens the position of its own Ethics.

Because it is no mere question of inventing the best form of state and society; these have got to be fought for, the powers that be must be confronted and overthrown in order to establish an empire of virtue. That requires, however, great moral zeal, and where is that to come from if the existing society is so bad that it prevents altogether the growth of virtue or morality? Must not morality be already there in order that the higher society may arise? Is it not necessary that the moral should be alive in us before the moral order can become a fact? Whence, however, is a moral ideal to be derived from in a world of vice?

To that we obtain no satisfactory answer.

In very different fashion to the French did the Englishmen of the eighteenth century endeavor to explain the moral law. They showed themselves in general less bold and more inclined to compromise, in keeping with the history of England since the Reformation. Their insular position was especially favorable to their economic development during this period. They were driven thereby to make sea voyages which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, thanks to the colonial system, formed the quickest road to a fortune. It kept England free from all the burdens and the ravages of wars on land, such as exhausted the European powers. Thus England acquired in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries more wealth than all the other nations of Europe and placed herself, so far as her economic position was concerned, at their head. But when new classes and new class antagonisms and with that new social problems, arise in a country at an earlier date than elsewhere, the new classes only attain a small degree of class consciousness, and still remain to a large degree imprisoned in the old methods of thought, so that the class antagonisms only appear in a very undeveloped form. Thus in such a land it does not at once come to a final and decisive struggle in the class war, it comes to no decisive overthrow of the old classes, who there continue to rule without any limit and in all the neighboring countries remain at the height of their power. The new classes are still incapable of taking on the governments because they do not realize their own position in society, are frightened by the novelty of their own endeavors, and themselves seek for support and points of contact in the traditional relations.

So that it seems to be a general law of social development, that countries which are pioneers in the economic development are tempted to put compromise in the place of radical solutions.

Thus France stood by the side of Italy in the Middle Ages at the head of the economic development of Europe. She came more and more into opposition with the Papacy – their government first rebelled against Rome. But just because she opened the way in this direction, she never succeeded in founding a national church, and only was able to force the Papacy to a compromise which has lasted, with unimportant interruptions, up to the present. On the other hand the most radical champions against the Papal might were two states which were economically the most backward, Scotland and Sweden.

Since the Reformation England, together with Scotland, has taken the place of France and Italy as the pioneer of economic development, and thus compromise has become for both England and Scotland the form of the solution of their class struggles. Just because in England, in the seventeenth century, capital acquired power more rapidly than elsewhere, because there earlier than in other countries, it came to a struggle with the feudal aristocracy, did this fight end with a compromise, and that explains the fact that the feudal system of landed property even today is stronger in England than in any other country of Europe – Austro-Hungary perhaps alone excepted. For the same reason, that of her rapid economic development, the class war between Proletariat and Bourgeoisie first blazed up in England of all countries in the world. It blazed up at a time when Proletariat and industrial capitalist had not yet got over the small bourgeois methods of thought, when many and even clear-sighted observers mixed up the two classes together as the industrial class; when the type of the proletariat, self-conscious and confident in the future of his own class, as well as that of the autocrat and unlimited ruler in the state – the industrial capitalist – had not yet developed. Thus the struggle of the two classes landed, after a short and showy flare-up in a compromise which made the rule of the Bourgeoisie for many years to come more unlimited than in any other land with the modern system of production.

Naturally can the effects of this law, just as that of any other, be disturbed by unfavorable by-currents, and advanced by favorable. But in any case it was so far efficacious that it is necessary to be on our guard against the popular interpretation of the historical materialism which holds that the land which takes the lead in the economic development invariably also brings the corresponding forms of the class war to the sharpest and most decisive expression.

Even materialism and atheism as well as ethics were subject in England to the spirit of compromise, which has ruled since the sixteenth century. The fight of the democratic and rising class against the governing power, independent of the Bourgeoisie and subject to the feudal aristocracy with their court nobility and their state church, commenced in England more than a century before France, at a time when only few had got over the Christian thought. If in France the fight against the state church became a fight between Christianity and atheistic materialism, in England it became only a struggle between special democratic Christian sects and the state-church-organized sect. And if in France in the period of the enlightenment, the majority of the intelligence and the classes that came under its influence thought as materialists and atheists, so did the English intelligence look for a compromise between materialism and Christianity. Certainly materialism found its first public form in England in the theory of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679); certainly were to be found in England thinkers on Ethical questions, whose courage surpassed that of the most courageous Frenchman, such as Mandeville (1670-1733) who declared morality to be a means of ruling, a discovery to keep the workers in subjection, and who looked on vice as the root of all social good. But such ideas had little influence on the thoughts of the many. A Christian profession remained the sign of respectability, and even if this were not felt, still to pretend to feel it became the duty of every man of learning, who did not wish to come into conflict with society.

Thus the Englishmen remained very sceptical of the materialistic ethics, which wished to found the moral law on self love, or on the pleasure and the ability of the individual. Certainly the intellectual circles of the rising Bourgeoisie sought even in England to explain the moral law as a natural phenomenon, but they saw that its compulsory might could not be explained from simple considerations of utility, and that the constructions were too artificial which were required to unite the commands of morality with the motives of utility – let alone to think of making out of the latter an energetic motive force of the former. Thus they distinguished very nicely between the sympathetic and the egoistic interests in man, recognized a moral sense which drives man to be active for the happiness of his fellows. After the Scotchman, Hutcheson (1694-1747), the most distinguished representative of this theory was Adam Smith, the economist (1723-1790). In his two principal works he investigated the two mainsprings of human action. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) he started out from sympathy as the most important bond of human society; his Wealth of Nations assumes the egoism, the material interest of the individual, to be the mainspring of human action. That book appeared in 1776, but the principles which it contained Adam Smith uttered orally in Glasgow as early as 1752 or 1753. His theory of egoism and his theory of sympathy were not mutually exclusive, but were complementary the one of the other.

If these Englishmen set egoism and moral sense over against each other, so was that, as compared to the materialists, an approach to Platonism and Christianity. Nevertheless their views were widely different from the latter. Since, while according to Christianity, man is bad by nature; and according to the Platonic theory our natural impulses are the source of evil in us, so for the English school of the eighteenth century, the moral sense was opposed certainly to egoism, but was just as much as the latter a natural impulse. Even the egoism appeared to them not as a bad, but as a fully justifiable impulse which was as necessary for the welfare of society as sympathy with others. The moral sense was a sense just as any other human sense, and in a certain degree their sixth sense.

Certainly with this assumption, just as in the case of the French materialists, the difficulty was only postponed and not solved. To the question, whence comes this peculiar sense in man, the Englishman had no answer. It was given by nature to man. That might suffice for those who traded in a creator of the universe, but it did not make this assumption superfluous.

The task for the further scientific development of ethics appeared in this state of the question clear. The French, as well as the English, school had achieved much for the psychological and historical explanation of the moral feelings and views. But neither the one nor the other could succeed in making quite clear that morality was an outcome of causes which lie in the realm of experience. The English school must be surpassed and the causes of the moral sense investigated. It was necessary to go beyond the French school and to lay bare the causes of the moral ideal.

But the development goes in no straight line. It moves in contradictions. The next step of philosophy in regard to ethics took the opposite direction. Instead of investigating the ethical nature of man in order to bring this more than ever under the general laws of nature, it came to quite other conclusions.

This step was achieved by German philosophy with Kant (1724-1804). Certain people like to cry now, “Back to Kant!” But those who mean by that the Kantian ethic, might just as well cry “Back to Plato!”


Last updated on 26.12.2003