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.”

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.