Marxism, materialism and morality

Human thought is spontaneous and involuntary. We think because we are conscious and our consciousness consists of active thought. The capacity to think cannot be switched on or off. When we make statements like “I’m trying to think” or “I can’t think because of the noise”, we don’t mean what we say—we are not really complaining of being unconscious, for if we were we could not think and therefore could not say anything about our state of non-thinking. What is really meant by “I’m trying to think” is “I’m trying to think about a certain object of thought”.

The object of the thought of conscious human matter is our environment. Quite literally, we think about that which is about us. The universe which surrounds us, of which we are all a small part and each an even smaller part, existed long before there was conscious human life. According to religious thinkers, the universe was the product of a supernatural consciousness, but as they cannot tell us whose consciousness created the supernatural consciousness their argument is not a very strong one. The evolution of human life from the natural environment means that Nature bore us and consciousness is determined by it. Primitive people, the infants of Nature, were highly dependent on natural forces, but maturity — which is the cultivation of consciousness — has enabled humanity increasingly to dominate Nature. Society is the coming together of humans to satisfy our needs by producing and distributing wealth — not just crude wealth, but wealth in the sense of our fullest economic and cultural desires. Society is not simply a reflection of consciousness; on the contrary, social existence determines our consciousness. The essential conflict between materialist and idealist philosophy is over this point. The idealists put thought first and say, in the words of Descartes, that Man thinks and therefore he is. Materialists say that we are and therefore we think as we do. A slave in Ancient Greece did not think as a slave and therefore was one, but was a slave and therefore thought as one. History is like a conveyor belt and what you see around, behind and in front of you is not determined by what you want to think (so-called Free Will), but by where you happen to be placed. To the idealists, however, there are such concepts as historical absolutes, notions of right and wrong or good and bad. Throughout history human beings have only adopted such notions when it has been historically practical to do so.

Human beings have capacity to think in three ways: as themselves (sensually and emotionally), as a reflection of their society (morally or ethically) and — in a more obscure and infrequent way — as agents of history (dialectically). All of us spend much of our time thinking in the first way: as ourselves. Man is a sensual animal; we feel the objective world and it registers upon our brains in a profoundly emotional way. The richness of human feelings — which are not just nervous impulses but potential controllable forces — differentiates us from our older animal relations. It is sometimes mistakenly thought that materialists are against examining the emotional side of human activity, that we are somehow frightened of exploring that which makes humans laugh, cry, love and hate as well as what makes them hunger, thirst and seek shelter. (This view is derived from the mechanistic writings of vulgar materialists, most of whom were as much inhibited by their own emotional repression as that of the people they were writing about.) For Marxist materialists, the first law of materialism is to recognise that the real needs of humanity have a sensual and emotional origin. When we allow ourselves to be guided by our sensual and emotional needs wc are being self-interested, for we can sense only our own senses and can only speculate about other people’s.

To act morally is to reflect the needs of others in ourselves. The commonly stated moral maxim, “Thou shalt not kill” reflects the need of other humans and animals, who want to live. A conflict arises when the lamb wants to live and I want to eat it. Or when one group wants land and another occupies it. It is at such times that moralists are brought in to explain that what they really meant was “Thou shalt not kill unless . .”. Since the decline of primitive communism, society has been dominated by various minority classes. Their domination has been secured by their having a virtual monopoly of the means of life. Throughout class society the ideas of the ruling minority have always been the ruling ideas in society. In short, the masters make the morals; those who pay the piper call the tune. Because all morality is class morality and because class arrangements are historically transitory, there can be no moral absolutes. What we find sensually desirable and what we are told is morally permissible are often in conflict, because what we desire is a class interest which is in antagonism with the class interest of the moral-making class. When our senses tell us that it is time to eat and the boss’s morality says that only those with sufficient money shall have access to food commodities, we experience a clear example of senses versus morals; self- interest versus the status quo.

Morality concerns values: is A better than B? Should I do C or D? We are often told that we should not lose our values. Not losing our values means not abandoning the values of the ruling class. Socialists are totally hostile to the property-based values of the capitalist system, but that does not mean that we have our own set of moral values to impose upon people in their place. Indeed, the whole idea of devising a new set of moral values is extremely problematic. Before we could begin to establish a materialist morality we would have to embark on a definition of the term “good”. Philosophers have spent immense energies in defining “goodness” and it is worth considering the difficulties they have encountered. Some of them have used “good” as a descriptive term, such as “This bed is good”. This is to use “good” as a first-order property, like “This bed is soft” or “big” or “green”. In this sense, the term “good” is a value which can be defined in relation to the capacity of objects to satisfy needs. The definition falls down because different people have different needs at different times and no object is intrinsically needable, regardless of the subjective perception of whoever may need it. Utilitarian philosophers say that what is “good” is what gives people pleasure, but this is hardly different from saying that what is needed is good (because it is hardly likely that things which are not needed are likely to bring people pleasure). The Utilitarians attempted to devise an objective table of what causes pleasure and what causes pain, but the exercise was doomed to failure because things which some people find pleasurable others find painful. Moral philosophers have found this problem so difficult to deal with that many of them have given up trying to define “good” descriptively and have defined it intuitively: “good” is what ought to be. This intellectual cop-out, often labelled as the naturalistic fallacy, was written about by David Hume in his Treatise on Human Nature:

  In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find that instead of the usual copulation of propositions, is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable is how this new relation can be a deduction from others which are entirely different from it. (Book III, part ii, section i).

Hume was quite correct in stating that it is fallacious to derive an ought from an is. If “ought” propositions could be intuitively derived from observing what is, then everyone would agree about what is “good” and the term would become redundant — as would the moral philosophers.

It was Karl Marx who first constructed a theory of value which could help to solve the problem of moral value. In Capital, Marx was writing about political economy and the economic values, but this was intended by him to be but the beginning of a mammoth philosophical investigation into the entire sphere of capitalist relationships. It is unfortunate that Marx died before his task could be completed. But it would be wrong to assume that the Marxian definition of value has no application in the field of morals. In chapter one of Capital, Marx elaborates upon two conceptions of value which were first pointed to by Aristotle in his Politics:

  The value of every possession are two, both dependent on the thing itself, but not in the same manner, the one supposing an inseparable connection with it, the other not; as a shoe, for instance, which may be either worn or exchanged for something else.

Marx, who saw value as a social relationship between people, rather than between things, pointed to the dual nature of value: for utility and for exchange. Use value is based on the descriptive definition of value referred to above: it is both desirable and desired. Our senses tell us that we need things and our senses tell us that what we need is a use value. As for exchange value, which can only exist where there is property to be bought and sold, Marx refers to this as “a form of social labour”. It represents what society has put into it — the socially necessary labour time. Exchange value is more than an economic symbol: it is the reflection of the production — the social history — of an object. In economics, we quantify commodities in terms of what went into them. Does it not follow that if we want to respect “goodness” we must do it by respecting the social efforts of others while they respect ours?

Such mutual respect and proper recognition is made impossible in a capitalist society which is based on a division between passive consumption (the main role of the capitalists) and active production (the main role of the workers). To value the product of society in this sense involves a recognition by humans of what it is to have a need and also what it is to produce for the satisfaction of needs. Capitalist philosophy only views need from the alienated angle of passive consumption. Marx points out in The German Ideology that

  If you proceed from production you necessarily concern yourself with the real condition of production and the productive activity of men. But if you proceed from consumption . . . you can afford to ignore the real living conditions and the activity of men (p. 164).

Moralists spend much time talking about values — from the angle of the consumer — but are rather less eloquent or logical when it comes to the question of the relationships of value production. To understand these relationships requires us to look at them historically, as objects which did not emerge as ready-made values, but which exist due to the conscious actions of human beings on the environment. Oscar Wilde once spoke of a society where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. How accurately this describes the ethics of capitalism, where social parasites can talk with their cheque books and get the gold they want without ever thinking about — or valuing —the sweated labour of the goldminer who has toiled to produce it. And why should the capitalists care about the workers who create values for them? They have paid us the price of our labour power (always less than the values we create) and have no more concern for us beyond our function as profit-producing wage slaves. Marx was obsessively concerned about this consumptive conception of value which he described as “the fetishism of commodities”. To see any phenomenon only as it is rather than as it once was or as it could be, is to fetishise a social relationship of the present — to turn it into a thing rather than a man-made relation. Working class acceptance of capitalism is a fetishism of the historical stage we are living in, which sees it not as an historically evolved system, but as an absolute and unalterable way of life.

In a property society ethics are based on the economic structure. Capitalism’s morals, which we are taught in schools, preached about in churches, and persuaded towards by the media, political leaders and the family, are predominantly related to commodity exchange. Rights are based on commodity contracts, not inalienable liberties. But the relations of production have for many years been in conflict with the forces of production — the way we organise ourselves does not harmonise with the productive possibilities of our world of abundance. Under such conditions morals weaken. As Engels wrote in the Preface to The Poverty of Philosophy:

  If the moral consciousness of the mass declares an economic fact to be unjust, as it has done in the case of slavery or serf-labour, that is a proof that the fact itself has been outlived, that other economic facts have made their appearance, owing to which the former has become unbearable and untenable (p. 13).

Is this not what is happening now, as young workers increasingly reject the morals of their bosses? What the ruling class calls a moral crisis, socialists see as the path to the emancipation from morals. Engels fully recognised how moral indignation can represent “the future interests of the oppressed” (Anti-Duhring, p. 109). This does not mean that Marx or Engels were moralisers. In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx says that “communists preach no morality at all”. In short, Engels is saying that moral indignation and rejection of the ethics of capitalism are important prerequisites of socialist consciousness. (There are plenty of examples in history of people who have professed a socialist consciousness, but have in fact never rejected the sickening morals of capitalism.) But Marx is arguing that moral concern — concern for others — is not enough. Once moral outrage has been converted into socialist consciousness it will cease to be either purely selfish or sensual or purely caring or moral and will become dialectical, will be seen from both directions, from the angle of the historical process. Instead of workers saying “I wish I was better off than I am” or “I wish they were better off than they are”, the dialectical understanding of social values leads one to say “I wish that they were better off, for I am one of them and I wish I could do better for myself so that they would be better off.” Dialectical materialism means seeing the whole (society) rather than the part (oneself): it is genuinely selfish, selfless mutuality. In a socialist society mutual aid would become a practicality, not an imposed moral precept. In socialism we will all cherish what we are, what we make and what we could be. Until we create that society, harmony will remain an ideal and therefore socialists cannot preach to our fellow workers about being nice to one another. In a rat race the biggest, most vicious rats win. As Marx says about communists preaching no morality:

  They do not put to people the moral demand: Love one another, be not egoists, because they know very well that egoism is under certain conditions the necessary form of the individual’s struggle for survival.

The rotten morality of the profit system which justifies the production of weapons to blow us all up; which has herded millions into gas chambers and sold their flesh as soap: which lets millions starve while food rots; which robs every worker of the fruits of their labour; which leaves even the most apparently secure of wage slaves always but a short time away from propertyless destitution —provides socialists with countless reasons to shout our message to everyone and anyone who will listen. For we must urge workers to forget about their “brotherly love” for the capitalists and steal from them the world and everything in it and on it.

Steve Coleman