Marxism and ethics

Marxism and Ethics:

Freedom, Desire, and Revolution

MORE OFTEN than not, discussions of Marxism and its relationship to ethics are fraught with difficulties. Clear thinking about this relationship tends run aground in two familiar ways.

One mistake, call it “nihilism,” involves thinking that all ethical questions—about, for example, what we owe to others, what makes for a flourishing human life, and so on—are nothing but ruling-class illusions designed to reproduce the status quo. Relying upon a caricatured version of Marxism derived from the legacy of Stalinism, many have claimed to find just this nihilistic perspective in the writings of Marx and subsequent Marxists. Their reasoning usually goes something like this: Marxism (allegedly) dissolves human agency by laying bare objective laws of history which proceed—whether we like it or not—with iron necessity. Accordingly, ethical questions—which presuppose that it matters what individuals do or don’t do—only obscure the workings of these objective economic laws and blind us to reality.

Of course, Marx himself unequivocally rejected these crude ideas in numerous places, especially the “Theses on Feuerbach,” where he repudiates the idea that human beings are nothing but the mere products of their circumstances. And, as Marx’s writings insinuate, this nihilistic perspective is impossible to accept in practical circumstances since it would suggest, for instance, that we have no more reason to save a child from drowning in a shallow pool of water than we do to chuckle as the child perishes.

But if the first mistake is to deny that ethics has any importance at all, the second is to overinflate its significance to the point of absurdity. This second mistake is what is often called “moralism.” This refers to a tendency, as the political philosopher Samuel Scheffler describes it, to rely excessively “on moral categories . . . invoking them prematurely or in contexts where they are out of place, or using them in a rigid and simplistic way which ignores the nuances and complexities of human predicaments.” Historically speaking, moralism on the left often rears its head as an overreaction to the perceived ethical deficit of classical Marxism.

It is to the credit of Paul Blackledge’s recent book, Marxism and Ethics: Freedom, Desire and Revolution, that it cleanly avoids these facile positions and brings nuance and fresh thinking to this topic. Blackledge’s central claim is that Marx (as well as a number of subsequent Marxists, from Lenin and Luxemburg to Gramsci and Lukács) embraced an “ethics of freedom” that underpinned their critique of capitalist society. Through a detailed historical study of Marxist engagements with ethics, Blackledge makes a strong case, on the one hand, for contemporary Marxists to take the study of ethics more seriously and, on the other, for those interested in ethics to take the critical tools of Marxism more seriously as well.

The first chapter examines what Marx himself had to say about ethics by way of a critical history of modern moral theory. For Blackledge, modern moral philosophy develops as a response to mechanical models of human behavior that reduce us to little more than machines set in motion by selfish, possessive urges which allegedly arise from our biology. Blackledge (correctly) situates Marx among those thinkers who sharply criticized this mechanistic picture of human beings. The result is that unlikely affinities emerge among, for instance, Marx and Immanuel Kant—both of whom shared a strong commitment to the idea that freedom is central to being human. As Marx himself put it in an often-overlooked passage: “Freedom is so much the essence of man that even its opponents realize it . . . no man fights freedom; he fights at most the freedom of others.” Blackledge also convincingly argues that we should read Marx’s criticism of alienation as a criticism of the ways in which capitalism constrains our capacity to be collectively free, self-determining beings.

But if Blackledge draws out the affinities between Marx and earlier critics of mechanistic models of human nature, he also emphasizes the ways that Marx distinguished himself from his predecessors. According to Marx, the chief defect of these earlier critics (Kant included) was that they tended to naturalize or take for granted the social and historical background conditions in which they formulated their moral theories. But, as Blackledge points out, this point has more often than not been misunderstood. Marx’s emphasis on the social underpinnings of moral thinking has, as we’ve seen, lead many to misinterpret Marx as a nihilistic debunker of ethics itself. Blackledge convincingly shows that Marx was a critic not of ethics as such, but rather of particular forms of ethical thinking—especially those that are blind to the social and political conditions in which human action inevitably takes place. As Blackledge succinctly puts it, “Marx dismissed not the ethical content of politics, but the idea that moralistic abstractions could serve as an adequate substitute for political analysis.” In other words, in Marx’s writings we find an approach to ethics that is, at once, informed by an analysis of history and social systems and, at the same time, true to the predicament of human agents who must act in the midst of conditions they did not choose.

Blackledge also lays other myths about Marxism to rest by connecting this theme of freedom to Marx’s and Engels’s commitment to working-class self-emancipation. Blackledge argues that Marx was strongly influenced by Hegel’s critique of Jacobinism in the French Revolution, namely that it was abstract, top-down, and insufficiently sensitive to the material conditions on the ground. But instead of following Hegel and rejecting revolutionary politics entirely, Marx was led to forge a new “model of revolutionary politics . . . rooted in immanent forces . . . in contradictions within capitalism.” This, combined with the experience of various working-class struggles, ultimately led Marx to conclude that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”

Subsequent chapters in Marxism and Ethics involve detailed looks at the ways in which different Marxist thinkers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have addressed ethical questions. Chapter 2 examines the work of Marxists from the Second and Third Internationals. The exploration of ethical topics in the work of Gramsci and Lukács is unique and particularly interesting. Chapter 3 looks at the tragic vision of so-called “Western Marxists” during the postwar era; Chapter 4 offers a detailed engagement with Alasdair MacIntyre’s writings on Marxism and moral philosophy.

Blackledge covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time, so readers not well versed in history and philosophy may find the book a bit tedious at moments. Also, if Blackledge brings all of the subtleties and nuances of the Marxist tradition to the fore, he does not do the same for contemporary ethical theory. This is not necessarily a fault of Blackledge’s book, since his chosen emphasis—redeeming the ethical strengths of the Marxist tradition of political thought—is an important one in its own right. Still, there is a lot of very interesting work yet to be done to bridge the gap between recent work in ethics and moral philosophy, on the one hand, and Marxist approaches to understanding (and changing) contemporary societies, on the other. Blackledge’s book is a significant contribution to that ongoing project and deserves to be read by anyone interested in ethics and politics.

Issue #78

July 2011

Slavery and the origins of the Civil War

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