The Ethics of Marxism pt.1 Marxism and Humanism

‘Is Marxism a Humanism?’ By Charles Taylor, ULR, 1s.

This pamphlet by an editor of Universities and Left Review starts so many hares running that one wondered whether in the end it would turn out to be a kind of wild goose chase. We cannot say that in the pursuit, we have all Mr. Taylor’s hares in the bag, but we did manage to catch one or two remarkable specimens.

To begin at the end. Mr. Taylor’s conclusions are that as a humanism, Marxism is inadequate. A true humanism, he says, must regard men as ends in themselves, never as means to an end. On the question of end and means he believes Marx’s position to be ambivalent. Marx’s primary concern, he argues, “was the smashing of Capitalist relations.” From this a Socialist society would then be built up and only when this was done would Socialist man or truly human relations, emerge. This is the classic Communist formula for the “proletarian revolution.”

Given then the assumptions of an over-riding political authority—an elite—to put all this into effect, he continues, might not the ruling authority in pursuit of this end, be tempted to subordinate everything, including men, towards its attainment? Might not a state of affairs come about in such a situation where the maxim prevails — “the end justifies the means”? And might his not mean that men themselves could become merely a means to an end, which in turn brings about an end different from the one originally intended. Marx, thinks  Mr. Taylor, never resolved this conflict between ends and means which involves a contradiction between Marxist practice and Marxist ethics.

This, we believe, boils down the essence of Mr. Taylor’s vague and diffuse treatment of the subject.

“The Revolution Betrayed”

Mr. Taylor offers Soviet Russia as the classic example of where this sort of thing happened. His Marxist motif has the orchestral background of—”The revolution betrayed.” It seems we are asked to believe that what took place in Russia in 1917 and the projects put through by the Bolsheviks, would have met with Marx’s approval. Mr. Taylor assures us that there are elements of Marxism in Stalinism and further these “elements” provide the latter with a theoretical justification.

Finally, Mr. Taylor believes that Marxism fails as a humanism because of its insistence on class loyalties. Thus generates hostility towards those who do not share them and leads to the dictum that those who are not with us are against us. In this way, he argues, barriers arise between different sets of men. He urges that we must strive to enter into full human relationships with all men, irrespective of differences of outlook, attitudes and presumably interests. Unless we are able to do this, he thinks, no worthwhile social future is possible.

His own recipe for true humanism consists of the time honoured ingredients, universal good will, brotherly love and the fullest expression of the individual. These are the ethical foundations for building the New Jerusalem. For the class ethics of Marxism he offers the classless ethics of Christ and Kant.

Over a century ago there came into being an order of a kind of Socialist monkhood whereby it was proposed by example, incantation and prayer to chant the way to the promised land. In this year of grace we seem to be witnessing its revival.

We cannot, of course, accept the assumption that a Socialist society was in process of being built up in Russia. Our views on what took place in Russia are too well known to require a detailed exposition here. What we can say is that when Lenin as early as 1921 blurted out that “State Capitalism exists in Russia,” he blurted out the truth. When he added “State Capitalism in the interest of the working class is Socialism,” he blurted out the clumsy but classic lie of all labour apologists. State Capitalism, it was in Lenin’s time, in Stalin’s time and State Capitalism it still is.

The Alienation of Labour

Mr. Taylor tells us that Marx at least wanted to abolish a state of affairs which has brought about what he, Marx, called “the alienation of labour” or to state it another way, the excessive division of labour which is an integral feature of the extant productive system. A division of labour which has such crippling effects on the working capacities of men and their productive potentialities and which disintegrates human personalities by transmutation into a single function and imposes on labour an exclusive activity. That is true. Above all things Marx and Engels insisted that this system with its division of labour must be replaced by a social organisation where there will be “no exclusive circle of activity and where it will be possible to engage in a many-sided productive activity and to do one thing today and another tomorrow.” So important is this question of the alienation of labour to the assumptions of Marxist ethics that we propose to deal with it more fully in the next issue.

What we can say here is that of the “alienation of labour” is the hall mark of Capitalist production, then “re-unification of labour” will be the characteristic of Socialist production. It was, however, the task of Lenin and Stalin via the instrumentality of the dictatorship to accentuate and accelerate this alienation of labour; to attempt to develop at breakneck speed the division of labour essential to Capitalist production. Not to integrate the human personality in the productive process, but to disintegrate it. Lenin’s formula for the alienation of labour was the ironic equation, American efficiency plus electrification—Socialism.

Social Revolution

In their attitude to the role and function of the working class, Marx and Engels were worlds apart from Lenin and Stalin. Marx and Engels declared that the social revolution could only be the self-conscious movement of the self-conscious majority. Lenin believed that it would be directed by “the green table intellectuals.” Marx said, “to fit the workers for their historic task of inaugurating the new society would require years of patient educational work.” Lenin on the other hand stated that “If we wait for the people to understand Socialism we shall wait a thousand years.” Engels tell us, “Marx and I rely on the intellectual maturity of the working class to achieve their emancipation.” Lenin, on the contrary asserted, “the proletariat can never advance beyond a trade union consciousness.”

It is true Marx in the Gotha programme talked about the lower and higher phases of Communist society. Of the latter, Engels tells us, “a really human morality which transcends class antagonism and their legacy in thought becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class contradictions but has even forgotten them in practical life,” and there is nothing wrong with this view. Both Marx and Engels looked forward to the expediting of a state of affairs, where “the enslaving subordination of individuals under division of labour and the antithesis between intellectual and manual labour had vanished” and where “labour had become not merely a means to live but the primary necessity of life itself.”

What a tragic travesty has the so-called Socialist revolution in Russia made of Marx and Engels conception—of the truly human condition of the species. Once long ago Lenin in his more indulgent moods, spoke of “the withering away of the state in a Socialist society.” It is not the state which has withered away in Russia—only the concept has withered.

Marx and Engels were uncompromising equalitarians. “From each according to his capacity to each according to his needs” remains the greatest ethical contribution to the humanistic ideal. Not only did they share the humanitarian ideals of the great Utopians of the past, they did more, they joined Utopia to science.

Soviet “Equalitarianism”

Lenin and certainly not Stalin were never unqualified equalitarians. It is true Lenin in the early days of the revolution laid down in principle that no State official should receive a higher income than the average wage of a competent worker. But even so, Lenin was also concerned with the fact that he did not want to see the newly formed State apparatus degenerate into a kind of bureaucracy which he was apprehensive about.

Actually the demand for a much more drastic equalitarianism came “from below,” a demand which Lenin resisted. It was under the New Economic Policy introduced by Lenin that inequality of remuneration became more marked and under Stalin’s “Socialist” regime these inequalities became even more glaring than those of Western Capitalism. It was finally left to Stalin a few years later to denounce equalitarianism as “a petty bourgeois deviation” and a crime against the State. After that the mass of workers were indoctrinated into the belief that inequality of remuneration was a fundamental Socialist principle.

Little wonder that the aging Fabians, Mr. and Mrs. Webb, set the seal of Fabian approval on Russia in their work, “Soviet Communism” and Bernard Shaw declared Lenin’s N.E.P. “to be the carrying out of Fabian policy.”

We will not apologise for spending so long a time in discussing the antithetical differences between Marx and Engels and the Soviet ideologists who spoke in their names. Because Mr. Taylor has taken to task what he believes to be the contradictions involved in the Marxist ethics and its inadequacy as a humanism and has at least in part sought empirical demonstration of his theme in Soviet practices, we felt it necessary to clear the ground for assessing his reasons for the failure of Marxism to achieve a true humanistic level. For that reason we shall in the next issue attempt to show that although the Marxist ethic is a class ethic it in no way conflicts with the aims and ideals it sets out to achieve—the truly human society or socialised humanity.

Ted Wilmott

See Part 2 here

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