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