The Ghost of Watt Tyler

Watt Tyler was one of the leaders of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. He was a slain by the King’s supporters after drinking a jug of beer “in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King's face.”

Friday, July 22, 2005

Part 2 - What does Marx say about morality?

So, does Marx, as far as we can ascertain from a textual analysis, condemn capitalism and advocate communism on ethical grounds? It would seem, at first glance, that he rejects ethics without reservation. He argues, in various texts, that morality is little more than a bourgeois prejudice; a form of ideology that is social in origin, illusory in content, and serving class interests. In the Communist Manifesto he remarks,

‘Law, morality, religion are… [to the working class - TW] so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests’ (Marx 1991 p44).
The implication is clear enough: morality is neither objective nor universal, it is a product of the particular epoch – capitalism - and particular class –the bourgeois - and therefore it should neither be trusted nor obeyed. He goes on to add, in the same text, that communists do not seek to realise any ideals or principles, but simply express the proletariat struggle for political power (Marx 1991 p46). In the German Ideology he argues that morality is a historically contingent ideology,

‘Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence’ (Marx 1996 p47).
In Capital he compares Proudhon’s appeal to an ideal of justice with a chemist who claims that eternal ideals hold to key to unlocking the secrets of nature, rather than empirical research (Lukes 1985 p7).

The only time he presents the principles of justice, liberty and equality in a favourable light is in the General Rules of the International Working Men’s Association. However, as he later explained in a letter to Engels, he was forced to include these unfortunate phrases, but added they, ‘… are placed in such a way that they can do no harm’ (Marx quoted in Lukes 1985 p7)

Lastly, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx answers the imaginary reproach of the bourgeois critic that communists intend to abolish the law, morality and religion,

‘The communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional relations; no wonder that its development involved the most radical rupture with traditional ideas’ (Marx 1991 p51)

It would seem that morality is a bourgeois ideology destined for the dustbin of history. However, as so often is the case, things are not quite what they appear. Marx’s thought simmers with moral indignation and outrage. From his earliest philosophical scribblings to his mature analysis of capitalism, he rails against the degradation and debasement of humankind and longs for a world fit for human beings. In 1843 he wrote,

‘The criticism of religion ends with the doctrine that for man the supreme being is man, and thus categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken and despicable being – conditions that are best described in the exclamation of a Frenchman on the occasion of a proposed tax on dogs: Poor dogs! They want to treat you like human beings!’ (Marx p251 1984).

In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 he protests against the human cost of capitalist production,

‘It is true that labour produces wonderful things for the rich – but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty - but for the worker, deformity. It replaces labour by machines, but it throws one section of the workers back to a barbarous type of labour, and it turns the other section into a machine. It produces intelligence – but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism’ (Marx 1981 p65).

It’s only if we recognise this moral concern with the material and spiritual condition of humankind that his later judgements, evaluations and appraisals make any sense. Although Marx doesn’t admit it, he is addressing an ancient ethical question: what constitutes the good life? How should humans live? What conditions are most conducive to human well-being? And, like Aristotle before him, Marx derives his conception of the good life from an analysis of human nature. But whereas Aristotle thought the good life consisted in theoria, the contemplation of eternal truths by the enlightened few, Marx thought the good life consisted in universal self-actualisation, in all round development. I will leave aside questions of the plausibility and validity of such claims until later, my point is simply that Marx consistently condemns capitalism on ethical grounds.

In Capital he again bitterly condemns the capitalism for its debasement of the working class,

‘Accumulation of wealth at one pole is… at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation at the opposite pole…’ (Marx 1992 p299).

This is by no means an isolated incursion into moral territory. Stephen Lukes, in Marxism and Morality, assembles a great deal of textual evidence to demonstrate that Marx consistently reproaches the capitalist system for the terrible human toll it exacts. He argues Marx judgements only make sense against his ideal of the good life,

…‘Hence all the passages in Capital about ‘naked self-interest and callous cash payment’, ‘oppression’, ‘degradation of personal dignity’, ‘accumulation of misery’, ‘physical and mental degradation’, ‘shameless, direct and brutal exploitation’, the ‘modern slavery of capital’, ‘subjugation’, the ‘horrors’… and ‘torture’ and ‘brutality’ of overwork, the ‘murderous’ search for economy in the production process, capital ‘laying waste and squandering’ of labour power and ‘altogether too prodigal with its human material’ and exacting ‘ceaseless human sacrifices.’ (Lukes 1985 p11).

Furthermore Marx’s vision of communism is deeply imbued with his idea of the good life.

‘…in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic’ (Marx 1996 p54).

It may be objected that this is a Utopian vision of pre-industrial pastoral life, not a plausible alternative to capitalism. However Marx shouldn’t be taken so literally. It is more of an allegory than a serious description of how people might live in a communist society. Marx’s point is very simple: human beings should be free to develop all their manifold powers. Hence the varied life activities of this imaginary human. Marx condemned capitalism precisely because it denies workers the resources – the autonomy, community, time and material security - to live such diverse, fulfilling lives

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Marx & Morality - my BA dissertation in bite sized chunks (part one)

Karl Marx’s contempt for all things moral is legendary. It is rumoured that he collapsed in laughter at the mere mention of the word. He heaped abuse on those revolutionists who appealed to ethical ideals like justice, equality and liberty. He dismissed moral discourse as ‘ideological rubbish’ and insisted that communists ‘do not preach morality at all.’ However it is a legend that does a great disservice to Marx. His work is more than just a description of the capitalist mode of production, it is a protest against a barbarous and cruel system, it is a desperate cry for a more humane and just world. Consequently I will argue that despite Marx’s public hostility to morality, he implicitly appealed to moral concepts and categories in the course of his argument. Moreover I will show that the case for international proletarian revolution is stronger, more compelling, and more coherent with an explicitly normative dimension than without. In short Marx condemned capitalism and advocated communism on ethical grounds, and he was right to do so.

I intend to argue, first of all, that this controversy cannot be resolved scholastically. That is to say that we cannot, and should not, determine the answer to this question by simply examining what Marx wrote because he contradicts himself and it is contrary to the spirit of Marxism. We should, therefore, seek the most compelling interpretation. There are two main interpretations: Marx condemned capitalism because it frustrates human self-actualisation and advocated communism because it would allow us to realise all our manifold powers, secondly Marx condemned capitalism and advocated communism according to some standard of justice. I will show that only a synthesis of the two interpretations can provide us with a satisfactory answer. Marx condemns capitalism because it distributes – a question of justice - the resources necessary for human self-actualisation – a question of human nature - in a grossly unequal way, and advocates communism because it aspires to distribute the resources necessary for self-actualisation in an equal way. Marx wants everybody to have an equal chance to realise his/her potential, to live equally worthwhile and meaningful lives. This is the most compelling interpretation because it makes Marx’s critique coherent, strengthens the general Marxist case for socialist revolution, convinces on its own merits, and lastly the textual evidence supporting it is no better or worse than alternative interpretations.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Marx, Bragg and Morality

Karl Marx has been voted the greatest philosopher of all time by listeners to Radio 4’s “In Our Time” much to the consternation of the presenter Melvyn Bragg (Labour life peer and chum of Tony Blair).

In Our Time Greatest Philosopher Vote, chosen from 20 philosophers
nominated by listeners and carried through on an electoral tidal wave of 28% of
our 'first-past-the-post' vote is the communist theoretician, Karl Marx.

It reminded me of my BA dissertation about Marxism and morality. To my great frustration I continue to have arguments with other leftists about morality. Many seem to have little understanding of the profoundly moral nature of Marx’s work. All too often comrades repeat those casual dismissals found in Marx’s writings: morality is bourgeois ideological rubbish ect. However what they forget is that behind Marx’s public denunciation of morality is a burning indignation and longing for a more humane future. This stands in the moral tradition of Aristotle. I will start posting extracts from my dissertation over the next couple of days.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Get off their backs Bill…

On Saturday I briefly switched on the telly to catch a bit of Live 8 (asking for trouble, I know). To my horror Bill Gates appeared leering before me heralded as the world’s greatest philanthropist. I was immediately reminded of this Leo Tolstoy quote:

I sit on a man's back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means - except by getting off his back.
Of course it also applies to all the G8 countries. Read George Monbiot on the G8 debt relief plan.