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Is Marxism ‘ethical’?

The answer to the question is an emphatic Yes, writes the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY

ETHICS (also known as moral philosophy) deals with the principles which guide or should guide human behaviour — of an individual or group. Marxism is often accused of ignoring ethics in favour of a materialist, “scientific” view of society which avoids moral questions altogether. 

But the contrary is the case. Marxism is, or rather provides the basis for, a system of ethics which is superior to most others. 

Superior, because it sees ethics not as a system of absolute values or rules dictated “from above” (as in most religions) or as located in some innate and unchangeable “human nature” but because its morality is firmly located in society — and capable of advance. 

As Marx declared: “We do not turn secular questions into theological questions: we turn theological questions into secular ones.”

Marx and Engels were hostile to notions of any system of moral values separate from society, whether commandments “thou shall/ shall not” or more abstract concepts such as “duty” or “justice.” 

At the same time, they did not hold back from expressive (and sometimes colourful) normative language, describing capitalism as “brutal,” “alienating” and “inhuman,” its exploitation “robbery” which imposes “subjugation” and “suffering” on humanity. When occasion arose they were happy to use the terms “good” and “evil.”

Lenin declared that Marxism was “the legitimate successor to the best that humanity produced in the 19th century, as represented by German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism.” 

Conventional approaches to ethics identify three broad (and overlapping) “schools” or approaches to ethics — virtue ethics, deontological or duty-based ethics and consequentialist ethics. Unsurprisingly then, Marxism contains elements of all of these. 

Virtue ethics can be traced back to ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy and concerns abstract moral principles — honesty, wisdom, happiness — often used without analysis both by Marxists (including Marx and Engels) and non-Marxists (particularly by advertisers for lifestyle products). 

Elements can be found, for example, in Marx’s emphasis on the “development of all abilities of the whole person.” However while Aristotle focused on human flourishing for an elite within a slave society, Marxists focus on how to achieve a new society which will allow everyone to flourish.

Deontological (from the Greek “deon” — obligation or duty) ethics involves the search for maxims — rules of behaviour which can be universalised. 

Marx (for example) wrote of the “categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a humiliated, enslaved, despised and rejected being.”

Consequentialist ethics, by contrast emphasises the outcome of actions on others. It includes several versions of utilitarianism; policies warranted or defensible by considerations of the “greater good” both within capitalism (where “hedonistic” and “preference” utilitarianism is used to justify “the market” — “the best for all in the best of all possible worlds”) and within socialism and socialist action to secure it.

Alongside all of these are teleological notions of ethics — that they are governed by “ends” or purposes intrinsic to individual or group existence. 

Greed and selfishness (less often, generosity or altruism) are said to be part of “human nature” — “in our genes” — or a legacy from our evolutionary past. 

Marxists reject such scientific reductionism, emphasising that “human nature” is elastic (it isn’t “fixed”), is heterogeneous (individuals and societies differ) and that it changes over time. 

And while human development and social history are to a degree directional, they are not fixed or preordained.

Marxists differ from both apologists for the status quo (who claim that capitalism is the “natural” product of human evolution or the highest stage of historical development) and from utopian socialists (who claim that change can come either as a consequence of rational argument or an appeal to the innate “goodness” of humans).

Instead they see ethics as related to society and its development, if you like, as part of the “superstructure.” The relationship is not a deterministic one in either direction; it is a dialectical one, each reinforcing the other but also with its contradictions which themselves become a motor of change.

With the emergence of class society, the dominant ethics generally became those of the ruling classes and powerful elites and they reflected and reinforced the status quo. 

Morality, wrote Leon Trotsky, “more than any other form of ideology has a class character.” Capitalism and its ruling class “could not have endured for even a week through force alone. It needs the cement of morality.” 

But the underlying conflicts in class society meant that the dominant ethics were nevertheless always challenged in myriad ways and from diverse positions. In slave societies, the sanctity of private property was challenged by the ethic of individual and collective freedom. 

Within feudalism, a God-sanctioned hierarchy of class and power was progressively undermined by secular notions of rights of citizenship and property. 

Capitalism privileges the sanctity of private capital and the “rights” of its owners. The consequence is a system which is degrading alike to the exploiter and exploited but which also creates within itself the conditions for the emergence of alternative systems and values which anticipate and advocate the possibility of profound progressive change. 

Engels declared that “there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, cannot be doubted. But we have not passed beyond class morality. 

“A really human morality which transcends class antagonisms and their legacies 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.

“Our ideologist may turn and twist as he likes, but the historical reality which he cast out at the door comes in again at the window, and while he thinks he is framing a doctrine of morals and law for all times and for all worlds, he is in fact only making an image of the conservative or revolutionary tendencies of his time — an image which is distorted because it has been torn from its real basis and, like a reflection in a concave mirror, is standing on its head.”

A Marxist approach attempts to put ethics on a “scientific” basis — in the sense that it understands moral values — both those that it challenges and those that it champions — not as abstract concepts, but as related to particular stages in historical and social development. 

At the same time an overemphasis on the “scientific” basis of ethics can be counter-productive. Ethics are part of the “superstructure;” they have a relative autonomy, are “forged, not found” and they need to be examined, contested and adopted, individually and collectively. 

As David McLellan, current president of the Marx Memorial Library put it, for more than a century and a half: “Marxism has been the language in which millions have expressed their hopes for a more just society. 

“As a vehicle of protest, Marx’s description of religion applies with equal force to the way in which many have seen his own message: ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world and the soul of soulless circumstances.’ 

“It is the reduction to scientific formulae and the institutionalisation of these aspirations that has caused the trouble.” 

Terry Eagleton writes of “the false distinction between moral judgement on the one hand and scientific analysis on the other.”

Socialist ethics are the more powerful when they are consciously debated and at the heart of collective struggle — whether this be in workplace unity and trade union consciousness; in the notion of community and shared local endeavour; campaigning against racism, sexism and for the rights of “minorities” including those with disabilities; in anti-imperialism and solidarity with international liberation struggles; in action against war and the preparations for it; or in campaigns to extend and manifest our growing understanding of the environmental crisis and our responsibilities to the planet. 

This answer (number 58 in the series) was collectively edited by participants in the Introduction to Marxism series at the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School. Previous answers and details of MML’s courses and lectures can be found at tinyurl.com/FullMarx.

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