Value of Knowledge Reference

‘to each according to their needs, from each according to their ability’

Ethical Values

From the late sixteenth century until the mid-nineteenth century, the bourgeoisie conducted a struggle for the overthrow of feudalism to create the conditions for the accumulation of Value (capital). This struggle was conducted across a wide front including political agitation in favour of the Rights of Man and the systematic development of science and philosophy, particularly Epistemology - the study of the limits and validity of Knowledge. The progress of Epistemology is intimately linked to the practical progress of knowledge and co-extensive with the era of the bourgeoisie. Epistemology is the Essence of Bourgeois Philosophy.

On the other hand, every step forward in science and technology has served only to plunge whole nations into destitution and wealth has been amassed by the perfection of weapons of war, deepening hypocrisy and growing unemployment. The bourgeoisie’s attempts to develop Ethics are laughably inept. As Engels relates in Socialism, Utopian & Scientific in relation to the French Revolution:

Formerly, the feudal vices had openly stalked about in broad daylight; though not eradicated, they were now at any rate thrust into the background. In their stead, the bourgeois vices, hitherto practiced in secret, began to blossom all the more luxuriantly. Trade became to a greater and greater extent cheating. The “fraternity” of the revolutionary motto was realised in the chicanery and rivalries of the battle of competition. Oppression by force was replaced by corruption; the sword, as the first social lever, by gold. The right of the first night was transferred from the feudal lords to the bourgeois manufacturers. Marriage itself remained, as before, the legally recognised form, the official cloak of prostitution, and, moreover, was supplemented by rich crops of adultery.
In a word, compared with the splendid promises of the philosophers, the social and political institutions born of the “triumph of reason” were bitterly disappointing caricatures.

Thus history raised the question of the relation of Knowledge and Ethics. Most of the great philosophers of the classical period of bourgeois philosophy also speculated in Ethics. The Encyclopaedia Britannica provides the following overview of Ethics:

How should we live? Shall we aim at happiness or at knowledge, virtue, or the creation of beautiful objects? If we choose happiness, will it be our own or the happiness of all? And what of the more particular questions that face us: Is it right to be dishonest in a good cause? Can we justify living in opulence while elsewhere in the world people are starving? If conscripted to fight in a war we do not support, should we disobey the law? What are our obligations to the other creatures with whom we share this planet and to the generations of humans who will come after us?

Ethics deals with such questions at all levels. Its subject consists of the fundamental issues of practical decision making, and its major concerns include the nature of ultimate value and the standards by which human actions can be judged right or wrong. Ethics is not a matter of factual knowledge in the way that the sciences and other branches of inquiry are. Rather, it has to do with determining the nature of normative theories and applying these sets of principles to practical moral problems.

While there are many tendencies and branches of Ethics, the dominant trend which is characteristic of bourgeois society is Utilitarianism, which is nothing more than bourgeois political economy translated into the language of Ethics.


Utilitarianism, which dates from the late 18th century, is the doctrine that an action is moral if it tends to promote the sum of human happiness (or “utility”). Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill as its most celebrated exponents. The definition of this “happiness” is somewhat problematic, and there are many different tendencies dealing in one or another way with the contradictions and interpretations arising in trying to work out a consistent system on this basis. Some economists define “utility” in the same terms as economic value, as “preference” or in Mills’ term, utility in the same sense in which Mill referred to the magnitude of use-value as “utility.” So it is natural that this concept of “utility” has undergone the same development in Ethics as it has in economics. That is, “utility” means value in the sense of how much people are prepared to pay for something. The ethical doctrine of Utilitarianism takes its name from the concept of “utility” which means, in the lexicon of those who founded the doctrine, economic value, and when we talk of the “sum of utility” we are quite definitely talking about the sum of values added in the economy. Thus, Utilitarianism is today more or less the doctrine that the guiding principle of any person’s life is the maximising of the Gross National Product.

Utilitarianism is by its very nature fraught with contradictions and it is scarcely likely that any one of its exponents would claim to have made a definitive system of Utilitarian Ethics. In this context, it is possible to see where the luminaries of the Club of Rome were coming from in advocating changing the method of calculating the GNP as a means of making a better world – they accept (with some justice) that economic value is an objective measure of the values of a society, nit only in the economic sense, but in the “ultimate” sense. [See “Theories of Value”] Thus, while it is valid to surmise that calculation of the GNP reflects the goals of a society, it is questionable whether re-calculating the GNP so that it is no longer a measure of economic value will have any effect whatsoever beyond the functioning of measuring what it measures.

Likewise, rational decision theory (i.e. Game Theory) has played an increasingly prominent part in post-modern economic theory. Thus, with computer simulation well-suited to the application of game-theory, it is now increasingly possible to express economic activity in terms commensurate with the ethics of a given society or individual “economic agents.”

The theory of value in bourgeois political economy certainly expresses in ideological form the reality of value in bourgeois political economy. However, it does so only in a distorted and fantastic way, because the theory of value in any given epoch is mediated by the dominant positivistic (or “rationalistic”) ideology of the times.

Likewise, bourgeois ethics, Utilitarianism, reflects in an idealistic, distorted way the reality of ethics in bourgeois society. Idealistic, not only because in the writing of the professional philosophers of any given society there is considerable room for hypocrisy, but because the conceptual means available to them are only as developed as the society itself. The philosophers of the French Enlightenment were not hypocrites. They fervently believed in their vision of a Kingdom of Reason, and that Rousseau’s Social Contract could be implemented and usher in a better world. Rousseau was no fool though, and advised that “Man must be deprived of his own powers and given alien powers which he cannot use without the aid of others” [Social Contract, 1782] But things don’t always work out as you expect.

John Stuart Mill published the first consistent exposition of Utilitarianism in 1863. Twenty years earlier, Marx explained in the Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844:

You must make everything that is yours saleable, i.e., useful. If I ask the political economist: Do I obey economic laws if I extract money by offering my body for sale, by surrendering it to another’s lust?... Or am I not acting in keeping with political economy if I sell my friend to the Moroccans? ... Then the political economist replies to me: You do not transgress my laws; but see what Cousin Ethics and Cousin Religion have to say about it. My political economic ethics and religion have nothing to reproach you with, but – But whom am I now to believe, political economy or ethics? – The ethics of political economy is acquisition, work, thrift, sobriety – but political economy promises to satisfy my needs. – The political economy of ethics is the opulence of a good conscience, of virtue, etc.; but how can I live virtuously if I do not live? And how can I have a good conscience if I do not know anything? It stems from the very nature of estrangement that each sphere applies to me a different and opposite yardstick - ethics one and political economy another; for each is a specific estrangement of man and focuses attention on a particular field of estranged essential activity, and each stands in an estranged relation to the other. Thus M. Michel Chevalier reproaches Ricardo with having ignored ethics. But Ricardo is allowing political economy to speak its own language, and if it does not speak ethically, this is not Ricardo’s fault. M. Chevalier takes no account of political economy insofar as he moralises, but he really and necessarily ignores ethics insofar as he practises political economy.
The relationship of political economy to ethics, if it is other than an arbitrary, contingent and therefore unfounded and unscientific relationship, if it is not being posited for the sake of appearance but is meant to be essential, can only be the relationship of the laws of political economy to ethics. If there is no such connection, or if the contrary is rather the case, can Ricardo help it? Moreover, the opposition between political economy and ethics is only an apparent opposition and just as much no opposition as it is an opposition. All that happens is that political economy expresses moral laws in its own way.

Adam Smith, the master of British Political Economy, came to the writing of Wealth of Nations (1776) from a study of Moral Philosophy (the title of his earlier book) and saw political economy as an objective science of ethics. Ethical and Epistemological considerations were also closely connected for all the great figures of classical bourgeois philosophy. The 1840s however, marked a sharp division between the two “departments” and at the same time the subjection of the whole question of knowledge to a qualitatively higher level of development of the division of labour. After the 1840s, the “right-wing” opposition to the dominant “rationalistic” current of bourgeois philosophy (Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and later Nietzsche) gave priority to ethics, and down-played the concept of scientific knowledge.

While political economy (i.e. economics) continues ever after to be a meeting-point of Ethics and Knowledge, the estranged separation pointed to by Marx is the central problem of bourgeois consciousness beginning from the 1840s, and reflects the rapidly increasing division of labour within bourgeois society. Mills’ Utilitarianism is a unique expression of the material identity and formal separation of Ethics and Knowledge.

In a society in which individuals relate to one another as commodities, in a society sundered by alienation between people, alienated from itself – the ethics manifested in the laws of political economy predominate and tend to overwhelm the “unreal” “personal” or religious ethical principles which stand aside from the market.


The concept of Rights has its origin in pre-capitalist societies which were founded on systems of social rights and obligations.

For feudalism ... the elements of civil life such as property, the family, the mode and manner of work, for example, were raised into elements of political life in the form of landlordism, estates and corporations. In this form they determined the relation of the particular individual to the state as a whole, that is, his political relation, his separation and exclusion from other parts of society. ... [From On the Jewish Question, Marx 1843]

That is, Right in pre-capitalist society regulated the civil life of each individual, the political life of each was defined by her place in civil life. From as early as the time of the Magna Carta, there began to emerge concepts of “The Rights of Man.” Denis Diderot, in the decades leading up to the French Revolution, elaborated the idea of “natural rights” that were subsequently enshrined in the Constitution of the French Revolution; Thomas Paine was instrumental also in bringing forward the Rights of Man in the American Revolution which were subsequently reflected in the drafting of the Constitution of the French Republic.

Political Rights & “Human Rights”

Marx draws attention to the distinction held between rights of citizens (civil or political rights) and:

“the so-called rights of man ... are only the rights of the member of civil society, that is, of egoistic man, man separated from other men and from the community.

“Liberty is thus the right to do and perform anything that does not harm others. The limits within which each can act without harming others is determined by law ... This is the liberty of man viewed as an isolated monad, with drawn into himself. ... liberty as a right of man is not based on the association of man with man but rather on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the limited individual limited to himself. The practical application of the right of liberty is the right of property. ... the right of self-interest. .... It lets every man find in other men not the realisation but rather the limitation of his own freedom. ... Thus none of the so-called rights of man goes beyond the egoistic man, the man withdrawn into himself, his private interest and his private choice, and separated from the community as a member of civil society ... The only bond between men is natural necessity, need and private interest, the maintenance of their property and egoistic persons.” [From On the Jewish Question, Marx 1843]

“Human rights” is a word which has been flung around quite a lot recently, so to summarise the distinction Marx is making here:

Human rights – the right to property, freedom of religion, etc., the rights which guarantee the concrete, real human being in their occupation, their beliefs, etc. – are founded on the separation of man from man, not on the relations or community of people, and are the foundation of bourgeois political economy.

Political rights, – equality before the law, universal suffrage, etc. – on the other hand, are the rights of an abstract human being, rights which abstract from the real differences in wealth, privilege, education occupation, kinship etc.. [“political man is only abstract, artificial man, man as an allegorical, moral person”].

The foundation of the state upon political rights equalised between abstract human beings, is the basis of a situation where the real differences and relations in social power dominate political life. Political life is thus falsely based on abstraction. Consequently, the bonds real human domination express themselves most effectively in such a State. [It thus becomes possible to understand why the US supports the gaoled Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia rather than the “undemocratic” Mahatiar]. In general, civil life dominates political life, and most effectively in the state founded on abstract political rights. The key to the struggle against capitalist oppression is thus that there can be no real political emancipation without real human emancipation.

The essence of bourgeois right is thus abstract, universal rights, the rights reflected economically in global, universal, free competition and exchange.

Bourgeois Right & Workers’ Rights

In its struggle which develops within capitalism, the proletariat also brings forward its own distinctive “workers’ rights.” Marx explains for example, in Critique of the Gotha Program:

“Within the cooperative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here at the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in an indirect fashion, but directly as a component part of the total labour. ...”

“in a communist society ... as it emerges from capitalist society ... equal right here is still in principle – bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads ... equal right is still constantly stigmatised by bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labour they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made by an equal standard, labour.

“But one person is superior to another physically or mentally, and so supplies more labour in the same time, ... This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour ...It is therefore a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right by its nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals ... are measurable only by an equal standard in so far as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers, and nothing more is seen in them, everything else is ignored .. To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal.

“But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and the cultural development conditioned by it.

“In the higher phase of communist society, ... after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased ... only then can the narrow horizons of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: ‘From each according to her ability, to each according to her needs!’ “

The twentieth century, since the crisis of laissez faire capitalism, has seen the expansion of both human rights and political rights. The victory of women’s suffrage came first in the antipodes (New Zealand 1893) and spread across the advanced industrialised countries, mostly complete by 1945 except for Switzerland. Anti-discrimination legislation and the right to divorce etc. and child care, the various social measures aiming to make a social reality of women’s equality before the law stretching up to the present time. The upsurge of the US Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement beginning in the late 1960s marks the most significant steps forward in the progress of these social rights and measures. Similar rights have later begun to penetrate Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Concepts of right which impinge on the concept of liberty through various kind of “safety net” under the action of the market, such as the minimum wage, and public sector social support measures such as unemployment benefits, universal health care systems and the so-called “welfare state” grew up from the beginning of the century. In the more recent period, rights which have taken the form of anti-discrimination, extension of concepts of political right from the political sphere to civil society have accelerated.

However, the accelerating commodification of social relations accompanying the break-up of social support and repression mechanisms such as the family has been linked to the acceleration of rights which correspond to the atomisation of society. For example, the right to divorce, equal pay, anti-discrimination laws etc., have gone hand-in-hand with the growth of the service sector so that the market has stepped into the vacuum left by domestic labour carried out under kinship responsibilities. Litigation increasingly replacing social responsibility and regulation; even trade unions have come to resemble insurance services. Universal compulsory education has become, in reality, a fiction with state schools increasingly under-funded and crisis-ridden and higher education more and more an employment requisite.

Bourgeois society is becoming a society of abstract people with abstract political rights.

But, during this same recent period, even the “safety-net” of the welfare state has also been subject to the same process of extended commodification and has been attenuated: public health and education have suffered in quality and more and more attract payment; old age pensions are being supplanted by self-funded superannuation schemes; public housing and public transport have suffered from reduced public funding with the private sector moving into the sector. Despite hopes to the contrary, capitalism is fashioning society into an image of itself. Workers have fought for welfare rights in the only way possible, by forcing the state to appropriate a portion of the revenue of capital and allocate it to welfare, and by forcing the state to legislate the gains made in bargaining with the employers.

Abstract political rights should ensure that the capitalist class ultimately control the state which is being relied upon as the custodian of workers’ (and women’s and children’s, etc.] rights. Still, the bourgeoisie are systematically shrinking the state and stripping it back to its essence – the military and police. In their zeal, the bourgeoisie don’t know when to stop, and we see things like the contracting out of logistics by the army.

Those rights which are exercised by taking labour out of the commodity market and entrusting them to the State have an inherently anti-bourgeois character. The development of capitalism is antithetical to such rights and the bourgeoisie is responding everywhere by diminishing the capacity of the state to do anything.

Marx remarks in the Grundrisse:

The separation of public works from the state, and their migration into the domain of the works undertaken by capital itself, indicates the degree to which the real community has constituted itself in the form of capital. ... the state itself and everything connected with it belongs with these deductions from revenue, belongs so to speak to the consumption costs for the individual, the production costs for society.” [from Grundrisse, V, 1857]

During the middle years of this century, history seemed to depart from this prognosis. However, it is abundantly clear now that the normal course of development of capitalism is back on track. Under these circumstances, it would be foolhardy to rely on the state for the guarantee of human rights. Even if an honest social-democratic government were to be elected – a government, for instance, which would have to put an end to the State’s addiction to gambling revenue – such a government would find that they had inherited legislative power and the obligation to implement sound financial policies to defend the currency, but precious little other form of social or economic power.

Only the real organisations of the working class – as atrophied and weakened as they are – can provide the foundation for any counter to the complete atomisation of society.

Beyond Rights

My friend Cyril Smith pointed out to me:

A human life would imply that I have no need for rights against you. Aristotle – author of the greatest of Ethics books – knew this, when he said “Where people are in Friendship Justice is not required.” ... Should we look forward to the ‘withering away’ of rights in a communist society of the dim and distant future, while continuing to talk about rights today? That’s not good enough! Our fight today must be directed to moving people’s thinking away from individual (‘abstract’) rights towards ‘communist consciousness on a mass scale’. Bourgeois society itself gives birth to communism, but in hidden, inverted forms. Every strike, for instance, points towards the solidarity of associated producers. This is the heart of Marx’s ideas, and this is what Marxism completely lost sight of, I believe.

Rights are inseparable from social obligations. Both are embodied together in the concept of law, often referred to as Right (as opposed to “Rights”). The concept of Right develops historically and expresses in each epoch “How must we Live?” The bourgeoisie brought forward and assembled its supporters behind the banner of “The Rights of Man” a system of principles which appeared with self-evident virtue and served to secure the rule of the bourgeoisie. As capitalism develops, new Rights make their appearance. These include Workers’ Rights – the right to organise, the right to work and as the productive forces develop such rights as the right to free health and education and so forth. Further development of capitalism undermines those social or human rights which presuppose the participation of the state in civil life and replace them with further extension of abstract, atomising, bourgeois political rights in to social life.

At one point, social welfare is left to the domain of kinfolk; then the state intervenes and assumes part of the responsibility of the family; then, the state exits from welfare and the family dissolves into the market with domestic labour provided via the service sector.

What is required is the reverse process. The real relations of civil society must be transformed and extended into the regulating organ of society. That is, not state control by the abstract state of universal suffrage, but regulation by the actual organisation of the producers.

The pinnacle of human rights the right of all people to a living, irrespective not only of whether a person has produced value, but irrespective of anything. But capitalism is already moving decisively in the opposite direction, providing to everyone an abstract equal right to destitution or opulence.

Ethics & Epistemology

Epistemology is the Essence of Bourgeois Philosophy. The Essence of Proletarian philosophy is Ethics.

The former assertion can be justified by a concrete study of the development of bourgeois philosophy from 1600 to the present day. [See “Classical Epistemology,” “1841,” “Perception under the Microscope,” “The Value of Mathematics”] How does knowledge arise? How do concepts and language arise? They arise through social relations. The limits and validity of knowledge must correspond to the development of social practice in any given society. Collective and cooperative labour are thus the primary source of knowledge. In bourgeois society cooperative labour has become more extensive than in any previous society and social labour finds its abstract, social form in the category of value. Thus, the Ground of Epistemology is Value.

The latter assertion can be likewise justified by a concrete study of the development of the workers’ movement and in fact of all oppositional social currents, such as youth cultures. A great deal of emphasis has always been placed on the question of interpretation of history in left-wing politics. This was a big mistake. The essential question for the workers movement is to be able to live and work differently. Such is a direct road to liberation. This is no more than to say that Ethics is the essence of philosophy from the standpoint of the working class who aspire to liberation.

Just as the ethics of a society is a reflection of the development of the economic structure of society, and consequently of the technical means of production and the corresponding development of knowledge, the knowledge of a society is an image of how people must live, of its ethic. As Jacques Monod pointed out in Chance & Necessity:

First, of course, ... values and knowledge are always and necessarily associated in action as in discourse.
Second, and above all, because the very definition of ‘true’ knowledge rests in the final analysis upon an ethical postulate. ...

Ethics and knowledge are inevitably linked in and through action. Action brings knowledge and values simultaneously into play, or into question. All action signifies an ethic, serves or disserves certain values; constitutes a choice of values, or pretends to. On the other hand, knowledge is necessarily implied in all action, while reciprocally, action is one of the two necessary sources of knowledge. [The Ethic of Knowledge and the Socialist Ideal, 1970]

The possibility for an Ethical life can only arise on the basis of a sufficient development of the forces of production and the completion of the process of Knowledge up to a point where it is possible for a society to organise itself without the exchange of commodities. Within a society based directly on production for need, an entirely different knowledge would grow up. In the meantime, it is ethics which must form the basis for practical day-to-day struggle in the workers’ movement, not agreement on interpretation of history or the theory of knowledge.

Strangely enough, it is the very exhaustive extent of the penetration of the commodity relation into the human condition which is bringing about the possibility of living without exchange of commodities, for as commodification affects more and more intangible aspects of existence (services, ... information, ... knowledge), value itself takes on a more and more intangible, though nonetheless hegemonic existence.

Ethics & Political Economy

The centrality of political economy [it is no accident that the 19th century manner of attaching the word “political” has been abandoned by today’s “economists,” of course] for the workers’ movement then becomes clear: how to live differently? But what a political economy! which must simultaneously expel value from political economy (by ending the alienation of labour) and ground political economy upon concrete value, working out how people can live humanly and cooperatively.

Just as “friends have no need of justice,” citizens of the genuinely human society have no need of a measure of value.

Look at the youth cultures. Oppositions to “society” which comes forward as “life-styles”; no program or “theory of knowledge”; and the response of capital is to transform them into commodities. The day of the revolution will be the day capitalism is unable to transform a vibrant youth movement into a commodity. But the overthrow of capitalism simply means that people go about their business without having to “balance the books“ with every transaction; the day we live by Ethics and not by “economic rationalism” is the day capitalism is over.

On the basis of the fullest development of science and the world-wide division of labour, it is now possible for people to live humanly. A different way of thinking and a different way of living is possible only upon the basis of social relations in which human labour is not bought and sold as a commodity, but rather is the voluntary act of free human beings choosing to enter into cooperation with one another.

In “Theories of Value,” I have examined the development of the concept of value from the seventeenth century up till today, and in the course of this study I have made occasional reference to the theory of knowledge of the times, consonant with the dominant scientific currents of the day. This connection is easy to make since political economy has always been developed in bourgeois society as a branch of science, and the theory of knowledge has always had a strong and explicit connection with the development of science. It is incidental to this that both the theory of value and the theory of knowledge mirror the actual development of value at the given development of society.

Each theory of value also demonstrates a conception of ethics which is most strikingly exhibited in the various “economic models,” models which also mirror the development of society, its science and industry and its social organisation.

None of these models are of course the slightest bit “realistic,” but they do have an “ideological realism.”

We need a new, genuinely human way of living, not some “model.”