The Ethics of Marxism pt.4 Is Marxism a Class Ethic?

Marx never denied that an order was to be found in history. He did deny that the order was a non-human or teleological one. He did not deny determinism in history. He denied pre-determinism or fatalism. The ends in history he thought are not realised merely because they are willed by men, but he insisted that the process of social development has no ends to realise which are not willed by men. He states: —

    “History does nothing—it possesses no colossal riches; it fights no fight; it is rather man—real living man who acts, possesses and fights in everything. It is by no means “History” which uses men as a means to carry out its ends as if it were a person apart; rather History is nothing but the activity of man in pursuit of his ends.”

Marx sought an explanation for men’s historical activity. His own historical insight discovered it was not in what men think about themselves—not in the Slogans and battle cries of “contending interests”—not in their abstract ideas or in the ideals they proclaim, but in concrete human needs and the social situation out of which these needs arise. It is these needs—albeit they have taken on the character of class needs since the passing of primitive society—which constitute the dynamic of historic activity. It is these needs which set men their problems and which give them the impulse and will to overcome them.

Class Needs and Ethics

Along with the development of the material forces of Society, goes the development of human needs, quantitatively and qualitatively. It is these human needs which lie at the base of the objective possibilities of social development and which men through concerted social action seek to realise. In a class society such action is class action. Social need are not subjective or personal. They are objective and as integral a part of the social situation as the social relations of production themselves. From these social needs—in class society they take the form of class needs—arise the theories and ideals which constitute theoretical responses to concrete social demands. Marx never denied the influence of men’s beliefs on their social activity. What he made explicit was the historical impact which made “ruling” ideas projections of class interests and under what conditions these ideas grew, flourished and declined. For Marx no study of social behaviour had any serious claims to objectivity which failed to take into account the refracting nature of class interests.

It should be clear then that one cannot understand the ethical values of an epoch without reference to concrete social needs. Marx opposed the classless morality of Kant with its categorical imperatives and “private guilts” for that reason: just as he opposed the morality of Feuerbach and Hess, who having got rid of the divine attributes of God, then transferred these attributes to men and instead of worshipping an abstract deity, worshipped an abstract humanity. While ethics and human needs are inseparable in class society, they take on the character of class needs. A genuine ethic is never then a question of negative moral injunctions but basically a series of positive demands and in a class society they are class demands. From this standpoint, Marxism is frankly a class ethic. Moreover, in the light of its own assumptions about extant society it is a revolutionary ethic. It rejects a timeless, placeless morality with no specific application to concrete circumstances because it hides from men the real nature of the conditions which give rise to their social problems.

Humanism and Class Needs

Marx’s criticism of the current humanism, too, is the refusal to relate humanistic assumptions with the objective tendencies of social development and hence the failure to see that existing social relations of production determine the social existence and the conditions of life for the vast majority and that the inhuman consequences of present day society are bound up with a form of social organisation—Capitalism.

Marx never grounded his theories in the belief of a pre-established harmony of human nature based in alleged pre-established natural or divine laws. He saw men as they actually were in the work-a-day world—a world which itself had been the outcome of an actual historic process. The fact that since the advent of private property, history had been class history and individuals, class individuals was not something to be deplored, but something to be understood. Only in that way was it possible for the real nature of the social problems to be grasped and surmounted.

One cannot even begin to talk of the essential unity of men from a so-called classless ethic, in a class world which cuts them in half and where the ties between men take the alienated form of exchange relations. It is no answer to say as some humanists do that Socialism would be of ultimate benefit to the exploiting capitalists as well as the exploited worker. Such humanists see the working class in the vague category of the underdog. But the needs of the working class are not merely the alleviation of distress or poverty by the outcome of its economic function as a class, unshared by the privileged group. It is the capitalist division of labour which mutilates the worker, not the capitalist, and leaves at least the latter as an unproductive whole and not as in the case of the former a fragmentised productive appendage. It is Capitalist Society which has stripped its producers of their productive and most basic human capacities. “Denied the growth of the powers that slumber them” and impoverished their individuality. The most urgent class need of the wealth producers is not a social and moral reevaluation within the framework of existing society or a mere quantitative addition to current class-conditioned existence. What their working class human nature must demand if it is to attain to a truly human level is the abolition of the inhuman consequences of the present state of affairs and the integration of the human personality into a collective social whole.

Marx refused to disassociate ethics and ideals from economic development and the function of social classes. A long historical development had transferred all productive processes to the numerically largest section of the capitalist community: yet this section as a class is unfree so long as a private property system with its appropriate division of labour separates the produce of their labour from them and places it in other hands as a means of class domination, and as a corollary to this confines their human powers within the narrow and nihilistic orbit of capitalist production. But as the sole productive class they alone have the active and hence dynamic function capable of transforming the existing social situation. Nevertheless, they can only emerge from class unfreedom to classless liberty by becoming conscious of the path they must follow.

It should be clear then that for Marx the “what ought to be” must be functionally related to the “what is”; that is why any genuine ethic must be a demand for something capable of realisation. By this criterion the Marxist Ethic is richer in human content than any other set of contemporary values.

Class Ideals and Social Reality

Marx refused to accept some absolute scale of values which claimed an above the struggle neutrality. In this way, are we to understand his refusal to talk in the name of “Humanity,” “Justice,” “Freedom.” For Marx, the abstract character of these categories could be shown by asking, Whose humanity? Justice for Whom? and Freedom for What? and in a class society, the answers will always reveal a class standpoint. In a changing world, men’s needs cannot remain static: nor for that reason can their ethical values. As the social environment develops, so do men’s needs, and with them their concrete ethical demands.

Marx has been ignorantly accused of denying that ideals are a valid part of social reality. On the contrary, he held that morality was as old as man himself. There have been no human societies without ideals and moral values of some kind. What Marx went on to investigate was the social source of these ideals. On whose behalf were they fought; what expectations did they seek to justify? His answer was that this could be most fruitfully found in the study of class relations. Ruling ideas—Social ideals—are, said Marx, only historically effective when they express material (class) interests. This explains why some ideas triumph and others fail. It explains why ruling ideas are modified. Why sometimes these “material interests” demand more liberty, more democracy, more equality and sometimes a restriction of these things. Ideas play an important role in history. Their significance can, however, only be evaluated by seeing the integral connection of ideas with human needs and interests. But Marx went further by investigating what specific class interests are crucial. What is the theoretical and ideal formulation of these class demands? How do they establish themselves as ideologies? In this way did Marx formulate one of the prime canons of Historical Materialism.

Need for Class Assertion

Marx did not glorify selfishness or unselfishness. He never treated them as abstract qualities, but as concrete expressions of social behaviour in a given social context. To the accepted morality, working class demands, strikes, etc., often appear as selfish forms of class assertion, but it is only through class assertion that some decent existence can be won for its members. Without class assertion, the workers would forfeit their own human claims; to give up their struggle for maintaining or improving their living standards would lead to social and material deterioration as well as moral abasement. That is why Marx was consistently bitter against those who sought to nullify working class action by pleas and brotherly love, and praying for the “Soul” of the “Enemy.” In present society, self-assertion not self-denial must be the watershed of working class morality.

Mr. Taylor (Is Marxism a Humanism*) sees the Social Revolution as an explosive force. That may well be so in that it blows up the base and superstructure of the old society. It will not be, as he seems to imagine, a blind explosive force whose parts will be picked up and pieced together by an elite of “Social Engineers” into a new social design. Whatever explosive impact the Social Revolution produces, it will first take place in the consciousness of men and will include their skills. techniques and Social experiences. A new Society can only be built by “new men.” The Social Revolution will mark their emergence.

It is amazing that Marx’s critics should have so misunderstood his conception of men. That the line of historical development leads to man’s conscious control of all social agencies was central to his humanistic assumptions. For him the abolition of classes would see the emergence of the classless individual freely associating with others of his kind. What he demanded above all else was the abolition of a state of affairs whose productive agencies crippled, even annihilated the essential human elements of personality. An alleged Social Revolution which subjugated and physically destroyed members of another class as well as workers would have filled him with abhorrence.

A man is known by what he fights for. Mars all his life fought for the removal of oppression and inequality. His goal was Socialised Humanity. His concern for the individual was evidenced as early as his doctor’s dissertation, and later his attacks on censorship and the filching of peasants’ wood rights. To suggest as Mr. Taylor does that his political doctrines and the ethical values associated with them have given in any way theoretical support for Soviet Society and unfree Soviet man, is either gross misrepresentation or misunderstanding.

In any case both are indefensible.

In the next issue we shall conclude the series on Marxist Ethics by discussing the concept—NECESSITY AND FREEDOM.

Ted Wilmott

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