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The Ethics of Marxism pt.3 Human Nature and Morality

After Marx died there grew up a legend that his theory of social causation was too narrowly mechanistic to provide accommodation for any sort of ethics. No doubt Marx, in combating the sentimental "moralising" of certain utopian contemporaries who called themselves "the True Socialists," had leaned so far backward as to give semblance if not substance for fathering on him views whose alleged paternity he would have disclaimed.

Socialism as a Humanism

The humanistic Socialism combated by Marx, like its contemporary counterpart, was a pseudo-political trend, inspired by the literati, philosophers and pundits. Moses Hess was for a time their most representative spokesman. For the early humanists as with the latter day ones, Socialism was not a question—of by bread alone—even though bread might be included. Socialism was primarily a question of moral values. Stress was laid on brotherly love, the dignity of man, concern for the individual, etc. From such political piety, Socialism came to be defined as—"the ethics of love." Then, Socialism took the guise of contemporary humanism. Now, humanism assumes the role of contemporary Socialism.

Like many of the views Marx fought against, the arguments of the True Socialists have turned up over and over again in a variety of social situations, tricked out each time in fresh frills and flounces, as if making their first bow on the stage of world history.

Humanism the Classless Ethic

Common to all shades of this humanistic approach, right up from Hess, Grun, Bernstein, Lansbury, to the current version, is the tenet that Socialism is not basically a question of economic interests but humanitarian ideals. Not a matter for the stomach, but an affair of the heart, and that a moral revolution must be the prelude to the social revolution. Not only, argue the humanists, have men altruistic feelings, but implicit in these feelings are the ideals of Communism. All that is necessary is to encourage and help promote these altruistic tendencies, to actualise the Brotherhood of Man based on universal love.

If the true nature of man is some residual and permanent quality of the human species, then every man is at least in embryo a Communist, able, given the right social milieu to lead with others of his kind the good life. But what the right kind of social conditions necessary for this are , the humanists all through the ages have been very vague about. Again, if the essence of man is his "true nature," then this human essence transcends all social systems and classes. Landed proprietors, capitalists, peasants and wage workers, are all equally capable of actualising their "true nature" into the Communist way of life. Thus, while many humanists have called for the abolition of all classes they have done so in the name of an abstract classless ethic. While they will admit that the class struggle itself is inevitably engendered by the competitive and egotistical character of Capitalist society, they nevertheless hold that it militates against the growth of humanistic ideals by giving emphasis to men's material differences instead of stressing their human sameness. Many humanists have even talked about the necessity of prosecuting the class struggle, but how can one ask men to give up their class beliefs and disregard class interests and then call upon one class to oppose another?

Human Nature as an Historic Variable

Humanism with its apotheosis of an abstract humanity becomes a form of religious fixation. That is why its idealised concepts and phrases become bulwarks of ideological defence of reactionary interests, especially clerical ones. The so-called Catholic Socialism, with its "rights" and "duties" of an alleged classless brotherhood of men has borrowed heavily from humanistic sources. Indeed, those whose Marx in the Communist Manifesto called feudal-Socialists, cashed in on the literature of the True Socialists to use as an attack on the German bourgeoisie.

The ethical assumptions of all varieties of what is called the humanistic Socialist view is based on the fixity of human nature. They share this view with theological theorists, the difference being that the former hold that this basic human nature can be placed in such absolute categories. Both Marx and Engels held that human nature was not an absolute constant but an historic variable. In fact, Marx and Engels always insisted that the "human nature" to which humanists and the clericalists appeal, each in their different ways, cannot serve as a guide to social organisation. It is not human nature which explains society, but society which explains human nature. There is no given human nature independent of time and place. There is only an historical human nature, that is a specific expression of human nature in a definite social context. To put it more precisely to understand the nature of the human, one must understand the nature of the society in which humans live. When we adopt such a criterion we discover that there is no immutable human nature, no homogeneous pattern to which a universal appeal can be made for the justification of concrete social questions. There can be no overall moral agreement or ethical unity in a social system split by class interests and antagonisms. Inability to understand this not only leads Humanists to talk of "man as he is" or "the human as such," but they identify this abstract category with concrete man as he exists in a given society. That is why in the Communist Manifesto Marx shows how "the True Socialists" proclaimed "the German nation to be the normal nation and the German Philistine the normal mind." An illusion, one might add, shared by the so-called schools of empirical sociology.

Class Demands v. Ethical Neutrality

Contrary to what humanists believe and apparently Mr. Taylor (Is Marxism a Humanism*), all ethics can be shown to have a class bias in a class system, and further there can be no genuine class ethic unless backed by class demands. That is why on concrete social issues one cannot appeal to man as such or "the normal human." Neither is there some ethically neutral tribunal to which opposing class rights can be impartially referred.

Capitalist society consists of buyers and sellers of labour-power. The worker as a seller of labour-power cannot assert his "right" to maintain or improve his living standards via ethical appeal or moral law. He can only seek to enforce his right through active organisation with others of his kind. Nor is the Capitalist under a moral obligation to waive or even remit in any way the unpaid labour of the worker—profit—back in the form of increased wages. Not only has the Capitalist a legal right to profit in the category of unpaid labour, but from his standpoint a moral right as well. Behind this moral right stands custom, tradition, religion, the classless ethic—and the State. As Marx points out in Capital, "There is here, therefore, an antimony, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides."  

In a society such as Capitalism based on a permanent class conflict with its subsidiary conflicts, national and racial, there can be no genuine appeal to a neutral ethics. That is why Marx never invoked, Humanity, Justice, Mercy, etc., as agencies for solving social struggle. For the same reason he rejected the abstract classless morality of Kant and Christ. Morality for Marx is not eternal or natural but active and social. Morality to be genuinely effective must be based on men's needs and in a class society on class needs. It is true that ethical ideals, like truth, duty, honour, the rights of men, etc., acquire a seeming eternal form, for all men profess to strive for these things. But social analysis shows while the forms of these ideals are the same, the nature of these ideals differ from social epoch to social epoch and from class to class. So if the question is posed whose truth? Whose duty? What rights of men? one will find in the answer a class standpoint. Crack the shell of a classless absolute ethic hard enough and the kernel of a class interest will be found. Marxist ethics do not invoke "Truth," "Duty," "Altruism," they demand a state of affairs where these things have a different content from the existing ruling morality. Marxist demands are then from the standpoint of the working population, a class demand and this incorporate a class ethic. It is the real needs of the working class which constitute the watershed of its class morality. Humility or self assertion, unselfishness or selfishness are themselves neither virtuous nor vicious. It is the actual social situation and the human needs of men which provide them with their truly moral quality. While the classless as well as conventional ethics might see the demands of the working class as a form of selfish assertion, it is only by such assertion that this class can secure for itself a decent existence and develop the possibilities for its own emancipation. To neglect the struggle which thus involves on the grounds of unselfishness and concern for other class individuals, weakens the moral content of its own demands and could only lead to servile, degrading and inhuman conditions for the vast majority.

For that reason the demand for the abolition of classes can only be a class demand, whose objective, because there are no other classes left to exploit, carries with it the demand for a classless humanity. Because it is a concrete class demand, engendered by a specific social situation, and capable of realisation, it carries with it the moral quality of the truly human. For the working class to be concerned to the exclusion of its own interests with the souls of its "enemies" is itself a policy of despair and its ultimate logic the perpetuation of a soulless system. That is why we reject the classless ethic of religious theory and the school of bourgeois morality with its intuitive ethics based on the private individual. In effect such moral views turn out to be a disguised defence of the status quo. Nor do we accept the monastic conception that men in order to achieve Socialism must first become saints if for no other reason having become saints it will not be necessary for them to achieve Socialism.

In the final article we shall seek to show that although the Marxist ethic is frankly a class ethic rooted in the character of social development it attains the stature of a humanism whose aims and ideas are loftier and more enduring than any current humanist model.

Ted Wilmott